(Re-posted from 2012)
The other day I was running late to my kung fu class, which I help instruct. It had been a long and busy work day and, as usual, I got so caught up in the daily grind, I forgot to eat. Since it was going to be a long and physically demanding evening, I definitely needed to eat.
Except, as usual, I didn’t leave enough time between work and kung fu to even make a meal, let alone eat it. It goes without saying I didn’t prepare a meal in advance, say in the morning before work, or on Sunday afternoon when I would have had plenty of time to make a weeks’ worth of easy meals for a life on the run. Either of those strategies would have been sensible, and well advised, given how often I’d been in this predicament before.
No matter. I threw the fixings for a make-shift dinner in a bag, jumped in my car, and started off for the dojo. I zig-zagged through rush hour traffic, making my dinner first, and then eating it, my foot a little heavier on the pedal than usual to make up for lost time. It was a simple meal, really – ham on rye with mayo, cheese and crackers, yogurt, and an oatmeal bar – enough to get me through several hours of high intensity training without my knees buckling.
All the while I was dogged by a faint voice at the periphery of my consciousness. It said, “You should not be doing this – schmuck.”
It isn’t something I’m proud of, but such experiences are fairly common occurrences in my life because I am an adult with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Such peccadilloes have been a regular feature of my existence since I can remember. It was well into adulthood when I got the ADD diagnosis. Finally, I had an answer for why I had countless pernicious habits that seemed impossible to break; that turned me into my own worst enemy. It was then, when it became clear that self-sabotage wasn’t a personality trait, when I realized my struggles were sort of … typical for those with ADD.
I am pathologically weak at planning or managing time well enough to accommodate the chaotic life I’ve created for myself. The big, important things are no problem to manage – work deadlines, major projects, kids events – these have sufficient urgency to keep my eye on the ball. It’s the little daily tasks that are most problematic. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember, which regrettably has meant countless meals on the road.
I realize this is in the same category of avoidable, arguably irresponsible things a person should do to minimize the hazards of driving. In my defence, the adrenaline from such a course of needlessly risky behaviour, for a person with ADD, does dramatically improve concentration and focus. Frankly, I’m a much greater hazard on the road when the driving is dull and uneventful; when there’s only one thing for my mind to settle on.
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 their best in the midst of 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 need to stay motivated. Mundane, daily tasks inspire dread in ADD minds, which are preternaturally averse to the banality and regimentation of things like paying bills or planning out the week’s errands. These tasks are often avoided for the simple reason there’s not enough motivation to see them through; a problem that is less pronounced if one’s day job entails bucket loads of adrenaline. Even that only just produces sufficient amounts of dopamine to attend to the banalities of life.
My hunch is many people in adrenaline-filled jobs have ADD. Most would be unaware because they’ve chosen jobs well suited to their mental makeup. I reckon their personal lives and health are where the ill effects of their high octane jobs become apparent. Folks with ADD tend to be workaholics – an addiction that is lauded in North American culture. They too are likely to be seen tearing through traffic with knees deftly managing the steering wheel and their hands cradling the ham sandwich they’ve just thrown together.
I’ve been told many times in my life how planning things out and managing time a little better might make my life a lot less stressful to me and burdensome for others. People without ADD are often quick to needle those with the condition about their habits that drive others mad: being late, forgetting to do things as promised, being unable to follow through on things, being over committed and, my personal favourite, for being disorganized.
There’s an assumption our indifference to the feelings of others is what makes us late, that we are glib about others’ time; that our carelessness is what makes us disorganized; that the passion projects left undone betray our flakiness. It’s neither helpful, nor is it novel advice when someone says, “You should really try harder not to keep people waiting. Asshole.” For most with ADD (and ADHD) we’ve already beaten ourselves up for our failure to figure out these things.
Phenomena like time and organization aren’t paramount in my mind, especially when I’m mired in a particularly engaging, or urgent task. That is the paradox of hyper-focus. I am task-oriented to a fault, especially when such tasks are suffused with urgency. In many settings that is a virtue.
However, the casualty of such task mastery is time awareness. Since we came into this world with highly selective attention spans, we never organically developed a close affinity to that chimeric thing called “time.” Most people take for granted their intuitive sense of how long it takes to do routine tasks; they know roughly what time of day it is. For those with ADD this innate, evolving time awareness is truncated.
My mother used to gripe that every thing was “ten minutes” in my mind. In the past, there were 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 (then) 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.
Our detachment from time borders on the metaphysical, which means that planning and organizing effort – the essence of both being situated in the context of a time horizon – are sort of nebulous, airy-fairy concepts that can seem infinitely elusive. Why? Because they depend on the ability to construct a distinct path through time that leads to some figurative aim in the future. Time is the framework for these mental exercises, which is why they can represent a huge challenge for those with ADD.
The other problem is the lack of specificity in that future aim. It is, by virtue of its figurative, speculative nature insufficiently concrete so as to resemble a “reward.” Trying to encompass a mental sense of “the future” in a way that effectively overrides my motivationally languorous ADD mind often feels like an exercise in futility. The implication is planning and organizing efforts to achieve some figurative end point – which is so vacuous as to resemble nothing – feel like pointless endeavours.
Telling myself to prepare for a “very important meeting next week” is on the same level as telling myself to prepare for climate change. I understand the implications at a basic level, but it’s very difficult to make direct mental links between that “later thing” and my specific actions in the present. The “later thing” needs to be very urgent and the ramifications of inaction very specific to keep my mind from drifting away in disinterest toward something for which the effects – positive or negative – are more immediate.
