Those of us with ADHD know very well that we are different from the majority, and we have every reason to fly our freak flags proudly. I feel an urgent need in these challenging times—after the recent tragedy in Orlando—to shout out that gay lives matter! I’m proud to be receiving invitations to wedding receptions from gay and lesbian friends just beginning to enjoy the benefits of marriage that I’ve had for over 36 years. It’s long overdue. Lifelong commitment between loving partners is a family value that is good for all of us. And I’m proud that ADDNashville embraces diversity in our support group family.
As we near the end of Pride Month and approach Independence Day, let’s celebrate our collective identity as members of one American family—brothers and sisters of different faiths, nationalities, races, and biological makeups. I’m proud to be part of a diverse culture where colors of the rainbow comprise one spectrum…where everyone has a seat at the table…where we can stand united.
Let’s stand together, continue to accept and support one another, and oppose misguided efforts to divide us. On Independency Day, I plan to celebrate our country’s independence, and equally important, the interdependence of our human family. We have to accept the truth that there is suffering all around us…if we wish to heal it. Alienation is not healing. We all belong.
I opened my lap top this morning, and it immediately tried to direct my attention. “Ding…you have 15 messages.” I almost took the bait! If I had gone there, you wouldn’t be reading this! I would not only have checked my messages, I would have replied to some of them…maybe even followed some links and read some interesting articles. And then I would have looked at the clock and shouted out some expletive! “I’m going to be late! Where the (blank) did the time go?”
Where does time go? What a funny and useless thing to say. Time doesn’t go anywhere; your attention is what travels. You can direct it or be pulled downstream. You can paddle your boat if you choose, but to do so, you have to be aware of awareness. That is what mindfulness means. To pause and step back before going into that focused state where you easily get stuck—especially with preferred activity that grabs and holds your attention, like email.
If you want to learn some simple and effective ways to pause and reset your attention, check out Casey Dixon’s mindfullyadd.com. There is a small fee that is worth paying, as you will save yourself time and counterproductive energy.
So, next time my blog pops up in your email, feel free to pause and say to yourself, “I’ll save it and read it after work.” But what did you do after you read the title? I know…believe me…I know. And now you’re going to be late!
“There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage,” says Barbara Ehrenreich, referring to those who signed the Declaration of Independence, which was a life-risking act (Ehrenreich wrote this in her book, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America). Those courageous individuals were visionaries and realists, trying to get something done, putting their values and their lives on the line. They were not idealists who thought that positive thinking would get the job done. I have some disagreements with some of Ehrenreich’s assumptions, but I agree with the essence of her message, that authenticity is more important than “positive thinking.”
Mindful awareness is often associated with notions of positive thinking, and with being calm, centered, and perpetually happy. But accepting all that is true in any given moment means accepting some truths that are not very pretty. There are dark and grim truths that we have to live with. Life is like that. It is unhealthy to close our eyes to the dark realities and wish only for the bright ones. The pushback makes life harder than necessary, whereas acceptance brings peace.
Some people confuse acceptance with complacency. But accepting that some things are not to be tolerated can compel us to take action. For example, we cannot be aware of injustice, and accepting of human interdependence, and be unaffected by injustice. We often experience peace when we relieve suffering. But one’s internal experience of peace is a byproduct rather than a goal.
If you practice meditation just to feel better, you won’t. You have no reason to feel better or worse than you feel. But inflexible thinking can make you feel angry or anxious. Suspending certainty in your thoughts and being flexible, on the other hand, are antidotes to what Daniel Goleman calls destructive emotions (in his book, Destructive Emotions).
If you are using meditation like a drug, trying to rid yourself of uncomfortable feelings, you will only learn to be uncomfortable with discomfort. And you will circumvent insight by being excessively concerned with your feelings. None of us has transcended illness, aging, and death! But if your effort is simply to connect with the truth of your experience, with other people, and with all of life, then your mindfulness practice can shape your values and help you live with intention and purpose. And if you live a conscious life, you are likely to experience the peace you were seeking with your unreasonably positive thinking!
Alain de Botton has something constructive to say about marriage in his New York Times article, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” He says that “compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition” (Italics mine). View the full article at http://nyti.ms/25piD1a.
My wife was nuts to agree to marriage six months after meeting me. But thirty-six years of experience with each other has given us confidence that we can figure out how to tolerate our differences and disagree skillfully. Neither of us has an easy partner, but we know how to deal with each other’s craziness.
If you have ADHD, you may wish your partner would be more accepting of your differences. If your partner is still with you, then perhaps you got your wish. If you have trouble tolerating your partner’s frustration with your symptoms, then perhaps you could be more accepting.
