Life starts... now.
March 27, 2010 9:44 PM   Subscribe

I really want to start living my life now, as is, instead of waiting until things are "right" and obsessing about perfection - but I keep falling into this way of thinking - help!

I find myself always having this picture in my mind of when things will be better/sorted out/I'll feel different and how great that will be, and I put a lot of things off until that imaginary circumstance arrives, or I'll tarnish the "now" experience by wishing that it were occuring under more ideal circumstances, and most of all get crazily stressed out when I can't or don't control the circumstances as well as I would like/intended to. This can be from minor to major things. Examples:

1. I didn't want the guy I'm seeing to come to my new apartment because I hadn't yet decorated it properly, so it didn't look the way I wanted it to look. I wanted it to be "just right" before anyone saw it, rather than enjoy entertaining people who's company I enjoy.

2. I get really stressed and anxious at work if it's not all "under control" ie my intray or work can be completely emptied, or close to, by the end of the day.

3. If I can't sleep, or am up late one night and I'm really tired, I feel like I need to take the following day off to "reset" and catch up on sleep, tidy my apartment etc and get everything in order so that I can continue to feel good throughout the week. I really get hung up on this idea of needing a "fresh" start. I'm often convinced that the following day is bound to be a write-off because of my lack of sleep and the only thing that calms me down and allows me to go to sleep that night is telling myself that ok, I can take tomorrow off and get things back under control, and then imagining everything being sorted and how fabulous that will be.

4. I often find myself telling myself that I'll do x when y happens, eg when I have the perfect boyfriend I'll go on drives to the countryside, when I lose weight (or if I looked like *her*) I'll miraculously feel attractive all the time (have read and reread the Fantasy of Being Thin adn wish I could tattoo it on my brain!!), when I'm really fit (with no set measure for this) I'll enter a competition, when I'm single I'll be really outgoing and make new friends - silly things that I could just do *now*, but I often forget that and postpone it until an "ideal time" and concentrate instead on setting up the circumstances rather than just doing what I want to do.

5. If I don't eat this specific snack before my workout, I worry that I won't have enough energy and it will be a massive failure

6. If I'm heading out and am not really that happy with the outfit I've chosen I feel like it's going to skew people's impressions of me in a way that will mess up our interaction, like I somehow want to make sure I come across exactly the way I want, and I also feel like I can't feel good until everything's just right - eg if I didn't get time to shave my legs, even if I'm in pants, I kind of feel like the day's a bit of a write-off and I'll have to "reset" tomorrow.

7. Being in relationships causes me a great deal of anxiety as OMG this could all go horribly wrong and I don't know exactly what's going on and there are no guarantees!! So I tend to avoid intimacy and just letting go.

Whenever I'm unhappy or dis-satisfied I jump into "planning mode" and decide there must be some kind of magical solution, where if I just do x then y will happen and it will magically be "ok". I want to get to the point where I kind of just go "ok, x is happening. I'll try to do y but things are still ok RIGHT NOW" instead of my normal "uh huh! this is only happening cos I'm not doing y. I'll figure out what y is and do it like crazy and then everything will be just right and nothing bad will never happen again."

In fact I can see that in this very question - I'm kind of hoping there's some secret answer that I can just do and then everything will be fine!

Obviously anxiety, perfectionism, catastrophising and control freak tendencies here. What has helped you? What do you tell yourself when you get like this? I'm REALLY tired of living my life like this cos I feel like I'm wasting it away, I want to be able to just go with the flow more but I never have and there is a certain security (or false sense of) that comes with trying to control everything so much. The idea of NOT worrying about something seems somehow very risky. Yes, I'm in therapy, but next appointment isn't for a while. Help me make the jump and keep jumping!

Bonus question: Has anyone gone from being an over anxious control freak to someone pretty loose and free and easy about life? Is it really possible to change in the long term?
posted by Chrysalis to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting question. I'm wondering if you had an upbringing that embedded a perfectionist mentality in you? If so, it would be helpful to analyze it in a way that you can directly deprogram it in a way that's beneficial to you.
posted by sonicbloom at 9:54 PM on March 27, 2010

Hi Chrysalis,

I also have dealt with this type of anxiety and catastrophising in my life, and I definitely think it is something that can be worked with. I've done a couple things in my life that have really helped me deal with these issues.

