The Jump to Hyperfocus

I’ve been really pleased at the number of people who got in touch after my last post! This is what I mean about not feeling alone – there are plenty of us out there, and it’s a hell of a lot less lonely if we talk to each other. This isn’t specifically a mental health blog, but before we move on to other things I’d like to look at one aspect of the craziness in greater detail, since it plays an important part in my creative life and always has, even though I didn’t have a name for it until quite recently.

Adult ADD is one of my newer diagnoses, and I got it courtesy of a psychiatrist who worked with me last year before I moved back to Scotland. I went to her to address some self-destructive behaviours. During those sessions I had reason to show her a couple of my notebooks, and what she saw there prompted her to ask if I had any of my old school reports. I had. She read through them and asked me to do some tests. Based on my writing and my ridiculously high test scores, she concluded that I have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

Let’s get two things straight before we move on. First, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding psychiatrists and I can understand why, but this particular shrink had nothing to gain from this diagnosis. She already knew I’d be leaving her practice shortly to go home, and there was no-one for her to hand me on to because believe me, for treatment of Adult ADD there is no-one. (Well, almost – there’s one specialist in the country and he’s busy enough not to need my custom.)

Second, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding ADD itself, mostly because it has a very unhelpful name. Just to be perfectly clear, I don’t care whether you think ADD is real, made up, overdiagnosed or anything else. If you think it’s fake, that’s fine. I’m not asking you to consider whether you have it, or indeed to read further. Are we all happy with that? Good. 😉

Inevitably, you say Attention Deficit and the image that comes to mind is of schoolchildren running riot in classrooms, off their little faces on blue Smarties until they’re rounded up and Ritalin’d into doped obedience. I’m not like that and never have been. Even as a child I only ran around like a maniac very occasionally. I was much more likely to be the one sitting under a table with my nose in a book, which is not what people associate with ADD.

This is where misunderstandings about ADD kick in. It’s not that we can’t concentrate on anything. We can. It’s just that we struggle more than we should to concentrate on things that don’t grab our attention. Think of it as a sort of river of concentration – it flows, and when it encounters an obstacle (in the form of something tedious or too challenging) it changes course. Yes, obstacles can be worn away or the river can be dammed and rerouted to work round it, but those things require time/effort. When it’s not obstructed it can be pretty powerful and fast flowing.

So while I might have been a bookworm, I was an ADD bookworm. I loved reading, so I charged through books at an alarming rate and unintentionally taught myself speed reading. That’s hyperfocus. When I go on three day writing benders, I don’t do it as an act of will, I do it because I write a paragraph, hyperfocus kicks in and it’s just… done. Before I realise it. I go online to dig up a couple of parapsychological terms for a scene I’m writing and surface several hours later having read everything I can find on the Dyatlov Pass incident. I’m full of theories about the demise of a group of cross-country skiers and I’m already figuring out the budget for when I turn it into a piece of one on one theatre. I’m not a single word further forward with the play I was actually writing.

That’s the trouble with hyperfocus – it’s focus to the exclusion of all else. That’s the ‘deficit’ bit of Attention Deficit. It’s not that I can’t concentrate on anything, it’s just that when something grabs my attention I completely forget about everything else, and I mean everything. Up until a few years ago I would forget to eat. I’d get lost in whatever I was doing and not even realise I was hungry until I was on the point of fainting. I’m not quite that bad these days, but it’s taken me a while to get to this stage.

Hyperfocus can be extremely useful in creative terms, and I have to admit that when I’m in that state I absolutely fucking love it. Honestly, it’s a beautiful feeling. Even if I eventually discard or shelve the resulting work, the process is a blast. However, it always leaves me with a pile of undealt-with tasks – unopened mail, unanswered voice and emails, undone housework and missed appointments – and since I’ve just poured all my energy into hyperfocus, I lack the reserves to deal with all of this. That’s the dangerous bit, because the hyperfocus grows stronger and more frequent when I’m on the downward spiral into depression and the feelings of inability to cope with life that follow a period of hyperfocus can easily contribute to the low moods and catastrophic thinking symptomatic of depression.

