In which Addam isn’t paying attention…
There’s a gap in between
There’s a gap where we meet
Where I end and you begin
And I’m sorry for us
The dinosaurs roam the earth
The sky turns green
Where I end and you begin
Where I End and You Begin – Radiohead
The ADHD brain goes where it pleases. I have very little control of the meanderings of my stable-state brain and as a result my actions can sometimes surprise even me. I always assumed that this was just ‘me’, after all what are we other than how we behave? Then I was diagnosed with ADHD and all that got called into question. When you get diagnosed with something like ADHD a tonne of questions come flooding in like ants into a picnic basket and crawl around the crevices of your consciousness demanding to be swatted lest they eat the ham sandwich of your inner-self. If ADHD suppresses my impulse control, what does that say about my free will? What the hell even is free will (I may tackle this at another point)? Which of my personality attributes are ‘me’ and which are symptoms of my chronic neurological disorder? What does ‘me’ even mean (another one for the backburner)? Do I get to feel less shame about stupid stuff that I’ve done? Can I still take credit for the awesome stuff that I’ve done when some of them were obviously the result of ADHD? What the hell is going on?!
There are some weighty questions there, and ones that concern every human being (if only notionally for many people) and one presumes other sentient beings. These Questions are too weighty to cover in anything less than a car weighted treatise, so I’ll try and tackle a slightly leaner question – where do I end and consequently where does ADHD begin?
The thing is, ADHD affords me a few superpowers – a very broad knowledge base created by my ever wondering attention, the ability to make obscure connections, outspokenness (even when not necessarily welcome), a rabid, insatiable appetite to learn, boundless energy, and many others. There are, of course, flipsides to all these which are far from ‘super’ and various other residual difficulties that I won’t burden you with – I could take either case to make my point, but let’s stay positive eh? My superpowers have lead me to do lots of interesting and wonderful things, but some of these are clearly a direct result of classic ADHD behaviours. So if you discount all of that what is left that I can feel proud of? What exactly is left of me? If you could treat all the ADHD away what would I be left with?
It’s a theme I’ve tackled alone, and with others, on many occasions since I had my diagnosis. It’s not often that you get told that the features by which many that know me (including myself), those that friends and family would most strongly associate with Alex-ness, are symptoms of a neurological misconfiguration. It’s also an (unfounded) worry when you first start to take medication – will I suddenly stop being me and metamorphose into some dull automaton? I don’t think I’ve quite got to the bottom of it, indeed I don’t think you can without tackling the “what is ‘me’?” question, but I think I’m in a reasonably sure state of mind on it. It goes a little something like this.
There are all kinds of brains, and every degree of paisley patterned, technicoloured gradiation between them, but various notable edge cases emerge within the spectrum of broadly normal brain (by which I mean excluding brain damage and profound brain disability etc.). Some of these are ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dyslexia and Bi-polar to name a few. Broadly speaking, people with these conditions (at least, the lucky ones that aren’t at the extreme edges) can cope reasonably well in society and rarely get singled out as in any way different. You could describe the difference between the ADHD/Neurotypical/ASD/Dyslexic brain as like the differences between computer operating systems like Windows vs Mac vs Linux – they all do roughly the same thing but have different strengths e.g. Windows is better for productivity, Mac is creative and Linux is for going deep. All the similarities are there though – windowed applications, mouse/trackpad control, random rebooting and missing files – but experiencing one tells you only a certain amount about experiencing any of the others. If you’ve only every used Windows, jumping on to a Mac will feel reasonably familiar for about 10 seconds, until the moment you try and do anything meaningful, at which point you will feel very much like you are losing your mind. The situation is worse with brains since you can only ever get to try out your own, or some version of it (you might try to hack the ‘OS’ with some drugs, or do an upgrade via a midlife crisis). From an objective perspective ADHD can only ever be observed and never experienced. The neurotypical brain is just as big an experiential enigma to me as my brain is to a neurotypical person, as is an autistic or dyslexic or colour blind brain to me and Madame Nuerotypical. Yet we find ourselves, as humans, philosophising and pontificating about the bat brain and what it must be like to ‘see’ in sound as if we’ve uncovered something profound. The experiential disparities between two identical twins must seem pretty profound if you’re one of those twins.
