If you ask me, it’s not that I have a problem paying attention. It’s that I have a problem paying attention to things that are boring. I excel, if I may say so, at paying attention to many things, including television shows, cocktail menus, long, drawn-out dinners, stern admonitions, shoes, dancing (whether as spectator or participant), well-wrapped parcels, my children’s verbal articulations,* shells on the beach, a head of hair that I have permission to brush or braid, conversations (face to face or at a distance), and sex.
*except when these involve any of the following: Minecraft, Shopkins, the characteristics of various forms of weaponry, Beanie-boos, or anything they need right now, Mom, etc.
I am middling when it comes to attending to academic talks, essays, or monographs (rather unfortunate, this), art exhibitions, wine or beer lists, movies that lack a plot, pre-1750 American literature (the truly terrifying sermons of Jonathan Edwards excepted), and long disquisitions on unfamiliar subjects (note: the latter often masquerade as one side in a conversation; I am not fooled one bit).
I am abominable at attending to sealed envelopes addressed to me (unless they are adorned with an intriguing, hand-written script or promise to contain either book royalties or an invitation to a fancy party), dirty dishes, plants (indoor or outdoor), anything in the back of the refrigerator, laundry (clean or dirty), bills, and overdue notices of all kinds.
I’ve had trouble paying attention to boring things so long as I can recall. And it’s been part of my identity at least since my maths teacher called me out for being “lazy” (“I see you looking out the window, lost in your own little world!”), when I was about eleven.
But I was coddled enough (by family, university), that it didn’t really present a life-interfering problem until grad school.
“I can’t deal with paperwork,” I confessed to the therapist I sought out at the university’s mental health services, “or any other ‘little things’ that need to get done, so then they pile up and pile up and become overwhelming. I would rather write my dissertation. That’s how much I can’t bear tackling mundane tasks.”
“And are you actually writing your dissertation?” she asked me.
“Oh, yes!” I replied. “Writing is so much easier then dealing with all that other stuff.” (“all that other stuff” referred to any kind of task related to financial aid, immigration documentation, banking, bills, etc.)
At the time she was like, “well, maybe writing your dissertation is more important right now.” And I remember leaving feeling rather pleased with myself, re-imagining my inability to attend to the little things as evidence that I had my priorities straight, was simply dedicated to the execution of grander tasks altogether.
And yet …
Over the years my inattention to little things nearly landed me, more than once, in serious trouble. I let my green card expire and left the country. I only noticed when I was back in the U.S. I guess the immigration officer hadn’t been paying attention. (I actually only became a U.S. citizen in order to avoid the hassle of having to renew my green card every ten years for the rest of my life.) I twice racked up library bills amounting to tens of thousands of dollars and both times managed to persuade the long-suffering librarians to cancel the fines.
It led, inevitably, to problems in my marriage. Apart from the problem of my chronic inability to complete mundane tasks in a timely manner, which was naturally considerably irritating to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved, his difficulty understanding why I couldn’t. Just. Get. Things. Done created a gulf between us.
I remember on more than one occasion having a conversation that went something like this.
DUCK-RABBIT: You know what I hate?
HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: No, what?
DUCK-RABBIT: When you decide that you want to do something in the long-term but in the moment you just can’t stick to it.
HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: Like what?
DUCK-RABBIT: Oh, you know, like when I decided [as I do, periodically] that it was definitely unethical to eat meat and I was fully convinced, and I made a plan even down to what I would order next time at Bagel Nosh instead of my usual but then two hours later we went out and I thought, fuck it I need a burger. Or when I resolve I’m going to exercise regularly and I even do that thing where I put all my running stuff out so it’s ready in the morning but then the next morning the prospect of actually going running is just too awful to contemplate. Or when you know you’ll feel better if you just clean up your desk but the piles of paper are just way too overwhelming.
HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: I …. I don’t really have that.
DUCK-RABBIT: What do you mean?
HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: If I decide I want to do something then I just do it.
DUCK-RABBIT: But what if it’s something that takes a lot of will-power?
HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: [a little nervously, realizing that his answer is not what I want to hear] Then I summon up the will-power?
DUCK-RABBIT: [increasingly agitated] But what if you don’t have the will-power?
HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: If it’s something I’m sure I want to do then I’ll have the willpower.
DUCK-RABBIT: [confounded] What, so you don’t have a rich, internal struggle every time you have to do anything that’s not flop on the sofa and watch telly?
At this point I would proceed to flop on the sofa and sulk while muttering to myself that he must be lying because it is a known fact that wrestling with yourself about whether you can bear to do anything other than lie on the sofa is part of the universal struggle of humankind.
These days I’m not so sure.
The catalyst for my recent doubts about whether overcoming indolence is indeed a universal struggle was another crisis caused by yet another situation in which I had avoided completing a relatively simple bureaucratic task which then ballooned into an overwhelming series of bureaucratic tasks due to my inertia.
This task was submitting my psychiatry bills to my insurance company so that I could be reimbursed for part of the (exorbitant) cost. I had allowed a full year’s worth of bills to pile up without submitting any of them. When this finally came to light (and by “came to light” I mean “was forced to confess to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved due to our still intertwined tax returns”) I felt a pit in my stomach in which the shame of having deferred this simple task of responsible adulthood for so long mingled with the dread of realizing that I now actually had to submit the bills and complete multiple copies of the odious CMS-1500 health insurance claim form, each copy of which only has the space to itemize three weeks worth of appointments, which meant, since I had a full year’s worth of appointments to itemize, that I had to fill out, um, 17 and a half copies of the form. And not only that but then find an envelope. Or possibly multiple envelopes. And stamps. And a mailbox, for God’s sake.
