Tag Archives: Adult ADD

The Jump to Hyperfocus

I’ve been really pleased at the number of people who got in touch after my last post! This is what I mean about not feeling alone – there are plenty of us out there, and it’s a hell of a lot less lonely if we talk to each other. This isn’t specifically a mental health blog, but before we move on to other things I’d like to look at one aspect of the craziness in greater detail, since it plays an important part in my creative life and always has, even though I didn’t have a name for it until quite recently.

Adult ADD is one of my newer diagnoses, and I got it courtesy of a psychiatrist who worked with me last year before I moved back to Scotland. I went to her to address some self-destructive behaviours. During those sessions I had reason to show her a couple of my notebooks, and what she saw there prompted her to ask if I had any of my old school reports. I had. She read through them and asked me to do some tests. Based on my writing and my ridiculously high test scores, she concluded that I have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

Let’s get two things straight before we move on. First, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding psychiatrists and I can understand why, but this particular shrink had nothing to gain from this diagnosis. She already knew I’d be leaving her practice shortly to go home, and there was no-one for her to hand me on to because believe me, for treatment of Adult ADD there is no-one. (Well, almost – there’s one specialist in the country and he’s busy enough not to need my custom.)

Second, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding ADD itself, mostly because it has a very unhelpful name. Just to be perfectly clear, I don’t care whether you think ADD is real, made up, overdiagnosed or anything else. If you think it’s fake, that’s fine. I’m not asking you to consider whether you have it, or indeed to read further. Are we all happy with that? Good. 😉

Inevitably, you say Attention Deficit and the image that comes to mind is of schoolchildren running riot in classrooms, off their little faces on blue Smarties until they’re rounded up and Ritalin’d into doped obedience. I’m not like that and never have been. Even as a child I only ran around like a maniac very occasionally. I was much more likely to be the one sitting under a table with my nose in a book, which is not what people associate with ADD.

This is where misunderstandings about ADD kick in. It’s not that we can’t concentrate on anything. We can. It’s just that we struggle more than we should to concentrate on things that don’t grab our attention. Think of it as a sort of river of concentration – it flows, and when it encounters an obstacle (in the form of something tedious or too challenging) it changes course. Yes, obstacles can be worn away or the river can be dammed and rerouted to work round it, but those things require time/effort. When it’s not obstructed it can be pretty powerful and fast flowing.

So while I might have been a bookworm, I was an ADD bookworm. I loved reading, so I charged through books at an alarming rate and unintentionally taught myself speed reading. That’s hyperfocus. When I go on three day writing benders, I don’t do it as an act of will, I do it because I write a paragraph, hyperfocus kicks in and it’s just… done. Before I realise it. I go online to dig up a couple of parapsychological terms for a scene I’m writing and surface several hours later having read everything I can find on the Dyatlov Pass incident. I’m full of theories about the demise of a group of cross-country skiers and I’m already figuring out the budget for when I turn it into a piece of one on one theatre. I’m not a single word further forward with the play I was actually writing.

That’s the trouble with hyperfocus – it’s focus to the exclusion of all else. That’s the ‘deficit’ bit of Attention Deficit. It’s not that I can’t concentrate on anything, it’s just that when something grabs my attention I completely forget about everything else, and I mean everything. Up until a few years ago I would forget to eat. I’d get lost in whatever I was doing and not even realise I was hungry until I was on the point of fainting. I’m not quite that bad these days, but it’s taken me a while to get to this stage.

Hyperfocus can be extremely useful in creative terms, and I have to admit that when I’m in that state I absolutely fucking love it. Honestly, it’s a beautiful feeling. Even if I eventually discard or shelve the resulting work, the process is a blast. However, it always leaves me with a pile of undealt-with tasks – unopened mail, unanswered voice and emails, undone housework and missed appointments – and since I’ve just poured all my energy into hyperfocus, I lack the reserves to deal with all of this. That’s the dangerous bit, because the hyperfocus grows stronger and more frequent when I’m on the downward spiral into depression and the feelings of inability to cope with life that follow a period of hyperfocus can easily contribute to the low moods and catastrophic thinking symptomatic of depression.

