Creativity, focus, and distraction: working with ADHD.

This post has nothing to do with sewing. I just needed to write it.

As I’m typing this, it’s 8:30 pm. My two-year-old grandson is crying in the next room, trying desperately to avoid bedtime. His father is soothing him, but he’s reached his bedtime story limit. I’ve got my headphones on, music turned up just loud enough to dull the roar. My husband is downstairs playing his own music (not on headphones), and my daughter is somewhere else in the house, quietly working on a final paper for one of her college classes (headphones definitely on and turned way up). The two cats that also live here are silently avoiding one another, thank goodness. When they meet it tends to start off with hissing, and sometimes escalates.

I’ve spent several hours today jumping from one project to another, completing almost none of them, but managing to send off some emails within minutes of my husband asking me to get them done. I count those as an achievement.

My mother, a highly artistic quilter and daughter of an engineer, used to joke that she and I had adult-onset ADHD. Considering how difficult it was for either of us to sit still and pay attention in school, I think we always had it. We learned to live with it, mask it, and play along fairly well, but it made so many simple things more difficult for us.

At this moment, there are 31 tabs open on my laptop browser. On my smartphone, there are a dozen more each on two different browsers. I keep Twitter open so I can see what my son is up to, and I refresh Instagram to see what his girlfriend posts because she offers more detail on his life than he does. Four tabs on my laptop are open to Etsy so I can answer emails, check on orders, update listings, and whatever else needs to be done. Three separate Gmail accounts are ticking away, pinging when an email drops into one of them. YouTube, Pinterest, Squarespace (the website for my wholesale business needs updating again), and so many others silently refresh in the background while I type away, oblivious. Well, semi-oblivious. I do check them every few minutes until I get focused enough to stop checking. I can tell when I’ve hit that sweet spot because I no longer know what song I’m listening to. Once I can tune everything out, I’m OK.

Many years ago I volunteered at various tech conferences in California. This gave me access to events at the offices of Google, WordPress, Intuit, and a few others. I remember talking with programmers who told me their favorite way to code something new was to put on one song and play it for hours, tuned out to everything else around them. This was a revelation to me at the time; it was exactly what I did at home when coding script or writing text. Other people did it too? And they were successful at work? Maybe there was hope for me after all.

Multiple projects wait on my cutting table, stacked neatly and layered over with paperwork that needs to be signed, checks that need to be written, receipts that need to be filed, and scribbled notes that need to be transcribed into one volume or another of my notebooks. I am writing at least one fiction novel, a non-fiction book on Japanese textiles, a travel journal, and developing several sewing patterns at any given time. There are three bolts of fabric on my writing desk because I put them there when I needed to access a shelf already layered over with fabric, paper, and boxes full of detritus.  A Victorian gown with three petticoats (two white, one red) is draped over another pile of boxes. The unsewn black kimono silk overskirt is neatly rolled back on its bolt now, but it took me three months to put it away after I had to give up on finishing the gown and getting myself to the Dickens Christmas Faire for the third year in a row.

I’m wearing glasses these days. It’s a new sensation for me. I wore them a bit in grade school but my eyes improved and I didn’t need them for another 35 years. Sometimes I forget I have them on and when I try to walk across the room I get motion sickness. Everything seems out of proportion and I can’t get my bearings. My newest pair of glasses is red. I’ve never liked red before, but the color has edged into my life this year and it’s just right.

There’s always at least one bottle of perfume on my desk or by my bed. I like to get a sniff of something warm and dark or light and fresh to reinvigorate my brain. It helps. I haven’t counted lately, but the bottles number around three dozen now, stashed in boxes and drawers where I can pull them out and refresh my mind as needed. I have a weakness for obscure fragrances, but a walk outside to my garden can also fill that need. Many of the plants in my yard are fragrant and/or edible, including some of the flowers. I teach my grandson to eat the petals of bright orange nasturtiums but to avoid the silky orange petals of California poppies. He demands blueberries as they ripen, plucks and nibbles the long red flowers from pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), and tears out leaves of scented geraniums and offers them to me for my weed pile. My grandson and I work for hours, pulling out weeds, digging new plants in, mixing fresh earthworm compost and stinky chicken poop into desiccated city soil. He drives little trucks around the beds, dumps piles of weeds on our front porch, pulls the wheeled garbage bins around and around. He is very industrious and so am I. We are focused, at peace.

