A NEED for hyperfocus

Its been a while now since I first identified the ADHD aspect of my wiring “type” though I still recoil from using it often, even to myself, because I struggle with the “deficit” part. There is no “deficit” to my attention, quite the contrary actually. I have found a more comfortable home within the definition VAST (Variable Attention Stimulus Trait) which I wrote about earlier this year.

Yet the more I read on this topic (and I am now a subscriber to ADDitude magazine online so the articles arrive frequently, grabbing me with oh-so applicable headlines) the more I find myself. In this article, I find so many personal truths its quite silly (so many pennies dropping at once) and it explains quite a lot about my experiences of life, tying-in seamlessly with the last post I shared, on the benefits of losing myself to redecorating my house, for all my considerable physical challenges. Yet somehow, in the ability to hyperfocus on one bit of wall to be painted at a time, I have found more benefit than I could have imagined, feeling more anchored, more myself when I am doing it!

Because, when I have a brush in my hand (and it can be any brush, 3 inches wide as I paint a door, or a fine point dipped in watercolours or oils) I lose myself completely to hyperfocus. I get the same effect from certain other activities and, now I see the importance of them, keep seeking more that will work the same as paint (I don’t always want to paint!), such as needlepoint or knitting. Even writing blogs or researching for them are a version of hyperfocus (though these can lead to overthinking, obsession and even to anxiety if left unchecked so I can see how I do better with arts and crafts) yet the theme is all the same; the total immersion in a task, finding myself through “losing myself” to the activity. Such activities are as key to my health and overarching sense of wellbeing as the very air that I breathe, and this has always been the case, I now see with such clarity. As even the youngest child, I would defer to hyperfocusing activities such as drawing or making (always crafting, scissors in hand) over social engagement, any day of the week and there’s nothing wrong with this, its just not neurotypical.

Owning this is one giant step towards a more healthful, self-accepting, confident life; the same as owning any of our neurodiverse (or any other kind of diverse) traits.

So, I’ve established that I really need hyperfocus in my life, like the air that I breathe (and if I don’t provide it, my “wiring” will go off and find it, even from some rather less healthy sources, such as hyperfocusing on worries or seeking out new obsessions). Which is where the kind of health approaches that say “let go of everything and just relax” (and why meditation, when I’m not in the mood for it…which comes and goes) really doesn’t work like clockwork for me…in fact, it can lead me straight back into such screaming overwhelm and the sense of tumbling over a cliff that I’m straight back into a flare-up of physical symptoms before I know it.

Looking back over my 16 years of chronic health challenges, it was finding my paints that started me on the slow, steady ladder to improvement, and that still applies (as long as I really want to paint and am fired up with inspiration…it simply can’t be forced). Same with the decorating, as long as I have that sense of purpose, the urgency to “seek improvement” fuelling me, I can deep-dive the hyperfocus activity…and find myself at its core. Almost like I can breathe, at last.

When I’m not in hyperfocus, you could say In The Zone, many things rattle around in my mind and it can be utterly overwhelming. Somehow, immersed in that task, I go from executive tasking nightmare into a sort of “gilded” zone, where my thinking becomes super-powered, crystal and clear, with the kind of coherency that leads to insights and a good night’s sleep. I can even slip into “heightened experiences” and all because my multidimensional, non-linear thinking mode reaches a sort of effortless meeting point, where everything comes together.

Because, part of the challenge of ADHD, but also its super-power, a gift extraordinaire if allowed to blossom, is non-linear thinking (again, a topic covered here before). We’re simply not locked into the rigid linear reality that most people seem to dwell in and this, in my view, is an advantage, once tapped into. According to the attached article, people with ADHD have curvilinear thinking, which means the distinction between past, present and future is blurred, its all happening now (an experience I very-much relate to and which fuels many of the topics in both my blogs). I find I can dip in and out of different time zones as though they are real and present, with their content (memories, traumas, experiences, hopes) informing where I am today and this can get disorienting when a hyperfocused interest isn’t calling the shots enough to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground. Its as though I take off on a flight of fancy but don’t know how to land again when I need to, which makes it hard to ground any insights or benefits I might have access to from this mode of thinking.

In short, (put in neurotypical terms, measured by those standards) I can feel “all over the place” and frequently do, unless anchored by a task. It makes starting, and ending, some tasks extra hard as I don’t always know where to start and often dive straight into the middle or even begin at the end (I have a tendency to read magazines backwards, a clue to how I “am”). This can make me seen haphazard, like I lack preparation skills, which is true, I tend to grab paints and apply as soon as I get that urge, rather than setting up my work space. But this is the thing, I have to grab my moment when inspiration (or, these days, energy!) strikes or I might lose my moment. And no, I haven’t worn a watch for 15 years!

