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Initiation

Much of the point of starting up a blog again is to give myself space to be imperfect.

I like Medium for essay-writing, but the formality of the platform can be daunting. I can’t muse or ramble there; I feel like anything I post has to clear a certain bar: painstaking research, tight prose, a certain completeness and elegance of message. But the words these days aren’t coming together easily or naturally; the act of writing feels like trying to shove a block of cheese through a fine mesh strainer: it mostly doesn’t work, and what I do produce is just goo. (And yes, that was literally the best metaphor I could come up with after several days of thinking about it, which is doubtless demonstrative of the problem.)

There are so many causal contenders for this headspace: I’ve been in strict isolation for four months now, and I have many emotions about the trash fire that is my home country. I am lonely and anxious and frustrated and despairing and distracted. This is all on top of the memoryfail that I’ve been experiencing for the past several years, which I postulate is a fun symptom of perimenopause.

But beneath those problems lies another, more basic issue. Recognizing my autism has also led me to take another long look at executive dysfunction and consider how it applies to me. I first discovered the concept in 2012, as part of my long-running attempts to figure out what was going on with my younger stepdaughter. It was immediately obvious to me that she had either ADHD or another executive function disorder, but I didn’t recognize myself in the symptom list.

I realize now this was a mistake, if an understandable one. Even eight years later, the concept of executive functions is so imperfectly understood that no two sources can agree on how to delineate them. I was misled the first time around because there are some executive functions that I handle just fine. For example, I’m good — probably better than average — at what’s often called ‘cognitive flexibility’, which shows up in things like task-switching, or coping with a change in plans. My brain has a very small turning radius.

But one thing I’ve learned about autism is that it’s not a prix fixe meal, where everybody gets identical courses; it’s more like a buffet, where each person ends up with a different mix on their plate. ADHD, which has a high comorbidity with autism, seems to be the same: you can have deficits in some areas and not in others.

And in hindsight, there are several executive functions I’ve struggled with my whole life, the worst one being what’s known as ‘initiation’ or ‘motivation’. I know that to the uninitiated (see what I did there) that will sound like a copout for ‘laziness’, but in fact this phenomenon is due to dopamine deficits in the brain — this is why dopamine-releasing drugs like amphetamines are prescribed for ADHD.

I asked my aunt last year to tell me what she remembers me being like as a child (she’s the only person I can talk to who goes back that far) and the second thing she mentioned was how much I ‘procrastinated’ … which is exactly what initiation dysfunction looks like from the outside. It’s a struggle for me to work up the impetus to do most things, most of the time, and the more boring and repetitive something is, the more trouble I have.

In thinking about my circumstances here and now, I’ve realized they are motivational death: I’m stuck in the house, so my environment never changes, and we no longer have housekeeping help, so all the repetitive cleaning is on me. I wash the same dishes and sweep the same floors and scoop the same litterboxes day after day. I try to switch up the food I cook, but chopping one vegetable is very much like chopping another. It is all tedious in the extreme. I told Jak the other day that the reason I’d cleaned the leather on our sofa (rather than spending the same time on any number of more urgently filthy surfaces) was because it was something unusual and different. He laughed, and I laughed with him, but I was dead serious.

I do have a few tricks for dealing with motivational deficit. In recent years, podcasts have been my saving grace: I discovered that if I’m learning something interesting, my body will often go on autopilot and handle tasks that would leave me stuck if I were to actually think about them. The problem comes when depressive anhedonia sets in, as it sometimes randomly does, and then absolutely nothing is interesting or satisfying or pleasurable. I’ve felt like I’m teetering on the verge of anhedonia every day for about a week now, and my functionality level has been correspondingly low. In fact, a lot of things that usually help me are working rarely or not at all.

If I lived in the States — and if we weren’t in a global pandemic — I would be working towards getting tested for ADHD, in hopes of getting meds that would provide what my brain seems to be missing. Here in Mexico, though, I don’t have much in the way of options. Jak has agreed to help me try to incrementally desensitize myself out of my agoraphobia, on the theory that an occasional change of scenery couldn’t hurt. Don’t know how well that will go, but that’s … all I’ve got.

I hope this doesn’t come across as whingy. I know that I am lucky, and that many people are having a harder time right now than I am. Unfortunately, recognizing things could be a lot worse doesn’t actually make me feel better.

I need to stop tweaking this and just post it. (I did warn you at the beginning that my writing here wasn’t going to be either complete or elegant. Genuinely sorry about that, but imperfect is better than not at all, right? Right?)

Published inMetaNeurodivergencePandemic

5 Comments

  1. David Gates David Gates

    One thing that is super cool is that we have all this tech nowadays. Can you imagine our lives if all this was happening without it, how much more shut in we’d all be. There are really a lot of ways that the on-line world can expand our space. I fear that I could turn my life into a rat race of busyness right here in my own living room. Sometimes I get on a zoom meeting and people will just not stop talking, and the whole thing gets very tedious, but there’s no point to it and no way to just click off. I think you are expanding your world through writing. I also do a lot of writing and am finding it hard to get motivated. One trick I’ve been using is to rewrite old stuff, trying to severely shorten it down using my meat cleaver indiscriminately. Mexico, how I dream of Mexico!

