Disappearing

Dear friends, colleagues, students, employers, creditors, family, editors, medical providers, yoga instructors, Facebook friends, WordPress readers, and auto mechanics:

I have ADHD.  It’s a real thing. It’s hard because most of the world doesn’t.  Our society is built on steady, goal-directed effort and my brain does not work that way.  I will be a valuable person to interact with for a time, and then I will probably disappear.  I’m trying to fix that. It’s hard.  I lived for 40 years without knowing what was wrong, and it’s going to take some time to undo my bad habits and poor choices and the negative feelings that have grown up around them.

I am not asking to be excused or pitied.  The life I have now is what I signed up for. No one twisted my arm and said I had to take a teaching job, and I am fully aware, dear creditors, that one has to pay back what one has borrowed. I want to be held accountable for my actions. That actually helps me improve.  Also, don’t tell me I’m brave. I am not. If I were, I would not have this problem in the first place.  Though it is tempting, I do not think martyring myself will be healthy. I want to be praised for my true talents and accomplishments, and bravery is not up there.  False flattery is a short-term fix that I’m trying to wean myself from.

The only thing I want is some way to explain my strangeness.

When I don’t do something I said I would do, I most likely did not forget about it. I do forget about tasks, but usually just minor ones. No, usually something happened to get in the way of my getting started or following through and I couldn’t do it.  I can guarantee it’s on a list or in a pile somewhere close by.

Motivation is tied to desire, but it is a complex interaction.  If you’ve ever tried and failed to quit smoking or stick to a diet you know what I mean.

I want to be the teacher that returns emails within 24 hours, for example. I think that’s an important and reasonable standard for my work. Sometimes I can do it.  Sometimes I can’t.  Even when I can’t, I think about it all the time. It’s not that I’m living this carefree life, trying to get away with doing as little work as possible, laughing all the way to the bank (my bank statement generally makes me want to stick my head under a pillow).  I greatly prefer being able to do my work, and the things I do to avoid it do not make me happy or satisfied.  I imagine my habits are similar to a maintenance alcoholic’s drinking; avoidance is a sort of self-medication.  It might help in the short term but it creates more problems in the long term.

Like every person, my interests and enthusiasm for projects and activities change all the time.  However, unlike the average person, it is really hard for me to work on something that does not have an intrinsic attraction or immediate deadline. When things get difficult or uncertain, my attention moves on to something else.  My waning attention does not mean I don’t value something in the long term. There’s just some minor hurdle that my brain’s turned into a wall.  Whatever hypothetical task we’re talking about now, I was interested and motivated to do it before and I will be again.  I’m just on a down cycle right now.

There are some things that are not going to change.  I have trouble recalling names and numbers, for example.  Can’t help it.    Remembering someone’s name has little to do with how important that person is to me. Sometimes I can’t even remember my own phone number. The hardest thing of all for me to do is sustain regular effort over the long term. I can do that sometimes and it will seem as easy as breathing, but sometimes answering my email is harder than eight hours of digging ditches.

I want you to understand that if I disappear on you, it’s most often not something that you did. When I disappear, something’s going on in my life that’s causing me to get stuck.  It often has nothing to do with you. In fact, sometimes, the more I value a person or a project the harder it is to get over my block. I’m working on changing that, and I am making good progress, but I have setbacks too.

One thing that helps is persistence on your end.  I know, that seems unfair, but kind reminders and contact helps me enormously.  Face time helps too.  If we can work together somehow, I’ll do much better work.  If I have to slog things out alone, I’ll get into trouble.  I think I’m the only person I know who likes long meetings.

And honesty helps too. If you tell me what you like and what you don’t, in the long run I like that better than guessing at what people are thinking. Although it is very difficult for me to hear criticism when I’m in a funk, it proves valuable in the end. (Apologies to my wife in that department.) You have to have an abundance of patience to work with me.  I’m fortunate to have many people around me with such patience.  Especially my wife.

I write all this because it is hard to understand for a person without ADHD to understand. Even people with ADHD have trouble understanding and thus explaining themselves.  I did not understand my habits for nearly 40 years; I’m used to hiding and covering for my deficits. I don’t expect the world to change for me. I’m finding a way to work in the world. Understanding my habits is not yet enough for me to overcome my challenges yet, but I’m on the way.

If I disappeared on you, all of the above is the real explanation. I can usually conjure a believable excuse which has some basis in reality, such as I was sick, my kids were sick, or the internet was down. Those things happen often enough.

But the real answer: I got into a funk, a freeze, a down cycle.  I’ll be back soon.

backson

Writing as Therapy

If writing is so therapeutic, why are there so many miserable writers?

