In the last couple of years, I’ve been reading up on adult ADD. The most common thread I’ve seen is that most adults – especially women – come to the realization that they have ADHD/ADD once their child’s been diagnosed.
It wasn’t all that surprising; I’ve suspected I may have ADD (I’m not hyperactive, hence the ADD instead of ADHD) for a few years now. But I’ve always brushed it off because, as far as my husband and son are concerned, I am the one who remembers and manages EVERYTHING. I forget nothing—as long as it’s for them. I’ve also done a pretty good job of creating an outward appearance of having my shit together and being fairly productive, so much so that I even convince myself sometimes.
I used to have an image in my head of what ADHD/ADD is; I had thought it included lots of disruptiveness and noise and jumping around. My son just comes off as a little “antsy,” not really disruptive, though he interrupts people constantly. (He doesn’t do it out of rudeness, but because he has an impossible time controlling that impulse.) He snaps his fingers a lot or just sort of bops his body around in place, as if he were listening to music. It’s not always very noticeable, but he is always moving in some way. When he plays video games with friends, his friends sit quietly on the floor while he jumps around and acts out the movements on screen—he’s always drenched with sweat after a few minutes of playing. As for me, my fidgeting is very constrained and controlled; I gnaw on my nails, I tug on my clothing constantly, I adjust my glasses nonstop, I fiddle with my hair, and if I’m feeling really frustrated or impatient, I’ll tap my foot angrily or repeatedly shift in my seat. But usually I’m afraid someone will notice, so I spend all my energy trying to curb it.
As a child, every one of my teachers told my parents that I talked “too much,” and my own father often complained that he couldn’t understand me because I talked so fast. Some teachers noticed that I spaced out a lot, especially during the warmer months. I was noticeably “smart” in elementary school, but I began to frustrate teachers with what seemed like a lack of effort as I got older. By the time I got to upper middle school and the start of high school, I was being called a “classic case” and “not living up to my potential.” No one back then thought to question why a girl who was identified as “gifted” and learned things quickly when she wanted to suddenly began to “disappear” academically. My story is pretty typical of girls/women because ADD/ADHD present differently in girls—it’s more subtle—and we learn to manage ourselves thanks to societal expectations. Girls tend to be more the “inattentive” type while boys are more hyperactive (though not always). I was the kid who stared out the window and daydreamed during class, and who had a hard time paying attention, even when I wanted to do the right thing. Typing class was a godsend to me, when I hit middle school – I finally had a way to get words and thoughts out as quickly as they came to me. (This was before computers were commonplace, mind you.) I was typing around 135wpm with 95% accuracy at 13-14 years old. These days, I’m around 150wpm or more. I love writing, but rarely do so with a pen or pencil because, as I said, I can’t write fast enough to keep up with my thoughts.
I had always had the stance that ADHD/ADD is far too widely and easily diagnosed—and I do still believe, to some degree, that it is. I don’t think a kid moving around too much and having a hard time sitting still in class equates with ADHD. (And really, it doesn’t. Most experts will tell you that the rise in diagnoses is largely a product of a lousy school setup and teachers not wanting to deal with antsy kids.) Sometimes a kid really does just need more exercise. And with gifted kids, they’re often times misdiagnosed or it’s hard to tease apart what are just aspects of being “gifted/differently wired” and needing more challenge, and what are aspects of being 2e (gifted + ADHD)? But there are things that distinguish “you’re too antsy in class” from ADHD/ADD. Before I had my son, I used to be terrified at the thought of all these things that could be “wrong” with my kid. But as I’ve come to learn more about it, it’s not the slightest bit worrisome and it’s certainly not “wrong.” With homeschool, ADHD really isn’t an issue. (But that’s all stuff for another post.) It’s not scary or “bad” at all. It’s actually a HUGE RELIEF. My son’s behavior and way of thinking are familiar to me—I know how to manage it, and I understand it. For me, the relief came with finally understanding so many things about my childhood and my experiences. I’ve spent a lot of time with negative self-talk and beating myself up about not getting things done, not sticking to things, being so impulsive, and the risks I’ve taken. I beat myself up A LOT about my lack of motivation and productivity. Now I understand. And with understanding, comes the ability to figure it out and find solutions.
I also brushed off the idea of ADD at first because I relate to everything on list of “symptoms,” except for the parts about being late and forgetting appointments. I’m too punctual to have ADD! I never forget appointments any more!
