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Exec(dys)function AKA Screaming into the Void

Disability & Mental Health

Exec(dys)function AKA Screaming into the Void

Radix Admin

By Augie Burg '17

The true irony of this article is that I’m having trouble working on it thanks to executive dysfunction.

Executive Dysfunction is best known as a symptom of autism and ADHD, but it also features in depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, OCD (which, by the way, is also an anxiety disorder), personality disorders, etc; a whole myriad of mental illnesses and disabilities can result in executive dysfunction.

The first time I learned that my anxiety was a disorder, I was a junior in high school. It wasn’t just me being “weird.” A light went on. The first time I learned what executive (dys)function was, that I wasn’t just “lazy,” it was last year. Another light. I have a medley of conditions that prevents me from doing things as easily as other people can. But outside of a therapist’s office, the world is a lot less validating.

Being lazy is thinking about doing the task and making a conscious choice not to do it. Executive dysfunction, on the other hand, is really wanting to do the task but not being capable of completing it because you have a disorder that disrupts your cognitive processes.

Friends, family members, and loved ones of learning disabled and mentally ill people need to have a working knowledge of what Executive Dysfunction is. They need to respect that it is a prominent feature of that person’s psychology and life.

And let me tell you--having mental disabilities in a neurotypical world turns your life upside down. Folks suffering from various mental maladies often feel suffocated and trapped by it with no way out.

My friend once told me about a helpful analogy: Sometimes, a lightbulb will burn out, but I can’t change it. I have the physical capability to change the lightbulb, and I want to change the lightbulb, and I know I need to change the lightbulb , but because of my horrific cocktail of mental illness, I just can’t do it. So the lightbulb remains unchanged for weeks. Sometimes, people have to change the lightbulb for me.

I also like this as an analogy: throughout my life, I have wanted and needed to do things. The problem is my wanting and needing is akin to trying to spur along an extremely stubborn horse who refuses to move.  So imagine that you are riding that horse, but it is entirely unwilling to move no matter how hard you try. You dig in your heels, you raise the reins, but the horse refuses to respond. In this analogy, your wants and needs are the rider, and your executive functions (the parts of your mind responsible for getting things done) are the horse.

It’s incredibly dangerous for neurotypical loved ones to not empathize with, be aware of, or respect executive dysfunction. Neurotypical people often assume we are being lazy, careless, selfish or difficult, when in reality we want to do the thing but our brains prevent us from consistently and reliably doing the thing. That misinterpretation that we are lazy and just not trying hard enough can lead to toxic behavior and resentment on the part of the loved one. This harms us emotionally and does us a lot of damage over time. That damage can take the form of internal self-criticism, complicating executive dysfunction even further and making it worse.

A huge fucking shout out to everyone with executive function who want to do the thing, and know it’s important, but can’t get around the mental block preventing them from starting.
    Who stand in the bathroom for twenty minutes in the morning trying to turn on the tap to wash their face.
    Who feel like they let people down every day because they can’t follow through with basic, everyday tasks and requests, especially ones that require multiple steps or follow-ups at a later date.
    Who know the panic and self-hate when you tried for three weeks to start that assignment and now it’s due tomorrow.
    Who live in a world where “I can’t” is always seen as “I won’t”.
    Who live in a world where people only notice when they can’t do the thing and fall short of the mark.
    Who never get any praise or acknowledgement of the sheer amount of effort it takes to function like a “normal” human being.
    Who are constantly labelled lazy, disorganized, unhygienic; as someone who doesn’t try, doesn’t listen, doesn’t care. Whose best isn’t good enough for anyone. Who are shamed for things they can’t control and can’t describe.

I’m so sick of neurotypical people treating people with executive dysfunction like we just need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, because it is literally impossible. We can’t just stop being neurodivergent, can’t just stop being unable to do things. All it does is make us miserable, and make us wonder why we're so broken and can't just get it together and be better when the fact is we just can't do that. There is no comparing a lazy neurotypical person to someone who is neurodivergent and unable to do something because of it. So stop writing us off. Believe us when we tell you we’re trying. Understand that the smallest things can take as much energy as running a marathon.

And for my readers who also experience executive dysfunction, I’m here to remind you that you’re not lazy. You’re fighting harder than most to do what has been deemed “easy” and “simple” by a neurotypical society. So please stop beating yourself up. You’re doing the best you can, and that is a beautiful thing.

[Photo text: An illustration of a person's head with the brain multicolored and visible, with several different colored wires extending out]

Photo courtesy of The Odyssey