I Don't Understand Why You Can't...
In June of 2012, I was diagnosed with ADD. My path to diagnosis was pretty common for someone who was never diagnosed as a child. The stress and anxiety that has always simmered under the surface boiled over. Again. This time it was particularly bad, and I realized if I didn't finally do something about it, I was likely going to find out what rock-bottom really felt like.
I received the diagnosis, and started learning about brain chemistry and neurotransmitters. And for the first time in my life, at the age of 36, I felt there was a possibility that I wasn’t actually a complete mess who had somehow fooled everyone through dumb luck and because of a surprising ability to do well on standardized tests.
Undiagnosed ADD in adults can be extremely pernicious because the traits that many ADD'ers have are usually perceived as moral failings. For example, our working memory (being able to hold multiple pieces of information in our heads while working on a task) and our prospective memory (being able to remember to remember to do something like "Put that bill payment in the mailbox when you get to work.") - these functions don't work particularly well for an ADD'er. It's hard for people who don't have ADD to understand why the ADD'er can't just take care of simple tasks - and it's impossible for the undiagnosed to know that it's not their fault that they can't remember, or that they can't control their focus. But trust me, we know that we’re not taking care of things well, and that we’re not getting things done. We know when we’re falling short and falling behind. We're acutely aware that things are slipping through the cracks. We find names for ourselves, because this is the only way we can make any sense of it. Lazy. Stupid. Spaz. Irresponsible. Flake. Undisciplined. Procrastinator. Unreliable.
And that's just the inner dialogue. Imagine what it must be like to go through life - through school, through work, through relationships - having those labels placed on us by others as well. It doesn’t even have to be a vitriolic verbal assault to be devastating. Hearing “I don’t understand why you can’t...” can feel like a cold, quiet dagger of dissapointment in the gut.
Just Try Harder
Telling someone with ADD to just try harder to concentrate doesn't work. You might as well tell someone who is nearsighted to try harder to focus their eyes. Or why not tell someone who is colorblind that if they would just apply themselves and appreciate the value of hard work, they could distinguish between red and green? We don't question the colorblind, because we accept that they're not pretending that they can't distinguish between red and green. We believe them. But for some reason it's hard to accept that someone with ADD can't easily distinguish between something they really should be doing and something that happens to have their attention at the moment.
And so what do ADD'ers do? Well for one thing, we constantly tell ourselves to stop being so stupid, so lazy, so unorganized, so forgetful, so irresponsible. We tell ourselves to grow the-fuck up. We don't need anyone with a whip to drive us forward, because no one can come close to inflicting the kind of punishment that we visit upon on ourselves every day.
Some of us self-medicate. Addiction is common. I was fortunate that my addiction (video games) was relatively benign. Addiction to drugs, gambling, adrenaline and anything else highly stimulating are common. Chasing a high can sometimes be the only time our dopamine- and seratonin-deprived brains allow us to feel “normal”.
We also develop coping mechanisms. We rely on procrastination, because the stress of an impending deadline (and fear of the consequences of failing) is often the only thing that allows us to focus our attention. We try to find jobs where our paradoxical ability to hyper-focus is actually useful. We (try to) live obsessively by calendars and to do lists, because we know we’ll forget what it is we're supposed to be doing the moment the next shiny object (or email, or tweet, or phone call) appears. We develop hundreds of little tricks, like our dyslexic brethren who often unconsciously develop tricks to read well enough to get by.
But at the end of the day, these are just tricks. They're just coping strategies to help us in a modern world that demands skills that we don't naturally have. Sometimes, all of these tricks combined still aren't enough, or some of the tricks stop working, and suddenly the whole rickety scaffolding holding us together collapses.
We're not victims, though. This article might seem like a self-indulgent pity piece, but it's not. It's an attempt to describe why some of the people in your life might always seem to be one small crisis away from a complete meltdown. It's also reminder to myself to show more forgiveness - to myself and others. And it's a call for greater understanding of the entire range of neuro-chemical differences that causes a lot of people in this world to feel out of place. It's easy to dismiss ADD and a range of other conditions as paltry excuses for moral failings. It doesn't matter, though. Those of us with "deficiencies" in our brain chemistry - whether it's ADD, dyslexia, anxiety, or depression - have had to work pretty hard every day just to seem normal. We're so good at it, a lot of us don't even realize that we're doing it. We’ve been dealing with disappointment - from ourselves and others - our entire lives. A little disbelief isn’t going to make a difference.
But if you think there might be something to it, and if you want to know what it feels like to have ADD, imagine your're running through thick fog along a hilly trail covered with large rocks and tree roots. You have to keep running, because everyone else is running, and they don’t seem to have any trouble seeing the trail at all. But you can only see a few feet in front of you. You have two choices: slow down and pay attention to every blurry shape on the trail and get left behind; or charge blindly ahead, make what adjustments you can, hope that you won’t miss something, and pray that somehow you'll make it through in one piece. Imagine yourself in this position, and then tell me that you woudn’t be exhausted by the constant fear and anxiety. Or that you wouldn’t ever just fall flat on your face.
Think about that the next time you're wondering why someone always seems to be falling behind, because there are probably a lot of things you can say that are much more constructive than, "Keep up."
"One thing you who had secure or happy childhoods should understand about those of us who did not. We who control our feelings, who avoid conflicts at all costs or seem to seek them, who are hypersensitive, self-critical, compulsive, workaholic and, above all, survivors; we’re not that way from perversity and cannot just let it go. We’ve learned to cope in ways you never had to."
Piers Anthony - Author's Note from Fractal Mode