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Digging out

September 1, 2010

I’ve been making a serious attempt at digging myself out of cluttered chaos lately, as I recently mentioned here. It’s been taking up a lot of time and energy, which is most of the reason I haven’t been around much. Getting overwhelmed enough that I was shutting/melting down and skating on the edge of serious burnout was sucking an awful lot of energy for a while, too. (Things went downhill since I wrote a bit about this here back in March.) I didn’t realize just how depressed and overwhelmed I was getting until I started taking some action to change the situation.

This has been a persistent problem, for a variety of reasons. Besides executive function and inertia problems, I grew up in a hoarding household. (I used to think it was just my stepdad, but my mom felt insecure enough to hoard food and toiletries in particular; he hoarded basically everything else.) So, besides the learned helplessness and not feeling like I had much control over my environment, I never really learned a maintenance cleaning and organizing routine. Crisis decluttering and cleaning–sure, I can do that–but keeping things organized after that? I’m having to learn what works for me. Better at 35 than never!

For anyone else having similar problems–to whatever extent–I can’t recommend a couple of sites highly enough: Squalor Survivors and the successor to its forum, Stepping Out of Squalor.

Recently, I flipped back through Sari Solden’s Women With Attention Deficit Disorder, because I remembered that it had not just some good descriptions and analysis of a lot of common shame and guilt at some of the manifestations of executive function problems, but a pretty good emphasis on trying to find practical strategies that work for you. Since I’m trying to figure out what will help me maintain things in a not-so-cluttered state once it’s cleared out, it seemed worth another look. While ADD is not the whole story (though I carried that diagnosis for years), my executive function and inertia problems have been seriously impacting my life, and that’s pretty much what the more practical bits of this book are about.

It quickly became obvious just how much my understanding has changed since I first read the book, ca. 2003. It didn’t seem too bad then. Now, I am struck by quite a lot of dissonance between Solden’s very medicalized understanding and presentation#, and the emphasis on pragmatic approaches to making your life work for you. A sample (p.208):

What we’re talking about ultimately, is not trying to get rid of the ADD, or waiting to get over it, but to direct it and control it. I’m talking about living with controlled disorder, not denying it, but recognizing it, working with it to make your life work. It is not done in a day, and it is not done with medication alone (although it is usually not done without it). You need to ask yourself, “How can I make my life work? How can I make my relationships work? How can I make my work meaningful?”

That doesn’t sound so bad on its own, but most of the book is like that: a weird mishmash. These days, I find that it helps me a lot more not to dwell on the idea of having Broke Brain Syndrome, of whatever subtype. Trying to figure out how to make things work for me works better for me without all the emphasis on disorders and deficits. This is the situation we’ve got, now how do we want it to change, and what will help us get there? My personal version of that may show bigger-than-average gaps between what actually works for me and what I’ve been told should work for most people–and the need for coming up with different approaches to some life situations may be more pressing–but just about everybody needs to figure these things out.

The author also emphasized what, to me, is a really unhelpful connection:

The whole experience of living with ADD is one of disorganization–both internally as well as externally. It includes not only environmental disorganization, such as a messy house, office, or stacks of unpaid bills, but also an inner experience of disorganization. The cognitive and emotional experience of not being able to “hold things together” is disorganization on another level.

Whether we’re talking about neurology or psychology (or any combination), I find this perspective more helpful and less shame-perpetuating:

Your house is NOT a metaphor for your inner psyche.

A messy house is not some sort of tragic, overarching story theme for your life! You’ve got to stop telling yourself so!

I can’t tell you how much better I’ve gotten at cleaning since I figured this out! I can take five minutes to clean at any time without having to rewrite my personality or internal biography or whatever the hell else was holding me back. It’s just cleaning!

A mess is just a thing. It’s not you! It’s outside of you. It’s finite and impersonal and temporary. You deal with it, and it’s gone! If it comes back, you deal with it again! Like schoolwork! Like taxes! Like grocery shopping! These things show up because of life, not because there’s something personally wrong with you! Cleanies have messes too ~~ they just don’t let it “prove” anything!

Guess what!–I’ve found that you can also deal with that “cognitive and emotional experience of not being able to ‘hold things together'”. This is the brain I’ve got, now how do I stop driving myself crazy comparing how it works to how someone else’s does? A good start? Shitcanning the guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and the value judgments that go spinning around and making the situation worse.

In spite of the distracting philosophical differences and contradictions, the reread did help drive home some useful points.

