I was sitting on my bedroom floor, knees propped and a little baby nursing into sleepy bliss under the honey diffused nighttime lamp, with a book propped on one knee. The book was Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. I've talked about it before, and will probably talk about it again. Mr. Kim John Payne, who sounds like the kind of guy I'd like to invite over to our family dinner, was talking about de-cluttering kids' lives (stuff and activities) in order to give them a better childhood. I don't know how we got on the subject, but he mentioned that he feels ADD ought not to be considered an attention deficit disorder but rather a problem of attention priority. A bell went off in my head and I felt something-- a mixture of relief and hope?
Because I have built elaborate walls around something I haven't been quite ready to face up to for a very long time. Something that frightens me and makes me feel bad as well as misunderstood. This book, and an adult cousin who had the courage to share his recent diagnosis off ADHD on Facebook, and some life circumstances, have pushed me to tentatively peer through a couple of the chinks in my wall. I have always wondered if I could have ADD, but I didn't see that I could do anything about it, so I've gone on functioning in my dysfunctional survivalist way and kept those walls high against anyone who might suggest I have a problem.
One of the first questions the doctor asked in trying to decide whether I might have ADD is whether it has been a problem for me in my life. Has it been a problem?!? When I allowed my guard down for just a second, to look inside myself and see what I really thought, I realized that every part of me was screaming inside "yes! it has been a problem!"
My whole life I've been what others might term forgetful, spacey, dis-organized. And everywhere I go, I can tell that I frustrate people. But inside, I have always known that I'm not stupid, that I'm a good person, and that I'm doing my best. Maybe that is what is so confusing, is that my best frustrates people, no matter how hard I feel I'm trying.
One of my earliest school memories involves an old teacher named Mrs. Bradshaw, a billowy middle-aged woman with a big tan-colored mole on her face and a stern colorless disposition. I was always a little late finishing my work. One day, I remember trying to focus on finishing something, kind of in my own little world I guess, when I reached a little finger up to scratch the outside of my nose. She shouted at me to "quit picking my nose and get to work!" And I don't know why, but I've always been really sensitive. As a child, I remember things like this physically hurting, as if someone reached in and grabbed my guts and twisted them. And a familiar feeling of confusion would follow-- I knew I wasn't trying to be bad, I just got distracted. At one point she complained to my mother about how "slow" I was, and my mother went home distressed, thinking maybe it was true.
Then a few months later we received a special letter in the mail. Because I'd scored in the 98 and 99th percentiles on my standardized tests, I was being invited to a special school for what they termed "gifted and talented" kids. So up went the first wall. I have often felt some weird sort of need to prove to people who think I'm ditsy that it's not that I'm not thinking when I appear spacey, I'm thinking a lot-- just not about the task at hand. So, when I seem to zone out during a conversation about waxing versus laser hair removal, it's not that I'm not thinking, I'm probably thinking about particle physics (ha, not really) or about something I read about the Panama Canal that morning or about Graves Disease. My first grade teacher was not the only person to humiliate me in front of a big group. I had many teachers over the years who did (while a few were very patient), including a basketball coach who would yell at me fairly incessantly in front of half of the school at my basketball games. I always felt pretty sheepish, as if I deserved it somehow for being so forgetful. This has continued even into adulthood in a couple of realms, and the funny thing is, no matter how loudly someone else berated me, there was no one doing it louder than I was inside.
You know one of the funny side effects of being shamed inside and out? I am mortally afraid of being a negative center of attention (though I secretly dream of positive attention, like being an Emily Dickenson-like poet) :), even just walking in late to church (and feeling all of those imaginary eyes) feels like it is about to kill me. Another thing? I'm a pleaser. I have always really wanted to please people, which can be good and bad. In a recent parent personality inventory I took for something completely unrelated, I was told that my need to please others can detract me from some things that I really need to do as a parent (like discipline). And the last thing? One positive of my ADD? I have always tried (though I can also be unintentionally insensitive, for which I beat myself to death later) to be sensitive to others. In part because of the intense way I feel when I have been humiliated or embarrassed over the years, I have always tried really hard to look out for and be sensitive to people who are alone or marginalized in some way or un-included. At the heart of it all, and it is hard to admit this out loud, I think my very best quality is probably compassion, even if it's bumblingly executed. :) Including with my kids. And I guess on the flipside, I can resent someone for a long time who has hurt me deeply or frequently.