I don’t know where I’d be without hyperfocus. Perhaps I would have developed the thing that other people call a work ethic, rather than requiring these episodes to be kickstarted by either inspiration or an imminent deadline. Perhaps not. Perhaps I’d be better at keeping on top of domestic and professional admin. I’m never likely to know, since the ADD is not going anywhere. Without access to specialist advice I’m unwilling to medicate for it, since I’d rather stick with the devil I know than mess around with my already untidy brain chemistry. (There is a theory that ADD can be the result of failing to absorb dopamine correctly, which would make sense since chemical absorption was never a strong point of mine. Still, no specialist, no dice.)

Before I embraced the Scenic Route I used to try to create routines and structures for myself. This meant calendar, diary, watch and To Do list. I’d force myself to stick to it for a while, and then hyperfocus would strike and I’d lose track of my careful schedule and end up feeling really miserable and useless. All those moments of being told that if I couldn’t perform tasks according to someone else’s schedule I’d never be anything other than a failure would replay in my head, triggering downward spirals and mental collapse. It wasn’t helpful.

Over the past year, since accepting the Scenic Route for what it is (by which I mean ‘a suitable path for me’, not necessarily ‘a path I’d recommend to anyone else’), I’ve loosened that schedule a lot. I don’t even check my diary on a daily basis now. My Google calendar is not synced to my phone. I don’t pack my days full any more, and I use my deadlines with care instead of setting them arbitrarily for everything. It’s a bit more relaxed, so my schedule can (up to a point) respond to my moods rather than my moods and mental state being ignored if they don’t happen to fit my schedule’s requirements. I’m not yet ready to pronounce this experiment a total success, because I’m still recovering from the era of heavy scheduling and there’s been so little sunlight that I’ve had many barely functional days recently, but I’m going to continue with it for now because I’m happy and because it’s my life to experiment with. I suspect that once the depressive fog lifts the new routine (or lack thereof) will let me be much happier and productive than hitherto. For now, who knows? I’ll post the results as I figure them out. In the meantime, it’s nearly 2am, marking the end of my usefulness for today. Bedtime, scheduled or not, and tomorrow I’ll see whether spilling all of this out into the void clears the way for writing any of the more creative stuff that’s currently cluttering the headspace. The next bout of hyperfocused non-stop writing is overdue.


Exploring the Headspace

In my last entry I began to talk about how I ended up on the scenic route. I focused mostly on my upbringing and dead parents, but there’s another major factor that helped to put me on the long and winding path. Time for another confessional post…

My name is Jen, I am an artist and I am crazy.

I don’t mean crazy in the sense of ‘I get a bit loud at parties’, although this also happens to be true if I’m in the right mood. I mean crazy as in ‘I have lifelong mental health problems that frequently impact on both my domestic and artistic lives’.

I know some people don’t think crazy is a suitable term to use for this stuff. I happen to like it. I love the sound of the word, I love its connotations of crackled glaze, and I love that it suggests the series of hyperfocused crazes that have possessed me throughout my life. So I’ll be sticking with crazy as my preferred term when discussing my own mental illness, and if you don’t like it, well… sorry.

My current collection of labels includes Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Adult ADD, Schizotypal Personality Disorder and mild OCD. Apparently there’s also a bit of PTSD in there following the double whammy bereavement and a couple of car accidents. I’m not entirely sure what I think of the labels, but they help to organise the mess a bit and in a way, they’re comforting. If a label exists for the set of feeling and behaviours I describe, that means it’s Not Just Me.

I like knowing I’m not the only one, and that’s why the arts play such an important role in my life. Contrary to popular belief, I have no desire to be a special snowflake. When I find another artist’s work that resonates with me, it reassures me that there are/have been plenty of other people who think and feel like me. It makes the strange things that go on in my head feel a bit more normal. However, because I still have to live with those strange things going on in my head, I’m still compelled to express the thoughts and feelings – so I create work of my own, and the cycle goes on.