When I was earning my creative writing degrees, the idea of writing as therapy was anathema.  The phrases “navel gazing,” “mental masturbation,” and “self-indulgent prattle,” are attached to my memory of that time.  The derisive attitude toward therapeutic writing is understandable, even desirable, if you consider the context of my degree work.  Though stated as “creative” writing, the program’s goal was literary writing.  We did not look at commercial writing or popular writing in any sense, except as contrast. Put another way, its the difference between art school and graphic design school; my degrees were clearly on the “art” side.

Writing as therapy is writing only for the writer. It is a pouring out, a gushing forth.  Page vomiting. Even though it may be read by an audience and even though its writers often seek an audience, the goal is unburdening of the self.  I don’t tell people I have ADHD for their sake, so much.

Therapeutic writing is self-indulgent, but that’s a feature, not a bug.  Literary writing seeks an audience, a greater form.  I can hear Jack Kerouac fans hoisting their bongs in protest, but the writers of the Beat generation succeeded because they were both talented and brave. Their writing process, though, does not lend itself to timid hackery. If you can’t tell the difference between a poem by Allen Ginsberg and something written by a caffeinated bipolar monkey at a typewriter, you need to read more.

Writing as therapy has a place.  As a part of therapy.  Trying to shoehorn it into a literary writing program creates problems, one of which is the difficulty of critiquing a person’s therapeutic efforts.

This is not to say that writing cannot be both therapeutic and literary.  I’ve had poems published by literary journals that felt very therapeutic when I wrote the early drafts.  But I went beyond those drafts.  The questions “what will make me feel better” and “what do I want to say” produce early or private material, whereas “what would make this a better poem” starts to produce literary work. So it’s more accurate to say that writing which is merely therapeutic doesn’t belong in a literary writing program.  There’s plenty of confessional literature, but it is still literary in that it has some sort of accomplishment.  In the wrong context, writing that is merely therapeutic is like hearing about someone’s current toenail infection within five minutes of meeting him while he’s standing too close to you blasting hot sauerkraut breath into your nostrils.

Writing as therapy is also risky for the writer who seeks publication. Literary publishing, poetry in particular, for most everyone is usually an exercise in enduring futility.  To be a successful poet, you have to have talent, persistence, and absent “star backing” (a well known poet who will help you network), you have to live long enough.  From first submitting a successful poem through publication, longer than a year is not unusual. For publishing a book, two or three years. Pour all your self-esteem into that work, and you’d better load up on Xanax every time you open your email. (Note to self: track down some Xanax.)

So I write (I think) literary writing and (definitely) therapeutic writing.  I particularly fond of the big, black book of evilness practice for the therapeutic part, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone seeking writing as therapy.  I go to it when things are particularly difficult.  There’s not actually one such book, I have many of them, because I can never be sure I have one nearby when I need it.

These are the rules for the big, black book of evilness:

  • Entries must be dated
  • They must be handwritten
  • Nothing may be held back
  • Nothing may be false
  • The book cover must be black.

It is harder to follow these rules than you might think. For one, despite much evidence to the contrary, I do fancy that I will achieve literary success one day.  It’s a pipe dream, but one part of a literary person’s legacy is his or her papers.  That is, if I ever become Mr. Super-Famous Poet, when I die people will want to read my journals.  It is difficult not to adopt a pose in my big-black-book-of-evilness journals if I have the slightest inkling of an audience when I’m writing it.

The second difficulty is that in order to follow these rules, the book must be kept absolutely secure.  I’m not able to be completely unvarnished if I think someone might stumble across my writing accidentally, and, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not exactly great at keeping track of my things.

Handwriting is essential.  I feel it is more honest and deliberative, probably because my handwriting is poor.  It feels more raw and self revealing to scrawl out things on paper.

The book must have a black cover because black covers are the best and a big Hello Kitty book of evilness is just stupid.

The keeping of a big-black-book-of-evilness journal has therapeutic effect for two reasons; the articulation of the present and the long view.  It’s somewhat of a relief to unload bad thoughts somewhere, especially without judgement, and it’s good to read back for perspective. (Moleskine large ruled notebook, in case you ever need to buy me a present or twelve.)

Here’s an entry from my first “real” semester of teaching:

Mecosta, MI

Sunday, Sept. 29, 1996

9:25 p.m.

Still in a funk—can’t shake it.  Parents were here—couldn’t really relax.  They left early, well, 11:00, and I went to the office and played with the computer for 5 hours, came home, watched the Packers/Seahawks, ate, called Laura, ate, watched more dumb T.V., ate.

