The other day I was running really late to my kung fu class, which I help instruct, and I hadn’t had a chance to eat after work. So I threw the fixings for dinner in a bag, jumped into the car, and off I went through rush hour traffic making my dinner and eating it on the way. It was a simple meal – ham on rye with mayo, cheese and crackers, yogurt, and an oatmeal bar. It got me through three hours of kung fu without my knees buckling from lack of nutrition. But on the way, I had a pang of guilt. Should I be doing this?
This isn’t something I’m proud of, but experiences like this are fairly common occurrences in my life because I am an adult with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). ADD is real, and I’ve lived with the impediments my entire life. I didn’t realize well into adulthood why I seemed to always be my own worst enemy, until I got the diagnosis. It isn’t a syndrome cooked up by pharmaceuticals, shrinks and parents looking to drug misbehaved pre-pubescent kids into quiet submission.
I am pathologically weak at planning or managing time well enough to accommodate the chaotic life I’ve created for myself. The big things are no problem – work deadlines, major projects – these have sufficient urgency to keep my eye on the ball. It’s the little daily tasks that are the most problematic. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember, which means many more meals on the road in my future. I realize this is in the same category of things a person can do to add to the list of hazards while driving, and might rightly be called irresponsible. Maybe, maybe not.
It wouldn’t be the first time a person with ADD had been called irresponsible, by the way. Or lazy. Or “underachieved”. Or insensitive. Whatever. Let me ask you this, if you were a passenger in a plane that lost an engine, or were rolling into hospital emergency having been mangled in a multi-car pileup, or were taking heavy enemy fire while pinned down in a “kill zone” in a theatre of battle, who would you rather have in charge, the one who needs to sit and think things through all the time or the one who is cognitively his best when in the midst of total chaos?
People with ADD have to think straight amidst chaos because that is where we keep putting ourselves – most often sub-consciously. In some cases, it’s what our brains require to think straight. My guess is many people in adrenaline-filled jobs have ADD, whether they know it or not. They are also probably known to sail through traffic driving with their knees while eating a ham sandwich.
I’ve been told many times in my life that planning things out and managing time a little better might make my chaotic life a lot easier, less stressful, and less burdensome for others. People without ADD are often quick to needle those with the condition about some of their habits that drive them crazy: being late for everything, forgetting to do things, getting lost, being unable to follow through on things, committing to too many things, and my favourite, for being disorganized.
There’s an assumption that I like to be late, and to keep other people waiting; that I like being disorganized. It’s striking that people think they’ve had an epiphany in saying “hey you, Mr. Late Asshole, you should plan better so I don’t have to wait,” as if this was sage advice I hadn’t already thought of.
It isn’t. And I have. But things like time and organization aren’t paramount in my mind, especially when I’m mired in a particular task. I am task oriented to a fault which means awareness of time is the first casualty of a tenuous attention-span. In the past, there were many days where I’d start into a bit of work near the end of the day and get so engrossed that only when the phone rang with my wife saying “where the hell are you!?” would I realize I’d been at it four hours and it was eight o’clock at night.
Planning and organizing are sort of nebulous, airy-fairy concepts that are difficult to grasp, mostly because they require you to construct a distinct picture of a distant future that is nearly impossible for me to fashion in my mind today. Talking about the future in my ADD mind is as abstract and pointless as talking about unicorns and the Easter Bunny, or making sure the house is clean for when Santa Claus pops by.
It is no exaggeration to say that, for me, a meeting in three hours is as abstract a concept as the idea of an asteroid hitting the earth in a million years. It just depends on what I am doing now and what that meeting in three hours happens to be about. This makes it difficult to conceptualize the specific tasks that are required now for the thing later. The thing needs to be really specific to keep my mind from drifting off task because it lacks such specificity.
This is why my blood boils when I hear people say things like “ADD is bullshit.” Even if I explained to them “sorry being on time is really difficult for me because I have ADD” they would still think I’m a jerk – with ADD. This perception seems to dog many people with disorders of a neurologic nature. According to the legions of armchair neuroscientists out there, depression, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and ADD are all elegantly fabricated canards that conveniently absolve their so-called sufferers from serious behavioural flaws in their character that they have been unable to control.
