Coping with ADHD (part 1 — or is it 2? 3?)

I wrote this in response to someone who commented on my “Rhythms are the Best for Working,” post and decided it was long enough and worthwhile enough for me to make it a separate post.

Jonathan, I encourage you to CELEBRATE your ADHD as a quality that makes you stand out from the crowd. People with ADHD are generally very intelligent and have a wide variety of interests about which they can be equally intense. Instead of seeing it as a disability (except when you need support for it), see it as a “misfit” between your brain wiring and the expectations of a rigid world that likes “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

What I try to do is follow my interest for as long as I can, and then pick up the thread of something else when interest wanes. The trick is to keep track of all your various interests and have a way to remind you of all the work you’ve already done on as-yet incomplete projects. So when you run up against a blank wall, go back to your other projects and see if you can spark some interest in one of them again. If you keep going, eventually you will complete something!

I have been writing almost all of my life, and I have saved everything, whether on paper (earlier work) or electronically (I’ve had a computer since 1984). At 64 I decided I needed to go back to old work & pick up where I left off, writing an autobiography. Well, guess what? It is already 3/4ths written, between my journal entries, emails, facebook posts, completed autobiographical short stories (names changed, but otherwise, autobiography), novellas, fragments, and poems. Right now it’s a matter of bringing it all together, filling in the gaps, and planning the story I want to tell (which affects how I arrange the materials), and then writing an ending. These days my age is pressing on me — I’d better get this done now, or I will never do it. And so I find myself carving time out for it, whenever I can fit it in.

There will always be setbacks. For instance, in June 2010 my son-in-law committed suicide, and I chose to move closer to my grandchildren. This has caused a major upheaval in my life, as all moves do, but particularly moreso for people with ADHD and for people with my various chronic pain conditions.

Nonetheless, it is the experience of all of that that has brought be back to my writing as a way of healing.

Setbacks are barriers only if you allow them to be so. Setbacks can be stepping stones instead. You may have to step back for a while, but something will gestate if you allow it, and eventually you will be a better, stronger person, and a better writer!

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Rhythms are the best for working

Rhythms are the best for working.
Break the rhythm and it’s like
starting cold: creak and puff and
grind away, write reams of garbage
until the garbage becomes
a lubricant. Lift that dead
arm you’ve been sleeping on. See
it sway and flop: half corpse you
are. The arm is useless. Paralyzed
for life. Can’t do it. Won’t work.
Imagine yourself dead: this
is it, kid. Body won’t work.
Feel it dissolve into the
sheets. It’s noon. Last time I looked
it was nine. I don’t remember
sleeping. The rhythms of the
world have gone awry. Who can
trust a clock
now?

That’s the first stanza of a poem I wrote, first draft, some time around 1976 or so. More than 36 years later I still have trouble establishing a rhythm for working.

There was a time, back when my daughter was an infant, that I did manage to do that for, oh, about 6 months, starting in September of 1973. She was just a year old. I was suffering from horrible migraine headaches, and decided that they were caused by the fact that I was not writing, since at the time I was full-time mom and had no time for myself. So I found a parent-participation day care center (the only one then that would take a child still in diapers) where I took her every Tuesday and Thursday (with every eighth day my day for required participation). I would load her up into the car and drive from Ontario (Calif.) to Claremont, deposit her there at 8:30, drive back home, sit down at the typewriter (a manual!) and pound away for a few hours, drive back to pick her up at noon, come back home, feed her lunch, put her down for a nap, and then write for another hour or so while she slept.

It worked very well for a while. During that time I wrote the first drafts or portions thereof of nearly everything that ended up in my masters’ thesis (a collection of my own short stories). But then I hit a wall. I would sit at the typewriter and nothing, absolutely nothing, would come. And of course, my daughter decided to change her schedule. No more naps after lunch, mom. Thanks anyway!

There were many other things that interfered, not the least of which was my crumbling marriage, and internal conflicts of which I was only dimly aware … it took me three decades to understand the forces that were driving me then.

I am now 64 years old; 65 next August. An age when most people are getting ready for retirement (although that is taking much longer these days in this economic climate). Because of the various health issues I’ve struggled with, I’ve not really had a career yet. This in spite of all the wonderful gifts I have. I know in good part, aside from my health issues, this is a result of being ADHD, a diagnosis I did not receive until age 45, a few years after I completed my PhD. I read Sari Solden’s Women with Attention Deficit Disorderon the hunch that ADHD could be a major factor in the struggles I have had throughout my life. I read chapter after chapter with tears in my eyes. Tears of recognition and relief. Most important in what I got out of all that was the realization that I was not somehow morally deficient. My inability to establish and maintain order in my life was not a character flaw. I was not a terrible wife and mother.

One of Solden’s key arguments is that women are expected to keep order in the home. They are expected to keep everyone else organized and on track. When they can’t, it’s a reflection on them as women. Women who don’t keep their family lives in order are defective as women. Their entire identities are at stake. If  you have a husband who demands order, and who responds to the lack of it by hitting you below the “emotional belt” with attacks on that very identity, reinforcing your own sense of inadequacy, you spiral downward. Not knowing that it is something you cannot help, that you were born this way and you can’t fix it without help, leaves you feeling worthless.

So reading Solden’s book came as a huge relief to me. At last I had an answer for the long years of feeling I was completely incompetent and a failure at being a woman, and particularly a wife.