Then there’s the question of how I got this way in the first place. There is strong evidence that ADHD is hereditary (anyone who knew my dad could attest to this), but like all hereditary attributes, there is likely an environmental factor. So perhaps something happened to me at the age of 6 or 7 that took what was thus far destined to be normal brain and made it get all mixed-up. It’s plausible and there’s some evidence to back it up. But the possibility that my brain was normal at 6 and then went through some change, from a subjective viewpoint, is neither here nor there. The meds may stabilise my moment to moment experience, but my brain is still structured how it is, they’re not turning back the clock, just adjusting the time a little. No amount of drugs and conditioning and browbeating and guilt and shame is going to change that. If I did manage to change my brain (for better or worse) it is my current baseline that I start from, not that 6 year old brain. The person I could have become, if ADHD were purely environmental, never existed and never can exist. So why concern myself with him?
It’s further arguable that I didn’t get to any state. It’s unlikely that neolithic man had a specific label for people like me. In fact, this is a 20th century disorder and some would argue is only as widespread as it is, from a diagnostic perspective, because the hyper-connected, always-on 21st century world draws it out and exacerbates it. People with my wiring probably had a great time of it roaming the plains as part of a hunting party, only to be stifled by the advent of agricultural society with its relentless monotony and structure. That my brain struggles with the constant noise-dressed-up-as-signal that permeates every corner and crevice of contemporary existence says more about the external world which I inhabit, than my internal state and any perceived problem with it. But even before we all got plugged into the matrix, society was torturing the ADHD brain. Schools are a classic example of this. ADHD people thrive on participatory, practical, visual and direct methods of teaching. “Over there, that’s a gazelle, here’s a spear and a knife, watch this and follow!” The ideological obsession with teaching via structure, theory and rote learning is not particularly great for kids with normal wiring, but it is a special form of torture for the ADHD personality. These kids are climbing the walls because society base-lined on a teaching paradigm that is the antithesis of what ADHD kids need. To add insult to injury, lack of conformity, outspokenness, high levels of energy, and impulsiveness, all very ADHD behaviours, amount to nothing less than aberrant misbehaviour and are punished with an iron fist and worse, exclusion (let me give you a clue here, ADHD kids thrive on human interaction, so what exactly are you trying to achieve?). These behaviours are the bedrock of creativity and invention, and ADHD kids are frequently the provide the energy that is the antidote to the grey, monotonous reality of the modern classroom environment. These behaviours are actively (if often unknowingly) suppressed in the modern educational system. The system is stacked against people like me. I failed GCSE English twice. I would produce intricate works of creativity and maturity, and be cut down because of poor grammar, handwriting and spelling, things that are classic tripping-up points for ADHD kids (and which I still struggle with). Do I write like someone who is poor with the English language? (yes, there are probably typos and errors in this very piece, it comes with the territory, I assume that you can find it in your heart to forgive me?) For years I assumed I just couldn’t do ‘writing’. It took me years longer to realise the inverse was true. In that sense, it is not me but the system that has the problem.
And this is where things bottom out. I am not ADHD, in the same sense ADHD is not me. I do not define this condition and it does not define me. It is just a collection of attributes that a section of the population share to a highly consistent degree. These attributes can be highly beneficial in some situations, and profoundly detrimental in others. Unfortunately the situations in which it is detrimental are extremely common in the modern world. Behaviours attributable to ADHD can’t be compared to a bad mood as the result of a hangover. This disorder, for better or for worse, pervades every part of my internal and external persona. There is no “it and me”, there is just me. I have achieved the things that I have both despite, and because of my allegedly faulty wiring. Put another way, despite modern society’s tendency the frustrate and impede me, I still stand tall. I still manage. I still succeed. Despite the fact that for me it takes harder work and greater levels perseverance, and emotional energy than it does for most people. That I can be proud of. I have a superpower that most people don’t, it’s just hard to use sometimes. However, I am one of the lucky ones, most people with ADHD are considerably less fortunate.
