Where Are the Black Teenagers with ADHD?

I know a 13-year-old who just entered the juvenile justice system, a revolving door for many minority kids with neurological differences. My hope is that this kid’s dual diagnosis of ADHD and a mood disorder will be his ticket to appropriate mental health services. His needs will not be met in juvenile detention.

I have known other African American kids with undiagnosed ADHD who have gotten into trouble at school, labeled precipitously as defiant—and seldom as hyperactive and impulsive. After repeated experiences of being misunderstood and feeling disrespected, they sometimes learn defiance in defense of their dignity. I read recently that more black kids are being diagnosed now, but they are seldom getting the help they need. 

Many years ago, I went to a middle school to help with an eighth grader’s individualized education plan (IEP). Teachers at this meeting were responsive to the mother’s concerns, and they constructed a thoughtful plan. As this productive meeting was about to end, the principal dropped in—a black principal—and he contributed just one thing: that this student’s only problem was “laziness.” Fortunately, no one there seemed to agree with him. He had not been part of the discussion about the student’s experiences and needs.

The following year, in the ninth grade, this same student “talked back” to a teacher who had embarrassed him, calling him out in front of his classmates. He was suspended for his reaction to her hurtful action. I asked him what was wrong with this picture: “A teacher speaks disrespectfully to you, and she gets to remain at school and get paid; then you react disrespectfully to her disrespect and get sent home.” He replied with a smile, “Terry, I hate it when you are right!” Those were his exact words.

Those are not words of a kid who values disrespecting a teacher, but a kid—a brilliant kid in my opinion—who was uncensored and sensitive to being disrespected. He longed to be understood and valued. An important person in his life explicitly favored his little brother, something his teachers probably didn’t know. One day a teacher “felt threatened” by him. He was a big kid with a big voice, and like his mom, he was assertive. The teacher was afraid of him. He was defiant and she wanted him expelled.

This impulsive young man had a gift. He was a budding artist, funny as any standup comedian I’ve seen, and a creative hip-hop lyricist. He needed encouragement but got mostly criticism from people he wished to please. He was like a flower needing food and water to blossom.

As an eighth-grader, one of his paintings was displayed at the Cheekwood Museum after placing third in a statewide art competition. In the ninth grade he was expelled from high school. He learned to dislike school. Imagine that!

Remembering That You Forget

I have some ideas for living well with a poor working memory. First, allow me to park those ideas temporarily while I share a definition of working memory.

From MedicineNet.com: “Working memory is a system for temporarily storing and managing the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension. Working memory is involved in the selection, initiation, and termination of information-processing functions such as encoding, storing, and retrieving data.” You will find an excellent and more detailed explanation of working memory at wikipedia.org.

Working memory is an active, present-time process. Like very short-term parking, it allows you to briefly park information—while you shift your attention to other relevant information—and then bring back the parked information as needed to complete the task at hand. You use it when you cook from a recipe or assemble an item with complex instructions.

Did you remember that I have ideas to share about living well with a poor working memory?

Working memory also allows you to coordinate multiple tasks. You might need to pause a conversation when leaving a restaurant to look around for items you brought with you without losing the thread of the conversation. Since your working memory doesn’t work well, you should know that it is socially acceptable to ask the person you’re talking with to “hold that thought” while you scan the environment for your keys and phone. This allows you to use the other person’s memory instead of relying on the unreliable—yours.

To employ a consistent ritual for departure from a restaurant, you will need some kind of prompt to exit your selective attention (from your conversation) and turn on your open awareness (to your surroundings). Standing up to leave could serve as your cue to scan the immediate environment and check your pockets or your purse. I check for lumps in my pockets (keys, wallet, phone) before departure from home or from any place I visit. Still, there is no guarantee that you will remember to use the strategy because of your attention inconsistency.

So, here is a complimentary strategy to further increase the chance that you will not leave something behind. When departing a restaurant, take your time and walk very slowly and deliberately to your car. This strategy worked for me last Saturday. I was leaving a restaurant to go a nearby Barnes & Noble bookstore to sign copies of Living Well with ADHD. My wife and her brother were already getting into my car while I was ambling behind, continuing my conversation with a friend. I was half way to the car when our server came jogging toward me from the restaurant with an object in his hand, yelling to me: “Sir, you forgot your phone!”

Love the Brain You’re With

I have nothing but respect for those professionals who are helping us eat better, exercise more consistently, have a bedtime, and meditate daily. It makes us better. Hats off to the organized and compassionate people who are willing to help us…without condescension.

Still, these useful tips that improve us don’t “cure” ADHD. And although there is no cure—just as there is no cure for creativity—ADHD is not responsible for how we feel about its features, nor how we respond to the response of those affected by us. We are all capable of accepting of our brains and the effects of ADHD on others. Most of all, we can express gratitude to those who understand and accept us as we are. And we need to accept us as we are!

