I call Autism+ADHD “the clusterfuck combo”. My Autistic brain is all about truth, justice, order, logic, patterns, systems, and deep dives – my Autistic brain is curious, investigative, and wants to understand everything. My ADHD brain is all about impulsivity, hyperactivity, emotional dysregulation and hypersensitivity, distractibility, and disorganisation – my ADHD brain is a chaotic sponge, soaking in every single sensory detail of the world around me and will not stfu until it has absorbed everything. They essentially pull in two opposite directions at the same time. No wonder I am perpetually exhausted! Developmental trauma shares many of the same traits as both Autism and ADHD, although where my neurodivergence is hard-wired and requires healthy coping mechanisms to get the best from them, my trauma, with assistance, practice, and time, can be rewired. It’s what I call “the great untangling” – a lengthy process of unlearning and relearning how to just BE.
It’s an interesting game to try to manage what we perceive as our ‘natural’ whims. More often than not these are conditioned into us regardless of our neurology, and as such they can be deconditioned – which for the ‘clusterfuck combo’ on top is… a challenge. I’m starting to build routines, which requires some self-discipline and a hefty dose of acceptance and allowing them to be flexible/fluid to suit whichever condition is shouting the loudest in any given moment. That takes some experimenting, and a whole load of self-forgiveness when I don’t notice them or their needs in the moment, or when I don’t get it ‘right’ and find myself back in negative behaviours and harmful loops. I’ve learned that trying to force a consistent daily behaviour doesn’t work for me, but that a greater overall balance does. So instead of an “I must do x/y/z every single day” mission, I’ve adopted a far more flexible model of “If I can show up for myself and do enough movement/eating/rest/work/social connection over the whole week, it better equips me to maintain an overall physiological regulation, feel a healthy sense of connection and belonging with myself and others, and get shit done”. I can’t say I’m an expert at it yet but it’s starting to make more sense, and I’m increasingly seeing small results having big impacts.
Break it Down. Keep it Small.
“Break it down. Keep it small” is a mantra that my best mate has been trying to drum into me for ages, and it’s finally starting to sink in. It really works. I still don’t understand how I managed to pull off such huge work endeavours in the past without all this personal strategy in place, so learning these new systems is rather astonishing. I’m finding it helps dramatically to break each task (whether for work or life) down into the smallest steps possible while my brain is in hyperfocus mode, and then gradually doing one tiny step at a time. That approach helps even more for the things I don’t want to do (entertainingly called “frogs”) – if I do one tiny step of a ‘frog task’ before doing something I really do want to do, it turns my special interest foci into a reward. The rest is about noticing (becoming aware of the various dysregulated states), accepting them however they show up in each moment, learning to sit with the discomfort which inevitably arises, and staying curious and kind to myself about whatever emerges.
I’m finding it’s resulting in a series of small wins, each building their own little confidences as the holistic healthy picture starts to take new shape and new neural pathways start to emerge. It’s honestly rather lovely. I’m even finding that I’m laughing more and feeling more cheeky during my weeks, instead of the daily depressing reminders that I am an abject failure. By working with my conditions instead of fighting them and myself, I’m gaining a far stronger sense of identity and self, in my work and in my life. This is enabling me to start trusting myself more, providing the confidence to build more healthy social connections with others (instead of my trauma and social anxiety pushing everyone away), and believing that my work is important and has a purpose in the world… but not if it comes at the expense of my personal self’s wellbeing.
Honestly, it’s kinda wild. Turning inside and exploring our vulnerabilities probably doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you’d choose to do… and sure, it ain’t pretty, especially at the start. For me, and particularly for my work in social justice, it’s essential. The old adage “apply own mask before helping others” is a hard one to learn, but without it we will never be more than boom and bust, which doesn’t help anyone. I’ve spent my whole life barely surviving, and frequently not even wanting to anymore. I now know I want resilience, joy and to thrive. THAT makes all the challenges and struggles worth it. I still make mistakes, I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning, and there’s so very much more to explore, but life is finally worth living again… and not just so I can be of service to others. Cool, huh?