Month: August 2016

About obsessive thinking


[letter from another student and my response]

early 30s F PhD Student ADHD

from:  xx sent 5 days ago

Hey, how are you? I read your posts with interest because I have the EXACT Same problem with obsessive thinking when my PhD stuff gets tough. I was supposed to finish writing this year and spend the first 7 months of 2016 obsessively reading about the stock market and playing stocks (ugh) and just realized today I have finished NOTHING this year.

Have you managed to make any progress with obsessive thinking? How do you cope with the PhD stuff when you look around and everyone is moving forward and you’re underperforming? The emotional stuff is the worst part…


re: early 30s F PhD Student ADHD

to: xx sent just now

Haha oh dear – I hadn’t even thought of playing stocks. You’re giving me bad ideas 🙂 Thanks for getting in touch, it’s really nice to hear from someone in the same position.

I managed to make a lot of progress with the obsessive thinking by going to therapy for 2 years (thank you public health system) Yup, no short cuts. My therapists (I saw one then another after they had left) had 2 techniques, both of which made a lot of sense. Therapist one guided me deeper into the obsessive thoughts (which were about flats that we should have bought instead of the one that we did.) He asked me to tell him about it, what did it look like,how did I feel there? What was life like there? In my vision of the ideal flat, it was beautifully tidy. I felt happy and I was entertaining friends at a barbecue on my balcony. In my ideal flat, I realised, I didn’t have a PhD. I also didn’t have (the symptoms of) ADD. That thought experiment helped me to see that the fantasy was about a wish for a more peaceful life without the godawful burden of writing a dissertation, rather than logical worry about a disastrous decision that had been in my control about which flat to buy. Therapist 2 had a different technique which was to advise me not to engage with the thought spiral at all, but instead to ask myself the question: “What do I need”? when my thoughts got too frantic. Often, the answer that would bubble up was quite concrete, like “I need to get some rest”, or a bit vaguer “love”, or “security.” She trained me to see those obsessive loops as a little cry for help from myself. Refusing to engage in the mental warfare but instead asking that question sometimes brings me back down to earth.

For people that live so much in our heads (I am presuming that you do too, as a PhD student!) and are pretty smart, it can be tempting to believe that thinking can solve everything. Since I was very young, I have relied on my thoughts and analysis to work out what was going on, strategise, and survive the world. I guess the last few years have taught me that those same lightening-fast thinking faculties can also trap me. In this situation, one small action is worth a thousand thoughts. Cleaning the kitchen or folding some clothes instead of (or as well as) fantasising about the flat where everything looks perfect. Dragging myself to a cafe and bribing myself with a good coffee if I read one article instead of spending the whole day beating myself up for not following the perfect and ambitious study schedule I had set for myself. Moving my body in a dance/yoga class instead of sulking in bed surfing Facebook. These actions are the best possible balm for obsessive thinking.

Phew! Ok, that was a very long reply to your question. How are things going for you? Do you have support for ADD, and are you “out” in your university environment? How do you deal with the stress? And also, what part of your work do you like? Lots of questions…I’d love to hear about how its going. permalink


So very out of control

All the years I have spent berating myself for not being good enough, for losing things, for working inconsistently, for never being able to keep up a diary, have concealed an underlying, insidious hope: if I try hard enough, I will not have ADD. I will work consistently. I won’t lose things. I will remember to e-mail people back. I won’t make sloppy mistakes. All of that is possible, I think, if I persevere. When the cold hard facts show that the work is still patchy, the mistakes still happen and my inbox contains several thousand mails, I get completely furious. Because in my logic this must mean that I’m just not really trying.

On the one zillionth repetition of this particular cycle of blame and recrimination, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I am wrong. Maybe the real truth is even scarier, and for that reason harder to accept. Maybe, I really can’t help it. It’s not in my control and no amount of internal screaming will change that. Let me repeat: It. is. not. in. my.control. that. I. have. ADD(and that I will therefore behave like I have ADD). Yes, there are strategies and APPS and approaches. Yes, you can learn to deal with it as best you can. But I will always have bad days. I will always have a mind that can go from sharp as glass to a foggy blur. I will always worry that I can’t translate myself in a language that other people will understand. I always find it difficult to sustain more than one conversation at once, or be in a group at a party. I am disabled. Yes, disabled. And this is what it means.

There is a wonderful book of essays by psychologist Stephen Grosz called The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. The one story which sticks in my head above all others is about an exceptionally disturbed boy the psychologist worked with. The two of them had a tumultuous and terribly frustrating therapeutic process where the boy did everything he could to anger Grosz (spitting, swearing, shouting anti-semitic curses) and Grosz, despite all his psychological training, could not help getting riled up, stuck, furious. In a consultation with another wise psychologist he came to understand that the boy and him were continuing this fight because they were avoiding facing something very painful: that the boy was unfixable. He was too damaged to be helped. There was nothing they could do, even though they both desperately wanted to. Staying in that cycle allowed them to drown out that reality in angry noise because they weren’t ready to deal with it yet.

For me, this story provided a key for understanding my situation, my mental rage when things don’t go the way I want them to. It is a loud performance to try and pretend to be in control, while actually sometimes there is nothing to do and nothing that can be done.