(1) I try to exercise reguarly. I really do feel like a good workout on a regular basis helps me to be more focused, and more capable, in my day to day activities. If I don't exercise, I might sit around and worry, like you, about 'getting things done', or my relationship, or figuring out the 'correct' way of doing something (schoolwork, job, dressing myself, etc.- a lot of the issues you deal with). But when I get a good workout in, I find myself starting to execute my plans, and working towards my goals, rather than thinking about the 'right way'. Definitely consider adding regular exercise to your schedule.

(2) I see a therapist to help me with these anxiety issues. When things are bad (during an anxious period), I go on a biweekly basis. And even when things are good, I still go every couple of months just to check in. I see a cognitive behavioral therapist, and it really helps me to question and restructure my thoughts to have a more positive outlook. I see that you note you are in therapy, but your appointment isn't "for awhile". I would just point out that if you are going through a rough period, you should definitely consider going more frequently, if that is an option for you.

(3) I try to set very concrete goals for myself, especially when feeling overwhelmed. "I will read 30 pages of this book every day", or "I will clean my room on tuesday", etc. I make a list, and try stick to it. Having reasonable, incremental goals that I can complete make me realize that I am making progress every day. You can look back at your list, and see the things you've 'crossed out' because you have accomplished it.

(4) I try to recognize that my anxiety can be helpful as well as harmful. You mention that you worry about how you dress when you go out, because of what other people might think. You can reframe this issue. When you are at a point where the anxiety isn't quite as pressing, you can see that this might actually be a benefit. You pay attention to how you come accross to people, and how your actions are percieved by others. You talk about oplanning going into overdrive. But when you aren't overly anxious, someone who has this attention to detail can make very effective use of their times. These are actually GREAT skills to have. You might just need to work on tuning them down a bit, getting them under control, but certainly you don't want to get rid of them alltogether! I find these type of "reframing" exercises very helpful, because it makes me realize that there is good, as well as bad, in these feelings.

I hope that was helpful. Please feel free to memail me.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 10:07 PM on March 27, 2010 [10 favorites]

err, "time", not "times".
posted by HabeasCorpus at 10:09 PM on March 27, 2010

I'm not trying to diagnose you with anything, but I have the same behaviors you describe and I've been diagnosed with (mild) OCD. Exercising more has seemed to help more than anything else, including meds, which I haven't taken in years, has. I look forward to exercising and I think about where I will ride my bike or hike and it takes my mind off of the other things I fixate on. Things aren't perfect, but I've noticed a recent improvement thanks to this.
posted by ishotjr at 10:11 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I do a lot of the same things. Some of this stuff I think is simply procrastinating doing something we don't want to do. The ultimate result seems like that--i.e., you don't do something that you could do know, like cleaning your apartment.

I have found that there are ways I can kind of "trick" myself into getting around this thinking. One method I read (I think on lifehacker) that works sometimes is to think about how what you are procrastinating is really not that hard to do by comparing it to something that is incredibly hard to do. Not sure if that makes sense or whatever, but say to yourself, "All I have to do is clean my apartment for 30 minutes. It's not like I have to clean for 8 hours." Or, all I have to do is read one chapter of my book--it's not like I have to read 300 pages." Or even sometimes, "All I have to do is go to class. It's not like I have to go fight in the Vietnam war like my Dad did." Kind of stupid I know, but sometimes it works because it forces us to put things in a new perspective.

And the thing is, everyone feels the same ways at times, and I'm not just saying that. One thing I have learned is that pretty much everyone in the entire world thinks they need to be more organized. Everyone has trouble sleeping sometimes and gets anxiety about relationships. It's natural, and in fact it may be good for us. Our body and brain have a funny of way of doing what's in our best interests sometimes. It's weird to think about, and of course, this is not always the case, but sometimes it's good that you worry about getting enough sleep because it motivates you to not stay up all night watching TV. And there may be some days when you need to procrastinate cleaning your house because you need to rest and watch a movie. It lets you rest and regenerate, and you can clear your apartment tomorrow.