As it happens, the ADD mind is supremely gifted at clinging onto any number of things to command its attention in the here and now that divert our proactive efforts away from that “later thing.” Neuro-typicals derisively call this “laziness” or “procrastination”. For those with ADD it is actually a “dopamine pump problem”. Unlike in a neuro-typical brain, higher-order volitions – those tied to goals that are less gratifying, rewarding, or exciting – in the ADD brain are less effective at flicking on the dopamine switch, the neurotransmitter that needs to be pumping in the part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) responsible for directing specific actions to see those intentions through.
When this “flick of the dopamine switch” is down-regulated it results in sub-optimal cognitive capacity for “executive functions”. In that context, it is much more difficult, more mentally and physically taxing, for those with ADD to summon functional behaviours responsive to the countless routine demands for our attention that dominate adult life. These are aspects of living for which the “rewards” are either delayed or, for lack of a better word, for which the end goal is boring. Many of the things we have to attend to in adult life are this way; though they are also absolutely necessary.
In the ADD mind, the lack of excitation or instant, thrilling gratification in routine tasks has the effect of down-regulating the dopamine potential available to motivate, initiate, and sustain the intellectual attention, focus, concentration, and specific behaviours needed to see them through to successful completion. This is why many with ADD (myself included) take stimulant medications – to address the fact our brains simply fail to produce sufficient amounts of dopamine for optimal “executive functioning”.
The neuropathology of ADD is very real and sometimes very deeply, adversely impactful in the lives of those with the condition. Until I was diagnosed, it was an absolute bane in my life and caused me significant depression and anxiety. My blood boils when I hear people saying flippantly, “OMG, I am SO ADD today” or worse, “ADD is big-pharma conspiracy.” The big joke is that ADD doesn’t really exist, at least not in anyone who is either female or over the age of twelve. It’s insulting and offensive to those whose struggles are no joke.
This perception seems to dog many neuro-diverse people – especially those who are described as “high functioning” (a label I loathe); those who, despite their neuro-type are able to pass of as neuro-typical – to accumulate meritorious achievements, have a successful career, maintain close friendships, or enjoy intimate relationships. Rhetorically, the neuro-typical colossus recognizes the day-to-day existence of the neuro-diverse among them, and theoretically empathizes with the unique challenges such people face in their day to day lives – a good many of them a direct result of structures created by neuro-typicals for neuro-typicals.
However, the empathy diminishes when neuro-typicals are confronted by the alternate reality that becomes evident while in the presence of the neuro-diverse. As soon as my ADD becomes an inconvenience for neuro-typicals, the empathy for neuro-diversity vanishes and is replaced with judgement, disdain, resistance, or disbelief about the legitimate reasons to accommodate the unique needs of the neuro-diverse.
We are always being made to justify and qualify our so-called “exceptional” demands that systems and processes that, in the past excluded us, accommodate our needs to ensure they are fair. It betrays a profound unwillingness to accept that the neuro-typicals’ perception of reality has always been incomplete. At times it has also been needlessly discriminatory and, by that token systemically oppressive. The unwillingness or resistance to shifting – or eliminating – conventional ways of doing things is an effective denial of the existence of neuro-diversity.
The truth is, neither I nor others with ADD are “prone to tardiness” – an attribution fashioned by adversely impacted neuro-typicals. Many with ADD struggle to apprehend time because it is an abstract construct. There is a lack of concreteness to time that makes it hard to wrap our minds around it. For that reason it is difficult to carry out specific behaviours in accordance with it. It has nothing to do with you. It isn’t “misbehaviour” so much as it is misperception. We can be time blind.
Another gnarly, relationship-straining facet of ADD is struggling to moderate the intensity of emotional reactions to adversity or change. For neuro-typical people, experiences that trigger emotional reactions excite two main parts of the brain: the one from which the emotions arise (the limbic system in the mid-brain) and the other that processes them (the pre-frontal cortex). For the neuro-diverse, the context of where, when, how, and with whom the emotion-triggering experience occurs can significantly increase the intensity of the brain’s reaction. Either the scale of the mid brain’s reaction is larger or, for those with sensory issues, it cascades into a response that excites other parts of the brain as well.
In either case, it means that when emotions are triggered in someone with ADD there is often more for the pre-frontal cortex to process. It’s analogous to being at home in the evening when one or two people arrive knocking at your door asking you to sign a petition, versus an angry mob of protesters wielding placards and screaming into loudspeakers for you to come out and hear their grievances. The former describes how emotional experiences manifest in the mind of a neuro-typical, the latter for a person who is neuro-diverse.
It makes for extreme difficulties in regulating our behaviour 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, the outsized emotional reaction to the situation causes you to forget yourself. You end up throwing a barrage of verbal sucker punches in order to win.
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 at the root of others’ derision. Why? 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 intellectual rabbit holes I am readily drawn into. 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 mental energy I possess into a singular focus, even with respect to activities and avocations I deeply enjoy. 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, but often 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. It’s childish to believe our ideas of the future are inherently true. They are more fanciful and magical than true.
Nobody above the age of sixteen should believe the world works according to plan; that they’re actually capable of definitively shaping the future with specific actions in the present. Anyone who inflexibly behaves as though it does may unwittingly be enacting a narcissist’s gambit. Yet many neuro-typicals do actually seem to behave in this manner, and fault the neuro-diverse for failing to follow suit; to confront multi-faceted reality as if it was meant to adhere to our agenda.
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 an adult with ADD, which means 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 light, uneventful traffic.