I’m at home right now and thinking, as I always do when I’m at home, about my brain.
I use the term “prosthetic brain parts” to refer to any way of externalizing a function which my brain is supposed to do but doesn’t. For example, organization. It’s hard for me to keep even really basic stuff organized, hence my flow chart for leaving the room. (I’m planning a sequel soon which will tell me how to go to bed, because when I stay up too late and get too tired it becomes very difficult for me to remember how to do that.) Other prosthetic brain parts include timers and alarms, which help remind me to transition between activities.
But people can also be prosthetic brain parts. This is the most crucial difference between home and college, and it’s why I’m finding (semi-) independent living at college so difficult. For example, here’s how my executive dysfunction affects my eating, at home and then at college:
At home, Dad generally yells “Come and get it!” after he has finished cooking dinner. This is the first cue which tells me I should get up and go into the kitchen. If I fail to respond to this, someone will call again: “Zoe! Dinner!” This is usually enough to get me to the table. If I am still stuck, all I have to do is hold my hand up and someone will help me to my feet. My girlfriend is visiting with us right now; if she sees that I am stuck, she will call out helpful instructions (“Put your feet on the floor. Now stand up.”).
At college, I don’t forget to eat, as such, but I do forget all the steps involved in getting food (as I forget the steps involved in most things). If I get stuck along the way, no one will come unstick me – I have to unstick myself. The anxiety and effort involved in keeping the steps straight and keeping myself on task can lead me to skip or delay a meal rather than make myself go out and get one. Or I might do dubious things like eat a “meal” of chips and candy from the vending machine. Or I might try to reduce the steps by eating at a restaurant or ordering food delivered, which gives my brain a break but strains my wallet.
Basically: at home there’s no chance of not eating the meal. No matter what happens, I will eat. At college, there is a chance that I will intend to eat and then fail. And just to add another dimension of difficulty to the situation, the possibility of failure and the uncertain outcome of my efforts heighten my anxiety. Remember, I’m already feeling anxiety because of forgetting the steps and having to unstick myself. The more anxiety I feel, the more difficult it is for me to perform advanced brain functions like unsticking myself, and thus the failure becomes cyclical.
There are a lot of scenarios that work out like this. At home, If I’ve been stuck in the bathroom, sitting in the sink not doing anything when I should be getting dressed, someone will knock on the door and ask me if I’m stuck. I can even ask someone to hang out in the bathroom while I’m brushing my teeth and putting on my clothes, in case I get stuck again. At school, I have to be the one to unstick myself. Following simple instructions is easy; unsticking myself is very hard.
At school, during periods of stress, I start to get a sense that I am jerking myself through my life by brute force alone. Every step feels deliberate and requires an intense effort. At home, I no longer have to act as my own drill sergeant just to put on a pair of shoes. I don’t have to watch myself so vigilantly, because other people are there who will help me out.
I feel as though I’m starting to repeat myself, but this is hard to explain, and I want to explain it perfectly. Home is easy. College is hard. This is why.
Now what do I do about it?