I haven’t been a wife for more than three decades now, having divorced my second husband in 1984, turning instead to focus my attentions on becoming a college professor. It took me ten years to finally finish that PhD. Getting the ADHD diagnosis (I insisted that my psychiatrist send me to a specialist for that) helped also in understanding why it took me so long. I remember working three times as hard as my cohorts to get my assignments done. I had to read first, marking the texts, then go back and type verbatim sections from those texts as notes, then review those notes several times before I could get the gist of the material. Not because I was stupid (far from it — once my work was turned in, everyone thought it brilliant), but because I would read for a bit and then my mind would go wild with new ideas applying what I had just learned. Hour upon hour would be spent in these flights of fancy. The dissertation journal I kept at the time is chock full of materials for at least TEN dissertations!

Whenever I would go to talk to my adviser about my dissertation, he would always ask me, “which one”?

My filing cabinets are also full of kazillions of articles, creative non-fiction essays, short stories, poems, novel ideas, novel chapters (different novels), and the like. Not to mention all the ideas I would have for solving social problems, or practical problems with the various institutions I worked for, flitting about from job to job.

I am, indeed, an “idea person.” What I am not good is setting up and maintaining that rhythm for work that is absolutely essential to bring an idea to fruition, suitable for sharing with the world and (one hopes) resulting in financial remuneration.

So, in addition to providing this blog as a means for my clients to connect and to get help sorting through their own blocks with writing, I am hoping this will also help me work through my own.

I am going to try to set up a rhythm for my own writing, and I suggest that others who are struggling like me figure out how to do that as well. You can post a reply here, or those who have “author” status can create their own posts about the blocks you are up against.

My first big block is that I am up against a life that is in complete disarray, mostly due to health issues that keep getting in the way. At this point I can’t even commit myself to a particular time of day at which I would concentrate on my own writing. I need to start by committing myself to 15 minutes a day just planning what to do with the rest of my day, even if it doesn’t include my own writing!

What about YOU?

When Outlines Paralyze

There are essentially two types of writers in the world: those who create and follow outlines with ease, and those who are paralyzed by them.

I’m the type that gets paralyzed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still find outlines very useful, but not until after I’ve written a full draft. Then and ONLY then can I find the right organizing scheme that develops organically from the content, rather than being imposed upon it. If I set up an outline too soon in the game, and then try to follow it, I will spend hours staring blankly at my screen, or writing in fits and starts, going here and there and essentially nowhere in the end.

I am the kind of writer who needs the process of getting the words down on paper (or these days, coded into bytes), in order to find out what I know and what I want to say. Writing for me is a process of discovery. I write down one thought, and that thought suggests another, and another, and another. Ultimately it becomes clear that I am beginning to repeat myself, and that I am rambling, often incoherently. But it’s best for me to keep the words flowing until they just won’t flow anymore. Then I can go back and edit out the chaff and put like things together and contrasty things side-by-side, and separate the ideas that belong in some other work from the one I need to write at the moment.

So how does that work after you have submitted a dissertation proposal with this beautiful outline that makes so much sense…until you actually try to write the material that is supposed to go with it? Well, as I told one of my coaching clients recently: the purpose of your outline in your dissertation proposal is to get your committee’s approval. After that, you are free to go wherever your ideas and your research take you, as long as you end up with something remotely resembling your proposal…and it is good.

The truth of the matter with my own dissertation is that you would barely recognize what I ended up with compared with the original outline I proposed. That’s because in the process of doing the research I learned so much more than I knew when I started. How can you create a workable outline of a piece that you haven’t even researched yet?

Another analogy I gave her derives from an essay I wrote decades ago when I applied to be a teaching master of arts candidate at Cal State Long Beach. I wrote then comparing writing to the process of working with clay in the ceramics courses I’d taken while I was an art major. One day I was working in the ceramics lab diligently trying to create nice little objects that would serve as Christmas gifts. The instructor came by and asked what I was doing. He said that was fine if that was all I wanted to do. But if I wanted to become a potter, I had to learn to listen to the clay. Instead of imposing pre-conceived ideas about what my object should look like, I had to learn to listen for the clay to tell me what it wanted to be. And I had to make mountains of mistakes, working the clay over and over and over again. Stopping, slicing it to see how even the walls were, then punching it down and starting over again. And over and over and over again.

That’s the same way I approach my writing. That is, the writing that comes before the editing.

My client gave me her plan for the next time — that she would do the next chapter, and she said it would be beautiful.

I said, “I’m not looking for beautiful.” Beautiful is what happens after the clay is out there, after it’s been worked through, after it has told you what it needs to be. Then we carve, cutting out what doesn’t belong, shaping and reshaping what is left.

Don’t worry about beautiful, I said. I am an expert at organizing and polishing writing, but I can’t do it until after the writing has been done!

See, the thing is that when you are aiming for beautiful when you don’t have much to work with yet is that the Editor in your head becomes a Vulture standing over you, ready to pounce and destroy. Or, as Gail Godwin put it, the Editor becomes “The Watcher at the Gate,”

Freud quotes Schiller, who is writing a letter to a friend.  The friend complains of his lack of creative power.  Schiller replies with an allegory.  He says it is not good if the intellect examines too closely the ideas pouring in at the gates.  “In isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it. . . . In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.  You are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.”

 [I read this essay ages ago for an assignment at a women’s writing conference at UC Santa Cruz, two weeks worth of nothing short of heaven for me at the time, 1978.]

Editors are wonderful beings — whether in your own head, or hired. They are extremely useful and, when activated at the proper time, they can do beautiful. But the ones in your head have a tendency to block you rather than help you if employed to early in the game.

So for now, just write!