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On Growing Old with ADD

As I grow older with ADD, I no longer need to-do lists. I need alarms set to remind me to change activities. I need to write myself notes in which I describe how terrible it feels at the end of a day to have accomplished nothing. I need charts of long-term goals, broken down into daily tasks, and I need to be held accountable.

I keep a little sign on my fridge that says “Stay Nimble.” It has nothing to do with growing old or physical agility —though, at 57, I could use that reminder. Instead, these words remind me of my long, complicated dance with ADD, a dance that requires me to be ready for a change in the tempo and in the steps I must take.

I wish it were otherwise. I wish that there were a single, lifelong strategy I could adopt, one that had been figured out years ago, to minimize the negatives and max out the positives of my condition, but time has taught me that the challenges of ADD evolve. After I have mastered new tricks and made new habits, they lose their effectiveness because my needs have changed.

When I was first diagnosed, some 15 years ago, my three children still lived at home — in my unimaginably messy house. I was the master of late permission slips, and of sending my kids to school in unmatched socks. I made several grocery store trips just about every day, because I kept forgetting things. I couldn’t transform clean piles of clothes into neatly folded stacks, much less sort those stacks into drawers. Weeks of mail became teetering towers, and the kitchen was in chaos, all the time. And of course I felt awful about myself. And also mystified. Why was I such a failure at seemingly simple tasks?

After my diagnosis, those “failures” felt less like personal failure. I wasn’t lazy, or just a loser, which is how I often felt. I was a woman with a neurological condition.

I delegated the permission slips to my husband. It was easier to ask for help once I understood why I needed it. I (mostly) stopped beating up on myself about the laundry. My kids pulled their clean clothes from messy piles — not ideal, but manageable. And for the first time in my life, I made lists: lists for the grocery store; lists of what the children needed for school the next day; lists of what prep tasks would make cooking dinner easier at six o’clock. I wasn’t a genius list maker, and I regularly lost the lists I made, but this simple act of forcing myself to write down reminders helped a lot.

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My main challenge in those years had to do with the practical demands of a busy home. When people asked me what sort of work I did, I would say: “I run a small universe,” which is true of anyone with primary responsibility for a bustling household. All of the ADD strategies I employed had to do with juggling, keeping track of a million things, and managing numerous schedules.

But that was then, and this is now. Growing old means my household is simpler these days — just me and my husband, most of the time. My kids do their own laundry — many miles and time zones away from my home. Dinners for two are easier to plan and cook, and when I don’t quite make it work, I don’t feel guilty about frozen pizza or last-minute take-out. Although it seems that ADD is interfering less with my life, it has started playing a resurgent role. All my old strategies have become obsolete. The challenge is no longer to accomplish tasks but to structure open time. When the children grew up, and I became a full-time writer, the scaffolds that supported my days fell away.

I discovered how easy it can be to sit still for hours, without getting up — and not because I am writing the great American novel. More likely, I am on Facebook, or binge-watching some show, or tracking down bargain sneakers online. Without that small universe demanding that I accomplish specific, scheduled tasks, I fall into a void of hyperfocus on silly things and a disinclination to transition from one activity to another — both classic ADD behaviors.

The challenges have changed, so my strategies have had to change. I no longer need to-do lists. I need alarms set to remind me to change activities. I need to write myself notes in which I describe how terrible it feels at the end of a day to have accomplished nothing. I need reminders, a motive, to counterbalance the inclination to stay stuck. I need charts of long-term goals, broken down into daily tasks, and I need to be held accountable. That’s where friends come in, to exercise with me, and even to provide artificial deadlines for my work, so that my sense of time isn’t so open-ended.

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My system works sometimes, and doesn’t work at other times. But with all its imperfections, it is the right system for me, at this stage of my life. Years ago, I thought that the ADD strategies I employed would always be the ones I needed. But ADD isn’t a steady, static condition. There are many ways it can manifest. It is as changeable as we are. ADD continues to challenge us as we evolve, so we have to work with it as it does. As it says on my refrigerator, we have to stay nimble through the dance.

Robin Black is the author most recently of the novel Life Drawing and the collection Crash Course: Essays from Where Writing and Life CollideShe lives with her husband in Philadelphia and New York, and is currently at work on a second novel. 

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Updated on December 2, 2019

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