When I was six years old, I worried that there might be wolves outside my bedroom door.
I had no explanation as to why this might be the case. I don’t even think I believed it likely. But I had concluded that it was a possibility, no matter how remote, that our house in Shropshire had been invaded by hungry animals during the night – beasts who were even now waiting quietly outside my room, jaws dripping with viscous saliva as they imagined their pyjama-clad breakfast – and I was therefore quite reluctant to enter the corridor. It would sometimes take me whole minutes to pluck up the courage and push down the handle.
This aversion to doorways, though admittedly evolving somewhat in focus, has followed me through life. I have always found it strangely difficult to depart one area for another, even if I am quite keen to be in the second spot. Something in me just really wants to stay put.
The anxiously-grasped-at reasons I find to delay departure – I need to check once more time that everything is turned off; on second thoughts, perhaps I can be bothered to put on makeup today; I’ll wait until six o’ clock before I leave work, then it’ll be a sensible time to go to the supermarket – seem to rush in to excuse that desire, rather than to cause it in the first place.
It’s like one part of my brain is making ridiculous demands while another makes desperate explanations – the result being that I can’t get the full story out of either part. All these years on, I still don’t consciously know what I’m trying to evade.
Even within my own house, I will often avoid walking from room to room. I’d rather spend ten minutes finding a convoluted way to check my brother’s address from my computer (it was buried three months deep in a Messenger chat with my aunt, if you’re curious) than spend 30 seconds walking into the next room for my address book.
This is so stupid that my brain doesn’t even bother filling in the gaps. “I just don’t want to,” it says, holding me hostage in the shower room when I need to grab some scissors from the kitchen. “You idiot,” I mutter to myself, using a nail file to cut through a clothes tag.
The doorway effect
Lots of people have difficulty with doorways. There’s something in our bones that distrusts them, while at the same time affording them great importance: stepping through a doorway is the beginning of an adventure, or the turning point in a horror story.
Sometimes this distrust becomes the vast, malignant fear of agoraphobia
Sometimes this distrust becomes the vast, malignant fear of agoraphobia or similar; something that feels shameful, somehow, so that sufferers won’t admit to if they can help it. But usually it manifests in a sudden, benign forgetfulness, often talked about by older people: “I tell you what, I walk into the kitchen and straight up forget what I went in there for! Today I must have gone in there five times before I remembered to take the cat out the tumble dryer.” This is OK to admit to, even if you’re younger. It’s a semi-universal human experience that doesn’t often lead to personal disaster, and so it’s not too embarrassing.
The ‘doorway effect’, as it’s now known, has been recently theorised about at length: the result of a much-cited study headed by one Gabriel A. Radvansky. Published in 2011, it concluded that the act of navigating a doorway creates a new ‘memory episode’, which makes it harder to recall details before the boundary (interestingly, Radvansky more recently published evidence which suggests that older people are not more intensely affected by this phenomenon). It could also be partially the result of mix-ups in the hierarchy of thoughts.
I’ve pinpointed the exact feeling of a task slipping away: a sudden, itchy blankness
Unsurprisingly, I am an acute sufferer of this doorway-induced mind-wiping. It’s such a common occurrence for me that I’ve pinpointed the exact feeling of a task slipping away from my neurological clipboard: a sudden, itchy blankness where previously there was purpose. The following unease as I try to remember why I’m staring into the living room doesn’t correlate with the actual importance of the task, I’ve found – I’ll feel equally as restless whether I’m meant to have turned the telly off at the wall or called 999 – which doesn’t make remembering it any easier.
My intense familiarity with the doorway effect means that I have been able to identify several metaphorical doorways: objects or tasks whose commencement have the same effect as walking into a room.
Most of these seem centred around technology. Picking up my mobile phone is one. Opening a new tab in my browser window is another. If I mean to look up the number of a local garage, I’m just as likely to spend ten minutes scrolling through reddit, five minutes reorganising my to-do list, and another five looking back through nice photographs from the past month.
It’s only when I put down my phone, or click back to the previous tab, and resume whatever it was that prompted me to pick it up in the first place – trying to book a car service, say – that I’ll be jolted back onto the path I strayed from. I’ll try again, and sometimes I’ll manage to look the number up this time; but sometimes I won’t.
Doorways and ADHD
I can’t imagine that my various idiosyncrasies surrounding doorways aren’t somehow related to my ADHD.
The inability to keep thoughts at the forefront of one’s brain – the limitations of that ‘working memory’ – is one of the more recognisable symptoms of the disorder. This, combined with a doorway trick that even affects neurotypical people, is my explanation for my inability to remember things from one room, or one browser tab, to the next. This is being improved, although not vanished, by medication.
The dislike of leaving one physical space for another is surely tied up in anxiety, a fun facet of my mind that does also seem inexorably linked to ADHD.
Unfortunately, though, it does seem to be one area in which my medication isn’t helping me. Leaving the house in the morning is still as much of an inexplicable strain as it ever has been, although I’m perhaps less worked up about it now – I can accept it as ‘one of those things’ and not use it to fuel self-loathing.
I can be keen as mustard to get going with my work, or meet my friends for a coffee, but I dither and dally before my front door, achieving nothing and making myself late. I still can’t work out what I’m avoiding. It is nebulously, gallingly invisible.
Eventually, I make myself push down the handle and face the wolves.