A couple in front of me are having a chat. The engine hums steadily but there are creaks and shudders with each hill and turn. Now, behind me, more talking … is that a language I don’t know, or just a strong accent? Random electronic noises meaninglessly disrupt the comfort of strangers. The scenery changes around me and I watch as the morning shakes off the rain and the sun pokes lazily through the clouds; sloth appropriate to its namesake day of rest.
I struggle to write this but the process calms me as I become more engaged. Narrative is a brush that paints pictures that thousands of years of storytelling have trained our brains to see. I am eventually less distracted by everything around me as my bus makes its way from one city to another.
The common belief about ADD is that it is an inability to pay attention. Depending on how you define attention, this can be true. It is also possible to see ADD as the opposite: ADDled minds notice everything. Our attention works like that of a photographer constantly seeking to be enthralled. Her camera has a focus that is sharp and revealing, but if a subject does not engross her, she moves on because she hungers deeply for one that does. Once she becomes engaged in a subject however, she will become so immersed in it that everything around her disappears.
The need for a stimulating subject is a powerful one for us. To describe it as a hunger is not really strong enough. Interest and engagement are like oxygen for the minds of those of us with ADD. If we are not keenly interested in something, the fact is that our minds do not work very well, or at least they do not at all work like neurotypical brains do. We search for stimulation because our brains need it like air. And we examine and are distracted by everything around us because our minds require that we search for stimulus.
If you do not have ADD spend a few minutes reading the last two paragraphs. Instead of saying “yes, well, everyone’s mind works better when they are interested in what they are doing” think about it from the opposite perspective. What if your mind barely worked at all unless you were intensely interested in what you were doing.
The ways in which we experience ADD are diverse (I don’t use the ‘H’ to describe myself because I can usually sit still, though staying seated can be quite difficult). Within that diversity are experiences that are so distinct in their commonality that when those of us with ADHD meet one another, we immediately recognize our kin. While the pathologizing and medicating of childhood is something to be deeply wary of, my life would have been much, much easier had I understood how my mind works when I was seven instead of thirty-nine. The signs were certainly all there from early childhood.
For parents wrestling with what seems like a daunting diagnosis, take comfort in the fact that a diagnosis, especially if accurate, is not a curse. And there are significant benefits to embracing, rather than trying to escape, the condition. I would suggest learning to recognize that photographer in your child. Notice the subjects that are enthralling and engross their attention. If you think that nothing does so, take your child out into the world and expose them to as many new activities, interests, and ideas as possible. (Actually, that’s a great idea for all kids, but there are so many challenges to being a parent.) Eventually, something will absorb your kid in a way that astounds you. Find ways to support them in pursuing these interests constructively, and celebrate their achievements as they do. Explore careers that build on their passion. Also teach them to feel a sense of pride when they complete and accomplish anything, but especially things that are mundane, which they likely don’t feel passionate about.
All of these approaches are especially important if your child is struggling to demonstrate success in more conventional pursuits. Be gentle with your children and teach them to be patient with their capacity for distraction and its consequences. Teach them the importance of working with others so that they can get help with the apparently simple tasks that they may find challenging. Often, at least for adults, simply working with others is stimulation enough to get our minds to function in a more typical fashion. As team-members people with ADHD can contribute our excitement, our energy, our eagerness to get started, our ability to scan and notice everything around us, and to focus keenly on an engaging problem until we find a solution. But often we must rely on the help of others to see a project through to completion. And we must practise how to mediate our capacity for disruption and how to work with others constructively. It does not hurt us to learn and accept these things about ourselves.
One of the distinctions between ADHD as an adult and ADHD as a child is the corrosive effect of the frustration that comes with decades of perceived failure. This is particularly harsh on adults who were not diagnosed as children or teens, and/or who have not found a niche as adults in which they clearly excel because they are engaged. Without a diagnosis we cannot understand why simple tasks like making one’s bed (which can take me half an hour, even when I am actively trying to keep focused on doing so) are so maddeningly difficult. Misplacing our keys in the three seconds between when we get into the car and when we need to start it is deeply unsettling when we have no understanding of why it happens. When we accept that our minds simply work differently, our lives become much less stressful. If we are fortunate we find a career in which we are successful, and we come to understand that the mind that enables us to focus so keenly on our areas of passionate interest is one that will inevitably struggle with the mundane.
With that understanding we are much more able to handle the frustrations that come with the irrationally daunting challenge of laundry, and the extra half-an-hour (or more, if we are unlucky) that we must spend every day finding things that we put down in the most ridiculous of places. We develop the habit of being forgiving and gentle with ourselves when we need to be. As I must be now because I realise that my bus is slowing down but I am too late to get off at my stop, and must settle for exiting at the next.