Now I’m going to bed

I need to get outside.

I need to get organized.

I need to write.

I need to pay bills.

I seriously thought about driving off to Mexico, taking my paycheck tomorrow and just going.  How long could I live on $1200? In Mexico? Six months? Two days if someone robbed me? I don’t think I could leave Laura like that—but there are times I’m sure she’d go with me.

Laura and I talked wedding today. Almost picked a date (after 4 years).  Looking at Spring of 1998. And we want to have a great honeymoon. Fiji, or the continent. I’d like to go camping. Tonight this is all babble. Boring diary drivel.

Gotta do every day—

1. Stretch/exercise

2. Grade

3. Write

Five days, that’s all.

Get poems together—I know I’ve got a book.

Ferris State Technical College (oops I mean University) is taking up to much of my time.  When R— said they were going to abuse me for a semester, they weren’t kidding.

Gotta read more.

When I look at this now, it’s not one of the darker entries. (Those do not go out to the world yet.)  There is a bit of posing going on: I used the phrase “the continent” unironically, after all. The escape-to-Mexico fantasy is just that: fantasy.  I’ve had running away fantasies since I was twelve but never once did anything to act on them. (I knew that there’s no way Laura would go with me.) The closest I ever come to running away is not showing up: not answering email, calling in sick, avoiding the phone.  In fact, though I did not include it then, I clearly remember the reason I was uncomfortable with my parents staying over that weekend: I was behind on a credit card payment, and the company kept calling all that weekend, and I was too embarrassed to talk to the creditor while my parents were there.  I just kept hanging up, saying “oh, it’s an ad calling.”  My mom was astonished that a telemarketer would call on Sunday morning.  I felt guilty for lying.

I remember why I was behind on that bill, too: I worked at my new job for a whole month before I got paid, so it was actually five weeks between paychecks from my old job as a temp secretary, and that first paycheck got eaten up with bills right away.  It would have been perfectly reasonable to say I had a hard month because of that, but I couldn’t for some reason.  I thought, being twenty-five, that I should have had everything figured out.  Silly me.

The sad part here is the things I “need” to work on are exactly the things I feel I “need” to work on 17 years later, except for getting outside. I walk to work and it’s been cold; I’m good with inside.  And I read plenty enough now. But I’m 41 and I need to get organized, I need to write, I need to grade, and I need to pay bills.

Having the time and date are really helpful.  I remember that semester that my Monday morning started with an 8:00 a.m. class and I lived about a half hour from campus.  At 9:25 p.m. I would have really started to fret about the beginning of the week. Same as every Sunday night.  Still.

Some of the things I worried about then seem quaint now.  We did get married in June of 1998, and we honeymooned in St. Lucia, which was a pretty amazing feat considering our financial resources.  At the time, I considered that job my temporary gig, hence my dig at the University. I wanted to get a book out and get a “real” teaching job: creative writing, not academic writing.  This many years later, still no book, and the “temporary” job became my career. I do like my job overall.  Though the grading troubles were never, ever temporary.

In fact, in retrospect, it’s hard to see how I couldn’t have realized that I had ADHD.  This period in my journal, though, marks an important change.  Near Thanksgiving that year, another outpouring, much more negative than the surrounding entries, and an aside: “I think I may be clinical.”  I read that now as the first time that I thought there might be something really wrong, other than just, “I gotta get it together.”  It only took me nine years or so to do anything about it.

BTW, here’s the answer to my opening question.

My Messy Moleskine

It won’t be different this time

A comment from ellisinwonderland on a previous post got me to thinking.

‘When the going gets tough, I go on to something else.’

Ah, how familiar this whole process (culminating in the above) is to me.

I always hold out for it being ‘different this time’ but it never is.

One of my symptoms (or habits, depending on how you think about it) is my cyclical interests.  I have several hobbies or interests (again, depending on whether I get paid for them or not).

My hobbies include guitar, woodworking, photography, computers, blogging, yoga, meditation, bicycling, running, hiking.  My (professional) interests include teaching with technology, poetry, contemplative pedagogy, faculty development.  I would include Buddhism as a hobby too, because I fall in and out of practice.

Within each hobby or interest, I have cyclical motivation.  When it comes to creative writing, for example, I move between working on poetry, blogging, creative non-fiction, and a novel.  Even within poetry, I vacillate from writing to criticism and book reviewing.