If things get to be really excessive, it could be an issue, but this would be obvious--e.g., you have serious anxiety attacks, of you can't fall asleep until 4:00 am every night for a month, etc. You don't have OCD. People with OCD clean their apartments 30 times a day, close their car door 18 times in a row to make sure it's locked, etc.
posted by stevenstevo at 11:31 PM on March 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm kind of hoping there's some secret answer that I can just do and then everything will be fine!

Chrysalis - there's no secret answer. There's nothing wrong with you, it seems to me that you are simply risk averse. And there's nothing so odd about that.

The thing is this: simple logic dictates that if you do not accept the risk of failing you will never give yourself the chance to succeed. Yes, this is a cheesy cliché but it also happens to be true.

I used to be of the mind that a relationship must be perfect before I would commit completely to it until I realized (after a long string of failure) that it could never be perfect unless I committed myself to it. The classic Catch-22. That's the long and the short of it: at some point you just have to jump in with both feet, give it your best shot, and hope the water is deep enough.

The downside: sometimes you will hit the ground hard, but as you lick your wounds you will also feel really good and proud of yourself that you gave it a go. Just trust me on this one - I'm speaking from hard-earned experience here - you'll feel better about yourself having tried and failed than never having tried. Again a cheesy cliché that happens to be true.

The upside: everytime I look at my wonderful wife and my beautiful kids I am reminded that jumping in with both feet was the best thing I ever did. And it never would have happened if I didn't take the risk to commit myself fully before I was certain that I should commit myself fully.

You can't change how you feel - don't waste time trying to change how you feel - change what you do. This is in your power. How you feel will change all by itself.

It's no guarantee that everything will be fine, the only guarantee is that if you do not take some chances you will never give yourself the chance to be happy - and that would be really, really sad.

Give yourself the chance to be happy. You owe it to your future happy self!
posted by three blind mice at 11:31 PM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

Read the Power of Now.

Having grown up in LA I've been to more than my fair share of shrinks, but finally found one who was fantastic at helping find ways to reframe my brain around the exact same issues. This book was assigned to me as homework (and I'd read small bits of it here and there before falling asleep and I cannot describe how some of those passages just radically altered me forever and blissed me out).

The other thing she recommended was a photocopied bit of text written by a more extraverted monk (more my style) and I have no idea how to find it. Until I can ask her, I'll do my best at summarizing his main idea. We are not just one identity. When you hear that anxious voice in your head worrying about whether you've had the correct pre-workout snack--try to visualize that voice as a cartoon character of one aspect of yourself. You are populated with various characters like these who will try to take control from time to time, and your job isn't to scold them or hate them or beat them up. Your job is to be their mother, which I took to mean loving them and then setting boundaries. As in, okay little anxious girl it's all good I hear you that you're worried and yes your voice matters. But I'm here and I'm going to take care of everything and even if the worst comes to pass I'm here and you can trust me to make everything alright.

I know that sounds kind of crazy but it's been pretty miraculous for me. I wish you the best with this. And recognize that it is a struggle for everyone to some extent, so you're not crazy.
posted by ohyouknow at 11:36 PM on March 27, 2010 [10 favorites]

And as for not exercising, that's tough, and no one ever says this because it sounds stupid. Personally, I'm kind of sick of that being the answer for everything. I am well aware it's important, but so are many things in life, like sleep, doing well at your job, not eating at McDonald's, community service, saving money, etc. I think the best thing to do is focus on improving one thing in your life at a time and realize that you can do it all at once.

What's worked for me is also doing things that kind of trick me into doing them. Like finding a friend and getting a plan together to go running three nights a week. Or signing up for a half-marathon 3 months from now. Or buying an iPod shuffle so I can listen to music while I work out. And then telling myself all I need to do is run for 20 minutes, which is all of about 4 songs on my iPod, which is ridiculous how little time that is. Or finding a good running trail that is not very crowded. I hate exercising around other people, so not having anywhere I felt I would enjoy running totally prevented it from ever happening. Another thing that helps for me is to disregard advice about when I should exercise. I'm well aware that it's probably great to get up at 4:30 am and go hit the stairmaster for 2 hours before work, but that's just not happening.
posted by stevenstevo at 11:41 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Correction, meant to say: realize you cannot do it all at once.
posted by stevenstevo at 11:45 PM on March 27, 2010

For the perfectionist in you, flip things around. For example, think of the last time you were at someone's apartment. Do you think they tried to make it perfect for you? And really, what would perfect be? Did you notice that it wasn't perfect? Probably not. Even if you did you probably thought about it for 5 minutes and never thought about it again.