In my younger years, I would frequently forget things, procrastinate, appear spacey, talk too much or say things I regretted, fall apart under pressure, struggle to pay attention to anything boring, verbal, or long (ahh, school), suffer from poor impulse control in regards to food or spending, and that doozy-- get my feelings hurt over and over by someone who insensitively made fun of my forgetfulness (I learned from the therapist I visited recently that it is almost impossible for the ADD brain to react intellectually in such a case, that the response is emotional, even if it doesn't show). The thing that hurt the most is that it often felt condescending. I knew inside I was smart, capable, and worth something, but on the outside I built protections. My best friends and family (now this includes my kids, who just know me the way I am and don't see anything unusual), who knew my heart, learned to laugh some of my behaviors off as just part of me, and still focused on my good points (though they too could get frustrated). I was also very active physically, which probably helped mitigate and mask some of the symptoms as well (my reading suggests that exercise is almost as effective as medication at treating ADD). And even though I was smart, I really struggled organizing my time, and that included test taking. I really struggled as a high school student to finish standardized tests and AP tests (in spite of only half-finishing many AP tests, I did scrape by with 3's). I always felt I needed more time. (and that other demon, college, when I would frequently cram at the last minute, including that super healthy stay up all night on caffeine thing)
So why didn't I seek help? I don't know. Procrastination, in part. Labels, for another. I mean, when you spend your whole life trying to prove you are normal and that you have good points, too, and are constantly in trouble or feeling less worthy messages from all sorts of authority figures and peers, the last thing I felt I needed was a label. I just thought I needed to try harder. Also, it seemed that ADD was being diagnosed in everyone for a while there, which took away some credibility for me. And medication, ah medication. I didn't want to go there, I guess. Misunderstanding of the true condition, denial, walls of self defense, an attitude that I just needed to try harder, and a desire not to take medication, it all contributed. And I did learn to deal with some of my demons, even though some were still festering under the surface. In some ways, I have done better with less structured environment as an adult. I took independent study courses from BYU as a young married person and I got straight A's. But I was able to do it at my own pace. As a mother, I have often worried about leaving the baby on top of the car (one of my most morbid fears). Thank heavens, I have been able to be, for me, a very responsible mother. I don't keep the cleanest house, but... I do love being a mom and always have. Certain day-to-day responsibilities are extremely hard for me mentally, but I've learned ways to cope, not all of them good. When it comes time to do the dishes or something mundane, I feel a huge mental roadblock. It's only through pure willpower and determination that I can power through something I know I have to do (and if it's not a must-do, it's almost impossible, hence procrastination). I have learned to turn on the radio (NPR addiction) to help me better sense the passage of time and keep my mind occupied while I do something unpleasant, or unfortunately, I have learned to turn to food (sugar, mostly) to help give me the kick I need to get through it. And I'm often madly cleaning my house at the last minute because I underestimate how much time it will take. And it's not that I don't work hard, I do, I just don't prioritize very well, or organize my time well, so I may waste time working on something at the expense of something else.
That comes to something else. ADD isn't all bad, just like I always felt in my gut that some of the things that got me into trouble were also an important part of who I am. As I've studied, I've learned a few things. ADD'ers are often creative, outside-the-box thinkers. One benefit of ADD is the ability to hyper-focus-- something that drives me to learn or accomplish something that really interests me. It was this very trait that often threw me off when I wondered if I had ADD. I could sit for hours and draw, or read, but sitting through a boring lecture was extremely difficult. In one English class I remember studying Puritanical law, and for whatever reason, it really fascinated me. I wrote and re-wrote (at the last minute) a paper about situational ethics just because it interested me keenly. My teacher (I never had a great relationship with teachers, I always somehow felt like I was bad somehow, as I sensed how I frustrated them) called me up to her desk one day after class. She looked at me through suspicious half-closed gray eyes framed with soft wrinkles and an estimating expression. She told me I had scored unusually highly on my essay-- 100 out of 100-- and asked me if my essay had been plagiarized. In one way I was totally horrified, and in another, weird sort of way, very flattered.
(Here is a list of famous people who have either been diagnosed with ADHD or were predicted to have had it. On the list, some of my favorite people, including Abraham Lincoln, who was reported to have been very disorganized (and also reported to have read while he plowed the fields).)
In retrospect the hyper-focus thing has helped and cursed me. It really helps me to get some things done, but it is also hard to get things done without being able to hyper-focus, which is one reason the "interruption factor" is hard for me. I look back now on the year after having each of my babies. This was always a chaotic time, as it probably is for most new mothers. I always nursed and changed diapers on demand, which meant a constant state of interruption. (I also rarely exercised consistently in the first year, which probably exacerbated my symptoms without my knowing it) Without a way to really have a chunk of time to get something done, I would get really de-motivated by the stopping and starting, and distracted by other tasks. I have always tried to put my kids first, too, (hyper-focus on something interesting?) but everything else can go to pot, especially during stressful times. And even spending time with my kids had to be a daily thing in which I initially forced myself to detach from a task and hurdle that wall, after which I was fine and enjoying myself.
I learned that ADD is a brain chemistry thing. The frontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, motivation, and focus, is lacking in the chemicals it needs to function, including dopamine. ADD'ers can often become addicts, in part because it gives them the dopamine and endorphin surge they are lacking (sugar, for me?).
Whew! We are both tired of this crazy rambling post. In short, I found someone who treats ADD without medication. It is called Neurofeedback, which increases activity in the frontal cortex. Patients who have been treated using this method have been shown to have permanent increases in cortical function, as opposed to medication, which only lasts as long as someone takes it. I have been to one session, and I was amazed at how focused I was the rest of the day.
So, thanks for listening to me as I try to understand myself, get help so I can be less frustrating to my loved ones. Thanks for being my sounding wall as I finally allow a lifetime of struggles to finally settle in my heart, as I see the difficulties it has caused me, the heartache, the frustrations, the frequent feelings of less-than and shame, and the need to somehow prove something.
I never knew why I needed this project so badly. I just knew I needed it. Some tasks I desperately needed to do seemed to require almost Herculean strength. I figured that if I could find a way to say it out loud, to recognize the things I need to work on, and to have some accountability, it would help me. This blog has been a lifesaver in a lot of ways, even though many days I know I don't really have time for it. It has helped me through some challenges and helped me see some good sides to myself, as well as remembering all the good times we have around here. It has provided a creative outlet-- something essential to my well-being in ways I'm just coming to understand and given me hope for the future. Thanks for following on this journey and for being so patient with this scattered mind.