Seeing Ourselves from a Distance

Great novelists are teachers of life lessons. Viet Thanh Nguyen is a master of metaphor and simile, and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Sympathizer. In an interrogation scene, he describes the problem of being too close to one’s experience to see it. 

…for we are the ones most able to know ourselves and yet the ones most unable to know ourselves. It’s as if our noses are pressed up against the pages of a book, the words right in front of us but which we cannot read. Just as distance is needed for legibility, so is it that if we could only split ourselves in two and gain some distance from ourselves, we could see ourselves better than anyone else can.

Reading this passage reminds me of how we can be so unaware of the effects of ADHD symptoms on others. We may be too nearsighted. To see our experience as others might observe it requires mental flexibility. To learn from our missteps requires the courage to observe our missteps with an open mind and tolerate feelings of embarrassment without retreating. 

We can be so single-mindedly focused that we lose awareness of what is on the periphery of our selective attention. We can seem inconsiderate, not because we don’t care, but because we lose awareness too easily. For example, we can be so focused on a story we are telling that we don’t notice that the listener has other things to do. I was speaking to the owner of a restaurant last week who had other customers besides me…imagine that! It was one occasion when my wife and part-time attention manager should have kicked me under the table. I was on a roll when my listener interrupted me to get back to work. 

The mindful speaking deficit for adults with ADHD is this: following our own thoughts while speaking, and trying to be succinct, requires extra mental effort and selective attention. We lose the big picture when we are too focused at the wrong time. For sure, engaging with others is where life happens, but it is not all that is happening. To someone whose selective attention is locked in place, it is all that is happening.

Our attention needs a manager, the absence of which is central to the disorder. There is no deficit of attention, just a deficiency in attention management. That is why boosting dopamine with medicine can help. It wakes up the manager. 

Maintaining some kind of daily practice of mindfulness can help us to be mindful of where we are directing our attention, and whether we are even directing it at all. But it does not cure ADHD. I’m at my best when I wake up in the morning and say to myself, “Today I have ADHD.” 

Remembering Forgetfulness

I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room yesterday morning, waiting for a routine checkup and making a list of medicines and supplements that I take routinely. I’m now taking only Celebrex, vitamin D, and one other supplement whose name I could not remember…the one I take for memory problems. I had forgotten to take it yesterday. Imagine that!

A few years ago while writing Living Well with ADHD, I was browsing books on my shelves, searching for information that might be pertinent for a chapter I was developing. I came upon a book I had not read. I wasn’t sure where it came from. After pondering the question and skimming a few pages, I vaguely remembered purchasing it, but I did not recall when. The book was useful, and I’m glad I searched and found it. The title: In Search of Memory. I’m not making this stuff up! 

Tomorrow morning, as today, I will wake up with ADHD, and it will be Groundhog day again. I need to remember that I forget! Maybe I will write the following message on a post-it note and put it on my bathroom mirror: “Remember that you forget!” I should write a note to myself right now, reminding me to write the reminder on a post-it note tonight. First, I have to go buy some post-it notes. I will add that to my expanding to-do list, one that keeps growing faster with additions than shrinking with deletions.

I was seconds from posting this blog when my MacBook’s power went off. I had forgotten–only minutes after seeing a warning that the battery was low–that the battery was low. So it goes. It is charging now, and I am imagining how nice it would be if I could recharge my biological memory! 

Wise Effort

Pushing back against uncomfortable feelings is unwise for two reasons: (1) there is no switch that turns them off, and (2) trying and failing to squelch them makes them worse. Wisdom is knowing how to relate to them. 

Being anxious about anxiety compounds anxiety. Being angry at yourself for getting angry obstructs learning to act skillfully when angry. Thinking you are worthless for having low self-esteem is practicing low self-esteem. 

I think of emotions as the color of life, hence the title of chapter nine in my book, Living Well with ADHD. There is a certain beauty in the full range of emotion. Watching a sunset brings on what you may label as a “good feeling,” and it is no less fleeting than a “bad feeling.” Having a friendly relationship with an uncomfortable feeling allows you to learn from your experience; whereas, believing that it is a problem leads to unwise effort and more discomfort, not less. For example, revenge may bring temporary comfort, but vengeful thought and action feeds anger in the long run. Self-defeating action usually follows. 

Realistic and non-judgmental appraisal in the face of momentary discomfort is wisdom. Labeling feelings as good or bad is just extra thinking. The labeling doesn’t change anything for the better. You can feel bad about a mistake or failure without questioning your worth. You can only start (or re-start) right where you are. Accepting the uncomfortable feeling allows you to put the wheels back on the tracks promptly without unnecessary suffering.  

Judging performance is not the same as judging the self. If you cannot accept the discomfort of a disappointing performance, you will not learn anything from it. If the “self” is to blame, you will either criticize that self, or feel sorry for the poor thing…neither is productive.

