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.)
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.
A day may come when I’ll sleep like a person instead of a raccoon, but it is not this day. Nor was it any of the previous days this week. On the upside, I have toast. Toast is excellent. I also got to go to the park with the pups and the boyfriend on Sunday, which was super nice, so technically I’ve been outside and seen actual sun pretty recently.
I’ve been trying to make my bed every day, even when I haven’t exactly slept in it, and found that it does make a surprising difference in my general chill level. It’s comforting to have a spot in the house that’s always neat, and it makes it more inviting when I actually do convince myself to lie down. Plus, it feels good to have taken even a small constructive action early in the day.
I recently finished reading The Power of Habit, which said something about small wins and how they help build momentum. The idea is to warm up with small, manageable tasks that give a sense of accomplishment and progress to work from. I feel like if I can get better at that, it might help with the executive dysfunction issues, because part of the problem there is that I tend to constantly feel like I’m waiting for some condition that’s right for getting started, even though I know that there’s nothing to wait for.
Experience should have taught me by now that it helps immensely if I just stop waiting to start whatever big task has me stalled and do something less intimidating, like loading the dishes or feeding the snakes. Switching gears is often the only thing that’ll get me moving, no matter how hard I feel like I should be focusing on the more important or time consuming task. Forcing it can be extremely pointless when willpower simply is not the issue, and as a matter of practicality, I really need to admit that and stop allowing myself to stall out. It’s not a conscious decision, but there are conditions that make it worse, and they tend to coincide with the typical responsible-work-ethic suggestions I grew up with. The common wisdom says to focus on the hardest task first and offer yourself some sort of reward for later, but I’ve found that that particular strategy can actually freeze me in my tracks for an entire day. If I had just gotten the dishes done, or gone to the park, or even just enjoyed the bath or snack that I was planning as a reward, I might have unfrozen myself earlier. Relabeling a distraction as a small win can sometimes yank my brain out of ruts much more effectively than just trying harder.
In that spirit, I’ll also say that it’s nice to be scheduling this on time, and I’m gonna count that as a medium-sized win even though it’s not all that much of a post.
Once again, the count of my writing days this week sit at a measly two. One and a half, really, if I’m being less of a liar. Only actual work on Somnolence counts toward that goal, so it’s not as if I got nothing done on the other days, but I still find myself wondering if I actually care about my writing every time I look at that number. It’s a frustrating thing to wonder after years spent working on it, but my personal interest and commitment have never been easy to measure. They never seem to directly translate into the willpower to actually do a thing on a regular basis.
The basic formula seems like it should go: Level of interest + Commitment to a result = Productivity.
It feels like you should be able to turn it around and judge that if your productivity is high, you’re either very committed, very interested, or both. If it’s low, your interest and/or commitment must be low. It’s probably not that simple for most people, though, because obviously there are a lot of other potential factors in life. Mental or physical illness can throw everything thoroughly out of whack, because they suck up energy, time, resources, and simply make some tasks impossible. Being neuroatypical also messes with the equation, in part because we’re usually expected to approach goals and planning in a way that’s highly unintuitive and ineffective for some folks. Often, we’re not offered, or even allowed to seek, alternative methods that might allow us to succeed.
It can leave people with ADHD honestly believing that they just don’t care about anything, or that they’re incurably lazy because they can’t seem to muster the will to achieve any goals they set. They generally believe this because they’ve been told something like that after every failure. Many parents and teachers either don’t believe that routine tasks are significantly harder for kids with ADHD, or they figure that tough love will somehow motivate the kid to stop being so darn incapable of succeeding. It doesn’t work that way, but it’s amazing how many people think it does, as if kids routinely go through the emotional hell of failing in school and disappointing their families for fun.
I’ve got depression and ADHD, and it’s certainly been quite a lark. I’ve had both conditions all my life, for as long as I can remember. These days, they’re both being properly managed, which is nice but also kind of weird. As I’ve said before, actually looking forward to stuff with genuine joy is surprising after years of “excited” meaning something closer to “I’m motivated enough to do this theoretically fun thing, and the dread is currently manageable.”
My interest levels were permanently smothered under a huge wet blanket of bleh. Feeling hopeless and terrible about yourself really doesn’t help on the commitment front, either. If nothing makes you feel better and you’re pretty sure none of it matters, there’s very little reason to work hard at anything, even if you’re pretty sure you do care, somewhere deep down under the blanket. I knew I was depressed, growing up, but I didn’t know I had anything else interfering with my ability to function. Depression can act like ADHD anyway, messing up both memory and focus, so it is genuinely hard to tell the difference. Confusing matters further, ADHD also often triggers depression, especially in girls. Girls don’t get diagnosed as often, and face significantly harsher punishments for acting out, so they tend to just shrink into themselves as they continue to struggle.
