The ADHD of It All
So this is fun: In December I got officially diagnosed with pretty severe ADHD! Woohoo! Yay me. It's not severe enough to keep me from functioning and doing my job, but it was pronounced enough that I basically tripped every wire in the diagnosis process and set off every alarm (so, like, the exact opposite of Catherine Zeta-Jones in that movie where she slinkily slides under lasers in black spandex. The Thomas Crown Affair? I can't remember, I'm tired.)
The diagnosis was both a surprise and strangely, completely unsurprising. Kind of like when your team can't think of an answer in Trivial Pursuit and you give up so then the person holding the card goes "Swaziland" and you "Ohhhhh" because Swaziland makes total (almost too much!) sense and then you secretly wonder why you're playing the 1989 version of this stupid game.
Anyway, I've always known something about me was "off." I've been aware to some extent that I process things differently than the average person and work through tasks differently and experience social situations very differently, and that I am extraordinarily (almost debilitatingly) sensitive to rejection and criticism. But, until now, I never had something concrete to point to to explain it. Now I do. My brain is literally wired to be this way! It's not an elaborate moral failing on my part after all! Realizing this, I feel a mix of relief, empowerment, and utter hopelessness. I also don't know how I feel most of the time, which--surprise surprise--can be marker of ADHD!
The big thing I've learned is that ADHD is not about inattention, perse. It's about dopamine. Basically, my brain doesn't produce dopamine at the necessary levels and so I'm wired to scan and search for things that will. This is why I have to drink a flavored beverage at almost all times of the day, constantly crave sugary things, and why I own 400+ video games. They're dopamine dispensers.
I have what's called an "interest-based nervous system," meaning I quite literally can't focus on what doesn't interest me. I can lose myself for hours in a video game or work task I find exciting. Or, I can push off a mundane task for hours/days/weeks until the threat of missing a deadline makes the idea of completing the task produce enough dopamine to finally interest me.
It's hell. I'm not going to lie. I'm in the process of trying to get medicated to see how that will improve things, but every day is kind of a low-grade nightmare that in some ways I feel like I'm just waking up to. I'm uncomfortable. Constantly. I'm anxious and sad. Constantly. I'm worried I'm fucking up or forgetting something or that everyone hates me from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep at night. And often times, I am forgetting something, because somewhere along the way it fell outside of my immediate purview and I forgot about it ("out of sight, out of mind [derogatory]").
This has been going on for almost my entire life. Every single day, for forever. As a kid I think I attributed a lot of the discomfort to the anxieties of being in the closet, but now I see I was undiagnosed ADHD and just scrambling to cope the best I could.
The good news is, now that I know what I'm dealing with, I've started to make some subtle adjustments. Stupid, simple things that I know sound ridiculous, but have been game-changing for my exhausted brain. Like, for example, I write down lists of three each day of random things I might forget to do (make a dentist appointment, send an invoice, etc.) because I've realized crossing out things on a to-do list gives me a big hit of dopamine. I've lined up all the bathroom implements I need to use before bed (floss, pills, moisturizer, etc.) on the same shelf in my medicine cabinet. Before the diagnosis, I remembered my mouth guard maybe 20% of the time. Since December, I've only forgotten it once. I just go down the shelf and one by one, knock things off on my hygiene list and collect my dopamine.
The other good news (or bad news, or news I really don't know how to process yet) is my ADHD diagnosis has led me to research common comorbidities of ADHD. For example, I now know my chronic anxiety and depression are likely side effects of having an ADHD brain and being in a constant dopamine deficiency. This destroys my previous, ironclad Germanic Midwestern-inspired theory as to why I was anxious and depressed, which was that I was a weak stupid piece of shit. This upheaval in my understanding has allowed some self-compassion to trickle in. Just a smidge.
And, okay, hold onto your butts and hear me out on this next one.
Another occasional comorbidity with ADHD is autism/autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And folks, I know there's a big stigma around diagnosing yourself from online research, but let's just say I've taken seven different reputable ASD tests (RAADS-R, AQ, EQ, the CAT-Q, etc.) and all except one said I am solidly a high-functioning autist. The one I scored very neurotypical on actually came with a disclaimer that high-masking autists can often score very neurotypical on that test. (Masking is what austists to do seem "normal" to neurotypical people). So, I took a masking test and guess what? I scored almost off the charts. Surprise surprise!
