ADHD and the daily struggle to make my brain do what I want it to (spoilers for Everything Everywhere All At Once)

This tweet fired a couple neurons for me that made me realize something new about the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once. I’m going to talk about a central part of how the story works, so if you haven’t seen the movie, please watch it before continuing (unless you’re at all vulnerable to photosensitive seizures, because this movie has a lot of strobe effects throughout). Maybe a couple of entirely hypothetical people could watch it with a visiting relative! Seriously – don’t read this blog post if you haven’t seen the movie, and you’re going to at any point. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that you won’t regret, and I don’t want to take away from that.

So, let’s get into it.

Over the course of the movie, we learn about a technology that allows the user to sort of hijack the consciousness of another version of themself, in another universe. They can control their other self’s actions, and also use all of their other self’s knowledge and abilities back in the “verse-jumper’s” universe. This is one of those multiverse scenarios where every single choice made by every single person creates a new universe, and they’re all clustered together like the bubbles in beer foam. The technology is basically an algorithm that calculates how different your life would have to have been for you to become, for example, a master of kung fu, and what the numerical probability of that happening would be. It then calculates one or more actions you could take that would be equally improbable, and uses that to connect your mind to the universe in question. Because every decision made by every person in every universe affects the structure of that “foam”, that probability is going to be different from one situation to the next, and that means that the action required to connect to any given universe is going to be different now than it would have been before you read this paragraph.

And so, to access the skills they need throughout the plot, they do random stuff – eating chapstick, dancing at inappropriate times, licking pillars – it’s central to the physical comedy of the film. What I realized just now is that that particular thing is a perfect metaphor for how my brain works. To explain that, I feel the need to talk a bit about my brain.

Initially, and in my review, I focused on the experience of having the world happen to me, very like watching a movie. It’s chaotic, and distracting. I can be doing something that I deeply care about, and then for no reason I can tell, I’ll suddenly realize my mind was somewhere else entirely. It’s a bit as if someone from another universe took over my brain and body for a few minutes, and when I come back, things have changed. Sometimes I got distracted, and let myself get killed in a video game. Sometimes I’ll realize that I just missed a crucial scene of a movie, and I’ll have to go back. The worst moments have been when I was driving and realized that I had no memory of the last 10 minutes or so, because I was so wrapped up in my thoughts. I want to be clear – this has never led me to crash a car, or anything like that. During these moments, I am perfectly lucid, and I react pretty normally – if distractedly – to the world around me. It honestly took me a while to realize that I can rely on that fact. There were a number of times in the past where I had to pull over to see if I’d missed a turn, but as far as I can remember, I never did because of a moment like that.

When there’s a crisis, I tend to be pretty sharp. When I was a teenager, I knocked myself out in a sledding accident, and gave myself a minor concussion and a partially detached retina. Friends of the family were visiting, and all the adults were out for a walk. I was the oldest kid, keeping an eye on the visitors’ kids. Once they told me I had only been unconscious for a few seconds, I realized that I should probably get help in case my injuries were worse than they felt. For the youngsters reading, nobody involved had cell phones at the time that could get reception there.

So I went to find them. I knew they were walking around a particular loop that covered about a mile and a half, but I didn’t know which way they were going. I took a guess based on footprints in the snow on the side of the road, and went that way. My head and neck still hurt a fair amount, and I was feeling woozy. After I’d gone about a quarter of the way down that arm of the loop, I realized that based on the timing, I’d gone the wrong way, I headed back, and I got home at about the same time as the people I was looking for. Shortly after that I noticed the gray spot in my vision from the retinal injury (my parents thought it might be a brain injury at the time), and they took me to the hospital.

I was in a situation where disorientation is pretty common, but I was able to stay on task, and adjust my plan of action based on the changing circumstance.

I felt a need to share that just to underscore the whole “this is not a blackout” thing, because I’ve come to realize that my earlier description of these moments of distraction makes it sound like people with ADHD are just going around and randomly blacking out in the middle of whatever we’re doing or something. We’re not. I’ve burned food because of this, and missed meetings or deadlines, but I’ve never injured myself or anyone else because of it.