People with ADHD can’t work as expected because certain types of brain function aren’t optional if you want to get certain results. If you don’t have the right chemicals and energy doing the right things in the right part of the brain, focus simply will not happen. Focus is just the result of those physical processes, and it cannot be faked or powered through. The rest of the brain, with all its willpower and concerns and intentions, can scream all day long about how important something is, but it can’t actually do what the broken bit is supposed to do. It can even become less functional under increased effort, and is significantly worsened by stress, guilt, and all the other feelings that come with pressure and frustration. The effort can be sort of mentally painful. It feels awful.
It also, in my experience, forms a horrible kind of negative feedback loop if the person doesn’t know what’s happening to them. If a kid gets homework and doesn’t enjoy it, but is able to hang in there and finish it, they learn that increased effort produces results and that maybe homework isn’t the literal worst thing in the world. If a kid with ADHD gets boring homework and settles in to give it their best try, they’re gonna learn a much less uplifting – but just as real – lesson. They learn that putting in that effort is significantly uncomfortable, and that they get inexplicably poor results regardless of how hard they work. The more times that happens, the less reason they have to put in the effort at all and the more stressed they’re likely to feel at the thought of it. It looks like stubbornness, and sometimes results in genuine anger and refusal to cooperate, because who wouldn’t be kinda pissed about being expected to keep doing something that feels awful and doesn’t work?
They might also get lectured, as I often was, about how they’re too smart to be failing and aren’t living up to their potential. This is a shitty thing to say to any kid, because when they continue to fail, they’re then faced with two logical conclusions. They can conclude that they really are lazy and that this is just what lazy feels like, or that they’re just not all that smart. I went with lazy, and then I went to the library. Class made my brain feel nauseated, and they wouldn’t let me read in class. I liked reading. Reading didn’t make my brain feel nauseated, so I did a lot of it. The first half of my sophomore year was spent reading through the very weird mix of literature that ends up in high school libraries.
The reason that I could bury myself in a book, even a fairly disturbing one, for hours, but couldn’t stand memorizing Spanish conjugations, was that it did something different to my brain. It got me truly interested, and the extra spark was enough to get that faulty focus engine to work properly. Increased effort won’t jumpstart it, but high levels of interest sometimes can.
So, people with ADHD often learn that if they’re really fascinated by something, they can actually pour all their focus into it and get results. They can soak up information about their particular interests like sponges and lose themselves for hours in a state of hyper-focus, also known as being in the zone. Being in the zone feels awesome, especially when all you have to compare it to is that staticky feeling of utter boredom and frustration. There’s very little middle ground to be had, since it requires so much extra fuel to get that part of the brain to do its job.
Just given that, it seems like if a person with ADHD has an interest that can become a career, they’re actually pretty much set. That hyper-focus becomes a boon, and they should be able to throw their entire heart and soul into the process of building a business, developing a profitable skill, or earning a degree. Some people are really fortunate and their interest is tech-related, but there are lots of other skills and knowledge-sets for people to get lit up about. Most hobbies can kinda fit into an industry niche somewhere. Reading and art are my hobbies, and writing came naturally out of my love for books and my interest in creativity.
Unfortunately, there are major draw-backs to running on this hyper-focus alone. The primary one being that, no matter how fascinating something is, it can become more dull if you do it all the time. It’s inevitable that most long-term commitments require doing boring stuff sometimes, even if other parts are still fun. Once something becomes routine and they don’t really feel like working on it, all the same ADHD issues crop up. A Neurotypical person would be able to push through the dull patches and do it anyway, but the ADHD adult who has years of experience telling them that boredom feels a bit like slowly being smothered in quicksand, is going to panic.
Hell, it’s so ingrained that I get anxious just at the thought of a boring task, and I instinctively shy away from letting the things I’m interested in become routine, because I know the experience is so bad and I don’t want them being tainted by it. That’s pretty much the worst instinct a writer can have if their goal is publication. It’s fine for a hobby, but not for a career. All of my habits, built up over years of trying to skip around the stuff that shuts my brain down, and feeling useless and crappy about myself because that was pretty much everything that I needed to do, are totally counterproductive now. They weren’t productive before, either, but at least they made some sense.
Now that I’m on a medication that brings my mental function in the right area closer to average, I actually can push through boredom and get into a working rhythm, even if that task wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing at the time. And yet, I still put writing off all day in favor of other, more immediately gratifying, things. I’m scared to pick it up if I’m not already feeling lit up about what I’m about to work on. I wait for that highly unreliable muse, even though I consciously know that I can now generate the required motivation myself.
It seems very likely that these old habits will shift over time. I’ve only actually been on the medication for a few months, and it generally takes longer than that to change a whole system of coping mechanisms. Hopefully, being aware of the anxiety that triggers that avoidance will help me stop acting on it without thinking. And, hopefully, I’ll also eventually be able to stop wasting my energy by questioning whether I actually really care every time something gets hard and it makes me want to quit.