One thing I’ve learned while trying to understand what it is my brain does – how it works and why some tasks that appear simple are difficult for me while other tasks that may be more complex are easy. Or why I simply have an inconsistent ability to be reliable or productive.
Most of the information is from articles I’ve read and lectures I’ve watched. Much of it is from memory, so I’m trying to cite this as more my personal experiences as filtered through information I’ve researched. My first post about ADHD has links to some videos which may help explain some of this, but this post is presented as mostly anecdotal.
I’ve read articles that suggest that ADHD exists because of a failure to adapt to modern schooling. I have read arguments that ADHD is simply pathologizing childhood behavior (especially boys’ childhood behavior). The name itself is both trivializing and wrong: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and most people don’t even realize there are three subtypes or how they work or what they mean. Or that there appears to be a fourth type that may not even be ADHD at all, even though it shares multiple symptoms with the other forms of ADHD.
But the name, the name is so very, very wrong. Attention deficit? As I said in my last post, I don’t have an attention deficit. I feel like I have an attention surplus. I have more attention than I need, and in fact am constantly looking for stimulation because the alternative is boredom, and boredom for me is almost physically painful. But really, that’s the tip of the iceberg. Most of the time, I am constantly switching my attention from one thing to another – online, it’s from chat to e-mail to QT posts to livejournal to tumblr to twitter to blogs to other sites and constantly swapping around and around doing whatever grabs my attention at that moment. Sometimes I can focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else for hours at a time, but I have difficulty not doing that thing even if I need to. In both cases I don’t have complete control over how I direct my attention. I may be unable to focus on something – on many things – that I need to do in favor of doing things I enjoy doing (like online socializing). It may be more accurate to say that I have difficulty directing my intentions.
But my inability to direct my intentions means that I often fail to do things I need to do, or want to do but for whatever reason I never seem to remember to get around to doing them. Sometimes I attempt to do things, but for whatever reason I can’t focus on it. It’s very difficult to write more than a couple sentences of a blog post before I’m distracted. And those sentences are themselves incredibly difficult to write because I feel like I really want to do something else (sometimes anything else). This makes it hard for me to meet deadlines because I wait until the last minute to do things. It makes it hard for me to keep up with bureaucracy and paperwork. In general, this can wreak havoc with my life because I am not always able to follow through on obligations and responsibilities, no matter how much I want to. This inability also means that I am easily distractable if I am not focused on a single thing. I have been distracted repeatedly from writing this post and keep losing my place, having to refind it, remember what it is I wanted to say here, get a few sentences out and then back to twitter!
As an adult, I am not running around and bouncing off the walls and even as a child I am told I wasn’t necessarily hyperactive. I did do risky, impulsive things (like climb on the roof, jump off of high places, play with fire, set off firecrackers indoors, etc) and some would say this is normal for children and I’m not really going to argue that point. As an adult, impulsiveness can mean not being able to properly filter what I say to other people, keep myself from interrupting. It can also mean buying something expensive I cannot afford because I’d really like to have it and the part of my brain that regulates this seems to work better with instant or short-term rather than rather than long-term delayed gratification.
So really, this impulsiveness can interfere with social relationships (imagine blurting horrible faux pas before I realize what I’m saying and can stop myself – yes, I’ve lost friends this way) and with my ability to manage money (must buy now!). This goes a lot deeper, though. And this is actually statistically supported – not that all ADHDers are like this, but that ADHDers are more likely than the general population to engage in high risk behaviors, start smoking, engage in substance abuse, and even end up in prison. ADHDers are more likely to drop out of high school, drop out of college, hold jobs for short periods of time, and so on. There are so many possible negative outcomes with untreated ADHD that it’s difficult for me to really give a full list. But the impact on multiple areas of life can be profound. Which is why I’m a high school dropout with a GED, I have dropped out of college three times despite being able to maintain excellent grades. Why I’ve been unemployed outside freelance work for 12 years. Why I’ve lost jobs because I constantly forgot little things (like buying shoes to fit the dress code) or because I was unable to consistently arrive on time.