Unfortunately, one of my habits is not finishing what I start.  I don’t publish much poetry, for example, because I don’t often enough get my act together and submit my work.  Likewise, I renovated the kitchen myself and only have to finish the trim, but I haven’t finished the trim, and I haven’t worked on finishing the trim in about four years, even though most days when I go into the kitchen I think “I need to finish the trim.”

To live in modern society, you have to finish things, unless you have someone to finish them for you.  It was a big step for me to admit that I can’t keep up with the mowing and snow shoveling and that we have to hire someone to do it.  It was also a big relief.

So, finishing things, following through, is definitely something I need to work on.

However, I wonder if there is a way to live in the world I live in and make this cyclical interest work for me?

In many ways, my job as a professor caters to this cyclical interest.  I work at a teaching institution, so publishing is not a required part of my job (but it helps me get promoted).  Also, publishing is broadly defined, so I’m free to pursue my interests.  If I chose to become a hard-core scholar, publishing only heavy-duty peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly books, that would be recognized (although some might question how much time I’m investing in teaching).

So, I can do quick little works here and there (I’m doing a presentation at a local conference on Friday for example). I can also change my teaching from semester to semester.  I can change readings, assignments, textbooks, etc.  If you follow my blog, you know that I’m cyclical.  I’ll have a super productive period for a few weeks, and think this is my thing, it will be different this time.  And then, my interest takes a new track, and suddenly I’m really into playing the guitar and blogging seems like the old me.

The question is whether to fight it or work with it?  Buddhists who practice mindfulness say to accept it.  From that perspective, a sudden compelling interest, a minor obsession, is a way of distracting oneself from the present moment.  A hobby can be seen as a form of clinging, either to a future image of oneself (as a star blogger, for example) or to objects (such as a guitar or a set of bookshelves that I might build).  Both cases are a sort of fantasy, and a fantasy is about the future, not the here and now.

A more mundane interpretation is that I don’t want to do things that aren’t fun, so I absorb myself with things that are fun.  One thing that’s fun is this fantasy world where I am a novelist, an accomplished musician, or a star teacher.  It a long journey to get to this realization.  I spent years in talk therapy trying to figure out why I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, like pay bills and grade papers and answer email, why there is a fundamental resistance in my soul to doing some simple things sometimes.  I spent years exploring what these things represent, and how my experiences contributed to this resistance.  I never found a truly satisfying answer then.  My diagnosis was Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  That explained the results of this fundamental problem, but never satisfactorily explained the underlying cause.

The cause is much simpler.  I have AD(H)D.  One of my symptoms, simply because of my brain wiring, is that I have trouble getting motivated to do things that I don’t want to do, more so than the average person.  Sitting down alone and grading papers isn’t fun, so I don’t do it.  Anxiety enters the picture.  I have to grade papers. It’s my job.  The whole thing gets complicated then, by my long history of anxiety over grading papers (I’ve had to grade more than 23,000 in my life).  The longer I put off something, the harder it is to get started.  And so on.

My short experience with medication, just since last November, underscores this model of my experience.  With the right Ritalin level in my system, I can just do things that were terribly difficult before.  It has been tricky trying to get it right, and I’m still not there, and it’s not medication alone, but medication in combination with good body habits and working conditions, but when it’s on, the experience shows me what’s possible.  For example, going to professional gatherings is much easier now, as is talking to people I don’t know that well.

With every interest, every hobby, something happens to complicate it, and I move on.  With the kitchen, for example, I don’t know how some of the trim is going to work, so I put it off.  Now the garage is full of stuff, and I can’t get to my table saw and miter saw, so the kitchen project is now a clean-the-garge and work on the kitchen project.  More often than not, though, the complicating factor is guilt.  I have trouble putting down the new toy to do my work.  Last night, for example, I worked on my guitar instead of doing email that I felt I should be doing, so this morning I feel guilty about the time I invested in that hobby. Add up enough of those experiences in a row, and the new toy doesn’t feel fun anymore.  In fact I rarely feel when I’m doing something fun, that I should be doing it.  I almost always feel as though I should be doing something else, my “real” work.  That’s why I like work that involves meetings.  After a long meeting, I feel focused, because I was doing what I was supposed to be doing for  a good stretch of time.

Anyway, back to the question at hand.  How to work with this changing interest?

I think there are a more poets with AD(H)D than any other genre.  Poetry lends itself more to short bursts of creative effort.  Writing novels, not so much.  Each time I work on a new poem, its a new world.  I’m reinventing my idea of a poem, and my idea of what one of my poems is.  With the novel, you’re stuck with what you’ve already built, unless you’re starting over.  There has to be regular work.  You have to write through the dreadful periods.  With poetry, you can go silent and come back much more easily.