You may be especially sensitive to your mate’s frustration with you. I get that…trust me! But frustration is not banishment. You cannot engineer your partner’s response to your symptoms, and your partner cannot remake you to be the ideal spouse (de Botton says there is no such thing), but both of you can practice being skillful partners.
Skillful partners are neither defensive when confronted, nor contemptuous when confronting their spouse. Allowing influence is good for your partnership, and therefore good for you. When you allow influence, you will have influence.
I have been exploring what professionals have written about shame, and I came across this paragraph from an article in Psychology Today (July, 2013) entitled, “How Compassion Can Heal Shame from Childhood,” by Beverly Engel, LMFT”:
“Until a few years ago, the subject of self-compassion had never been formally studied. But recently there has been some breakthrough research done on self-compassion by researcher and social psychologist Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin. Among other things, Neff discovered that self-compassion can act as an antidote to self-criticism—a major characteristic of those who experience intense shame. It was found that self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. Self-criticism, on the other hand, has a very different effect on our body. The amygdala, the oldest part of the brain, is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment. When we experience a threatening situation, the fight-or-flight response is triggered and the amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol, mobilizing the strength and energy needed to confront or avoid the treat. Although this system was designed by evolution to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks—from ourselves and others. Over time increased cortisol levels lead to depression by depleting the various neurotransmitters involved in the ability to experience pleasure.“
It is challenging to practice self-compassion when someone misunderstands and berates you, but awareness of who you are and who you’re not can only come from within. Your work is not to change others, but to know yourself. You might not be able to correct inaccurate notions that others have about you, but those notions don’t define you. That is why the first chapter in my book is “Who You Are and Who You’re Not.” No one but you can be an expert on what is inside you.
Imagine going to a professional who doesn’t get all the subtleties of ADHD, and he begins by assigning tasks that he believes will improve your daily functioning. You think his ideas are good ones, but you either forget them, or you don’t prioritize the tasks and don’t get them done. You are embarrassed and feel as if you are letting the therapist down. It doesn’t take much to trigger our shame. That is why I don’t begin there.
If you fail at implementing a therapist’s practical suggestions, you may appear—either to yourself or your therapist—as if you are unmotivated. But there you are, seeking help to improve the quality of your life, which suggests that you are motivated.
It is easy for you to buy the notion that you are not good enough as you are, that you should be better than you are. It is my contention that you are unlikely to actualize your vision if you feel you are not yet capable, that you first have to have a much improved brain, and you should first become like the other 95%. When we get too focused on becoming, we lose awareness of being. Being exceptional is being different, and if you want to do something exceptional, dare to be different.
When I thought I needed to become like the image I had of a “real author” before starting to write a book, I couldn’t start. When I decided to start without undue concern that I was unqualified, unlikely to finish, and highly unlikely to get a publishing deal, I was able to start and sustain my effort. I was doing nothing extraordinary, just mindfully engaging in pleasurable activity every time I permitted myself to write. And my ADHD defiant streak helped me activate…as I was going to write what I damn well pleased!
The practice of mindfulness is more about being than becoming. It involves acceptance and compassion for oneself, which is a good foundation for acceptance and compassion for others.
I had some interesting meetings last week with advocates in the Northwest. The leader of a CHADD-affiliated support group in Portland, Oregon has an interesting history. Glenn was one of a minority in his unit in Viet Nam who survived brutal combat. After a year in the infantry, he became a medic, initially on the ground and later on a helicopter. Medics on the ground were easy targets, as they had to move around under fire to try and rescue their wounded comrades. I could tell right away that Glenn has a big heart and can identify with the emotional pain of his ADHD peers. His support group is mostly a discussion group (vs. a speaker group) where participants share their personal challenges with ADHD and support one another.
On another day, in another city, I met with Dr. Thom Field, a native of the UK and a neuropsychologist in Seattle. Dr. Field’s important research and writing are mostly about the use of neuroscience in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. He has a personal meditation practice. He was interested in how our support group works, and I was glad to describe what we have created together in Nashville. As we said goodbye, Dr. Field acknowledged being in the ADHD family. He asked permission to quote me in his new book.
On Friday, I met with a physician in Seattle who specializes in treating adults with ADHD. Dr. Angela Heithaus has ADHD and has two sons with the disorder. She has a large collection of ADHD books and told me that she came to the practice of treating adults with ADHD by way of primary care. She works with a few therapists in her suite. Dr. Heithaus clearly is dedicated to enhancing the lives of adults wired like us. I was a bit envious of her office, the east window of which is all glass and overlooks the Puget Sound.