    • Karawynn Karawynn

      Oh, I am very definitely attempting to expand my world through writing. It only works, though, if other people participate, so … thank you for continuing to do so.

      I cannot even with Zoom, or any other multi-person videochat. You know, a lot of autistic people have trouble, always, with parsing conversational rhythms and knowing when to interject in a dialogue. I read those cues pretty easily and do fine, generally speaking. (I have to consciously remember not to monologue, but that’s a different thing from parsing turn-taking cues.)

      Until, it turns out, you get more than one person at a distance over technology. I cannot ever figure out the timing to participate — I get it wrong over and over again — so I mostly just end up listening. And most of what gets said in groups is small talk, in which I have zero interest and little patience. So I’m just lost and frustrated and bored out of my mind.

      Why do you dream of Mexico?

  2. Jeff Koke Jeff Koke

    I too have issues with procrastination or having sufficient motivation to start a task. Here are some of the ways I deal with it.

    I’ll break up the larger project into smaller, easily achievable tasks, organized by either the simplest or least boring first, and only commit to doing the first thing on the list. Then when that one small thing is done, I look at the next thing and commit to doing that. Even if I give up partway through the larger project, I’ve achieved more than if I never started. But, most of the time, I’ll have generated a bit of momentum which is enough to power through the harder and more boring bits.

    I’m this way with exercise. Some days I’m pumped to do a workout, but many days I’d much rather read blogs or practice guitar. On the days I’m less than enthusiastic, I commit to just doing 10 minutes on the treadmill. 10 minutes is easy, and it’s something. But, unless I’m exhausted, once I’m 10 minutes in, I have very little trouble going another 10 or 20 minutes.

    You already mentioned distraction, which I use as well. I listen to audiobooks when I exercise, which makes the workouts feel shorter. When I’m cooking dinner, I’ll often put on an album or watch a movie to distract me from the mundane tasks involved.

    Finally, one thing I don’t really do, but I’ve heard can help is gamification. Assign your tasks a point value — 1 point for taking the trash out, 5 points for making dinner, 50 points for writing a blog post, etc. Try to beat your score from yesterday!

    Anyway, glad you got this post written and posted. I enjoy reading your work and look forward to the next update.

  3. Karawynn Karawynn

    I figured there was a good chance you would relate to the problem, Jeff, but (based on what I’ve seen others describe) I also expected that meds would resolve most of that difficulty for you. Is that not so?

    I do try to make chores ‘bite-sized’ as much as possible — though that strategy is less about boredom and more about one of the other ADHD traits I have, which is getting overwhelmed by large or multi-step tasks and being unable to determine where or how to start. I hadn’t thought about working from least-to-most-boring, though.

    I don’t seem to experience this ‘momentum’ you describe. Like, in the absence of a podcast or other distraction, the boringness means that it’s a constant struggle to keep going; it doesn’t get easier just because I’ve been doing it for a while.

    I’ve tried gamification like that, and it doesn’t work for me. It seems arbitrary and doesn’t motivate me at all, like … why would I care about ‘points’? I’m always bemused in actual video games when other people are driven to complete arbitrary ‘achievement’ lists with no reward beyond I guess bragging rights, and I suspect this is the same phenomenon. They seem to get some satisfaction from it, but I just don’t have whatever that is.

    I do care about other people, so I often use ‘Jak will be happy with me’ to help motivate through something — it’s why I get less functional when I’m alone for extended periods. Which, haha, is not happening anytime soon, so there’s that.

    • Jeff Koke Jeff Koke

      The meds help with focus. For me, distraction is a different issue than motivation. Adderall helps me stay tuned in when working on a project, instead of flitting from email to web blogs to YouTube videos, I can work on something for 2 or 3 hours straight. However, if I’m not motivated, I’ll just end up down a rat hole and be very focused on that one non-productive thing.

      For me, the momentum idea is that there is a certain friction to starting an unpleasant task, but less friction to keep going once started, and a certain cost to stop and do something different. But you may not experience that. It sounds like you have friction all the way through.

      I’ve also noticed that once I’ve started a task, I can visualize the end. See the end of the tunnel, so to speak, which provides a motivation to finish. I do get satisfaction from finishing a project, which can provide me some motivation to keep going once started — I don’t feel the satisfaction at the time, but I can rationally understand that I will feel satisfied at the end, and conversely I will feel dissatisfied if I give up.

      I totally get the ‘spouse will be happy’ motivation. I usually get up first in our household, and Barbara makes our bed every day, except on days that she gets up before me. I don’t care about having a made bed, and would happily leave it messy all the time, but I know it makes her happy for the bed to be made, so if she gets up before me, I will force myself to make the bed. It’s a really small thing that takes a couple of minutes at most, but I never want to do it for myself, and it requires motivation every time. Every time, once it’s done, I wonder why I hate it so much, since it’s really simple and not much effort.

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