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There’s No Pill for Open Awareness

You won’t find open awareness in a pill. A pill for ADHD helps most adults activate, sustain attention and effort, comprehend when reading or listening, and have some order in their daily lives. Medicine may help with all of that, but it might not help you maintain awareness of time, other people, and tasks that are not right in front of you. Medication does not prioritize. 

 Once your attention is locked into one task, you might forget other priorities that have dropped off your radar. It is not always a good thing to maintain laser-like focus. Managing attention requires moving fluidly between states of open and focused awareness. Losing awareness of what is not in front of you can create problems in your work and in your relationships.

 Have you ever started working on a task that hooked your attention so fully you forgot that you started boiling eggs thirty minutes ago? I’ve blown up eggs before. The ceiling above my stovetop displayed the evidence for weeks. Have you ever gotten angry when someone interrupted your hyper-focused attention, even when you needed to pull your head out? Individuals with ADHD tend to have trouble making those shifts. Pulling back to open awareness is an understated problem for us, in my opinion, especially when we are focusing on personally stimulating or novel tasks.

You can cultivate open awareness by training your brain and practicing, just as you would train your body for athletic competition. We call it mindfulness training. Adults with ADHD who take medicine and also meditate seem to make more gains than those who only medicate their symptoms. Daniel Siegel, co-founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, says meditation can be as effective as medication for ADHD symptoms. 

 Turning the lights up on your constantly shifting internal state, while observing your external world with clarity, and being mindful of how the two are linked, can help you integrate what is relevant in the moment. 

You can train your brain to 

  • be more aware of awareness…of when you need to redirect your attention.
  • be more attentive to subtleties of nonverbal communication that you may otherwise be overlooking or misreading.
  • be more observant of your emotional reactivity to situations and people, aware of assumptions that are unduly influenced by strong feelings.
  • stop avoiding uncomfortable feelings so successfully that you are disconnected from them, or not attuned to the feelings and experiences of others around you.

This is what mindfulness is; it is the opposite of mindlessness.   

Not all mindfulness practices are the same. Knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it makes a difference. I suggest finding an experienced meditation teacher who understands open awareness and how to cultivate it.

  

Working From Home With ADHD

How do you manage working from home with ADHD, where your attention is more divided than in your normal workplace? I’m dealing with this at the moment, working at home in one room while my wife works in another. It helps that she is working here as well. Her commute is shorter than mine, as she travels from the bed to a desk in the bedroom. I travel from the bedroom to my sunroom office. I can see birds and squirrels from where I am sitting!  

It helps that my wife emerges from the bedroom office only for lunch or coffee. Now that I am cooking and cleaning more than ever, I feel valued, but those tasks are unplanned. I see dog hair on the floor and grab the broom or vacuum cleaner. I feel hunger and start preparing meals. 

So, here’s where I’m directing my effort now, for what it’s worth. I clean up and dress for work to start my work day, not just to look professional, but also to mark the beginning of the workday. I clock in, so to speak.  I close my blinds while doing paperwork and when writing, like right now. I will see the outdoor world later when I break to walk my dog. I open the blinds when I see clients so they can see me on their screens. It is not difficult for me to focus narrowly on them because screens have a way of locking in my attention…I’m sure your spouse has noticed that about you! Hyper-focused attention can help when my work is in that narrow space of a screen.

At the same time, I can find myself brainlocked on an unimportant activity if I haven’t prioritized. I’m at my best when I preview important tasks before locking my attention into the work. As the ADHD experts say, medicine doesn’t prioritize. I need a strategy and tool for that, and I need to remain in a state of open awareness while planning, and before shifting into a more focused state.

When in the office, I don’t snack, call friends, watch news, or do anything that I wouldn’t do in an office or sanctuary. I wouldn’t make a phone call or play a free cell during a religious service or when meditating. Why would I do those things at work? I can schedule recreational activities outside of the work schedule. I can check news headlines when I break for lunch. When I clock out at the end of the day, I try to leave it completely if I can. That way, I am defining a beginning and end of the workday, and I’m more productive when clocked in.

Stay safe during these trying times. Eventually, we will get to more normal routines, whatever they will be. I suspect we will experience some lasting changes in how we live at home and in the world together.

We need each other…always did. Perhaps we are going to be more conscious of our mutual interdependence and need for community. Unity might save us and our planet; division will risk everything we have known. We all belong. As my friend Mike Himelstein said in a song lyric, “Each one is God’s gift to the world.” https://youtu.be/D8ZvnZuOfQQ

Two Brains Can Be Better Than One

Prisoners of the present are good in a crisis…right? Well, perhaps not always, not in all circumstances. The coronavirus pandemic is not a momentary event. It calls for conceptualizing the future, planning, maintaining steady effort over time, and dealing skillfully with emotions. Those are not strengths of most adults with ADHD. 