And that's my point. When you are worried about being perfect for the sake of others, just remember that even if someone notices imperfection, it's fleeting and who cares.

For the other things, it's probably better to think of everything as a book. When you read a book, you don't know what's going to come on the next page. This is essentially what life is like. If you can accept that control of the story is surrendered when you're reading a book, you can also do it with life. Go with the flow and attack each situation as it arises.
posted by thorny at 1:40 AM on March 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Take small steps, don't try to fix it all at once. Pick one thing that causes you a lot of anxiety and try making small changes a little bit at a time until it doesn't feel so horrifying to not do your exact routine.

Exercise is good, but keep it in mind that you're doing it for health, not to be a perfect someone/size/etc that you have in your head. If you like to write, write to yourself about your anxieties and how they make you feel. Sometimes it helps to not keep it all bottled up in your head, to see it out in front of you in type/longhand.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 6:57 AM on March 28, 2010

How old are you? When I hit my mid-thirties, I had this realization that if I kept up all these impossible standards I had about how everything had to be "just so" before [whatever], I would never have any fun. It was almost like a mid-life crisis - that life was passing me by because of my own doing (or not doing). So maybe you will loosen up with time?

Sorry this doesn't really answer your question, I suppose, but I saw myself in your background info, and wanted to let you know that I changed, but it was really more of a gradual letting go than any one thing I did. Now I don't care who sees my messy house or sees me without makeup on or whatever.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:25 AM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really want to start living my life now, as is, instead of waiting until things are "right" and obsessing about perfection.

There is no need to start living your life now. You are and always have been living your life now. You do yourself a disservice when you call momentary periods of painful comparison to an unreachable standard as "life."

You are living in the now. Even when you are distracted. Obsession is what we do when we don't want to think about our now life. For you it is refusing to love yourself until you reach some imagined and undefined future level of money, success, love whaterver.

For you, you need to learn to feel bad about things in your real life now, rather than try to ignore them by distracting yourself with these comparisons to some better you.

The key is to learn to think of these times that you think like that as spells, and times when you are living in the moment (I'm sure they occur). So ride them out when they happen and stop thinking of them as defining you.

So, next time you find yourself thinking like that, find out what was happening or what you were thinking right before. Was it a fight with a boyfriend? Think about that thing, let yourself feel down and dissappointed, anxious or hurt.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:12 AM on March 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

1) A good tip for getting over procrastination is to work on the task you are avoiding for a measly 10 minutes. Then stop -- if you want to. But most keep going, which is why it is so effective.

2) Before you consider therapy, do a warm-up and read the famous book "Feeling Good" by David Burns. It did wonders for "fixing" the way I think by default.

3) Don't overanalyze yourself! Your mind is in overdrive; you are stressing about individual tasks, and stressing about your overall situation too.

4) I really agree about exercise. Stop thinking long-term and just do a little each day, like a daily half-hour walk. One step in front of the other. After one week, you will have accomplished something. Build on that with another week. Then 2 more. That's a month. Pretty soon, you have a base on which to build and be proud.

5) I know some people similar to you who have benefited from transcendental meditation... seems to quiet overactive minds.

Good luck, don't stress!
posted by teedee2000 at 8:28 AM on March 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

Life is what happens while your making plans for the future. Enjoy it now while you've got it.
posted by Doohickie at 8:52 AM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Therapy has helped me realize how often my thinking is like yours, improved my self-esteem long term, and some ways to diffuse the anxiety short term. Two things that help me in the moment:

1. Thinking that if I can't do that big thing I'm procrastinating on, maybe I can do just one little step toward or like it. It goes along with the mantra "progress, not perfection", and I often find that if I make that small step, I want to do more, or I find something else good - at least it gets me doing Something good. I go for a bikeride instead of that drive in the country. I get to the gym and do a little bit, then figure while I'm there I might as well do more. It gets me around the omgWall of Can't to at least doing Something.

