When you can’t do the thing.

The city I live in now is notorious for its poor street maintenance, and sure enough, our first year here, we lost a tire on the hatchback when I hit a huge pothole. At the tire shop, I asked them to change the oil while it was up on the rack.

The mechanic told me that when I had hit the pothole, I had also dented the oil pan in such a way he couldn’t get the bolt out to drain the oil.

“You’re gonna have to get that oil pan replaced,” he told me.

Money was, at that particular moment, tight, and the tire was already an unexpected expense, and we were in the process of moving into our new home, and it wasn’t leaking, so I said thanks, and drove it home with no oil change, intending to replace the oil pan myself later when I had time.

For the next few months, I drive as normal. The oil in the car was synthetic, which can go much longer between changes than conventional oil, and it was hot outside, and honestly, my ADHD object impermanence kicked in and since I couldn’t see it, I more or less forgot about it.

Then we got foster kids, and started driving the SUV almost everywhere, and I started working from home more, and instead of driving the hatchback every day, it was only a couple of times a week, a few miles at a time.

Somewhere in there, I went to the parts store to buy a new oil pan for the car, but they didn’t carry it – I would have to order one from the dealer or off the internet, they told me. I thanked them and then promptly forgot about it again for a few more months.

Then in a fit of ambition, I ordered the part and the gasket off the internet, and bought the oil and oil filter – everything I would need to fix it once and for all. I put it all in the cargo compartment of the car and forgot about it again.

And then a global pandemic happened. Neither car moved for two weeks. Then I went for six months without driving in the dark. I began working almost exclusively at home. In that first year, we put less than 5,000 miles on our SUV. I put less than 1,000 on the hatchback. For the last six months, it never left the carport. I would crank it every month or so and let it run for a while, but that’s it. It got covered in dust and ick.

It just sat there, and since it was more than two and a half years since the last oil change, I didn’t want to drive it anywhere serious, and I couldn’t change the oil (which is something I can do practically in my sleep) without changing the pan, and so it became a “thing.” My car I loved, just sitting there, covered in ick, because the emotional investment in doing the thing was too heavy.

For us ADHD types, sometimes extremely simple things become overwhelming. The thing itself isn’t hard, but the energy and investment to do it is, so it becomes a “thing”. A thing that just taunts us with our inability to do it. Changing the oil pan had become a thing.

To be clear: I had the tools. I had the parts. It wouldn’t be a difficult thing to do – there are maybe 10 bolts, all easy to get to. It would probably take 2 hours to do if I wasn’t hurrying, including clean up. And during the time all this is happening, I had enough free time to built a huge deck for our house and a 10×16 workshop in my backyard. But I couldn’t do this.

But lately, I am working on a new project that will dramatically increase my time in the car, and so it would be good if both our cars were back to fully functional. Because I scheduled this week lightly, yesterday I had a free morning and decided to do the thing: I would replace the oil pan and change the oil on the car.

I got everything ready. I drove the car up the ramps. I crawled under the car.

There was nothing wrong with the oil pan. I mean, nothing. So I changed the oil like normal and was done in 20 minutes.

I don’t know if the original guy who told me it was dented was lying to get out of doing the oil change, or confused my car with another when he was telling me about it, or what. But I have been carrying around the emotional weight of this task I couldn’t make myself do for more than 2 years when it didn’t even exist.

This is a perfect example of what life with Adult ADHD is like. The object impermanence, the sense of overwhelm at a complex, multi-step operation that just looms larger the longer you put it off, the sense of shame you feel for not being able to do the thing, even though you know you can do the thing, the inevitable doing of the thing and then the sense of shame because it took you so long to do the thing when it was so simple to do.

I will, of course, learn nothing from this. Because “this” isn’t about my laziness, but about my brain, and how it functions. It really doesn’t matter how much I want to do something. It doesn’t matter how much I need to do something. There are things that just overwhelm my brain, and no amount of self-talk changes that.

And when that does happen, sometimes you can hack your way out of it – such as paying someone to do it for you, if you have the resources. And other times, all you can do is be as gentle with yourself as possible afterwards.

One thought on “When you can’t do the thing.”

  1. I totally get this! I live with chronic pain and a chronic mental illness and have to psych myself up to do almost everything. But some things become a “thing” and get put off and put off some more until it’s gigantic in my mind. And many times it turns into a little thing when I finally psych myself up to do it. But I never learn and the cycle repeats…

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