So, what do you do when your ADHD symptoms could jeopardize your life and the lives of others? I think the answer is complementarity. You can team up with brains that are different from yours, ones that complement your imaginative, unconventional, resourceful brain. 

To be a mindful partner, you will need to listen to others with an open and flexible mind, and speak succinctly with respect for the listener. You can experience the joy and benefits of diverse brains working together. 

Rather than envy how the brains of others work, or think that yours works better than others, respect how different brains work, and how productive they can be when they work collectively. Lending your brain to the Big Mind of collaborative effort is powerful. 

Maybe you know this already. If my solution is a no-brainer, forgive me! 

Now and Not Now

You may have heard that adults with ADHD live in two time zones, now and not now. It appears that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is yet to come. Since it is not as bad now as it will become, according to reliable sources, ADHD adults are at risk for disregarding risks. 

Anticipating the future and preparing for it is not our strength. If we remain unconcerned or mindlessly distracted until the worst is at hand (until not now becomes now) we could be endangering ourselves, our families, and others around us.

Being realistic is not the same as being caught up in mass hysteria. Emotional chaos is more likely when we are trying to avoid or escape uncomfortable feelings. Anxious feelings are compounded by desperate efforts to reduce anxiety. 

I’ve heard from people who believe that fears about the virus are being caused by the media, rather than by the facts that the media are reporting. Fear is not an abnormal reaction to disturbing news. Dissemination of information in the public interest is vitally important. If you read a social media post that worries you, check out its validity through another, more credible source, much like a responsible journalist would do. 

This is not a time to bury your brain in the mindless stimulation of electronic devices. If your spouse tells you that your head is stuck in your anal cavity, listen with an open and flexible mind. Your partner’s interest may be in saving your life and protecting your family. This is a time to be a partner with your spouse and make sound decisions together. Stay informed, but don’t become immobilized by overdosing on news. The most essential news will be repeated. 

Make time in your day to pause and center your attention in the present moment. Be mindful of where you’re directing your attention. Be quietlly attuned to what is going on inside you and around you. If you feel anxious discomfort, notice it without judgment and let it be. Consider your feelings as messages, telling you to pay attention to something.

Wisdom can be found in silence. Take time to pause, pray, and quietly contemplate the common thread that weaves us together in universal experience. 

May you be safe and healthy as possible, and may all of us treat one another like family. Our differences matter far less than what we face together. We need each other.

Taking ADHD to College

Is your ADHD teen prepared for college life? I wasn’t. My parents thought I would be under the watchful eye of my brother, who was a year ahead of me. We lived together in an apartment my first year, and he had already found his family of brothers before I arrived. It’s called a fraternity. 

My brother and I shared a car. He needed it one day when I would be in imprisoned in afternoon classes. He asked me to meet him on campus before my first class so I could tell him where I had parked it. “The car is on East Main St.,” I said. I didn’t add that it was out of gas! He still likes telling that story. It begins it with, “I will never forget…” He hasn’t. 

My parents didn’t attend college and had no idea how to prepare me for living independently and managing academic work at the college level. I was barely 18 years old and maturationally challenged. After a couple of false starts and interruptions, I began to enjoy the academic work and discovered creative ways to manage my schedule, papers, and preparation for exams. The library was my best environment for studying; our apartment was the worst. Higher level undergraduate classes and graduate school were more interesting than the early classes. General education classes were structured too much like high school then. 

Preparing kids to leave home should start long before high school graduation. By the time your teen is in the eleventh grade, you are lucky to have some influence, and you can squander it if your aim is to control what you can’t. Trying to assert control often results in push-back, which is not abnormal at that age, developmentally speaking. 

Appealing to your adolescent’s drive to get away from you can help. I often asked adolescents in therapy if they wanted my help in getting their parents off their backs. No teenager ever declined my offer. One 17-year-old began doing homework immediately upon arriving home from school. His explanation reflected his developing awareness and acceptance of his ADHD. He explained that (1) completing assignments early prevented interruptions of preferred activity and having to restart the dreaded academic work later; (2) having medicine still active at 3 pm helped him complete assignments efficiently and without careless mistakes; and (3) his parents were more flexible and generous when he could show completed homework by dinner time.

Unlike the parents of my adolescent clients, I had the advantage of a brief relationship and no prior history with them. Your teen may decline your generous offer to help him acquire independent living skills, learn to organize and prioritize academic work, use adaptive tools, and employ adaptive strategies. Professional support can encourage your adolescent and preserve family relationships. An academic coach, professional organizer, or summer program may help prevent wasting tuition on a failed semester. And you can save your child from becoming discouraged and embarrassed to be back home with you while his peers are moving on. 

