Executive Functioning

e1d57-atoz2019tenthannExecutive function/dysfunction is a term I throw around a lot, and I’ve got to admit, it was laughably late in life before I really understood what it really meant.  Over time, working in my field (Special Ed.), identifying with so many of my students,and doing my own research, I started to realize that executive functioning is more than, say, a messy backpack or late assignments.

It’s actually executive functions — plural — and when we talk about executive dysfunction, we’re actually talking about a set of several separate-but-related skills that people with ADHD and other neurodivergences have relative weakness (and relative strength) in.  Different sources have different ways of categorizing skills, but some commonly accepted categories are working memory, organization, task planning, emotional control, initiating work, time management, monitoring, and shifting attention.

I am definitely weaker than most people in all these areas, but my areas of relative strength are monitoring (“The ability to judge the quantity and quality of ones work based on expected standards”) and emotional control, though that is still considerably lower than my monitoring skills, and pretty low overall (but much, much stronger than it was when I was a child/teenager).

Also, executive functions aren’t all or nothing, and I find that because they are all so tightly intertwined (and because we all have other things going on in our minds that can impact our behavior), that I actually function slightly better or worse even in my problem areas depending on situations and circumstance — for example, my intense anxiety and fear of both letting people down and being caught off guard, I often have an extremely good handle on my work schedule, our timetable at work, where I (and my coworkers!) are all supposed to be, etc.  So for example, while I honest-to-God lose my phone every ten minutes (at the height of work activity, that is not an exaggeration), I know exactly where I’m supposed to be with my students every minute of the day.

For  long time, I thought that these bright spots meant that I must not have “real issues,” it really must just be carelessness or laziness, but the emotional toll the anxiety causes me made me realize it was really just a separate mental issue that happened to, under a very specific set of circumstances, work in my favor.  But living at that level of hyper-vigilance at all times and for all things would be devastatingly emotionally and mentally exhausting.

Do you know when I realized all of that stuff — the task shifting, the emotional regulation issues, the time management — all fell under the executive functioning designation?  I was an adult.  Like, not an especially young adult — and adult who had been working in the Special Ed. field for several years, and would never have looked into or learned more about it had I not been working with kids with the diagnosis.  I feel like the outsider’s perception (if they even have one) when they hear “executive dysfunction” is messy room/desk, absentmindedly misplaces things, etc.  I especially feel like the emotional component is entirely overlooked.  I spent so much of my childhood being screamed at about my “hysterics” and disproportionate reactions to seemingly inconsequential things, and I wound up spending a years feeling angry at myself for what I knew were over-wrought responses, but which I simply couldn’t control.

And hey, if any of this sounds familiar to you, this past Christmas I got The Adult Executive Functioning Workbook, which included a link to an executive dysfunction test that will rate your relative strengths and weaknesses in several areas.  It’s a short test, and obviously not a formal diagnosis, but it is interesting to get a perspective on where you’re strengths and deficiencies lie (don’t worry, you don’t have to provide your email to take the quiz).

ADHD and Me

#AtoZChallenge 2019 Tenth Anniversary badge
It’s weird how hindsight is 20/20.  Or, more so I guess, it’s funny how incredibly blind we can be in the moment.

Because, honestly, the signs were not subtle.  It’s not like, “ah yes, looking back now with new knowledge, I can see all the hidden signs,” no.  No.  Looking back, it feels like a failing.  Like someone – a parent, a teacher, any adult – should have said or done something.

I’m gonna toot my own horn for a second. Bear with me.

I was a good student.  Top of my class all the way through grammar and middle school, scored in the top national percentile on all my standardized tests, tested at the college level by halfway through eighth grade.  Not genius-level, mind – not even close – but academically and intellectually strong, you know?  I applied to a local prep school for high school at 13, and from 500 applicants, based on grades, placement test scores, and a personal interview, I was chosen to receive the school’s most prestigious scholarship – so long as I maintained a 3.5 GPA, the school would pay half my tuition for all four years (20 years ago, this was the equivalent of about $18k).

And, I’m happy to say, I kept up my end of the deal.  Four years and dozens of Honors classes (including two APs) later, I graduated high school with a 3.75 GPA, and on paper, I looked like a model student.

But what that black-and-white documentation – be it report cards, test scores, transcripts – won’t show is the night upon night of restless anxiety knowing I should be working on homework but not knowing how or where to start; the tearful struggle of trying to study for tests; the loads of extra credit work to make up for just not getting huge swathes of material in classes that didn’t interest me.

