The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Month: July 2017

Taming distractions: my smartphone-free week

Smartphones are a double-edged sword for adults with ADHD. I have a love-hate relationship with mine.

On one hand, it’s a Swiss Army knife of a device. It reminds me to take my meds. It puts my calendar in front of my face every time I unlock its screen. It condenses many tools — day planner, phone, camera, grocery list, file folders, and more — into one GPS-enabled device. I once misplaced it, and it told me where it was with a little blue dot on a map.

It’s also a huge distraction. Last month, I decided to take a break. I bought a dumb phone on eBay, and I deactivated my smartphone. Then, I asked myself: is life better this way?

The pros

I gained a lot from my week off. I took more pictures with my SLR. I read magazines instead of checking notifications. I went to brunch with friends, and didn’t even consider checking my phone in the car or during a lull at the table. I listened to a CD instead of Pandora while driving.

Speaking of driving, when I first learned to drive, I knew how to get everywhere. I’m not a visual thinker, and I didn’t have a map in my head, but I knew which roads intersected where. Now, I snap my phone into its dashboard mount and turn to my navigation app instead of using my eyes and brain. Like memorizing phone numbers, driving without a smartphone has become a lost art. It felt good to stretch those mental muscles again. I watched for road signs and landmarks on familiar routes, and I looked at a map ahead of time for new destinations.

Perhaps best of all, my phone was just a phone. I could make a call without being derailed by apps and notifications. When I first opened my dumb phone, I felt liberated. In a way, I was.

The cons

However, I quickly realized how much a smartphone can help someone like me.

For people with ADHD, convenience means more than comfort. Sure, it’s convenient to sync my Google Contacts across all my devices. It also protects me against lost business cards, or even a lost phone. It’s convenient to check my calendar while I’m at the dentist. It can also make the difference between cleanings every six months vs. every three years. Threaded text messages, where I can scroll through an entire conversation on one screen, are convenient, but something I already struggle to manage. Without that feature, I felt totally out of touch with my social group.

My phone tells me more important stuff, too. It tells me when (and whether) I took my meds this morning. It reminds me of birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths among those close to me.

In other words, my phone helps me manage my productivity, personal health, and social relationships. These are all areas of tremendous struggle for adults with ADHD. Features that provide convenience for most people can make or break relationships (or dental health) for us.

Where to go from here

Because I still used my smartphone on wifi at home, I saw the biggest difference while running errands or spending time with friends. I’ve now reactivated it, and I intend to keep it. I also want it to spend more time in my bag, or in the cell phone bin at home. I’ve been considering a bluetooth cordless phone for my office/home, to imitate the experience of an old school landline. My smartphone-free week has convinced me this is a good idea.

Which reminds me: Once upon a time, no one expected us to respond immediately to everything around the clock. Growing up, people my age didn’t have cell phones at all. We had landlines and answering machines. We sat down at a computer and waited for our modem to dial into our internet service provider.

I remember going to college and experiencing an always-on internet connection for the first time. I marveled at how easy it was to sit down for 30 seconds to check my email on the way out the door. I left AOL Instant Messenger open all the time. The internet wove its way into the fabric of my consciousness, no longer relegated to a time slot on a shared landline. Smartphone culture had, in a way, already begun.

In the end, my smartphone break wasn’t about the device, it was about mindfulness. Used intentionally, smartphones provide huge benefits. When minutes or hours pass by in front of the screen and we don’t even know what happened, we have a problem. We can counteract this by putting the phone in a designated place in the house, keeping it in our bag while we’re out, and/or disabling notifications. We can be judicious about which apps we install. My phone now rings audibly, but only vibrates for notifications. I’ll know if my kid’s school calls, but I can be more intentional about checking the other stuff.

Because my phone is only a tool if I use it wisely.

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Through the valley of the shadow of emotional hyperfocus

Let’s talk about feelings. ADHD feelings.

Most people don’t realize, ADHD is way more than forgetfulness and distractability and poor impulse control. ADHD can make our emotions big and scary and maybe even dangerous. Feelings that come and go quickly for others can suck us in, kind of like an emotional eddy.

Growing up alongside a big, gorgeous river, I learned about eddies. They kill a lot of people. They’re powerful and disorienting, and no human can overcome the force of that much water.

But you can get out. You do it by swimming straight down to the bottom, then downstream a ways, and then you try to reach the surface.

It works for feelings, too.

Sometimes, it’s not a big deal (to you).

My ADHD symptoms got worse during our kitchen renovation. All the mess and disruption did a number on my mental health. That I observed and identified this situation — you know, as one of those life circumstances that’ll give a neurotypical person ADHD-like symptoms — was perhaps my only saving grace.

One evening, just before bed, I annoyed my husband somehow. I forget how, and it doesn’t matter, because it wasn’t a big deal. It didn’t need to be a Whole Big Thing. It was a Normal Marriage Thing. A blip on the radar.

Here’s the problem for many adults with ADHD: we tend to latch onto things, and we have a lot of trouble letting go. Poorly managed ADHD blows Normal Marriage Things into Whole Big Things on the regular. It’s exhausting.

Fortunately, I recognized this. I decided — for once! — not to force my husband through a conversation about why he was or wasn’t annoyed with me, and how we could fix it. He wasn’t worried about it, and he wanted to go to sleep. Have you ever kept your spouse up for hours with a bizarre, melodramatic Whole Big Thing whose significance you couldn’t even explain the next day? I have. Let’s just say I wanted to jump on the opportunity to avoid it this time. I got out of bed and removed myself to another room to settle down.

“Forget it” and “drop it” don’t really work with ADHD.

That’s all great, except I don’t know how to let things go. This is why I insist on talking through everything immediately, and why I never, ever want to go to bed angry. I knew I had to drop it, and I knew bothering my husband with drama while he was trying to sleep would make things worse. That didn’t prevent me from suffering.

People with ADHD can get stuck on an emotion. The feeling magnifies itself until it’s overwhelming, even frightening. We can become a person we don’t know. Just like time disappears with task hyperfocus, the spectrum of our emotions disappears with emotional hyperfocus.

It’s easy to sink into a spiral of self-loathing, anger, hopelessness, worthlessness. Once you’re in the spiral, it’s like an eddy: it sucks you down. It won’t let you out the way you came. If you let it overwhelm you, you’ll drown.

There I was, on the couch, gasping for air as those toxic emotions pulled me under.

Swimming to the bottom of the emotional eddy.

I found my way out, albeit by accident.

Don’t ask me how I thought of this in my state of hysteria, but imagined my future self. I pictured myself standing in our yet-to-be-constructed new kitchen. I was at the island, preparing food, surrounded by friends and family. Happy.

I felt the negative emotions dissipate, like a fog lifting.

Turning off a light, touching someone on the arm, or forcing them to get up and get a drink of water can help break the spell of hyperfocus. I suppose I forced my brain to do this in a more figurative sense. I offered a distraction. I walked my brain over to a different corner, forced my mental eyes to refocus, and suddenly I could see the real world again.

Dropping it with my husband took me to the bottom of the emotional abyss. To my surprise, I resurfaced on my own this time.

When we’re out of it, we’re out of it.

I don’t intend this as a how-to, even though I’d love to imagine my words helping someone. Think of this as an ask, of those of you who love someone with ADHD. I want to help you understand how hard this is. How hysterical we get over stuff that’s not a big deal. How, in the moment, it is a big deal. We can lose all sense of self-worth. We attack. We may literally not be able to comprehend the fact that you still love us.

So don’t try to reason with us. Don’t even try to recognize us. Wait for us to come back first, or better yet, try to help find us.

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