I’m not a fan of great organisation as this relies on a stronger sense of linearity; the one exception being when I have to step out of my comfort zone for something like a social event or travel because these things need to be more structured and “predictable” than usual in order for me to be able to cope. So, here’s the strange contradiction, when I’m planning a holiday or to meet people socially, I become hyper-organised, down to the finest detail; its the only way I feel safe enough to take part, and then people think “Oh Helen is an amazing organiser, she’s thought about literally everything in advance” and expect it from me all of the time…but nope, not happening, this isn’t an easy place for me to dwell. This is one of the various reasons I don’t enjoy stepping out of my comfort zone much or very often, because it forces me be other than I naturally am, in so many ways…organised, time-aware, living to a schedule, fully here in the present time-zone, aware of my surroundings…all of which is as exhausting as a fish trying to walk around on dry land!

Back in hyperfocus land, I don’t feel nearly so overwhelmed as I do “out there”, and here’s another reason. Those with ADHD tend to have a version of sensory processing disorder, as I certainly do. This makes it extra hard for us to screen out sensory input and not just obvious ones such as noise or light (although amplified hearing, called hyperacusis, is a thing). These distractions, sometimes more like sources of pain, can come from subtle things…sensations that are hard to describe and which neurotypicals are completely unaware of, and they can keep us awake at night or feel like nails down a blackboard to us in environments where “nothing” seems to be going on as far as other people are concerned. Obviously, these things are somewhat easier to control (though not always, in the modern urban environment…) at home compared to the rest of the world but, again, when I hyperfocus on tasks during the day I seem to tune them out far more effectively than at night, when they have me tossing and turning and constantly on the verge of feeling sleep-deprived, even with earplugs in (which only exacerbate internal sensory awarenesses). What fun, eh?

The irony is, when a challenge crops up we are often the ones to rise to it like nobody else, as though made for such a thing and this has been one of the paradoxes of my life, a source of much bewilderment until I considered my ADHD status. Whether last minute exam prep, bankruptcy or a divorce (not to mention the constant fires I had to put out in my longest-lasting job; the reason they hired me was probably because I always rose to the occasion) I have been the master of a challenge all my life, only to collapse in a heap when its all over. This, apparently, is a well-known ADHD “thing” and we seem to thrive on it, rescuing babies out of burning buildings only to seem hopelessly inert and inept on other days of the week.

Over time this can cause terrible burn-out (the story of my chronically fatigued life…living testament to having too many fires to hose down, for too many years) but, these days, I find hyperfocus can anchor me. It can tie me down, with just enough to do in order to keep me ticking-over with that feeling of purpose and busyness, not to mention interest to keep my ever-active mind engaged, without quite reaching the full crecendo of a towering inferno in my life…I can’t be doing with those any more, too old!

Of course, I see now, hyperfocusing has really helped me to anchor at other times of my life. How did I get through childhood and adolescence, all the horrors of bullying, feeling odd and marginalised both at home and at school, the awkward piece in every setting? Oh yes, I hyperfocused on passing my exams; that really got me through (along with a load of fixations that few others would understand). In many ways, it all started to go wrong for me when I no longer had that reason to hyperfocus, once my academic years were over; the world-of-work and “doing expected adult things” seemed only to present ridiculous reasons to hyperfocus on tasks, ones I found it increasingly hard to invest in.

As teenagers, the need to hyperfocus on school studies and the expectation that teenagers will, quite often, fixate on unusually intense interests can disguise ADHD at just the very point when it is starting to blossom and I think, in my family and at school, that is exactly what happened. I blended in as a “geek” and nobody noticed at all; so my trait was normalised so much it was hardly seen, even by me, until my chronic health years threw it into the spotlight. In the middle years, my ADHD trait went underground or was blended into oblivion by my own desire to “normalise”, coming out when I drank too much or took on way more than I could manage. It became a time-bomb ticking away and no longer finding healthy outlet in the kind of interests I pursued as a teenager; that all started to come back when I picked up my paints 16 years ago to cope with chronic pain levels and, now, well I’m open to finding more and more hyperfocusing interests that allow me to reach for something engaging when I need it and I certainly see that as a huge factor of my future life, front and centre of my mental vision board (no lolling around doing nothing for me in “retirement”).

Finding out about this in-built hyperactivity trait (requiring hyperfocus as an anchor) has been a very large key to unravelling the mysteries of my health and it has become just as important to me to work with the trait as to see it there, which is one of the ways acknowledging a need to hyperfocus is so important. There has been a trend, thankfully antiquated, of expecting adults with ADHD to have “grown out of these traits” by adulthood, I gather, but I never heard such nonsense (on a par with expecting a fish to grow out of its fins). So, I suspect, the culturally-driven trend has actually been for adults to learn to live with them by masking, suppressing or burying them out of sight as socially unacceptable behaviours, in order to “normalise” and fit in. Ignore them at my peril, is a truth I have discovered for myself, thanks to my body rebelling so wonderfully these last years.

So, just as long as I am aware that this is something that helps me to be “me”, a trait I can drive it forward in positive ways (whilst keeping an eye out for signs of overdoing it), I can begin to structure a life for myself that makes room for hyperfocus on things that really interest and engage me, and then I can make sure that I factor those things in on a regular basis, the same way other people might schedule time to put their feet up and focus on absolutely nothing!

Linked article: “OMG, So That’s Why I Do That?!” – ADDitude magazine

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