Little ADD Things: If I can’t see it, I forget it exists

There are several things that I often say. I apologise too much, I say “isn’t it” a fair amount, and I blurt out nonsense whenever I catch sight of an animal. (“You’re a great dog yes you are yes you are!”) One of the things I’ve said a lot recently is “Sorry, if I can’t see something I forget it’s there.”
I’ve come to realise this is pretty central to my experience of having a weird brain, but I figured I’d note it down – along with the strategies I use now – in case it helps anyone else. It’s pretty embarrassing to admit, but I doubt I’m the only one.
I need to have things around me that I use, or am working on. I like to have things out because once those things are put away, I forget they exist.
This goes for projects, whether creative or schoolwork. When I’m working on something, I like to be immersed in it; but once the project work is tidied away into folders I’m liable to forget it’s important. And as soon as I forget, I move on to something else.
I like the project to be visible and present. Whenever I research organisational skills, I find the suggestion “Put sticky notes up around your room! Put reminders up!” But reminders didn’t work for me, because they quickly fade into the background.
The best thing for me, generally, is just to have the project itself be as visible as possible.
When I was working on my dissertation, I had the document with my draft in it constantly up on my laptop. I also had the contents page, the notes page, and a list of sources to look at. I had a browser window open, where my research was tabbed and bookmarked. I had the books and notes out, too, so all in all I couldn’t walk in my room or open my laptop without being reminded that I was on deadline and should schedule a research trip.
I figured out I needed to do this because I previously procrastinated for four months and did no dissertation work whatsoever. I had some notes in a folder saved in a corner of my laptop, and that was it. But once I started working on it, and the project became visible and ever-present, my brain clicked into action. “Oh, this is important! Well, let’s do it!”
This all leads to some… eccentric habits, and odd situations. Like keeping all your clothes out on hangers, (because when you put them away in drawers you forget they are there). Or being surprised when you open a drawer and find an entire old project that you forgot about but for a brief time was the most important thing you’d ever done.
I got a new laptop last year through the disabilities programme at university, and had to have a ‘training session’ with an advisor. The advisor was horrified to see my Documents folder, which was a kind of bin for essays and other writing. It meant whenever I clicked on Documents, I could see everything I was working on at once. It was a kind of maelstrom of works in progress, completed essays, old poems, and article drafts.
“This is terrible.”
“But I like it this way,” I said.
“Put everything in folders,” she said. “Divide the folders by subject or topic.”
I practised saving documents neatly into the right folder for two weeks. After that I went back to saving files straight into the bin, with a sense of relief.
Having individual folders probably works for many people, but for me it was dreadful. I was a lot more likely to continue working on that important essay when it was the first thing I saw in Documents, not when it had been saved into the Japanese Art subject folder where I’d never look at it again.
I am not saying this is a perfect system, or even a good one. But this way the documents are alphabetised, and they’re out where I can see them. It’s like those people who have cluttered workspaces, but still know where everything is.
This also goes for books. I like Kindle because you can scroll through all the books you’re currently reading – all together! All in one place! – rather than having to hunt around to find all the books you’re reading. It even shows you where you’re up to with each book. Its layout is such that I feel comfortable saving books into folders and setting up reading lists.
I am still trying to find the perfect system. I’ve made great progress in minimising the amount of clutter in my room, tidying away anything unnecessary or unused and keeping the things that I use visible in my living space. But like everything else, it’s a never-ending work in progress.