So I don't know how accurate, collectively, all those self-assessments are, so I'm not going to call myself autistic just yet. Nor am I particularly motivated to pay $5000 for an official assessment. So let's just say a lot of it makes a lot of sense, and there was a sort of twisted relief in the results, like when you finally remember that slippery word you couldn't think of for the longest time, even though the conversation ended hours ago.
True or not, learning about it has helped explain things like my inability to express certain emotions, to understand how I actually feel a lot of the time, my bouquet of social anxieties, my discomfort with some types of physical touch, my pathological demand avoidance symptoms, the list goes on.
So, why am I writing about this on my acting web site? I don't know, really. Maybe it's because I can't get into a psychiatry appointment with Kaiser until the end of May (god bless American health care) and I need to do some processing. Maybe, if you've ever interacted with me, it's because I want to offer an explanation of my fidgety-ness or wafting attention during conversations.
I think I'm posting this mostly because I'm in this weird grief-limbo. Like, I'm so happy to have this knowledge and understand myself better so I can take steps to making my day-to-day life easier, but also I'm kind of devastated I didn't know any of this sooner. That I had no way of putting the puzzle pieces together or even knowing that the things I was experiencing were puzzle pieces that could be assembled.
It's hard. It's been hard, but now it's a different kind of hard. The burden of knowing, I guess. The grief of what could've been if had been armed with this information five, ten, thirty years ago. Like, I could've made an AMAZING one man show out of it at the Playground Theater in 2014 and 1000000% gotten to understudy TourCo.
Jk jk sob sob sob sob life is pain, etc. Okay I need to go take my ashwaganda supplement and pretend it's helping. Thanks for reading. And thanks for not judging.
I wrote a novel! Yes indeed I did, and it's fun! And sad! And very fantastical! And glamorous! And you should tell your publishing friends about it so they want to publish it!
But what is it about, exactly? And why should I care? Good news! I interviewed myself for this blog to answer all your burning Brenda questions.
Enjoy this in entirely fabricated conversation!
So John. Your debut novel is entitled Brenda Returns A Blazer. What's it about?
First of all, John, thank you for having me to this blog post. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to myself.
Second, Brenda Returns a Blazer is about a time-travelling older woman who must return a tacky 90s blazer to the correct Midwestern department store in the correct time period, otherwise the entire universe collapses.
That sounds intense! What is Brenda like? How does she get caught up in this time travel business?
Brenda is a six-foot-five, 56-year-old white woman from a cruel small town who is filled with rage and sadness. She truly lives one humiliation to the next, one department store shopping binge to the next, and early in the book she's visited by her future self who tells her of reality's impending doom. There's been a glitch in time and reality has begun to unspool. Brenda's ugly AF blazer, it turns out, is the key to restoring space/time and stopping all of existence from being wiped out.
So its science fiction?
Yes. I like to say its Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy meets the 1997 Sears Catalog.
What gave you the inspiration for Brenda?
Two things. During the beginning of the pandemic, I joined a writer's group and I was looking for something to share. I found an old short story I'd written about a woman in line at a department store in the 1990s, getting angrier and angrier at the line not moving, and I thought...what if this was the start of a Star Wars-level epic sci-fi adventure? We never see older women lead sci-fi epics.
The other inspiration was the German time travel show Dark, specifically the character Claudia Tiedemann played by the genius actor Julika Jenkins. Claudia is a 40-something boss-ass corporate bitch from the 1980s, her fashion and hair and shoulder pads are absolutely tremendous, and she got sent through time and became an unlikely hero. It was so refreshing to see a character like her get to go on that sort of adventurous journey that I wanted to create one of my own.
What else can you tell us about the book?
It's truly like a Stefan bit on SNL. It has everything. An evil AI obsessed with Brooks & Dunn. An anteater-squid character named Diane. Five Joan Allen clones. Tiny muppet creatures who love to do psychedelics. Tons of 90s department store fashion. An exploding Arby's.
