Continued from Why are you like this?

We watched Gladiator last night.

Re-watching this story of a decorated general who ends up fighting for his survival in meaningless staged conflicts reminded me of my own early sobriety. I could relate – not to the skill and heroism, but the meaninglessness of the suffering.

Through the magic of pretty good screenwriting and acting, Maximus was able to hosw us how he move dfrom being an unlucky dying dude to a fully realized character who understands the full meaning of what he’s up against, and to give a good account of himself. He accomplishes all this development in less time than it takes me to roast a whole chicken.

For me, even getting a start on this journey took me many chicken lifetimes.

Mosaic of Roman games

As an ADHDer with a high ACE score, getting sober was like coming to in the middle of a kind of arena. How did I wind up here? Have I got anything I can fight with? When is that chariot with the spiked wheels going to whizz by again?

At 23, after a decade of heavy drinking, loud noise, and terrible self-care, I was exhausted. Lots of people around me in recovery were going back to interrupted careers as attorneys, bond traders, actors, writers. But I was having trouble getting traction on building any career at all.

I knew I wanted to recover, to get back to trying to make a life for myself, to replace bad habits with good ones. Every time I peeled off one bad habit (drinking) I just found another (cigarettes) even more entrenched habit underneath it.

The n Horsemen

Looking back now with the lens of ADHD, I can see I was thwarted by many less evident habits, really tendencies of mind, that stood in my way. This post takes a brief look at three I have recently made a lot of progress on: emotional dysregulation, mental inflexibility, and low-level mania.

You can look at them as mood, mindset, and energy if you like. If any or all of these problems sound familiar to you, I hope this post will convince you that each one of these responds very well to the right approach.

At the end of this post, I share my recipe for how I got these three problems under control.

But before I go there, let me briefly explain each of these particular horsemen, and how they show up in my life.

Emotional Dysregulation
fork my life

Good fork, bad fork

When I shared the news of my re-diagnosis of ADHD with my kids, and explained one of the common associated conditions being Emotional Dysregulation, my son held up a fork. I knew exactly what he meant.

For several years, both my son and daughter had noticed that I had absolutely no sense of humor about place settings at the table.

Specifically, small forks pissed me off. A lot.

It was Christen Carder’s podcast I Have ADHD where I first heard the term. What a relief! I am still not sure why learning the term has enabled me to feel less at the mercy of my emotions. I guess I would say it enabled me to identify the problem specifically, and to apply other learning to it. After I learned the term, I found myself better able to pay attention to how my moods were affecting other people. From there, I started instinctively looking for ways to improve my mood.

Mental Inflexibility
Sometimes the wronger I am, the less I am willing to change course. I think it’s partly a side-effect of mental exhaustion from trying too hard to exert control over my attention.

Glass football helmet, Waterford, Ireland

Here’s the way it works for me sometimes: I begin a task, like typing in a blog from my handwritten notes. Someone comes into my area to tell me something, (like my son just did.) Depending on my mindset I can be annoyed, flummoxed, or easygoing. (This time I was pretty good.)

If I started the task while afraid that an interruption would cause me to lose my place, I am likely to react to interruptions with annoyance. This mindset gets reinforced over time, and can persist even after I’ve solved the problem by making sure I always have my notebook and a pen with me.

Also, for me, this irritability was a symptom of chronic self-abandonment – I simply did not spend enough time alone.

Low-Level Mania
As I mentioned, I arrived at early sobriety in a state of complete exhaustion. I had lots of factors fueling my tendency to amp up my mental energy: Hyper-vigilance from past traumas and humiliations, a sense of having dozed through nearly a decade being drunk, and the tension created from the plain old ADHD experience of forgetting important things at critical moments.

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Manic rainspout, Bayeux, France

So let’s review the situation:

  • My emotional upsets disrupt my train of thought, which erodes my self-esteem, which makes me more defensive.
  • With a background mindset of frustration, I undertake projects or tasks with rigidity.
  • I can’t slow down enough to consider your advice to relax. When people told me to slow down and take time to get things right, I internally decided I just needed to try harder.

A delightful cocktail of self-reinforcing problems. These habits of mind made me difficult to be around sometimes.

What Is Different This Time
When I was diagnosed the first time (Clinton was president) I took meds, got better enough to make progress in a career, and did pretty much nothing else to address my mental hygiene. (Long version here.) Eventually, the whole issue came roaring back in the past few years, and when absolutely forced to deal with it now, I have been willing to take it seriously.

The payoff has been huge, and the good results are multiplying all throughout my life, my family, my health, my professional life, and my creative projects.

Why It IS Different This Time

I don’t coast, expecting the meds to do everything.

I see this keeping a lot of people from really improving and that drives me nuts.

Even though this is a long and complex story, it’s really the driving force behind this entire blog project – to encourage those who are coasting on meds along to really appreciate how much better they could have it if they got out and pushed at key points along the road.

What I Do

ADHD Treatment – Professional help including stimulant medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.

AND

Personalized, multi-modal treatment plan including the following:

  • Daily periods of solitude
  • Continuous study of ADHD and Neuro-diversity information
  • Expectations of gradual progress over time
Morning routine

Leaving out any one of these threads has meant failure. Including each of them in balance over time has been enormously beneficial.

Back to the Arena
When I was struggling with untreated symptoms of ADHD and a high ACE score, I got overwhelmed easily, suffered career setbacks, and was unable to do anything but suffer the consequences like a dumb animal. I kept getting knocked down, and kept getting up, but I was only able to learn tiny adjustments, never to dig into the actual core problems that prevented me from build on my many wins.

Every day I was starting from scratch. I was constantly learning new things in my professional career, my creative work, and my family life. But I was mostly unable to advance, blocked from building on successes and learning from mistakes, blind to a bigger picture. This was despite the fact that I asked for and received lots of feedback, guidance, training, compassion, support, and forbearance from many people at work and at home. And I did have lots of genuine accomplishments throughout this time of living with untreated ADHD symptoms.

Without proper treatment, without adopting the lens of ADHD, and without a serious commitment to multi-modal self-care, I was simply unable to get off the emotional hamster wheel, cultivate a mindset of flexible thinking, and calm the hell down.

This blog tells the story of how I, after stumbling on the same snares over and over, eventually found my way out of the arena of unremitted suffering and repetitious mistakes that have punctuated so many decades of my life. I try to accompany descriptions of problems and symptoms with solutions wherever possible, and I hope to help others by sharing what I noticed, what I tried, what worked, and what did not.

Gratitude
At this point in my second go-round with ADHD, I have begun to experience a transformation. I am starting to feel traction now, instead of churn. And where I felt panic, I now feel a real sense of calm. Most importantly, where I had noticed a constant throb of pain and grief, which I labeled as the “what about me?” feeling, I now bask in a sense of reassurance and security from having spent regular, high-quality time alone.

This traction is partly due to my own decisions and actions, but it is also available thanks to the help and support of my wife, our children, my siblings, the encouragement of good friends, a smattering of twittadvocates, ADHD coaches who blog and podcast, the dedicated professionals I’ve been fortunate enough to actually listen to and heed, and yes, to the folks sharing info online, be it self-appointed sages or the degreed professionals.

I feel I now know what my central problems are, and I know I can do specific things every day to really improve my life, in the small and the grand ways.

Your turn

What has worked, what has not worked for you?

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