(Note to readers: content warning for suicidal ideation)
In the prologue to the 2018 book, The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, Philip Pullman writes: “I first learnt how to make a map at the age of about eight, when our teacher showed us how to pace out the length and breadth of the school playground and draw it on paper. Such power! To see things from above… It must have been about then, or only a little later, that I read Treasure Island for the first time, and realized you could make maps of places that didn’t actually exist, and show where treasure was buried. It was intoxicating.”
I agree: Maps grant us power, revealing knowledge that feels intoxicating. That’s why I assigned a map project to the students in my Advanced Creative Writing class here at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. I kept the project open to interpretation because I wanted each student to create something unique, whether their map would accompany a written work of fantasy, autobiography, or poetry. Abby Wilson jumped on the assignment immediately. Abby has ADHD, and was feeling under-stimulated with the classroom activity that day. She began to sketch. She’d already done some writing about neurodivergence, and now she wanted to map it out. I found her map more helpful and powerful in describing ADHD than nearly anything I’d ever read in text form. At once, the ADHD brain was laid out before me.
"Map of my ADHD Brain," by Abby Wilson
I could draw connections between certain areas of her map—for example, why the “Swamp of Executive Dysfunction” is so near the “Golden City of Hyper-focus”—as well as ponder the meanings of the symbols—why does perfectionism take the form of steep, nearly inaccessible mountaintops? While I didn’t comprehend every detail of the map, I have the benefit of working closely with Abby. I asked her to describe some parts of it for me. She began with the one element that perhaps needed more explanation than the others: the panic button. It has the power to short-circuit everything else on the map. Abby explained, “If I’m struggling to do something, my panic button sends my brain an adrenaline rush that allows me to override any mental obstacles that prevent me from doing a task.” She added, “Of course, it is for emergency use only.” Okay, I understood. But that’s not the whole story. In her insightful and vulnerable prose, she took me deeper:
"I went through high school not understanding why it was so hard for me to start tasks, while, simultaneously, my intense anxiety and perfectionism were telling me that the worst thing in the world would be to turn in a late assignment. I’d start projects the night before, pulling all-nighters to finish, with the help of the panic button after nothing else worked. I knew I had a procrastination problem, but I always got my work in on time, so what was the harm? If the panic button worked, then why not use it?"
"My junior year of high school, I wanted to die." "The pressure I put on myself to be the perfect student, perfect daughter, perfect friend…it finally broke me. I used the panic button too much, and my life felt like a constant state of emergency. Why couldn’t I do what I wanted? Why did I always mess up? Why was I such a colossal failure at my core? I hated myself. I wanted to give up." "You have to understand that these were all distortions …That year, I got the best grades I’d ever earned. But I was killing myself to get there. That’s what extended, long-term use of the panic button does—when anxiety is your primary motivation, it rewires your brain in incredibly harmful ways."
As I meditated on these observations of Abby’s, I looked at other, less ominous areas of the map: the “Garden of Liturgical Spirituality,” for example, which is so near the “Pond of I Love My Friends.” These are peaceful places to reflect and become centered as needed. The “City of Special Interests” fosters the excitement of the deep dive into one’s passions—in Abby’s case, pandas, books and libraries, and the band Twenty One Pilots. And of course one’s eye cannot help but be drawn to the “Golden City of Hyper-focus.” Why is it so challenging to access? Abby explained: “While you can accomplish a lot—often in a near-blissful state—in the Golden City, you cannot be there all the time, and you can’t stay there long. It’s not sustainable.” In other words, the very thing that makes it a blessing would turn it into a curse, if were easy to come and go from the Golden City. You’d burn out very quickly. As you consider Abby’s map, what other insights do you have? What connections can you make?
And, perhaps even more importantly…what might a map of your brain look like?
Try drawing it.
In the end, it may help reveal your true self. And that is buried treasure, indeed.
Daniel Bowman Jr. is Associate Professor of English at Taylor University. He’s an autistic writer whose books include A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country: Poems, and On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, and the Gifts of Neurodiversity. You can find him on Twitter @danielbowmanjr.
Abby Wilson is a senior studying Creative Writing at Taylor University. She is passionate about creating work that is both deeply personal and educational. You can find her on Twitter @doublejoywilson.