Tips for ADHD Creatives: Part 5 – Optimism and Perfectionism Go Together

People who procrastinate tend to be overly optimistic about how long things will take. Its not that they don’t think about the time, it’s just that they tend to expect things to go well. I’m often late to appointments, because when I think about how long it takes to get to my psychiatrist’s office, I only remember the times when there was no traffic, the lights were all green, and I got there with a couple of minutes to spare after leaving late.

This kinda makes sense, because technically that is the most accurate example of how long it actually takes to drive there, but it still makes me late. Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to take that best-case scenario I came up with and tack on extra time for dealing with potential traffic, but that optimism also applies to my memories of how much the traffic could slow me down. I remember that one time I got stuck in traffic and was still only five minutes late, not the multiple times when I missed my appointment entirely due to a complete standstill on I5.

I think that the perfectionism that often comes with ADHD can be linked with this misplaced optimism when planning. When we look ahead, we often envision how everything should go, not how badly it might go. When we think about a project, we think of how it should turn out, and don’t leave ourselves much room for error, or even just for being human beings with human limitations. “Good enough” isn’t a thing that ADHD life primes us to celebrate, even though good enough on a consistent basis can be so much more powerful than occasional perfection.

When I think about doing a good job on a project, I envision perfection, not my personal best work, and certainly not my personal norm. My personal norm involves difficulty with focus, annoying nausea, rushing to finish things that I forgot, being extremely tired because of lack of sleep, and responsibilities to other people. It’s messy.

My personal best generally shows when I get lucky and none of these things wind up impeding me. Those days are my commutes without traffic. They’re the shining image of productivity that I hold up in my mind when forming expectations, optimistically believing I can duplicate that experience whenever I need to, even though many potential complications are actually out of my control. Life happens, and ADHD itself frequently makes the roads to success more trafficky. It causes accidents that can block progress for the rest of the day.

I believe that the excess of negative reinforcement that ADHD kids tend to receive contributes to this underlying belief that only perfect outcomes are worth considering. Our personal best sometimes looks a lot like the bare minimum to neurotypicals, which means we don’t get much praise for even our most extraordinary efforts. The people around us can’t always see that effort, and the results alone may not impress them. They only see that we didn’t do as well as they expected. Instead of praise for doing what we could, we frequently face nitpicking and corrections. This encourages a belief that only complete perfection will ever satisfy our parents, and later-on our partners and friends.

If our very best wasn’t good enough for others, why should it be good enough for us? Sure, we could say “screw them and their negativity” but that’s simply not how people work. We’re not designed to ignore that kind of conditioning, especially when we’re young, but even as adults. We’re likely to either give up, because we can’t do better than our best and our best wasn’t good enough, or to chase perfection till we fall apart. Often, we wind up swapping between those two, because perfectionism is exhausting, but you’re just not allowed to quit being human and become a cat.

Another aspect of this constant negative reinforcement is that we’re basically taught to ignore limitations like lack of sleep, trouble with focus, and other legitimate struggles. When we’re constantly being told that we’re lazy and just not trying hard enough, what we’re learning is that nothing is ever a reason to fail. When being tired, confused, uncomfortable, or unable to find vital materials is never accepted as a roadblock by the people around you, you learn to just not think about what might go wrong. Why should we, if it feels like there’s nothing we can do to stop having problems, and they’re not really acknowledged by the people judging us? It’s not a realistic way to engage with the world, but it’s a potential side-effect of perfectionism. We just don’t consider our own limits, because our limits have never been respected or acknowledged. Under those conditions, thinking about worst-case scenarios doesn’t feel like productive prep-work, it feels like a recipe for an anxiety attack.

A final example of all this in action: I wound up writing most of this post at 2am on Thursday and then finishing it Friday night, because I didn’t expect to need more than a couple of hours to wrap it up. That’s how long it usually takes me to edit a post when I have most of my thoughts on the page in advance, I’m very focused, and nothing pulls me away from the computer. It is not how long it actually takes me on average to finish a post, but my brain refuses to accept most of that imperfect data. It’s tainted by all those other factors. Even when I’m literally writing a post about this phenomenon, it still gets me.

