Let’s Go Round the Sun Again, One Step at a Time

Like most milestones that humans care about, the new year is pretty arbitrary, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad time to wipe our mental slates clean and look forward with a little extra hope.

A lot of people are probably already finding their new year’s resolutions to be a heavy burden, because we’re usually encouraged to set our sights way too high when crafting goals. If you picked something that’s making you miserable and burning you out, I hope you’ll consider stepping it down to a more reasonable level now rather than just dropping it when you run out of energy entirely. That’s not failure, it’s just good planning.

Restrictive diets don’t tend to work for the vast majority of people, but adding an extra vegetable source to one meal a day is pretty doable for many, and that can help build a long term habit that supports individual health. So can adding five or ten minutes of stretching or meditation at a convenient time of the day rather than committing to spend an hour at the gym five times a week when you haven’t gone in months or years. It doesn’t mean you can’t increase your goals as you go along, but keeping the increments ridiculously tiny means that it’s almost impossible to let yourself down. Small wins make a huge difference in confidence and self-image, while repeated failures are disheartening and typically lead to completely abandoning all effort.

This stuff is even more important to consider if you live with mental illness or are neurodivergent. There’s a huge amount of pressure to use that yearly boost of energy to DO ALL THE THINGS and be… better. And it works, but only for a few days, and then our actual limits come down even harder on us because we burn out all of our reserves. And then all that hope turns into just another thing that we feel bad about failing to live up to, and none of us needs more of that. Not a one. We need a bunch of little successes a hell of a lot more than we need a handful of new regrets.

So, please, give yourself the gift of some really small but consistent wins this year.

Some humble, slightly random suggestions for new moderated goals:

  • Go to bed just ten minutes earlier than you have been
  • Set your alarm for ten minutes earlier (but only if you went to bed earlier. Sleep is so important.)
  • Switch just your afternoon tea or coffee to decaf
  • Add a veggie you don’t hate to one meal a day
  • Stretch for a couple of minutes every morning
  • Walk around your block once a day at a convenient time
  • Write 50 words on a project every day, or even less if that’s too much
  • Spend fifteen minutes doodling if you’ve been missing your art
  • Spend ten minutes gardening and then go inside if it’s cold or raining
  • Clean or organize one part of your space for ten minutes and then let yourself stop for the day
  • Read a page or two of a book you’re interested in every day
  • Catch yourself when you start thinking negative things about yourself and practice redirecting to something more neutral whenever you can. Neutral is a much more achievable starter goal than positivity, and it’s still an improvement.

Adding something small to your day tends to be easier than eliminating something, and in the long run it can have the same effect by slowly edging out whatever it is that you think you should reduce. If you’re interested, the book Mini Habits by Stephen Guise is a pretty helpful guide for setting consistently achievable goals and he also explains why they work so well.

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Too Late

My family used to go to church when I was a little kid. I have a whole bunch of thoughts about christianity as a whole, but they’re not particularly relevant here because the main thing that colors my memory of that church has nothing to do with religion. It’s the fact that we were consistently late in arriving. We usually snuck in through the back door, having missed the first quarter or half of the service, to sit on the edge of a big fireplace at the back of the hall until the singing started so we could scoot along the rows of folding chairs without disrupting things too much.

We were late for school, too. Pretty much every day. One time I arrived without shoes, somehow. I don’t actually remember how that was resolved. I was a daydreamy unmedicated kid with ADHD attending an elementary school that had a small farm, so I was also late getting back from lunch every day. Sometimes I had a few mosquito fish from the pond cupped in my hands that I wanted to arrange in a vase in the classroom. I’m not sure why the supervision in that school was so lax that I could get away with that, but it happened more than once. When I got to middle school, I got lost in the library during breaks and missed classes. In high school, I was dropped off late and went straight to the library, instead of to a class where I would once again be informed that I had interrupted the lesson. As if I didn’t know. As if there was anything I could actually do about it.

Being on time, or (even more unfathomable) being early, were just things that happened to other people. Better people, probably.

I had become completely familiar with the embarrassing, out of place feeling of lateness, but it never felt fine. It was just inevitable. I got used to the fact that, no matter how frantically the adults in my life tried, we did not arrive anywhere on time. The same thing happened when I tried, and then there was disappointment on top of the embarrassment. Lateness permeated my life to the point that it became part of my identity pretty early on. I was just a late person. It went along nicely with the constant reminders from authority figures that I was too bright to be struggling with my schoolwork, so I must just be lazy.

I still feel uneasy about arriving early, even though I know there’s literally no downside to it. It’s too alien. It feels like a trap.