You can find links to websites and books for parents on the resources page of my website: http://terrymhuff. You can follow links from those to other websites and explore more resources. There are many. Keep browsing. 

Meditation and Medication

I have done both…concurrently and separately. I have meditated and medicated with my ADHD. I have far more experience meditating, having practiced for a few decades. Nothing has given me more presence and emotional balance than meditation. 

But I still have ADHD. I first took medication for it 25 years ago, and the effect was so remarkable that I thought I was trying on someone else’s brain. I never believed, until then, that any human ever heard everything that was said in a meeting or lecture. Seriously!

So, here I am, starting medication again, and at a different stage of life. My hope is that medication will help me be more consistent with meditation. And maybe the meditation will result in more consistent effects of medication. Are you following this? The difference between the two words is just one letter. 

I once thought that substituting a “t” for the “c” would be sufficient for my ADHD brain. Dr. Daniel Siegel has cited research at UCLA suggesting that meditation may be as effective as medication. Maybe so, but my 25-year single-case study…with me as both researcher and subject…doesn’t confirm it.

I should care that serious researchers employ a large pool of subjects and scientific methodology. Still, for every rule there are exceptions. I just don’t care to be exceptionally deficient among peers with deficits. I believe those two words come from the same root. So, I’m a minority within a minority. I guess you could say I suffer from attention double-deficit disorder. 

 

Revisiting Medication for ADHD

I must admit to having been a little smug about managing my ADHD without medication, until I had to give up coffee. Recently, my doctor recommended eliminating caffeine after determining that I belonged to another minority besides the ADHD family—people who cannot metabolize caffeine normally. Although meditation has helped more than anything, I need medication to keep parts of my brain from obstructing the other parts, and to maintain my routine of daily meditation practice! One effective solution does not negate the other.  

I had no idea how effectively caffeine had been treating my ADHD until I discontinued it. I had been increasing my coffee intake in recent months, as the desired effects of it seemed to be diminishing. One cup in the morning was not keeping me alert. Then a bolt of lightening hit me! I had an episode of atrial fibrillation, the first in 12 years. I had not had a single episode since correcting the problem with an ablation surgery. 

When I abandoned my Kurig and Starbucks, I began to lose and misplace all sorts of items: two jackets, new eyeglasses, my phone log, ear buds. I was having difficulty activating on tedious tasks, and I was jumping from one task to another without completing all of them. 

Whatever aversion you may have to medication for ADHD, you’re not alone, but I recommend not ruling it out until you have given it a run. And don’t give up if you cannot tolerate the first one you try. One size does not fit all. The best medicine and right dosage that works for you will likely be different from what works for me. As for giving it a try, consider what one prominent ADHD expert once said to me: “It’s a quality of life issue.” 

There is much to do, and I need to prioritize my work, get started, keep my wheels on the tracks, stop allowing interruptions, and quit spending so many hours a day looking for things I’ve misplaced. 

Deck the Halls with Folly

Most adults with ADHD report having problems managing their emotional lives. Holiday events present opportunities to observe how internal experiences relate to external events. For example, if you are hosting an event, expect your uncle to pick a fight about politics, your mother-in-law to ask if you are ever going to have children, and your sister to present evidence that your mother liked you best. 

Nothing can trigger strong feelings more effectively than conflicts in our families. Those relationships are important, including the difficult ones. If you truly don’t care about your differences with a difficult family member, then what is the meaning of your angry thoughts? What is your story line that is so disturbing to you? As a young adult I thought there should be no bad drivers on the road. The thought disturbed no one but me, and it spawned some road rage. 

Try this exercise before the holidays: Imagine the last conflict you had with a difficult family member, or a conflict you might expect to have. Sit with it until you feel like you are actually there, right in the middle of it. What feeling comes up? Can you locate it in your body? What happens when you observe the feeling—not the thought—as a physical sensation. That’s what a feeling is. What happens when you invite it in, like a valued guest, without judging it or trying to change it. What happens when you simply let it wash over you and subside like a wave in the ocean. Where does the wave go?

Suspending certainty is a way to cultivate a flexible mind, and a flexible mind is a healthy one. This doesn’t mean that you should not trust your experience; you are the only expert on your experience. You just don’t have to trust the first thought that springs from a rush of emotion. After all, a thought is just a thought, and we don’t choose our feelings…feelings find us. They are rooted in our histories, often in multi-generational experiences, and they are a natural part of our biological makeup. Feelings should be respected.

