I lay in bed covered by my weighted blanket, trying desperately not to scream or start sobbing. My brain was churning itself into a mental illness smoothie: panic mixed with depression mixed with ADHD overwhelm. It had been one of those days. I sliced my finger open trying to cut bread. I found out that my shitty new health insurance plan had a $4,800 deductible, and I would be paying hundreds of dollars out of pocket for my migraine and other medications.
After all that, the icing on the proverbial cake, a little brown mouse sauntered across the floor right in front of me. I have mouse trauma, people. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Partly due to a horrific experience with mice in one of my first NYC apartments, and partly because I just hate them. The little fuckers send me flying right off the handle. They make me feel like my home, my safe place, is infested and disgusting. The way they dart out from nowhere makes everything else in my life feel out of control. The particular combination of ordinary inconveniences and stressors had pushed me well outside of what my therapist euphemistically calls my “zone of tolerance.”
A few days earlier, I was relaxing in Bryant Park on a blessedly cool summer afternoon. I sat watching little birds flit amongst the rose bushes. I was completely at peace, connected, and grounded. I noticed a beautiful black bird with splashy, lemon-yellow tail feathers. I texted my birding-obsessed roommate who identified it as a female American Redstart. A rare bird for this time of year and location, which diverted me before a job interview. Being unemployed meant I could arrive in Midtown early enough to simply sit in the park and observe the beauty all around me, hiding in plain sight. It was a beautiful moment, one of many I experienced this summer once I slowed down enough to pay attention.
Both of these instances–the day from hell and the peaceful hour in the park– made me think about the concept of attention. What do I pay attention to? What do I ignore? What is calling out to be noticed and addressed? When I was working 40-hour-plus weeks for a reproductive justice nonprofit and trying to handle the everyday demands of life with a non-neurotypical brain, I simply didn’t have time to notice much of anything. Everything felt urgent: incoming email, a text from my boss, a pile of unfolded laundry, my social media feeds, etc. And while everything felt pressing, nothing felt magical or inspiring or surprising. I was constantly dissociated, distracted, and impatient.
Distraction and dissociation are coping mechanisms for me, and not inherently bad ones. My brain isn’t biologically capable of processing the thousands of stimuli vying for my attention and emotional real estate at any given moment. So sometimes I need to put on my noise-canceling headphones, crawl under a weighted blanket, or turn on a familiar television show. I need to limit the number of sensory inputs to get my brain out of the fight, flight, or freeze mode. But distractions and numbing mechanisms can become crutches when overused. It can be hard for me to focus my attention away from screens, snacks, or whatever I’m using to temporarily escape. That’s why I think “Attention Deficit Disorder” is such a misnomer. I don’t have a deficit of attention, I have an abundance of it. I just struggle to channel actions, plans, and fantasies into an order that works for most people. I can’t always use it to be more productive or competent, let alone more engaged, connected, or observant. My mind is constantly wheeling, trying to figure out what I should be doing, what I didn’t do that I was supposed to or what cues I’m missing in a social situation. It doesn’t leave much room to just be, let alone meditate or be creative.
Human beings need stillness and moments of unscheduled contemplation to thrive. But our capitalist, productivity-obsessed society loves to fill those spaces with tasks and expectations and mostly unimportant content. It conditions us to constantly be looking around for something to do and to feel bad about the things we’re not doing. This is an ableist, classist, unstainable framework that slowly drains us of our humanity. I recently told my therapist I finally started to believe that everyone deserves rest and renewal. It isn’t something you have to earn by “doing enough.” This “breakthrough” radically shifted my perspective on life. It allows me to treat myself with more compassion and understanding. I can allow myself to be still, even if my tasks are unfinished and my work incomplete.
When I’m far from “zen,” depression and anxiety play tricks, turning my world gray and lifeless. After a recent bout of the blues, I worried if I sat still long enough the bad feelings would bubble up again. I didn’t trust myself. Ironically, I learned that I needed to sit with myself more, to remain in the discomfort for longer. Eventually, my mind would quiet, my mood lightened, and I could move on with my day.
In short, I’m learning to trust the world, to trust the mystery, to trust myself. To believe shitty days will end, wounds will heal, and I’ll find ways to take care of myself. Like that day in Bryant Park, I’m learning to sit quietly and let the itchy, restless, anxious part of me turn cartwheels and endless loops until it finally tires itself out.
Yes, the dishes are piling up. The rent is due. The planet is burning. I have an interview to market myself shamelessly. A thousand things will always be crying out for my attention.
For now, my attention is on the little black-and-yellow bird taking flight. I stand up. I move on, breathing deeper into the afternoon.
One thought on “On Birds, Bad Days, and Paying Attention”
Wonderfully written as usual.
Are you up for a visit? The car’s been fixed for a while and I’d like to see you guys.