Monday, 16 August 2021

Could it be… ADHD? ADHD and writing by Juliet Clare Bell


I have a terrible confession to make about Picture Book Den. So... we take it in turns to write blogposts each week and there’s a rota of who goes when…

only I don’t know where that rota is

…which means I don’t know when I’m meant to post. Which means I periodically get a heart-stopping moment where I think ‘oh no [though much less politely], it might be my turn and I’ve forgotten (again)’ -but I don’t think the thought through properly enough in the run-up to the Monday when someone posts (and ignore that nagging feeling), I think it on the Monday… but I have an almost pathological fear of checking to find the rota to see if I’m right (that I’ve missed my date). 

Sounds ridiculous, right? Because it is. Why don't I just write the dates on a calendar? And why would I choose to stick my head in the sand and NOT check the dates when I know that I haven't posted for ages? 

And yet I do it time and time again. When someone else posts on a Monday, I breathe a sigh of relief as it can't have been my week after all...  Over the years, I’ve occasionally remembered to write down my dates for the whole year onto my calendar which means I’ll get them in on time for that year -(IF I’ve remembered to look at my calendar regularly, of course) but mostly I don’t. And so, shamefully, I am reminded when I’ve already missed my deadline. It’s not that I don’t want to do it. I love being in the Picture Book Den. I’m only posting this because shame thrives on secrets (thank you, Brene Brown). I’ve got plenty of terrible confessions I could make about opportunities missed because I have huge difficulties prioritising anything, and how I can be 98% through a writing task but cannot make myself do the last two percent -for often weeks, or months, or years. But all this confession talk is working up to something that happened about four weeks ago…

It was my Usual Suspects moment (you know, when the big reveal all comes together and it’s like ‘no way! [another realisation]… no way!... [and another] no way! With each additional realisation that you’re suddenly bombarded with, you think. Wow. 

Everything 

suddenly 

makes 

sense.

It reminded me of the lightbulb moment in my most recent picture book, Ask First, Monkey! (illustrated by Abigail Tompkins). Monkey gets it wrong time and time again and doesn’t realise what he needs to do in order to work out whether someone wants to be tickled or not. 


(c) Abigail Tompkins (2020)

And then…


                                                         (c) Abigail Tompkins (2020)

The realisation...


                                                            (c) Abigail Tompkins (2020)

It doesn’t mean suddenly that he’s always going to get it completely right and never makes mistakes but it’s that realisation…

I suddenly realised -at the ripe old age of fifty, that 

must 

have 

ADHD. 

For three months after a family member suggested that both she and I had it and asked me to do an online test like she’d done I had been in complete denial. I went and did one and the ‘this result strongly suggests you have ADHD’ didn’t even leave me questioning if I had; I simply assumed it wasn’t a good test (though I was totally on board with my family member having it). I took three more tests at various points over the following months (with only the last one feeling in any way like I was doing it to find something out about me and not the wrongness of the test). Obviously everyone must come up looking like they had it. I am similar in my difficulties to quite a few friends and family and surely we didn’t all have it?! Unless, of course, you’re drawn to people with a similar slightly chaotic way of thinking/living…? And unless there’s a large genetic component and actually you might come from an extremely neurodiverse family but you all thought it was just normal (and that it was other people who were different and not you…)  

Instantly, loads of my life made sense for the first time. Before there were so many individual things that I really struggled with but hadn’t put together (really MESSY in real life -no idea how to keep a tidy home, and frantic tidying (or hiding away of mess into various cupboards before anyone comes round), always FORGETTING things, including how not to forget things -like writing things down… (and periodically thinking I'd invented an amazing new device comprising writing down what I was doing on each day before realising, once again, that that was a calendar and I had one -and could use it), not being able to stay FOCUSED -except on certain things (I could do mindless puzzles for hours, or follow some random research thought down a rabbit hole for hours), my whole pattern of work history when I worked in academia…, massive trouble PRIORITISING, having my work in one of nine places (I counted for this post) because of real difficulties ORGANISING anything, being really messy in my writing scribblings, not being able to FOLLOW even the simplest of DIRECTIONS or INSTRUCTIONS, a shockingly bad PROCRASTINATOR, an almost pathological DIFFICULTY FINISHING things. And then I think about our childhood -and, of course! I could go on (and I do, I could talk for ever, and I’d INTERRUPT you loads, too -another thing I’ve not properly realised, or at least admitted to myself, until now) but I won’t.

