Sunday, December 5, 2010

Entering the Matrix

Nearly four months ago, I moved the furniture around on the second floor of my house to create a bright, orderly, sunny, inviting new office. I'm typing there now, sipping coffee and gazing at the winter morning sun reflecting pale and clean off of telephone wires and buildings.

This was a great move, except for one thing: when I created my office, I left behind another room. A room with too many furniture pieces, a room where we discarded everything we weren't sure what to do with. Every time I entered this room to clean it up, my thoughts seemed to disperse, fleeing in every direction as an overwhelmed feeling washed over me and I shut the door again. I literally pretended this room did not exist in my house for four months.

Yesterday morning I stood in the living room with a pill in my hand. I felt a little like Neo in the Matrix, on the precipice and able to choose between two worlds. I tried to remember what I'd told my rational self: if I had a chemical imbalance anywhere else in my body, I would have no moral objection to medicating it. I had completed a rough draft of a novel, and not finishing it would be devastating. I wasn't getting what I want out of life. Oh and hello, I had been living minus one room in my house for months.

So, with some trepidation over how I would feel, I took it—ritalin.

I make mention of ADD as it relates to work and creativity on this blog fairly often, but I don't get nitty gritty about what my life is like. Honestly, it's a little upsetting. But at some point recently, I realized that being strong-willed and high-functioning might not get me everywhere I want to go. I had long ago accepted that life was just going to be harder for me. I could have some of the same successes others had, maybe even more, but I would have to work far harder. And outside academia, where I had the benefit of not needing to try to succeed, I was losing some key battles. Most importantly, I was tired of existing at a baseline of anxiety and panic mixed with persistent lethargy—it is one of the most uncomfortable feelings I can imagine.

So what happened? Internally, I felt calm and quiet when I needed it, plus an exhausting sense of focus (I say exhausting because I never work on anything continuously for that long, and I was beyond tired by the time I was done). The curtain call finally came for that clamoring need to do 10 things at once, and somehow when I opened the door to that room I felt okay. I understood that some things needed to be thrown away, some taken downstairs to the tool chest, some put in the storage room, and others given away. After a couple hours of work I looked at the floor and was dismayed at how much I still had to do—until I realized I had sorted everything into bags according to where they needed to go in the house.

My husband came in to help me untangle a huge ball of yarn. I watched him work on it until he told me to start winding it into a new ball and realized that usually, watching him work on a task like that would have made me feel like I was about to climb up the walls. I would have gotten impatient, yelled at him for taking too long, tried to rush the process by grabbing at a piece of the yarn, and eventually frustrated him enough that he would walk out of the room, leaving me to work alone. This time we worked as a team. I stayed calm and grounded and in control.

By 2:00, I had earned the prize I'd been waiting for: a trip to Target to shop for an area rug for my new room. Not only that, I had found a significant amount of cash laying around as I was cleaning—enough to cover the cost of the rug, two 16x20 photo frames, and some new Christmas decorations!

Unfortunately, I don't have 'before' photos. I should have taken some, but if you've seen Clean House, you know what a room looks like when the furniture is thrown in every which way and a lot of random possessions are discarded in the space. I couldn't walk across the room without tripping or stepping on something. And by dinnertime, the room looked like this:

Sometimes people refuse to believe I have a problem. I think this is because my primary motivator is fear of failure. Things really get accomplished when my stress levels about them reach a breaking point. That's why I'm great on a team, I get the important stuff done at work, and I always got good grades.

However, I've always been hiding something: the incomplete personal projects, the closed-off room in my house, etc. And the worst thing about having ADD as an adult is this: no matter how successful you are where it really counts, you still don't feel like a successful person. You still feel like there's something wrong with you, or like you may never achieve your dreams or be as successful as those around you. It becomes almost impossible to relax because there are always things looming at the edge of your mind, even though you aren't doing a thing about them.

The act of actually finishing a project really gave me a boost in self-confidence. And while there's no magic bullet—medication doesn't make you feel like a regular person, your mind and body are both aware that something external is making you productive—there are tools we can fall back on. In this case, I used a tool that allowed my mind to understand a complex task and take it on. The decision to enter this experiment pitted me against my own stubbornness and willpower, which is why it took me years to get here. I'm sure I'll continue to have thoughts on it (which I will share, of course), but hopefully I'll have more to report than just making my space more inviting: things like completed manuscripts, more days at the piano, a nice little art corner in the basement.

If you've had any similar experiences, I'd love to hear them! I know the issue of medication and attention disorders is a contentious one, especially among adults, but I also know a lot of people close to me have had their own struggles and successes. Feel free to share your story as well!


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