The weird thing is, now that I’m on medication, my brain just plain tracks time better. I don’t sit down to glance at my phone and lose an entire hour or more. I lose fifteen minutes instead, look up in a panic assuming that I’ve already missed whatever appointment I was supposed to be getting ready for, and realize that I’m actually right on time as long as I leave right away. There are a lot of things like that, where I used to think I just lacked discipline and skills, mostly because everyone assured me that was the case, but it turns out that altering my brain chemistry to be a little more functional suddenly allows me to access discipline and skills that I’ve had all along.

Now, I’m not just fighting my ADHD anymore, I’m fighting my own identity. I’m a late person, who’s always late. Except I’m often not particularly late anymore. I’m on time for appointments, or a few minutes early. When I am late, it’s usually for things that are emotionally important to me. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I think it does come down to this identity thing. The closer the thing is to my heart, the more it means to me, the more my expectation is that I’ll muck it up. That I won’t get there, and that I’ll let someone down, even if that person is just me. Especially if that person is just me.

I was late finishing this blog post even though I had already planned it out and written a draft for it because showing up to an appointment I make with myself is pretty much the hardest kind of accountability for me. But, it’s only a few hours late, and it’s pretty much finished now. I have confidence at this point that I’ll continue getting better at timekeeping and planning and getting to places when I say I will, even when that place is my desk and the person I’m meeting is me. I’ve got the tools, and I’m motivated, and in spite of what I was told so frequently, I’m not actually lazy. Pretty much no one is.

(Fairness note: My parents had four kids with various shades of ADHD to wrangle, and that shit is genetically inherited. It is not surprising that we were late for everything. It’s actually fairly surprising that we ever got anywhere at all.)

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Red vine leaves carpet a cement wall behind a long grass-seed stem on a sunny autumn day

Restructuring My Mornings for a More Functional Brain

I’ve always had serious trouble waking up before noon, but for the past couple weeks I’ve been waking up pretty consistently around 9:30am. Usually a little bit earlier, because I have a setting on my phone that senses when I start to move around naturally and triggers the alarm then, so it doesn’t interrupt a deeper sleep cycle. That makes it a lot easier for me to just get up and not hit the snooze button, and not hitting the snooze button means I don’t fall into a horrible sleep inertia trap.

I’ve added a tiny bit of journalling right after I wake up and before I check my phone. Free-writing first thing in the morning was always too daunting for me, so I picked up something called The Five Minute Journal. It’s a little silly, but it gives writing first thing in the morning a little bit of structure, and it really does only take about five minutes to fill out. I’d like to eventually start free-writing every morning, but this is a good soft start. It also focuses on setting intentions for the day that are realistic, which is something I really struggle with. You pick three things that would make the day feel successful if they got done, not fifteen. It’s handy.

I make my tea and breakfast, heat up the dog food, and I usually listen to audiobooks while I eat and feed the pups.

I cuddle the pups and the bunny for fifteen to thirty minutes, usually also while listening to audiobooks or watching documentaries on youtube. If I don’t schedule this in, it tends to happen anyway, so I just decided to embrace it. At this point I’m usually still in my pajamas, which is fine.

I either set my computer in my office or on the living room couch, and I start work. Or I get distracted and start work an hour later. I’m still working out the kinks in this new schedule, but just being able to wake up well, without a lot of stress or tiredness, makes a huge difference in my whole day.

The main thing, other than having the right medication for my ADHD, that makes all of this possible is that I’ve been really insistent about getting into bed around 12:30am or 1am. I take a pretty long time to fall asleep, even when I’m not stressed about anything, so I need a solid head-start or I’m definitely not going to get enough sleep before my alarm goes off.

Another hard lesson that I’ve had to learn is that I always take a pretty long time to actually get into bed once I start getting myself ready. I end up doing the dinner dishes, letting the dogs out for a last bathroom break, checking all the doors to make sure they’re locked, rechecking them because I don’t trust my memory, turning off all the lights, putting the bunny back in his cage for the night and giving him his bedtime treat. (He’s ridiculously spoiled, but in my defense, he’s also super cute.) Anyway, you get the idea. It takes a while for me to actually put on my pajamas and get into bed, so I have to start a lot earlier than my actual planned bedtime. Starting early for anything is not a thing I, or most people with ADHD, tend to excel at, but the aforementioned medication early in the day and a well-timed dose of melatonin in the evening make it easier.

It’s a work in progress, but it does feel like I’m really making that progress. It feels good.

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A weird and interesting dead tree with dead vines wrapped around it at my dog park.
Blackberry leaves and thorns with a cloudy sky in the background.

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.