How to Write When You Struggle with Task & Demand Avoidance

types-of-avoidance_origI wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was thirty-three years old. And, even though the realization that my brain was “abnormal” was frightening, it was also a relief.

I’d spent my entire life assuming my unusual quirks—my impulsivity, my inability to keep things clean, my tendency to lose my keys and other personal items—were just character flaws I needed to work on. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop making these “careless” mistakes. Undiagnosed and unmedicated, I felt confused, frustrated, and undeserving.

But the truth is, neurodiverse behavioral patterns aren’t character flaws; they’re just by-products of the fact that our brains work differently. Nowadays, instead of fighting my programming and letting my inner critic run amuck, I’m trying to hack my unique mental code and make it work for me. 

6294c3_1361a4a13fd845adafc793eba5772a3e-549x600One of the challenges I struggle with most is task/demand avoidance. It’s a common problem for those of us who have autism or ADHD. When I sit down to write, I tend to get stuck in what psychologist and neuroscience expert, Susan McCrossin, describes as “The Stress/Avoidance Cycle.” 

When I sit down to write, the very existence of this mental demand can cause me anxiety. My fear of failure, the mental energy it takes to complete this task (since it’s harder for me than it is for NT writers), the prospect of inevitably making mistakes and being shamed, etc., can be overwhelming. This, in turn, causes the creative parts of my brain to shut down, making it physically impossible for me to think and write.

The end result: I get stuck in a cycle of anxiety and avoidance that repeats like the world’s most obnoxiously scratched version of the Fear and Loathing soundtrack.

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So what’s an ND writer to do? How are we supposed to create when even thinking about writing can make our brains shut down?

There are no easy answers, but here are a few, evidence-based strategies I’m trying to incorporate into my own writing practice.

Mindfulness Meditation

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Mindfulness can be a powerful tool for reducing anxiety. Recent studies have shown that, over time, mindfulness can even reduce gray matter in areas of the brain associated with stress and increase gray matter in areas associated with creativity and executive function. Personally, I love mindfulness’ strong emphasis on the importance of “non-judgement—it’s the perfect antidote to the perfectionism that fuels my anxiety.

Developing a daily mindfulness meditation practice and meditating before you begin writing can help calm your nervous system and improve your mood; this, in turn, can help prevent or reduce the anxiety that can trigger demand avoidance. One of my favorite meditations, “Working With Difficulties” comes from UCLA’s free, online guided meditation collection. I also really like the Meditation Studio App; it lets you browse meditations by type (calm, stress, pain, loving kindness, etc.). It also offers 70 different “teachers” so, if you find one person’s style or voice grating, you have plenty of options to chose from.

A word of caution:

Be careful if you decide to pursue an in-person or live virtual mindfulness course. Many instructors aren’t trained in trauma-informed practices and often haven’t considered how to make their courses accessible to diversely bodied and minded people. The last thing you want to do is put yourself through trauma or shame because of someone else’s ignorance. My advice: start off independently, develop your own practice, and go from there.

Set Realistic Goals

No one knows you better than you. Some writers can easily crank out 2000+ words a day. Me: Some days, between my chronic illness, pain, and ADHD, I’m lucky to reach 500 words. Trying to imitate another writer’s practice is a recipe for frustration and failure.

It’s better to set goals that compliment the strengths of your ND brain than to get frustrated trying to mask/pass for an NT writer. 200 words is better than zero words because you’re suffering from demand avoidance or a meltdown. Plus, 200 words a day x 365 days a year = 73,000 (which is around the length of the average novel). 🙂

Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to others. There is no right way to write.

Be Flexible

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You are going to have bad days. It’s going to happen.

You”ll be sick or sleep-deprived or struggling with overstimulation. Your PDA or RSD will spiral out of control. It doesn’t mean you’re a lousy writer. It doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. It does mean—instead of hoping these things won’t happen—that  you need to be ready.

Those of us with neurodiverse brains tend to be rigid thinkers. Once our brains are fixed on a particular plan, it can be hard to switch gears and try something different. Transitions aren’t our strong suit.

One thing that’s really helped me be more “flexible” in my thinking is creating a Writing Activity Menu. That way, I can choose any activity from the menu and still feel like I’m doing something productive.

Take Your Meds

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Culturally, there’s a significant stigma around taking medications that affect your mental state. But the truth is, we Westerners have a pretty unhealthy obsession with mind-body dualism and all the shame-filled baggage that goes along with it. We’ve come a long way since the days of Plato and Aristotle. Basic neuroscience tells that our minds and bodies are intimately connected. 

We don’t mock diabetics taking insulin. We don’t blame asthmatics for needing inhalers. Why should taking medications like Adderall or Cymbalta to help address neurochemical imbalances be any different?

Some neurodiverse folks choose not to take medication. And that’s ok. Everyone is different.

