I 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.
One 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.
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 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.
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
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.