Adults with ADHD were once children with ADHD. Many of them were bullied, ridiculed, criticized, shamed, suspended, expelled from school, compared negatively to their siblings, or humiliated in front of their classmates. While the actual risk of harm may be less in adulthood, the conditioned brain may still anticipate harm and remain vigilant and easily aroused. The arousal can take the form of fear or rage and may lead to striking out, withdrawing, or being defensive. The primary arousal cannot be controlled simply by will or changed immediately.
What can you do if you can’t prevent or extinguish an uncomfortable feeling? You can get up close to it where you can examine it and know it as a sensation. You can watch the thought that arises from it and observe it as mental activity. If you pause before responding to an emotion-driven thought, then you have a better chance to observe it as an event. To borrow from the millennial generation’s vocabulary, “It’s a thing.”
I’m not suggesting that humans are nothing but conditioned lab rats, but only that our brains form mental habits around traumatic events. If we habitually believe that our feelings and thoughts are the same as reality, we will be enslaved by our feelings and distorted perceptions. Our actions will be driven by a desire to resolve the discomfort rather than stay the course and attain our goals. Staying the course usually requires willingness to tolerate discomfort.
Psychologists have a name for buying thoughts as truths. They call it cognitive fusion. Meditation teachers call it attachment.
You don’t have to buy the “story lines” (thoughts) that your emotionally flooded brain is trying to sell. To pause and suspend belief in them is to maintain an open and wise mind.
If anyone reading this blog found my eyeglasses at the CIBC Theater in Chicago during the October 6 evening performance of “Hamilton,” please let me know how I can retrieve them. I was fumbling as the play was ending, trying to get my ticket to fit in the case with the glasses so I would have a memento to keep. I should have just bought a t-shirt, the cost of which was the same as my return trip to the theater.
George Washington opened the door for me when I returned…seriously! He directed me to the stage door entrance, and the office where lost and found items are conveniently kept. Thanks George. I still believe my glasses are under seat D318.
I’m grateful for the driver who waited for me while I searched for the stage door. I had already paid and said goodbye, thinking I would be on Monroe Street for a while. I might have been left by Lyft.
Thanks to the Southwest Airlines employee who printed another boarding pass for me while my wife and daughter boarded with the B group. I found mine in my suitcase when I got home.
When you’re checking your voice messages—right hand gripping the steering wheel, left hand holding your phone—is there anything more annoying than being behind someone who is on the phone? They must be texting, you think. How inconsiderate! And then someone honks their horn behind you because the light has turned green. How annoying is that?
Seriously, adults with ADHD are far more likely than others to be cited for traffic violations. They are two to four times more likely to crash, and when they do, they are more likely to be at fault. They are far more likely than others to be cited for speeding, reckless driving, and driving without a license.
I never speed in my own neighborhood. That is what I told the cop who pulled me over about a week ago. He checked my license and asked, “Why are you speeding in your own neighborhood? What’s the hurry?” I knew the answer to the second question: “There is never a reason to speed and endanger others, sir.” I assured him that I never speed in my neighborhood. It is where I walk in the morning. He looked at me like I’m an alien and said, “You mean you never get caught.”
“You probably hear it often, but seriously, I don’t,” I insisted, and that is a fact if you consider that “never” actually means no more often than once a year. It reminds me of what my wife says whenever I lose my keys and say to her, “I never lose my keys.” She replies, “You always say that when you lose your keys.”
The policeman still looked doubtful. I complained to him about others who speed in my community and drivers who pass me in the turn lane when I’m trying to turn into my neighborhood. His doubt penetrated my my prefrontal cortex, and I knew it was time to stop talking, which is difficult for me, especially when I’m a little nervous…and in a hurry.
He was kind not to cite me. “Please slow down,” he said. I assured him that I would. I think he let me off the hook because I live in the neighborhood he was patrolling, and he knew that I knew he was trying to protect my neighbors and me from people like me.
Great news! I noticed that my rinsed coffee cup was in the dishwasher last Tuesday evening (see previous blog). I asked my wife if she had found it. She not only admitted to “stealing” my coffee, she apologized! She told me that she was driving to work Tuesday morning and took a sip of her coffee. She noticed that it had no cream and realized she had picked up my cup.
Sometimes, I’m not the inattentive one. It feels better than good to be on the receiving end of an apology!
I’m on my second cup of coffee this morning, not that I finished the first…just misplaced it. I will probably stumble onto it tonight after work. Here are the places where it is not: on the table where I’m working, in either bathroom, on my bedside table, in the laundry room, near the plants that I watered, on the deck, on top of my car, in the pantry where I keep the oatmeal, in the microwave, on the shelf where I keep coffee mugs, in the refrigerator, and none of those same places when I looked the second and third times.
