At the most recent Academy Awards, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once won… well everything of consequence, in Los Angeles, over a three-hour span of time. It won best film, best director, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, and best editing. It did not win best actor, but that is only because it did not have a nominee for that category (this is a movie where women are both protagonist and antagonist).
It is a little hackneyed to say so, but Everything is a towering achievement in film. It is an extremely weird film. And at its heart, it is a film about
adhd. Well… that is not quite right. It is a film made by two men, one of whom was diagnosed with adhd in the process of making the film, and the film isn’t so much about adhd as it a two hour long visual and auditory metaphor of the experience of living a life with adhd.
There is a lot to say about this film, and I will certainly be returning to it to say more. But for today I will focus on the “everything” in the title, leaving the spatial (everywhere) and the temporal (all at once) for another day. My question for this essay is the following: What is “everything,” and what does it do?
The movie’s title itself is an incredible encapsulation of the experience of being a person living with
adhd. The title and the movie convey and represent the primordial—that is, the aspect that produces all the symptomology that we regularly associate with the condition—feeling of being a person with adhd, namely overwhelm. Today I will focus on the overwhelm of everything, the experience of which I will call everythingness.
My primary definition of
adhd, as I have written in the past, is the state of radical openness/undefendeness to one’s environment. I define environment as maximally as possible: i.e. sensorially, spatially, temporally, relationally, emotionally, the world of objects, relationship with order, relationship to the past (history), relationship to one’s personal past (memories), and what I am provisionally calling the 4 existential concerns: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.*
When I write “environment,” I am trying to capture the whole of the environment in which a person lives, both that which is immediately seen and that which is hidden but nonetheless has an enormous impact on the feeling of being a person-in-the-world. My hypothesis is that many of the things that we think we know about
adhd is produced by the powerful forces that are not immediately obvious, because they are not immediately seen. I have railed against the DSM in the past, because that document only describes what is immediately seen in the person of those who have adhd: namely, restlessness, hyperactivity, inattention, and all the other downstream and effects that are measurable. The DSM is a document that only deals with phenomena that have metrics associated with them. If you can count it—i.e. if it doesn’t have an associated verifiable metric—it isn’t part of the DSM story (and yes, science too is a kind of story).
Today’s post is a description of the unseen force of the feeling of everythingness. If the feeling is of everythingness is the aspect under examination, then that leads to the question, what is everything? Everything is… well everything. Everythingness is the experience of experiencing everything. But now we’re going around in circles: let me use a story told to me by a client. I tell you this story today with their joyous permission.
A client, who ultimately got a diagnosis of
adhd but who didn’t have one at the time of their telling me the story, told me about dream they had as a seven-year-old. This dream still remained vivid as a middle-aged adult. In speaking with them recently, they said that not only is the dream still vivid but the bodily sensations they experienced at time are still very much available to them. So too are the memories of their room and the orientation of themselves to their bed in their room still crisp. There was something so compelling about that dream on that day 35 years ago that all the details of the experience, waking and dreaming, are, to this day, easily recalled.
In the dream, the seven-year-old is standing and looking into the sky. In the sky, they see a stream of objects jammed and twisted together. My own language to describe it is as a firmament of things. Or rather, it might be described as the firmament of all things, because the dreamer’s description of the dream is that the objects that stretch across the cosmos are all the objects, all the things in the universe. And in the experience of the dream, the seven-year-old looks up and knows that they are apprehending everything. They describe the look and feel of everything as something like lava, slowly and methodically crawling across the stretch of the cosmos. They describe it in the following way: “All the colours, all the things… it was quiet. It was indifferent. It was big. It was powerful. It was terrifying.”
The child in the dream cannot make any contact with the firmament of all things. They know they are looking at everything, and they want to make contact with the things they see in the sky. But the feeling of the child in the dream is of crushing overwhelm, because no individual can make sense of everything. When I asked about the emotional state of the child in the dream, the dreamer immediately responded, “Dread. Terror. Terror and dread.”
At the time that I first heard this dream, I was struck by both its imagery and the importance it had to the dreamer, but I didn’t know what to make of it. It felt like an extremely powerful image, but… what did it mean? Now it makes sense: that dream represents the feeling of overwhelm I mentioned above. It is the experience of everythingness. Those feelings of dread and terror are not unfamiliar to those of us with
adhd. It is not the case that those of us with adhd experience everythingness and those without adhd do not. The feeling of overwhelm from experiencing everythingness is part of being a person. My contention is that those of use with adhd experience the dread and terror of everythingness more often and with greater amplitude.
