ADHD, Hyperfocus, and Fixation

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Hyperfocus and fixation were two of the first words I heard associated with ADHD when I started learning about it. I’ve seen them used both distinctly and interchangeably. It seems everywhere I look there’s a different take on what they mean and how they’re related. So this week I dove in once again to really try to get a handle on these two terms so that I could write somewhat intelligently about them. Here are the working definitions I’ve come up with. Don’t worry, they’ve been vetted by Twitter – haha!

Hyperfocus: the ability or act of intensely focusing on an activity or task to the exclusion of awareness of time and surroundings.

Fixation: a topic, person, object, or activity that becomes the primary focus of an individual for days, weeks, or more.

I don’t claim to be in charge of these terms, but while I use them in this post I want you to understand how I’m using them so that I can speak clearly about them.

What hyperfocus looks like for me

So, why the confusion about the words? I believe it’s because they often show up together. While I can hyperfocus on just about anything if my interest level is high enough in the moment, I’m most likely to be found hyperfocusing on my current fixation. And while I may have a fixation that occupies much of my time and thought during a day, I may not actually be engaging in hyperfocus.

When I hyperfocus, I’m usually sitting. You will notice an intense level of focus and stillness. I won’t even be fidgeting. Frequently there is a screen involved, whether it’s a computer, television, e-reader, or smartphone. This was actually one of my “ah-ha” moments in analyzing my ADHD. When asked if I could sit still for prolonged periods, my automatic answer was, yes! But as I considered it, I had to add…if there’s a screen. Without a screen I can’t stop fidgeting to save my life.

One of the reasons that screens are so common to my hyperfocus ability is that whether a work project or entertainment at home, I’m most likely using a screen of some kind. So while a screen doesn’t have to be present for me to hyperfocus, it’s very common that there is one.

While I’m in hyperfocus I will completely lose track of time. I may play a video game for 6-8 hours straight, not eating or taking care of any other needs. When the hyperfocus is broken, typically by my partner returning home, I will often find myself very hungry and needing to use “the facilities.” As a kid I played The Legend of Zelda on NES all day long. When I was called to dinner I found that my thumb hurt. I’d developed a blister from playing on those unforgiving boxy controllers all day, but hadn’t realized the pain until I was called away.

Hyperfocus is double edged for me. If it’s a work project I’m excited about, I can research and plan and create for hours. But if it’s recreational, well, you’ve seen I can easily waste a day or more. I can’t necessarily control when hyperfocus will engage, but I can try to make it happen it by setting up a scenario where I have a chunk of time set aside for a project I’m excited about.

What Fixations Look Like For Me

When I have a fixation, you’ll know it. It’s pretty much on my mind all the time and all I want to talk about. Look at my internet history, my social media, ask me what’s new…you’ll hear about it. I don’t always have a current fixation. I have had many of them. Sometimes they will last weeks, months, and even years. When I do have a fixation, I can tell it’s more than “just another interest” by looking at the time, money and attention I give it.

Time: My fixation will be the first thing I attend to when I wake up and the last thing I look at/think of before I go to sleep. It will also occupy a lot of time throughout the day, typically 4-5 hours, but stretching to 10 or more on the most intense days. The fixation often takes precedence over family, work, church, values, and goals. It will encroach into work and family time.

Money: These high-interest fixations, combined with low impulse control, lead to me buying many things to “set up” or continue a new fixation. Anything related to furthering the fixation is considered a necessary purchase regardless of how much money is in my bank account. I have great collections of items stored in my house related to many past fixations.

Attention: Usually the fixation will be on my mind all day whether I’m actively participating or not. I like to make spreadsheets to track and plan. I’ll make notes in my phone app. I will learn all I can about the subject through research and study. I’ll engage in frequent periods of hyperfocus around the fixation. Despite typically having a terrible short term memory, when it comes to fixations, I can remember a high degree of detail, short or long term.