Planning ahead and being fearless: what I learned from The Grand Budapest Hotel

I wanted to tell the story of how, and why, I learned that planning is a Good Thing.
I should say, to begin with, that I’m a work in progress. I’m still quite scared of planning, which is because I’ve never really… done it very much. I live mostly in the present. If asked to plan something out in detail I would do so, but it takes a lot of work to make the plan correspond with reality. Aged 10, playing Carmageddon on the computer with my brother, I usually ignored the map and drove around the desert till I reached the fuzzy edge of the world. This is what I’m working with.
So, anyway: last summer, I fell in love with Wes Anderson’s movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. I downloaded the soundtrack, thought about it often, recommended it to other people frequently, all that jazz. It was odd. Grand Budapest isn’t the most substantial movie in terms of storytelling, emotional message or morals. It has problems of race representation that I won’t go into here.
Really, it was the craft that hooked me in: the gorgeous set design, the camera work, the music. The film is a series of little artificial worlds where everything is detailed, sharp, clean, and done right first time. One reviewer wrote: “The jeopardy Gustave and Zero escape from over and over again is presented like a Tintin comic strip.”
I was watching a lot of films at the time. Partly, it was because I was actively figuring out how I processed the world.
I’d realised I wasn’t interested in films for dialogue, because often I couldn’t process all the dialogue in a film on first viewing. I hear it, but films provide so much sensory stimulus that the dialogue becomes another soundtrack, which blurs together into a sound akin to the trombone noises made by Charlie Brown’s teacher.
I found out I liked watching foreign language films, because with knowledge of the storyline, you were free to concentrate on the visual and aural world unfolding in front of you. Whilst watching, small details jump out at you: the wings of a butterfly, the icing on top of a cake, the colour coding, a man in the background carrying a statue. (This beautiful essay on the visual language of Pacific Rim explains more about alternative ways to process films.)
Because of my lack of attention, I frequently lose track of what’s going on; my family still teases me for getting out my phone in the cinema while we were watching Inception, which I found completely incomprehensible. But there were some films I’ve seen, like Annie Hall, which are dialogue-heavy but completely understandable. Somehow, they bypass the part of my brain that doesn’t process dialogue.
Then there’s the 1960s film Daisies – a surreal movie where two witchy beauties gasp out non sequitur lines of dialogue like spells. (“Die! Die! Die!”) Again, somehow, on first viewing Daisies went straight to a part of my brain that wordlessly… got things.
I have never had the instinct to find a logical explanation for things unfolding around me, which was maybe why I connected with Daisies so well. The film was just a series of moments blossoming outwards.
I connected with the visual storytelling of Grand Budapest. But 
I was also watching films for their craft – absorbing how they told stories and built up worlds.
In a world where many mainstream films are made quickly and look generic, it struck me as brave to spend so much time on constructing Grand Budapest. To make something so fiendishly, gloriously elaborate.
Artists like Anderson, who have the ability to plan ahead in detail and envision a completely articulated world, are astonishing to me.
In a previous post, I wrote about how growing up with ADD has affected my perceptions, how I didn’t feel left behind in class, but like I was “speeding ahead, flying from A to Z” while my classmates plodded from A to B. “Yes, their method was correct, but if you flew you got a much better view.”
This, of course, affects how I make things, too: stories, essays, poems, cartoons. I often think in broad brush strokes and big pictures, not in terms of small details.
The problem I was fighting whilst watching Grand Budapest was, I realise now, that I felt (and feel) scared a lot of planning ahead – of thinking in extensive detail when sketching out new work. Of taking the time to create something that elaborate.
It was a two-pronged problem.
One: I was worried that if I planned too much, something bad would happen and I’d never get time to do the thing I was planning.
Two: I know how distractable I am. I figured that if I planned too much instead of doing, nothing would get done.
Living with ADD is like living with a very excitable, impulsive friend. “Oh, you’re working on that thing? Awesome. Anyway, I got tickets for Disneyland, let’s go! Now!! RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!!” And off we go.
In December I spoke to a counsellor at uni about this. She asked me, “Why don’t you prioritise your tasks?”
I replied: “Because I have a terrible fear of something bad happening, so I do as many things as I can in case I get hit by a car tomorrow.”
Long story short: on January 9th, on my first day back after Christmas, I walked into New Cross and got hit by a car.
It’s a lot less dramatic than it sounds; I fell over, got straight back up again, and got a lift home from the driver.
Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt at all. Nor did I straight away decide to change my whole life.
Instead, after the accident, I found myself making small incremental changes.
An important change happened when I realised my fear of the Bad Thing was actively stopping me from doing anything.
I then had to sit the excitable friend down, as it were, and tell them: “Wes Anderson would never have made that movie if he was jumping from A to Z all the time and worrying about the Bad Thing. Artists have to love the letters in between. Please, just assume that you have today to figure things out.”
Like I said before, ADD makes you live in the present a lot of the time. But most artists need space and time to make art. Clearing this time and space, in a world that is always demanding our time and attention, is revolutionary. Focusing on detail and craft is revolutionary.
Which is my small realisation.
Thanks, Wes Anderson.

Should you clear a space for wonder?

I have a confession to make to the guys at NASA: when a photo of outer space comes up on my timeline, I keep scrolling. I’d like to be able to appreciate space photography, but I process it as pretty colours and unintelligible visual noise.
Sometimes I look at the caption, which tells me that life has been found on Mars, or a new planet has appeared, or at this very moment ten galaxies are all having sex with each other at the same time, or something. It is too big for me to process – even looking at the photos is perplexing and stressful – so I shrug and move on. Sorry, NASA.
Is this normal?
Maybe right now, other people are also scrolling past stars and thinking “This should be interesting. This is a fascinating thing people give up their entire lives to study. I just don’t have the brainspace in my day to feel wonder about this, so my only reaction is ‘Oh, that’s good. Keep on doing what you’re doing, faraway cluster of stars’.”
And maybe the reason I’ve been concerned about this is that everything has always been so strange and magical to me. So it’s odd that at the age of 22, I look at outer space – the Big Strange – and just think “Eh.”
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“Made-up American disorder”: being an adult with ADD

