I’ve been concerned that a lot of my recent posts have had an attitude of complaining, and I know no one wants to hear someone complain constantly. But some friends have encouraged me that it is helpful, both for me, and hopefully for others, for me to talk about things that are on my mind. Because one of the things about having Asperger’s is that you spend a greater percentage of time living in your mind than most other people. More thinking isn’t always a good thing– sometimes it can be exhausting!

Anyway, I figured I’d try to explain something about the way my mind ordinarily works that I think contributes to my difficulty with executive function. I’ll tell you about “the list.”

No one can see the list, but I always carry it with me. It’s my mental “to-do” list. I use it to keep track of the things I need to do after I’m done with what I’m doing now, and I use it to prioritize tasks in the order of importance. I’ll try to give an example based on today, which has actually not been a very busy day so far.

On my way home from church, I was greatly looking forward to getting home. I always do, because being away from home always raises my stress level a bit. I was also looking forward to getting home because I had an idea for a post to write (this one), and I’m enjoying writing these posts! So my list (focusing just on this afternoon) looked like this:

  • Get home.
  • Write a blog post.

Of course, we never go straight home from church; we always stop to eat lunch on the way home, because my family enjoys getting lunch together somewhere on Sunday afternoon. And I enjoy it too, so I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t want to eat with my family. But it does mean that I need to add “Eat lunch” to the list before “Get home.”

  • Eat lunch.
  • Get home.
  • Write a blog post.

I think that most people are able to concentrate on eating lunch without thinking about what they are going to do next, and maybe they don’t even think using a list at all! But even though I can be distracted from the items on my list by enjoying a good meal and talking with my family, I can never push the list entirely out of my consciousness. It’s still there, reminding me that I have more to do after this.

My mind works the same way with even smaller tasks and activities. For example, I noticed while we were in the restaurant that the radio was playing a song I’d heard the Christian band Jars of Clay cover– I hadn’t realized until then that it was a cover of an old song. So I thought I would mention that to my Mom.

But there was a conversation going on, so I needed to wait until a break in the conversation– otherwise, I’d be interrupting, and that’s rude. (I don’t like being interrupted myself, so I know I shouldn’t do it to others.) So I did my best to pay attention to the conversation, but at the same time my mind was constantly reminding me “You have something you want to talk about!” like a flashing indicator light on a car dashboard.

Then the conversation did get interrupted– by the waiter, who had come to take our orders. This was an appropriate reason to interrupt the conversation, since we were hungry. But it meant that the task my mind was preoccupied with was now buried two levels deep. I needed to complete the process of ordering food (which has steps of its own– you need to remember what you want to order while waiting your turn), then wait for the conversation to resume, and then mention what I had been meaning to mention a while earlier.

Sometimes the conversation has moved along so far by that point that what I was going to bring up seems silly or irrelevant, and sometimes it makes me think of something else I want to talk about. But the more things that get piled onto the list, the more energy my brain has to devote to thinking about it (and the more potentially tiring it is).

After lunch, we stopped for groceries and gasoline, so even though we were closer in terms of distance to getting home, we were no closer in terms of the number of tasks on my list, since I hadn’t accounted for those steps earlier:

  • Wait to get groceries.
  • Wait to get gasoline.
  • Go home.
  • Write a blog post.

When we got home, I picked up my Bible, two grocery bags, and a take-home box from the restaurant to carry inside. I hadn’t thought of this before, but when I’m given a physical thing to carry somewhere, it’s more or less equivalent to an item on my list. I have it with me until the task is complete. Also, because I was finally at home, some of the smaller steps that were part of that task were starting to come into view. Suddenly my list got much longer, and for a moment I was overwhelmed:

  • Put down grocery bags.
  • Put down take-home box.
  • Put down Bible.
  • Use bathroom.
  • Change out of church clothes.
  • Set up computer.
  • Write blog post.

While I was carrying those things in from the car, my mother asked me to go upstairs and make sure the windows were closed, since we wanted to turn the air conditioner on. For a moment, I felt flustered. I felt like I was running out of the mental capacity to keep track of these tasks. I know that’s silly– all I had to do was first put the things I was carrying down, then close the windows, and then I could go on about my tasks as planned. But it took my mind a little while to make it through that process, and it’s possible I showed some annoyance before it did. (As it turned out, that task was canceled before I even got to that point, because my grandfather said that he was going upstairs and would close the windows on his way there.)

I don’t know what most people will think of this attempt to explain how my mind works. It does seem pretty silly; these are things that everybody has to do constantly.  It’s part of life.  How could I have trouble with such simple tasks? It’s as if the task itself is a burden to me, before I even get to the point of having to do it.

One thing that I find particularly tough is that I can’t fully relax or rest until my list is clear for the foreseeable future. When I was in grad school, each semester brought with it a host of items to carry on my list, and even if I had a break (of an hour, or a few days) in the middle, it was not possible for me to relax to the level I could when the semester was finally over. Until it was, part of my mind’s energy would constantly be spent reminding me of what I still needed to get done. Only when I could be sure it was over could I afford to rest that part of my brain. The best I could do would be to distract myself, but that’s different from resting.

And I think that’s one reason why preparing for a job is difficult for me as well. I think I need to train my mind to somehow make my job tasks “disappear” when my hours at work are done, and “reappear” the next day– otherwise there will never be a chance to fully rest. But I still don’t really know how to do that. At the very least, I will need to remember that I have a job, or else I’ll forget to show up for work the next day. But how do I remember that without thinking about all I will need to do once I’m there?

I’m curious if anyone else has trouble with “the list” like I do.

Whew! It feels good to have this post done! : )