I Have a Disorder
I have a disorder. It’s self-diagnosed, and—strictly from a nomenclature standpoint—doesn’t exist. I call it Excessive Focus Disorder, or sometimes I just say I’m “effed.” On the outside it might look like I’m a slob, or forgetful, absentminded, head-in-the-clouds, procrastinating or lazy, but I’m really just a few of these things. As far as I know I do not have ADD, was never diagnosed with anything as a child, exhibited no hyperactive tendencies, listened and got good grades in school–but something is definitely wrong with the wiring in my brain. Quite the opposite of attention deficit, I have what I call attention overload. I pay attention to one thing at a time, really really well, but to the detriment of most other things. It is this extreme focus that has allowed me through the years to acquire new skills, like that time I refused to get off the couch until I learned to juggle, or that time I taught myself all of carpentry using only Bob Vila and a hammer. I’ve accomplished major goals this way, like tearing out and remodeling an entire kitchen from the floor joists and wall studs by using the internet to figure out how to tile, plumb, run electric from the panel, move gas lines, finish plaster, and install cabinets. Or that time I decided to enter a body-building competition and trained for five solid months until I’d transformed myself into something wholly unrecognizable, with only five percent body fat and a tan that looked like George Hamilton and Snookie had a baby. And then there’s that time I spent six months in and out of court fighting for full custody of my niece, Caroline, when everyone told me I couldn’t get her. Presumably I did other things during that period, like go to work and come home, but I don’t remember it. Four years later, Caroline and I are getting along just swell together, but my EFD has only gotten worse.
You see the problem is every activity must be conducted individually. Separately. With space in my brain dedicated for that particular thing. Caroline watches this show on TV called “Doc McStuffins,” and Doc would say I have a bad case of single-minded-itis. It was a very manageable condition before the child, but now my streams of concentration are constantly interrupted and broken into fragments, like fractals of color from a beam of light bent through a prism. Where I once harnessed this beam through a lens into something more powerful than itself, I now struggle to make sense of the kaleidoscopic slivers chaotically dancing through my head. Now I’m just ridiculously disorganized. I suspect many people may deal with this sort of thing on a mild scale or intermittently, but my problem is serious. For instance, right now there is a spoon on the floor a few feet from me. I don’t know why or how it got there. But I’m not picking it up. Know why? Because I’m writing this of course! Like I could go over there and pick up the spoon, but I’m not, because now what I’m doing is writing about picking up the spoon. Picking up the spoon will happen when it’s time to pick up the spoon, probably during the period I’ve set aside for cleaning (which does happen on at least a weekly basis), but it’s not likely to happen before. See? I mean, what the hell? Just pick up the spoon! But if I pick up the spoon, I’ll go into the kitchen, and then Caroline will see me and ask for something, which I will probably oblige, throwing off my entire trajectory, and then I’ll remember those pee-soaked sheets I need to wash, and so on and so forth, and in the end I’ll never make it back to writing about the spoon.
Over the years, my condition has led me to do some fairly odd things. Luckily I’m not usually being observed, as this may have, on occasion, brought into question my sanity. It might not be so strange to quit your job in your mid-twenties to write a 100,000 word novel, but it’s probably a little weird to be so consumed with it that some days you eat out of the bottom of a frisbee because you can’t find a dish and can’t be bothered to wash one. There is a queue in my mind, but only one task can be at the front of the queue at any given time, and I keep forgetting the things I’ve mentally added to the back of the queue, because I’m so focused on the one at the front. I’m not OCD, though I exhibit many obsessive characteristics–in fact, sometimes I’m downright possessed with getting something perfect. But OCD is characterized by constant negative thoughts resulting in some repetitive harmful behavior. I don’t give two shits whether all the tassels on the edge of the rug line up, and if I contract ebola because I didn’t wash my hands that twentieth time, so be it. I’m not on the autism spectrum either, as I have no problem picking up social cues, except for that one time when my first ex-girlfriend didn’t want me around anymore (I figured it out before any authorities had to be called, so I feel like that was a win).