Edited to add, because I got a bit carried away and forgot to actually articulate the tip: I guess the point here is really just to consider what might be affecting your expectations, and try to compensate for that with better context and more self-compassion. You’re not wrong for struggling, and the things that stop you are legitimate and worth considering. Both your best and your norm are good enough, and being able to live with those standards will take you much farther than perfection ever will.

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The last part for my desk arrived, and it is now officially finished. This is the knob for that shallow center drawer. I felt like it needed something a little fancier than the rest.

Writing days this past week: 2

ADHD Feels About Consistency and Time

My desk is almost finished. We’ve been working on it for over a month, and moving along pretty steadily. A lot of elements have come together to make it work out well, and that’s making it easier to examine why most long-term projects have gone poorly for me in the past.

My efforts have always been characterized by a couple of bursts of intense interest, followed by long periods of no progress at all. If I can’t do something in one contiguous day and night, my odds of ever finishing drop dramatically. If I have to put something down, I know I won’t be able to count on having the same interest and focus the next day, much less a week later, so I feel this intense pressure to finish things all in one go. The more I care about the project, the more anxiety and disappointment I’m likely to feel about the idea of stopping work on it, and that’s not just because I’m impatient. I genuinely have good reason to worry that it won’t happen. It’s like being a little kid who’s been disappointed too many times by an absentminded parent and no longer trusts their promises, except I’m also the parent who keeps letting them down. (Fun!)

There’s also this element of general disconnection from time that seems to be common among ADHD people, and which makes long-term projects difficult. Planning to do something in the future doesn’t give me much satisfaction or security, because it feels incredibly unreal to me. Other ADHD people have told me that time can feel very unreal and difficult to track for them. Some are fairly aware of the passage of time over a day, but have trouble remembering if an event happened last week or last year. Some people have more trouble tracking time during the day, like me, but tend to tag long-term memories with timestamps a little more accurately. Regardless of how it manifests, the struggle with time is real for a lot of ADHD people.

This pretty naturally extends to the future as well, making it difficult to wait for fun things and hang on to motivation. Planning is just a whole mess, in general. Being disconnected from time can mean that mental preparation for a task doesn’t just happen the way it should, so it’s jarring when the time arrives, and that makes it harder to start up again. Stuff is either going to happen way out in the future, or it’s happening now. I’ve got plenty of time, or I’m about to be late.

It’s like having no depth perception, and watching something in the distance moving straight toward me. I know it’s out there, and that it’s probably coming here, but it’s still a shock when it suddenly arrives. It was out there in the hazy distance, and then it was close enough to touch. That’s probably not how depth perception actually works, but it’s the only comparison I could think of to express how weird it feels to know something is coming up, but to still not experience that approach in a functional way.

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My current desk arrangement includes a preserved mudpuppy in a jar, a random book on slugs and snails, rosewater spray (because few things are more refreshing on a hot day,) and my brilliant ergonomic plan for making my shoulders not hurt when I write, which consists mainly of boosting my screen higher and getting a slightly better keyboard. The extra pretty knob for that middle drawer hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s on its way.

Writing days this past week: 3

Balance and Tough Self-Care

As I’ve mentioned previously, balance is not something that comes easily to me, and I’m not just talking about my tendency to tip right over whenever I’m distracted from important stuff like where my feet are and how gravity works. It sometimes feels like I’m either ignoring all my other responsibilities to focus on work, doing all the things except work, or taking a mental and/or physical health day that stretches into a week of feeling guilty and frustrated. If it were possible to make a three way see-saw, that’s what it’d be like in my head.

Still, I think I’m in a better place than I was a few months ago. I’m sleeping consistently, instead of every other night, and running a little closer to normal person time in terms of appointments and deadlines. Work is happening. 