Accepting your relationship partner includes allowing her/him to notice what you are not seeing. Why would you not want to add missing pieces to the picture? Instead of responding with, “Stop acting like you’re my parent,” you might consider responding like an adult and say, “Thanks for understanding and caring enough to be helpful.”

I can tell a difference in my daily functioning when I’m not practicing mediation daily. The negative effects inform me, and the remaining challenge is to put the wheels back on the tracks without harsh self-criticism. If I have suffered from negative effects of neglecting to meditate yesterday, I can mediate today!

I am far more mindful than when I was first diagnosed with ADHD at age 44. But I learned just yesterday morning that I’m still capable of washing my checkbook. The good news is that the permanent press cycle is not as hot as the normal cycle, which is why the cover survived and is still usable. There is more good news: My bank manager proudly called late yesterday, following my inquiry, to inform me that she had printed a copy of all those checks! Those sanitized and indecipherable carbon copies of my checks were replaced…same day! Best of all, there was no judgment…by them or me! Okay, just a little by me, but I didn’t allow much thought to be wasted over it.

Living well with ADHD doesn’t mean being less ADHD. It means doing your best with the brain you were born with. And if you can’t be with the brain you love, love the brain you’re with!

Tennessee Tag: “IAMLATE”

My wife and I were returning home from a recent author event when she spotted a license plate on the back of a car that read, “IAMLATE.” It was on the back of a sporty white convertible, idling at a red light, just one lane to the left and in front of us. A woman was at the wheel. I tried to get my iPhone out of my pocket to snap a picture, which I imagined inserting into my next blog…this blog.

But the light turned green before I could get the phone out. My wife said, “Just follow her!” and I tried my best to keep up.

I could see her for a while, weaving in and out of traffic up ahead, like a NASCAR driver, heading toward the late afternoon sun. I weaved as well, but my wife critiqued that I was not driving as aggressively as the woman we were chasing. I still can’t figure out how she got so far out of sight so quickly, but it occurred to me why she was trying so hard…she was late!!!

Good Night!

Do you have a consistent bedtime, or do you just keep going until you are no longer able to stay awake? I battled this problem much of my life and still struggle with it at times. There were times, when writing my book, that I would go to bed only after my head began dipping suddenly toward my laptop.

Late at night, when silence and solitude replace distractions and obligations, you are undeterred in initiating a preferred activity. Although you put off starting manageable tasks that feel imposing, it is easy to activate your attention with a preferred interest. The preferred activity grabs hold, and suddenly, the bliss of your selective attention hijacks almost every region of your unmanaged brain.

You are not going to be interrupted late at night, and that feels so good! Am I right? And your attention doesn’t need to be managed when locked into one state of awareness. Fully submerged into that intensively focused state, you feel competent. You can do anything…except track time and consider the consequences of choosing to push the limit. Nothing else is on the radar. And even if something else appeared on the radar, it would not be flagged as important! If some thought about needing sleep should surface somewhere in a remote corner of your brain, you might counter that your medicine will help you stay alert the next day.

It may not occur to you that using your medication to recover from loss of sleep is drug abuse. Your doctor didn’t prescribe it to help you pull all-nighters! In fact, if you use it for recovery from depriving yourself of sleep, you may as well be taking one pill to make your ADHD worse and another to make it better. At best, the medicine might bring you back up to just below your normal ADHD baseline, but YOU WILL NOT BE TREATING YOUR ADHD. You will know it the next day, but the next day is some other time and not now. You are a prisoner of the present (borrowing a phrase from John Ratey’s, Shadow Syndromes).

There can be other reasons for your difficulty getting to sleep or remaining asleep through the night. Sleep insufficiency can result from excessive movement when sleeping (restless legs syndrome), staring at a screen late at night (reducing your brain’s natural melatonin), being exposed to excessive noise late in the evening, having a co-existing condition (anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, addiction, sleep apnea), living a sedentary lifestyle, taking too high a dosage of ADHD medication, or taking medication too late in the day.

It is best to have a regular bedtime and allow some quiet time before getting into bed. Exercise and meditation are especially good for enhancing the quality of your sleep. Meditation can help you be more aware of your state of attention. If you are serious about living well with ADHD—with or without medication—you need to be serious about getting adequate sleep. Give it up…shut it down…say good night!

Good night.

Fly Your Freak Flag on Independence Day!

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.

Don’t Read This Now!

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! 

Some Negative Thoughts about Positive Thinking

“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!

Want an Ideal Spouse or a Skillful Partner?

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.  

Shame and Self-Compassion

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.

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