It’s a bit embarrassing to have been so blindingly unself-aware for so many years (I used to be a research developmental psychologist! I’m a writer! Surely being self-aware is pretty important for those jobs and I’ve seen myself as being a pretty self-aware person, so my pride took a bit of a hit). I had become more aware in some respects over the past twenty years or so -mostly since having children) and this had spilled over into my author visits in a really positive way. We play games around embarrassing moments -doing or saying the wrong thing (of which moments I have a considerably greater than average number) and we talk about why writing is brilliant -because I can be messy, I get to be in charge, I have to let go of perfectionism (for so many years I hated making mistakes and the crippling anxiety that goes with it…), I even do projects with children called ‘I am a work in progress’ and mention about how I was bullied in school for being different, and look good humouredly at all the things I struggled with.


We made a whole book about it! (Thank you to Hallfield Year 4s and 5s)

It was great way of engaging with children and helping them feel better about themselves… And the playing of lots of what if…? games where we go down those crazy rabbit holes and things become ridiculous are loads of fun

 but I still hadn’t put all the pieces together…

 

In the past, I was very harsh on myself and I all always asked the question

why can’t I do things that normal people can do?

I would berate myself that I could do a PhD (even if each chapter/sub-chapter deadline was scarily last minute and I had to stand up whilst writing for the last three days before I handed the whole thesis in as I knew I’d fall asleep if I sat down to write) but I was completely incapable of keeping a room tidy. I’d be furious at myself and think

What’s wrong with you?!

Even now, keeping a room tidy for a few days feels like a bigger achievement than getting a book published because it feels like I’ve finally, inexplicably gained this secret knowledge of how to be normal... 

And then I lose it again.

So what does this actually mean for writing?

There are parts of writing and related activities that seem to work pretty well for me (the more sociable bits -where I’m with students, or I’m doing school visits -doing, not organising them; the organising and admin around them are very painful). I can come up with really interesting ideas for books and love doing the research parts where I need to. And the fact that I have trouble with sustaining focus whilst working from home means that no one sees me when I do things in tiny bursts of productivity amongst long periods of zoning out. The productivity can be really productive for short bursts and I have to accept that it does work out sometimes as I DO get books published occasionally! And I have had periods with my accountability partner (2020) where lots of things come together and I have what looks and feels like a massive rush of things going right before it all goes extremely quiet again. And actually, when I am commissioned to write books, or get a book deal, I ALWAYS get them in on time. It’s down to the last minute of course (often literally) but I do deliver when I’ve got a firm deadline. But it comes at a personal cost, relying on heaps of adrenaline to make me finish it, and I’ve also missed amazing opportunities because I wasn’t able to prioritise and didn’t turn opportunities into these firm deadlines like publisher deadlines.

But the children’s writing community is lovely (check out SCBWI if you haven't already) and there’s loads of support to be had. I’ve been trying to ‘self-medicate’ with numerous productivity planners and books on getting organised/escaping chaos, and accountability partners and in-person/online write-ins for years without realising it all stems from the same thing. There’s even an ADHD term for the write-ins and similar meetings up: using a body double, where you get someone to be in the same room as you whilst you’re doing something you find difficult to do. The other person doesn’t help you; they’re just there. I find it really hard to get started and to finish things, so having people around makes getting started much easier. And I have a wonderful accountability partner (a fellow picture book author). Now she knows, she’s going to hold me accountable for some of the things I find unbearably difficult -by being my body double. I have about one hour of paperwork I need to do for part of my job each week that’s really simple if you do it straightaway but I have an almost pathological dread of doing it straightaway, so it then takes three or four times as long to do it later. From now on, my accountability partner and I will stay on our zoom call for an hour after our weekly accountability session and she’ll do whatever work she’s working on and I’ll specifically do the thing I can’t bear to do -which is actually a really easy task if there’s someone there.

And soon (pandemic permitting) I'll start back with some in-person write-ins in a local cafe. With write-ins, there’s an element of not wanting to look bad by not writing anything and feeling less inclined to look online as someone will see me, but it’s actually much more than that. My totally illogical anxiety involved in actually getting it started just isn’t there.

I’d really recommend body doubling for reading, too, if you struggle to read, or finish a book. My children asked to read together (not out loud, but silently, in the same space) over lockdown, and it’s actually got me back into reading in a way I haven’t read for over 25 years. I’ve probably given up on five books for every one that I’ve finished when I’m reading them for myself, and the ones I’ve read are mostly young adult books where they’re designed to get you engaged from the first page. I read so much as a child and I absolutely love it again now. Our reading sessions together are highlights of my week.