2. I visualize myself with my higher self - this is like the mothering above. I go visit my wise self as I imagine her when I'm older, and talk to her about the problem. It sounds hokey, but imagining myself in a garden or curled up in a chair by a fireplace being soothed and nurtured by myself often leads to at Least stepping down the anxiety, if not also the obvious answers that my anxiety is trying to keep me for moving forward on.

Good luck! I know from experience that this stuff really can get much, much better and happier.
posted by ldthomps at 9:06 AM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

This idea probably qualifies as more of a "trick", instead of something that could "solve" the issue at the root. But even tricks can be helpful, even when you know you're doing it :)

The trick would be to consider the doing of a particular thing (having friends over when your apt. isn't perfect, for example) as practice, so that you'll do even better once you do have everything set up perfectly. If you're only practicing, then you automatically have permission to not have everything go right, and that could be just the type of freedom you need.
posted by wwartorff at 11:53 AM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I definitely have the same problem with telling myself "this day is a write-off day, I'll get to everything tomorrow" thing. I'm getting better at it. This is going to be long because it was a long process, but I hope that seeing the whole thing might help you (and whoever else reads this).

1) This question is a great start. You realize you're doing this, and you realize you could be doing those things now so it's not entirely rational. In some ways, that's the most important part; for the longest time I was able to coast by without realizing it was a problem, and then I entered the adult world and it wasn't enough anymore. Just being aware of it will help you gradually change your behavior.

2) I made myself a list of my goals, broke them down into small steps in a notebook, and wrote "NOW" next to the steps that I am capable of taking now, whether I think it would be better to get something else out of the way first or not. So, for example, it makes sense to say "I can't sign up for this class until I save the money, so I should start saving the money now," but it doesn't make sense to say, "I can sign up for this class now, but I think if I read all these other books about that subject first it'd be better, so..." I'm really bad about I-won't-do-this-until-I-know-everything-about-it for some reason. So I look at whatever has "NOW" by it, and do it. I still tend to do things that don't have the weird "but" after them first, but I get around to the ones with the weird "but" too.

Plus, do you like crossing things out? It has that going for it, too. I'm positively gleeful about it. Like I'll take a thick black Sharpie and go, "OHHH, $50 IN MY SAVINGS ACCOUNT, MOTHERFUCKER! HOW YA LIKE ME NOW?" I dunno, it helps.

3) Over the course of a few years I got okay with failing by purposely allowing myself to try and fail at things. Start small and then work up to bigger things; take something you only sort of want to try out that you don't have anything invested in, and just do the best you can.

One of my "bigger" things was about singing: I've been singing since I could talk and it's something my circle of friends knows is one of my talents. I am a terrible perfectionist about it and wouldn't sing anything I didn't already know I was good at. I went to karaoke with my friends for a couple of years in this manner, and then when I realized I didn't want to be the kind of person who's afraid of failure and that singing stuff well can actually be kind of boring in that context, so I started branching out and singing things I hadn't sang before, or that weren't suited to my voice, etc. Since it was karaoke, it made me feel a little more comfortable to do badly, so it was a good place to start; I realized no one expected me to be able to sing everything wonderfully, and that it's usually more fun when people do badly anyway. And as a plus, by not being afraid of failing, I found a lot of stuff I'm good at that I didn't expect to be, like rapping. And since I didn't have an emotional investment in rapping, I was able to practice without feeling threatened and after a few years I got really good. Now people absolutely freak when I rap, jaws drop, it's awesome. But I'd have never known I could be good at that if I didn't let myself fail.

So now I have something to remind myself of when I get nervous about failing, and I'm so used to screwing up while singing in front of people it doesn't phase me even when I'm singing something well-suited to me. It happens to everyone. I also take note of how, when performers give live concerts and actually sing, if they mostly nail everything people don't care too much about the mistakes here and there. It's astounding when they don't ever screw up -- I'm looking at you, k.d. lang -- but everyone still has a good time and thinks they're wonderful anyway.

