I Wrote Five Books With ADHD
but can't put away my laundry (Part 1 of 2)
I’m one of those women who wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until her 40s. In the elementary schools of the 1980s, the only kids being diagnosed were little white boys named Jason, ones who’d fall out of their desks and shoot rubber bands at the guinea pig tank. BIPOC kids’ attention inconsistency was very often seen as a discipline issue. And girls—much less likely to be physically hyperactive—were either told we were spacey and lazy (hi) or simply weren’t noticed at all.
I want to talk first about what ADHD is like (and what it’s like for a writer), in part because it was only in hearing other people—specifically other women—talk about their experiences that it all started to click into place for me. And then, next week, I’ll post about some of the adaptations and fixes and crutches I’ve found, both for concentrating and for actually using ADHD to make the work better. In other words, how I’ve managed to write 5.2 books despite not being able to do basic paperwork.
A lot of the stuff below is negative—it’ll sound like I’m whining—but I want to start by saying that I actually love the way my brain works. I don’t love the way it makes me live my life, but I do think there are a lot of overlooked superpowers, as there are with any neurodivergence. And I don’t believe that ADHD is the fault of YouTube or something. I believe humanity evolved to include people with ADHD for very good reasons.
In retrospect, the diagnosis is stunningly obvious: While capable of hyperfocus, I have next to zero ability to concentrate on something I’m not interested in. Notably, ADHD is not the inability to focus, but the inability to choose and control that focus. Imagine walking an untrained and very strong dog (helpful visual above), one who might refuse to stop when you need to tie your shoe, but who insists on stopping for half an hour to smell a particular rosebush.
In school, I was either extremely tuned in and motivated (English and history and language classes) or essentially absent (math, science). It’s been amazing to look back and acknowledge how much of my life I’ve faked, how often it’s like I’m listening to a radio with very poor reception, catching three words and pretending I know what’s going on. When needed, I’m capable of responding verbally to social cues (wow, that’s amazing; yes, yes, tax tax paperwork tax stuff yes) while having absolutely no idea what’s being said, because I’m utterly zoned out. (To have a word for this now—“masking”—is, for some reason, a profound relief.) Fortunately, social conversation usually engages me. But, for instance, I cannot pay attention at a literary reading to save my life. I will sit there to support my friend, and I will laugh when everyone else does, and I will compliment you afterwards and mean it, but I probably took in 5% of what you read. Telling myself to focus does nothing; I end up in loops of meta-thought, thinking about my attention span rather than managing to tune in.
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My physical hyperactivity is subtle (as I write this, I’m doing things with both my tongue and my toes, but nothing you’d notice). If I stand near the food at a party, I will not stop eating—not because I have food issues, but because eating is something to do with my hands and body. Sitting still for Zoom is a nightmare, even with fidgets, unless I’m the one talking. Meanwhile, my verbal hyperactivity is notable; I can only slow down my rapid speech with effort, I panic at conversational lags, and it takes everything I have not to interrupt people constantly.
I very often forget what I was about to do, or what I was in the middle of doing. I routinely forget, for instance, if I’ve already taken my inhaler; this is dangerous. It’s a little depressing to hear people describe Covid brain fog and how impossible it is to live like this for, you know, three weeks, while I’m thinking, That sounds like a normal Tuesday. I will open my email to check one urgent thing and then wind up in another email, and then I’m checking Wikipedia, and half an hour later I go Wait, the first thing! but by the time I’m back in my inbox I’ve forgotten it again and I’m staring at my emails trying to remember what it was I needed. (If you’re going Yeah, well everyone does that sometimes—note that I’m talking about literally every time I open my Gmail.) I try to adapt by keeping 700 tabs open and taking screenshots of everything, but this (spoiler) doesn’t really work. I was probably not meant to relate to Memento as hard as I did.
I lose things like it’s my job. I just got back from a couple of weeks on the road, minus: a really nice eye mask, a phone charger, an earring, a book, prescription nasal spray, receipts I was supposed to turn in, and probably several things I haven’t noticed yet.
I have absolutely terrible spatial and directional awareness. I am frequently lost, and frequently covered in bruises. I live in a world in which buildings and walls and streets rearrange themselves, randomly, when I’m not looking.