I’m getting better at being kind to myself instead of breaking down when I feel like I’ve failed, but I still need to learn how to be tough on myself without the breakdown. When I’ve been hard on myself in the past, it was pretty much just self-bullying. It had no purpose, it certainly didn’t motivate me, and it was absurdly out of proportion to anything I had actually done or not done. That was no good, but without any internal structure I tend to lose track of important things and miss out on opportunities to move toward my goals. 

Self care has been discussed to death lately, but what I really appreciate are the posts that remind me that self care isn’t just bubble baths and scented candles and wine with breakfast. (Or whatever you do with wine. I don’t really know.) 

Practical self care is taking care of yourself the way you’d care for a friend or a child. Or, as one person put it, like a demon taking care of its host body so that it won’t fall apart. Whatever works. There’s being your own personal bully, which absolutely sucks, and there’s being your own coach, which seems pretty valuable to me.

Till I get better at this, Toci has been appointed my temporary coach. So far, she has ordered me to sit in multiple uncomfortable positions so she can use me as a throne. I assume this is some sort of wax-on wax-off, hidden wisdom type shit. Probably to teach me endurance or something. 

My Less Than Epic Entry Into Writing

Writing wasn’t my dream career. I didn’t start as a kid like a lot of authors, and I don’t have any cute snippets of childhood fiction to share, sadly.

I started writing in 2011, when I was 22. At first I just did some journaling to cope with my depression. I’ve always loved to read fantasy, and an idea for a fantasy story had been rattling around in the back of my head for a while. I think the stream-of-consciousness journaling that I was already doing helped loosen me up enough that I just started writing it down.

I pounded out a few chapters, then slowed to a crawl as I ran out of the bits I had already figured out, struggled through a few more, and then stopped. I knew I didn’t have the skill to write that story the way I wanted to, so I quit. But then, I did something totally normal and healthy that was nonetheless a big deal for me. I decided to get better at writing so I could come back to that story and tell it really well. I started writing little short stories when I had ideas, just ’cause, and that was fun. They weren’t great, but I could finish them in a few sittings, and finishing anything felt really good.

I switched to a second novel project for Nanowrimo in 2012, and figured I could just do it all in one go because it was supposed to be a shorter and less complex story. I was very wrong, and I didn’t win. I hadn’t plotted either of those attempts, and even though that story was simpler in concept, I had allowed it to ramble again and gotten totally lost. I kept working at it, but I was pretty frustrated, and effective practice was still totally foreign to me. I was just flailing around and trying to make this huge thing without a plan.

Looking back at it now, I see that the drafts for those two stories actually add up to a pretty impressive amount of output for a beginner. I wasn’t tracking my progress very well at the time, and I counted all discarded work as basically wasted time and effort even though I was actually learning from it.

The idea for Somnolence came to me in a dream. I hate myself a teensy bit just for writing that ridiculously pretentious sentence, but it’s basically true. In 2013, I had a dream that was just the climax battle of a fantasy story. It felt super epic and compelling, and when I woke up I wrote it all down in my journal and started making up more backstory for it. I really liked it, and it had the potential to draw from a lot of the emotional crap I was going through at the time. In a spectacular act of self-sabotage, I switched projects again. I kept feeling like I needed a clean slate because the other projects had gotten so messy. In reality, I needed to learn to plot properly, but that didn’t really occur to me till I had written about half of Somnolence.

I slogged on, working mostly when I felt inspired and wasn’t too depressed to move my fingers on the keyboard, and it took for-fucking-ever to finish the first draft. I declared it finished, just barely, on New Year’s Eve right before I moved from California to Seattle in 2016. That really was a huge milestone, although it immediately paled in the face of what I wanted to do next. I wanted to edit it properly and actually publish it, and I had no idea how to make that happen. Fortunately, by then I was just barely starting to grasp the practice thing and I’ve always been really stubborn. I’ve been researching, reading, joining writing groups, watching youtube videos, blogging, and practicing writing craft.

