On One Hand

April 14, 2009

What ADHD is and what it isn’t

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:27 pm

Well I had another bit of humiliation this week – I went to the pharmacy to get my perscription for Ritalin filled and they refused. Five minutes after I handed the paper to the woman in the window, she returned and told me that they actually don’t carry Ritalin, which I am certain is a lie. I called the doctor who perscribed Ritalin to ask for help but he didn’t return my call. I don’t know what to do.

I need to get treated, I’m wasting years of my life!

I keep getting these “you don’t have ADHD, you’re so smart” comments from people, which is flattering but also frustrating given the fact that I am struggling so much to do something useful and nobody beleives I really have a problem.

I am going to try to explain this now, because it’s a little different for me than it is for the majority of people with ADHD.

To clear things up, ADHD is not the inability to focus, it’s the inabilty to choose what you focus on. Rather than “Attention Deficit Disorder,” it would be more aptly named “Misdirected Attention Disorder.”

Watch a little kid with ADHD play video games and he will be so lazer-beam fixated on the screen that you’ll say there’s no way in hell he has ADD. You’ll be shouting his name and he won’t even hear you, and he will stay up till the early morning trying to beat the game. That fixation is part of what ADHD is.

I never got in to video games, but one of my fixations is reading compulsively; if you send me into a college library to find a book about the French Revolution, I’ll end up going through the aisles reading about String Theory or Hinduism or nuclear explosions or rare diseases. I won’t ever read a whole book – just the chapter titles or a little text here and there – then on to a new book. After 6 or 8 hours I suddenly realize I haven’t even opened up the book I was sent there to get, and will start freaking out.

Sometimes the panic of the iminent deadline helps me to finally focus, but that’s a stressfull way to live, and I’ll end up half-assing the project at the last minute and get a B- on it when I could have easily gotten an A had I managed my time like a normal person does.

During my undergraduate years I probably spent 100 hours a semester getting distracted in the library, which pales in comparison to the time I spent getting distracted on the Internet.

That’s why I end up knowing a little bit about EVERYTHING, but didn’t have as good of grades as my peers. Most of my friends at my intellectual level were getting 3.8 or 3.9 grade point averages in college, while I got a 3.2, which isn’t bad but it’s not enough to get in to the grad schools I wanted. And easy jobs like working at a sandwich shop are nearly impossible because I’m always picking up newspapers rather than doing my job.

the Internet makes my life even harder; I spend like 2 hours a day on Wikipedia. I’ll be trying to write an article for a freelance job I do, then suddenly think I WONDER WHAT THE LARGEST VOLCANIC ERUPTION IN THE EARTH’S HISTORY WAS? I’ll google it and then spend 2 hours reading about volcanoes, and a link there will lead me to volcanoes on Jupiter’s moons, and I’ll end up reading about Jupiter’s moons.

Since my problems are technically “behavioral,” people treat me as though they are a choice. People ask “why can’t you just stop doing that?” and I can’t really explain, my self-distractions are an automatic thing for me and it makes perfect sense at the time that I do it. While I’m reading about volcanoes I’ll think, maybe someday this will information will come up and I’ll be glad I know it. It’s only when I look back on it that I realize I just wasted huge portions of my life and am letting my responsibilities fall through.

There is a lot of overlap between ADHD and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I think this situation makes that clear.

ADD is a little different for everyone – I don’t think compulsive reading is very common – and when I was a kid I did really well in elementary school because teachers allowed me to go off-topic and write about whatever my curiosity led to. If they said “write an essay about Washington State,” I could tap into my fixation on Mt St. Hellens, which is in that state, and I’d get an A on the project. Teachers always patted me on the back for showing a genuine interest in something and thought I was a great learner.

But the older I got, the more people expected me to complete a narrowly-tailored assignment as requested, which I have a really hard time doing. In my Literature and Death class, for example, I was supposed to write about Heidegger’s perspective on death – which was impossible for me to read through – so I wrote about how literature is a way of dealing with anxiety about being mortal. When I got my feedback at the end of the semester, the teacher wrote, scathingly, that I hadn’t picked up a single thing from the class and gave me a C.

When I feel like I’m failing, or that my professors are on to the fact that I haven’t been doing the readings, the symptoms only get worse.

Another symptom of ADHD is a dificulty concealing or rationalizing emotions. When I was a kid I cried several times a day. I can’t bury anything and people can recognize if I’m upset the moment they look at me. When I feel intimidated or judged, I feel extremely intimidated and can’t think or speak clearly. Rather than prove myself – which I can only do when I’m on stimulants – I get avoidant. That made me easy to pick on in school – I appeared weak and submissive so was a target of bullies – and now it means I have a hard time fixing professional relationships when they hit a snag. If I think a professor or boss dislikes me, I don’t even want to think about or look at work I have to do there. ADHD kids with aggressive tendencies can’t hide their aggression. I never had aggressive tendencies to manage, so was lucky for that, and teachers tended to like me so I had an easier time working with them.

But it did mean that Journalism, the profession I chose for myself and dreamed of doing, turned out to be impossible because it is too individualistic, competitive and adversarial. There is no way I could ever function in an adversarial relationsihp with either an interview subject or a peer. Ironically, having ADD made me love journalism because it allows me to information-seek and know “a little bit of everything,” but made it impossible for me to pursue because I could not handle the criticism and negativity of other journalism students.

I don’t know what it is, but something about stimulants like Adderall or even caffeine and cigarettes help me do what I’m supposed to do. I don’t feel all that much different when I’m on them – and when they do make me feel something it’s tweaked-out, dehydrated and jittery – but it just so happens that the place my mind “wanders to” is exactly where my assignment is. I hate taking them but they immediately fix nearly every personality problem I have.

I sometimes wax and wane about my confidence in the ADHD diagnosis. When I’m getting treated I feel like everything is going fine so I might not have ADHD after all, and sometimes stop taking the pills because I would rather not be taking them if I don’t have to. I think about the symptoms I DON’T have – like drug addictions or compulsive risk-taking – and wonder if the diagnosis was false. And if I start thriving in what I do, the feeling that I’m doing well helps me focus and carries me on for a couple months after I stop taking the pills. But after a while the problems return.

Even when I’m taking Adderall I still sometimes do the wandering fact-gathering I am prone to, but am much more efficient when I finally do focus, and I don’t feel anxious and desparate about my chances of success.

But now that I don’t have health insurance and I can’t convince any professionals that I actually have ADHD – they don’t ask about my symptoms, they just weigh in on my credibility, which makes me too nervous to even think or respond clearly – I really wish I hadn’t allowed the treatment to lapse.

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1 Comment »

  1. Since my problems are technically “behavioral,” people treat me as though they are a choice. People ask “why can’t you just stop doing that?” and I can’t really explain, my self-distractions are an automatic thing for me and it makes perfect sense at the time that I do it.
    I hear that, totally.

    Forget about Ritalin. My experience is that it’s a mood roller coaster with a nasty washout after each pill buzz. I would also suggest asking the doc why he wouldn’t proscribe you Adderall, then taking your time and money elsewhere to find someone who will. There’s medical protocol involved, but I’m sure you can get them to proscribe it if you have a history of success with the drug.

    Comment by arazel — April 15, 2009 @ 5:16 am | Reply


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