What is the self anyway? It helps me to think of “self” as my own construction, an image I’ve created, one that I sometimes color with certainty about what others are thinking. After all, I’m an expert on what other people are thinking about me at any given time…aren’t you? Embracing certainty about what others are thinking is an example of unwise effort.

Uncomfortable feelings have value and should be respected. If you can be curious about them, and get up close enough to notice what those sensations really are, you might discover that they that are actually tolerable. In a sense, they are empty of content except for your conjecture. The notion that they are intolerable is just something you say to yourself while tolerating them.

Try this: Next time you get a shot or have blood drawn, turn your attention toward the needle’s prick instead of away from it. Get up close and discover what the nature of your pain actually is when you allow it. You just might relate differently to it, even though that brief insertion of a needle is no different than before. 

Feelings are just feelings. When you try not to have them, you will think and act unskillfully. “If you’re not willing to have them, you will,” says Steven Hayes, author of Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Willingness to experience life fully requires acceptance of your experience as it is…including your feelings as they are. 

Your Personal Experience

Can you recall times in your life when someone presumed to be an expert on your experience, or your intentions? You didn’t listen to me because you don’t care…you would have remembered if it had been important to you…you hurt me on purpose.

I recall a moment when I knew with certainty that no one in the universe shared my personal experience, only similar experiences. Standing beside my brother on a spring day in 2011, minutes after our father had taken his last breath, I awakened to the reality of a private experience that would never be repeated. I hadn’t just lost my dad; I had lost a relationship that no one else had. As close as the three of us were, I didn’t have my brother’s relationship with our father, and he didn’t have mine.

My brother and I spoke at our father’s memorial service, describing the same person from our different experiences. I felt a special connection to my brother that day, recalling precious moments in our shared history. It was the same history, but not the same experience. Furthermore, each person attending the funeral stood alone with a personal experience of my father. And as we stood together in respect for a life that we knew from the outside, not one of us was an expert on my father’s personal experiences.

Married for 62 years, Mom knew Dad better than anyone. She knew when he was worried about something. I could never tell…he tried not to show it…but her experience informed her of the signs. Still, her experience was not his. His efforts not to appear worried may have been his way of protecting her. I cannot be certain about his motives.

The next time someone shares their expertise about your intentions, you can try, if you wish, to comprehend why thy are so certain. You might even ask, “What makes you think that?” Confidence in your personal experience can help you avoid being defensive or angry in response. You can be curious instead, which may help the speaker suspend certainty, or make you aware of something useful. Practicing mindful awareness…of self and other…and keeping an open and flexible mind, are good for your relationships and your emotional wellbeing.

Mindless Language

We don’t hear ourselves speak when our brains are on automatic pilot, which is most of the time. It happens to all of us. My morning meditation practice now includes observing a feeling of annoyance rising within me when I hear superfluous language.  

Two presidents, the previous and the current, have influenced our speech in a subtle way that challenges my equanimity. One of them often said, “Look…” as he began to answer a question. The other has coined annoying verbs, like “hugely.” 

Now, I’m hearing intelligent people on the entire tiny spectrum of political discourse using both. When someone begins an answer with “Look…” I find myself thinking, “Look at what?…I was listening until you said, ‘look’!” It makes me anticipate a lecture, and I want to tune out.

When I hear people using fake adverbs, I think, “Why not use a real word and demonstrate that you have a vocabulary?” Who needs adverbs anyway? Adverbs are just hyperbolic symbols, like exclamation marks! The current president is hugely hyperbolic! And so annoying! 

I made the mistake this morning of believing that early voting meant early. All I could find online showing the time of day said early voting starts at 7 a.m. “in most locations.” The website for my local library, the early voting location for my district, showed the dates and not the times. This was my second trip to vote early. Last week, the line was too long…as long as my to-do list. 

When I arrived at the library early this morning, coffee in hand, I read the times on a sign: “Early voting, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.” I got back home at 7:15…in time to eat an early breakfast. 

I Can’t Help Myself

The Four Tops had a song in the 60’s titled, “I can’t Help Myself.” I Ioved that song when I was an adolescent…still do. But the adult version of me has developed an aversion to helplessness. I don’t want to hear myself saying, I have ADHD and I can’t help being impatient…I can’t help being late…I can’t help interrupting others…I can’t help tuning others out, or as Elvis sang, I can’t help falling in love with you. (Footnote: As a teenager, I “fell in love” with (1) pretty girls who didn’t like me, and (2) songs that made me feel sorry for myself!)

I can help myself. To become a responsible adult, I had to give up trying harder to be like the other 95%—the neurotypicals—and incorporate a new mindset, “Try another way.”

I once asked a high school pitcher, a star on his baseball team, this question: “If you didn’t have a right arm, would you try to use it?” He was relying on his unreliable memory, misplacing appointment cards and telling himself that he would remember the appointment. I told him that the memory in his phone was more reliable than the appointment cards, and more trustworthy than the differently-wired brain beneath his baseball cap. He agreed. He couldn’t deny it.