In terms of raising a child, I’m what happens if you remove the typical mother from the usual binary parenting relationship and are left with only Chevy Chase from National Lampoon’s Anything. I may have the brightest Christmas lights on the block, but I am equally as likely to staple myself to the roof of my house. I bought a foreclosure a year and a half ago, having set a goal of getting Caroline into one of the best school districts in the state. One hectic morning during my home renovation I had no idea where a comb might be found, so I brushed Caroline’s hair with a fork, and I explained to her that we were acting out a scene from The Little Mermaid, in which Scuttle shows Ariel how to use a dinglehopper. You know, just in case she said something at school.
“Silly Caroline,” I’d say if anyone asked. “We were pretending to be be a Disney Princess! Completely normal… Nothing to see here.”
The sad thing is, scenes like this are still common occurrences. One day I’m washing a cup at the kitchen sink with shampoo and a sock, the next day I’m in the battle of my life against the child while I try to steal her Lisa Frank stickers to use in place of a lint roller because I put the clean laundry on the cat’s favorite corner of the couch again. I still don’t know where I can find a comb some days, but I’ve remedied it by buying more combs. They’re everywhere now, hanging out in kitchen drawers, sitting on top of a doll house, probably hiding under the couch. What’s worse, with two stories and a basement in my new home, I’ve succeeded in tripling the disorder of my previous apartment. Mornings are generally the worst, when I can be found running upstairs and downstairs a minimum of twenty times in the space of thirty minutes, in a frantic hurry to get Caroline and me ready for school and work.
“Why don’t you prepare the night before?” friends ask. “Why don’t you clean a little here and there as you go along? Why don’t you just get organized?”
They clearly don’t understand my disorder. I have an affliction. They might as well ask me to stop being attracted to Charlize Theron. They might as well say to me, “Why don’t you just grow a few inches taller so you can reach the stuff on the top shelf? Wouldn’t that make life easier for you?” Why didn’t I think of that! The irony of my brain knowing its wiring is all messed up and its stubborn refusal to rewire itself is incredibly frustrating. Stupid brain. I hate my brain. I don’t bother explaining to people that nights are occupied by dinner making and bath taking and bedtime reading and wine consuming. And that when I get up early the next morning, I realize I actually have the time to look at my mail or take out the recycling (not because I’ve remembered it myself but because even my pitiful powers of deduction notice all the other people’s homes have recycling containers at the curb, leading me to believe there is a high probability it’s recycling day), and by the time I get finished with that I remember it’s Halloween and Caroline is supposed to wear her Dorothy costume to school today and….dear god, we do not have any ruby slippers. It’s a code red! I have lots of code reds.
Someone once bought me a book about being organized but I lost it. I really did. I wouldn’t have had time to read it anyway. I tried to read a book once and at the end of the week my house looked like an episode of Hoarders. At Caroline’s new school they have a little bookshelf for parents, stocked with helpful titles such as Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying too Hard? This one is just laughable, but I stare wistfully at the others. I imagine them to be full of all the things I should know, all the things I’m doing wrong, all the secrets and pearls of wisdom necessary to become a Jedi Master of parenting. Like that one that says it will tell you how to stop the child from whining, throwing fits, dawdling and back-talking. For some reason I see myself opening that and staring at a list of magic spells approved by the Wizengamot that my muggle eyes wouldn’t comprehend.
I suppose I could have prepared better during the six months I fought to get the child, but I was busy buying tiny badass converse shoes and tiny matching jumpsuits. She was very well dressed when she came into my home, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to feed her. Luckily she had most of her teeth by that point so it worked out, and I just used the internet for all my other questions. What I really learned upon getting custody is that my EFD immediately became a degenerative condition. I’d go into the kitchen and leave her in her room (with no sharp corners and safety plugs in all the outlets, etc.) only to come back a few minutes later to an empty bottle of baby lotion and the sight of her covered in it from head to toe, slipping and sliding on the floor like a tiny James Brown. Or so thoroughly doused in powder that with the addition of some scales and baggies, her room could have been used for the filming of American Gangster or mistaken as a Charlie Sheen party. The constant distractions have turned my life into an ongoing episode of “I Love Lucy,” and my being effed just gets worse and worse. I go from fire to fire putting them out but never getting ahead.