My Current and Past Fixations

  • Video Games
    • Galaxy of Heroes mobile game
    • Modern Warfare 2
    • Final Fantasy 3/6, 7, 8
    • Legend of Zelda
    • Other Xbox games
    • Cell phone games like Candy Crush
    • Intellivision
    • NES/SNES
  • Toys and Games
    • Chess, both playing and coaching
    • Magic the Gathering
    • Legos
    • Bowling
    • Disc Golf
    • Baseball, playing the game and collecting cards
  • Academics
    • Reading
    • Elementary school
    • Standardized Tests
    • Academic acceleration
    • Computers and programming
    • Writing (NaNoWriMo)
  • Personal/Relationships
    • ADHD
    • Dating
    • My partner
    • Sex
    • Letter writing
  • Media
    • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    • Music – listening
    • Star Wars
    • Cartoons
  • Food
    • Eating in general
    • Dieting
    • Hardee’s Monster Burger
  • Other
    • Working on cars
    • Boy Scouts
    • Barbershop singing
    • Dinosaurs
    • Family History

Each of these fixations lasted a minimum of several weeks. I am happy to talk about any of them at any time, because I’ve still got a good deal of knowledge about each one. If it’s a past fixation rather than the current one, it may cycle to the top or have a weekend or summer resurgence. Most of the time though they just kind of stay in the back of my mind and I think as fondly of them as I do my long-lost elementary school pals.

What has your experience with hyperfocus and fixation been like? Do these descriptions resonate with you? Does anything on that list sound familiar? Feel free to hit me up for a conversation about any of them. Happy to share.

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ADHD Voices: Jamie V.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Vasilyan

TW: Self harm, suicide attempts, drug use

Today I live an interesting and wholesome life. I’m probably not as “far along the path” as I should be, due to the “fall out” from a life of ADHD. But my mood is generally good, I can focus for long periods of time, and I have found ways to persist with the “boring stuff.” Part of my recovery was in finding a career path that I am passionate about and which brings me a deep sense of purpose.

I work today as what I call “The Hypnosis for ADHD Specialist,” helping other people recover and even master their ADHD. But it wasn’t always that way. Permit me to take you on a tour to the hellish underworld of my own Dante’s inferno.

“First, before I tell of the good,
I must tell of the other things I saw.”
~Dante’s Inferno 

ADHD Hell 

I was always an “oddball” growing up. I didn’t seem to fit in with the other kids. On the playground I would prefer my own company, or the company of adults to fellow children.  And from the age of 7, it was clear that something was wrong. I would only do one thing at school: draw killer whales on the blackboard. If I was asked to do anything else, I would throw a tantrum and destroy the classroom but forget what happened. 

It was only in later years that I came to understand that when you go into a blind rage, your “fight or flight” (reptilian) brain takes over, and your memory for details becomes a bit foggy! On the other hand, I was very bright, but school reports typically said, “Jamie has a lot of potential, but is distracting and distractible.” 

I also struggled throughout my school career with bullying, and was moved schools. But as they say “better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” Because the bullying at the new school was worse. 

I had a psychological assessment at 12, which reported that I appeared depressed, and that I needed to be moved into higher classes due to good intelligence and a need for more mental stimulation. There were some positive outcomes to this, e.g. I had worked hard to get out from the bottom maths class and they moved me up, and for the first time I was in a quiet classroom where I could focus easily. 

But that didn’t last long. I was moved schools due to the bullying, not just by older students but also teachers, including the one who I confided in who told me “Bullying doesn’t happen in this school.” When I moved schools again, for some reason they put me back in a low class and I gave up all hope. Maths became my worst nightmare. 

It wasn’t long after, suffering from childhood depression and undiagnosed ADHD, that I attempted to take my own life, by hanging myself. Not once, but twice. The first time I did it as a “cry for help” in front of a friend who got me down; the other time on my own, and miraculously I was able to swing my legs back and grab hold of the trunk behind me to hold on to and then release the rope. Children with ADHD are much more likely to attempt suicide, and males are much more likely to physically act on it. Luckily, I survived.

ADHD In-Between (Purgatory) 

In 2004, at the age of 24, I realised that my life was falling apart. I wasn’t able to hold down a job and be on time. After coming across the book, “Driven to Distraction,” my life changed forever as I sought a diagnosis. 

The psychiatrist diagnosed me with ADHD, and despite not wanting to take medication, that was all that appeared available for treatment options. So I took the 5mg of Ritalin in the morning, thinking to myself, “beggars can’t be choosers.” Despite such a small dose, I had a lot of side effects, including dehydration, dark eyes, Tourette’s syndrome, and I also fainted at one point. 

My psychiatrist recommended a second daily dose to counter the “rebound effect” (which is the negative state of mind that ensues after the medication wears off) but I decided enough was enough and stopped my medication.