I don’t know where I’d be without hyperfocus. Perhaps I would have developed the thing that other people call a work ethic, rather than requiring these episodes to be kickstarted by either inspiration or an imminent deadline. Perhaps not. Perhaps I’d be better at keeping on top of domestic and professional admin. I’m never likely to know, since the ADD is not going anywhere. Without access to specialist advice I’m unwilling to medicate for it, since I’d rather stick with the devil I know than mess around with my already untidy brain chemistry. (There is a theory that ADD can be the result of failing to absorb dopamine correctly, which would make sense since chemical absorption was never a strong point of mine. Still, no specialist, no dice.)

Before I embraced the Scenic Route I used to try to create routines and structures for myself. This meant calendar, diary, watch and To Do list. I’d force myself to stick to it for a while, and then hyperfocus would strike and I’d lose track of my careful schedule and end up feeling really miserable and useless. All those moments of being told that if I couldn’t perform tasks according to someone else’s schedule I’d never be anything other than a failure would replay in my head, triggering downward spirals and mental collapse. It wasn’t helpful.

Over the past year, since accepting the Scenic Route for what it is (by which I mean ‘a suitable path for me’, not necessarily ‘a path I’d recommend to anyone else’), I’ve loosened that schedule a lot. I don’t even check my diary on a daily basis now. My Google calendar is not synced to my phone. I don’t pack my days full any more, and I use my deadlines with care instead of setting them arbitrarily for everything. It’s a bit more relaxed, so my schedule can (up to a point) respond to my moods rather than my moods and mental state being ignored if they don’t happen to fit my schedule’s requirements. I’m not yet ready to pronounce this experiment a total success, because I’m still recovering from the era of heavy scheduling and there’s been so little sunlight that I’ve had many barely functional days recently, but I’m going to continue with it for now because I’m happy and because it’s my life to experiment with. I suspect that once the depressive fog lifts the new routine (or lack thereof) will let me be much happier and productive than hitherto. For now, who knows? I’ll post the results as I figure them out. In the meantime, it’s nearly 2am, marking the end of my usefulness for today. Bedtime, scheduled or not, and tomorrow I’ll see whether spilling all of this out into the void clears the way for writing any of the more creative stuff that’s currently cluttering the headspace. The next bout of hyperfocused non-stop writing is overdue.

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, dramaturg and director. Here you'll find posts about my work, mental health, arts politics and whatever else happens to catch my attention. View all posts by jenbitespeople

2 responses to “The Jump to Hyperfocus

  • discoverfineacting

    Very interesting – makes a lot more sense than the usual ideas about ADD you so succinctly mention. Thanks for the info!

  • anon

    When it comes to hyper focus, I am undecided on whether it’s a good or bad thing. Like you, I was an ADD bookworm. I didn’t do too well in English classes as a child, but it has paid off. I’ve developed an extraordinary way with words when I am inspired. College writing is painstakingly hard because it hinders creativity and talent. I can’t use euphuism’s, play of words, or analogies; college writing is the yin to my yang.

    I have two major problems with hyper-focus: 1. it is extremely compulsive. When I go into hyper-focus mode, it takes something major (perhaps my house catching on fire) to break its hold. 2. It is extremely taxing after. Hyper-focusing, for me, is a precursor to hitting rock bottom emotionally, mentally, and physically. I feel extremely awful after, even if I accomplished a huge task. I also feel disoriented due to “losing” time. Today, I am angry because I hyper-focused all day at work. I was allotted a creative task today which triggered it. I don’t know if perfectionism is a part of hyper-focusing or not, but this is another problem of mine. I get so wrapped up in what I am doing, with the compulsion of perfecting it that it takes me much longer to complete, even in a heightened state. There are advantages, but I hate the yo-yoing of emotional states that go along with it.

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