I'm also a perfectionist about writing, so I told my writer friend to give me a prompt -- however specific or vague she wanted, just anything -- for a short story, a word count, and a due date. Having to write to a prompt made me feel a bit more comfortable with failing since it wasn't entirely natural for me. The result was pretty meh, but I looked at it as objectively as I could and saw there were good things mixed in with the bad things, and that it had not been a waste of time to do it. My friend gave her opinion as well, and I was interested to find that some of the sentences and elements that I wasn't crazy about were actually the parts she liked. Not only was it good practice in failing, but it reminded me that there is no such thing as perfect because most things are subjective. I could have fiddled forever trying to get rid of those things she liked because they bothered me a bit, and she would have found much less to like because of it. I had settled on "well, I can stand this" and it worked out better.

I realized that I still had some fear there, though, so I would write spontaneous things -- like humorous sonnets or songs -- for my WoW guild. They loved that stuff so it was encouraging, plus they knew it was on-the-spot and were forgiving of imperfection, and the adrenaline of trying to pull it off quickly would stave off my internal editor. Also, I write long-form fiction so sonnets and songs were not really my domain and I was willing to be more forgiving of myself. So be on the look-out for ways you can ease yourself into failing, and after you do it a few times, realize the ways in which you didn't do as badly as you felt you might. Then amp that up.

I still always try to do my best at things and set the bar high, it's just that now when I fall short of that bar I look at it more like progress, and I'm ALWAYS glad I tried. I have NEVER regretted trying, no matter how much I might feel that I'll regret it beforehand. Always remind yourself that you've regretted NOT trying.

4) The book Nurtureshock made me realize that I was raised to value natural talent over effort; my mom always said "you're so smart!" or "you're so talented!" rather than "you worked so hard!" partly because she didn't really think about how there's a difference, and partly because she really does value natural talent over effort. My entire life I had been inclined to stick only to things I was good at without trying, but especially once you're an adult, effort is everything; no one cares how good you are at something if you can't get things done. End result: perfectionist that won't even put in effort unless they know it will be perfect... and that perfect time never comes, so you never do anything.

Just knowing that has helped a lot. I don't mean in the sense that it let me scapegoat responsibility to my mom and just "accept" how I am; I don't blame my mom and, if I don't feel ashamed about how I am now, I don't use it as an excuse to stagnate. It's helped me identify what's been good and bad about being raised that way, so that I can play up the good parts and work on the bad parts. For example, I am amazing at finding shortcuts and I'm efficient because I was always trying to find ways to not put in much effort. Now I look at it like I'm not going to have to waste any effort to learn this thing because I've got an efficient battle plan, so it's worth putting in the effort, it will pay off if I put in the work.

5) Once I had done a bunch of behavior modifying things successfully and I still wasn't quite there, I started looking at other things. I looked into a bunch of the remaining psychological explanations but none of them rang true; I wasn't "afraid of success" -- try as I might, this was alien to me, and I've been happily successful at a lot of things -- and I wasn't "afraid of failure" anymore either. Not "afraid of change" -- my god, I LOVE change and purposely try to put more unpredictable things in my life. It seemed to me that I would look for excuses to make a day a "write-off" and I couldn't figure out why.

It seemed it was partly because I was always tired. So I changed my diet back to what had always given me the highest energy. That just made me feel better but I was still a little sleepy all day, and I still couldn't get around to doing certain things. I've always gotten as much sleep as I've wanted -- no alarm clock -- so it wasn't lack of sleep. My internal clock is naturally nocturnal so I tried endulging that for a while, but I had the same problems without feeling sleepy.

I have been depressed before, so I knew it wasn't depression. My life is pretty stress-free, so I knew it wasn't that. Then I had a three-day bout of anhedonia, which is always a baffling feeling -- it's completely different than depression for me. When I'm depressed, I can sometimes cheer myself up by thinking of things I want to do. When I'm anhedonic, I don't feel sad or anything, I just don't want to do anything and I can't figure out why. I can't feel excitement or anticipation at all. It's really more awful than depression for me; I have no appetite, and I wish very badly to want to do something so the awful boredom would go away, but I can't. I usually end up doing chores, ironically, just to pass the time; normally, when I have a hierarchy of "wants" I will do other things instead of chores, but when that hierarchy collapses it's as good as anything else. That realization hammered home to me that it was really a chemical problem, not just me trying to get out of doing things -- and I don't have a job or anything and just wanted to want to read or craft, so I don't have anything to "get out of" doing. I looked anhedonia up but didn't find anything helpful except that it's dopamine-related. Exercising was one of the few suggestions but it didn't work; I seem to be one of the rare people for whom exercising is a pretty neutral experience: I'll do it, but don't get much of a mood spike.