Since I always assumed, in good faith, that I took various actions because I meant to, and still maintain the self-delusion of free-will, all the ADHD diagnosis does is give me is a framework for explanation – many behaviours that seemed out of the ordinary now make more sense. It wasn’t that I just wasn’t trying hard enough to fit in, or to succeed, or to pay attention or to follow through, but rather I am wired differently from most other people. This is me, all of it, for all the good, bad and bat-shit crazy.
So where do I and end and where does ADHD begin? The ADHD starts where I start and ends where I end. ADHD is dead, long live ADHD.
You have an aunt, or a sibling, or a bezzie don’t you, who you love to pieces but is basically an anal douchebag? You know, the one that, when they walk into your house, tries to conceal palpable distaste at the general disorder and disarray. Like they’re suppressing the mental gag-reflex. You kinda don’t want them to come round, and actively avoid the situation if possible, but they keep inviting themselves because apparently they delight in bringing to your attention the physical manifestation of your chaotic ADHD mind – stuff in places where it has no right to be; evidence of daily/weekly chores procrastinated and postponed into festering piles and dusty sheens; the general sense that, while there is clearly a place for everything, that place is EVERYWHERE. This person thinks that they hide their disdain while making cheerfully wistful comments about the “shabby chic” of your “charmingly lived in” house, perching on the edge of sofa like it might swallow them up, and surreptitiously tidying things away to places from which they may never emerge.
You don’t want to live like this, but there is so much to do, and you have that assignment to do for the qualification you decided to take on a whim, and you need to buy some cheese making equipment because, you know, cheese making, and then there’s that short story to finish writing, all those magazine you bought at the weekend that won’t read themselves and, and, and, and…
THERE JUST NO TIME TO DO ALL THAT OTHER BORING HOUSEWORK STUFF!
You know all these boring chores need doing. You don’t need Lord/Lady Meticulous to project this down their nose at you. It’s like telling a homeless person to get off their lazy arse and get a job – patronising, ignorant and superfluous. Now, no one knows more than you that sorting out the kitchen would make your life so much easier (you have to wash a bowl and spoon EVERY MORNING just to be able to eat breakfast) but it is a BIG JOB. Clearing and thinning down that bookshelf really needs doing (books keep falling off onto your head) but it will TAKE AGES and risks making even more mess when you inevitably fail to finish the job. And then there’s the house work. Don’t mention the housework. It never ends. Every time you get some done more turns up! It’s best to just leave it and do it all as one BIG JOB once a week and then it’s out the way. But that’s such a bloody CHORE.
I hate chores (even the word is tiresome, boring and a bit grotty, like verruca or nasal). They suck. But I also don’t like living in squalor, regardless of how it might have appeared for most of my life. But how do you get round to doing all these BIG JOBS? The answer is actually quite simple – don’t. Don’t do the BIG things, just do small things.
You just thought “ah I see, you’re just another one of those patronising smart-arses like my mum/sister/cat”, didn’t you? But bear with me, I’ll rejoin you in the seething resentment in a short while. But first, here’s something you need to understand.
Stop lumping all the vaguely related tasks into giant unwieldy categories like CHORES, or SH*T THAT I DON’T WANT TO DO. By bundling all the small things into BIG CATEGORIES you conflate them and increase their collective intensity. Wasps are pretty much just annoying on their own, but if you’ve got a swarm of them, THEY WILL STING YOU TO DEATH. It may seem sensible to batch things up into tidy categories, and less stuff is always tidier right? That may be so from comfortable perspective of observing these categories from the outside, but once you delve into any one of them all you’ll find is a assemblage of vaguely related junk that’s gaining entropy and somehow breeding. It’s a bit like that drawer in the the kitchen that’s used to store “stuff”, there’s some things in there you’re certain you never owned in the first place. From whence came they?