I realise I’ve written plenty of blogposts relating to aspects of this (especially on procrastination and motivation) and each time it feels that it’s the start of something new (I am an eternal optimist), but it’s different now (no, really!). There’s a difference between thinking something is helpful and knowing it’s necessary. ADHD isn’t an excuse for anything I’ve done (or not done) or do (or not do), but it’s an explanation and I feel like I’m arming myself with knowledge that will equip me really well for writing -and life!- in the future. Self-awareness is always good when writing authentically, and knowledge about a whole person approach (including good sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, specific strategies for prioritising, making lists, using a calendar consistently, setting loads of alarms to remind me to do things, etc. and possibly stimulant medication) is a really positive step.

One of the biggest changes in my thinking over the past few weeks is about raising my expectations. I’m naturally a happy person. I am daily extremely grateful for my life and family and friends. But in order to decide that this wasn’t a huge personality flaw (to believe that I wasn’t lazy and stupid and selfish) and to accept myself for who I am, I did lower expectations of myself quite significantly about ten years ago. If laziness wasn’t the reason I wasn’t writing as much as most writers (and why I had a messy house) then there wasn’t much I could do about it except accept it. I actually didn’t want to have much more going on writing-wise because I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with the extra workload. But that’s all changed. I feel like I want to do more, now -because if I use the right strategies and get the right support then it’s not an alarming thought to think of having more deadlines from editors. And imagine if I managed to get organised enough to do the right kind of publicity for my books? And if I sorted out a system for doing author visits that didn’t feel like the admin was so grim that it might not be worth it (and where I could do that admin with a kind body double who was just getting on with her work on skype whilst I finished my admin?). (And what about a calm, tidy house?! Now that would be something…)

Waiting lists are notoriously long so I haven’t got an official diagnosis yet (believe me, I’ve refrained from including the dozens of personal stories which would make it feel like I didn’t need to wait for a diagnosis to know!) but apart from stimulant medication which I may or may not try, I can start doing all the other things now. It’s going to be a life-long process (we’re all a work in progress after all...), but I’m enormously relieved and really excited. Next fifty years here I come. And as for the picture book den deadlines? I’m going to find the dates tomorrow and write a year’s worth onto my online calendar which I’m going to check every day. I’ve even set the alarm (with accompanying label) to do it…  

Are you a writer with ADHD (I’m guessing there are quite a lot of writers out there!)? If you have any tips for writing with ADHD, please share them below. Many thanks.

Juliet Clare Bell (always called Clare) can be found at www.julietclarebell, though oddly enough, her website needs updating...

 



22 comments:

Sophia Bennett said...

What an absolutely fascinating post, Clare - and what a revelation! There was so much I identified with too. I think I must take some of those tests ... How brilliant to discover how you work, what makes you tick (or not) and what will help. Good luck as you take the next steps. I hope we get to meet up again in the not too distant future as I'd love to hear more. Including how you aced book marketing with the help of your double!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you so much, Sophia. I've been listening to your podcasts loads -and I actually have them every night to fall asleep to! Another ADHD thing of not falling asleep without noise. I do listen to them all first, though -so I'm not falling asleep to them because they put me to sleep. It's just lovely falling asleep to two lovely people having interesting conversations... Would LOVE to meet up and discuss everything. And that might even be realistic in the not too distant future! x

Donna Smith said...

I have just been wondering this
- have been suspicious. Your post has so many similarities to my own life - and the friends thing…now that I look more closely…I avoid those who are very organized. They are intimidating to me. I just realized that after your wondering. I wonder if I can make this self-awareness work for me. Thanks!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Donna Smith, how interesting! ADDitude magazine is a very good place to start and I'll post some books I've been looking at when I've got them all together in one place... Very best of luck with everything

Lori Degman said...

Clare, I see myself in so much of this post! It's interesting how the self-thoughts and behaviors are so similar in people with ADHD! I was diagnosed about 15 years ago - though my sense of time stinks, so it's probably longer ago than that. I was on Concerta for several years but I quit about five years ago because my son was worried about its effect on my heart (since I'm so old :-)) I learned some strategies while on the meds that have carried over, so I'm better than I used to be. Still, an impending deadline is still my best friend - always has been! The ADDitude Magazine sounds great - I'll check it out! BTW, I just checked my browsing history and I've been on 5 different sites while writing this comment! HA!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Ha! Five?! Thanks for the comment. Really interesting. And I do think it's really telling that you wrote 1 Zany Zoo and that my second story I wrote (but never became a picture book, sadly) was Scatterbrained Kate... Write who are you...

Traci VW said...

