“Oh yeah, there’s no doubt,” the doctor told me about a year ago. “Absolutely no doubt at all…” She looked down at the test scores for a moment, then back up to me again. “You definitely have ADHD. The results are clear — and by a very wide margin.” She then explained what the test’s results were and what they meant, but to be honest I don’t remember what she said. *ahem*
The psychologist and my family doctor worked together and soon I had a prescription for some tiny little pills. “You won’t feel any different,” the psychologist told me, “but others around you will be able to see a difference. And you’ll be able to get things done.”
And she was right. I didn’t feel any different. But the pile of work on my desk rapidly dwindled, I was able to clean and re-arrange the basement, other projects were finished… And of course I researched ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) a little at a time.
I was surprised — it had never occurred to me that I might have ADHD. I mean, when you think of ADHD you think of the ten-year-old kid who fidgets and doesn’t pay attention. The jokes on the Internet, on Facebook, all reinforced that stereotype. The assumption that ADHD is just “not paying attention” is endemic. And erroneous.
ADHD is a real thing. They can test for it in a variety of ways. Scans show distinct differences in the brain activity of those with ADHD and “normal” folks. It’s NOT a made-up illness by any means. And it’s NOT just a matter of self-control or simply “buckling down and paying attention.”
Most people think that folks with ADHD either simply can’t be bothered to pay attention, or their brains are constantly whirling around in circles. That’s what I thought, anyway. And that’s how I felt — my mind was always flying around in a manic, unstoppable chase. I could never finish one thought before the next three interrupted. But the truth is a bit different… If you have ADHD, your brain actually kinda, well, falls asleep.
People with ADHD don’t produce the chemical (I think it’s dopamine, but I’m not sure) that “rewards” the brain when it stays alert and finishes a task. It’s a real, measurable, definable deficiency. The result of that is that, as I mentioned, is my brain basically stops a few times a minute. I could be looking right at you, engaged in the conversation, and have absolutely no idea what you just said… I wasn’t daydreaming — far from it, I was struggling very hard to stay involved — but part of my brain simply shut off. This is what earns us the “he’s just not paying attention” badge.
What earns us the “squirrel” badge is how many folks with ADHD react when their brain kicks back on a few seconds later… Imagine being in a conversation with a friend. You suddenly realize you have no idea what has happened over the past few seconds, you just “wake up” in the middle of a situation. What does your brain do? It automatically looks at the most interesting thing in the area. I remember soooo many times I’d be talking with someone and realize I didn’t have the foggiest idea what was going on, and had no clue why my attention had refocused onto something else — the TV, the dog, a sparkly rock in the driveway, a squirrel… I just knew that I was lost and had just done something rude (or at least a bit odd).
So where does the “my brain is spinning in circles and I can’t shut it off” part of the equation come in? Well, when my brain blanks out for a few moments and restarts, it tries to tie the threads back together best it can, chasing around fragments of half-finished thoughts, trying desperately to remember all the details… Then the system crashes again, fragmenting the fragments and the brain scrambles around even harder and I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and crash… A hundred thoughts, a bright light over there, someone’s talking, I don’t remember what was going on I need to pay better attention to what’s crash… Five hundred half-remembered thoughts floating around the conversation seems to be about dogs, I like dogs, did I remember to shut the lights off in the crash… Five thousand fragments in my mind I’m thinking about dogs and I don’t know why and what’s that light in the corner and someone’s talking and how am I ever going to remember what happ… crash.
I remember very vividly thinking so very often, “I need to throw beer at my brain until it slows down enough for me to think!” And I did. A lot. And it helped, some. Or at least I didn’t feel so frantic as I’d try to chase the million fragments…
So we covered the “Attention Deficit” part of “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” What’s with they “Hyperactivity” part of the deal? Well, people with ADHD learn coping mechanisms at a young age. Most folks have a reasonably steady supply of dopamine (I think that’s what it is) that keeps their minds alert and happy. ADHD people try to keep their brains awake in other ways. In children it’s often fidgeting, being in constant motion. “Very often if you take a hyperactive child aside and hold them snugly in a blanket, they’ll fall asleep in a matter of minutes. Even though they’re in a constant whirlwind of activity, they’re exhausted,” explained my doctor. “The movement, the motion is just their way of trying to stay alert, to pay attention, to learn. As long as they keep moving, their minds are calm. When they stop moving, their brains start to shut off, which causes the jumble of thoughts.” As people with ADHD grow older, their means of coping changes, often involving drugs, alcohol, risky behaviors… The adrenaline junkie who takes his motorcycle out on the Interstate at ninety-five miles per hour without a helmet, whose hobbies involve sky-diving or kick-boxing, might just be coping with ADHD, trying to keep the constant buzz and jumble of half-understood thoughts at bay for a few minutes.