Except ADD is real and it sometimes makes its sufferers prone to impulsive behaviours without a mind for the consequences. People seem to accept the behavioural side-effects of other neurological diseases: Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, Multiple Sclerosis, obviously because there are physical symptoms associated with them. It’s a raw deal, but one many of us have come to accept.
One of the main side-effects of ADD is a regulatory issue with strong emotions. There’s a disconnect between the two parts of the brain involved: the part of the brain the emotions stem from and the part that allows us to make sense of that and decide on next steps. It makes for extreme difficulties being involved in emotionally-charged situations. I tend to disengage mentally to give my pre-frontal cortex (the “executive” command centre) time to kick in and govern my responses to things.
This is not easy to do when people are goading for an argument. So an argument is what they’ll get, and folks with intelligence and ADD are often good at arguments. It’s the closest thing to a fist fight you can get in civilized society. The problem is, in the heat of things, you can forget yourself and throw all kinds of verbal sucker punches in order to win. Ay, there’s the rub.
In the past I’ve regularly taken to bouts of intense self-flagellation for failing to rein in a few thorny mental traps that I repeatedly fall into. These are the ones that spawn actions that end up being the root cause of others’ anguish because they keep me far busier and more disorganized than I can manage.
There also seems to be no single, unified theme that underlies the many things I end up getting involved in. That is the source of my bitterness about the condition. It has undermined the progression of certain natural talents I have into a career that I am passionate about, because I haven’t been able to channel the limitless energy I possess into a mental focus that remains fixed, even on the things that I love. Instead, these passions fall victim to a mind that craves novelty; that is so infinitely capable of boredom.
The idea of planning is sometimes anathema to how I conceptualize the world. Things need to be concrete, otherwise I lose focus and attention to detail. This has been more of a hindrance to me than it has to all the people inconvenienced by my tardiness, absent-mindedness, or harried existence. In the aggregate it doesn’t mean I’m an insensitive jerk, it just means that, most often, I am excessively well-intentioned, even if aimlessly so.
Instead of planning for a nebulous future, I tend to go with the flow depending on how things feel in the “now”. People above a certain age view this ethos with disdain. It’s cast off as flaky, jejune, and immature to not have plans for the way forward. I wonder about that kind of criticism. Most people’s lives never unfold according to plan, or if they do, their perfectly planned existence ends up making them into dull, boring, one-dimensional human beings.
I’ve always lived in opposition to this way of thinking. It’s pointless to force the world to suit my plans, or to stick to a plan when the world presents circumstances that should compel a change in thinking. It seems either extremely inflexible or woefully delusional to make an ethos out of ignoring what the world is telling you just because it doesn’t appear to suit the idea you have of the future.
Nobody above the age of sixteen should believe the world works that way; that they’re actually capable of definitively shaping the future with specific actions in the present. It cannot ever be this way, which is why it is best to know yourself, to pay attention to each moment and to listen to whatever it is your heart tells you to do.
While unintended, I live my life like the players in a movie without a script who have been given only a general outline of each scene in a story with a simple plot. In every moment the actors must allow their talents, energies and creativity determine how the story unfolds. Some of the most memorable moments in cinematic history were unscripted; made great by people completely possessed of their characters and in tune with the essence of each scene as it played out.
The fondest memories in my life have always emerged from situations born of serendipity. Allowing myself to get lost in the moment was the catalyst for feelings of bliss that resonate in my mind still, many years later. These were times when anxieties about an uncertain future or burdens from emotional demons of the past were set aside; overcome by a total surrender to the fullness of a particular moment in time.
The world can be sublime if you cultivate a mind that welcomes spontaneity. Sometimes, the notion of living life according to a ‘plan’ is a fine rationalization for living life with blinkers; for resisting things simply because they don’t necessarily line up with expectations. No thanks. It’s not how I roll. With age, I’ve come to accept that as part of my DNA. Dare I say, there’s some argument to be made that more of us should live this way.
All of this means that, from time to time I’m driving somewhere while making a ham sandwich, having my bacon and eggs for breakfast, shaving, or finishing getting dressed. And I dine while driving because I’ve run out of time; because I’m overrun by everything I’ve crammed into my life. These things happen because I am a terrible planner, not an insensitive jerk. That said, if I have three things to focus on, the focus I bring to all three is much better than if I only had one tedious, mundane thing to focus on, like driving in rush hour traffic.