I generally prefer to write shorter form, but I’ve failed at that here. Maybe fix a sandwich or grab something to drink for this one.
I have been blessed with Inattentive Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). What this means for me, is that where it might be most appropriate to cast a line of thinking, I cast a web. If the most expected means of following a neural process is to start at A, then go to B, then C, then D, I might start at A, check in at each of Q, then 2, then π, then go to B and C simultaneously before entirely disregarding D because it’s of limited interest.
It’s neuro-atypical, as they say, but it’s my typical.
This is advantageous to me in a lot of ways, because it means I can connect ideas in different ways, see hidden or obscure patterns, and flow rapidly with change. I can quickly juggle a myriad of different kinds of work, adapt to and work with new ideas, and be ready to shift strategy or objectives at any time.
What’s challenging, though, is that this means I have an all or nothing input system; I have to work really hard to focus on one thing. It can be difficult to have a conversation in a pub, for instance, because my brain wants to hear every conversation. It also makes deep work challenging, because I struggle to work on the same thing for longer periods of time. The biggest challenge, though, is that I am mentally exhausted every day. I take in a lot of input, and so need to deliberately find ways to empty my mental tank, lest it overflow or burst.
Two weeks before Christmas, I sat down to my work in my typical way. I sat down at my typical workspace, set my typical coffee down on the typical side of my computer, and started to go about my typical tasks. I then started breathing heavily, unable to catch my breath, ran upstairs, cried for an hour, and then experienced a total system shutdown, where I was unable to remain awake for more than about five to ten minutes. That lasted a little over twenty-four hours.
I have struggled with mental well-being throughout my life, with depression and thoughts of self-harm starting as early as the fourth grade. I have worked hard to develop mental models for myself to manage my thought patterns, separating the healthy from the unhealthy, and the factual from the false, but what had been like an an omnipresent background hum of anxiety was now a screaming chorus.
Meeting with my psychologist was amazing. Working together, we were able to determine that my ADHD self-management tactics had hit a ceiling of scalability, and I needed more tools to keep my thoughts in order.
What I thought was an anxiety issue was really a secondary (and not unreasonable) reaction to my mental capacity and inventory. Too much stuff, and I start to get anxious or frustrated with all the bits I can no longer manage. Picture an overfull shopping cart having things topple out of it as you push it up and down the aisles of a grocery store. As my kids mature, need more complex support, and as my life generally grows, I just can’t hold all the things.
Fast forward a few short months, and here comes COVID-19. Talk about more input.
I am so grateful, though, that I have been equipped with some key strategies for managing myself that apply so well to living through times of isolation with a full house, and so I wanted to share them here.
- Structure: What decisions can we make and what guidelines can we establish to create consistency and remove questions later? Examples might include defining workspaces for everyone in the house, meal planning, chore charts, and sorting out roles/responsibilities.
- Routine: How might activities be executed in predictable patterns to guide expectations and build upon structure? Consider aspects like timing of meals, scheduling when recreational time is allowed compared to when it’s time for work, and sustaining pre-COVID self-care routines like bathing, putting on work clothes, etc.
- Activity: What ways can I be active to help my body support my mind? If there is a yard, consider how it can be used, or ensure going for walks is part of the structure and routine to help the body support the mind. Fresh air and movement are huge keys to keeping my mental tank at an appropriate level.
- Reflection: A very specific routine that adds to structure is a look back at every day to think about (and even journal) what was great, what wasn’t so great, and what I want to remember or learn from. This helps every day become instructive about how I can consciously improve my life and psychological well-being.
This is all work, and work I need to be conscious of. The payoff is huge, though, since it all amounts it keeping me on the rails and coping with really trying times.
Exercising my mental health is very necessarily part of my typical structure and routines – is it part of yours, too? What does your typical look like?