I finally confessed that I’d been hoarding my superbills in therapy, after actually lying on previous occasions to my psychiatrist when she asked if I’d been submitting them. Given all the intimate and embarrassing things I have told my psychiatrist over the years, it is telling that this of all things is the thing I withheld. As I explained I added, almost idly, “this has been a problem my whole life.” When she asked what I meant I mentioned the preposterously large library fines, the other problems with completing necessary mundane paperwork, issues that have come up tangentially in therapy before which but we’d never discussed at much length before now.
I thought, because this is generally what we do in therapy, that she might ask me to dredge up my earliest memory of experiencing this kind of paralysis around completing mundane tasks, or something like that.
Instead, what she said next took me totally by surprise.
“Have you ever thought about taking a stimulant?” she asked. “A stimulant?” I repeated.“It’s used to treat ADHD,” she said, and went on to explain that it might help me concentrate upon and complete tasks.
I was a little incredulous at first. I didn’t fit my image of the kind of person who might have ADHD (my image was of a hyperactive kid (OK, a boy) who plays a lot of video games and has trouble sitting still in class. Whereas I am amazing at sitting still.)
Still, we talked about it for some time and I decided, cautiously, that I might be interested in trying it. She gave me a questionnaire to fill out and I began to feel increasingly excited as I read the first four questions:
- How often do you have trouble wrapping up the final details of a project, once the challenging parts have been done?
- How often do you have difficulty getting things in order when you have to do a task that requires organization?
- How often do you have problems remembering appointments or obligations?
- When you have a task that requires a lot of thought, how often do you avoid or delay getting started?
The answer to all four of these questions, for me, is: often. Not always, but often.
Not all of the questions spoke to me. For example: “How often do you have difficulty unwinding and relaxing when you have time to yourself?” Um, never (see: flopping on sofa, above).
But enough of the questions resonated with me that I started to wonder, a bit giddily, whether it was actually possible that a behavior I had always thought of as being a character trait that could only possibly be overcome by mustering Benjamin-Franklin-level reserves of determination that I was quite sure I didn’t possess might actually be a chemical imbalance that could be altered by taking a drug.
Reader, I write to you now as someone who is now taking a daily stimulant. It’s been a week and the change I’ve observed is pretty remarkable. Things I’ve accomplished this week include: submitting all the bills and the bloody forms in a satisfyingly hefty envelope. (Oh yeah, and I even mailed it.) Yard work. I’ll just repeat that for the benefit of those who know me well: I did yard work. Or gardening as we call it in England. Voluntarily. I even enjoyed myself. Cleaned out the overflowing shelving unit in the bathroom that was so tightly stuffed with miscellaneous bathroom products that retrieving a tube of toothpaste from it was like a game of Jenga. Killed two daddy-long-legs. (Actually that might just be a coincidence.) Wrote a full draft of a talk I have to give a clear two weeks before said talk is due to be delivered. Even finished making the PowerPoint. The most momentous accomplishment might seem the least impressive to those of you have a more normal ability to complete boring tasks: never until now have I been able to completely wash all of the dirty dishes in the sink. I always run out of steam about three quarters of the way through and leave a couple of plates, or a few knives and forks in the sink. That hasn’t been happening. Basically, I can now, much more easily focus on completing a task I’ve decided I want to complete. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?
The strangest part is not the individual tasks that now seem doable. The strangest part is that this chemical experiment has shaken my previous belief that fighting inertia was not just my problem but rather one that afflicted most people to an equal degree. Honestly, have the rest of you just been merrily doing your dishes and filing your insurance claims forms with no great angst all these years? I just thought all of you people who got things done had this superhuman tolerance for mental pain! Why did nobody tell me!?
If I let myself start thinking about what my life might have looked like if I’d started taking Adderall earlier, it’s easy to get a little glum. Would that book have been written twice as fast? Would conflicts over domestic labor simply never occurred because I too would have cleaned the kitchen properly in the first place rather than in my typical half-arsed fashion?
I worry that this post (at the very least its title) might seem to trivialize the experiences of people who have more severe problems with attention deficit (or more severe problems, period); that isn’t my intention at all and I know that my attentional “disorder” (if we want to call it that, and I’m not sure that I do) is mild. I also know Adderall isn’t a panacea; it has side-effects, like any drug, and can be addictive when taken in high doses. And I’m in no way dismissing the idea that my (or anybody else’s) trouble completing tasks might stem from underlying beliefs or fears that might profitably be explored in therapy as well as treated with drugs.
I can imagine that someone (probably someone British) might observe, kindly, upon reading this post, “but the problem isn’t with you, dear duck-rabbit, it’s with this ghastly society with its information economy and ubiquitous social media that has addled your brain”; or, “but the problem isn’t with you, dear duck-rabbit, it’s with this ghastly society with its demand that one be constantly productive that has distorted your expectations of what a human can be expected to accomplish in one day.”
To which I would reply, this is probably true. But since this is the society I live in, I have to find a way to make it livable; and this is one way that is proving helpful, at least right now.
Finally (last bit of hand-wringing, this), I worry that my zeal for this new drug may cause you to worry that this dreamy duck-rabbit has turned feverish and frantic; so I hasten to assure you that I’m on an extremely low dosage under close supervision, and I don’t think there’s much discernible change in the way I interact with the world; I haven’t suddenly become a fast talker or someone who stays up all night alphabetizing her book collection.
And I still love flopping on the sofa. Odds are, I’m there right now.