I don’t know what it is about writing that drives me to improve. I find it satisfying in a way that I don’t really understand. I love to draw, but I never felt the need to practice enough to polish my skills or make a career out of it. I’m usually pleased with what I can produce, but I’m perfectly content to do it as a hobby. Writing comes less easily to me. I’m often not at all pleased with my initial results, but it’s still where my energy goes, and I’m happy with the progress that I do make. Working toward the goal of being a published author has helped me change my life in a whole bunch of positive ways and improved my self-esteem. It wasn’t my dream growing up, but it is now.

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Me at my favorite hiking spot, just after pulling an all-nighter to finish that first draft.

For Writers With Depression – Just Keep Picking it Back Up

There’s a lot of debate about the merits of daily writing. It’s definitely good to write regularly, and writing every day basically guarantees more rapid improvement than if you only rarely make time for it. There are some ableism issues if it’s framed as the best or only way, since many people literally cannot write every day. Lots of the arguments against it sort of boil down to “but then it’ll feel like work.” If you’re trying to make writing a career, then letting it feel like work is probably a necessary part of that. If not, then it’s probably just fine for it to be a fun hobby that you only do when you feel like it. I think a lot of the time the issue is when people don’t want writing to feel like work, but do want to improve dramatically and be “successful” without putting in the effort.

I’m kind of stuck in a weird middle place. I struggle to finish projects, and I always have. Finishing my first, first draft was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. It took a huge amount of dedication, and I’m proud of it when I remind myself to be, but I still didn’t work consistently and I constantly got down on myself for that. It took a lot longer than it could have. Feeling guilty about not writing consistently made me want to quit, pretty much every day. I was probably more consistent about berating myself for not writing than I was about writing, which I would not recommend as a motivation strategy. It is less than effective.

I’ve always had really nasty drops in mood because of depression and they randomly knock me on my ass. I used to (and still sometimes do) fantasize about not bothering to get back up because it’s just exhausting to know that it’ll happen again and again, but I always do get up. The weight just lifts, or the right person says the right thing, or the right song comes on, and I manage to tweak my mental state back into something functional. I’ve developed tricks that help, if I remember them when I need them which is never guaranteed. My dogs help, because the imminent threat of floor wetting and canine starvation is motivating in a way that kind of sidesteps my emotional issues and gets me into pants and a shirt and usually shoes.

One shitty thing about mental illness is that it makes things impossible, but they never feel like they should be impossible. I don’t sit in front of the laptop scrolling mindlessly through Facebook for hours because I know for a fact that I can’t write. I always feel like I’m just on the cusp of working. It might be executive dysfunction stopping me, but physically I could do it. My hands are on the keyboard. The manuscript is there. The fact that looking at it for a few seconds made me feel sick and panicky doesn’t register as anything other than weakness. I have no perfect or even consistent solution for this problem, really.

Building a habit helps, because it lowers the initiation energy required to get moving. It’s hard to build a habit, though, and easy to break it. Building a habit requires consistent effort in the first place, which is unbelievably draining if you’re already dealing with mental illness.

Sometimes I can just push through it, usually around 3am, and then I’m often surprised by how easy it feels once I get into the zone. Then, the next day, I’m shocked by how hard it is when the flow doesn’t come.

Prioritizing writing over basically all my other tasks feels impossible, but it seems to be one of the biggest barriers I’m facing right now. It’s a little easier to take out the trash and do the dishes than write a challenging scene, but if I try to do all three in a day, writing is almost always the thing that gets bumped off the list when I run out of energy. If I have to socialize, that burns me out, but I don’t want to admit that or disappoint people.