I have been holding onto an awful lot of guilt and shame over ending up living in clutter. It is one thing I have remained too ashamed to talk about much, as compared to the seemingly more important stuff mentioned in the last “being out” post.

At some level, I have bought into an awful lot of supremely unhelpful value judgments, which have proven very persistent. I believed the messages that there must be something very bad wrong with me, and–despite all the evidence–that this moral failing can be overcome by simply applying enough willpower and trying harder at doing the same things which have not worked in past. Bzzt, fail. It’s disturbing how little of this internalized BS makes any sense whatsoever.

I still feel like I’m failing at what’s expected of me as a woman, especially one with her own household. This was only intensified by growing up with my mom running herself into the ground to the extreme (and an early grave), living with a narcissist; not only should I ignore any reasonable limits, I shouldn’t expect any help nor support whatsoever. That’s on top of, as I wrote in a recent DW post, my cultural version is a little different:

Many of us are familiar with the perils of The Myth of the Strong Black Woman. Well, I’ve got my own eerily similar version going. “[R]esponsible for the day-to-day operation”? Still happens, but without much credit or support. And this is usually still considered a good thing.

Not unusual for people who are a bit different neurologically, I picked up a lot of horribly poisonous messages in an outright abusive school environment, both with gender expectations (and my personal gender fail) and general laziness, craziness, stupidity, and incompetence. Not to mention supposedly having all kinds of bad motives I didn’t even know I had, with the worst possible interpretations frequently placed on my executive function and inertia problems. As little sense as a lot of it makes, I am still trying to untangle some of this stuff.

I get down on myself over the damned mess and worry that Nigel will get sick of both it and me. I feel guilty for making other people (including the animals) live in a horrible mess which is supposedly my sole responsibility.

Noticing a theme of ableism? *snort*

None of these realizations were new. With some of them, I’ve only recently considered how they relate to my squalor problems and how I view them.

Some that I hadn’t considered much before:

I have been considering dealing with the freaking mess to be a full-time job, and have put off doing lots of things I might enjoy because, hey, I still have a mess consuming my time and energy. (Even if it’s just by staring at it, overwhelmed, and beating myself over the head over not magically knowing how to deal with it.) Do I feel free to take a day or an afternoon to, say, go to a museum or to head for the nearest forest and wander around? Nope, no play until I do my apparently neverending job of sorting out the damned mess. It’s very punitive, and I hadn’t even thought of it in those terms. 😐 Add to that the known persistent shame over not doing paid work and the punitive fun of poverty‘s ghost, with plenty of “you should work yourself into a frenzy just to prove you are not a Lazy Slacking Freeloading Ass”+ baggage. Ouch.

It really is reasonable for me to allow myself time to do things I enjoy.

It really is reasonable to sit down with other people in the house and figure out who is good at and/or wants to do various tasks around the house–and what would work best as some type of collaboration. Just because I’m at home during the day because of, erm, disabilities, that doesn’t mean that it’s all automatically my job. (See “Lazy Slacking Freeloading Ass” above.)

Another application of the “random person on the street” standard: if I would consider the support or accommodation reasonable for some stranger trying to work around similar obstacles, it’s also reasonable for me. This includes assistive technology such as PDAs, and even (*gasp*) hiring someone to come in and clean once a week, since I have trouble with maintenance for multiple reasons and Nigel has his own problems with it. If it takes me a lot more time and effort than most people to do some “simple” tasks, why keep stubbornly spending hours and hours a day and at least 85% of my available spoons on trying to do those tasks? It makes no sense. If nobody in the household wants to do it or is good at doing it–and it really does need done–find another way of getting it done.

Even though I’m not doing paid work, it’s only reasonable to get some support and help which might make me capable of doing more stuff. And, though this isn’t my main goal, maybe even capable of doing something I can earn money with–and have done in past when so many of my spoons were not being taken up by feeling totally responsible for depressing, overwhelming, disabling chaos.

And last, but by no means least:

I am in no way obligated to accept, much less show gratitude for, toxic help. The best concise description I’ve run across (page may be NSFW):

The term for this type of intervention is toxic help. While the person offering the help appears to be doing the right thing, the loving thing by assisting the loved one, the so-called help is really emotional currency in a power transaction. The person offering the toxic help is essentially purchasing the right to run another person’s life and devalue him/her with impunity.

And it is so easy to fall into this trap:
My parents have done so much to help me through this divorce. How can I be mad at them?