It won’t hint at the shouting matches with my parents where they told me to pull it together, the accusations of being lazy, or the insults about being overly dramatic in my emotional reactions to basically everything.

It won’t show the long stretches of social isolation because I didn’t understand how to initiate or sustain conversations or relationships with other kids (and because my interests were so specific/niche); the perpetual losing of assignments, forgetting of deadlines, or misplacement of materials.

There will be no mention of being perpetually unkempt because my ability to monitor my appearance/grooming was lacking, or the seemingly endless rounds of insomnia and sleep anxiety stretching back literally as far as I can remember.

No mention, in other words, of the – now glaringly obvious fact – that I had Something Going On.

Sure, I did well academically – because I was academically gifted.  It took very little effort for me to excel in the subjects I enjoyed.  The subjects I didn’t care for fell by the wayside because I’d forget to turn in assignments, forget class materials, and had absolutely no idea how to study – but even then, with (often literal) blood, sweat, and tears, I usually managed to pull it together enough at the eleventh hour that I eeked out a decent grade.  The fact that those grades came at price of panic attacks, days of anxiety, screaming, and tears?  The fact that I didn’t understand how to make friends, how to emotionally regulate (how many times did I wind up in tears at school? How many times did my mom sarcastically tell me I should get an Oscar for my hysterics?), how to stay organized?  Didn’t matter.  My grades were good.  I was “successful.”

I’m 36, and it’s only in the last few years – after over a decade of working in Special Education – that I’m beginning to piece together the narrative of my life with ADHD, and looking through the lens of neuro-divergence, so much of my life makes so much more sense to me.  Why every setback or criticism felt apocalyptic; why I didn’t just get upset, but burst into hysterics; why I didn’t just get angry,  but raged.  Why trying to wrangle my thoughts and responsibilities felt like trying to herd cats.  Why a disruption in my schedule made my heart race and my fingernails itch.  Why the cadence of everyday life seemed to move with a rhythm I just couldn’t quite match.

I’ve not reached synchronicity yet; I might not, ever.  But at least I feel like I’m operating on the same time signature.  That’s a start.

I hope you stick around as I work more towards finding my rhythm.

Alarming Alarms

person touching black two bell alarm clock
Photo by Stas Knop on Pexels.com

I’ve never had a problem remembering appointments or tasks involving other people; I think my intense social anxiety and fear of letting people down has caused me to be weirdly hyper-vigilant in that arena.  No, it’s the more solitary, everyday sorts of things I forget – I forget essential items when I leave the house; I leave my bag behind in classrooms, restaurants, people’s homes; I forget to check on dinner; I forget to factor in time to shower or eat; I forget to pay a bill or a loan.

So I set alarms for the most mundane things; I have to. Pay Student Loan, Remember Work Badge, Time Sheet Due Today.  They’re generally effective.

Except I never actually deactivate them.

I could.  I should.  There is literally no reason why I don’t, except that, in the moment, when the alarm goes off, my first and only priority is to turn the damn thing off.  Swipe to dismiss, perform the task (usually; but that’s another story for another day), and then forget about the alarm.

Until, say, Wednesday at 10:15 rolls around again.  And my alarm goes off at work, and I have a small scale panic attack while I spend approximately 2.5 seconds trying to decipher what “FIND K. GIVE PAPERS” means before… dismissing the damn thing again and having the same exact occurrence the following Wednesday.

How long does this go on for?  I recently disabled an alarm set for Friday at 12:52 pm for some reason?  With the alarm name “STROLLER 4 ARISIA” which, ah, was January 18th.  So, what, seven weeks?  Yeah, so at least that long.

So yes, for those of you who ask me if I’ve “tried settings alarms” to help aid my ADHD, yes I have.  And yes, actually, they do work for me.

They just also wake me up at weird hours, disrupt my work shift, and randomly startle me in the grocery store.

Still, it’s better than forgetting my wallet or not submitting work hours.

You’ve gotta take the good with the bad, I guess.

 

How I Clean (When I Clean)

organizing my life

So I woke up this beautiful Saturday morning to once again tear maniacally through my house because it is, once again, a trainwreck. This is not a new cycle, nor one that I feel like rehashing here yet again. I do go through long stretches – though, to be honest, they have become shorter and shorter since having a kid – of being very much on top of things and keeping with a routine, and then equally long stretches where trying to keep the mess at bay is like trying to direct the tide (i.e., just as impossible, and with just as high a likelihood of (metaphorically, in my case) drowning).

So what I’ve opted to do instead is to be mindful of my productive days – when my brain seems to be firing on all cylinders, when the fog is cleared, when I can feel myself working well – to be mindful of how I clean. Not only what motivates me and keeps my going, but the actual system of how I clean a room.