Take a simple task – Cleaning a kitchen surface. Cleaning a kitchen surface is just that, purging a worktop of debris and grime. It is not the same as “make all the kitchen clean”. You may claim that “if I just clean that surface, then it’ll look weird and I JUST MUST clean the rest, so best not to start at all.” This is a valid objection, especially for an ADHDer. Not a lot of people know this, but ADHDers are perfectionists, it’s why they never get stuff finished, they set their sights too high. But in this scenario you need to take control of your inner obsessive and calm the voice that screams “I MUST CLEANING ALL THE KITCHEN WITH UNHINGED INTENSITY!” and instead, paradoxically, think about all the other stuff you’d rather be doing. The key here is that cleaning the kitchen surface is easy. It’s small. You can handle small things, right? Don’t conflate it with other small things unless you have reason to. Ask yourself instead, “why must I clean the kitchen surface?” and the answer you will find is “because I didn’t clear it down when I made that BIG SANDWICH earlier”. The small “kitchen surface” task is not related to the big MUST CLEANING KITCHEN task, it’s related to the MUST EATING BIG SANDWICH task from earlier. If you’d cleaned up after yourself you wouldn’t have this task getting in the way of whatever wacky adventure you’re on right now (probably just making dinner). “Ah!” you’re now screaming at your tablet/laptop/phone/cucumber, “you’re telling me to stay on top of stuff, no sh*t Sherlock, but I still MUST CLEANING ALL THE KITCHEN, before I can get myself into the position of staying on top of that task.” This is indeed an astute observation, and so we need some defining principles to get past this apparent impasse. Here’s what you need to do, and do habitually for the rest of your life (seriously, as long as you live. It’s not that big a deal though, keep reading, pleeeease):
- Do exactly one more action than you need to achieve any given task, every time you do a task
- Break down BIG JOBS into small tasks and only concern yourself with these tiddlers
- Make a specific time that is free to do stuff you don’t want to do, and work through your small tasks at that time
- Make a specific time to is free to do the stuff you do want to do, and use it frivolously, with impunity and without guilt
Continued after this short digression from my brain
Item 1: Do something extra
Using the scenario stated above you would
- Clear/clean the surface
- Make the tasty treat
- Clear up after yourself
See what happened there? You got a task for FREE! Where you would usually only do 2 tasks (clean and make food) you now did three. So what happens next time you need a BIG SANDWICH? Regard:
- Make the tasty treat (since the surface is already clear)
- Clear up after yourself
- Put the dirty item you just used in the dishwasher
There, another job done – filling the dishwasher! Here’s some other examples of “buy one get one free” productivity magic.
- Take the rubbish out to the bin when you take the dog for a walk
- When you read an email, file it or delete it
- Clear your desk while you’re on a boring conference call
- When you make dinner, fill a sink of hot soapy water, and wash up as you finish using stuff
Now, you may be tempted to do a cheeky few extra tasks for each main task, and that’s cool, but be careful you don’t accidentally slip into “MUST DO BIG JOB WITH UNHINGED INTENSITY” mode. There will be plenty of other opportunities for claiming your free extra things, no need to gobble them all at once. Patience is needed. Stay calm. Mind like water. Etc.
Once you get into the swing of things, you’ll find that everything is done all the time and you’ll be free to explore the vagueries of crochet. Except, hold on…
Item 2: Make small numbers of monolithic BIG JOBS into a proliferation of small jobs
But what about those jobs that don’t sit snugly around daily routine, like clearing out the garage or, god forbid, THE GARDEN (shivvers cascade down spine). This is what item #2 is for. You’re never going to get around to the BIG JOBS, at least not until forced to (in a moment of weak will and unbridled enthusiasm you invited most of the office around for a dinner party, and now you have to purge the dining table of last year’s Warhammer obsession, not to mention that your attempt at a Banksy style mural on the adjacent wall looks like the faecal smears of a deranged, captive chimpanzee). Assuming this isn’t the case (you don’t really own a chimpanzee do you?) then you’re better off not attempting the doomed project all at once, but instead break it down into lots and lots of quick little tasks of which you can do a couple of a day. It’s like breaking down a big immovable iceberg into cute little ice cubes that you can pop into your vodka and Diet Coke. Do this for ALL of your big projects. Let’s use the dining room situation as an example. The way you could break it may look something like this (do one a day):
- Buy some sort of storage for your Plague Orcs and Blurgg Marines
- Put half the little models in said storage (the ones you got around to painting)
- Put the other half of the little models in said storage (the ones you will NEVER get around to painting)
- Clear away all the manuals, boards and 19 sided dice and stuff
- Buy a poster depicting an actual Banksy mural
- Put said poster on top of chimpanzee scrawl
Write all this down as a list before you attempt doing any of it. Make a plan for doing each item, and then do them sequentially. Merge this list in with the equivalent ones for all your BIG JOBS. Make some time every day to do a few of these tasks. Which brings me swiftly onto items 3 and 4, which I’ll tackle together, since they’re intrinsically related.
