From where I sit, I can see several bright pink post-its scrawled with marker pen reminders of things I need to do. On my desk is a notebook full of in-depth week-by-week to do lists. My flat is clean, my dog is fed, my work is (mostly) done. My life, from the outside, looks as productive and stable as that of a desperate housewife, with tight control held over every facet of it.
It’s a mirage: I am not a type A person, if to be type A means that order and structure comes naturally. All of this—the lists, the organization—is less a natural impulse and more a complex netting of coping mechanisms stopping me from crashing to the floor. I have ADHD, and keeping tight control means that it’s a little harder for me to wander off, to get distracted, to fuck up.
For most of my life, I have fucked up. I have shoved homework to the bottom of my drawer, I have missed birthdays, I have been a terrible employee. That disorganization and distractibility got me in trouble, and straightening it out over the years through an ever-elaborate series of processes is the only way I manage to be a grown adult. It’s exhausting, and once, when I was lamenting the complexity of my day-to-day and the fact that I had to start packing for a work trip a week early to avoid forgetting anything, a therapist asked me, “what would happen if you just…didn’t?”
I tried it: I, very coolly, left it until a day or two before. I thought, “what’s the worst that could happen?”
The worst happened: I forgot key medication and some toiletries, I packed so few clothes that by day two I was wearing my boyfriend’s ill-fitting shorts in front of strangers and new friends. I was late to the airport, and I’m lucky I remembered my passport. Sure, I had fun, but at the cost of my comfort.
While the excess of planning is an important guardrail for my chaotic-feeling inner life, it has also come to make me incapable of spontaneity, to the point that I have grown to fear surprises. The things I enjoy—shows, vacations, parties—happen infrequently and with much planning. That worked for me, until this year.
Doing Fun Things, you might have gleaned, is hard for me. At the start of this year, pre-pandemic, I was struggling to take control of some serious health problems. I felt exhausted and burned out and incapable of doing any of the things I’d planned: visit Japan, do my work, see my friends. I felt drained and desperate for a break, and then, just as I’d wished on the monkey’s paw for months’ worth of time to hide indoors, COVID happened.
At that point, without a routine dictated by external sources, I needed even more structure to avoid the dreaded Fucking Up. I made my to-do lists and Post-its even more detailed, and right now, I am on week 31 of a weekly task list, ever-changing to include my goals, dreams and achievements.
But the rigidity has finally had the opposite effect: I am sick of it. For the first time in my life, I feel like I could feasibly just… not do any of it. I want to throw caution to the wind; say yes to bad parties, yes to awkward events, yes to feeling overwhelmed and in agony and bored out of my mind. I remember now why I bother doing those things at all: Amongst the burnout and sensory overload, there are so many good moments that I couldn’t possibly have planned for.
An event or vacation is something you can plan in the abstract: what you do, what you eat, where you go. But within that there is so much room for variety, and it’s the comfortable kind I almost enjoy. When I have agreed, fearfully, to go on press trips where the itinerary is out of my control, I have felt initially wary and frightened. While every day was newly terrifying in the moment, when I look back on those days, I see only experiences that made confronting the terror worth it.
I forgot somewhere along the way that misbehaving and forgetting is where truly good things can occur. I falsely equated spontaneity with insecurity, my greatest fear, knowing that if I disrupted any of my carefully laid plans, I might get distracted and forget something important. But by not leaving any room for anything exciting to happen, I lost something else, too. This year I saved up and gave myself a gift I’ve had my eye on for a while: a formal ADHD and ASD assessment. Armed with that assessment, I’m now better able to prepare, to understand my limits, to explain what I need to others. Maybe now I’m able to loosen up just a little, too.
Organizing myself has always been the hardest thing, and now it has culminated in this year, the most structured, sensible one of my life. I wake up at the same time every day, I know exactly what tasks I have to do, I do them. I go for a walk, I go to the store, and I come home. I feel so lucky to have a home, to have that security and control, that restlessness and missing my friends are the only real issues I’m dealing with. But for the first time in my life, I need a surprise. I want to be wild, whatever that means: Say yes, do shots, dance, kiss. I thought that if I did one thing without planning it, the flimsy foundation of my adulthood would fall apart. I understand better now that it’s the combination of those things—getting things done and living, all at once—that forms a life. One cannot exist without the other, a fragile ecosystem of desires and intentions.
What’s the true cost of being so organized, careful, safe? I had my answer years ago, when a combination of OCD and being autistic meant that as a teenager, I stopped going to shows, never went to festivals, avoided parties. In order to live at all I had to learn to balance caution and fun, and even the times those risks didn’t pay off, like when I got a black eye learning to boogie board or missed my train to Berlin because I got too drunk with a new friend, I’ve had an experience, a story, one of the things that make up a small life. Within every single day or outing that I’ve been too afraid to do, there’ve been moments of magic.
I’ve been going out desperately in search of life recently. Going to a slightly new park, going to the store even when I’m too scared, accepting a Facetime when I feel too anxious. But it isn’t enough. The risks, too, are so much more real now; it isn’t only about my fear, my limits, my needs. It’s about a global necessity for caution, and while I was at first comforted by seeing the world be as careful as I had been, I wish we could all let it go. Maybe what I really want is the opportunity feel safe enough in the world, in general, that I don’t have to try and control every little aspect of my own little sphere. I understand that wanting to have your shit less together is a rare New Year’s resolution, but it feels right.
How do you undo years of hard work without unravelling it completely, without the fabric of your adult self coming undone? Especially when the broader risks are still present, aside from my own fears and limitations? I will start small in 2021, by being kinder to myself. Every single year my resolutions are stacked high with intentions both big and small. Most years I achieve them all, every year I try. For a few weeks now I’ve been sneaking little bits of kindness into my lists: do yoga, go for a walk, stop working. Is that enough? Can I truly be impulsive, truly put myself first if it’s still time that’s scheduled in? For now it’s all I can do – true spontaneity is off the cards for all of us for a very long time, but I’m aching to let myself live just a tiny bit more life.