There are times when the more I try to focus on something, the more my brain just… slides off it. It can be cleaning, or getting up to go shopping, or writing, or anything really. It can be something I genuinely enjoy doing, and I still just… can’t. If it isn’t to do with the immediate safety of myself or someone else, my brain will just randomly change directions, and then I have either make that new direction work, or try to go get it and put it back on track. Sometimes, getting back on track is simply impossible.

I generally think of it as connecting wires in my brain. Sometimes everything runs perfectly, and I can write 5,000-10,000 words in a day. Those days are rare, but I had many during the first couple weeks on an SSRI. That was honestly my first clue that there was something going on in my brain that I couldn’t just behave my way out of. A few years later, after I began living with Tegan, she insisted that I had ADHD, and I started to look into it a bit more.

Let’s say I want to write a difficult blog post. I’ve been working on one for a while about the horrifying rise in anti-trans hatred and legislation, and the apparent attempt to erase trans people from existence. It’s an emotionally unpleasant topic, but more than that it’s not one on which I consider myself an expert. I’m a cis dude, and while I know a lot more than some of my fellow cis dudes, I’ve still got a lot to learn. More than that, I give a shit about whether I get it right. All of that means that it’s been very hard to connect my mind to whatever universe has a version of me that can work on that project. Just sitting down and trying to force my way through it is not only a torturous experience, it results in very bad writing that doesn’t even make the point well. I have scores of writing projects like this. Maybe hundreds. Take my long-abandoned series on global warming and slime, for another example. I did a couple posts on it, and then just… couldn’t finish. There’s more to be talked about, and it pops up in my head now and then as something I want to revisit, but even knowing roughly what I’d want to say, I just stopped. Another good example is my sci-fi series, Brigadoon: Space Station in the Mists, and the planet-colonization novel that runs parallel to it.

The fact that I’m writing about it now makes it a bit more likely that I’ll work on that series again soon, but I can’t do it now. I know the universe in which I finish it is closer, and experience has given me a hunch about how I could get there, but there’s no guarantee that shooting for that universe wouldn’t send me instead to one where I feel a need to write about the TV show The Expanse, or I get an overwhelming need to do the dishes rather than continue using my brain for work.

My parents gave me a book a while back called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. It’s a collection of short descriptions of the daily habits of various famous creators over the last couple hundred years or so. It covers things like Benjamin Franklin’s daily “air baths”, or Edith Sitwell’s habit of lying in a coffin for a bit before she started writing. It’s a fascinating book, and it pairs well with Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit to make a compelling case for building an infrastructure of routine to make creative work and self-motivation easier.

I have tried so many things like this. I’ve done daily meditation, journaling, yoga, walks, playing music, starting with the hardest task of the day, setting alarms, tracking everything I do and how long it takes in a word file, making to-do lists, “gamifying” things, treating procrastination as an addiction – the list goes on. I’ve had periods of hyper-functionality, and periods when I would sleep through my alarms no matter how many I set or how loud they were, because I couldn’t make myself go to bed the night before. Through all of it, the one consistent thing is that what works today might not work tomorrow, and a habit I’ve had for a year could vanish overnight with little to no explanation. I also want to be clear – that includes stuff like exercise. I had about a year and a half during which I did high-intensity interval training four or five days out of the week, if not daily. I got in really good shape, and then I had to move unexpectedly, and then it was gone. I tried to get back into it, but I just… couldn’t. The wires wouldn’t connect.

And that brings us back to Everything Everywhere All At Once, and the actions required for universe jumping. The first one we see is pretty small – Evelyn switches her shoes to the wrong feet, and that connects her to a universe where she chose to go to a janitor’s closet rather than her tax appointment. Later, her multiverse-husband eats some chapstick while police are telling him to put his hands on his head and get on the floor, and that connects him to a universe where he’s a master of martial arts. Going through the movie it becomes clear that while some actions – like peeing your pants – are reliably improbable enough to give you good odds in a pinch, if you want to get the universe you’re aiming for, you have to fulfil very specific, and often very strange requirements.