Because on my bad days, the tasks feel overwhelming because I have no innate sense of what I should do first – it’s hard to perform triage when everything looks like a crisis to you, you know? So I would, at best, jump around and wind up with a series of half-completed tasks or rooms, or at best, stall out completely.

Instead of continuing to beat myself up about my lack of innate organization, I took the time out to really consider how I work when I work well.

So here are my notes. This is a system to be used in each room of the house, in a hierarchical order, and yes – this is how I’m cleaning my house this fine morning.

Happy Saturday, everyone. Hope it’s pleasant and productive.

The Three C’s: Clear Out, Control Clutter, and Clean

CLEAR OUT: Remove things from the room, in this order.

  1. Trash: I hate to admit it, but full-on legit trash has a tendency to pile up in my house. Wrappers from Bear’s snacks, empty juice box cartons, Amazon boxes and packaging, paper towels from forgotten spills, broken pencils and crayons, etc. The first thing I do is grab a bag and gather up all the trash in the room. PLEASE, ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE KIDS (but really, everyones hould remember): check between couch cushion, under beds, behind furniture, etc. You would be amazed (and horrified) at what I regularly find between the love seat cushions.
  2. Dishes: Neither my husband nor I grew up in a family where we ate all our meals together; everyone was on a different schedule, so we ate at different times and – often – in different rooms of the house. I would like to establish a family dinnertime routine in my house, but we aren’t there yet. Plates – often with food residue – are sometimes left in places where, uh, they really shouldn’t be.
  3. Clothing: Yeah, with a pre-schooler especially, clothing (all clothing, but especially socks and pants) tend to get discarded more or less wherever. I’m also not innocent; shoes come off as a matter of routine as soon as I enter the house, and sometimes so do socks, shawls, over-shirts, hoodies, etc. Meaning when I get around to cleaning, there’s often a decent pile of clothing coming out of my living room, or sometimes even kitchen.
  4. Items That Don’t Belong: As I stated in a previous post, I have a basket/bag on hand that I can load up with whatever ephemera happened to find it’s way into the room as a stop-gap before returning it to it’s rightful place. This consolidates all the misplaced items, making them easier to deal with (It generally take ten or fifteen minutes to just wander through the house returning everything afterwards) and gives me a clear picture of what the actual damage is in that particular room, once all extraneous clutter has been cleared away.

CONTROL CLUTTER: Gather items, sort, and put away, in this order.

  1. Clear off: This is part of the “top to bottom” method. Clear off your surfaces – counter tops, desks, tables, etc., and take care of tasks which can be comfortably performed immediately (i.e., if you’re cleaning off the kitchen counter, load dirty dishes immediately into the sink or dishwasher; if you are cleaning off your desk, immediately put important mail in a prominent place and discard the junk, etc.) All other items can get piled in designated spot (on a sofa, on the floor, on the bed, etc.)
  2. Collect: Collect all out-of-place items (that belong in that room) and add them to the pile of items you’ve begun in the previous step.
  3. Sort: Group items in a way that makes sense to you – by type or purpose (all books together, all DVDs, all toys) or by where they belong (everything going on the bookcase, everything that goes on the side-table, everything that goes in the ottoman, etc.) The actual groupings don’t matter, just that they make sense to you.
  4. Put away: Return the items to where they belong, group by group.

CLEAN: Remove actual dust and dirt, in this order.

  1. Dust: Start with the ceiling, ceiling fan (if you have one – I bet it needs it), top of the windows, walls/wall hanging, , tables/side tables, etc. A quick pass with some Windex on windows and mirrors would come at this step, too.
  2. Clean/polish: As needed; my tub and toilets generally need to be fairly scrubbed, but my coffee table usually needs a good pass with a damp cloth, as does our desk, and occasionally one of our two side tables. You don’t need to go crazy, literally a couple of wipes with a damp cloth to remove sticky residue (especially if it’s a room you eat in), and you’re good.
  3. Vacuum/sweep: Floors and carpets last. Shake out area rugs outside if the weather permits, but inside is fine as well, if you have the space (just do it before general vacuuming).

SPECIAL NOTES:

  1. Always make your bed first. Yes, before anything else. As I said before, it hugely reduces visual clutter and will make your room look better instantly, but also it is the prime place for the “gather and sort” phase, and it’s hard to do when it’s already covered with trash and a mess.
  2. Always do dishes first, for the same reasons you would do the bed first: reduces visual clutter, clears off table and counter space, and makes room to gather and sort.
  3. For you, the clean step may follow directly after the Control Clutter step in each room; for me, as someone who hates lugging around my clean equipment and then having to work around it, I do the first two steps (Clear Out and Control Clutter) in each room and then backtrack and do all the Cleaning through the whole house – that way I can just pack everything up when I’m done and forget about it.

