I like to think about how one of the best podcasters in the world went to CU Boulder several years before I got there to do my MA in writing. In his Supernova in the East show, Dan Carlin uses the phrase “just like everyone else, only more so” to explain how trends in Japanese cultural set them up to play an outsized role in the games of bloody global conquest that made up so much of the first half of the 20th century.
I submit that this well-worn phrase also comes in handy to describe ADHD folks – not just in how we appear to others, but what we need in order to minimally function. Dan and I attended the same university more than a decade apart, and nothing else connects us except a love for Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power LP. Put another way, we’re practically siblings.
And if you can’t steal from your family, what’s the point of having a family?
ADHDers: Canaries in the Coalmine of Mental Hygiene
Everyone needs to do some basic mental hygiene: get enough exercise, rest, eat right, avoid poisonous friends, spend a little time thinking deep thoughts. Sounds reasonable.
If you’re neuro-typical, and you skimp on self-maintenance, you can count on seeing maybe a (rustles papers) 3% drop in the metrics used in the productivity industrial complex. Your coat won’t be as shiny, your boss might give you a lukewarm evaluation, maybe you’ll be short a few pellets at the end of the quarterly tunnel.
But if you’re one out of ten of the population with ADHD, neglecting these basic mental hygiene tasks can be catastrophic.
That’s right – we’re working with no net up here. If we don’t make sure to get enough sleep, exercise, and solitude, our human parameters can flatline with no warning. And I’m not talking about finishing the marathon but not getting the time you hope for.
No, I mean like the difference between being fired instead of promoted, filing for divorce instead of celebrating another anniversary, that kind of flatlining.
When I got diagnosed the second time, my therapist was talking about time management, bad executive functioning skills, and lack of focus. I was smarting from some recent and extreme consequences of my own self-neglect, but I still had the wrong attitude about the importance of my own self-care. I was still thinking of it like some mild allergy.
He said You have to treat this like Diabetes. Why this got through my wall of minimizing and rationalizations, I do not know. Was it his Cuban accent? The constant flood of new research he shared? Or was it simply that he almost never made direct statements like that. He was choosy with doling out advice.
So on top of needing to take better care of ourselves, we usually have a built-in resistance to seeing a problem as serious.
Here are some other ways in which ADHDers show up as outsized versions of normal folks.
Life with ADHD: A Symphony of Extremes with No Quiet Interlude
Everybody, no matter how polished, has rough edges somewhere. But most people can blend in when they need to. ADHD folks are not usually so good at blending in.
To explain why, I’m going to go on a tear here and just spew out generalizations. Some of this won’t apply or make sense to everyone. I’m ok with that. Knit your own damn sweater, people.
We experience life more intensely, react to it with less equipoise, have more trouble playing it cool, need more help settling in.
We demand more space, more air, more attention, more input, more privacy, more choices, more explanation, more autonomy, and more direct hand-holding.
We use more colorful language but we bristle at your word choice. We generalize more but demand more precision. We piss you off. And yes, you annoy us too – just by being normal.
We have more to apologize for, but we don’t know how you cut you a break.
We make a quick study of intricate details but always seem to miss the totally obvious – especially right after it’s been brought to our attention.
We are high-maintenance but hate being coddled.
We are often lax about fulfilling on agreements, but take it super personally when you try and hold us accountable.
We hate being micro-managed. There is no other part of this one.
We draw attention to ourselves constantly, but find scrutiny infuriating.
We love consistency but hate following instructions.
We despise routine but can’t stand surprises.
We obviously need help sometimes with simple stuff, but we get pissy when anyone offers it unless they do it PERFECTly.
We love a challenge, but cannot conceal when we’ve lost interest. Want to see what that looks like?
OK, here’s a bunch of the boring shit everyone already knows about, which I will recite half-heartedly:
Compared to non-ADHD folks, people with ADHD generally have greater struggles learning, remembering, prioritizing, planning, following through, and handling their extreme emotions, goddamn I cannot even stand saying this. I know my real ADHD peeps have stopped reading by now anyway.
Gone? Good. Wow. That sucked. I started making fresh points but then decided I should sound like an expert and went into a ditch of boredom. Let me try to get back to the stuff I find interesting.
Constantly Striving to Make Things Memorable
Lots of what makes us horribly irritating, inappropriate, angular, quotable, and unwelcome at family gatherings has to do with habits we cultivate to try and get past our limitations. For instance, I frequently forget stuff. So I have acquired a way of talking that contains memorable aspects – over the top imagery, wild metaphors, extreme descriptions, naughty words, unexpected comparisons, bits of songs, dirty jokes, insults, and of course, random words – all for the sake of keeping my own interest, and increasing the likelihood I will remember what is being discussed.
I have started to group habits like this together under the made-up umbrella term “Compensations,” because I have found a lot of traits I have cultivated in response to limitations from ADHD.
ADHDers: Recognize Any Compensations From This List?
- Being evasive when asked how long something is going to take.
- Reducing your aspirations after disappointing yourself.
- Joking about having a bad memory for names when actually it bothers you how forgetful you are.
- Stockpiling sweets in preparation for a long period requiring focus.
- Using a standing desk, not to remain active but because you can more easily stay awake.
- Taking on work you think is boring because no one else wants to do it.
- Giving up on creating art, music, stories, songs, poems because you have a sense your emotions override the process and cause you to flood the channel, swamp the boat, use too much color.
- Having to do every task right when you remember it because you’re afraid you will forget it in a moment.
- Fidgeting and keying your energy up so you can remain focused, even at the cost of putting other people off with too much energy.
- Trying to use enthusiasm to carry you through on a project, instead of making a plan that includes pacing yourself, stowing away tactics for getting you through the inevitable patches of boredom or lack of momentum.
OK, Where’s the Good News?
Sometimes we can mask our untreated symptoms long enough to get hired by a client, or a company, and sometimes we can even do fantastic work.
Sometimes we can charm someone into looking past the constant flood of warning signs, red flags and mixed messages long enough to start a real relationship.
Somehow, through the equivalent of hurling pebbles at the dark side of the moon by hand, we can manage to achieve a few interesting things.
And sometimes, if we’re lucky enough to scam our way into a decent line of work, and if we can manage to piece together a life partnership that works, we may find a shoe that fits and begin to face the enormous task of learning to thrive with ADHD and whatever else we’ve brought to the party.
But No Matter How Much We Recover, We’ll Always Be a Bit Too Much
The rest of this blog is about what I do when I am up to the task of facing the costs of my ADHD symptoms, what I do that works, and what I have done that didn’t.