A few of my books have been sold in Canada. And an Amazon help desk operator in the Philippines asked me one night if my book is available on Kindle. She wants to read it. She helped me cancel the accidental purchase of my own book. I swear I have no idea how that happened. After buying three books on mindfulness, I reviewed my purchases and somehow had bought my own book! Perhaps I should write a review of it, or even better, I should write an article and title it “Mindless in Seattle!” : )
I remember basic training back in 1968 when my drill sergeant would get in the face of anyone who was out of step when marching. “Pull your head out!” he would yell. He never had to yell at me because yelling at others affected me, alerting me to sustain attention to my stride.
If you have ADHD, you have trouble pulling your head out–unplugging from whatever has hold of your attention. You get distracted because you have trouble inhibiting your attention, just as hyperactive types have trouble inhibiting action. When you use a camera, you don’t just click the button randomly; you point your lens toward something, and you zoom in or out.
We’ve all been told in so many words to pull our heads out. So, what is the opposite of having your attention locked up, mindlessly stuck on whatever is on the radar in the moment? We hardly know what open awareness is because we spend little time there.
I just completed a 3-day meditation retreat where I watched my brain for hours as it wanted to lock in on a thought and then follow a chain of related thoughts. Try watching your brain that long without getting bored! My job was to recognize what I was doing and then return to silence without judgment. My brain wanted to chase every thought, including thoughts about chasing thoughts! But once the wheels slowed down, my awareness opened up. Eventually, I could observe emotions, sensations, sounds, and even the emergence of a thought without thinking and analyzing the observations. Achieving simple awareness is like emptying a glass so there is room to put something fresh in it.
Sustaining awareness to fleeting thoughts, feelings, sensations, and sounds, without attaching to any of them, takes a lot of practice. I attribute the difficulty I had at the retreat to having just spent two years writing a book. Writing a book-length manuscript requires extraordinary focus. It has taken me months to pull my head out of that hyper-focused state, and my brain is still inclined to rebound back into it.
You don’t have to attend a meditation retreat to pull your head out, although the practice of meditation makes it a little easier. You can turn off devices, sit on your porch without your cell phone or laptop, get away from noise, and return to silence as many times as it takes to experience silence as a compassionate friend. Returning to silence gets you to the “observation deck” where you can see your inner and outer worlds more clearly–what your brain is doing and how the world around you appears.
A wise old meditation teacher often said to his students, “Just notice.”
Today was a great day for bicycle riding…sunny and warm. I took a different route from the roads I normally travel. I was pumping hard and fast when I heard a dog’s bark getting progressively closer. Then I spotted him, sprinting across a deep front lawn…toward me, and I could hear his owners pleading with him not to attack me. I was picking up my speed when suddenly he darted in front of my bike, within a foot of my front tire, and into the center of the street. Then he circled around the back of my bike and aimed for my right foot. He was so fast that I didn’t expect to get away from him…and then BANG! He collided with a mailbox!
I told that story to my wife when I returned home, and you know what she asked me?
“Was the dog okay?”
Research shows that there is a higher incidence of crashes with ADHD, and the likelihood is four times greater that the one with ADHD is at fault. So, isn’t that sufficient evidence of canine ADHD?
In one recent ADDNashville meeting, I read a passage from Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016). Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon at Stanford who had advanced degrees in English literature and philosophy, wrote his book after his cancer diagnosis.
If you are like me, a visual processor, you may need to see the passage in print. I had to read it several times, and let it sit in my brain for a while to fully digest it. The passage is worth repeating here:
“I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans–i.e., “human relationality”–that undergirded meaning.”
What relevance does this have for those of us with ADHD? Someone in our group wisely asked this question. Since we are prone to communication challenges, those very challenges may have a negative impact on our relationships. If a word has something to do with relationship and meaning, and our speech is impulsive, or we get lost in our stories and appear detached from the listener, or we get distracted as listener and misread the speaker’s intention, or we speak unclearly and our words are misunderstood, then our relationships may suffer.
This is why I wrote the third chapter in Living Well with ADHD: “Attentive Listening and Mindful Speaking.” We need to develop and sharpen our communication skills in order to have that depth of relationship with others, what Paul Kalanithi says “undergirds meaning.” We need to learn and practice mindful listening and speaking if we wish not to miss out on the real substance of life.
Kalanithi was very much alive until his last day. His words, and his example of how to live to the end, are priceless gifts that he gave to his family and his readers. He was 36 years old when his life ended. “You can’t ever reach perfection,” he said, “but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”