I’ve read a number of books that say one has to either make peace with the impulse toward silence (make it an active silence) or find a way to work through it anyway.  Both of those are laudable goals.  The third option, berating oneself for once again being a screw up is crazy making.

I don’t know the answer.  If I did, I would be more at peace.

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

So. What’s. Happening.

Hello blogosphere.

I have been neglectful.  I’m so textbook ADD it’s boring.  With my blog here, I met with some success—readers, commenters, followers—and then dropped out.  My former therapist might have said that I am afraid of success, but I think it is the typical ebb and flow of ADD interest instead.

Here’s what happens from my side.  I start out on something (my blog, in this case), and I don’t have high expectations for it.  It is fresh and new and fun.  Then I get some positive feedback and suddenly the floodgates are open.  In a prose or fiction project, I usually can get 30,000 or 40,000 words.  Then I stall out.

Stalling happens when ambition strikes.  For the blog, I suddenly have readers who are interested.  Then I start to think book, best seller, interviewed by Oprah.  I even have fantasies about what I might say in an interview It all started with a little blog and a few readers, I would say, stroking my beard profoundly.  I don’t have a beard, but it would be part of my genius author makeover.  I would be rich and famous, pay off all my student loans, and Ralph Fiennes will play me in the movie version.  I’ll give self-deprecating readings to packed audiences like David Sedaris.

That mess gets so big, I put off doing any new writing for a few days.  Then, I feel as if I have to explain my absence in some way, which makes me put it off even more.  Suddenly, a new idea comes along and I’m off in a new (or back to an old) hobby.

My hobby with renewed interest is music.  I have a long history as an amateur musician starting with piano lessons at age 7.  My music background includes a stint as a keyboardist in a prog-rock cover band in the early 90’s (Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth/ that the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth) and a job as head rock-and-roll guy at a performing arts summer camp.  Most recently, I learned my guitar chops playing in a basement for several years with a band of similarly off-balance personalities, including a recovered drug addict, an agoraphobic, and a male-to-female transgender,  all of whom held respectable jobs as teachers.

Half the band moved away, and the house with the basement in it had to be sold, and the remaining band member got carpal-tunnel syndrome and sold all the equipment, so I had gone back to plinking alone in my basement.  I had gotten to the point of not even touching a guitar in six months.

Well, the university got me a new MacBook and it had GarageBand on it, and lo and behold I was hooked on music again.  My music partner got her wrists back in shape and is playing and recording again, and lookout, I’m back in music again.  At the expense of writing.

(If you will indulge me, here’s a song I’m working on: Somber Song)

But even the music is not entirely fulfilling. I get the nagging feeling I’m wasting my time, I’m getting distracted, this is a foolish endeavor that I’m spending too much time and money on (just ordered parts to completely rewire my main guitar).

What I find hard in any endeavor is to find the middle ground.  Creativity and ambition fight each other.  If I can be good I can be great, the thinking goes, and that thought changes to I must be great and then I’m not great, so I’m not even very good and then hey, look, there’s my fancy camera that I haven’t touched in six months; where are my photography books?  When the going gets tough, I go on to something else.

Put another way, the small successes and the fantasy of the big success are far more stimulating than the hard work of following through to the end of meeting ambition’s goal.  Setbacks and boredom aren’t part of the big success fantasy, so it must be the wrong fantasy.  I’m on to a new fantasy (such as my music partner and I playing on SNL).

So today’s Sunday, and it’s a very special Sunday, because it’s the end of my spring break from the university.  Had a whole week with no classes or meetings, with the kids in school.  I had such grand plans . . .

The GarageBand application icon.

Image via Wikipedia

The Absent-Minded Professor

It’s inevitable, this subject, this joke.

One of the questions I address in my FAQ is “How did you ever become a professor with AD(H)D?”

I started teaching in graduate school, as a graduate assistant, at the ripe old age of 23, barely older than my students.  I taught three sections of freshman composition the first year and it was exhausting.  The first time I sat down to grade papers it took me five hours to grade five papers, and not for lack of focus.  You see, a myth about English professors is that we spring from the womb with a fully developed understanding of grammar, right down to the participles and appositions.  Not true.  In fact, I earned a C in my News Editing class as an undergraduate.

My first semester, I would read a paper, and know how I would change it to make it better, but I would be at a loss on how to explain that to a student in a way that wouldn’t be longer than the paper itself. I have a knack for language, but it’s a knack for imitation, not a knack for studying grammar books.  My only real grammar instruction was seventh grade English, taught by Mrs. Grettum, who would would accuse us of stealing her glasses when they were on top of her head.  I’ve taught myself about grammar and style through the years.  I’m still learning.

