(Photo: Sometimes the roof has to cave in before you can finally see blue sky. The Igreja do Carmo, Lisbon, Portugal.)
When is a neurological disorder a gift? The answer to that depends on whom you ask. If you asked me a few weeks ago, I’d have said never–and why are you asking me such a silly question, anyway?
If you asked Dr. Edward Hallowell, the country’s leading author on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), you’d get a different answer. For Hallowell, ADD (well, technically ADHD ever since the DSM-IV threw hyperactivity into the acronym) is better off seen as a gift for those who have it. I’m not entirely sure if that’s comforting, especially for those who don’t learn they have ADD until long into adulthood.
Like me, for example.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. A lot of people write off ADD as a mythical disorder, or one that only afflicts children and somehow magically disappears in adulthood. Neither is true, of course (as Hallowell would say, there is no “adult-onset” ADD). Trouble is, the differences that mark an ADDer’s brain and behaviors can be hard to fathom for those unfamiliar with the condition.
But the simple gist of ADD is a brain that is “hardwired” differently than normal. Due to specific physical differences in an ADDer’s brain that affect the way dopamine and other neurotransmitters are used, when someone with ADD tries to perform tasks involving attention, prioritization, or judgment, the parts of their brain that govern such tasks shut down from the overload–tune out, if you will. As a result, inattentiveness, hyperactivity (or fidgeting and restlessness in adults), and impulsive behavior take over.
Among the things ADDers find it hard to do without some form of external assistance: pay attention to uninteresting tasks; fight distraction; fight forgetfulness; correctly understand and manage time; assign priorities; follow through on tasks; fight procrastination; and censor their initial impulses to speak or act.
That takes a toll on happiness and success. It’s a common mantra in ADD circles (and I’ve certainly heard it throughout my life) that those with the disorder are always told to “try harder” because they’re not fulfilling their potential. And they aren’t, of course.
But it’s not a lack of effort that keeps many ADDers from getting ahead in life, it’s actual inability to perform specific tasks due to the way their brains work, especially if, like most people with ADD, they don’t know they even have the condition. Telling someone with ADD to “try harder” is like telling a nearsighted person to “squint harder”: it’s not only ignorant advice, it’s also completely unhelpful.
It was the sheer stress of living unaware with Adult ADD that let me to explore my symptoms. Saddled this year with the most complex, time-sensitive project management job I’d ever had, I began to blow it big time. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t pull my act together enough to set priorities, manage deadlines, or follow-through. I just kept becoming overwhelmed and mentally dropping out.
I had felt a similar way many times before. Never as intensely, but throughout my life my problems with time, prioritizing, and procrastinating are the stuff of legend. So are the many failures in academics, work, and love that have resulted from them.
But this time, I was completely falling apart. I looked to my friends for clues. Two among them happen to have ADD. On a lark, I Googled the disorder. The first site I found was the Attention Deficit Disorder Association. I read their FAQ. It all sounded a little too familiar. Especially the symptoms and the toll ADD takes on those who have it.
Unnerved, I wanted to read more. I spent hours exploring through leading ADD websites (the best of which I’ve listed at the end of this article) and perusing bookstore and library psychology sections (the currently definitive work being Hallowell and Ratey’s life-affirming Delivered from Distraction).
But it was those damned online self-tests that really made my jaw drop. All the disclaimers suggested you seek a professional evaluation if your score was over a certain number. None of the small print offered any consolation, however, when I found myself uncomfortable acing every single screening I took. Among the self-tests whose scores I maxed:
Before I was convinced enough to make an appointment with a mental-health professional, though, I figured I’d take a peek first in the DSM-IV, the bible of the American Psychiatric Association, for the official symptom checklist.
Symptoms for more than six months, appearing in childhood, and disturbing your life in more than one domain (work, home, school, etc.)? Check.
At least six symptoms of inattention. Check…for all nine.
Or at least six symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. Check…for all of them. All of them? Again? Every single symptom??
So I made an appointment. And thoroughly freaked out. Who wouldn’t be disturbed to discover that the problems which they fought everyday, and which they thought everyone fought everyday, exactly matched the symptoms of a lifelong chronic neurological disorder?