Items 2 & 3: Make special times to be productive and frivolous
Here’s the thing, as an ADHDer, you’re actually good at making time for stuff, and you’re frequently weirdly effective at planning and using your time to get obscene amounts of stuff achieved. It’s just that that version of you turns up unpredictably, and only if you’re immersed in one of your focus fits. But here’s the good news, you actually posses those magical delivery skills ALL OF THE TIME. Seriously, you do. You just have to accept the fact that you can only engage them for short periods in situations where you’re not interested in the task at hand. That’s cool, because you only really need to engage them to short periods, but you need to do it consistently, habitually, quasi-religiously. Every. Single. Bloody. Day. Find thirty to sixty minutes a day to do the snoresville tasks. What I don’t mean by that is ‘allocate’ thirty minutes at 9 pm when you usually ‘waste’ your time watching Stranger Things and thus will probably continue to exactly that. I mean carve out that time at a point in the day that you’re likely to be available to do some boring stuff, in the location where it needs to be done, and when nothing else is expected of you. This is not necessarily an easy task in itself, but it’s important. There will be trade-offs and compromises, but believe me, it will be worth it. Find the time, make sure you will not be distracted (thrust some Taylor Swift or Morbid Angel or Kenny G through your earphones) and get cranking through the stuff that needs doing. Start with the routine stuff, then chip off a couple of the ice cubes you carved out of those big icebergs.
And here’s the reward, go through the same exercise to carve out some time for doing ALL THE OTHER FUN STUFF. I know what you’re thinking right now. I do. You’re thinking “but as it is right now, I can use ALL my time to work of all that tasty shiny fun sh*t”. This may well be the case, but how is that working for you eh? Do you really feel relaxed and guilt free? You’re sure you’re not feeling a little torn, guilty, shameful, lest I say it, inadequate, at not having done the stuff that you think you’re actually supposed to be doing? The stuff that needs doing? If you do what I say, you can get on with building that aquarium complex GUILT FREE, knowing that you’ve done exactly enough of ALL OF THAT OTHER BORING CRAP to relieve yourself of the nagging burden of inadequacy. Make the time to do both the fun and the frustrating. Make more time to do the fun. You can do that, it’s OK. It really is. Set yourself free. I DARE YOU.
Here’s what it boils down to: if you’re forcing yourself to constantly trade-off BIG JOBS, you’re having to make BIG DECISIONS which is stressful and tiring and you’re unlikely do the “overhaul the kitchen” project and instead do the much shinier “learn how to make cheese” project (which is actually going to make the kitchen project even more arduous). Do both projects, do all your projects, but for the kitchen project (and its never ending multitude of interbreeding siblings), break them up, divide and conquer, habitualise them into submission.
Back to the unencumbered spite and contempt I promised earlier. Unfortunately, all those annoying adages proffered by those annoying, self-satisfied, meticulous douchebags gain a little credence at this point – “a stitch in time” and “if you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves”, blah, fecking, blah. As with most metaphorical memes, despite the fact that they’re trite, over-worn and generally lame, there’s almost always a grain of reality in there, no matter how irritatingly phrased and asserted. Consequently your sister/vicar/gimp was at least in part correct. If you find her/him/it’s whiny voice echoing around your skull reciting these pithy one-liners and saying “I told you so!” daring you to tell him/her/it to p*ss off, then simply do that. Go on, DO IT. Tell those voices where they can stick their condescending dribble. It will feel good. Then get on with what you need to do because, quite frankly, actually getting your sh*t done is a much bigger smite-to-the-cobblers to people like that than continuing the disarray that they derive so much perverse titillation from deriding you about. Your success is their pain, remember that. INFLICT THE PAIN.
So in summary. Break stuff apart, make time to gratify yourself, inflict pain. Goddit? “When you put it like that,” you’re saying out loud, “what’s not to like?!” And you are correct.