Honestly, my guiding question throughout writing this has been "how can I make this even dumber?" I find so much of fiction writing to be overly serious, so I wanted to really embrace fun, silliness and 90s nostalgia while maintaining an undercurrent of sadness.
Talk to me about this undercurrent of sadness.
Well, Brenda is a widowed empty nester mom in a small, gossip-y corn town. Her daughter hates her, and even disinvited Brenda from her wedding (thus she decides to return her mother of the bride blazer). She basically lives her life one humiliation to the next. She lives in a heavily scrutinized ecosystem where all the women her age are trying to blend in and avoid being gristle for the vicious gossip mill. Yet, being so tall and large, she can't ever really blend, or be accepted. She's a perpetual outsider caught in an endless loop of trying to fit in and failing spectacularly.
Who is your audience for Brenda Returns a Blazer?
Anyone who loves sci-fi or absurdist comedy. Millennials and Gen Z readers who are bored by stiff, old white dude sci-fi. Older women, for sure. I want them to be delighted by being centered in such a fantastical tale. But there is also a distinct queer aesthetic to the book, as I am gay AF, so really anyone who identifies with the alphabet mafia should find plenty to enjoy about this book. Let's just say Shania Twain's Come On Over album plays a pivotal role in the finale.
You're still looking for an agent/publisher to help you publish this book. Who would your ideal agent be?
Anyone who really, really loves comedy. And not just literary comedy, which can feel very formal, but sketch comedy, improv, stand-up. If you watched SNL and saw the Liza Minelli Tries To Turn Off A Lamp sketch and laughed your ass off, you're going to love this book.
Basically, I need someone who is going to get to the section where I exhaustively list out the distinct features of 32 multiverse versions of a single character and thinks "I want more of this delightful dumbfuckery" instead of "Good heavens, this is dreadful, I must sate myself with some overly manipulated magical realism prose from a wealthy graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop."
When can we ready Brenda Returns a Blazer?
That depends on if anyone is interested in publishing it! I've set a goal of 75 queries. Once I've sent out 75 queries to agents and publishers, if all of them are rejected, I will begin the process of self-publishing. One way or another, this book will be printed and exist. I've worked too hard for it to just stay on my laptop.
It's Giving Rejection Sensitivity
Hey there. Been awhile.
It's been a whole pandemic since I wrote here last. Some good news: I wrote a book since we last chatted! A sci-fi comedy novel called Brenda Returns a Blazer that I'm currently trying to get published. It has it all: an evil AI obsessed with Brooks & Dunn, flying muppet creatures, five versions of early 2000s Joan Allen, a squid-elephant alien named Diane, and *multiple* deeply intelligent Shania Twain jokes. If you like the 1990s or department store blazers or time travel, you should tell your publishing friends about it!
I haven't written a blog in awhile because, well, I've been busy with the book and also I know how annoying and navel-gazing my blogs can be. There really hasn't been any progress on that front. I'm still self-pitying and deeply hurt I was never "picked" and blah blah blah.
Actually, if something is different it's that I'm finally 39. Less than a year till I'm 40. And I suppose it's inevitable that some things slip into focus when an arbitrary milestone like that approaches. Namely, that (SPOILER ALERT!!!) I'm not the massive overlooked talent I thought I was, or told myself I was for most of my 30s to justify my many failures to launch.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Grandma Moses didn't paint her first painting until she was 793 years old, there's still time, etc. I get it. I'm not "giving up" or "throwing another pity party," I'm just acknowledging that the person most responsible for my lack of "success" is...me.
I never did the self-promotion thing well, I've always been a limitedly effective actor and improviser, and I've skillfully evaded opportunities because of fear of the scrutiny that comes with success. That is, if I do a good job once, people will expect me to do a good job all the time and I can't bear the idea of letting anyone down.
I had a rejection email a few years ago that literally crushed me into a thousand pieces. I was creatively despondent for months afterwards. And I happened across it the other day searching for a document in my email. Literally all it said was "Looking forward to reading your next version of this."
That's it. It was an invitation to continue engaging, yet I saw it as a deep rejection and spiraled.