Hope this is helpful to someone. Off to actually get it done.

When Drive is Detrimental

drive

This is going to sound like a complete contradiction to my previous post, but rest assured, I live both experiences, and if it’s confusing or frustrating to read about it, imagine living it.

I spend so much of my time creatively stalled out, that when The Muse hits me, I grab that shiz by the horns and ride her as far and as fast as she’ll carry me.

Sadly, this rarely yields quality results.

When I get something in my head that I really want to do (and that I think is a really cool or exciting idea), I jump in with both feet, often so eager to reach the end product I neglect to put any real thought into the process.  The last time I tried to teach myself to paint, for example, I jumped in with the most ambitious project in my mental repertoire (because it was the one that excited me the most!).  I spent no time reading up on or experimenting with the medium; I didn’t draw up a sketch, or an outline, or rough draft; I tried to complete the whole painting in a few hours; and when I was about three-quarters of the way through and realized it wasn’t exactly as I envisioned it, I grew agitated and gave up (see my previous post about being a raging perfectionist).

Part of the problem is that there is a natural appeal to the excitement of a new idea, and it makes me want to see that idea materialize so eagerly that it’s all I can do to produce it as swiftly as I can.  The planning stages: learning about the medium I’m working in, gathering appropriate materials, brainstorming, drafting are not nearly as exciting as the making.

And they don’t feel as real.  You know?  I don’t know if this is a quirk of my neurotype or a nuance of my own personality, but there’s some part of me that views the planning stages of something as lesser than the doing – even if the planning is integral to the doing, even if the planning is necessary scaffolding in order for the doing to be successful.  It feels, in some ways, like just sitting and spinning my wheels.

Maybe because that’s so often what it turns into.  Maybe I rush into projects because I know that, if I don’t, it’ll become just another entry on my Eternal To-Do List, and I’ll never see it through to completion.

But my ideas deserve more than that.  They are project that deserve to get done, but they deserve to get done well, you

🎉 🎉 🎉 Let’s Pace Ourselves 2K19! 🎉 🎉 🎉

  1. Remember that there will be a tomorrow.  I mean, not forever, obviously, but let’s not dwell on the existential bummer that is mortality.  My point is, yeah, sure, you don’t want to drag your feet on getting things done, but let’s, like, set up a timeline, or find a consistent chunk of time to devote to working on projects.  On that note…
  2. Find a reliable time to devote to working on projects – a little time each day to brainstorm and work through ideas, and a larger chunk of time at least once a week devoted to actually working.  Knowing that you have that time coming up (instead of perpetually asking yourself, “when am I going to get this done?”) mollifies some of that anxiety and restless energy that normally makes jumping into a project just to get it done seem like a good idea.
  3. Find a place to work, and keep your supplies on hand, organized, and accessible.  Good job, Jess, you are actually making some headway in this direction already.  The craft room (ahem, basement) is starting to actually look inhabitable, and your art supplies are corralled, organized, and easy to find (for once in your life).  Now you can find what you need when you need it, instead of getting frustrated, grabbing whatever’s on hand, and regretting it in the finished result.
  4. Carry around a notebook (for me it will be two, one for art, one for writing) to jot, sketch, and plan projects.  Date them.  Choose one (two, tops) at a time to work on.  You have a huge problem with 1.) forgetting your “best” ideas, and 2.) having ideas that are woefully un/underdeveloped.  Jot them down.  Flesh them out.  Let them sit and come back to them.  See if you can improve.  Cycle through this process at least once before you even think of sitting down to work.
  5. Do not start new projects until you finish the current ones.  No, not even if you get stuck.  If you get stuck, open that notebook back up.  See where you went wrong.  See what you could do differently.  Run to your blog or Twitter or your artsy friends on Facebook and ask them to take a second look, ask them for advice, ask them for new perspective on the problem.  It feels better (and is better for your mental health) to have one or two projects in meaningfully and thoughtfully in production than to have a dozen nascent projects being hastily and sloppily thrown together.

I don’t think I’ve asked you all yet; what are your creative goals for this year?  Is there a particular project you want to tackle, or are you like me, and interested in developing a reliable method to make creativity as a meaningful part of your life?

