I knew my oldest son’s brain worked differently than mine from the time he was a little boy. He was bright, intuitive, emotionally intelligent, and active. He also couldn’t stay on age appropriate tasks for very long, misplaced everything, and got extremely frustrated and overwhelmed when his world seemed out of order, so to speak. As a twenty-five-year-old man, his list of achievements, academic, artistic, and otherwise, point to a successful, satisfying life, yet he will admit that he still must pay close attention to keeping his life in balance, maintaining order in his surroundings, and honoring the systems he’s developed for staying on task.
When I met Jaclyn Paul, author of Order from Chaos, at a conference, we talked about her experiences as an adult living with ADHD. I admired her thorough research and her willingness to share her experiences. Her book and blog have become resources for our family, and I’m happy to share BCB’s platform so she can talk more about this relevant, impactful topic, her fiction and nonficion writing, and more. Welcome, Jaclyn!
Tabitha Lord: I love the overarching theme in the book that there is no one right way to manage ADHD, only the way that works. You also encourage anyone struggling with ADHD to release their guilt. When you understood that your mind actually processed things differently, you must have felt relieved, among other things! Can you talk a little about the journey that lead you to write this book?
Jaclyn Paul: My journey began when I founded my blog, The ADHD Homestead, in 2014. I infuse my personal stories on there with advice and information about living with adult ADHD. Readers send me emails to thank me for my writing, or to ask for specific help with an issue they’re having. I deeply appreciate the former and don’t have the capacity to provide services for the latter, but both inspired me to do more. Order from Chaos gave me an opportunity to weave together several major topics from my blog and go into a lot more depth than a blog post — or even a series of posts — would allow.
You’re right, I felt relieved when I realized just how many facets of my adult life were affected by untreated ADHD. I felt even more relieved when I realized things didn’t have to be that way.
TL: Everyone can relate to the idea of backsliding into bad habits, or having bad days that send us into a tailspin, but it’s especially important for folks with ADHD to correct their course quickly. Can you share some of your methods for regaining your equilibrium?
JP: First, I look around at my environment: my physical surroundings, but also my schedules, routines, and obligations. I’ve struggled this summer because our family’s routines have changed every week. My five-year-old son has been home with me a lot. But this is a finite period where I need to expect less from myself. I’m not operating at full capacity, and that’s okay.
On the flip side, sometimes that backsliding happens at a time when I need to figure my way out of it, and fast. ADHD makes me more prone to getting overwhelmed, which fosters avoidance, which makes the problem bigger. Before I know it, I have a weeks-long catch-up project.
To get back on track, I start with the external. I set down my work and clean up my office. I go to the basement and fill a box with stuff to donate or give away. I clear off all the horizontal surfaces — tables, floors, couches, you name it — and put the clutter away. Sometimes this takes days. If I don’t know where to start, I’ll create 20-minute playlists or turn on podcasts to give me motivation and a time limit to clean.
I also define my priorities at the beginning of each week and make them approachable with mini goals: daily increments of progress small enough for me to tackle no matter what else is going on. For example, completing or deleting one thing from my to-do list today. Picking up my guitar and strumming it once. Doing a single yoga pose. Cleaning up a single object from the living room. Of course, once I break that barrier and do the one thing, I often end up doing more. That’s the trick: give your brain a task so minuscule it can’t refuse, then let inertia take over.
But even if I only do the minimum, I find that giving myself an out, a way to feel successful in an overwhelming time, helps me get myself back to a good place. ADHD brains often have weak working memory, meaning we can’t hold more than one thing in mind at once. If we make the first step too big, we won’t know where to start.
TL: So many of your recommendations for staying organized and productive are things I do religiously in my busy world. They’re effective techniques, and I think I became more committed to those methods while I was raising my kids, one of whom has ADHD. I felt it was my job to teach him the good systems he’d need to keep his life on track. It took a lot patience, repetition, and organization, but I’m happy to say he manages his own adult life very competently and understands himself deeply. For any parent raising a child with ADHD, or any adult living with an ADHD partner, this book really gives great insight. You have it and live with a partner who has it. Can you talk a little about how the two of you manage this together? How this book isn’t just for folks with ADHD, but for those living or working with someone who does?
JP: My marriage improved exponentially when we began learning more about ADHD and its impact on our relationship. We now understand the neurochemistry behind a lot of each other’s behaviors, from his tendency to embarrass me at social gatherings and stay up all night staring at a computer screen, to my emotional overreactions and love of starting big (and completely impractical) new projects. We know what to expect from each other when our medications aren’t in effect. When issues come up, we’re more likely to take a problem-solving approach, or to ask each other questions to try to understand the situation, than we used to be. It’s really important not to take little stuff personally.