Then I read this tongue-in-cheek list, 23 Signs You Don’t Have ADHD. I read it, and I thought, “Ummmm….” (My therapist has told me that one of the best diagnostic tools for adults is simply recognizing yourself in everything you read about ADHD. And that I do.) I am stellar in a crisis, always have been (ADD people are energized to focus by the adrenaline). I have always felt “off” and apart from others. I’ve always feel wildly unproductive and “not fulfilling my potential.” I do technically finish projects on time, but always at the 11th hour. Always. (I need the “fear” factor to motivate me.) If I’m having a conversation with someone, I work really hard to either focus on what they’re saying, or just pick up “sound bites” to file away for responses. It’s rare for me to pay attention to an entire conversation, but you would never know it because, as with many ADD/ADHD adults, I’ve learned to manage and cope and work around these things. I’m 150% on top of things for my husband and son, but for myself… I lose things constantly. I walk out of the house and forget things all the time. I’ve bounced around jobs, interests, projects, even living situations. We’ve been in this house, in Seattle, for almost ten years now and it’s been really hard for me to cope with. Routine makes me a little crazy. It’s why I travel, why I freelance, why I take on projects and new endeavors. I have 100+ tabs open in all my browser windows at all times, including my phone. (On my phone, I have Safari, Chrome, Penguin, Firefox, AND Firefox Focus… and each of them has anywhere from 50 to 150 tabs open.) People have seen my email inbox and commented that it’d give them serious anxiety to have that many unread items… but they’re only unread because I re-marked them as such, because I need to remember things in them. I *used* to have post-it notes scattered all over, but then I started keeping everything contained on my computer. (And when I say “scattered all over,” I mean I would find post-its stuck to the bottom of my slippers, in my bathroom drawer, on the kitchen counter, throughout pages of books I was reading, in my purse, in my pockets, littered all over the car… Technology has made it much easier to hide how scattered I am.) You know how you occasionally walk into a room to get something, but then forget what you were going for once you get there? I do that. Every day. At least ten times. I’ve gotten in the habit of chanting whatever it is I need as I go into a room to get something. I’m a damn good cook, but if I leave the kitchen “for just a second” while I’m in the middle of cooking, I burn things. Because once I’ve left the kitchen, I forget that something is on the burner. I get very, very cranky in crowds because there’s too much stuff for me to process at once. If I’m out, and people are talking loudly, I cannot tune it out. I get aggravated if I have to hear more than one conversation at once. And yes, I *have to* because I cannot tune anything out. I get very fidgety with my clothing – I hate when something feels “off center” and the sensation of fabric pulling across my shoulders.
But I don’t forget appointments. Ever. I’m always on time and diligent about communicating if I think I’ll be even 5 minutes late. But I do this because I’m motivated by fear. The fear of someone being mad at me keeps me on point. And as I’ve been “watching” myself these past couple of months, I realized I do an extraordinary amount of mental acrobatics to remember appointments. I obsess over them —sometimes for weeks—until they arrive. I have calendars, appointment books, and digital reminders… but I don’t trust them to be enough, so I obsess.
The other night, when I was in a class, we were told to spend a few minutes reading an article we were going to discuss. I read the first couple of sentence… about five times. It was boring, and I went at it about five times before I started scrolling and skimming the rest of it. I do this all the time. I got by at UW, and graduated with high honors because I was either really, really interested in a class or just really, really good at expounding on the one sentence or paragraph I’d been able to read if I wasn’t. I’d say I read about 5% of everything I was supposed to read for classes. I tried. At the start of every new quarter, I’d run at it with a plan to stay on top of everything. And that would work for about a week before it fell apart. Then I’d suddenly have five hours left to get a paper done, based on 200 pages of reading I hadn’t even started… so I’d read one page and bang out a paper. Honestly, the only way I’ve survived is because I’m smart enough to make it sound like I did any work. Except for books that I enjoy reading, I don’t actually read anything in order. Seriously. I skip around. (“But aren’t you an editor now?” you wonder. Yes, yes I am. Reading for editing is different. In that capacity, I’m solving a puzzle and looking for “problems” in the language code. I love it, and am able to hyperfocus. I can accomplish in two hours what most people do in ten because… hyperfocus. When I get “in the zone,” I am highly efficient, and there’s no stopping me. Read on.)
But the things that really sealed the deal for me, in regard to “do I have ADD?” are: hyperfocus, paradoxical reactions, and intensity.