There is always a nagging sensation at the back of my mind that pulls and tugs at me, reminding me of all the work I haven’t done, of deadlines passed and projects overdue. I start to feel overwhelmed and that causes my mind to stall out. Work doesn’t get done, I don’t eat, tempers flare. I’m tired and want to go to sleep, but can’t. I read online news until midnight, then tumble into bed exhausted only to wake at 4 am with all those blown deadlines screaming in my head. I fall back asleep around 5 am and wake again as soon as I hear my grandson rattling the bedroom doorknob. He bounces onto my bed with a book or a toy, chattering away and ready for breakfast. I am not a morning person, but for him I will be.

My research library flows from one floor to another, up and down the stairs as needed. I often buy two copies of a book if it’s difficult to find, out of print, or rare. It’s easier to find if I always have one copy on the shelf, another copy somewhere else (my desk, cutting table, kitchen table, shop table, or floor if my grandson wants to “read” it). Japanese flashcards are taped to the walls throughout the house. Next to my writing desk are cards for 人類学 (Anthropology) and 研究者 (researcher). Next to my office bookshelf I can see どう思いますか?(what do you think?) and 知りません (I don’t know). Downstairs the cards are less complex: 台所 (kitchen), 便所 (toilet/bathroom), etc. One of my favorites is the word for rain: 雨.

There are days when I focus remarkably well. I work a full day in my home office, but when my husband comes home I can’t remember a single thing I’ve done. I stammer through my response to his question of “what did you do today?” and realize I’ve lost my grasp on all of it. Like a bag of marbles dropped on the floor, little round thoughts roll away under the kitchen table and behind the refrigerator.

Last week our stove started acting inappropriately, with one of the burners acting up. I called a repairman but it took two days for him to get back to me. When he did I found someone whose brain worked like mine, and we spent the next 45 minutes on the phone as I texted him photos of the operating manual and he talked me through possible fixes. In the end it was a simple fix, and I was so happy I invited him over for dinner. I woke the next day so proud of myself and all I wanted to do was tell my mother that I’d done what I saw her do so many times–fix something complicated. But I couldn’t. She died in 2008. I looked around the kitchen with it’s murals of birds and trees that my husband’s mother painted. She died last year. We are both orphans now, and it makes me cling a little tighter to the next two generations living here in my house.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I will be writing more. This was a bit like letting out a breath that I’ve been holding in a long time. I write posts like this one, then leave them in the drafts folder or delete them. I don’t want to do that anymore. When I try to censor my own writing, I write less. I don’t think that’s what I came here to do. I came to write more.

Tell me what you’d like to read. I’d like to hear that.

Your turn now.

20 Comments Add yours

  1. Michelle JOHNSON says:

    Hi, I get it. Thank you for sharing about it. I read a lot of posts on ADHD blogs and newsletters, but I tend to feel depressed after. Maybe it is because I also follow your accomplishments with your bussiness and travel, and sounds like family too.Its funny how I checked my email one last time , just for a minute, before going to bed later than I planned, due to all the other little distractions that kept me from finishing paying bills. So, what I want to say is that without my ADD, I would be asleep and not seen your email at all tonight. Sometimes what seems like a disadvantage is really a gift. I need to remember that too.

    As far as what I would like to hear about is more of following your fabric/textile bussiness and travel, but also how you do it, process and tips for other ADD affected creatives, or women who have accomplished making what they love into a business. I look forward to hearing more,
    Michelle. Aka. KraftyKitie

    1. Ah, so much to think about! I’ll keep writing, I hope you’ll keep reading. And both of us will pay our bills on time!

  2. Donna Johnson says:

    Whoosh – I’m exhausted just reading your life!! Your writing is certainly very powerful and image-filled – I especially liked the metaphor of thoughts like marbles – perfect! Yes, write it out – follow the thread – see where it leads.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts! I’ll keep following the thread.

  3. lynperkins says:

    Hi Carol,

    I always profit from your work and writing and am glad that you are going to write more. You are so talented!

    If it helps, I think there are two kinds of life, characterized as a snowplow and a scalpel. I am a snowplow and perhaps you are too. We do a lot of things so the work proceeds very slowly. The scalpel life always sounds better, but maybe it’s not. Here, there is single focus, one thing is done rapidly and the mind is not scattered among the many activities and projects.

    I still am so grateful for the trip you and your husband made to my house to deliver thread.