Thank you for this. I'm happy for you to have made this discovery in further self-awareness. I feel like I could have written this post. Finishing things is just so hard. I'm an expert procrastinator. I'm pretty sure I have ADHD, but I haven't been diagnosed. I don't think I'll seek a diagnosis. I try to work on being more aware and being kind to myself. I use notes and my calendar to keep my daily to do list and important dates in one place where I can easily find it. When the chaos in my head becomes too much, I spend 15-30 minutes doing what I call a brain dump where I just write, all my worries, concerns, anxieties and anything else bouncing around in my head, I get it out where I can examine it, free myself from it all and then I can move forward. I'm working on exercising more and eating better as well. It's been a life-long process of getting to know myself and learning to accept me for me. I'm much better at it, but I still have days where I beat myself up. Be kind to yourself!

gary fabbri said...

Thanks so much! I recognize myself again and again in your words and appreciate your sharing!

Kathryn Evans said...

Well yes, this. And I've coped and masked for so long I've almost lost myself. Strategies I use: I do things straight away - this is really stressful because sometimes I don't have time but if I try and prioritize things I get in a horrible muddle. This means that people think I'm super organized when in fact, I'm anything but - long-term things you have to keep track of are a nightmare for me. I can't keep on top of the house because I can't make other people do the straightway thing so I've learned to let most of it go and just do what needs to be done urgently. This is stressful because we have work meetings at home and I am a woman and judged for the house ( in my eyes coz sexism). I make lists (and lose them and then stress abotu losing them). I try and have routine so I can nibble away at things in a structured day I understand ( easily goes wrong but really helps with writing) And I lowered my targets - 500 words a day is good. And I give in to the physical urges to move and flap about when I can. I also follow people on tiktok who have adhd for advice and the wonderful feeling of not being a weirdo on your own xxx

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Tracey VW Thank you for your comment, and that brain dump sounds like an excellent idea. I'm glad you're better at accepting how things are now. It's certainly a life-long thing to work with. I hope there are some upsides for you? Sending very best wishes x

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Gary, let's try out some strategies!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Kathy. I appreciate your honesty and sharing your tips. It was lovely to talk about some of this with you last month. I'd be interested to see who you follow on TikTok (even if I don't have it -but it would be good for some children I know...). Hope to see you soon x

Helen Ishmurzin said...

Oh my goodness, this sounds like me 110%!! I have a different neurological disorder that often goes hand in hand with ADHD, but it never occurred to me that I could have ADHD because I suppose I thought of it as being mostly about hyperactivity (I really need to find out more about it!) Thank you so much for such an insightful article, Clare!! xx

Katherine said...

I have a MTBI (mild traumatic brain injury). A car accident left my executive functioning, contained in our frontal lobe, impaired. So basically I have many of the same traits as ADD and ADHD children. After being a type A person most of my life I find it very frustrating.
My doctor gave me the site Flylady which is helpful for getting things organized.

Darcy Day Zoells said...

When my children were small I went to a lecture at the school by a woman who had written a book on visual spatial learners. I sat in the audience and cried. As a child I thought there was something wrong with me. I had coping methods—now taught in some programs—but as a kid, I thought I was cheating. It was a terrible secret to carry. Such a simple thing but it felt like I finally understood myself in a new way and it made such a difference going forward. I appreciate your elation at your new understanding.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Hi Helen, it's that thing about assuming it's all about hyperactivity which makes so many people live in chaos and confusion because they never realise and then never get the help. I'm really new to this but good luck with your researching into it. x

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Katherine, that does sound very frustrating. I hope you've been given plenty of help with strategies, etc. Very best of luck to you x

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Darcy, for sharing. The relief of recognising yourself in someone else's description of something can be quite overwhelming...

Unknown said...

Hi Juliet - I totally identify with this and discovered when I was sixty that I had ADHD - the mess and chaos I have in spades - and anxiety which can build & build fantastical sizes but it has also been brilliant - for hyper focus, getting tons of stuff done - wild career swerves, nonstop growth and curiosity. So it is also a super power when we are calm enough to access its advantages. The biggest things that help me are protecting my sleep and practicing Donna Eden’s daily energy routine which massively helped regulate my brain and not being hyper alert all the time - Dr- Gaber Mate was the one who made me realise I had it when he realised he had adult ADHD at 50 - if a psychologist can take that long to figure it out then hope for all of us. Re house stuff, my hubby pretty much insists we have a cleaner and every bill has to be on direct debit as I never open lettters - my post is at least a foot high by front door - thanks for posting - Lucy van Smit xx

Juliet Clare Bell said...

I love your comment, Lucy. Thank you. And I'm going to check out Donna Eden's daily energy routine now! Best of luck with everything and thank you so much for sharing, Clare x

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Dr Kim West said...

Guess so many readers can relate to your story, Juliet!

Kim
Intensive Counseling