You will not find a description of everythingness it in the literature on
adhd, because it is not the stuff of counting. As such, it is not considered a topic for scientific inquiry. But nevertheless, it does an incredible amount of work… or rather it creates for the person with adhd an incredible amount of work. Imagine the feeling of apprehending everything. And now imagine that every aspect of that everythingness needs something from you: servicing, talking to, your attention, your love, and your care. How would you respond to the firmament of all things crawling across the sky of your perceptual apparatus, each calling out to you but you feel incapable of making contact with any single thing. You can see the stream of everything move across the sky as that seven-year-old dreamed, but without termination. And so there you are… standing in the crush of everything without being to make contact with anything.
That is the experience of everythingness. And that is part of the regular experience of being a person with
Everything, Everywhere, All At Once similarly offers a representation of everythingness, namely the creation of the film’s antagonist, Joy/Jobu Tupaki: the everything bagel. The everything bagel was created by Joy/Jobu Tupaki for the purpose of her own destruction. The following is dialogue between daughter and mother (protagonist and antagonist):
Joy: It becomes this… the truth.
Evelyn: What… is… the truth?
Joy: Nothing… matters.
Evelyn: No. Joy. You don’t believe that.
Joy: Feels nice, doesn’t it? If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life… it goes away.
In the movie, everythingness has the power to destroy. Joy/Jobu Tupaki created the everything bagel as a means to her own destruction, because, as she says, “nothing matters.” It is ironic that her solution for nothing mattering—that is, there is no thing or purpose or matter towards which it is worth extending care—is to create something whose purpose is to collapse all the matter in the universe into. Her solution for nothing mattering is to collect all the matter in the universe and allow herself to be collapsed into everything. Because she cannot locate anything mattering in her trips across the multiverse, she desires to integrate into ALL matter in the hope that fusing with everything will bring her some peace (even if it does mean the end of life across the multiverse).
Nothingness is a topic that has been much discussed in the history of human thought. Nothingness, the void, the nihil, meaninglessness, and death… these are all ways of describing the same general phenomenon. I will return to nothingness in a future post (insert slow clap here), but it’s worth pointing out that unlike nothingness, everythingness has been referenced very rarely. What does philosophy have to say about everythingness?†
Luckily… one of the few philosophers who does address everythingness is one who has been most instrumental in the development of my own thinking from both the standpoint of philosophy and psychotherapy: Martin Heidegger. In his 1929 essay, What is Metaphysics?, he addresses both everythingness and nothingness. We will return to the latter on another occasion, but in the passage that follows, he is attempting to make the distinction between apprehending “the whole of beings”—i.e. everything—and “finding oneself in the midst of beings as a whole.”‡ “The whole of beings” is another way of saying everything. This, he claims, is impossible. This impossibility is the thing that makes it such a powerful force: it is not impossible to conceptualize everything. It is impossible to understand it personally. The latter is the experience of recognizing the fact that one is located in the everythingness. This, he claims, is a common everyday experience.
I think a way to better describe this difference is to think through the experience of having a panic attack. A panic attack is, in my estimation, something of the experience of finding oneself attempting to apprehend the whole of beings. It is not, it goes without saying, volitional. It causes the kind of overwhelm that our seven-year-old dreamer reported: dread and terror, or in more physiological terms, extreme sympathetic activation. And what is the method that people who suffer from these attacks commonly use: the 54321 method. The 54321 method asks the panic sufferer to do the following:
● Focus on 5 things you can see
● Focus on 4 things you can hear
● Focus on 3 things you can smell
● Focus on 2 things you can touch
● Focus on 1 thing you can taste
This is a well known method for helping the panic sufferer to “find oneself back in the midst of beings as a whole.” This is the movement from experiencing everything as a whole to locating oneself in the world of all things.
