Since the age of four, it was noticed by doctors that I did not pay attention to things the same way as other children. When the psychiatrist would give me an interesting toy to play with, I became so involved that I did not see the other toys he tried to tempt my attention away with. And if the toy was not fascinating, I quickly lost interest, and could not give it any consistent focus. They also noted my high levels of activity, excitability, and difficulty in calming down. These days they call this collection of traits ADHD, or: Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.
The term “deficit” is misleading, however, causing many people to misunderstand what ADD really means. Having had a whole lifetime to think about it and come to terms with it, I’ve finally boiled down the essence of ADHD to this: Normal people can decide what they focus on, for long periods of time, if they deem it important; a person with ADD cannot. Maybe I can pay attention for a little while (say, 15-30 minutes), but then it becomes too emotionally painful to continue. It feels stifling, oppressive, turning into a strange kind of agony that is difficult to describe. The pain is enough to affect my value judgments, causing me to care less and less about the consequences of not paying further attention, until finally I am in such a state of wishing to be elsewhere that I get distracted by my own thoughts. My brain start to fantasize about random things, involuntarily, in order to help me escape my acute sense of boredom. Before I know it I am off in some other world, having lost all touch with reality. That’s when, after hours have passed, I finally snap my head up and remember there was something I was supposed to be doing…
My ability to focus is directly related by my level of interest. This is not unlike the condition of a child. However, even children, if sufficiently motivated through positive and negative enforcement by their parents, can be directed to perform large-scale tasks, such as homework. When they grow up, these same children can learn how defer their interests to satisfy the demands placed on them by society. They develop an ability to pay attention to what is important, putting off their interests until they have more time. This is a large part of what becoming an adult means. It allows one to fit productively into society, an effective and smoothly flowing machine built up of the common effort of everyone moving toward a single, unitedly determined purpose.
For a person with ADD, however, this aspect of maturation never occurs. Nor should it be imagined we don’t want it to occur! The ability to decide one’s focus is so appealing, many take drugs in pursuit of this ability. Normal people seem superhuman to us, who can simply decide on a task and finish it, even if it takes days or months. If only I could choose what I spent my time on… I can already picture many of the things I would do.
But it doesn’t work that way. Not taking medicine keeps my mind active, agile, full of interesting things. Having a constantly shifting focus means I am always seeing new things, even within my own head. I like this experience, however much it prevents me from achieving what I see. It’s like wandering around in a forest and exploring, compared to settling down in one place and building a house. Exploring is more interesting; building a house takes too much concentrated effort. I may have sleep under the stars, but hey, that’s just the way it is.
I stopped taking medicine in my early twenties. Medicine made it possible to finish school with passing grades, but it also left me relatively uninterested in life. I had few interests, few friends, and learned very little in all those years. I date the beginning of my real education at around age nineteen. Until then, I simply did what I was told, and only enough to pass tests and get back to playing with my computer. I may have learned how to program during those years, but life was not about living back then, but just getting by.
In the years that followed – the unmedicated years – I learned an important lesson: ADD makes it impossible to sustain a collaborative effort on equal terms. This fact got me fired once, and it even led to a divorce. The inability to hold my focus on anything uninteresting has devastating consequences in terms of other people’s expectations. Why couldn’t I pay attention? Did I not care enough? After all, many people, if they care enough, can pay attention to the most boring things. If they care enough, normal people seem capable of almost anything. Obviously, if I could not pay attention for even one hour to a boring subject, it must mean I didn’t care.
This conclusion, so easily framed in the mind of someone without ADD, is impossible to argue against. There is no way to say, “Yes, I do care, I just can’t pay attention”, because to most people, caring and attention are practically synonymous: caring means paying attention: one pays attention because he cares. The focus of the average mind is determined by a rational process of applying one’s will to whatever that mind has elected to pay attention to. And that choice is based largely on what the person cares about; ergo, attention relates to significance.
This belief cannot be argued because it is commonly accepted as the very standard by which choices are to be judged. Because I don’t pay attention to something, I do not care. It doesn’t matter what I feel for the subject, the belief tells all concerned what my real feelings are. It is impossible to care and not pay attention. Since this possibility does not exist in a normal person’s universe – in fact, it is so unthinkable as to border on the pathological – it is not something I can argue against. Without a common ground, I find myself fighting a paradigm with no place for my words. I am, in effect, asking people to accept a world unrelated to the one they’ve lived in for so long.
The outcome of this is that, in the view of many, I simply don’t care. The projected reasons for this lack caring are numerous: laziness, complacency, immaturity, insufficient discipline, etc. The list goes on. Some have tried escalating their punishments to induce compliance, but this is notoriously ineffective against ADD. It just leaves us battered, and the other person’s wishes remain unfulfilled. In every instance, such a relationship either ends, or both parties begin to understand what is going on.
My last manager was remarkable in this respect, and I must give him credit here. In the beginning he tried very hard to bend me to a common, manageable mold: to arrive at work when my co-workers did, to complete my assigned tasks on time. It reached the point that one day he implied I would lose my job if I didn’t find a way to work like everyone else. It was a very hard time for both of us.
Then, for a reason I will never fathom, everything changed. I still don’t know what happened in his life to produce this change, but he suddenly had a completely different attitude. He told me I could get to work pretty much when I wanted to, as long as I met my deadlines. And he relaxed those deadlines when he knew the task didn’t interest me. He even kept me “in reserve” for the kinds of jobs I excelled at. He defended my behavior in meetings, and told others that the key to a successful team was learning how to manage the strength of its various members. I was flabbergasted. His change of outlook caused even me to learn a lot about myself. It was the first I could see myself as a worthwhile member of society if put to the right use.
It was because of this that my private despair ended, and I started looking for ways to succeed outside the ordinary models for success. I questioned the ideas of “success” and “productivity”. I wanted to know what society really needed, rather than just what it asked for. Wasn’t there a place for someone like me, who can start a hundred things in a single year, but not see a single one to completion? Coming up with ideas and inventions is not very difficult, but executing them is worse than pushing nails into my eyes. I can’t explain the nature of the pain, but at times I’ve imagined death would be far preferable. Because death would mean peace. That’s how bad it feels.
Maybe even, people like me are intentional. Perhaps God feels monotony is not a recipe for success, and individuals are needed who are unable to fit the mold. It certainly causes suffering for everyone involved, but don’t we grow through suffering? Wouldn’t a relentless, smooth efficiency cause people to stop thinking about how to change things – exactly because everything worked so well? Thus the need for people who are driven, not by external goals, but by their passionate interests. We couldn’t follow a straight line if we wanted to: Our nature prevents us from becoming what society desires (even, a lot of the time, what we desire), thus we feel compelled to look beyond such goals, and wonder if maybe something else wouldn’t be more worthwhile.
This is why productivity is no longer the name of my game. It does bother me, often, how unproductive my life really is in terms of what I could accomplish. I’ve never made it through higher education, never wrote the books I wanted to write, never documented my programming efforts, never been anything but a distraction to the groups I’ve joined. There have been so many disappointed people left in my wake, and so many hopes of my potential dashed. But for all the flakiness, people still find me interesting to be around; they still like me, even knowing that my commitments are not terribly reliable. So it is that the social exchange works, and that people with ADD really have something to offer: because there is more to life than meeting quotas and building another bridge. We need those people who feel driven to pursue their odd, random interests; who can contribute color to the beautiful mosaic humanity has so diligently designed.
This is my take on what it means to live with ADHD, and why I truly believe that not only do we have a rightful place in society, as we are, but if others recognized this more of us could leave behind our medication and begin to cooperate on much more beneficial terms – for all involved.