My wife, Dagmar, bless her soul, has always, always had a problem that I do crossword puzzles at the dinner table. She believes meal time is a time to share our day, to talk, converse, interact. And she thinks I’m ignoring her as I idly peck away at the latest puzzle, and she often — understandably — will quit talking to me, get up and leave. The truth is, though, that by distracting my brain with the puzzle, I can listen and comprehend what she’s saying. If I put the puzzle aside and pay strict attention to what she’s saying, my brain will invariably shut down and start the cycle of fragmenting my thoughts… With the end result that she’s happy I paid full attention to her while I have zero idea what she’s been talking about and my mind is going a million miles an hour trying to tie things together and now I’m grumpy and confused. If I play my puzzle, I can listen, comprehend, understand, and do everything except engage. (It must be said, Beloved Wifey has learned along with me and doesn’t take such things personally any longer, and actively tries to help me.)
As a child I don’t know how many times I was scolded for reading at the dinner table. Same thing. Reading distracted me so I could, oddly, pay attention.
I tripped over this article earlier today (as I was trying to figure out why I’d recently fumbled a very important project at work), and was intrigued by how a few other people described having ADHD… “Like having fifty-nine televisions blaring in my head all at once. Medications turn off fifty-eight of them.” Another described it as, “Like driving in the rain with faulty windshield wipers. Moments of clarity along with lots of blur.”
The medication most often used to help those with ADHD may be a bit startling – amphetamines. Speed. Very, very tiny doses of speed… As it’s a controlled substance I need to visit my family doctor’s office every month to get a hand-written prescription that I need to take to the pharmacy — there’s no way of simply calling in a refill or having the prescription delivered. Even though the dose is tiny (I get no “buzz” or anything), it’s very well-regulated.
Does it help? Oooohhhh yeah!
I’ll take my “sanity pill” about seven each morning when I wake up. By seven-thirty I’m happily working away, able to do whatever needs done. But by one or two in the afternoon it starts to wear off and I find myself slowly losing effectiveness, getting more irritable as my mind becomes more and more cluttered, less able to follow simple conversations…
Generally by two in the afternoon I’m done being productive. I’ll switch over to tasks that aren’t very repetitive or don’t need as much concentration, often plugging my headphones in and listening to music or grabbing a beer to help keep my mind from derailing. If you call me after one or two in the afternoon and give me detailed instructions on something, chances are pretty good that I’ll screw it up… (I recently got myself into considerable trouble with a job this way – someone called late in the day wanting me to design something for them. A ten-minute phone conversation left me bewildered and confused, my mind racing a million miles an hour trying to remember what I was supposed to do… And of the entire conversation I only remembered one tiny thing. Loathe to call back the next day and admit that I had no idea what they wanted, I did my best, took a guess, and got it miserably and utterly wrong.)
I was hoping to wrap this article up with a fantastically concise recap, a wonderfully precise description of how it feels… But it’s 2:30 in the afternoon now. I found myself just moments ago standing in my Wife’s room, blinking at her, wondering why I was there, struggling to follow what she was saying, feeling irritable and angry that I didn’t know what to say or how to answer her question (as if I knew what she asked)… The Packers are playing, I think Atlanta just got a touchdown, the dog needs to go out, I’m not sure if we have enough coffee for morning, did I shut the lights off in the crash… I need to feed the dogs, the Packers are playing, I know my wife just asked me a question but I don’t crash… Did I feed the dogs? What’s the score? Why is that light flashing in the corner? Where’s my crash…