Let us return to Heidegger. Though he previously argues that the apprehension of everythingness is an impossibility and that our native place in-the-world is in the midst of people and things… that nevertheless, everythingness is constantly lurking. He writes the following,
So everythingness is constantly there for all of us. But to return to my definition of
adhd: it is the experience of having the volume of our environments turned up much louder than those who we describe as neurotypical. And part of our environment is what I earlier called “existential concerns,” which includes nothingness and everythingness. If my hypothesis about adhd is correct, then it is not the case that those of us with this neurological profile are ill or diseased or disordered, but rather that we are sensitized to our environments in ways that neurotypical people are not. If everythingness is something with which we all must deal, then being a person with adhd simply means that we experience it with greater regularity and with greater amplitude.
One last quotation to drive this essay to the finish line. In what follows, Heidegger gives voice to the pain that so many with
adhd experience in the face of boredom. It is important to point out here that this is not metaphorical or analogical—people with adhd report physical discomfort and pain in the presence of boredom. He writes,
If we accept the description that Heidegger gives us above, then the extreme discomfort we—people with
adhd, neurotypical people, everyone—experience in the presence of boredom is our making contact with the feeling of everythingness: in the imagery of Everything, Everywhere, All At Once: the everything bagel; in the words of Heidegger: “the whole of beings;” in the dream of a seven-year-old, a terrifying vision of all the matter and all that could matter in the universe aggregated into a stream stretching across the cosmos.
My proposition is that this under-reported and under-theorized force that I have provisionally called everythingness is something that is native to human experience. If we accept Heidegger’s description of the place that everythingness holds in our lives, our day-to-day, then it is there always, lurking in a “shadowy way.” Boredom in particular has the capacity to lift that shadowy veil and perhaps what it reveals is something like the everything bagel or the stream of aggregated matter in the sky. If you are a person whose volume is turned down, relatively speaking, to your environment, you might experience this as mild discomfort or you might not hear it at all. But if you are a person for whom the volume on your environment is maximally turned up—as with people with
adhd and perhaps OCD—then the boundary between one’s regular day-to-day engagement with particular things and people and the experience of being thrust into everythingness is thin. This thinness is the fundamental definition of adhd itself.
Before I end, let me offer one final piece to this essay, which is to say something about what contact with everythingness does. Everythingness produces different things for different people. For some, it causes profound agitation and that agitation leads to—for lack of a more precise term—movement. If you see a twelve-year-old boy with
adhd walking around a kitchen table over and over again… that is the result of the agitation he feels in the presence of his inability to keep everything at bay when standing still. In the quiet of standing still, the shadow of everythingness creeps into view. In other words, the thing we call hyperactivity is an attempt to escape from everything. If you know someone who talks as if they were “vaccinated with a phonograph needle”—the diagnostic term is logorrhea—they are attempting to shore up the boundary between the everyday engagement with things and people and everythingness with their words.
But hyperactivity is not the only response contact with everything. The response of the child in the dream is frozenness: they are frozen in terror and dread. Frozenness is not the sole domain of people with
adhd, but again… if you accept my definition of adhd rather than the standard behavioural definition, then we would expect to see more frozenness in an adhd population than in a neurotypical one. Needless to say, we have no data on this question. We have no epidemiology of frozenness. But as someone who works with this population and his own experiences to boot, I can report that these phenomena do appear with substantial frequency.
So we are starting to build a picture here: a description of the nature of everything and the manner in which we as neurotypical and neurodiverse people have an experience of everythingness. If the picture we’re building is correct, it leads to some very different conclusions: e.g. the ways in which we describe and treat—I mean here both medical “treatment” and the more inclusive sense of “treat” as in the way we approach—neurodiverse folks. This is so, because if conditions—I mean this in the non-medicalized sense of condition as simply a description of a way of being-in-the-world—such as
adhd are not behavioural or neurodevelopmental of externalizing disorders (diseases), then we ought not to offer first productivity apps or pomodoro timers or behavioural fixes. The place to start is to address the forces that produce the behaviours that are commonly seen as “the problem.” But… the behaviours are not the problem. The behaviours are a solution to the problem. If we want to help our brothers and sisters who struggle with conditions such as adhd and autism and anxiety and OCD, then we must find of a way of locating first and then addressing the actual problem.
* Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy, Basic Books, 1980.
† When I type “philosophy of everythingness” into the search bar, the first result is an entry into Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy for “Nothingness.”
‡ Martin Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics?” p 99, in Basic Writings, ed by David Krell, 1993.