I am impatient in irrational and occasionally dangerous ways. (Fortunately not with people, just with processes.) If there is a correct, methodical way to open a package—an elaborate pull tab, or finding a pair of scissors—going through these tedious steps will feel like claustrophobia. I will grab a kitchen knife and just stab my way in through the side of the box.
My brain will decide that certain everyday tasks—often (but not always!) ones requiring multiple simple steps—are absolutely overwhelming and impossible to approach. Like many ADHDers, I have no problem with doing laundry, or sorting or folding laundry, but putting laundry away is an insurmountable task. Often I’ll put some of it away. But then there are decisions to be made. If I take this one stack of workout clothes to the closet, then I’ll have to make room for them on a shelf that might be running out of room, unless I move some of that stuff to this other shelf, and if I do that then I should move my sweaters, and a couple of the sweaters should be hung up, but I don’t think I have enough coat hangers and I won’t know until I finish hanging up my dresses, but I can’t hang up these dresses until I iron two of them, and ironing is a WHOLE other thing. So maybe the workout clothes can just live on the closet floor for three weeks. Of all the symptoms of ADHD, this is perhaps the most difficult to live with. (I mean for me, but I’m sure for my husband, too.) Those unfinished tasks, even when unimportant, produce tons of anxiety. Often they’re crucial. One thing I find difficult (with terrifying potential repercussions) is making medical appointments for myself. And of course the task avoidance didn’t fly well back in school.
One of the weirdest things is that the ADHD brain doesn’t just put off unpleasant or boring tasks. I very often decide to put something both easy and incredibly fun and exciting into the “impossible” category. For absolutely no reason.
But! Here come the superpowers!
I have huge excitement for starting new projects, and when I can find others to help me with follow-through (the heroic staff at StoryStudio, for instance), those projects tend to turn out well. And I’ve figured out how to have good follow-through for my own novels—something I’ll talk about next time.
I’m happiest when I’m doing five things at once. I can read better on the elliptical than in bed. I read well on audio (usually 1.7x speed) while I’m cooking or walking or driving. If I could somehow ride a bike and do a sudoku and watch a movie and drink a smoothie at the same time, I’d be in heaven. I’ve actually probably done that, on a stationary bike. The great news is that the mental juggling you have to do in order to hold a 300-page novel in your mind—ADHDers were built for that.
I have a highly associative brain. This means that if you mention one thing—say, penguins—I can think of ten different urgent and hilarious stories about penguins I have to share with you. I have a tendency to start several sentences at once. On the page, this works well. If you saw me writing this essay in real time, you might be baffled. I’m finishing this sentence, for instance, with about ten unfinished sentences above it. I jump back and forth between them in what might look like random order. When I’m speaking, though, I imagine a listener might feel like they’ve just simultaneously boarded five trains. I’ve learned to explain this to students on the first day of class, and to promise that I’ll almost always return to what I was originally saying. I’ve learned to start a lot of sentences with “Sidebar:” and hold up one finger so students understand that I’m not permanently derailing the conversation from the workshop at hand. (I’m not entirely clear on the difference between arborescent and rhizomatic thinking, but my brain works in both these ways, depending on circumstances. What it never does is think in a straight line.)
The flip side of ADHD is hyperfocus. (This would be the dog stopping at that rose bush forever.) When I get wrapped up in something, I could sit there focused for five hours and only get up because I’ve been putting off a trip to the bathroom for two of those hours. Forgetfulness comes in really handy when it’s your job to forget that anything else in the world exists. And on the macro level, I could stay focused on a novel for four years.
These four things—generative passion, multitasking ability, fractal thinking, hyperfocus—they tend to lead you to a career in the arts. And not only because you’d be terrible at data analysis! An enormous number of writers and other kinds of artists have ADHD, and I believe we tend to go undiagnosed for much longer precisely because we’ve found careers suited to the way we think.
That’s where I’ll leave you…
for now. If you relate to the above and aren’t diagnosed, I encourage you to look into it; medication really does help, when there isn’t a national shortage and when you can manage to remember to refill your prescription. If you only relate a little bit, the things I’ll share next time will probably help you too.
Update… Here’s part 2!