Tuesday, April 7, 2020

ADHD and Crafting

So this post is a way to get this out in the open and think through it and also to help others who might have the same experience. I am a 35-year-old, white, pansexual, cis-gender female, first-generation immigrant from Germany, living in the Midwest. I am also a wife, working mother, crafter, friend, daughter, sister, agnostic, and so much more, all labels I use proudly. Some present challenges, others give me privilege, some of them do both, but they are all mine, and I own them. A couple months ago I started seeing a therapist. Not for any one reason, but mainly to figure out why my brain works the way it does. I'd never seen one, ever. I got good grades in school, I have a job I love, my relationship with my husband and kids is good even if there are hiccups now and then, but I'd had this theory about having at least a mild case of OCD that I wanted to talk over with a professional to get their opinion.

Much to my surprise the first thing she diagnosed me with was not OCD, although that came later, but with ADHD. I was 34 years old! I had never even thought of that as a possibility. So I listened to her, and I did some research on my own, and so many things just made sense finally. Apparently girls are much more likely than boys to go undiagnosed, especially if their lack of focus takes on more of a dreamy state than a bouncing off walls type of reaction. People with their nose constantly in a book (guilty as charged) are the most likely to be missed, because teachers and parents may not even realize that the lack of focus exists. Speaking of privilege: white kids are much more likely to be diagnosed than kids of color, and the drugs out there for ADHD are tested mainly on white males and are therefore most effective for that population.

So here are some of the symptoms and how they've manifested in my life:

1) An inability to focus on boring or routine tasks: for a lot of kids this means an inability to focus on what their teachers are saying, but in my case that was less of a problem. However, I have always had a really big issue staying on task and completing household chores, paying bills on time, and completing those tasks at work that don't have a deadline. This was a constant source of frustration for my mother in particular, because she would ask me to do something, like set the table, and if I actually remembered about it, it took many reminders or a deadline to get me to do it.

2) Procrastination: deadline driven tasks and chores helped, because I had the emotional response of a deadline that I didn't want to miss to get it done. According to this website I found, I'm what is known as a functional procrastinator. I was able to get my work done, get good grades, and not stress about the procrastination even though it meant many late nights. That's just what my life was, and I accepted it. It's still easier in my professional life to tackle tasks with deadlines.

3) Hyperfocus: this is especially true of things that I enjoy, like learning (which is why I rarely had trouble focusing in school, I was almost endlessly fascinated by the new things the teacher was telling me, but heaven help me if I wasn't, then wandering mind took over and only forcing myself to take handwritten notes helped), reading, and crafting. This is my ability to focus on something to the exclusion of all else. Another area of frustration for my mother, having to tell me multiple times to put down my book and come to the table for dinner. I've also had a boss comment that I always seemed to scowl when he interrupted me in the middle of a task. 

4) Uncontrolled activity: this is less of an issue for me physically, but I have noticed that I'm almost constantly shifting my back or arms a little though my behind stays firmly rooted in my chair. Typing, hand writing, clicking my pens, shifting my eyes and head around, fiddling with stuff on my desk, biting my nails, all are things I do all the time, often without even realizing it. However, for me the bigger problem is the uncontrolled mental activity. My brain just goes and goes and goes. It jumps from one subject to another. I sometimes lose my husband mid conversation because my brain has taken a massive leap from the current subject to something totally different and instead of explaining the relationship, I'll just say, "speaking of Topic A, here's Topic L" and then get a confused look, like "how are those things even sort of related?"

5) Staying up late: when I try to go to bed before I'm exhausted (which for me usually happens between 2-6 AM, though 2 AM is much more common these days), my brain just goes over and over everything from that day or goes over a conversation I had years ago and the things I could have said differently or my plan for the next day. This is especially bad when I know I need to get a good amount of sleep the night before a big exam or my first day of work or a big presentation. I'll sometimes even manage to get to bed at a reasonable hour (which for me is about midnight, I usually stay up until 2 AM routinely) on those nights, and then I'll just lay there, unable to turn off my brain and sleep. 

6) Inability to multitask: I just can't. Period. End of sentence. Most people can't, I've read now on multiple occasions, but I can't even pretend. I just get super stressed out if there are multiple competing things going on at once.

There are other symptoms, and I have issues with all of them to some extent or another. This site lists some of them.

So what I also realized is that I've kind of organically created coping strategies over the years without even knowing it.

