Visible Instruments for ADHD Brains
I get stuck a lot. Stuck between getting up and staying in bed. Between washing up and not. Between break and pushing forward.
For a long time, I confused myself by relying on fear, shame, and negative self-talk. I have to get up because if I’m late for school everyone will judge me. I have to do the dishes because if I don’t, I’ll be scolded. I have to take a break or I’ll burn out. I have to push forward or I’m a lazy waste of space.
But since I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 20 last year – and I understood why I’m so stuck – I’ve been forgetting all those unhealthy coping mechanisms that did more harm than good. Although the process has been frustrating and daunting at times, the healthier alternatives I’ve learned have proven immensely empowering.
A therapist I worked with last year understood that I process my thoughts and feelings in a very visual way. Since then, I’ve tried using the same visuals to solve myself.
What it looks like to get stuck – and loosen up
When I have a choice, I envision all the options in different colors.
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At first there are only two colors: “Do I wash the dishes or do I not wash?” But then, when I think about my decision, those two decisions split into a million more. When I wash the dishes, do I do all or just a few? Do I ask for help? Which dish do I start with? Or what do I do instead when I’m not washing up?
Suddenly there are hundreds of colors, every hue imaginable. They are like little blobs of paint floating through the air. The longer it takes me to make a selection, the closer these colors get and blur until they blend. The more they mix, the more I lose sight of my options and the more difficult it is to choose one to move forward with.
Just as these problems come to me in pictures, I have learned to find answers and to solve them. One visualization that sometimes helps is “unmixing” the colors or choices that have become blurred. I’m trying to name them, give them more clarity, and fight the vagueness that made them join in. I close my eyes and imagine them parting in reverse. This image has often given me the clarity I need to move forward.
But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to see a path.
[Read: 13 Ways to Beat Analysis Paralysis]
The stuck cloud
Getting stuck feels like going back to a familiar place under different circumstances. Leaving this place is quite an exhausting struggle at times. Getting stuck in the same place over and over again also brings feelings of intense need, fear, frustration, and boredom. And because I know what to expect if I’m stuck, these very emotions hit me almost preventively.
I imagine this feeling – not being stuck, but anticipating it – as a cloud.
This cloud is heavy and haunts me like a ghost from the past. It’s made up of new feelings, but it also carries the weight of all the earlier times I was stuck in. So you can imagine how big this cloud is – it has been growing since I was a child. The bigger the stuck cloud gets, the harder it is to even think about how to break free.
And even if I manage to avoid the cloud, that familiar place – the stuck state – won’t go away. It’s there, waiting for me, and I’ll inevitably spend time there because that’s how my brain works.
Rather than fighting the inevitable, my goal is to make the stuck state and cloud of stuck more enjoyable and less stressful. So far, I’ve developed these strategies to deal with this cloud as it descends.
How to break away from the cloud
1. Confirm it. When I feel this cloud – this bundle of compound emotions – I acknowledge its presence instead of ignoring or fighting it.
2. Mobilize it. Like me, the cloud sometimes gets stuck. It can feel very permanent, very frozen, and very rigid. So I interact with him as best I can to keep him moving. I close my eyes and wave my hands through them. I imagine it’s moving in the wind. I zoom out with two fingers as if it were an image on a touch screen.
3. Size it up. It may sound strange, but when I’m particularly anxious, I remember that the feeling, no matter how intense, exists within me. It’s in my body, so I’m bigger than it. When it feels like I’m engulfed in fear and worry, I close my eyes and focus on the edges of my body, which sometimes helps to shrink those feelings. I do the same with the cloud – although I think of it as something outside of me, I remember that it is part of me and therefore bigger than it.
4. Let it go. I take an imaginary handheld vacuum (by far my favorite strategy) and collect as much as possible from the cloud. I like this method because, like a body scan and other grounding techniques, I have to look around and inside for parts of the cloud. When I’m done, I dump the vacuum bag into a dark abyss and let it float away. I don’t always reach all parts of the cloud in one go (there is no shortage of feelings that seem to follow me and hide around every corner), but I break the vacuum and repeat it as often as I need. When the cloud shows itself to me, I break it up piece by piece to prevent it from growing too much.
5. Be nice to yourself. I could also walk around the cloud if it tries to block me, but I try to avoid that approach – the cloud will eventually grow if it is not addressed. But when I can’t find the energy, I try to be kind and patient with myself. If I don’t want to pay my attention to the cloud, I allow myself to take a different path, even if it’s not a visual one.
When a visualization strategy doesn’t work, I take the liberty of switching strategies or trying a different tool. It’s all a matter of trial and error – a tool that works really well one day may feel impossible another day, or even make things worse. While this can be frustrating, I try to use travel as a means to solve problems and understand myself better.
I sometimes wonder if these visualization strategies can only do more mental gymnastics for myself, but they make me feel easier. I’m still stuck in different moments of my days, but these tools have enabled me to move through life with a slightly clearer heart and mind.
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