How science fiction helped me understand my mental disorder.
My first week at the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, I decided to kick things off with a bang: an 8,000-word short story that never ended.
Clarion is a highly-renowned training ground for sci-fi/fantasy writers, so naturally, I wanted to make an impression. Hence, I introduced myself to my cohort and award-winning instructors by writing a recursive metafictional time travel story. The main “plot” was only about two pages, followed by another thirty pages of footnotes, each with multiple internal references to other footnotes, all to explain the theoretical science behind the causal loop that lead to the main characters’ spacetime-crossed romance. This had the effect of taking the reader on a self-directed non-linear journey through characters’ pasts, presents, and futures, in an endless circle of effect-cause-effect that was unique to each reader.
That was 2013. Me and the other 17 members of my cohort still talk regularly; some of them have already become award-winning authors in their own rights. And to this day, not a week goes by without at least one of them giving me shit for that story. But I have a good excuse for my obnoxious ambitions:
I have ADHD, so it made perfect sense. To me.
People tend to flippantly write off ADHD as just being distractible. But the actual condition is much more complicated than that—and there’s still a lot to be learned about it.
One thing we do know? ADHDers struggle with executive function, the basic organizational brain structures that help humans get stuff done. Most neurotypical people (that’s you “normals”) will naturally develop a kind of Dewey Decimal system in their heads to help with memory, management, planning, and so on. People like me? Our minds are about as messy as our bedrooms (which is probably related).
Individuals with ADHD perceive time not as a sequence but as a diffuse collection of events that are viscerally connected to the people, activities, and emotions involved in them.
Basically, our brains struggle with the internal building blocks and rhythms that help us understand the basic steps of productive processes. You know that saying “We all put our pants on one leg at a time?” Us ADHDers can totally do that — it’s just, sometimes we forget to put our underwear on before our pants.
Put another way: sometimes we need very explicit help breaking things down to a step-by-step process like “one leg at a time.”
That’s why ADHDers tend to suffer from chronic lateness, for example.
We really don’t mean to be disrespectful—it’s just, well, our brains literally cannot comprehend how time works. Speaking from personal experience, I know that I’m always 5 minutes late, because I forget to factor in things like, say, putting on my jacket, or walking to the door and locking it behind me, or locking up my bike when I arrive at my destination.
But hey, I do know how much time it takes in active transit to get from A to B! It’s just the other stuff that trips me up. Every. Single. Time. I can either see two steps ahead of me, or a hundred steps. It’s everything in between where I get lost.
You might be asking yourself why, if I understand what the problem is, that I don’t do something about it. And the answer is: I can’t. That’s like teaching a dog to ride a bicycle.
In that regard, is it any wonder why I love time travel stories so much?
But of all the different kinds of time travel stories, my favorites are the ones where fate and time are intertwined.
(No offense to “Bill & Ted,” who I love for other reasons.)
I’m talking about “Twelve Monkeys,” where the decision to send James Cole back in time becomes the reason for sending him back in the first place.
Or the first two “Terminator” movies, where both Kyle Reese and T-800 end up being responsible for their own existences, and inadvertently ensuring that their own futures come to pass.
Robert Heinlein mastered this genre with stories like “All You Zombies” and “By His Bootstraps”; Kurt Vonnegut took this existential angst to new depths of absurdity and darkness in “Timequake” and “Slaughterhouse-Five”; Lauren Beukes gave it a crime thriller twist in “Shining Girls”; and Charles Yu out-meta’d them all with “How To Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe.”
Hell, Cable has always been my favorite X-Men character, and I eat up every ridiculous bit of his impossibly convoluted backstory.
The characters in these stories are trapped between Now and Then, which somehow exist concurrently and interdependent of each other at the same time.
Maybe they can’t control their own temporal destinies. But they still push forward and fight the good fight, in hopes that the future might not be as futile it seems. Even if they can’t change their kismet, it doesn’t step them from trying again and again to master that sequence of cause and effect.
Stories like these are so much more than just linear timelines of Things That Happened. Dare I say, they’re a diffuse collection of events that are viscerally connected to the people, activities, and emotions involved in them.
I can relate to that.