“Kids: if anyone tells you you have ADHD, pay no attention.” – Sickipedia

I really wish I didn’t have to write this article. Believe me, given the choice I’d be sitting here writing a cheery short story, or a song about my cat… But circumstances have crept up on me, and now writing about my experience of ADD* (attention deficit disorder) feels unavoidable.
I write out of a sense of frustration. On its worst days, being the way I am is like having a tangle of wool for a brain; you’re told that you have to untangle the wool, but you can’t let anyone see what you’re doing. You can’t let anyone see that you’re struggling.
People often assume that I am better at life than I actually am. They tell me I seem calm and together, and wonder how I manage to pursue so many things I love. Actually, my life feels like a crazy balancing act sometimes – like juggling spoons on a tightrope.
I have always seen myself as a naturally visible, colourful person. But as an adult with ADD, as a multiply marginalised adult, I feel invisible sometimes, left behind by my inability to concentrate. I expect myself to be brilliant at everything, to have time for everything and everyone I love. Then I end up feeling burned out and inert, skipping between websites or activities at random, constantly late for everything, unable to do basic tasks. It is hard to do things that you love.
To be honest, when I see articles or blogs about children with ADD or ADHD I sometimes feel a slight surge of jealousy. These children, bright and brave: I don’t envy their struggle, which is one I know all too well, but I wish I could have got help at their age. I slipped through the net. I wasn’t diagnosed with ADD until age twenty-one, after turning up at the university student services offices and saying “I just can’t work. I want to work, I just can’t.”

Previously, my life had followed a pattern, which I noticed at age ten or eleven but felt unable to prevent. At the start of the school year I would be organised, proud of my new school books, determined not to make a mess of things this time. Eventually (usually by about December, sometimes even late September) I would slip into a hazy mess. A teacher once described me as “absent-minded professor.”
Books, pens, rulers and letters went missing, I seemed to scatter chaos wherever I went. In class, the teacher’s words buzzed around me: I ended up staring at the Kings and Queens chart on the classroom wall, while inconsequential thoughts rushed through my brain. Homework was handed in late, or went missing.
When things had truly descended into chaos, I would get told off by a teacher:
“What is going on? I know you can do so much better than this, if you just worked harder and got organised…”
I would apologise over and over, driven to contrition by the teacher’s concern. Then I would do an excellent run of homeworks or turn in a great project, partly out of guilt, also to prove that I wasn’t lazy.
I did not feel left behind. In the lessons I loved I sometimes felt I was speeding ahead, flying from A to Z while my classmates used the normal, plodding method to get from A to B. Yes, their method was correct, but if you flew you got a much better view.
Probably if I had been seen as a complete dunce, something might have been done earlier. But thanks to my mother – who had fought for me to be seen in the best way possible – I had gone down at an early age as a gifted child, which complicated things: everyone knows gifted children are different. Gifted allows you to be somewhat weird, whilst also raising everyone’s expectations.
When I went on to grammar school, my skill in some lessons (and the fact I was always reading) allowed me to slip the net again. Grammar school is a diffuse place in some ways, where it is easy to feel that no one is particularly concerned about you unless you fail spectacularly. For people who fail, quietly and consistently, in some areas of their lives and studies, it is easy to escape the radar. I was a quiet student, outspoken in the lessons I liked, daydreamy, and did not fit any stereotype. I passed my exams, sometimes doing very well.
Whenever the “organisation failure” did get noticed, I was blamed for allowing it to happen. (“The problem with you,” a teacher told me, “is that you don’t think properly. You jump to conclusions that amount to complete lunacy.”)

There is a laundry list of things that frustrated me then, and continue to exasperate me now: my inability to concentrate on things that aren’t immediately gripping. My distractibility. The fact I find it difficult to complete a project, after an enthusiastic start. The initial burst of energy, and the tailing off. The underachievement. I am painfully aware that I often start books and don’t finish them, that I usually can’t sit through a film, that I am not as good as I wish I was at any of the things I love. These days, I envy other people their persistence and ability to learn and retain information. I sometimes still feel this is all my fault, even though ADD is recognised as a disorder.
At twenty-one, I was sent to see a kind psychiatrist, who confirmed what the student office thought. He gently explained that he dealt with many talented young people who had struggled with these same symptoms, and that there were ways to cope with it.
Afterwards I spoke to my doctor, who looked sceptical. “We don’t really comment on ADD,” he told me, looking at my non-clinical report. “Plenty of doctors think it’s a made up American thing.” Other people said the same thing, more or less. A Google search results in “is ADD a real disease?” (New York Times), and “ADHD does not exist” (New York Post).
It’s odd, to live in this world. To know that there is a coherent explanation for the way you are, but to constantly see that explanation questioned or snatched away from you.
But, I have hope. Not so long ago, dyslexic children (like the novelist Sally Gardner) were being labelled “unteachable” and accused of laziness. But now, thankfully, dyslexia is much more accepted. Someday ADD will be accepted, too.
Perhaps that’s the reason this article has been nibbling at my brain: I want to prove that the way I am is real, that it matters.

*My official diagnosis is ADHD (inattentive type – not hyperactive) as a specific learning difficulty, not a medical diagnosis. As I am not hyperactive, I prefer to use the term ADD to describe myself. More information on the difference between ADD and ADHD here.