The only really solid advice I can offer to anyone who wants to write but is dealing with something like this is not to let it stop you from picking the story back up again, no matter how long you stall, or how bad you think it is, or how disappointed you are in yourself for missing those days or weeks or months in between. I’d love to be able to write every day. Maybe someday I will, because I have been slowly improving my skills and reorganizing my life and I have supportive partners who encourage me, for which I’m really grateful. But for now, just picking it up again after a week of feeling miserable about it is more important than doing it every day. It’s been a while since I went a month without working, and I think part of the reason for that is I don’t spiral quite as hard into all the guilt and feeling bad about it. I’ve made a conscious effort to prioritize something over perfect or even good, even though that idea feels like nails on a chalkboard to my brain.

I wasted a whole day on Minecraft and laundry, but Somnolence is sitting there at the bottom of my to-do list, do I:

A. Tell myself I’m garbage and stay up super late to punish myself?

B. Promise myself I’ll do it tomorrow and write today off as a lost cause?

C. Literally open it for five minutes and rewrite one sentence so I can cross it off my list?

It’s silly, but C is usually the most daunting option for me because it means facing that scary mountain of stuff I need to do and just doing this one tiny, inadequate, little thing and every part of my personality rebells at that. A sentence is still better than nothing, though. I don’t write every day, but I have managed to produce a blog post, albeit often an embarrassing full day late, every week for a few months now. Late is better than nothing, too. The only way to guarantee that it never gets done is to put it down and never pick it up again, but every day is another chance to try again. If I pick it up again enough times it will eventually be complete, and that is truly the best I can do right now.

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If they were good enough for Frida Kahlo, they’re pretty darn awesome. Hers were the Mexican Xoloitzcuintli and mine are Peruvians, but still. Something, something, artist goals.

P.S. I did not feel like I had any thoughts to share when I opened the page to write this. I thought it would just be crap, but damnit, I showed up with my crap anyway and I’m proud of that.

P.P.S. The breed history in that Frida Kahlo link is totally wrong, but it has cute pictures of her and her pups.

My Week

I touched a really big spider by accident while walking up some stairs. I’m not super arachnaphobic. (I’m actually friends with a very polite tarantula named Twilight Sparkle.) Surprise spider contact still makes me all shuddery, though. The spider seemed equally shocked, which was fair. He was quite decent about it all, and didn’t bite me.

My new acquaintance.

We finally got air conditioning since Seattle has apparently been relocated to the surface of the sun. The air quality has been terrible, too, because everything is on fire. So, we had the choice of roasting in a stuffy apartment or breathing smoke and roasting slightly less. We kept expecting the heat to break, but we broke first.

Our creative solution to the strange window design in our apartment building. Plus, a peek at my cute snek suit.

With regards to writing, and everything else since it all affects my ability to write, I’m working really hard right now on knowing my limits and planning my energy use so that I don’t break down halfway through a day, but it’s not easy for me. I’ve spent way too long trying and failing and being pissed at myself to be able to turn around now and objectively evaluate my capacity for work in a given day. I’ve tried in the past, but feeling guilty about not doing more has always pushed me to schedule way too much, which is overwhelming and makes it harder to get anything done at all, much less all of it. Very few things on my list ever feel not-urgent. I always feel like that there’s something more I *should* be doing. This makes me sound like an overachiever, but I run out of go really damn fast most days. I’m a little scared to be honest about that with myself, because if I’m not just lazy then I might be kinda sick. I handle stress by being mean to my body, which isn’t so great. I’m tired all the frickin’ time, no matter how many stimulants I pour into me, and I can sleep for eleven or twelve hours and wake up exhausted. It’s hard to get to sleep in the first place because of the aforementioned guilt and constant feeling that I’m shirking something. Oh, and I actually feel OK at night. I’m tired all day, and then my mind clears up for a while every night and I feel better and more alert and I want to do all the things. It’s basically an absurd cycle, and I am literally sick of it.

So, in the interest of not making it worse, I’m gonna go to bed now and post this in the morning. Well, later in the morning than it is now.

Ps. I started reading A Throne of Glass. So far it’s fairly engaging.