ADD? Me?

(OK--last navel-gazing post for a while. I swear.)

My day job involves my writing about a wide and eclectic range of topics--what clients want, I write. My store of knowledge now ranges from leadership training, to energy efficiency, to summer camp, and, most recently, the science of sleep.

It was in the course of researching an article about teens and sleep--did you know the average teenager's sleep-wake cycle isn't 24, but 26 hours?--that I stumbled across this checklist for adult ADD by Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, the authors of Driven to Distraction. Don't ask how I found it--my approach to research is to fall down the rabbit hole of Google and wander aimlessly along whichever paths present themselves. (Which is not altogether unexpected, as you'll see.)

I read through the checklist, more out of academic interest than any personal curiosity. And then one point sounded eerily familiar. Then another. Then another. Then another. By the end of the list I was nodding my head in recognition as intensely as any Slipknot fan.

I have friends with varying degrees of ADD and ADHD, but I'd never really thought about those states of mind as they related to me. Sure, the standard phrase when I was younger was, "You'd forget your head if it wasn't screwed on." I lost things with alarming frequency, including a winter coat, my retainer, my glasses, and countless umbrellas. (To this day, I don't carry an umbrella that costs more than $2.) I was scatterbrained, careless, and messy, with an awkward habit of blurting out inappropriate things, usually to my parents' friends. I was frequently late. But that was just being young, right? Aren't all kids like that? I wasn't hyper, I wasn't constantly engaging in high-stimulus behaviours, and never once did I hear, "You're just not living up to your potential."(As an adult, well, that's another matter.)

But still...

The checklist said things like:
  • "More than the average person, the ADD adult withers without encouragement." Check. I am, to put it mildly, a praise whore. Stroke my ego and I'm yours forever. This gets me into trouble.
  • "Transitions are difficult for ADD'ers, and mini-breaks help ease the transition." Check. I'm the one sitting in the bathroom following a meeting, just to allow myself time to gather my thoughts. If I have travel time, so much the better.
  • "Make use of lists, colour coding, reminders, notes to self, rituals [and] files." Anyone who's seen my calendar at home knows that social engagements are written in blue, theatre commitments in pink, work stuff in orange, bills in black, and appointments in purple. I can't get started in the morning without a hand-written to-do list.
  • "Plan scenarios to deal with the inevitable blahs." Check. Have you seen my stuck-to-the-fridge list of ways to cheer myself up?
  • "Expect depression after success...This is because the high stimulus of the chase or the challenge or the preparation is over." Check. I'm frequently intimidated by nebulous challenges, but if I have a very specific goal in mind (get into university! start doing theatre!) I revel in the chase. Stability (read: boredom) scares me. A lot. This also gets me into trouble, and is probably the reason I have three undergraduate degrees.
  • "Don't 'cut to the chase' too soon, even though you're itching to." Check. One reason I hate talking on the phone is that I can't seem to stop interrupting people, making for awkward, painful exchanges.
And as I thought about the scattered-ness I thought I'd outgrown, things occurred to me: I can be so spacy that one of my best friends suggested I go get a hearing test. (It was normal, of course. I'm not deaf, just distracted. That should go on a bumper sticker.) I forgot my headphones, umbrella, lunch, book and work documents at home yesterday, and that's not the first time that's happened. And thank God for Facebook, otherwise no-one would ever hear me say "Happy Birthday."

But I'm not (generally) late. I manage to keep (most of) my appointments.Yes, I find it hard to sit still without fidgeting, but I can pay attention well enough to carry on a decent conversation (usually) and contribute to meetings, rehearsals, and other interactions in meaningful ways. I'm a reasonably happy person--with perhaps a subtle undercurrent of discontent that I should, somehow, be accomplishing more in my life.

So if I'm dealing with...whatever...reasonably well, is there any reason to label it? Are we, as a society, too eager to pathologize personality?

Maybe. Certainly we need to take responsibility for our actions (or inactions), no matter what the cause. (To my massage therapist: I'm sorry I missed my appointments. To my dear friends: I'm sorry I can't remember your birthdays. To my mom: I'm sorry I don't call more.)

But there's a reason that one of the bibles of adult ADD is called You Mean I'm Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy? Most adults with ADD I know have spent much of their life a) beating themselves up for perceived personality deficits or b) dangerously self-medicating themselves because of something that is, in fact, a treatable medical disorder.

Personally, I've spent my entire adult life...well, really, my entire life altogether...believing that if I cared just a little more, if I applied myself a little more diligently, if I were a little less lazy, if I were a little more ambitious, I could overcome all my scatterbrained shortcomings and achieve everything I know I'm capable of accomplishing. The idea that some of the things that drive me crazy about myself--the lack of ambition, the utter inability to sustain attention on something that isn't immediately interesting, the overwhelm I feel when confronted with tasks that have no clear steps for completing them--may not be my fault is incredibly, wonderfully liberating.

Apparently, I'm not defective as a person. I am not a moral failure because I can't fake an interest in committee meetings. I am not evil because I can't sustain a writing project beyond tweets and the occasional blog post. I am not a bad person because I could care less about pursuing salary, and position, and am happy with a job that simply allows me to feel competent and occasionally fires me up about interesting stuff.

Some quirk of my brain chemistry over which I have no power affects the way I engage with the world. End of story. It's not my fault. I don't have to keep beating myself up. All I have to do is learn how to deal--and, by some stroke of luck, I have.     

So where do I go from here, now that I've figured out this part of myself? Well, because I'm dealing reasonably well--stagnating writing projects notwithstanding--I see no need for medication. If I do, indeed, have ADD (and the Adult ADD Self-Report Scale that I found pegged my profile as "Moderate"), I've learned enough coping mechanisms through sheer luck, a little bit of self-awareness, and a modicum of common sense that I'm not making a mess of things on a regular basis.

There's a definite blessing, though, in the suspension of the accusatory, judgmental voice in my head that's accompanied me for so long. It may not be completely gone, but at least it's only muttering instead of yelling.


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