Which brings me to another element of ADHD. I’m not really sure what the mechanisms behind this are, but I have a terrible time sense. Hours can pass in what feels like a flash, days can pass in what feels like a flash. The day I wrote about community feels just as distant to me as the day I wrote about dysphoria. I can’t even remember how many days ago I did either, although I can easily find out by checking the posts. I know that last Friday was seven days ago because I know today is Friday, but I can’t really explain what seven days passing feels like, because they sort of all become an undifferentiated blur. This has a practical impact on my life: I cannot accurately judge how long it will take to do something. If I think I can get it done in an hour, I am probably wrong and it may actually take 2-3 hours. This means, for example, that I often misjudge no matter how much of a margin of error I try to set, and I end up being late to work, or class, or other appointments. I have actually developed ways to cope with this, but it often means taking more time to prepare and arrive early than it would for most other people. It also means I have difficulty accounting for the future effectively until the future event and any consequences stemming from it are much more immediate – causing me to wait until the last minute to complete the things I need to complete.
I feel like I’m filling this up with a lot of information, but my point is that ADHD can represent impairment in multiple areas of life. It is not simply a matter of “hyperactivity” or “short attention span” and I am not even sure that the popular conception of what an attention span is even comes close to what attention and focus are like for people with ADHD. It affects far more areas of the brain and causes far more problems than I think is readily apparent to most. ADHD symptoms cause neurotypicals to view us as irresponsible, flighty, inattentive, self-centered, uncaring, messy – to view these symptoms as moral failings even as ADHD itself is viewed as a trivial diagnosis largely intended for children.
And the impact of this on my own life, living with a lifelong invisible disability that even I was unaware of, has been pretty immense. Not just from the abuse I endured for not being able to do what was expected of me, but the lost jobs, the failures to graduate college, the inability to apply what I knew, no matter how well I knew what to do. Two very common comorbidities with ADHD are anxiety and depression, and I have both. I may have more for all I know, but those two are certain. I have accomplished many things I set out to do with my life, but I have not been able to accomplish nearly everything I have ever wanted or hoped to do. And being treated like I didn’t care, like I was flighty and irresponsible, when this was so far from the truth: I tried to be reliable and responsible, I do care and I hope that shows in my writing, but I am not always able to initiate or sustain activity based on these things.
And I don’t mean this as a call for pity or regret, because I’ve never wanted that. Not for being trans, not for being ADHD, not for anything. I mean this because just in the past two months, what I’ve read was so full of misinformation, propaganda, outright lies that I feel the need to say something, to talk about what this is like for me at least. I’m not even sure I’m done. I feel like this post is rather clinical and may not communicate what it’s like for me to live with this. No matter how exhaustive I try to be, I always miss something. But I hope it helps people better understand what this is like, and how it’s not a matter of willpower but neurology. That the brain itself is wired differently, in ways that impact executive functions, that makes it difficult to prioritize tasks, control attention, sustain working memory through interruptions, resist impulsive behavior, and regulate emotions. That ultimately, this actually negatively impacts my own ability to make plans and account for long-term goals on a consistent basis. That I am more likely to be able to follow through on something with immediate consequences (and often gratification) than I am to follow through on something with delayed consequences, even if the latter are more important, more valuable, more critical, more necessary.
I would like to talk about medication, how it’s amazingly effective for some ADHDers, and that a lot of the information in the media is intended to scare and not inform, how it helps with actually focusing your attention (like I have been on QT for the past two weeks) and overall productivity. Unfortunately, I do not have any actual medication, and have been self-medicating with coffee to maintain my current posting schedule, although it hasn’t helped signficantly with a lot of activities outside of this. The difference for me between not having that coffee and having it is the difference between wanting to write a 2000 word post but spending all my time on anything and everything else and actually writing this post.