Turns out (I guess I do have something to report) I learned through therapy that I have something called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. It's a condition, often found in ADHD individuals (p.s. I also probably have ADHD), where even the slightest hint of criticism or negative feedback sends you into a spiral.
It's not just being overly sensitive. It's sensitivity to a debilitating degree. It's hearing someone say "Oh that shirt is interesting" and immediately translating in your brain to "God damn, that shirt is ugly as a dog's dick. I fucking hate you and hope you die." And then spending hours afterwards in an anxiety-spiral, thinking to yourself "You know what? I *should* die! Everything about me is awful and I'm bad at everything, including wearing shirts! "
It's why I bawled until I couldn't breathe when I was 8 and got a silver star from my piano teacher instead of a gold star.
It's why I literally have to go lay down for a bit before I open any work email containing feedback on something I've written.
It's why, when I got a standing ovation for my solo show years ago, I entered a days-long guilt spiral because clearly I had tricked the audience. What kind of fucking horrible asshole tricks an innocent audience with a great show and makes them give you a standing ovation? Fuck! Clearly, I should've banished myself to a shack in the Yukon and never talked to anyone again.
As I approach 40, I understand this aspect of myself more than ever before and am working hard to lessen the effects of RSD on my life. It's why I went public with my novel. Surprise! I've actually written two others, but never attempted to get either of them published or share them with friends because of fear of rejection. If I kept them secret, then there was still a chance they could good.
It's a motherfucker, being almost purely driven by outside approval and acceptance and defining yourself by your creative success while simultaneously having a crushing, clinical phobia of rejection.
But, she persists. And as I get older, I think the mighty expectations I had for myself are slowly eroding. Someday, I hope, I'll just be able to purely enjoy the creative experience. I'm getting there.
Brenda Returns a Blazer is, hopefully, a big turbo boost on that journey.
(Yeah okay that's not the exact lyric but it's better for the PATHOS and PROFUNDITY I'm going for here.)
2019 has been a motherfucker, in the best and worst ways. It's been spent in self-imposed comedy exile, mostly on airplanes, traveling more for my day job than I ever have before (about 180,000 miles. Just typing that gave me motion sickness.)
It's also been spent in therapy, in lingering trips to the park with my dog Pearl, in long afternoon depression naps, in writing sessions where I do more staring at the computer waiting for something to fall out of my brain than actually writing,
It's not been spent on stage. It's not been spent on set, or posting all my Big Accomplishments and Opportunities. There hasn't been much creation, partially because I've been so exhausted from taking 4 flights a week and partially because my depression tends to numb my brain like a foot that's fallen asleep from sitting on it too long.
But I know I needed a break. I needed to repair some shit and ditch some old habits and build newer, healthier ones. And I needed to learn how to see value in myself outside of the comedy I create, something I haven't done since I was 18. Sometimes I think I was inexplicably sent on so much travel this year because I needed to learn how to look outward again and stop obsessing about looking inward (I say as I write yet another navel-gazing emo-blog).
I auditioned for a handful of commercials. I got called back once! Momma's still got it! I also took a writing class I mostly couldn't be at because of work travel, but I still gleaned some great things. And I recently finished an acting intensive and hated every goddamn minute of it even though I had a great teacher and great classmates and I know it was helping me (let's face it, I probably hated it because it WAS helping me, which meant I needed help, which meant I wasn't perfect, which meant it was a bullseye in the center of all my issues).
In one of the most surprising developments for my lazy, idle, video-game-addicted ass, I started CrossFit and somehow don't hate it! Sometimes I'm very bad at it and sometimes I am good at it and I am also learning (slowly, it's hard and I am dummm) to stop evaluating my experience of something by whether I'm Good At It or Bad At It.
I also just finished shooting a small role in an upcoming, super-fabulous web series that I will be posting more about soon.
But perhaps the most exciting development is, I'm creating again. I've started an improvised podcast that is launching in January (oh so many more details coming soon!). I've recorded 7 episodes already and found a scheme that makes recording as stress-free as possible, so I can do it despite being out of town half of each month. And best of all, it's just fucking FUN, which I sort of forgot how to have.
