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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How Undiagnosed ADHD Impacted My Home Life

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As you seek an ADHD diagnosis, your doctor or psychiatrist will ask about how it is impacting your home life, as well as work or school. The challenges we face which drive us to seek mental health services will almost always stem from one or more of these major arenas. And as you look closely, you will find the impacts of ADHD in all areas of your life.

As my diagnosis of ADHD-Inattentive came well into adulthood at age 37, I have found plenty of signs of its impact at home, work, and school. Though I of course experienced them all as they happened, I accepted what I had always told myself: that these were the simply signs of a good-for-nothing, lazy, and possibly incompetent person. Someone who did not care for his things, his family, or himself. A person lacking motivation to take care of even simple, every day tasks that every adult is simply expected to do.

As ADHD was given this camouflage of laziness, it wreaked havoc on my home life. After my therapist brought up ADHD I was able to begin to see all of the damage that had been done. Here I share some of the major areas of impact that I have observed in my home life as an adult.

Organization

I have always struggled with organization, and my adult home is no exception. First off, I own too many things. There’s a massive sense of guilt attached to letting go of anything that might one day be useful, and a great deal of nostalgia surrounding a multitude of belongings I’ve kept since childhood. I have collections gathered from many, many past fixations that are neatly stored and awaiting the day when the fixation might resurface.

All of these belongings greatly exacerbate the general state of disorganization that permeates the house. The farther you are from the front door, the more my belongings exist in piles. Historically this has been worst in the garage and an extra bedroom which came to be known as “the storage room.” Both areas tended to grow in clutter until I literally just threw items through the door onto the pile because either the mess was so bad the extra item wouldn’t be noticed, or because I could no longer enter the room without stepping on something.

My own bedroom has often gotten to a state where (predominantly) clothes dominate the space: in baskets, on the floor, or piled on open drawers. Tops of dressers and night stands are covered in clutter accumulated by dozens of drive-by drops as the rest of the house gets “cleaned.” Even the cleaner parts of the house like the living and dining room will collect small piles of clutter around the edges of the room and on top of flat surfaces. These get somewhat spruced when the infrequent guest stops by, but often are ignored as we become blind to the existence of the smaller piles.

I can clean and organize things, and every now and then I will muster up the drive to do a massive cleaning or organization project and I can completely fix a room or two over the course of several hours. But typically that is a one-shot deal and within a week or two the room has returned to its usual cluttered state.

Lack of maintenance

I always admired my dad for how well he took care of his things and family. Our house and acreage, many cars, various pets, and of course us humans in the home too. He was always working to improve and/or maintain things. For example, with his cars he kept a notebook for each one where he would log the maintenance he performed. These notebooks existed for the entire time he owned each vehicle. If anything became broken on the property or on a vehicle, it was fixed almost immediately.

I have always felt like a failure compared to him. No matter where I live, my home or apartment is in a constant state of decay, and though I may even notice what is happening I simply don’t have the drive to do anything about it. Many home-improvement projects are lying around started but unfinished and there are several items that are broken and have been awaiting repair for years.

This lack of maintenance also extends to myself. Routine things regarding self-care are very difficult to sustain with regularity. I have developed a few routines that help me (usually) stay on top of the basics like brushing my teeth and showering. But ‘bigger’ self care items like going to the dentist and doctor are put off for years in favor of the “go when it really hurts” plan. It’s not a great way to stay healthy.

Relationships

My undiagnosed ADHD was particularly challenging for my partner and my kids. My fixations were often all I could think about and took all of my time and attention, usually taking priority over all family matters. I would rarely help with chores around the house unless I was asked. I simply didn’t feel any drive to clean and do dishes or laundry. And when I did resolve to make changes, they would only last days or weeks.

A big part of my ADHD is emotional dysregulation. My emotions run very close to the surface and that means that anger, frustration, fear, happiness, sadness-any or all of these can come rushing out. While I can usually hold things together at work throughout the day (where there are real world consequences for ‘losing it’), I tended to lose it at home instead, where the immediate consequences for doing so are less severe. This often meant yelling at my kids or being surly with my wife when they weren’t really the source of the frustration or anger.

Managing life tasks

Poor executive function is the culprit for a lot of things I struggle with. I have low impulse control and tend to spend money on frivolous things or items related to my current fixation, whether we can afford them or not. I completely forget about or am slow to pay bills even when I have money to do so. An incredibly poor short term memory equates to a lot of broken promises to family members and many forgotten and neglected responsibilities.

Time blindness is another hallmark of ADHD. For me it shows up in a few ways. When I’m hyperfocused, I lose track of time completely and hours may pass. If I’m doing something that’s required or imposed, time my drag on and 10 minutes can feel like an hour. It also impacts larger passages of time. While I may think I called my dad earlier in the week, if I check the call log, it may show that as much as two months have passed. I’m horrible at keeping up contact with family and friends who are long distance.

What now?

This list surely isn’t exhaustive, but I believe it gives a pretty good picture of the major impacts that undiagnosed ADHD had on my home. I hope that reading it helps you identify some of the ways ADHD has impacted your home so that like me, you can begin to make changes for the better as you gain knowledge and supports to combat your symptoms.

Just discovering you have ADHD can be life-changing, as you can begin to build supports and routines into your life to counteract many of the symptoms. But for me, treatment through therapy and medication have been necessary. What isn’t helped by medication can be supported through therapy as you break down mental barriers and create new routines together. Things aren’t perfect for me at home yet, but I am seeing a huge difference for the better as I’ve begun treating my ADHD in earnest.

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