A guest post from Amanda
This blog was written with the aim of allowing others to understand the complexity of circumstances facing people who have been spending most of their time at home during the Coronavirus pandemic. As a person shielding alone whilst living with ADHD and Dyspraxia, I will shed some light onto my experiences (without wishing to speak for all neurodiverse people) and hope that it can be helpful for neurodiverse and neurotypical people alike.
Before I begin, I should acknowledge that the ability to work from home without worrying about pay is a privilege in itself, and I’m incredibly grateful that we are able to mitigate health risks in a way that people in other sectors and industries are unable. There are also circumstances, such as caring for dependents, that I have no experience with, and certainly come with their own challenges. Each situation is unique.
I’m going to get the uncomfortable bit out of the way first. Many of the workforce (particularly those of us at lower grades) will be familiar with this in a way that others perhaps are not: the very real physical and financial circumstances that make working from home more difficult. This, of course, intersects with the issue of social class and background (something which merits further discussion in our workplace, but that is for another time). While the higher earners (or those of a higher social class) among us are able to work in dedicated home offices, dining rooms, or at least at a proper desk, many of us find ourselves without even a desk, having to create a makeshift office space in living rooms or bedrooms or kitchens. This of course means it is more difficult to mentally and physically delineate between work time and leisure time. Balancing your laptop on the arm of the sofa, or perched on the kitchen counter so that the noise outside doesn’t distract you from your Zoom call isn’t the most ergonomic way of working, and means added physical discomfort when trying to work. Maybe you could stretch your legs in the garden? But your rented one-bedroom flat doesn’t come with a garden, and the park outside is becoming ever more crowded – not exactly ideal when trying to avoid a potentially deadly virus. So this tiny space becomes your entire world, blurring lines between work and relaxation, lethargy and restlessness building up, amidst landlord-mandated visits from plumbers and electricians.
This is in addition to the fact that higher earners, as well as having more physical and mental space and comfort, will generally live in a quieter area, free from noisy distractions. It’s arguably tougher to focus when motorbikes are whizzing past at all hours, downstairs neighbours are making noise and setting off the fire alarm when they burn toast, and the people in the flat next door have decided that 7am is the perfect time to start an ambitious DIY project.
So far, so familiar. This is where we throw neurodiversity into the mix. Regardless of the aforementioned financial circumstances, neurotypical people are going to have less difficulty coping with these discomforts and distractions than their neurodiverse counterparts. Whereas everyone has varying external factors that make working from home uniquely challenging, the internal factors that come with neurodiversity are the ones that are immutable and ultimately frustrating.
It is difficult to fully open up to neurotypical people about the difficulties you’re facing – even though well-meaning, responses such as “oh I know how you feel, I was procrastinating today too,” or “yeah, well we’re all struggling to concentrate these days, aren’t we” are can feel
invalidating and isolating. While these expressions of sympathy are a kindness of sorts, it actually has the opposite of the intended effect: it minimises your unique struggles to an everyday annoyance that everyone gets on with, which erases the very real challenges you’re facing with neurodiversity. This in turn adds to the low self-esteem and negative self-talk common among the neurodiverse: what if I am just not trying hard enough? Maybe everyone else feels this way, but just gets on with it. Maybe my school teachers were right, and I am just lazy and undisciplined. I’m a loser. What’s the point? As you can imagine, these kinds of thoughts are not massively fun to deal with on top of everything else. Neurodiverse people are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, which can be easily triggered or exacerbated when you feel misunderstood.
But I digress. For a neurotypical person, distractions and lack of motivation are generally based on external factors and are transient in nature, whereas for neurodiverse people, it is a constant uphill battle with no escape. Combine that with a lack of workplace-created structure, and the odds of carving out even a few minutes of concentration become ever diminished.
There is a difference between being lazy and not being able to do something and everyone needs to know it.— Pina✨🌈ADHD Alien Comic (@ADHD_Alien) July 8, 2019
(Procrastination can also be unproductive things – Executive Dysfunction can be part of the other struggles)#adhs #tdah #neurodiversity #comic pic.twitter.com/fFPTfcPVo2
Logistics abound. You sit down to work – but the makeshift workspace is incredibly cluttered. This is, in part, due to the aforementioned lack of delineation between work and home; this is the single place where you work, eat, relax. The table is littered with cups and plates, a few nail polishes, a ukulele. Laundry is hanging up to dry next to you, with piles of the previous loads of washing unfolded on the floor next to it. This is distracting, due to being “visually noisy” – but the mental effort required to organise this chaos would use up precious energy that needs to be reserved for work time. So the clutter stays. Maybe you try and pile it somewhere else in the vain hope of it being less distracting if it’s in a different place (spoiler: it is not). You will later trip over this clutter because you forgot you moved it directly into your route to the fridge, which you have visited ten times instead of finishing that one sentence you’re stuck on.
My life goals VS Executive Dysfunction. It feels like I don’t even know what I want to do in life. I never know if I don’t do something because of executive dysfunction or simply because I don’t like it. pic.twitter.com/AvfMxqNfrY— Pina✨🌈ADHD Alien Comic (@ADHD_Alien) July 22, 2020
Once you’ve made an attempt to ignore this clutter, this visual noise, it’s time to sit down and focus. You tell yourself you will focus this time; it will be different this time. It rarely is. People with ADHD struggle to concentrate in part because their brain is always seeking out the quickest and easiest dopamine hit; the need for instant gratification is almost pathological. Unlike in the office, there are endless sources for that quick hit at home: snacks, TV, your phone, browsing the internet, dancing to George Michael. Combine that with ADHD hyperfocus and you find yourself hours later, having watched 12 YouTube videos about a film you enjoyed but didn’t quite understand (probably due to lack of attention) and having taken several Buzzfeed quizzes to determine once and for all which kind of cheese you are. All good to know, but the work is still yet to be started, the task looming ever greater, and your disappointment in yourself is eating you up once again. Rinse, repeat.
“Why can’t you just—“— Dani Donovan 👩🏻🎨 ADHD Comics (@danidonovan) March 19, 2019
I don’t have a procrastination problem. I have a “getting started” problem. The first step is always the hardest.
Getting enough willpower to initiate action is difficult. Constant shaming wrecks my self-esteem, and teaches me to always blame myself. #ADHD pic.twitter.com/Ruzi0VtOp4
Hyperfocus sounds like a superpower of sorts, and it can be, when aimed correctly. But it is a double-edged sword; a gift and a curse for the ADHD brain. There are times when it works in everyone’s favour, as you truly get “on a roll” with a work task, finishing it with absolute dedication and flourish, and no concept of time passing. Unfortunately, hyperfocus is not something that can be chosen, channelled, or targeted. Some days, hyperfocus will leave you incredibly sensitive to light, sound, temperature, or smells (particularly if your neighbour likes to smoke weed at all hours, which wafts into your draughty living room). Sometimes it’s simply the label on your shirt that never normally itches, but today is all you can think about. The feeling of the seam in your socks will consume half your thoughts for the day. Add this to the lack of self-control when searching for a dopamine hit, plus access to TV and internet, and it’s easy to see how several hours a day are lost, leaving you feeling shame and embarrassment at the thought of trying to justify to someone how much work you’ve managed to get done from home.
I have barely scratched the surface in this blog, and I could ramble on for several more pages, but I’ll spare you. This was not written to garner pity, or to make excuses, but rather to demonstrate the endless cycles of distraction, time-blindness, and negative self-talk that make up a day in the life of a neurodiverse person. I truly hope it has been a helpful insight.
Working from home is certainly a privilege, but more of a privilege for some than others.