Living with adult ADHD
I have always been acutely aware of time - my first experience of it dragging was from the ticking clock on 60 Minutes. For a kid, 60 Minutes is the world's most boring show. I was annoyed to learn there are 60 minutes in an hour and that yes, the adults' show would be going for another 59 circuits of the second hand and no, I could not change the channel. Why couldn't they just say all their boring things faster?
At swimming training I would nag my friend to tell me the time at regular intervals, and calculate the minutes until the two-hour session of following the black line would end. This friend had a waterproof watch and six cabbage patch dolls at home. It was the 1980s and both those things were valued commodities. I hoped that swimming faster would help the time pass more quickly. It didn't, but I became a regional breastroke champion.
I started to noticed that my problem paying attention was more than slight interference, while watching The Daily Show. The 23-minute episodes are highly engaging, but sitting - simply sitting and watching it with my boyfriend, without interruption was like ignoring a swarm of ants in my pants. In conversations or meetings, I would constantly pre-empt people - anticipating their train of thought and talking over them (with varying degrees of success). I found myself interrupting, jumping in, and being boisterous in cutting to the proverbial chase. There was no chase, except me chasing time.
My attention span had whittled down to about the length of time it took to read a column in the newspaper. I wanted to read the way I had as a 13 year old, but found myself skimming over words and pages, needing to 'use the force' to actually attend to things in any depth. It was irritating me, I was frustrated with myself - there were piles of books stacking up that I could never get beyond the first few pages of. I made a new rule - no more buying books until I read at least one.
I started questioning, then googling what this thing was. I knew what kids with ADHD looked like. As a school counsellor I watched their parents march them off to the paediatrician and back again, usually on medication. I even knew all about the impacts of technology overuse and a new phenomenon starting to get the fear mongerers talking called Internet Addiction. I wasn't like those fidgety fiddly naughty kids who get bored with everything... or a teenager engrossed in a massive online realm more dynamic than reality. Oh wait.
At school I wasn't dumb, but I didn't work that hard. I was a bit forthright and challenging. Especially in Religious Education in year 9, where I was a 'smart mouth', called out and interrupted lessons.
At uni, I joined theatresports (a great way to throw ideas around and embody thoughts) and spent stacks of time with the Hare Krishnas (where I first tried chanting meditation and yoga). I had no idea what I wanted to do 'with my life'. I wasn't good at anything. I worked in call centres, delighted by the thrill of never knowing who would be on the phone when I answered it. There was always someone new to talk with, solve their problem, answer their question and then farewell. I especially loved angry callers and people seeking conflict - the buzz of the fleeting exchange.
I have always been supremely organised - this has masked my attentional hiccups nicely as it's the complete opposite of the stereotype of someone with ADD. Everything has a place, or a folder, or a box to live in. I love sorting things. So much so, when I was eight, I wanted to be a butcher - because they got to keep all the meat in nice neat sections all sorted in 'likes'.
Sounding like more OCD than ADD you're thinking? Being tidy kept things in order, in some kind of balance. A balance that didn't exist inside my head, where distracting thoughts would ambush me like random arrows fired across my consciousness. And where everything was interesting, exciting - yes, even shiny.
I used to think I was anxious. But I realised that the content of the thoughts were not worrisome - there were just lots of thoughts. All of the time. From the moment my synapses started firing to when I finally fell asleep. If my thoughts were milk, they could make butter. Technology and the internet fuelled my thoughts and questions, and pandered to them - providing quick answers and immediate feedback. The thoughts could be immediately gratified via social media, especially Twitter, which became a way to externalise the thoughts and give them a space to exist that was beyond my internal psychic world where ideas would arise and then trail off like wisps of smoke.
To wrangle these thoughts, I write lists and make notes. In meetings or seminars I have to have paper and pen to disguise my listlessness, capture the thoughts and ideas and line them up in categories - lest they continue to intrude, and tempt me totally off task.
Lots of people joke about being 'totally addicted' to technology/devices that they enjoy using or being 'soooo ADD' when they just mean busy and excitable. I made these comments and mostly people joked along - until one person didn't. He was a colleague and child psychiatrist who gently suggested I was doing a pretty good job at disguising the issues with my coping techniques, but the cracks were starting to show. He was right. The strategies themselves were becoming the distraction. I warily took every online test I could find, read lots of information about adults with ADD and eventually got a referral to a psychiatrist with a specialisation in adults with ADD. I walked out of my first appointment with a script for Dexamphetamine.
Lana Del Rey got in my ears with her lyrics 'now my life is sweet like cinnamon, like a f***ing dream on Ritalin' and several times I stood in the staffroom kitchen with a student's bottle of medication staring at me on the shelf, wondering if that was the answer.
I confided 'my diagnosis' in a few close friends, people who had seen me go through a handful of challenging life events. I stopped that after their ad hoc analysis of me as highly anxious and needing anti-depressants (coming from someone with bi-polar disorder) or as having OCD because I'm ordered (coming from someone who is not only incredibly intelligent, but phenomenally messy and a hoarder) were laden with judgement that I'd have expected from scientologists.
Suddenly I felt more stigma about being 'labelled' ADD than if I had been medicated for depression. Maybe I was just lazy and lacking self discipline, maybe I should just work harder (if that was even possible), ignore sensory inputs, be 'in the moment' more, throw out my wifi modem, throw out my iPhone, exercise more, eat less sugar, meditate, do yoga, grow up. I'd tried all these things already. Was I throwing my angels out with my demons by choosing to take dexies?
No, it seems not. After my initial resistance, I accepted that on most days, taking medication is very effective for supporting me get to through my work, and my life. I can work with more direction and purpose, my task completion has skyrocketed, the work I do is generally more well-rounded, considered and better quality.
Immediately I felt like I listened more authentically to people, I relate better and more deeply. I am not a zombie, nor a speedhead. I haven't dropped five kilograms or lost my appetite. I still write lists and use software to block social media, but I can take a hot bath for longer than seven minutes. I can lie still in sivasana at the end of yoga and not be planning what to cook for dinner.
People who know me laugh when I say that I don't feel like I have achieved much. It's true, that's what I feel. Yes, I have done some stuff - teach full-time while studying and running one of the biggest debating programs in Australia, produce eight theatre shows in the last five years, write a thesis on the emerging phenomenon of Internet Addiction and start a research group on adolescent digital wellbeing, complete psychology registration, go overseas seven times, and then start a whole new career.
But I don't have a huge sense of accomplishment. It's just stuff that I've done, and only a fraction of the stuff I want to do and the things I think up. No biggie. I don't really look back and go 'wow - I did that stuff'. I look forward and get excited by what's next. I get very excited. But now, it's a different kind of excitement - the kind I feel like I can sustain. Now I am the turtle, not the hare.
- Daily Life