Of course, both of us having ADHD doesn’t make us similar people, or give us an innate understanding of what’s happening in the other person’s head. Quite the contrary. We’re very different. We have pretty diametrically opposed sets of strengths and weaknesses. This can be a tremendous asset to our relationship, as long as we don’t let it drive us crazy!
People with ADHD often behave in ways that don’t make sense. We know we aren’t making sense, but that doesn’t mean we can do the Obvious Right Thing simply by trying harder. Most of us spend our whole lives hearing “try harder” as the advice that should solve all our problems. This leads to more failure and low self-esteem.
My hope with Order from Chaos is to show not just the people with ADHD who’ve been suffering, but the people who cohabitate with them and love them, why trying harder doesn’t work. And why it’s so important to suss out what does work, rather than expect someone to change their brain chemistry by force of will.
TL: When I left my office/teaching job to become a full-time writer working from home, I had to make serious adjustments to my habit life. Because I didn’t actually need to get dressed for work, sometimes I didn’t – for days. I think most of us will have more than one career over the course of our adult life, or be presented with a shake up to our habits, work-life, or home-life. I include parenting here. Our rhythms and all the systems we use to stay organized and sane will be turned upside down, and we’ll have to adapt. Any advice on how to ease the transitions and make adjustments?
JP: First of all, give yourself permission to struggle with the transition. I quit my office job two months before my son was born. In that time, I got used to getting a certain amount of writing work done during the day. I assumed that after he was born I would “take a couple weeks off” (my exact words) before getting back into things.
Anyone who’s had a new baby is probably laughing at me right now — I’m laughing at myself! There’s actually a second piece of advice wrapped up in this, and that’s to be realistic. Give yourself more space than you think you’ll need. It probably still won’t be enough. My first rule in Order from Chaos is that you have to make peace with reality. Big transitions are difficult, and you’ll need time and mental energy to figure everything out.
Beyond that, though, you need to identify your basic needs, the underlying structure of your work that you’ll carry from job to job. I need time at the beginning of every week to map out the days ahead. This was true when I worked in an office, and it’s still true now that I’m working from home on my own projects.
I also do my best work at specific times of day. There’s this temptation, when you work from home, to burn the midnight oil, or to get up super early for 5am Writers Club, or to work at the dining room table while your kids do their homework. I do my best writing around lunchtime. Some work I can do with my kid at the dining room table, and some I can’t.
With ADHD already working against me, I can’t really afford to work against my brain — no matter where I am or what kind of work I’m doing. When we start a new chapter in our lives, it’s easy to assume something essential about us is going to change, too. But we’re still us, with the same natural strengths and weaknesses. We need to remember and honor those unique traits, and try to set up our new work space/life accordingly.
TL: Switching topics – you write fiction as well as non-fiction. Can you talk a little about the differences and similarities between creative writing and non-fiction? Do you prefer one to the other?
JP: I’m a lifelong writer. I’ve always mixed fiction and nonfiction, and I don’t necessarily prefer one to the other. They’re very different, and only seem more so as The ADHD Homestead has grown.
I get a lot of feedback and validation for my nonfiction work, and I realized recently that for the first time, I have to choose to remain a fiction writer. Blogging always felt like the side gig. I can’t say that anymore. Non-fiction is where I’m making a difference, gaining readers, and making money. No one would blame me for giving up on fiction.
The thing is, I can’t imagine my life without fiction in it. I’m not in this for a publishing contract or a bestseller (though obviously that would be amazing!). Writing books is kind of like building ships in bottles. I’d still do it even if I knew no one would ever read my work. I also run a fiction critique group and love being in a community of writers. I don’t get that from non-fiction. I have a community of people interested in the topics I write about, which is fulfilling in its own way but not the same.
TL: Can you give us a sneak peek of your latest book?
JP: I haven’t started any new non-fiction yet, but I’d love to write a darkly funny memoir someday about my terrible memory: a collection of vignettes about what I do and do not remember, how many precious things disappear but also the bizarre moments that stay. Failing that, an easier project might be to write about the first decade of my relationship with my husband: the ways ADHD put us in the same place at the same time, and how at one point it also nearly ended our marriage.
As for my next novel, I can’t say much about it, except that it will feature two sisters cleaning out their late mother’s beach house together. They haven’t always gotten along, and now they’re preparing the house for a sale neither is quite sure she wants to make.
TL: Jaclyn, thank you so much for chatting today, and thank you for the terrific work you do!
Jaclyn Paul is a staff blogger for INKITT and author of the book Order from Chaos – The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD. You might also know her from The ADHD Homestead, where she writes about building a good life and a peaceful home with adult ADHD. Her writing has appeared online in OffbeatFamilies, TheWriteLife, ADDResources, Better Novel Project, and ADHD Roller Coaster. Jaclyn also writes women’s fiction and YA. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and son.