It’s been a long time since I blogged, a little less longer since I journaled in meat space. I’ve noticed that do both when I have a purpose, but not a need. I need to record my thoughts and work things out in text more than I do, but when I have a purpose that’s when it happens. This blog started as an assignment for a class, so there is one purpose. It was a way for me to organize my thoughts on a particular subject and share that with friends in a greater than 140 character way (which as an aside, I think facebook and twitter are analogous to fast food in terms of expressing our thoughts – it satisfies the need, without being nutritious, and while it can occasionally be tasty, it’s more likely to be palatable at best).
Back to purpose – therapy has been a purpose for organizing my thoughts. I’ve always approached counselors as more of a personal trainer to help with a specific goal or issue, rather than a paid friend. So that means I expect it to be short term, and I put a lot of effort outside of sessions into fixing the issue. I find when I have to report to a mental health professional, I should be prepared with well though out material on my initial complaints and my progress since the last visit. The last time I saw a counselor (cognitive behavioral therapy, which I highly recommend) was when I was supremely unhappy (depressed is a loaded term) with the trajectory or my life, and within weeks I was making positive steps to change my perspective and environment where appropriate. Not long after that I sold my house (which see the previous post, was a stress trap) and within the year I took a better (for me) job without abandoning my career of choice which I was considering.
While I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress towards being a better, more self actualized person, it’s not surprising that it wasn’t a permanent fix. One thing about the cognitive behavior therapy that struck a chord, was that it boils down to the idea that you create your own hell (keeping in mind that I’m now strongly in the middle class and live in relatively peaceful times/areas). I had a job that kept me interested and where I could be my weird self, I’m reasonably intelligent, unreasonably ambitious, and married to a very supportive spouse. Yet, I still didn’t accomplish my doable short term goals, it was taking me longer than it should to complete projects (although, the improviser that I am I always made up good reasons, and pulled out an awesome final product to make up for it) and I was getting overwhelmed and worrying myself into what felt like an ulcer (which I later learned were gallstones, but never-mind).
So, cue the therapy – except that I kept procrastinating that, too. Until, my wife, was one night taking a ‘do you have ADHD assessment’ online. Her being a teacher (incidentally, the profession with the most diagnosed ADHD), she knows the symptoms and has long thought she has ADHD, and I have long agreed, namely because she can’t stay in one place, especially lines. So I took the quiz, and thought the questions were designed so that everyone “should speak to a mental health professional to be evaluated for ADHD”. I mean, who hasn’t lost their keys or paid a bill late, really? Fast-forward several months and a lot more insight about ADHD, and I decided to visit a mental health professional. My first legit psychiatrist visit – M.D. and everything – and I received a diagnosis of inattentive ADHD.
So here are some of the things I’ve learned about ADHD and how it’s completely changed my perspective on my career trajectory and my family life growing up.
There are currently three categories of ADHD, 1) Inattentive 2) Hyperactive/impulsive 3) both. All three categories stem from impairment (mild to severe) of executive function in the brain. Executive function is a mechanism that acts like the conductor of the orchestra, organizing, focusing, and integrating different parts to produce a complex piece of music. Without a conductor the orchestra is just a bunch of noise, or a flute player that doesn’t know when to stop playing. As a result, people with a less effective executive brain function struggle with 1) working memory and recall 2) motivation (getting started or staying engaged) 3) emotional control 4) impulse control 5) complex problem solving including prioritization. Or, seemingly, these people are useless, lazy flakes.
So, the reason I thought that I didn’t have ADHD was that I wasn’t a flaky idiot that flunks out of school and can’t hold down job. Except that stress increases the systems of ADHD, and I was becoming a flake that couldn’t get stuff done, and I felt like a terrible, lazy person. People with ADHD are motivated by their interests and have a hard time when they are bored. As a result people with ADHD can hyperfocus when they are interested in something (ex, someone who stays hours late a work because they just want to get one more thing done) or act on an impulse when they are not interested (ex. interrupting others, walking off from the grocery line). Adrenaline is another way people with ADHD maintain interest, so we tend to procrastinate and the rush of the deadline makes us focus. In general, people with ADHD have a need for stimulation. Unfortunately, this is why those with ADHD more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, have unprotected sex, and other risk-taking behavior. On the positive side, stimulation can also come from self-guided learning, desire to achieve personal goals, or athletic pursuits. I think that because psychology, in general, focuses on abnormal behavior and behavior that adversely effects our lives, we don’t hear much about the positive sides of ADHD. And more over, part of the diagnosis for ADHD is that the symptoms are negatively impacting your life. Which makes sense, if you’ve found a way to cope with the symptoms without knowing you had them, then what’s the prob? Some jobs require the symptoms of ADHD – paramedics, theater, art, television, teaching.