Given the number of therapists–not to mention neurologists–I was sent to as a kid to try to overcome the “emotional problems” of growing up in a dysfunctional family, I couldn’t believe they never caught that my problems were more likely brain based.
I mean, little kids don’t yelp and yodel until they’re checked for Tourette Syndrome (an occasionally associated disorder for children with ADD) solely due to emotional problems. Neither do bigger kids in gifted-and-talented middle schools and, eventually, selective high schools get left behind repeatedly only because of a difficult family life. (Let’s not even go into that third semester as an undergrad). But they do because of ADD.
Yet, because my childhood therapists labeled my problems as “emotional”, it took me half of my life to even suspect that they weren’t. And not finding out about my ADD until adulthood robbed me of the chance to spend my life learning how to managing the condition.
So for the moment, life sucked.
On the other hand, at least I knew what I was up against, and knowledge is power. According to Hallowell and many other ADD commentators, those with the disorder also tend to be highly creative and interesting, easily able to grasp the “big picture” and solve problems intutively. It’s kind of a happy side-effect of being highly distractable.
They also tend to have an uncanny ability to hyperfocus on favorite subjects and tasks. That can be a liability if ADDers focus on Internet surfing until 3 a.m. (note the time of this post). But harnessed well, it can be a powerful asset to keep them almost insanely on task and productive for hours on end.
For newly aware ADDers like me, hyperfocus is a little like waking up and finding out you have a super power–but one that you have to struggle to use for good. That got me wondering maybe Hallowell was onto something by concentrating on the strengths of ADDers.
And that brings me to last weekend. It was in a south-suburban Red Robin where I had the fortune to dine with my hip suburban friend Val and her sister, Bridget. Now, Bridget has multiple sclerosis, a really heavy duty neurological disorder, and she’s very open about it. I had to ask.
“What’s the best part about having M.S.? How has having M.S. made your life better?”
Bridget’s answer astounded me. She thought for a long while, and said, “It’s taught me what’s important in life, what to concentrate on. My family, my daughter, the things that really matter. I don’t think other people my age really know what to value in life. But M.S. showed my how to do that.”
And then it was my turn. “What about you?” she asked. “What’s the best part about learning you have ADD?”
I, too, thought awhile before I answered. I considered all the research I’d read, my week-long freakout, the sense of peace that followed it. And then I saw the gift.
“I get to know who I am now,” I said. “I get to know why I’m good at the things I’m good at, and why I’m not at the things I’m not. I get to stop blaming myself for my past and for the state my life’s in. I get to learn how I can manage my symptoms and improve my life. Now I can concentrate on my strengths, get help for my weak areas, and stop trying to be something I’m not. For the first time in my life, now I get to live up to my potential.”
Not that it’s gonna come easy. For example, a few weeks ago you couldn’t pay me to go near fish oil or to correctly spell the amino acid, L-tyrosine, or the phospholipid, phosphatidylserene. And now a morning just isn’t a morning unless my B-3, B-6, and Zinc-laden multivitamin, Ginkgo, and St. Johns Wort have the aforementioned triple chasers. (It works for me).
And it certainly feels weird to now schedule my life and every single task, appointment, and allegedly mental note that I want to (or, let’s be real, have any hope to) remember, through iCal (your personal daily planner flavor may vary).
It’s like downloading your brain to paper, but a very useful effort for brains like mine that don’t want to be bothered with remembering such mundane activities as feeding the cat or paying the electric bill on a regular basis. And as long as it works, I’ll keep at it, too.
While I continue to learn about life with ADD, I want to thank my friends and readers who have offered to write their stories here on CHICAGO CARLESS in the wake of my earlier, course-changing post. I owe you all a drink. And if I blank on your name while we’re out lifting a Guinness or show up half an hour late, please don’t take it personally.
I probably just got distracted.
Below are some of my favorite ADD/ADHD resources…
–Tara McGillicuddy’s My ADD / ADHD Blog;
–Edward Hallowell and Melissa Orlov’s ADHD & Marriage;
–Erin Moore’s So I Married an ADDer;
–Jennifer Koretsky’s The ADD Business Owner;
–“Jeff”‘s thought-provoking Jeff’s A.D.D. Mind;
–The ADD public forums ADHD Message Boards and ADD Forums; and
–The membership organization, Children & Adults with ADD (CHADD).
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.