I also picked up some classes to teach at the community college while still in my master’s program.  That’s when I developed my complex relationship with grading papers, in that I have a complex about grading papers, in that I do not like to grade them.  The greater the number of papers, the harder it got to get started. (It turns out, as I recently discovered, it’s best to grade them together with the students.)  I eventually got hired at my current institution, first as a part-timer (meaning “temporary,” because I actually worked overtime), then as visiting professor (even though I wanted to stay), and finally as tenure track.  I earned tenure in 2005 (not a life-long guarantee of employment; there are plenty of ways to get fired and I’ve worried about them all).  My current rank is Associate Professor, and I can apply for full Professor in a couple years.

I have had a lot of difficulty with my relationship with work, mostly stemming from this automatic resistance to grading papers. It’s pretty common among writing teachers; it’s our burden, and we always lend each other a sympathetic ear, but I made avoiding it into a high art form.

One interesting thing I’ve noted throughout the years is that it is easy to be mediocre, if you’re okay with that (I’m not).  For an average teacher, just getting by, it’s true that students won’t be happy and that person won’t get promotions, but no one is going to fire this person for being mediocre or even mildly incompetent.  If I really wanted to, I could get by on minimum work: using the same syllabi and assignments every term, putting minimal effort into grading, doing as little committee work as possible.  If I did not want to get promoted, I could easily become complacent, somewhat invisible to the administration.

Beyond promotion, though, I have always wanted to do good work.  When I was younger, I wanted to do the best work, but now I will settle for highly competent.  Nearly all of my colleagues have at least some degree of professional interest and most of them have a high degree of interest and competence.  In fact, the cases of incompetence I’ve known about were largely due to secondary issues: senility, mental illness, other illness that reduces a person’s ability to work.

I have never borne my failings very well.  The way AD(H)D plays out in my professional life is clear to see: trouble following through on projects, trouble sustaining interest in projects long-term, trouble with routine work and meeting deadlines.  These habits mean there’s a wide gulf between what I see myself capable of and what I accomplish.  My life requires some degree of regular, consistent effort on my part, and if there’s one thing I’m consistent about it’s inconsistency.

The persona that emerged from these symptoms was someone I did not wish to be.  He did things at the last minute, often arriving at class unprepared and just winging it, or giving out handouts that had last semester’s dates on them, or just letting students go early.  He let papers pile up ungraded for weeks and then graded them in a rush, with limited or sometimes no feedback.  He would promise too many things to too many people, get involved in too many projects, and get things done very late or abandon them until someone else did them.  He became expert at crafting convincing excuses. When life got really overwhelming, he hid out in dark rooms alone for hours at a time.

Back then I could not understand my behavior.  I would have to make excuses because I didn’t know the real reason for my procrastination.  I could not explain it.  I could not imagine telling my students or colleagues the real situation:  I wanted to do the work, I thought about it the whole time, but I just couldn’t do it.

I stayed employed.  I honestly think that part of the reason is that when I came to my current university, the school was in the final throes of a long downtrend due to mismanagement, and there was little accountability for professors.  As long as no one complained too loudly, I was left alone to do my work.  When students did complain, the authorities usually gave me the benefit of the doubt.  Some of my colleagues tell me that I was not all that bad back then anyway, but I have a hard time believing it. I knew I was doing sloppy work.

This semester I tried something new.  Armed with my new ADHD diagnosis, I just put it out there to students.  I told them on the first day that I have ADHD and that it’s not an excuse, but I have some quirks.  I told them that I forget names, so not to be offended, and that I forget to do things that I say I’m going to do, so they should remind me.  I spend lots of time working individually with students, and that sort of narrows the distance between us.  I ask them about their degrees and what they’re doing, and for the most part they are grateful for the time and attention, that I take them seriously.  I find, too, that I do take them seriously when I know something about them.  (Otherwise, their quirks just seem annoying to me.)

They’ve taken it in stride.  They laugh when I stop in the middle of a sentence to say “Look, it’s snowing!”  They do remind me of things I forgot (which are fewer and fewer) and I am thankful for the reminders.  A couple of students have told me they have ADHD as well, and we’ve talked about strategies together.  Contrary to a popular myth, no one has asked to “get away” with not doing work because of ADHD, though.  Through the years, I have probably structured my courses to be ADHD-friendly, because I teach them the way I would like to learn—things that make it good for most students, though: a clear structure and schedule, things presented visually as much as possible, one-on-one meetings, varying class activities that get students involved.

