About 5 years ago I was formally diagnosed with ADHD. I didn’t go in to the dr. complaining about an attention deficit or any obvious signs of hyperactivity. I had finally decided to do something about a sleep problem that had plagued me since childhood and came out an hour later with a shiny new disorder I could call my own. Yay me!
To be fair, it wasn’t the first time that the idea had been floated. Every few years as a kid my parents got called into my various schools and told that I was disruptive. Sometimes this coincided with poor grades and sometimes it was just my refusal to sit quietly and do what I had been assigned to do. In every case though my teachers were quick to point out that despite my behavior issues I was incredibly bright and it was their belief that I was just bored in class. Which was very true. Not only was I bored I was frustrated. I loved learning but once I got it I just wanted to move on and do something else or wanted to find the connection between the knowledge I just gained and some other thing that was seemingly unrelated but I could see the connection in. Which come to find out is pretty typical for folks with ADHD.
Luckily for me this was the 1980s and things like Ritlin, Adderall, or Dexedrine had yet to become household names. I say luckily because I firmly believe that while ADHD may have closed certain doors to me there is no way I’d be the person I am today had my still developing brain been clouded with a mess of chemicals to “fix” me.
After being diagnosed with ADHD I agreed to start a regimen of Concerta. Concerta is the brand name and it comes from the same family of Methylphenidates as Ritlin. My sleep immediately improved. I was tired between 10 and 11 p.m. every night. I awoke rested and with more energy. I managed to quit smoking after 15 yrs. I adopted a workout routine and actually stuck with it. Those were the upsides.
The downsides however were just as dramatic even if they weren’t as apparent. I was really productive at work but found myself forgetting things or, at least, taking longer to recall and respond to things. Hours would pass by and I’d barely leave my desk. Sometimes I wouldn’t recall driving home. Not blackouts, I was just so focused on things that I was having problems putting events into a continuous stream. Things like my daily commute became like the individual pages in a child’s flip-book. I could easily recall any part of my day but it seemed to take real effort to put it into perspective of what came immediately before it or after it. Multi-tasking became a challenge. As did my predictive ability.
It might be useful at this point to diverge for a moment if you’ll indulge me. Part of the way my ADHD manifest itself is in what I’ve come to call “predictive ability.” I don’t know if all ADHD people have this same thing but for me it works like this. When looking at a problem I can rapidly assess multiple courses of action and quickly identify the potential outcomes of each one. And not just the immediate impact of a choice but the long term third and fourth order effects. In many causes, if I’m knowledgeable enough in the area, I can do this in seconds. While everyone else is trying to work through the first set of options, I’ve already run through the potential outcomes of most conceivable variables and made a decision. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not saying I’m always right or have the perfect answer but anyone that’s worked with me long enough can tell you I’m pretty good at seeing what’s coming even if they didn’t realize why. As a young man, I had to learn to temper my frustration at waiting for everyone to catch up and got really good at using well placed questions to get people caught up with me without coming off as a cocky know-it-all by letting them think they thought of it on their own.
The drugs also started to stifle my talent for seeing the connections between things that had no apparent connection on the surface. My brain has organized information in a kind of 6 degrees of separation and so my reality is very much one of a butterfly flapping its wings in the Sahara leading to Hurricane Katrina. It’s actually a really useful skill to have and can lead to some pretty interesting conversations but that’s a different post for a different time.
At any rate, I complained to the doctor that I couldn’t think. I didn’t find pleasure in reading or learning anymore. I didn’t seem to retain information and my recall had slowed. Most startlingly my ability to explain things or persuade people started to slip (which was something I had always prided myself on). My fantasy football team started to lose because I was having problems seeing the patterns in weekly match-ups…which seems frivolous but spoke more directly to my predictive decision making ability.
My doctor was great. He worked with me trying different doses and suggested taking the medication at different times of the day. This went on for about 9 months before I finally just asked him if I had to keep taking the medication. He explained that at 30 yrs old I had obviously learned to manage most of the more troublesome parts of the disorder and it hadn’t seemed to greatly stifle my life so since I had voluntarily started the treatment I could withdraw from it at any point. I made the choice to discontinue treatment.
Almost immediately my brain went back to functioning the way to which I had previously been accustomed. My sleep issues also resurfaced but it seemed a small price to pay to get “me” back. I tried some different sleeping medications at various points since then but nothing really seems to work without cognitive side effects. So here I am today. Living with a disorder that I don’t really consider a disorder. If anything I’m glad I’m not a child today as I’d likely already have been doped up to the point of being “normal.”
I don’t sleep well but over the years I’ve made sure to make my late night time productive. I read non-fiction, watch documentaries, peruse news articles, try to learn new skills, or just sit in quiet contemplation of the present moment. I eventually fall asleep and force myself awake early enough to shake off the cobwebs before I head off to work. Sometimes that means 4 hrs of sleep and others I’ll be in bed for 12 hrs or more. I find meditation helps when I can make myself do it but the key is my brain is operating the way it was designed to not as someone else thinks it should.
I live with ADHD. I don’t suffer from it. It is part and parcel of who I am and what I’ve become. My experience maybe unique but it is mine and instead of medicating myself into a cognitive coma I’ve chosen to embrace it and feed it. Does it interrupt my ability to do certain things? Sure it does, but no more than my size prevents me from playing pro sports. In fact, as the speed of the modern world accelerates, and the ability to alternate between multitasking and hyperfocus (both common traits of those with ADHD) increases, people like me may just be the ones that posses the unique skill sets to survive and thrive in a future dominated by constant streams of information.
I’m not broken & I’m not flawed. I just am. And while there is nothing wrong with working towards an ideal it might be useful to recognize the unique traits our various disorders bring to the table. The world has more than 7 billion people and if we were all normal it’d be a pretty boring place.