ADD is not “you don’t pay attention.” It’s not a DEFICIT of attention, despite the name. ADD is about an inability to regulate attention and focus. Meaning, I have plenty of attention to give, but I dump it all in one place and don’t have the ability to spread it around appropriately. If I’m really interested in something, I am laser focused to the point where I lose all track of time. I’ve nearly given myself UTI’s for being so absorbed and unable to break free from what I’m doing – I forget to eat, I keep saying, “one more minute” when I need to pee, and I don’t do most of the other things I need to do because I get completely stuck in the one thing I’m focused on. It’s really not a matter of just “deciding” to set a schedule for myself or any of the other useless “just do this” advice people keep trying to give me. I CANNOT “just do” anything. “Normal” people have an “importance” or “priority” based nervous system. People with ADD/ADHD, thanks to a disruption of the dopamine reward pathway, have an “interest-based nervous system.” That means I can only focus if under duress (crisis, deadline, competition) or novelty and interest. I write grade-A papers in an hour because I’m terrified of not getting it done. I code entire websites in an afternoon because I love putting it together, like a puzzle. I’m good at languages because, though many of my interests come and go, languages are my one enduring, true love; I can learn a year’s worth of a new language within a couple of months because it will be all I do in that month. I stiff myself as a freelancer because though I’m able to take on work that interests me, I get absorbed and get things done much faster than most.
It’s been a theme throughout my life. I’ll get completely obsessed… until I’m not anymore. I’ll dive into something completely and allow my life to be consumed by it. But then my interest will wane and it’s dropped forever. I cannot turn it off and on, I can’t just “decide” to stick to something or get something done.
Then there’s the paradoxical reactions. My therapist has agreed with me that I sound suspiciously ADD-ish… but my paradoxical reactions clinched it. Coffee can put me to sleep. Alcohol revs me up. Drinking coffee at night, or any caffeinated drink, has never been a problem for me. Because I drink iced coffee much quicker than hot, I have a hard time staying awake shortly after chugging an iced latte. Alcohol is a depressant for neurotypical people. For me, alcohol has the affect of caffeine. I’ve always talked really fast, but I’ve learned to manage and control it. When I drink booze, my motormouth goes into overdrive and there’s no slowing me down. I also gesture a lot more and have sent things flying with my hands after a glass of wine or two. (And I’ve occasionally gone out to run several mile runs after drinking because I have so much energy.) Benadryl and things like Tylenol PM get me wired, too.
Ah, then there’s the intensity and differences in emotional regulation. This is part and parcel of giftedness/differently wired, but also an aspect of ADHD/ADD. If I had to pick the one word that was most often used to describe me, it would be “intense.” I focus intensely on things I’m interested in (which could sometimes be a person or a conversation), and I feel things in a really big way. Every single person I’ve ever dated has, at some point, called me “intense.” Husband has said that being with me is sometimes like “staring at the sun.” (And he generally means that as a good thing, but it’s a lot for him sometimes, coming from a family where they did everything they could to avoid their feelings.) It’s all well and good as an adult, but as a child, a lot of this stuff had negative consequences that have stuck. I’ve withdrawn from people and socializing as much as I used to or want to because it’s exhausting to be monitoring myself and keeping myself in check. After almost every social interaction, I fret about everything I said and did, wondering if I came across as “weird” or said something inappropriate or revealed too much.
There’s so much about myself, or things in my life, that I’ve just adapted and forgotten about. I no longer see all the “filters” and adaptions because they’ve been routine for so long. When I began thinking about the possibility of ADD, I began observing myself and noticing all my adaptions. I watched myself in a class the other night and realized just how antsy, distracted, and “not there” I was. I’ve been observing myself throughout the day and became hyperaware of the 50 thoughts and activities I’m juggling at the same time. Always. (Unless I’m hyperfocused, in which case nothing else exists in the world except the one thing that I’m doing.) I’ve noticed how many times I set out to begin a task, but get distracted and do 100 other tasks instead. Getting started on things is a mountainous effort. I like the idea of things more than the actual doing. I hate committing to things and fail horribly in follow-through. I’ve never felt a sense of accomplishment when finishing anything, which is also typical of ADD. There’s the rush of a shiny, new idea or getting started on a new project… but when it’s done, where others feel that sense of accomplishment, I feel let down. I feel deflated at the end of everything, not accomplished, and am immediately on the hunt for the next exciting thing. I’ve always been a “novelty junkie” who’s attracted to intense relationships, risk, and elements of danger. (Ooooh, you should hear all the stories that I don’t dare write about here.)
