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The ADHDeer-in-Headlights Syndrome

Since opening up about my adult ADHD diagnosis almost two years ago, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to have been welcomed into the close community of ADHD bloggers. My recent re-theming of Chicago Carless was inspired by “Jeff” of the popular blog, Jeff’s A.D.D. Mind, and recently I was asked by the national ADDitude Magazine to consider contributing to their website. I’m beyond grateful that my personal experiences with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder have meaning for other sufferers. (Note that ADD and ADHD are synonymous terms for the same disorder.)

This Valentine’s Day weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pernicious way that ADHD can make you let go of the reins of your present life by assuming that your current activities will always come to an unhappy conclusion. Today I want to talk about how that happens in an ADHDer’s general, day-to-day life. Tomorrow (Valentine’s Day), I’ll explore how that negatively affects the love lives of ADHDers.

Jeff has a legacy post about what he calls “ADD paralysis,” or as leading ADHD coach Jennifer Koretsky calls it, “complete inaction.” It’s when an ADHDer takes a look at all their simultaneous responsibilities, half-finished tasks, pending to-do items, and other sources of immediate life stress and simply freezes in place like a deer fixed in oncoming headlights.

This happens because the way an ADHDer’s brain is neurologically wired makes it difficult to discern or establish priority, rank items by order of importance, or manage tasks sequentially over time without strong coping strategies and, in most cases, appropriate prescription meds. (Or at least over-the-counter supplements.) Even with meds, the stress caused by competing claims on an ADHDer’s time can sometimes be overwhelming.

Sure, we could step back, take a breath, and try to Mulligan our to-do list from scratch. But when you have ADHD, that means you’ve spent your whole life wondering why you never get much accomplished (pre-diagnosis), wondering why even with meds your symptoms sometimes still reappear to flatten your best laid plans (post-diagnosis), and hearing ill-informed friends and colleagues wonder why don’t choose to magically overcome your brain’s physiology by just “trying a little harder.”

The result of all that is a veritable headspace of remembered failure that ADHDers carry around with them no matter how highly functioning they may outwardly appear to be. The Ritalin or Adderall may be working perfectly, but you still remember the feeling of being labeled a screw-up–and among some who know you, the label stays unfairly stuck, too.

When life stress comes up against those memories, it’s easy for an ADHDer to feel swamped. It’s as if you just can’t figure out which way to turn or what to do next, for fear that whatever you do–no matter how important it is that you do it–will just turn out badly.

In the worst case scenario, an ADHDer’s superhuman power of hyperfocus kicks in. Once that happens, no one could pay you to stop fixating on the potential for further disaster. You continue on the downward psychological spiral and your life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure that can last days, weeks, and even months, triggering depression and even further anxiety about the future.

During much of the latter half of 2009, this was my experience as I watched the tattered economy sink my communications freelancing career. The economy wasn’t my fault. But try telling that to my ADHD brain. Or to friends, colleagues, and clients who wondered why for a time I fell squarely off the face of the earth, even though good sense should have dictated that I at least try to hold on to the edge of terra firma by my fingertips.

I’d love to tell you how I pulled out of it. I think it was by the shock of former boyfriend (now friend) Overly Frank dumping me mid-freeze (more on that in tomorrow’s post), not to mention returning to a life dictated by making lists, writing everything down, and a healthy daily dose of St. Johns Wort. Forcing myself to heavily prioritize and automate my ongoing job search helped a great deal, as well.

That jibes with Koretsky’s suggestion that to unstick the personal pause button, the best idea is for an ADHDer to concentrate on the present moment. After all, you can only do one thing at a time, no matter how many other things are piling up. And as any believer in the power of kaizen will tell you, a little step taken every day can go a long way.

Though personally, I’d settle for time-release Adderall.

Categories: ADHD

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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10 replies

  1. THANK YOU for sharing. My son displayed the “Deer in Headlights” last night when needing the complete an assignment so as to pass his class (High School English, required to graduate) and he was frozen. You’ve helped me understand what was going through his mind thanks to your post.

    And your last sentence? Priceless!

  2. “When life stress comes up against those memories, it’s easy for an ADHDer to feel swamped. It’s as if you just can’t figure out which way to turn or what to do next, for fear that whatever you do–no matter how important it is that you do it–will just turn out badly.”

    Very insightful!! Glad to learn about this “ADHD-paralysis” – and now I know why I get into a tailspin in times of extreme stress! Thanks for the insight!

  3. Maybe we need to schedule both a New York and a Chicago meeting. In fact…we can make it a pizza/beer contest – Chicago style versus New York style pizza. It could be a blast!

  4. Bravo, Jeff! When I saw your comment show up in WordPress dashboard, the first think I wondered was whether you knew you had a gravatar. Now I see why. I’m happy we connected the way we have over the blogopshere, and I wish you great experiences as you become more and more open about your ADHD. It’s pretty neat we were able to provide cross-inspiration for each other. Someday when I’m in New York or you’re in Chicago, we need to sit down and have a beer. How about a—-Squirrel!!!

    And that is our collective life and why we blog about it 😉

  5. Mike,

    I think we are proof of the power and possibility of the internet to create interpersonal links where, without the technology, there would be no link at all. Of course…there are millions of other examples…like Facebook, but there you usually know the person beforehand. We came to know each other through our blogs and, over time, we kept tabs on each others posts, especially when they touched on ADHD. Your site redesign – “inspired” by my redesign – shows that we have solved the old physics problem of “action at a distance.” But the action goes in both directions, for while you may have been inspired by my redesign, I have been inspired by your writing capabilities, your openness about your struggles and your sheer bravery to put your photo right there for the world to see. (Did you know that my picture now appears on my “About” page?).

    I look forward to more years of blogging, of our growing friendship and even some additional site redesigns…but hopefully we won’t be redesigning our sites any time soon.


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