That overwhelming feeling of being overwhelmed, you know?
When I finally overcame my aversion to paperwork, organization, and assignments, I started using a trick my therapist taught me which was basically to stop telling myself that I could just do it “later.” Somehow, I was also supposed to convince myself that I was even capable of doing such tasks.
This is the extent to which I had never done that before in my life: I had to ask my therapist what specific words to tell myself when this kind of work arose. She basically taught me to be my own cheerleader, and I would say things (in my head) like, “Just get it done now, don’t wait. You got this. Just get it out of the way so you can relax!”
That was the fix for a lot of things. I was able to complete tasks, show up for meetings… I didn’t waste entire days and nights online shopping or browsing Wikipedia. I wasn’t writing radical political think-pieces that would never see the light of day, or making concept drawings for my dream house I would someday build. I still did all those things, but only when there wasn’t something more important to do.
That worked for a few months. Eventually, it crept back in. Here’s the thing: this kind of talk doesn’t work when you commit yourself to an impossible quota of responsibilities. Eventually, that time for creativity and research you’re using to motivate yourself, when everything’s finished and you can just chill, is basically never. Things pile on top of things. Soon, the whole concept of “free time” feels like make-believe.
With ADHD, your brain is constantly on the move. What happens when you don’t have time to play with the hundreds of ideas buzzing around in your head? They come out in those crucial moments. Due date approaching. There’s no way you can focus now, not with this much pressure. Let’s do something fun to relax. Let’s just explore this idea a bit while it’s still fresh. And the cycle begins again.
Staying grounded is so important when you get stuck like this. Here’s a weird thing I do to accomplish that: I smell books.
I used to hang out at the library as a kid. Kudos to my mom for training the dweeb in me. Since then, I haven’t spent much time in libraries at all, except for studying. One day, walking around in the Webster Library, I decided to walk through the bookshelves instead of around them.
In that moment, I was sweating after stomping up four flights of stairs. I was tired from not sleeping the night before. I was on my way, much later in the day than I had planned, to find the perfect spot to finish an assignment. This one was two weeks late, and I wasn’t even sure I would be allowed to turn it in.
Weirdly, memories are strongest when we can barely remember what we ate for dinner last night. When I walked through the bookshelves, I smelled those old books. It’s weird… I felt like I was walking in the front door of the house I grew up in. It reminded me of springtime, my pink birthday outfit, just playing outside by myself and feeling completely free. Raking leaves with my brother in the fall; jumping into the piles after.
It made me remember my days in the library when I was little, sitting in that quiet place and browsing through picture books. I was cross-legged on the floor, in-between shelves, getting lost in the pages of a new world I’d just discovered. I was enjoying the simplicity of the moment, feeling at home with my curiosity and natural love of learning.
It made me remember why I was at university in the first place, which was to learn. I remembered that I was not only capable of the task, but that these things came naturally to me. I used that reference of peace to motivate me. I knew that soon, I’d get back to that peaceful time, once the assignment was done, once all the assignments were done. That smell grounded me to my core being, and that gave me the focus I needed to continue.
I’m in the middle of that toxic cycle I spoke about before, trying to get back to how I used to be. Take my advice or not (after all, those who can’t do, teach, right?). Here’s what I would tell myself right now, if only I would listen:
1. Do the thing, do it now. Finish one big thing, and you’ll feel like a million bucks. Start there — see where that feeling takes you.
2. Spend time doing something small each day that grounds you. It’s so hard for us to get out of our heads sometimes, and remember how capable we are… We really need that.
Getting your sh*t together is a new column written for students with ADHD, or for those who simply need to get their shit together, from someone with ADHD. It’s a learning process, but in the end, here’s hoping this column helps us all get it together, um, together.