I'm also quietly working on a new season of John Loos: Too Big For This World (more info coming soon!), which has been both a delight and a steep climb. It turns out your sketch comedy brain is like any muscle and needs to be worked out to stay #swole, and after a couple years of idling, I've basically had to put it through sketch comedy CrossFit again. But I'm getting there! And I'm excited about what's being created. And perhaps for the first time, I genuinely don't care if it Rockets Me To The Top. I care that it's good, and fun and that the people involved have a great time creating it. As much as I'm dying to have something to post to Facebook about getting Hired or Cast in a Big Time TV Show or Movie, and get those 650-700 Likes and have a day and a half of checking people's lovely comments, it's okay if that doesn't happen. Traditional routes of success elude me, but I'm learning to see that more as a neat-o challenge rather than a discouragement.
Overall, 2020 is looking promising. New things are growing, old grudges and insecurities are dying (some are sticking around, because fuck me therapy is HARD), and even though I'm still sad most of the time, I understand why much more than I ever have. So that's something.
I can't wait to share what I've been working on, and I can't wait to start new things, and re-engage with the comedy world in a way that's healthier and less self-destructive.
For example: I'm doing a photo shoot in drag on Thursday. So already, the new year is going to be glam-fucking-tacular and I just remembered I have to go buy a new wig so if you'll excuse me, I'm returning to my natural habit of perusing drag queen stores.
It's going (Hugh) down(s) in 2020! In 2020, I am gonna go Ba(rbara)lls to the Wal(ters)l!
See you there.
When Comedy Started Killing Me
Comedy started killing me around 2015. Up until then, I had mostly found joy in the hustle, of having 45 shows and 87 rehearsals every week, all of them unpaid or sometimes costing me money. But after a series of disappointments, comedy eventually became malignant. And it started to destroy me on the inside. Now, in 2019, I’m only starting the process of uncovering how much damage it really has caused.
I grew up gay in a Fox News home in a conservative small town, which led me to develop many sticky layers of self-loathing, ones I’m still peeling off to this day. To combat this internal monologue that said I had no worth, no value, that I was incorrect and wrong and bad and a huge disappointment and galactic-level embarrassment, I became obsessed with Achieving. Accomplishing shit. Like, ribbons and trophies and awards. It didn’t matter what I did, or if I even liked doing it, as long as I got some sort of recognition at the end.
Most quarterback sacks on the football team? Check.
Most improved on the speech team? Check.
Essay contest winner at American Legion Boy’s State? CHIZZECK.
Student of the month AND student of the year? Yer goddamn right that’s a CHECK.
Incidentally, I also became obsessed with Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, etc. So much so that I met my first boyfriend on an online awards message board. I’m also, to this day, constantly on IMDB looking at what awards actors have one and pinpointing the years they were most relevant and powerful.
The Chicago Comedy world, in retrospect, was a honey trap for a self-hating gay boy like me. It provided a very clear structure for accomplishment: a well-lit Candy Land path of highly specific benchmarks to hit on your way to Saturday Night Live superstardom.
Take classes. Get on a team. Get invited to a special audition. Get called back. Get on a touring company. Get on a stage. Get an SNL audition.
And, what’s better, it was all based around improv, perhaps the one art form where you truly don’t have to have any talent to have moderate success. And that unearned, moderate success leads you to believe you DO have a precious, rare talent and you can abortion-joke and woosh your dreams into reality. At least, it did for me!
When I started my first improv classes at the iO West in 2005, I took one look at the photos of Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers and Mike Myers on the wall and decided this was what I was meant to accomplish. If I could get on Saturday Night Live, then I could prove to EVERYONE (ahem, myself) that in fact I WAS correct, I WASN’T an anomaly and that I DID have worth.
2015 was the year I realized I had been thrown hopelessly astray from the Path to Success everyone else was using to get to SNL. I had failed four times to get on a Harold team at the iO. I had failed every TourCo audition for Second City. I had gotten cast on a ship, but if we’re being honest that was 99% because I was in a relationship with someone who had been doing the boats. And, in a cry of delusional agony, I created a web series to Really Show Them. This was Sheryl Still Single.