I knew I had a problem when the lady down the street came into my house a few months ago. This was the lady I’d been using to feel better about myself. She and her husband (who I had yet to see sober) never knew where their two children were and when it got dark outside, they’d wander around the neighborhood houses looking for them. One evening the kids had ended up at my place, and the mother knocked on my back door and invited herself in. After proceeding to tell me all about how they were getting evicted from their rental, she looked around my place and commented, “Hey it’s nice to see we’re not the only ones who live this way.”
Something behind my eyeballs snapped. What the hell does that mean? What’s this way?? I mean, granted, she caught me on an off day, but still, I’d seen her house. Lady, you can’t identify with me. Stop that. Stop identifying with me! I won’t allow your identification! Don’t you know I use you to feel better about myself? I bumped cleaning to the top of my list and the next day the floors were so spotless you could have eaten off of them. I was late for work that morning though, because everything was where it was supposed to be and I couldn’t find anything.
I just never quite have it together. I want to of course. I want to be like the other moms I see, walking into school sipping a latte, dressed in leggings and zip-up boots, maybe one of those fancy scarves wrapped loosely around my neck, and gently tapping my hip one of those purses with all the C’s on them, which I take to be some kind of status symbol. But I always show up out of breath with flat hair and a wrinkled shirt. I’m always focusing on the wrong thing at the wrong time. The problem is compounded by my tendency to focus on wild hairs, like that time in Florida when I refused to go on a guided sight-seeing cruise, insisting instead on chartering my own ship, with no previous boating experience, and ending up completely lost along the coast, running aground on a small nearby island, and literally having to jump ship and pull the boat myself through multiple sandbars to navigable water. See?
To give you an idea of my life at this moment, there are currently at least three containers in my refrigerator with no lids, because—at least I’m assuming—the kitchen elves hid them. When I drive to work tomorrow I’ll hear the banging and clanging of several cans of soup and a bottle of wine in the back of my car from a visit to Aldi a couple days ago (I forgot to bring my own bag). In order to sit down at the table for breakfast I’ll have to shuffle around dozens of Caroline’s works of art, which I leave out to remind me to frame and/or scrapbook, but instead will get shuffled around a bazillion times more. And when I shuffle them around just right, I’ll find that notice from my post office a week ago that I have a package for pickup, which entirely slipped my mind till just this moment. I add it to the queue but it gets lost again when I step on a Lego and hop around for two minutes. When I stop hopping the cat starts meowing and I look down at his empty bowl and wonder if he got fed yesterday. I imagine calling 911 and having the following conversation with the operator.
Dispatcher: “911, what’s your emergency?”
Me: “There is an entire room in my house the floor of which cannot be seen. And I believe there to be a child in it somewhere.”
Dispatcher: “How did this happen?”
Me: “Well, I decided to try to write this story about how I locked myself and said child out of the house on Halloween night right before we were supposed to go trick-or-treating, but then I got sidetracked explaining this condition I have…”
Dispatcher: “Does this happen often? Has this happened before?”
Me: “What, me trying to accomplish something personally fulfilling? No, never. I mean, you see the results…”
Dispatcher: “What the hell’s wrong with you…”
Me: “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not simply a matter of chronic disorganization. I really wanna take this problem back and own it. See I have this disorder…Hello? Hello, are you there?”
Don’t worry, everyone and the state of Missouri, I’ve never really lost Caroline, except that one time at Disney World but it was a completely contained playground so it doesn’t count. She has never gone without, never been hungry, never gotten injured and never had a day without a hundred hugs and kisses. And when it comes time to figure out how to get her Dorothy costume some ruby slippers the morning of Halloween, I will deliver. But I will also lock us out of our house that same evening right as we’re supposed to be getting in the car to go begging door-to-door for candy. Typical. But at least it was a Friday.
It was just past dusk. We’d already scrummaged around for what we could get on our block… wait a second, Caroline’s calling me. I’ll be right back.