So, the big question.  How did I ever get to be a professor?  No one else would have me.

Order me some regular

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert’s maxim caught me in it’s grasp when I first heard it in graduate school. It resonated with my split nature. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good, productive member of society, to please people, to be responsible. On the other hand, I wanted to be a poet, which seemed the opposite. My inner rebel sent me to poems, sent me away from the idea of a boring nine-to-five existence. But my lack of a benefactor sent me the bourgeois way.

After I finished my MFA, I set about establishing a career, to make a living so I could be violent and original and bohemian with basic cable. I had gotten engaged (by blurting it out on the phone one night, classic AD(H)D style) and had to prove (to myself, not to my future wife) that I could be responsible. The coming specter of student loan payments drove me to find income as well. I had filled out all the paperwork for enrolling in a PhD program but threw it away and instead secured a one-semester teaching job a Ferris State University.

I wanted to get my professional life started and in control, to become a good teacher, make enough money to cover my expenses plus dinner and a movie, and put that part of my life away in a box so there would be time to write. I should have recognized the familiar flawed refrain: I only needed to set up the right circumstances and the real writing would begin. In the past, I thought, I only needed to have my own computer, my own apartment without roommates, the right pen, the right chair. I projected my resistance onto the objects around me.

During my MFA days, one part of the degree was six semester hours of “MFA Project”; that meant that while the university paid me to each, I paid part of that money back for the honor of not going to class to work on my MFA thesis. My life for a semester was teaching one class at the university, a couple at the community college, and writing. Plenty o’ time to write in my own apartment with my own computer. Three and a half months into my four months of project hours, I finally started writing, and I took to tying my leg to my desk to keep me working on my poems for two hours a day. I got through my MFA project with talent, rather than discipline, as I always had.

I moved to Mecosta, MI, to the top floor of a house on a lake in the woods. The bottom floor was inhabited by the retired owners of the house: a kooky bird of a woman and her dementia-afflicted husband. Other than the occasional distraction from downstairs (one afternoon, polka music suddenly blared throughout the house, never to be heard again), I lived in isolation in the boonies. I had my own entrance and my own deck on the second floor, so it felt as close to a writer’s cabin as I could manage. I would begin the writing career I had long studied for.

I only had to get my teaching life in order. Easier said than done.

I taught five classes with three preps. Two of the classes I taught were basic writing classes, populated by students who did not meet minimum requirements for writing proficiency. FSU was open admissions at that time, so the classes were chaotic. I had never had to use any “classroom management” before. I wanted to teach college classes so I never had to yell in the classroom. I had to yell. Someone gave me advice that you should just lay it on the line for them: do this, and pass; don’t do this, and fail. That proved horribly wrong. It’s true that the standards had to be set up, but threatening them with failure seemed like more of the same crap they heard all through school, so they wrote me off.

I also met some of the strangest students in my life. In my research writing class, for example, I had a student who decided his semester project would be to prove the validity of the Bible. Another told me, in all seriousness, that she was the sort of student who did best if she never had to come to class and instead could just come by my office and turn in her work. I taught these classes that I had never taught before with students that I didn’t know what to make of at an institution where I didn’t know anyone, and I struggled.

I got angry with myself with struggling over basic motivation. I thought when I finished graduate school I would start being a grownup and stop fighting with myself over basic things like getting up in the morning, getting to my job on time, keeping my kitchen clean. I don’t know why I had this idea; perhaps it excused the present. I hadn’t been, until this point, a real grown up adult yet. I was always a student.

But two things occupied my life: teaching and worrying about teaching. Most evenings my worries kept me stuck on the couch, watching TV. Doing not much else. Nowadays with a house and two kids to take care of, I wonder where all that time went that year. I didn’t invest it in reading or writing, that’s for sure.

I experience slow periods where I feel frozen. I think the metaphor came from those days out on the lake. Deep in Michigan winter, that apartment felt cold with the wind blowing across the lake through my leaky windows. In a frozen period, my brain is occupied by the following unbalanced equation:

I want to do [something fun/fufilling] but before I can do that, I have to do [something I need to do, but can’t]. Therefore I will do [neither of these things while thinking constantly about both].

Instead, I watch TV, read novels, surf the internet, play computer games, plink on the guitar, none of which feels very satisfying.

I could never be regular and orderly in the boring parts of my life. Instead I am anxious and avoidant. The things in my life that I find boring and uninteresting indirectly grow into all-out constant worries. Therefore, by not thinking about them, I am constantly preoccupied by them. They won’t stay in their cages. They are the Stay-Puft Marmallow Men of my brain.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

Try not to think about it.