And Sheryl, bless her giant messy bitch heart, was thoroughly rejected. It was rejected from 12 of 13 festivals, the one it got into being the one notorious for accepting everything.
This is when comedy started killing me. I became extraordinarily mean to myself, because I didn’t have those arbitrary accomplishments to use to delude myself into thinking I had worth. I would say out loud I should die, that I was worthless, that I was a monster that didn’t belong on this Earth. All because I couldn’t accept my own mediocrity. I refused to look at the evidence: in fact, there had been scant few, if any, true indicators in my 12 years in the Chicago comedy scene that I had any ability to even come close to accomplishing my stratospheric goals.
Chicago comedy is great at drawing you in but is in no way equipped or interested in providing a dignified way out. It's a mental health bear trap, and by 2015 I was gnawing my own foot off.
I actually managed to accomplish some cool (if inconsequential) things with my follow-up web series Too Big For This World, but by then it was too late to pull me out of my spiral. If it wasn’t Saturday Night Live, it was just further evidence I was a Huge Fucking Failure.
I became so depressed by my inability to progress that I started shutting down. I started shitting blood. I became unimaginably exhausted and idle. I also became so extraordinarily sensitive that even the slightest bit of feedback or criticism would send me into a tailspin that could last days, or weeks. This fucked me out of opportunities simply because I was unable to process them.
Example: I was asked to deliver a script to a woman at a production company and spent months being unable to rise to the challenge. It was also a very personal script about my depression and career as a comedian, so her inevitable polite decline might as well have been a cannon blast to my face because I had long-since worn through whatever emotional resistance padding I had.
Since then, I have been unable to get back on my feet. I talk myself out of every idea for a new web series or video or show, telling myself they’re Fucking Stupid and embarrassing in ways that redefines the word. It’s gotten better in recent months, but for a good year it was a special kind of hell.
So that’s why all has been quiet on the comedy front. I don’t know what else I have left, and I don’t trust my ability to absorb any more (self-imposed) disappointment.
The good news, however, is that in 2019 I’ve been like a Charlene song and have been visiting Me a whoooollle fucking bunch. I took an acting class and a writing workshop. I started CrossFit! Turns out I’m a douchebro and I kind of absolutely love it! And most importantly I’m back in therapy after years of psyching myself out by convincing myself if I went back I would just do it wrong and fail and hate myself for not being a Good Therapy Patient.
So, on a personal front, I suppose I am accomplishing things. They don’t come with trophies or ribbons or exciting Facebook announcements that 678 people Like. These accomplishments won’t be posted on Deadline or put me on a Vulture list of Top Comedy Fetuses To Watch. But, I’m learning to understand their quiet momentousness. And, I’m learning to be kinder to myself. To be okay with my okay-ness.
I will do comedy again. I don’t know in what form, or when, or how, but I know when it happens it will be solely to supplement my own joy and not some desperate They Shoot Horses Don’t They? marathon death dance for gatekeepers to maybe possibly position myself for a Waiting For Guffman-esque SNL audition opportunity that will never, ever come to pass (YES I REFERENCED TWO MOVIES IN ONE SENTENCE, DEAL WITH IT ANALOGY POLICE).
I mean, bottom line: I can’t expect the world to embrace me if I don’t hug me first. Ha! Put that shit on a coffee mug in a swirly font, Jan, and send the residuals straight to my gaping asshole.
Oh, and the funny thing about all those things I failed to accomplish in Chicago? I didn’t actually want them. I wanted to know I was good enough to achieve them. But, I didn’t want them. I didn’t actually want to drive around the country in a van performing for racist and homophobic crowds. I didn’t want to do a fucking Harold (who wants to actually do a fucking Harold?).
I just wanted to know I was wanted. And good enough. And not a mistake or anomaly. The same thing I’ve always wanted, since I was old enough to understand my queerness.
So what comes next? I don’t know. I’m playing a lot of Tomb Raider lately and working on some pilots here and there. That’s enough for now. Because I’m enough, regardless of my output, regardless of my accomplishments.
And honestly, being able to say that is truly my biggest accomplishment in years.