As I said at the beginning, this is a caricature of how it works for me. In real life, giving myself papercuts won’t allow me to suddenly work functionally. If it did, I probably would have been a lot more comfortable with the papercut scene, because yeah – if I knew that giving myself papercuts between all of my fingers would guarantee that I could get into a state of flow and write 10,000 words today, I would do it. I want  to write more than I do. I want to be better at housekeeping. I want to work out more. I want to do a whole host of things that, for some reason, my brain will not let me do with any degree of reliability.

I’m getting better at managing it. Things occur to me in the moment that can get me closer to where I want to be. I’m better at creating those moments and catching them when they come, but that doesn’t make them more predictable. The reason I’m doing better now – the reason I’m able to post daily, and keep working on a novel – is that I have time. I have time to figure out what action will connect me to the universe where I’m a reliably functional writer. A lot of what that looks like is positioning myself (metaphorically – I don’t have literal poses for this) in a way that tend is more likely to trigger a state of flow, or give me a needed shift in perspective. Another metaphor that I find works well is whitewater canoeing. You’re moving forward in a medium that’s constantly trying to push you one way or another, and as you go, you have to watch the river, find your path, and do whatever it takes to get to where you need to be, by the time you need to be there. That means knowing to look for that smooth “V” shape that promises a clear channel, and also looking at where the next one is downstream of that, that you’ll have to go for once you get there. It’s difficult, often unpredictable, and will have you calmly watching the boisterous waves at one moment, and frantically paddling to avoid getting wrapped around a rock the next.

I don’t have a computer algorithm that will tell me what I can do to access my “abilities”. I wish I did. If the medical system would speed things along and catch up to current understanding of ADHD, I’d love to at least explore whether there’s medication that will, if nothing else, make the waters a bit less tumultuous – make it a bit easier to see where to go or what to do. In the meantime, it’s hard to describe how grateful I am to have the time it takes to navigate my annoyingly-wired brain, and shift my focus from one thing to the next in a more organic manner than is generally allowed in a conventional work environment.

Today feels like it’s going to be a decent day for productivity. I’m approaching 2400 words at around 1pm, and I’m looking forward to working on the novel this evening. As I get further into the story, I’ll put up a list of characters for my $5+ patrons to name, which is one small reason why you should sign up to become a patron, so you can be part of a subversive sword and sorcery epic! More sorcery than sword, at the moment. The bigger reason is that if you like this blog, and want it to get better, I need enough of an income to make my current situation more sustainable. More income would also increase the chances of me being able to afford to seek a formal ADHD diagnosis, which I need to even find out whether medical treatment will even work for me.

Alternatively, if anyone does have a verse-jumping setup that works reliably, let me know, ’cause I’ve got shit I want to get done.


  1. says

    I am reasonably sure I do not have ADHD, although I might have Asperger’s. At my age (45) diagnosis is difficult and I would have to pay for the evaluations out of my own pocket.
    But a lot of what you write rings true to me as well, I can relate. Often I just cannot do something that needs doing, because I just cannot do it. Thus it happens that a task that could be finished in 5 minutes takes me 5 days before I get into the state of mind to do it.
    Taking care of elderly parents does not help. My brain tends to seek out distractions even more than it did before and procrastination is an even bigger hurdle.

  2. says

    I feel like most of this stuff is on a spectrum, and neurotypes like ADHD tend to contain experiences that at least overlap with the everyday lives of “neurotypical” people

  3. Rue says

    Noise-canceling earbuds are as effective as medication for me. I make playlists, or use them to stay fully engaged in films/games.

    Environmental sounds/visual-distractions seem to be my biggest challenges to focus. I’m learning to alter my working area/space to be less distracting and more barebones and conducive to staying focused.

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