During this time I had also become homeless and was incredibly depressed again, making yet another suicide attempt at the Salvation Army where I was staying. This time I threw myself at a fourth story window, but luckily the staff had broken in to my room fast enough to stop me falling through. I got away with just cuts and bruises. They say it’s better to know you have ADHD than not know. I’d agree. But it was still painful. 

ADHD Heaven – Well, almost! 

So I had stopped my medication but in all honesty didn’t have a better plan. As luck would have it, my diagnosis of ADHD and depression meant that I was offered a flat by the council shortly after that last incident. I lived alone for a few years, out of work, on disability benefits. I became addicted to socialising with the wrong people, and addicted to drugs which seemed to numb the pain of an “overactive” mind. 

But then, in 2006, I went to a Mind, Body, Spirit event and met someone very special, Sara Bailey. She was one of those people that you feel instantly at ease with, like you’d known them forever. She became my best friend, and to be honest I’d never had one of those before. She was also a trained Master of Hypnotherapy and NLP. Due to my own interest in this area, I asked to learn. She taught me how to hypnotise and coached me to become more positive. 

By 2008 I decided to volunteer with autistic/ADHD children, with the view to start a new career, moving from my old work in sales to care work. I volunteered for two years, and then went back to work. All this was possible with Sara’s help. When the going got tough, I’d remember the words she quoted from Tony Robbins: “Change happens when the fear of staying the same outweighs the fear of change.” 

Despite my fears of changing, the fear of being stuck where I was eventually became unbearable. Sara got me to focus on what I wanted and what truly switched me on. What gave me purpose and passion? It started with helping those autistic and ADHD kiddos. Then in 2011, I had my big breakthrough. After two and a half months of daily meditation and taking up weight training for the first time in my life, I overcame my depression and my ADHD symptoms began to improve. 

Not only did I go back to work, but I was also taken off disability benefits and was considered in remission and fit for work. I retrained in the same year as a Solution Focused Clinical Hypnotherapist, and began to help other people. I began to live the dream that Sara had re-awoken in me that I had given up on: to help other people find their purpose and passion in life. 

It still isn’t easy, but I have progressed from then to work for a decade as a support worker for children with learning disabilities, and also specialise as an ADHD hypnotherapist and coach. Whilst the lifestyle changes like diet, exercise, meditation, as well as learning about my uniquely wired brain and how it works, made a big difference, it was finding my niche as a specialist in ADHD Hypnotherapy that became my “ADHD dynamite.” 