My cat doesn’t have it, assuming he is being honest. He has walked off with a toothbrush before!
Here are places I haven’t ruled out: in my wife’s hand as she left for work (but she uses cream and I’m lactose intolerant), in my garage (I haven’t been out there because it has too much clutter for my car to fit), in the mailbox or at the track where I walked this morning.
My wife often discovers items I have misplaced, but she left for work early. I need some of those tags to put on my mugs, the ones that allow you to locate items with your cell phone. If I misplace the cell phone, I still have a landline I can use to call it…and maybe the ringer will be turned on!
I didn’t meditate this morning…can you tell?
This is me without a task list: Oh, I forgot to email Darrell this morning…but first I need to eat something…and then I will go to the grocery…but I haven’t scooped the litter yet…OMG, the cat missed the litter box and left a mess…that reminds me, I need to unclog the bathtub drain…but I haven’t had my coffee yet…that’s my cell phone ringing…”no problem, this is a good time”…now, I must get off the phone and get busy…I need to mulch the new cypress trees before the rain comes…that felt so productive…now what was it that I needed to do first thing this morning? …Oh, I need to email Darrell…oh no, I forgot to run water in the tub after the Liquid Plumber…oh s**t, I didn’t finish cleaning up the cat’s accident…my dermatology appointment is in two hours…I may not have time to go to the grocery…where did the time go?
This is me with a task list: Scoop litter…done…send email to Darrell…done…eat breakfast…done…go to the grocery…done…ignore the phone and let it go to voicemail…good…put mulching on tomorrow’s to-do list…done…unclog the drain…done…there is plenty of time to get ready for my appointment…shut up, there is no such thing as plenty of time…get ready and leave early…done!
The ADHD problem is less about failing to direct attention to where it is needed, and more about failing to inhibit attention to many appealing alternatives to the task at hand. A task list helps hold attention in place. Otherwise, the surplus of attention can make us feel overwhelmed by tasks that should be manageable.
If complexity is a problem, then simplicity is a solution. The iPhone is too distracting for me; there is much more than my task list on it. I prefer the activity of writing my to-do list on a page in a binder with a brightly colored cover, one that won’t be used for anything else. The activity of writing slows my mental activity to a mindful pace and helps me remember the tasks. I do best when I approach each task as if it is all I have to do. It keeps me from looking ahead.
If you have used strategies and tools that once worked for you, then resurrect them. If you are trying a reasonable strategy that just isn’t working for you, give it up and try another way. After finding and using an effective strategy, expect the wheels to come off the tracks eventually. Once you are aware that you stopped doing something that was working, don’t waste time criticizing yourself. Just quietly put the wheels back on the tracks. Self-criticism is superfluous mental activity, just another distraction. It’s like having a head on top of your head; you don’t need the extra head!
I have noticed that I have few ADHD symptoms when on vacation…if only my daily life were so simple! I have no bills to pay and no important deadlines to meet when checked out from the daily grind. I just have to be sure not to leave a bag at the airport and not to react negatively to loved ones who are accustomed to reminding me, thoughtfully, of what I need to do.
I’m the one who prefers keeping the hotel room clean. My clothes are on hangers and in drawers. I am on time for recreational and leisure activities. There is little competing for my attention, as I am looking ahead to just one activity at a given time. The experience is a reminder that the ADHD problem has more to do with inhibiting attention than the oversimplified notion that I am unable to focus. Unmanaged attention, not attention deficit, best describes our challenge.
A wandering mind is no problem on vacation. The so-called default system—a network of brain regions associated with daydreaming—normally turns on at night and recedes in the evening. Our ADHD brains don’t work that way. There is evidence that our default systems turn on easily during the day, corresponding with our difficulty activating the executive system, a network of brain regions associated with alertness and selective attention.
So, when life is simple, your brain can wander without interfering with your limited obligations. I will make my deadline for posting this and will still show up for the next scheduled activity. I have at least a half hour to get ready…plenty of time!
THIS is living well with ADHD…if only for a week!
At age 28, my father moved from one end of a rural county to the other, further from home than his seven siblings. At age 28, I drove my MGB across the country, interviewing for jobs in New Mexico and Arizona, and ending up on the west coast.
Recently, I found a letter in my attic that my dad’s mom sent to me after I had moved to Santa Monica. Ma Hattie had a fourth grade education and knew more than I will ever know about growing food and living off the land. She was both tough and gentle. Her grandfather had survived the Civil War, and her father died young from a logging accident. She raised eight children and some of her grandchildren, and she loved us all unconditionally. My father once said she was stronger than any two men he ever knew. She once told me that she married my grandfather because “he had a mule and two cows, and he didn’t know what to do with them.”
To be sure that her letter would arrive promptly, Ma Hattie wrote “Air Mail” on the envelope. The letter was dated May 23, 1978. It was written in cursive with little punctuation.