When the anhedondia passed, I looked at the activities I was avoiding, and it was ones that couldn't be completed quickly. I thought this was the effort thing again, that I was just undisciplined, but then I realized I couldn't even bring myself to do leisure activities that required time-investment; I would just feel this gut reluctance. For example, it had gotten difficult for me to read, or play a video game, or watch a movie or TV show because I am constantly assailed by the urge to go "do something else" -- I just didn't know what. I felt a bit lost for ideas. Then I had one hellish day where, when I would get that urge, I would ask myself, "What could I go do? Alright, I could go do X. Will that make me feel better?" and just imagining doing that activity would make me want to go do something else already. I realized it's always the case that when I switch to doing something else, it's not because I want to do that thing in particular, but I just want to do something different. I told my husband I felt like I was going crazy. I tried to sleep but couldn't for several hours because my mind just goes all over the place. Saying "I feel like I'm going crazy" made me consider that I might be manic, so I at least stopped to consider it; I know a handful of people who suffer from mania, have witnessed it, and read a lot about it while caring for them. But I didn't feel how they said they feel, and I didn't have the physiological reactions like heart pounding and all that: most importantly, I felt calm, and thoroughly unexcited. I felt hyper-restless and like nothing would satisfy me.

I looked up ADD and read that's sometimes dopamine-related. Hm, I thought. So I looked at AskMeFi threads about ADD, came across a recommendation for Delivered from Distraction, and so much of it described me, plus behaviors I had painstakingly trained myself out of for the past several years. One thing that stood out to me, and which I'd never considered before, is that dopamine plays a role in motivation, which might explain why I would just have these "write-off" days even if I was trying to get myself to do activities I enjoy doing. The only oddity was that ADD people often have trouble organizing things, but one of my ways to ease myself into actually doing stuff was by working so hard on organizing them so I'd have no excuse. I also liked organizing because it felt like I got to use multiple parts of my brain at once, like breaking things down and analyzing them and reordering them, all really fast. Organization only appealed to me because it was so quick for me and used enough of my brain that it could temporarily hold my attention.

I also realized I had already implemented a lot of the ideas in the book. For example, I realized years ago that I need variety in my activities, so I would set timers and let myself switch afterward... it had just gotten to the point where I would be in agony for the duration of the timer, and no time adjustments seemed to help. I'd reread the same sentence or paragraph or page of a book for a full hour. It was getting really bad. I'd also done things like try banning myself from the internet, since I could get caught up hopping from page to page for hours. It kept me from wasting time on the internet but I still couldn't read books any better. I'd force myself to leave the house by having my husband drop me off at places and pick me up at the end of the day. I would be able to sit down and read for brief periods -- fifteen minutes, with frequent interruptions -- interspersed with hours of walking. I would walk six miles a day from restlessness just to get a few moments of reading time. I realized that when I could briefly focus I was at coffee shops and drinking tea... which has caffeine... which is a stimulant... which is prescribed for ADD. Caffeine wasn't entirely doing the trick, though, and adding more made me jittery. I didn't know if a different stimulant would do the same thing, but I figured that's what psychiatrists are for. The upside about things like Adderall was that it would be out of my system in a day if it made me feel bad.

I decided I had possibly exhausted my options for things I could do on my own; I couldn't seem to break down this basic unwillingness to do things into any more parts to analyze -- it had become atomic, no pun intended. So I decided to see a psychiatrist and just see what he thought. I told him everything above. I got lucky -- I know from friends that most people don't find a great psychiatrist on their first try -- and he made me feel very comfortable. He thought I definitely had ADD, no doubts whatsoever. He gave me a prescription for Adderall.

I only take 5mg of the extended release per day -- the lowest dose -- and it makes a subtle, but HUGE difference. I don't feel like I'm "on" anything, but I am no longer reluctant to do things. The first day I took it, I brought along a book about Hegel because it was dense and full of nuanced arguments, and I had tried and failed to read it multiple times for the past year. I also brought along other books because I figured I would do my normal jumping around from book to book without ever finishing anything.