Today, I still have ADHD, but I don’t let it hold me back anymore. I’ve found my dynamite, and I’m capitalising on it. I hope you, too, with the right support and information, will find your way through the jungle of ADHD.  

~~~

Jamie Vasilyan, also known as The Hypnosis for ADHD Specialist, can be found as @AddvantageH on Twitter and you can check out his website as well.

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ADHD Voices is a series dedicated to sharing the stories of folks like you and me who have ADHD. Posts in the series are written by guest authors, sharing windows into their lives and struggles, written by them, for you and me. If you’d like to share your story, please contact me on social media or through my email, ADHDsurprise @ gmail.com

Why I Saw a Psychiatrist About ADHD

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I started with therapy

If you’ve been with me for a few days, you’re familiar with the struggles I had at work prior to being diagnosed with ADHD. Years of feeling inadequate for my teaching and principal jobs had come to a head when, two years in a row, I found myself pressed into looking for a new job. This, combined with continued frustrations with my shortcomings at home, finally convinced me that I needed to talk with a therapist.

Early in my third visit, just as we finished my personal and family histories, my therapist asked if anyone had ever talked with me about ADHD. She felt pretty strongly that I had ADHD-Inattentive, based on the types of struggles I’d described at home and at work, as well as the fact that my brother had been diagnosed with ADHD-Inattentive (ADD back then). So we began operating under that assumption.

I immediately learned all I could about ADHD. I took to the internet, connected with the ADHD Twitter community, read several books on ADHD, and began to process all of this information in a journal that I’d bought months before, but (shockingly, I know) which had remained unused. Now the pages came to life with reflections, lists, notes, plans, fixations, symptoms, etc. In short, I filled that journal to process, and remember, all I could about ADHD and my life.

Having learned what I had about the symptoms and having processed the major parts of my life through that lens, I was completely convinced that I did, in fact, have ADHD. The books I read and resources I found online guided me to make some immediate changes in my life for the better. Because simply being aware of things like time blindness and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) has helped me understand myself so that I can anticipate some of my struggles and plan for them. But as G.I. Joe was fond of telling us, knowing is only half of the battle.

The other half of the battle

Continued therapy has been crucial to improving my life. I still see my therapist most weeks. We are working on strategies to counter some of the more impactful ADHD symptoms at home and at work. She also helps me understand some of the mental and emotional walls I have built which keep me from initiating certain tasks or conversations. Therapy has been and will continue to be a crucial part of reclaiming my life from ADHD.

But there are things therapy cannot do. And after talking with my therapist, we decided that also seeking medication was an important step to take for my treatment. Specifically my hopes were that medication would help with things that therapy had a hard time reaching, like my ability to accomplish tasks that are more mundane or which I am compelled to do (as opposed to things I find interesting). I also hoped that medication would improve my ability to keep my mind focused, and by so doing it might improve my memory, albeit in a roundabout way.

So I set up the appointment with a psychiatrist. You can also go through your regular doctor who may or may not refer you to a specialist. For me, setting up this appointment was for two reasons. First, I was looking to confirm the suspicions of my therapist as well as my self-diagnosis. A psychiatrist would be able to give me a professional diagnosis. The second reason I went was with the hope of receiving treatment through medication.

I was worried that the psychiatrist might be inflexible. I didn’t want to end up working with someone who was going to give me a “my way or the highway” approach. I wanted to be able to give input, working with someone who was knowledgeable of ADHD and its various sub-types and courses of treatment.

Seeing a psychiatrist

In the end, I got the more important of my two wishes. I did find someone who was very flexible, and who was actually willing to consider all currently available medications as we weighed the various treatment options and side effects together. What he was somewhat lacking in was the depth of knowledge regarding ADHD. But I had also done nothing but study ADHD for about a month at that point, so I felt comfortable enough in working with him.

At that first visit, I brought my journal along. I knew from some of the books I’d read what my psychiatrist would need to know to diagnose me. I had prepared sections in my journal around what you now know as recent posts on this blog: how ADHD had impact home and work, how ADHD had impacted my childhood, and also, reasons why I felt I hadn’t gotten diagnosed earlier. I also brought along a self-reporting scale that I’d found online.

In the end, I was probably over-prepared. I could tell I had perhaps overwhelmed the poor fellow as I was listing off impacts of ADHD on my home life and he cut me off saying he didn’t need to hear any more. He indicated that he’d already heard more than enough to move forward with a diagnosis and, based on my symptoms, he supported exploring treatment through medication, which we would look at on our next visit. He did say that the self-reporting form was the same one he’d have had me fill out if I hadn’t brought it.

Tips for your diagnosis-seeking visit

As you consider taking the step to seek a professional diagnosis and medication, I recommend preparing yourself. You will need to be able to answer questions regarding the impacts of ADHD in the major parts of your life. Home and work or home and school are probably sufficient. If you’re an adult, showing that ADHD impacted your childhood is another important thing that will be considered.

I was afraid that I’d forget what I’d thought to share in these areas, so writing them down and bringing the notes really helped me. If you’re one who is forgetful and gets flustered in somewhat stressful situations, you might consider writing down these things as well. And although it was slightly awkward when he cut me off and said he had enough, I still think it’s a situation where it’s better to have more information that is needed rather than not enough.

The other thing to keep in mind is that even among medical professionals, some symptoms of ADHD are not widely known. I am glad I was prepared to describe things like time blindness and RSD, because with both my therapist and psychiatrist, they heard both terms from me first. This can be somewhat disheartening, but remember, your whole life may currently be wrapped up in ADHD, and it might’ve been a chapter in a text book for them once. You will hopefully find someone with more knowledge than that, but it’s best to go in prepared.

I recognize that this step isn’t for everyone. I fully support self-diagnosis. You know yourself better than anyone. And I knew I had ADHD from the moment my therapist first brought it up. Because it finally made the struggles of my life make sense. But I wanted a professional diagnosis in order to pursue medication and also to make me feel better about potentially requesting workplace accommodations.

Have you gone to a psychiatrist to seek a diagnosis? Are you considering it? If so, please comment below or find me on social media to share what your experience was like or to ask any questions you’re thinking about as you move forward.

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