I learned a valuable lesson from a clerical worker at my first mental health clinic job. I was about 22 years old then and complaining on a rainy day that there was no place to park near the building. She said, “Who do you think you are? We all have to park where we can.” 

I’m not entitled for any reason. Relinquishing responsibility because I have ADHD will not prevent consequences for my negligence. I get stopped for speeding when I deserve to be stopped. I get a penalty for late payments on bills when I postpone paying them. I experience effects of my wife’s hurt feelings when I am inattentive, or when I forget an important event.

I can help myself. It is no one else’s obligation to do my work or clean up my messes.

Helping yourself starts with acknowledging your brain difference and accepting yourself, as you are, with the compassion you would grant to a close friend. Billy Joel sang, I love you just the way you are. He didn’t add…and now change yourself. Instead, he said, Don’t go changing to try and please me. Changing behavior and habits is not the same as changing the self. Embrace yourself, and it will be much easier to change habits and patterns of behavior.  

It is okay to be different. Fly your freak flag proudly, but don’t embrace “can’t help myself.” 

ADHD Awareness Month

For years I thought ADHD Awareness Month was November. Imagine that…I was only one month late! And I used to think of it as an oxymoron, as “inattention” and “awareness” are incompatible concepts. 

In all seriousness, too many people don’t understand what ADHD is, and some people still doubt that it is a thing…despite the science. Some people still believe that it is only a childhood disorder and that kids grow out of it. There is some reason for that misunderstanding. There is nothing in pediatric mental health that has been researched more than ADHD, but research in adult ADHD is relatively new. For nearly thirty years, we have used mostly children’s criteria for diganosing adults. There are important differences. 

Researchers continue to debate whether we should have an age-of-onset criterion for diagnosing ADHD. Until recently, the symptoms had to be present before age seven. Increasing the age of onset still doesn’t capture every adult with the disorder. The sypmtoms sometimes are not evident until well into adulthood. Symptoms must impair daily functioning in some way, but they might not have impairing effects until the features intersect with increasing complexities in life. For example, entering college may be the first time symptoms become evident. Entering a career, a marriage, or parenthood may be the first time symptoms impair functioning. 

When the symptoms arrive at that intersection…that life transition…adults with undiagnosed ADHD wonder what happened…or their spouses wonder what happened. How does one lose competence suddenly? The onset of symptoms wasn’t sudden…the life transition was…and they met at the intersection. 

Sometimes we are just too defensive about having these features, even after a professional diagnosis, to adapt effectively in life transitions. Those who are less defensive do better. That is why my mission has been to help adults with ADHD accept their different brains in order to live well with them. There is much to gain, and nothing to lose, by being open to a fresh perspective on what we call an attention deficit disorder.

We would be better served calling it an attention management disorder. Effective attention management requires inhibiting a surplus of attention. Lacking an effecive attention manager, our brains are trying to attend to too much. No one can do that well enough to attend effectively to one thing at a time. That is why we can feel overwhelmed by tasks that we think should be manageable. 

I have been embarrased when my symptoms have caused problems for me, or for others around me. That is why I believe we must learn to tolerate the discomfort of embarrassment. If we can to that, we are better able to develop new skills, incorporate new strategies, use new tools, and work more skillfully with others. The alterntive is to deny the disorder and underachieve, or harm our relationships. 

Let’s continue to educate others about the reality of ADHD in adults. If you want to arm yourself with facts, read ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says, by Barkley, Murphy, and Fischer. I would suggest reading the results and summaries, as the chapters are structured like professional journal articles…boring in style and important in content. 

ADDNashville Meeting Tonight

If you plan to attend tonight’s support group meeting, please read last week’s guest blog by Lisa Ernst: “Listening to Your Thoughts Like a Friend.” 

Marriage & Partnership

My wife didn’t marry a grown-up; I think she was drawn to the fun. Thankfully, she was still around when I was diagnosed with ADHD fourteen years after we married. That same year, she went with me to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association’s first conference, about 25 years ago. I’m lucky the conference was in Merrillville, Indiana, too far from Chicago for her to entertain herself. She attended some sessions on her own. When she saw Dr. Daniel Amen’s SPECT scans of ADHD brains, her perception of me, and our relationship, shifted immediately. I believe she saw what we could be. 

I credit mostly my wife’s understanding, and secondarily my discovery of meditation retreats, for the opportunity to “try another way.” That became my mantra, and we became actual partners. There was no way around mutual effort if we were to have a real partnership, and mindful awareness of the ADHD effects would be necessary. 

I fully understand why some spouses of adults with ADHD have the wisdom and courage to leave an unhealthy relationship, and some have the wisdom and courage to stay and insist on partnership. The alternative is hopelessness.

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