New Year’s, Planners, and the Culture of Perfectionism

black ball point pen with brown spiral notebook
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

I devour what I’d call “Pinterest culture” gluttonously; picture-perfect home decor walkthroughs, DIYs that transform Dollar Tree items into chic dupes of designer products, and seemingly preternaturally organized households with color-coordinated storage solutions.  I know that even for those people who actually are devoted to organization and successfully keep their lives in order, this is still the most pristine, painstakingly staged depiction of their lives, put together with the intention to inspire.

But for some of us (even those of us well aware of the care with which the image as cultivated), it intimidates.

I’ve always been a sucker for the allure of a new year; I love the symbolism of new beginnings, and the idea of having a fresh start, or a slate wiped clean.  But the problem for people like me when it comes to a clean slate is that, along with it, comes the overwhelming fear and anxiety of sullying that slate with anything other than absolute perfection.

One frustrating trait of mine that I’ve grappled with all my life – never realizing it was a common trait among people with ADHD – is a crippling need for things I try to be perfect, if I’m going to bother investing time and effort into it.  If I’m going to stay on a diet, it’s calorie-counting and going to the gym everyday, or I might as well just lay on the couch and stuff my face with pizza.  If I’m going to keep an orderly house, everything needs to be organized by color, size, and purpose, or I might as well just throw all my trash straight on the floor.  If I’m going to embark on a project, I need to be certain that every word, every line, every turn of phrase is Pulitzer worthy before I write it, or I might as well just, what the hell, sit and fart on my keyboard.

It’s very black and white thinking, and as you can imagine, is absolute hell come New Year., and it has not, in any way, been helped by Pinterest culture.

Even something as simple as committing to a planner is just a battle fought against this awful, existential, function-versus-aesthetic-versus-purpose mental backdrop.  Everywhere I turn (YouTube lifestyle vloggers especially are a big vice of mine), there are people talking about their planner layouts – their stencils, their stickers, their special pens and pencils and markers – and yes, they are absolutely gorgeous, and yes, they make me want to get organized, and yes, every year I go out and get a planner with all the bells and whistles, and yes – then I fail to really actually use it.

It’s the same with stationary, notebooks, canvases, sketchbooks, especially if they are of high-quality or aesthetically pleasing themselves.  I know some people are inspired to use items because they are drawn to or attracted to them, but for me, it actually holds me at bay.  It feels like nothing I could ever put into it would live up to the standard of the vessel.

I don’t need to tell you why this is warped thinking, but I also don’t know what to tell you about combating it long term.  It remains difficult for me – painful, even – to write in a planner or a notebook if my handwriting isn’t pristine, the quality of my words isn’t up to par, everything isn’t perfectly bulleted or color-coded, etc.  But I can tell you, this year, I opted for a much lower key planner.

Instead of a planner with day, week, and month views, inspiring quotes on every page, a dozen pages of stickers to decorate, a plush leather cover, etc.,my planner this year is bound in a heavyweight cardstock, features a simple monthly layout (and that’s it, no day or week views), and has back-to-back, a single dotted page (for bulleted lists, charts, habit trackers (what I’m using it for), etc.) and a page with four simple boxes: Goals, Tasks, Tracking, and Notes.  The habit tracker I drew has smudged lines, and the highlighter bleeds through the margins, and you know what?  I don’t love it… but it doesn’t kill me.

And it doesn’t overwhelm me.  I like my little planner, and it’s not ugly, but it’s not loaded down with unnecessary features and it doesn’t feel like a piece of art – it feels like a tool, which is what it should be.  I don’t care if the damn thing was gilded in gold and studded in diamonds, if it’s not helping me keep track of my crap, it’s worthless.

So if you’re like me, put down that leather-bound Moleskin journal, and stop Googling Pinterest spreads that give you heart palpitations from just considering their intricacy.  More, more, more doesn’t mean better, better, better.  Do you really need a 200 page planner with hour-by-hour time allotments on the daily pages??  Are you actually going to spend hours tracing stencils and positioning stickers to track your Girl’s Night!-s or Yoga Class-es?  Or do you just need a pre-constructed, pre-determined place to write down what you want to do, and cross off when you do them? Then take the stress of expectation (and perfection) off your shoulders and downgrade.  It’s ok, really.

Is staying away from “pretty things” a long term solution?  Of course not; expecially when, to me, a “pretty thing” can be as simple as a blank page.  But if I’m trying to build a habit and routine, then the tools that are supposed to help me do tht need to be something I can reliably and comfortably use, not something that (paradoxically) makes me feel like a hack when I use it, and like a failure when I don’t.

I’ll unpack all the other worrying issues with perfectionism and such later.

At least now I can pencil it in.