I’ve also had problems sleeping since very early childhood, another ADD/ADHD and gifted thing. My mother said I stopped napping around a year old. (My son… never napped.) In my adolescent and preteen years, I used to lie awake worrying about cancer and nuclear war. As I got older, I was awake thinking about to-do lists, appointments, changing careers, trip planning, writing ideas, things I wanted to remember to tell my mother, my husband’s career, dinner, you name it.
Most likely, you’re reading this and thinking, “I do that, too, sometimes, what’s the big deal?” And it’s true, everyone experiences everything I’ve described here sometimes. Everyone has trouble sleeping sometimes. Everyone gets distracted sometimes. Everyone might act impulsively sometimes. Everyone forgets why they walked into a room sometimes. The thing with ADD is to what degree are you doing these things, how many of these things are you doing all at once, and how often? For me, it’s all of them, all the time. It has a huge impact on my life; I just hide it or don’t talk about it. Imagine living in a house that had ten televisions in the living room, and each of them was turned on 24/7, and they were all tuned to different channels and different shows. That’s what it’s like for me. And just like you get used to the smell of your house and no longer notice it, I’ve gotten used to all of this. I’ve adapted and I don’t even really “notice” it as anything out of the ordinary. But because I’ve already got these ten televisions going in my head, I’m often easily overwhelmed and distracted by external sensory information. (“But wait,” you might be saying, “I know you—I don’t see any of this in you.” Nope, you don’t. I’ve worked really, really hard to seem “normal.” Consider this my “coming out.”) And for anyone who thinks ADHD doesn’t exist – I have no patience with you. There’s mountains of research that show measurable differences in the brains of people with ADHD. The problem isn’t whether or not it exists, the problem is that people view it as a “disorder” because it goes against societal expectations rather than a simple difference in wiring. These things I’m describing aren’t just “cycles” in my life. It doesn’t come and go.
It has impacted my life in some pretty big ways. As a child, those ways were mostly negative. As an adult, I’ve made it work for me. I never say, out loud, that I wish I could do x, y, or z because it’s really frustrating to me when people start giving me advice on how to motivate myself. I’ve tried it all. It doesn’t work. ADD has many positives though, in fact, research has shown that it may have been an evolutionary adaption. The human race has benefited greatly from the ADD risk taking, creativity, unpredictable behavior, constant seeking for adventure, outside the box thinking, and hyper awareness. Check out this, this, this, this, this, and this.
I’m considering giving medication a try, to see if it helps with my productivity and ability to focus. I wonder how much more cool shit I could do if I could just focus. I have so much time to be doing so many things, but I get stuck or social anxiety overtakes me. But I’m not completely sold on the idea of medication because yeah… I’ve lived a pretty amazing life, largely due to the things that can be attributable to ADD. My love for adventure is well documented. I’m the girl who literally takes a flying leap off of ocean cliffs without a moment of hesitation (Mexico!). I took off to live abroad for three years without a job lined up and just $500 in my bank account (Prague!). I moved to Los Angeles to be with a guy I’d only known for a couple of weeks (my now-husband, still going strong after twelve years!). And actually… I was supposed to move to the US Virgin Islands for a different whirlwind romance, but Husband came and stole me away. *smile* I change my mind a lot and make just as many impulsive decisions to quit or stop doing something… but it’s always because—Squirrel!!!—something else caught my attention and I wanted to do the new thing, instead. My mercurial nature doesn’t leave much room for regret and honestly, I don’t even know if I have the emotional capacity to look back and wish I’d “stuck” to something. I used to be a hardcore burner of bridges, which did use to be a problem. But over the years, I’ve learned not to be so quick to set things alight.
My focus on a day to day basis is rough, but when it comes to changing the status quo within my life overall, I just decide to do something and do it. When I’m in the mood to get something done, I get it done at that moment. It’s part of my ping-ponging between extremes: when I want something, I want it NOW. If it doesn’t happen NOW, I lose interest. (This is why I constantly make plans that I later break.) I am extraordinarily resilient and used to failing, though. That’s one area where my short attention span works out to my benefit. When something doesn’t work, I just dust myself off and move on to the next thing.
There is nothing wrong with having ADHD/ADD. All it means is that the things that work to motivate neurotypical people don’t work for you.
If you’re wondering if you might have it, there are a gazillion self assessments online that you can look over. Remember, everyone does everything I’ve talked about here sometimes. Maybe even one or two of these things is true for you all the time. The key is: how many of these things do you relate to, how often, and how does it impact your life? Relating to two items on a list of ten isn’t ADD. Recognizing ten items on a list a couple days of the year isn’t ADD, either. Here’s a few links to get you started, if you suspect you’re in the club.