ADHD is hereditary, which makes total sense looking at my parents. First, I’m only here because my parents married after getting preggers with my older brother in their early, early twenties. Pretty common for people with ADHD to have unplanned kids when they are young (surprise, I wasn’t planned either). Also, my parents are terrible with money, emotional control (if you’ve never seem a grown man throw a temper-tantrum then you’ve never seen my dad angry for some stupid reason) and long term planning and problem solving (this is why my mother is virtually homeless and penniless). My mother even attempted suicide, which is common for people with ADHD, and especially in women, is usually diagnosed as bi-polar disorder or depression. Looking at the situation, though, it makes more sense that she acted on an impulse from the stress of a temporary set back. Kids with ADHD lie a lot, either to be more interesting to friends (which creativity!, so . . . ), or to protect themselves from feeling embarrassed when they make a mistake. My brother lied all the time when he would get in trouble; he insisted, even if it was obvious that he was lying, that his version was true. Once he ran into something and broke the mirror off my dad’s truck, he said an orange truck side-swiped him after speeding up and slowing down and speeding up, even though there was yellow paint transfer on the truck.
So how did I go so long not knowing, and what helped me cope without knowing I was coping?
Positive encouragement/rewards – I was lucky to have a partner, friends and teachers that encouraged my creativity and work ethic, but I could have just as easily had friends that encouraged drug use and risky sexual behavior. Conversely, as a teen, I was defiant with authority figures (another symptom), so when someone tried to control my behavior with punishment or shame it motivated me to defy them more.
Strong Interests – when I chose my own interests, rather than what my family wanted, I was more committed to succeeding and prioritizing my studies where needed so that I could keep participating in my interests
Theatre/Art – not only did it satisfy my creative drive (also a trait of ADHD people) I learned project management skills and teamwork. How to break up a project into manageable sections, rehearsal, set building, with milestones all leading up to opening night, and how my part contributed to the success of play.
Exercise and Sleep
– Exercise and good sleep is important for everyone but especially those with ADHD, because both help reduce stress. A lack of sleep increases stress which can drastically increase the severity of symptoms. Incidentally, ADHDers prefer to be night owls
Mentors – These are the people throughout my life that helped me to develop the habit of planning not only my actions but look for potential consequences of those actions. The more practice I had at predicting what could go wrong, the less I acted impulsively. More importantly my mentors were people that started from a place of caring and acceptance rather than judgment, and didn’t make me feel ashamed for making a mistake.
It was interesting to read that people with ADHD are their own worst critics, and typically feel like outsiders their whole lives – I’ve always attributed that feeling to being gay and actually being an outsider in many respects. It was also interesting that there seems to be a divide in the outcomes of people with ADHD – if they find success and support they tend to have good self esteem and accomplish a lot (and are therefore probably not diagnosed) and if their efforts are met with criticism (I’m thinking of my mother-in-law right now) rather than support they give up and tend to do poorly in school and work.
So my next question is, who isn’t ADHD and does it even matter? I’m sure that we seek out people like us, and so that’s why we pick partners and friends like us, and that certain professions attract certain people. I wouldn’t be surprised if half of the internal auditors I work with are ADHD – the work is project based so you don’t get too bored, it requires creativity and problem solving (most of the time) so you get engaged in the work, there is a lot of communication with others so your social needs are met and you can shine there, and there is a audit structure and deadlines so it’s easier to stay focused and get the work done.
Why does it matter? Well if a tree falls in the forest, and the net impact to the environment is minimal, then it doesn’t matter. In some respects it’s like knowing that you have extra vertebrae, or that you’ve been a hermaphrodite all along. What did matter for me, is first, knowing that my struggles weren’t the result of personal failings -it’s just how my brain is wired, and second, knowing the root cause for the issue and using my problem solving skills to develop solutions that work better. It’s also interesting to look back at my life with a different lens, and look forward with a different approach. I’ve always been positive about what I could accomplish, but it was at the cost of being critical about setbacks and using that energy to motivate myself to do better and more. That attitude is changing, almost to a kooky self-help guru mindset. I’m more reasonable about what I can do in a set amount of time by reminding myself that spending time with friends and family and personal interests need to be balanced with career success, so I plan time for all of them and plan time for nothing – floating to whatever activity I choose. I’m trying to look back at the end of a day, or week and instead of inventorying all the things I didn’t get done, I inventory the progress only.