While I feel that my craziness powers my attachment to the arts and provides fuel to sustain it, that’s only true at certain points in the cycle. When the craziness is under control I can work consistently and productively. When I’m on my way into or out of depression, I ricochet between obsessive, hyperfocused work and complete inability to do anything. Once the depression has taken hold I am too busy hiding under the table (sometimes figuratively, sometimes not), sleeping all day and trying to hold my life together and pretend everything’s fine to do much actual work. I might be teeming with ideas, but I lack the capacity/self-belief to do anything with them. I  have better things to do, like staring at blank documents and hyperventilating whenever the phone rings.

Over the decade since I was first diagnosed I’ve had to learn what triggers the crazy. Missing medication, homesickness, over-committing myself, parent-related anniversaries, being too sedentary, lack of light… I’m constantly keeping an eye on these things and finding ways to keep things under control. It can be a losing battle, and it definitely has been over the past year. On the one hand I’ve been happier and more in control of my life than ever before, but things have been stormy inside my head as I try to adjust to the idea of actually being happy and deal with the memories and survivor guilt. It seems strange to say that I’ve been least functional when I’ve been at my happiest, but it’s true – being happy and being stable, it turns out, are not the same thing. Having supportive people around me helps me to deal with the unstable times, but it doesn’t make them disappear.

Knowing that carving out a conventional directing career involves relentless work, massive over-commitment and long periods away from home, I’ve gradually come to terms with being on the scenic route. It’s the only place to be for someone like me, because the conventional path doesn’t really allow for fluctuating mental states. I need to multitask, because there are times when I need to write and write and write and there are times when I thrive on the focus of directing. These tend to be seasonal, and I know which times to avoid – feasible when you’re making your own work, but not so much when you’re doing something like the Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme. If you know that the straight path is a fast road to self-destruction and it’s a journey you feel you have to make, the one remaining option is the scenic route.

So what changes have I made to accommodate the craziness? Well, I ended my stint in London and moved back to Edinburgh, for a start. I grew up here and although I sometimes feel the need to escape, I get ridiculously homesick when I’m not here. I chose to run the Affectable Acting sessions and create my own work rather than seeking out jobs with other companies and promising myself that I’d do things my own way once I was established enough. In committing myself to Affectable and Tightlaced, I created a structure for myself that’s loose enough to avoid making me feel penned in (which I always rebel against) but that provides a buffer against the highs and lows of a rejection-heavy industry. In building the network I found artists who understand and can share experiences. I make sure I have plenty of time for writing and plenty of time to spend with my husband and my cat, both of whom help me to stay balanced.

It’s a start. There’s still a lot for me to work on. 2012 has been really turbulent and I’ve spent much of this year in terror of my phone and email. Yes, I know that probably sounds weird, but seriously, this is the biggest disruption the mental health stuff causes in my life. I often write emails or enter phone numbers and then stare at the screen or the phone for ages, unable to hit send or call, paralysed by the utter conviction that something disastrous will happen if I do. If I miss a call, I do the same thing with voicemail. Once I’ve missed a call or failed to call/email someone when I think I should have done, it starts a cycle of avoidance that is really difficult to break. Every day that goes by makes it harder, because the damage feels worse and the repair feels less likely, so it seems that the sensible thing is just to let the communication go. Of course this is not the sensible thing. I know that. And I know that it should be very easy just to pick up the phone or hit send. But that’s why it’s called ‘mental illness’. It’s about doing things that don’t make sense from the outside. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when I’m in those moments. I’ve CBT’d this behaviour to death and haven’t cracked it yet, but the work goes on. Someday I’ll figure out how to get this one under control, and it’ll make my personal and professional lives much easier when I do. While I search for that solution, I’ll continue finding and implementing measures to lessen the impact of this behaviour on my life and my work.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether to write this post. I’ve never kept the craziness a secret, but nor am I usually quite this open about it. People often make judgements and some of them are quite unfair and inaccurate. But you know what? That’s fine. Make whatever judgements you like. If it stops you working with me, fine – but if mentally healthy colleagues are a priority and you’re working in theatre, good luck. I think sharing this kind of thing and remembering that it’s not the end of the world, just something that might require an adjustment of expectations and priorities, is a beneficial thing. I certainly hope it is. And if nothing else, it’s a little more background in the story of how I ended up on this particular path…