1) Planners, bullet journals, lists, lists, lists: I make all the lists. I also get bored with my current system fairly quickly, though bullet journals have stuck around for longer than I thought possible. I still go through periods where I don't touch it at all though, like right now, in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.

2) Taking notes by hand: Not only was I interested in what the teacher was telling me, but the act of taking notes by hand (sustained activity), helped to keep me focused too. This does not work for everyone. But just the act of writing down what I was learning and having to process it into my own words, and then write it down, helped me a lot. In college I tried to take notes on my computer and not only was I not able to follow along with the lecture anymore, but I would just go down the internet rabbit hole. I gave that up pretty quickly.

3) Hiring others to do what I can't: I know I'm not good at keeping my room/house clean. I've accepted this aspect of myself, even though I didn't know why it was so hard for me. So when we can afford it, I now hire people to clean for me. 

4) Seeking out new things to learn or tasks to take on: I tend to jump from one job to another every 2-4 years because by then most tasks have become routine. I seek out new responsibilities or fun side projects to keep myself motivated at work too. 

5) Sustained activity followed by a reward or distraction: If I have the freedom to get into that hyperfocused state of mind, I can complete tasks extremely quickly, but I also have to let my brain rest in between these periods of hyperfocus. In the office, I usually get up and take a walk to grab the mail from the mail room, or grab the stuff I've sent to the printer, or have a quick chat with a coworker, just something to get me up and moving around. At home, I might play games on my phone, or watch an episode of something in between completed chores.

6) Routines: Having specific time frames things need to happen in is very important. I know that by the end of the weekend, all the laundry must be clean (even if it's not folded yet). Usually that means I'll stay up late on Sunday night to complete it, but at least our laundry is clean for the week. 

7) Doing things immediately: I have a tendency to forget about stuff, even when I have the best of intentions, even when I write it down in my bullet journal. If it's something small like sorting the mail or paying a bill, the best way to actually get it done is to do it immediately when it takes me five minutes, instead of when the pile has grown to epic proportions and seems totally overwhelming to tackle or when that bill is overdue and I go through the process of self-recriminations while paying the bill plus late fee.

So what does all this have to do with crafting?

Well, I tend to quilt in bursts. The best is having a deadline, like a birth or a visit to or from family and friends, or a medical or personal tragedy. I have a hard time staying focused on a project for more than two weeks, so quilts I don't finish in that time frame tend to sit and linger for years. That hexie quilt (left) took me about five years from start to finish. I worked in bursts during those years: cutting, then starting to sew rows, then finishing the rows, then finding a place to send it out for quilting (it's king sized), and then finally binding it. But in between bursts it just sat, often for months or years.

The next best thing for me is a quilting retreat. Because I limit myself to the projects I really want to get done (though I usually still overpack a bit, in case I get so bored of a project that I just stall out completely), I have to focus on those. And when I start focusing on one, it usually goes much better for me. It's one of the reasons why missing out on my sewing weekend in March right when all this social distancing thing started was so debilitating for me. Even home by myself, I just could not focus on sewing at all. There were a million other things that took precedence in my brain at home. Only when I allowed myself to do those things, did I have brain space to do a little sewing.

Lists help to a certain extent, in the sense that when I actually break down next steps for my existing projects, so they seem like more manageable chunks, it tends to help me a little bit. However, I get bored with making and consulting lists pretty quickly and if you don't reference your lists, then you might as well not waste the time making them in the first place. I do keep a list of finished projects though and a list of WIPs (Works in Progress), just to remind myself of how much I've accomplished and how much I have on my to do list.

I get bored very easily. I'm sure you can tell that from the number of times I've mentioned that word up above. I usually go through hobbies in bursts because of it. For several months I'll be totally focused on reading, or playing computer games, or cross-stitch, or quilting. Not necessarily to the exclusion of all else, but certainly as my primary focus. That's why having several long-term projects for myself is always good, because I don't feel as much guilt not getting them done "on time."

I've had some time to get used to this idea now. I've embraced my new label and everything that comes with it, because it explains so much and because it lets me explore new ideas and paths for self-improvement. But also some areas of self-absolution. It's ok to hire someone to do the stuff you can't get around to, it's ok to work in bursts, it's ok to jump around between hobbies, it's ok to get up and have a stretch/walk break. Do what you need to do to be productive and above all: happy.

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