I saw this firsthand when my cousin became disabled, unemployed and required coronary bypass surgery. There was one relative who used every request for help as an opportunity to tell the disabled cousin just how dumb he really was and how his health problems were really his own fault. Vicious. The effect of this help on the disabled cousin’s self-esteem and physical health was devastating.

It doesn’t have to be that blatantly insulting; questioning your competence and ability to do things for yourself–or questioning/ridiculing your need for help in the first place, or suggesting you’re just not trying hard enough–are more than enough. The other person assuming they know better than you do what kind of help you want or need? Disrespectful and harmful.

What has me automatically hostile to the idea of “external structure”, “coaching”, set schedules, and just generally admitting that I might need some help? Having been on the receiving end of way too much toxic help.

OK, I’m running out of steam here, but think I got across the main points. A lot of this stuff isn’t much fun to look at, but trying to sort through it is a lot more pleasant than just going back to the same old demoralizing “Waaah! Why am I so lazy and incompetent?!”. As hyperboleandahalf so aptly put it, “The problem is that I enter this round…already burnt out from the last round. I can’t not fail.” Time to figure out how to avoid another round of that one!


# She doesn’t settle for the tired old “like insulin for a diabetic” medication analogy, but goes straight for “like fuel for a vehicle” and “really the cornerstone of treatment”. Sample quote, emphasis mine: “What I’m talking about is breaking up the old order…It’s going to mean shaking up the balance of control and power in your household. [OK so far… – U] You will have the wherewithal now that you’re on medication. You will be able to stay in the argument and confront the issues, not ignore the way your feel or the way you want things to be.” Those are just some of the claims. Really–Ritalin does all that? Inevitably, for everyone?! Gee. And, “On the other hand, you may not feel that dramatically different. You may have to look back over a course of several months to see that [not if – U] your life has improved in significant ways…Some people may need input from others to check on their improvement.” (That would be the kind of improvement not obvious to the person herself. *scratches head*) I’m glad the author had good results from certain meds, but the universalism got on my nerves. A lot. There’s a huge difference between this kind of approach and even “medications may useful tools for many people, but you have to figure out what works for you”.

Ironically, it verges way too close to one type of (rather literal) toxic help Pat Deegan describes: in summary, “The second silencing was imposed when my experience of the therapy was ignored and the professional’s interpretation of the outcome of therapy was prescribed as the only truth…Who gets to say if a therapy is working? Whose directives are followed and whose are silenced?” (“Some people may need input from others to check on their improvement”?) As she points out in another article, this is far from unusual in “therapeutic” relationships.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2010 8:12 am

    Do you think the medicalised understanding is there to sell the pragmatism or the other way around (by sell: I mean “make it more acceptable so that there is buy-in from the reader”).

    Like your “it really is reasonable” list, especially the first two things on it.

    • urocyon permalink
      September 1, 2010 12:33 pm

      I considered that; it’s more what I would expect, reading this genre. But I think what really disturbed me was that Solden really seemed to be framing her own difficulties that way–in an oddly conflicting manner–and strongly assuming that what helped her would necessarily help other people. I guess that’s one risk of a therapist with a given disorder specializing in treating the same disorder: a certain lack of perspective and insight. (I hesitate to say this, the way similar gets used to derail and discredit: “Of course you’d say that, you’ve experienced X”. But that’s not what I’m saying.)

      The list? An excellent example of perfectionism as the highest form of self-abuse, and sometimes being hard to see for what it is. But, again, better to untangle this stuff a bit late than never. 😉

  2. September 1, 2010 8:20 am

    And I also liked what Deegan wrote about mutuality and recipriocrity, and the whole “how are you” as perfunctionry. And the socialisation into “me-ness”.

    Enjoyed “Hyperbole and a Half” too. It really does say a lot about being socialised into adulthood and how it’s thought about. Responsibility as a trophy!

  3. Cherry permalink
    September 9, 2010 6:25 pm

    I totally feel where you’re coming from, here. It’s a total uphill battle. My house is constantly on the verge of going from kind of messy to squalid and I am at the point where I panic whenever anyone knocks on the door. I used to try to do Flylady stuff but honestly I don’t think Flylady was even invented with people like me in mind. If I’m lucky I can get through her morning routine stuff by the time evening rolls around. I’m trying to work through the shame and panic thing, and to ask for help, at least from people in my own household. I like what you said about not equating a messy house with any kind of internal struggle. I think that’s a much healthier way of looking at it.

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