I personally find my anxiety and task avoidance are much easier to deal with when I take my medications. The first time I took them, I almost cried from relief. The closest analogy I can think of is spraying wiper fluid on a pollen-covered windshield: it’s not that you can’t see with the pollen there, but things are so much easier and clearer when it’s gone.

So if you’re on the fence, talk to your doctor. Each person is different, but you never know. It just might be life-changing.

Remember What You Want

Remember that whole, “the minute a demand exists it becomes overwhelming” thing? If you’re struggling with demand avoidance, it’s especially important for you to remind yourself that writing is a choice.

You don’t have to write a novel, short story, poem, or whatever it is you’re attempting. No one is forcing you. You are under no obligation to finish. Your creative work is not a prison.

Besides, if writing is drudgery for you, it’ll be drudgery for the reader too. Writing should come from a place of joy and excitement—not compulsion and dread.

So if your demand avoidance starts kicking in, just repeat these words to yourself,  “I want to write! I love to write! I’m good at this and I’m choosing it!”

Choose joy. Choose your passion. The world needs your stories.

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5 Tips for Neurodiverse Writers

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I don’t know about you, but I often find myself thinking that writing is a “serious business” and that I should be doing it a particular way– the way some famous author or my MFA professors told me. The problem is most of that advice wasn’t created for or by people like me. So when my neurodiverse (ND) brain tries to follow that advice, it’s more than frustrating: my inner critic joins a ménage à trois with my demand avoidance and rejection sensitivity disorder

Lately, I’ve been wondering, “Where’s the writing advice for someone like me?” Where are the writing tips for people who struggle with executive dysfunction? Sequencing? Impulsivity? 

Almighty Google didn’t have much to offer in terms of answers. So, in case anyone else out there is struggling too, I decided to create my own.

5 Tips for Neurodiverse Writers

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Embrace the Chaos

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Neurodiverse brains tend to struggle with sequencing and linear thinking. Putting plot events and chapters in order isn’t likely to be our strong suit. Instead of fighting it, accept the fact that your process (and, most likely, the first draft of your book) is going to be gloriously messy. You can always go back and “fix things” later during the editing process. Forcing yourself to write things “in order” is a recipe for ND writer’s block. 

Follow Your Joy

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People with ADHD and autism are frequently told that their tendency to hyperfocus is detrimental (often by well-intended neurotypicals (NTs) who insist we need to just “suck it up and do the things you don’t want to do!”) This is bad advice for ND’s – especially when it comes to writing. 

Many autistics and ADHDers struggle with task/demand avoidance. When a task becomes stressful or mandatory, it becomes overwhelming and we completely shut down. The stress can become so severe that it can lead to meltdowns or panic attacks – something I’ve experienced personally. Trust me: you don’t want the mere sight of a blank Word doc to leave you sweating, shaking, and struggling to breathe.

All of this circles back to the false idea that there’s a “right” way to write. There isn’t. 

Instead of forcing yourself to write scenes that feel overwhelming, write the fun scenes first. Allow your imagination to wander (since it will anyway), then hyperfocus on what’s interesting! This can help keep you motivated and reduce the temptation to wander off or give up. 

Channel your hyperfocus into the superpower you’ve always known it could be. 🙂

Get Your Fidget On

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A tired piece of NT writing advice many of us have heard is, “Sit your ass in the chair and write!” But, unless you’re lost in the throes of hyperfocus, this isn’t always possible for ND’s. We’re wired differently. Our brains NEED our bodies to move; it’s how we process things. 

Instead of sitting your butt serenely in a chair, try a standing desk. Or, if you need to sit, try sensory boxes, a bouncy chair band, or a desk cycle. A wobble chair is also a great option. Better yet, download a voice-to-text app so you can move and work hands free. I promise you: it still counts as writing. 🙂

KISS: Keep It Short, Sugar

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 Let’s be honest: marathon sessions of anything (outside of our special interests) aren’t exactly most ND’s strong suits. Keeping writing sessions short and timed can help keep them from feeling impossible. I’m a big fan of NaNoWriMo’s word sprints. If I have to write for a longer period of time, the Pomodoro Method is my strategy of choice.

Get Doped Up

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ADHD and autistic brains crave dopamine. Some research suggests that the neurotransmitters in our brains don’t process dopamine as effectively as NT brains—which why we engage in behaviors like stimming and struggle with impulse control.

Rather than fighting our need for dopamine, we can use it as motivation. Reward yourself when you meet your daily writing goal! Play a video game. Devour some dark chocolate or another snack that’s rich in dopamine. If you’re more intrinsically motivated, try signing up for WattPad. There’s nothing like getting positive feedback on writing that you’re proud of. 

This list is not an end-all, be-all, but I hope it’s a beginning. Have additional suggestions? Leave them in the comments! I’d love to hear from you, because we need diverse books — and that includes neurodiversity.

#WNDB #NeurodiverseSquad #Writing