As for unrealistic expectations for an ideal holiday experience, abandon them! My mom would always idealize the annual Christmas event that she planned for her siblings and their families. Despite her best efforts, her family never seemed to enjoy the event. It was part of Mom’s ritual, when our guests were gone, to say that she would never do it again. She repeated the experience many times, with the same ideal and the same result. 

You don’t have to host an event just because you always did. But if you choose to host, suspend any beliefs about how it will go…either way…fulfilling or disappointing. Keep a “don’t-know mind.” A wise teacher once said, “A don’t-know mind can do anything.” There’s no need to be an expert on the future. Expect the cast of characters be who they are, and your feelings to be what they will be. See what happens when you don’t try to engineer an outcome, or wish you could change someone.

Let it be. 

Defensiveness is Self-defeating

Defensiveness is a bigger problem than you might think, and I find it hard to convince anyone that they are being defensive. Confronting it gets a defensive response. It’s the same with denial. I know how hard it can be to inhibit the impulse to defend yourself when accused. I doubt that you’ve ever heard anyone say, “Of course, I’m being defensive, and for sure, I’m in complete denial…I can’t deny it.”

So, what is its opposite? I once heard marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, suggest conveying this message to one’s partner as an antidote for defensiveness: “There is something important to you that I’m not getting; tell me more so I can understand.” That’s hard to do when someone you love has a gun pointed at your head. Don’t tell my wife I said that; I try to make it look easy.  

The inclination to be defensive may result from (1) being impulsive and (2) being inclined to defend your best intentions. If you have ADHD and are impulsive, you might be blind to the effects of your impulsive behavor…and the effect of your defensiveness. The focus of your attention may well be trapped in your own bubble. You cannot see outside of the bubble when locked inside of it. You may be thinking only about how offended and hurt you are. That’s a big problem because getting stuck there precludes having a flexible mind, one that can observe self and other at the same time. Being certain of your innocence, and your partner’s bad intentions, are not features of a flexible mind. Suspending certainty is more useful.

You may think that allowing influence gives some self-serving advantage to your partner in an argument. But failing to allow influence is one of the most common mistakes that marriage partners make. Think for a moment about whether there is a true need to be right and to prove your partner wrong. Proving your partner wrong creates loss for both because the partnership loses when either partner loses. Asking your partner to tell you more, so you can understand what she is feeling and thinking, is not the same as saying, “You win; I’m wrong,” which is not much better than saying, “I’m right, and you’re wrong.”

What is better than winning an argument, and proving your partner wrong, is arriving at this destination: “I now have a better understanding of what you were trying to tell me.” When you give that gift to your partnership, your partner is likely to be flexible in response, and motivated to understand you. Mutual understanding is much better for a partnership, and feels more like love, than mutual blaming.

Defensiveness is like insulation. It protects us from the elements, from the discomfort of embarrassment or guilt, or from having our weaknesses or limitations exposed. But humility can be useful in a marriage partnership. Embarrassment and shame are at the top of my list of uncomfortable feelings, but I have benefited more from tolerating the discomfort of those emotions than from fighting to avoid or escape them. 

I’m a Retriever

I have become my puppy’s retriever. He drops his ball while running, it bounces under the sofa, and he barks a command for me to fetch. I retrieve his ball with a walking cane. He doesn’t give me a treat for my trick, but retrieving his ball pleases him, which pleases me. My habit of working to please others has a long history. 

I have become a retriever of personal items. I retrieve my wallet, eyeglasses, and cell phone from restaurants, banks, and homes of friends. I return to the office to retrieve items that I need at home, and return home to retrieve items that I need at the office. But I have a strategy for keeping track of keys, and I never lose them. My wife tells me, “You always say that when you lose your keys.” When I reply that she’s lost her mind, she reminds me that I’ve lost that too.

I place items that I cannot afford to lose in an obvious place so I can retrieve them. I put boarding passes and gift cards in my underwear drawer, on top of my Haynes briefs, because I open that drawer every morning. In sight…in mind. 

I still lose my train of thought, words from the tip of my tongue, and my pocket change when I tilt my driver’s seat back too far. I lose my place several times per hour when reading, I lose bookmarks, and sometimes I lose my books. I haven’t lost my Kindle, but I haven’t yet retrieved the charger.

I no longer lose bets because I stopped gambling at age 19. In my second year of college, I sold my used books back to the bookstore for cash because some fool was willing to bet straight up on the world series. The St. Louis Cardinals were defending champs and certain to win the series. Collecting on my bet would allow me to retrieve my books and have a surplus of cash. 

The Cardinals won the first three games, putting me in the position to retrieve my books and have extra cash after one more Cardinal victory. In a historic rally the Detroit Tigers won four straight games, and I dropped out of school. I lost not only the bet, I lost my books and my parents’ trust. 

But don’t call me a loser. I’m a retriever.

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