“Dear Terry, Just a few lines to let you hear from me am doing fine hope you are O.K. It sure has turn hot hear today Robert garden is real pretty The peas are in bloom. All my children are OK Dot and Anne have been to Florida and stayed a week I haven’t saw them since they got back but I have talk to them several times All the rest of the family are OK. Sherry is working in Nashville she is making six hundred a month said she has to type most all the time Marty works for Purity Milk Co in Nashville, Claud workes for the same company two and Tracy is in school, Kennett works in Brentwood for a Dentist fixing teeth, Charlie is in school and and is playing Ball two They played last nite but I don’t know how they come out over (“over” meant “turn the page over”) hope you have a good time but don’t stay two long. haven’t seen Glenn and Honor (my parents) since Mother day have got to get this in mail so be sweet and write…let me hear from you and don’t stay away two long. I love you. Ma Hattie.”
I’m proud to be Hattie Stovall Huff’s grandson. I moved back to Tennessee before the end of 1979. Ma Hattie began her decline into dementia soon after I returned. Eventually, she moved into a skilled nursing facility. When I visited her one day, she was lying in bed, unable to walk. She asked me whose boy I was. Then she reached up to touch my beard and said, “Cut them whiskers off; you look like an old man!” She smiled when I told her she just needed an excuse to touch the beard. The last thing I recall her saying to me was this: “I’ll get up in a minute and go to the kitchen to get you something to eat.”
Driving home last night, I heard NPR “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross interviewing poet Molly McCully Brown, author of The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, a book of poetry that “explores themes of disability, eugenics, and faith.” I caught only the end of the interview while driving, but was so moved that when I arrived home, I logged onto NPR and heard the entire interview.
Link to listen to the entire interview: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/08/14/543362834/poet-imagines-life-inside-a-1910-institution-that-eugenics-built
What I had heard at the end was the author’s expression of appreciation for her brain. She has cerebral palsy. “Everything that is wrong with my body is a consequence of my brain,” she said. She added that it is “the same brain that has delivered me so many of the things that are most joyful in my life…that are useful and wonderful about who I am as a person.” The “ongoing project” of her life, she said, is grappling with “the simultaneous truth of both of those things.”
Because of her gross motor impairment, tight hamstrings, tight heel-strings, and crouched gait, Molly McCully Brown’s body “announces itself to the world” when she walks. She is most often in a wheelchair. When you listen to her poetry in this interview, you will observe the wonderful gift of that same brain that affects her gait and mobility.
You probably know what announces your ADHD to the world. The same brain that is impulsive, mindless, unfocused, and moody is also spontaneous, uncensored, creative, and spirited. The more competent you are, as the author is with her gift of poetic expression, the less your difference will matter. That is one good reason to find your passion and pursue it, to experience the joy of being.
Do you work long hours and feel like you are working harder than others? Is it because you love your work, because you have trouble saying no, because you work inefficiently…or all of the above?
Writing a book was easier for me than writing progress notes after a day of psychotherapy sessions, but both created problems. Writing a book involved long stretches of laser-focused attention on a project of my choosing, which was stimulating at the time. But the intense focus on one task contributed to losing awareness of time, other priorities, and other people. I would practically forget that I had a spouse and a cat until I encountered one of them on the way to the bathroom. Writing progress notes, on the other hand, involves multiple breaks in the action, allowing time for my awareness to shift to “I’m hungry!” or “I’m about to miss the news!” or “I forgot to return a call to the client I was just writing about!” There seems to be no in-between for us…nothing between excessive focus and excessive distraction.
Working in large offices in my early years, I was most productive when working late. When co-workers and clerical staff were gone, and there were no distractions or interruptions, I worked more efficiently and got more done. But getting home late every night created other problems. Are you finding ways to decrease or eliminate interruptions and distractions while others are still around?
I recall once asking an engineer who had too many bosses how he could stop them from interrupting his workflow, and he solved the problem like an engineer. He asked that everyone with an urgent request (and they were all urgent) write the request on an index card and pen it to his bulletin board beneath the most recent request. His colleagues, previously unaware of how many urgent requests he was getting daily, could see them all at once, and they became more respectful of his priorities.
Managing tasks and priorities requires spending some time in an open state of awareness before jumping into a focused state. Adults with ADHD often don’t think of prioritizing and planning as working. We tend instead to jump right into tasks willy nilly without a plan. You may have an aversion to it, but the most basic plan before starting a project can contribute to seamlessly staying on task.
In their Book, The Couple’s Guide to Thriving with ADHD, Melissa Orlov and Nancie Kohlenberger offer some tips for “balancing work and life.” They suggest that if we don’t achieve that balance, we are likely to have problems in our relationships. And God knows we don’t need to create more problems!