    Am attaching a photo with my version of your boro quilt. I love it.

    Best wishes,


    1. Thank you for welcoming us over, Lynette! It’s always a pleasure to meet our creative customers. Let’s be snowplows together.

  4. Helen Zung says:

    Dear Carol, Thank you so much for opening your heart and letting everyone who loves you know what your life is really like. Your efforts to keep your head above water are truly heroic. In the middle of your muddle, I hope you take time to remind yourself that you are amazing, courageous, loving and brilliant, and have every reason to be proud of your accomplishments. I myself am sort of an “anti-ADHD” person, and your article makes me think of what I would write. That made me appreciate how difficult and painful it must have been for you to tell your truth. I’m going to forward your article to a friend who struggles with similar issues. Love,Helen

    1. It’s always a joy to see you, Helen. Thank you. ❤

  5. William J Keller says:

    Carol, I’m glad that you are writing and telling your story. I never would have guessed, even having visited your home/shop. We share several characteristics/traits/habits but I don’t think I have any ADHD….interesting to contemplate.

    Keep moving forward and keep writing

    1. It’s crazy, isn’t it? I think my husband mitigates a lot of the chaos, especially downstairs in the shop area. He also keeps me calm sometimes when my brain wants to explode. Other times he really doesn’t get what’s going on in there, but he tries.

  6. ruminski says:

    I couldn’t stop reading it. I’ve met you twice, am a fan of your designs and amazed by your energy. I was briefly in your booth at a quilt show, and you identified and commented on my French perfume. You told me about your collection and I felt we were kindred souls. Now I’m smitten with your writing. I hope you’ll continue to share your oh so authentic story!

    1. Thank you! I’ll keep writing. And I hope you’ll visit again so I can chat with you more.

  7. Carol Harlan says:

    Wow. What a life. I loved reading this. Look forward to more.

  8. deemallon says:

    Felt like a recounting of one of my days, though you may get more done than I. I’m a writer/quilter/parent and sometimes think I’m none of those things (well parent doesn’t go away but it’s an empty nest for years now). I studied Japanese in college, even! Anyway, I’ve learned that this is a good club to be part of as long as we keep doubt and clutter in control. Semi control.

    The one thing that was totally surprising was the scents. Gonna get me some.

  9. I think we all suffer from this, as we drink caffeinated drinks and eat lots of sugar. But your note about playing one song over and over, I am guilty of that. It DOES help. I think it keeps that part of your brain busy as that part of your brain disrupts the other part. This kind of comatose’s it. A tune out effect. Lovely you put it into words perfectly!

  10. caruscigno says:

    I would like to read articles exactly like the one I just read. I feel like it is fromyour heart. Thank you for writing it.

  11. sheila says:

    Please write more… It is good to understand other’s experiences. Running a small business(es) can be kind of crazy making for a completer/abider personality… being of a creative polymath bent makes it that much more the challenge.

    To be completely honest, this is one of the reasons I find Sashiko so appealing. I’ve always struggled with feeling like a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ with unfinished business + new ideas sprouting conflicting constantly. exhausting. Sashiko is repetitive and soothing and a mediation. The idea of adding scents and music to create mental space to calm overwhelm is a good one. time to queue up Pandora. Thank you for sharing this Carol~

    1. My mother used to call herself a jack of all trades, and I think she never saw herself mastering any of them, either. If you’re anything like her, I bet you’re closer to mastery than you think. Keep stitching! And thank you for commenting, it really helps to hear from people like you.

  12. Ann P Hudson says:

    Oooh, wow. Yeah… lot’s going on. Maybe too much to be healthy re: the online stuff? I had a similar lifestyle in year’s past, took a few years but it finally took a big toll on my health and well being. Took a while to get back to my former self but without the heavy stress. You were already busy now you have your adorable g’son too … I get it, the kids come first but don’t let it all overwhelm and ruin your health! The constant checking everything can make one ADHD, the brain can only handle so much. Is there anyone who you can delegate some of those online duties to? Not meaning to be a Debby Downer but I am concerned for you after reading your post. BIG HUGS, KittyAnn

    1. No worries, my daughter is picking up a lot of the online sales slack. It balances out well. She gets to work from home and we both handle the little kiddo. Can’t stop my brain from shorting out sometimes, though. I need to get back to meditation. That’s worked well in the past. Thanks for checking in. It’s good to feel heard.

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