I sat there and read the Hegel book, and nothing else, for the entire day, and joyfully took notes. When I would get a good idea or thought, I could write myself a note and get back to the book -- before, I'd developed the habit of writing those things down because I'd forget them when my brain pings around, but once I'd write it down I would get distracted by the next thing instead of being able to refocus on the activity I'd just come from. I realized I didn't want to compulsively check my phone like I usually do -- I could send myself an e-mail note without checking my e-mail and then checking ten other things, holy shit -- and when I'd glance at the time two hours would have passed instead of ten minutes. I did not roam for miles: I sat in one place, took a lunch break, then sat in another place.

Also, something odd that hadn't occurred to me before the Adderall: before, if I was the SLIGHTEST bit hungry or just BARELY had to use the bathroom or was sleepy -- which was constantly -- I could think of nothing else. It was like the stimulus just used up all the attention I had, and if I tried to focus on something else, it would ping right back. Now I don't have to run and grab snacks all the time, or run to the bathroom twice an hour, and if I feel a little tired, I don't feel sleepy. I used to wonder if I was just doing those things or paying attention to those things because I was so lazy, or something. And then, I didn't actually take a lunch break until a few hours after I was sort of hungry because "I want to finish this first." I honestly can't remember the last time I felt that way.

Then the weekend came. I didn't feel reluctant to run errands, and I got them all done early. I actually wanted to do more stuff but I ran out of things to do, so I got myself to go home by reminding me that there were projects there to work on. All those to-do lists I'd gotten so good at making are getting knocked out now. I don't feel like I have more energy as much as more willingness: I don't feel wound up; I actually feel calmer, like my thoughts won't fly away at any moment. No jitteriness or side effects.

I've also noticed that I don't reload web pages compulsively like I used to; I look at my normal sites and then get up and go do something. The other day I noticed this change and asked myself if I wanted to reload something, but the idea seemed pointless and boring compared to doing something else -- and the activity I was going to go do would take a few hours. It's like now that attention and willingness isn't an issue, I don't just choose things that are fast regardless of whether they'll actually make me happy or not.

On top of that, a basic level of excitement is back. Before, even when I was happy my emotions were a little flat, but I was okay with that because I couldn't seem to get sad about much either, and on the whole I felt decent. I have noticed that sad things are a tiny bit more sad to me now, but nothing threatening and I prefer it to feeling a bit empty; it had dulled my appreciation for art and stories and I didn't like that.

And -- this was a big answer to the "now versus later" problem for me -- I am always looking for things I can do right now. I actually want to sign up for the class before I already know everything about it, I actually want to work on XYZ part of a project because I have the stuff for it, even though it might be a little easier if I did that part after a different part. My brain seems to say "things are here, I will do something with them" much more.

Also, things that involve collaborating with other people I would tend to avoid in the past; I would feel like, "yeah, but to do this I'd have to go talk to them, and then wait, and then we'd have to hash things out, and then maybe we won't get along, and... oh fuck it, it's just easier not to." But now I just feel like "eh, this is worth a shot." It's the weirdest thing, but it made me realize something: I feel like my low dopamine sapped my willingness to do things, and my conscious brain was just rationalizing it after the fact.

So talk to a psychiatrist. It might be ADD or OCD or other possibilities, but tell him what your problem is and what you've tried to do to manage it and you will figure it out eventually.

And keep examining your behavior; while I think it might have been better if I had just gone to a psychiatrist sooner, the benefits of having all these behavioral changes in place have been great. I feel like I put the last piece in the puzzle, whereas if I had gone into it without those changes, I could be taking Adderall and wondering if it really works because I still can't get myself to do things where the problem is not only ADD, but fear of failure, or lack of organization, etc. I might have unnecessarily upped my dosage, or gotten discouraged and went off it, beat myself up, etc. But approach the whole thing like you WILL figure it out, and don't feel ashamed while you work it all out.
posted by Nattie at 1:15 PM on March 28, 2010 [25 favorites]

What about if your reset period was now a full day, but an hour or a time of day (morning, noon, evening), so you can still get that refreshing feeling of "starting anew" but without having to write off an entire 24-hour period?
posted by Pomo at 3:48 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

* NOT a full day
posted by Pomo at 3:48 PM on March 28, 2010

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