Order me some regular

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert’s maxim caught me in it’s grasp when I first heard it in graduate school. It resonated with my split nature. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good, productive member of society, to please people, to be responsible. On the other hand, I wanted to be a poet, which seemed the opposite. My inner rebel sent me to poems, sent me away from the idea of a boring nine-to-five existence. But my lack of a benefactor sent me the bourgeois way.

After I finished my MFA, I set about establishing a career, to make a living so I could be violent and original and bohemian with basic cable. I had gotten engaged (by blurting it out on the phone one night, classic AD(H)D style) and had to prove (to myself, not to my future wife) that I could be responsible. The coming specter of student loan payments drove me to find income as well. I had filled out all the paperwork for enrolling in a PhD program but threw it away and instead secured a one-semester teaching job a Ferris State University.

I wanted to get my professional life started and in control, to become a good teacher, make enough money to cover my expenses plus dinner and a movie, and put that part of my life away in a box so there would be time to write. I should have recognized the familiar flawed refrain: I only needed to set up the right circumstances and the real writing would begin. In the past, I thought, I only needed to have my own computer, my own apartment without roommates, the right pen, the right chair. I projected my resistance onto the objects around me.

During my MFA days, one part of the degree was six semester hours of “MFA Project”; that meant that while the university paid me to each, I paid part of that money back for the honor of not going to class to work on my MFA thesis. My life for a semester was teaching one class at the university, a couple at the community college, and writing. Plenty o’ time to write in my own apartment with my own computer. Three and a half months into my four months of project hours, I finally started writing, and I took to tying my leg to my desk to keep me working on my poems for two hours a day. I got through my MFA project with talent, rather than discipline, as I always had.

I moved to Mecosta, MI, to the top floor of a house on a lake in the woods. The bottom floor was inhabited by the retired owners of the house: a kooky bird of a woman and her dementia-afflicted husband. Other than the occasional distraction from downstairs (one afternoon, polka music suddenly blared throughout the house, never to be heard again), I lived in isolation in the boonies. I had my own entrance and my own deck on the second floor, so it felt as close to a writer’s cabin as I could manage. I would begin the writing career I had long studied for.

I only had to get my teaching life in order. Easier said than done.

I taught five classes with three preps. Two of the classes I taught were basic writing classes, populated by students who did not meet minimum requirements for writing proficiency. FSU was open admissions at that time, so the classes were chaotic. I had never had to use any “classroom management” before. I wanted to teach college classes so I never had to yell in the classroom. I had to yell. Someone gave me advice that you should just lay it on the line for them: do this, and pass; don’t do this, and fail. That proved horribly wrong. It’s true that the standards had to be set up, but threatening them with failure seemed like more of the same crap they heard all through school, so they wrote me off.

I also met some of the strangest students in my life. In my research writing class, for example, I had a student who decided his semester project would be to prove the validity of the Bible. Another told me, in all seriousness, that she was the sort of student who did best if she never had to come to class and instead could just come by my office and turn in her work. I taught these classes that I had never taught before with students that I didn’t know what to make of at an institution where I didn’t know anyone, and I struggled.

I got angry with myself with struggling over basic motivation. I thought when I finished graduate school I would start being a grownup and stop fighting with myself over basic things like getting up in the morning, getting to my job on time, keeping my kitchen clean. I don’t know why I had this idea; perhaps it excused the present. I hadn’t been, until this point, a real grown up adult yet. I was always a student.

But two things occupied my life: teaching and worrying about teaching. Most evenings my worries kept me stuck on the couch, watching TV. Doing not much else. Nowadays with a house and two kids to take care of, I wonder where all that time went that year. I didn’t invest it in reading or writing, that’s for sure.

I experience slow periods where I feel frozen. I think the metaphor came from those days out on the lake. Deep in Michigan winter, that apartment felt cold with the wind blowing across the lake through my leaky windows. In a frozen period, my brain is occupied by the following unbalanced equation:

I want to do [something fun/fufilling] but before I can do that, I have to do [something I need to do, but can’t]. Therefore I will do [neither of these things while thinking constantly about both].

Instead, I watch TV, read novels, surf the internet, play computer games, plink on the guitar, none of which feels very satisfying.

I could never be regular and orderly in the boring parts of my life. Instead I am anxious and avoidant. The things in my life that I find boring and uninteresting indirectly grow into all-out constant worries. Therefore, by not thinking about them, I am constantly preoccupied by them. They won’t stay in their cages. They are the Stay-Puft Marmallow Men of my brain.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

Try not to think about it.