In the early 2000s, my friend Kate and I went to a Dolly Parton concert. On the train over, Kate produced a small white pill from some unseen location on her body and popped it in her mouth.
“What is that?” I asked her.
“Adderall. Want one?”
I don’t believe she was taking this pill for recreational purposes. I’m pretty sure it was prescribed to her for its true use of helping with general ADHD issues. And while I’ve never personally struggled with such issues, I’ve definitely struggled with impulse control my entire life, so when she made another little white pill appear, I took it.
Now, I’m not a “drug person,” primarily because my mother struggled with an addiction to prescription medications, and I saw firsthand how they can ruin lives and families, but I’ve experimented here and there.
Each time I take something for the very first time there’s always a certain familiar fear that washes over me. I start to think “oh god, what have I done. I’m on drugs.”
On this night, having just taken my first Adderall, I felt a bit of that fear, but was mostly excited to see if the effects of the pill would make me feel any more “normal.” If it would make me be able to walk into a crowded room and not have my senses go into overload, in a near panic inducing way. As is what usually happens to me basically any time I leave the house. And as I recall, it didn’t. I still operated at a 10 on the nervous wreck scale — but damn, do I remember being very PRESENT at that Dolly Parton concert.
Drugs work, yes, that’s a scientific fact. But, for some people, so does going through some sort of pausing ritual that puts the idea of “let’s be here now” in mind.
I like to think that if Kate and I had decided to high five at exactly 9:15 p.m. and then spit straight up into the air and yell “Hosanna!” it would have done the same job.
But now, in the time of coronavirus, feeling present is especially hard. Nearly impossible, actually. Life, for many, has taken on a certain dream-like quality. What is actually happening? What should I be doing? Am I doing this pandemic thing right? I now find myself having to reread the same page over and over, or wondering at what point my eyes drifted from the book entirely to go blurry and zoned out through the living room window.
Feeling the same way? Not sure what, if anything, should be done about it? You’re not alone.
Before I advance any further into what is now officially HOT PROBS #2, I just want to put this here: If there’s something you’re grappling with, that you’d like to have me chime in on, you can ask me a question here. Don’t worry, it’s 100 percent anonymous, and there’s no question, big or small, that I’ll look down on. And maybe I’ll help you, or maybe I’ll just give you that laugh you needed to get through the rest of the day.
The Hot Prob
“Feeling zoned out for days at a time”
Picture me coming up behind you now in a very non-creepy, non-threatening way to put a hand on your shoulder, lean down, and say… “Literally … who isn’t?”
Full transparency: In between writing the intro to this column, and the advice portion, my attention derailed. In between telling the tale of my Adderall experience and creatively folding it into advice… my brain just floated away.
It started with me hearing my dog’s collar jingling around in the kitchen… I wonder if she has to go out? Then, once outside with the dog, the unseasonably cool breeze of New Orleans took me even further from myself. I wonder if that caterpillar is a stinging caterpillar. Catching my reflection in the window, I caught a vision of a new life for myself. Should I just let my roots grow out so I can see what my natural hair color looks like now? Do I look like a long-distance truck driver with these roots? Am I kind of into that?
Once back inside, I talked to my wife for a bit, heated up some banana bread, aka the signature baked good of coronavirus 2020, went back to my desk and ate said banana bread while scrolling through Twitter. Now here I am. Back to my original intended task. For a timeline check: I got up at 6 a.m. today. It’s now 10 a.m. and I’m scratching my neck, looking out the window again. I’m feeling like I have to pee, which will, once up and mobile, carry me away from my desk into another series of loosely necessary distractions for another hour.
Let’s circle back to the pausing ritual I mentioned in the intro. Sometimes the best way to interrupt long periods of zoning out is to casually present paying attention as an option.
Similar to how popping an Adderall sets you up for a nice concentration journey, one that you’re ready for — even before the pill kicks in, simply due to the ritual of taking the pill — letting yourself know that you can pay attention if you *want* to, but that you don’t necessarily *have* to, allows your body and brain to take a rest if it needs to (and it most definitely needs to).
Did you ever play one of those shooting arcade games where, to reload, you were instructed to shoot off to the side of the game? When you find yourself lollygagging out the window or jumping from your Word doc to Twitter and back again. Think of that as your brain reloading. It might just need a little break. And breaks are fine. Let yourself have them. What better time than now to be permissive with yourself?
If I’m working on a project, such as this column, and I find myself zoning out, I just let myself do it because telling yourself that you HAVE to do something is a great way to make yourself want to do just about anything else. If you’re zoning off, and unable to focus, maybe try shutting down on the couch for an hour or so and seeing where the day takes you from there.
Sure, some things can’t be put off, like letting out the dog, taking care of kids, etc. But a lot of tasks aren’t nearly as important as we make them seem. When your own rude, pushy brain butts in like a contrarian to distract you from doing nothing, tell it to back off and do what you need to do, which is often times, just resting. Try naps. A nap can go a long way in terms of pushing your brain’s reset button.
There’s a graphic novelist named Nicole Georges who I love, and the other day they posted an illustration to their Instagram that hit home so perfectly for me that I saved it to reference whenever needed. I’ll share it with you now because I think it might help you too.
It’s an illustration of a cat with six eyes and the text beneath it reads, “Act the way you want to be, and have the patience for it to catch up with you.” Maybe look at that the next time you’re feeling bad or guilty about zoning out, and then proceed however feels right.
Of course, if you have tasks that need to be completed and are still struggling with managing your very allowed zoning out time with getting down to business time, give yourself very generous deadlines for completing those tasks, whenever you can.
But take care of yourself first. Letting go of guilt, built up stress, and anything else chomping away at your ability to comfortably navigate your own life is, in fact, your most important job right now.
Kelly McClure is a writer who has written for NY Magazine, GQ, The Hairpin, Rolling Stone, and more. Find more of her work here.