The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

Category: ADHD & Society

I understand basic cause and effect. My ADHD makes it look otherwise.

Sometimes — maybe more than sometimes — people with ADHD behave in ways that make no sense. Those living close to us wonder, how can we not understand? Spending money now = not having it later. Missing another deadline = getting fired from your job. Forgetting to put gas in the car = car not running. We learn these concepts as babies, when we invert our Cheerios bowl over the floor, or pull the cat’s tail, or cry when left alone in our crib. It’s basic cause and effect.

And yet, here we are, losing another job, paying another late fee, waiting for AAA to rescue us from the side of the road. Maybe you bite your tongue against words like stupid, childish, and irresponsible. You’ve been told they aren’t helpful. We still apply them to ourselves. Our actions make as little sense to us as they do to you.

The dots don’t always connect

In case I wasn’t clear: yes, I know my car will eventually run out of gas if I don’t refill the tank. But there’s a difference between possessing logical knowledge and feeling it, deep in your bones.

When I drove a lot, I made stopping for gas part of my regular routine. Now, I drive less. I rarely fill up more than once per month. By the time I need gas, I can’t remember the last time I did it. The action isn’t triggered until the orange light is on solid.

On the highway, when I have less to do, I will look down and remember the gas gauge exists. If it’s getting low, I’ll think, “I should get gas.” By the time I’m sitting at a red light and see a station, I’ve forgotten. “How much are they charging for gas?” I wonder. I note the price and keep driving, never returning to my previous train of thought about needing to purchase that gas for my car.

Even as the needle gets lower and I think about the gas station more often, the time never seems right. The station is on the wrong side of the street. I’m already running late. I’d rather do it tomorrow. And so on, until the orange light dangles the threat of public shame over my head and pushes me to action.

But why?

The culprit behind this — and many other ADHD frustrations — is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Many people refer to it as the chemical of pleasure and reward, but craving and desire hit closer to the mark. Consider this:

When researchers implant rats’ brains with electrodes to stimulate the reward system, the rats stop at nothing to keep the dopamine hits coming. Destroy this part of the brain, and your rat will still experience pleasure from a reward, but he won’t work to get it.

Sound like anyone you know?

With too little dopamine available in our brains, we can appreciate a positive experience, but we don’t crave it properly before we have it. Our logical brain knows we should want it, but the part that drives us to work for it is out to lunch.

ADHD also impairs working memory. The brain’s working memory holds onto information until we can act on it. A “leaky” working memory lets important pieces slip away before they reach long- or short-term storage. We sometimes find it impossible to hold more than one thing in mind at once.

For you nerds out there, working memory is like your computer’s RAM. For the rest of you, a shortage of RAM or working memory can render the whole system borderline unusable. You can’t retrieve or store long-term memories reliably, nor can you make effective decisions on what to do next.

Bad choices

In other words, there’s real neurochemical stuff happening here, folks. Stuff that affects the brain’s ability to function properly.

No one will fault you for wearing a knee brace, or favoring an injured limb. But because the brain controls our thoughts and behavior, we assume everything it does is an accurate reflection of intent. It’s not that simple.

Of course, people with ADHD absolutely do make bad choices. We should take responsibility for those choices. ADHD is not an excuse for irresponsible or inconsiderate behavior, even if it may offer a partial explanation.

What we all need to realize is, dopamine — or the lack thereof — can make a person look like a total jackwagon. We aren’t doing this on purpose. Continuous screw-ups from a person with ADHD probably aren’t indicative of an inborn character flaw. They’re a sign of poorly-managed ADHD.

While poorly-managed ADHD is no picnic, it’s a problem we can solve. And it’s a heck of a lot better than living under a pile of labels like “lazy,” “irresponsible,” “inconsiderate,” and “careless.”

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“We’re all a little ADHD sometimes” happens to people with ADHD, too

This post is adapted from an excerpt of my upcoming book, Order from ChaosPreorders will open on Amazon soon. Stay up to date by joining my mailing list!

Most of us with ADHD have heard the refrain, “but this happens to everyone. You just have to power through it.” Nobody loves paying bills or doing housework. Everybody feels scattered sometimes.  Why should some people get to use ADHD as an excuse, while the rest of the world just has to suck it up?

It can be hard to answer this question. There’s a grain of truth in it. Under enough stress, even the most put-together person can develop ADHD-like symptoms. ADHD traits are, at the end of the day, magnified human traits.

The key difference between “it happens to everyone” and “it’s ADHD” is context. For someone without ADHD, the struggle is caused by something external, like a big deadline or a family crisis. True ADHD emerges in childhood, usually by early elementary school. It also impairs us in multiple roles (e.g., both at home and at work/school). It sticks around, no matter how we change our environment or our diet.

This isn’t an excuse. People with ADHD can bring our symptoms under control with medication, adequate self-care, and other coping strategies. And we should, if we want to lead fulfilling lives and maintain healthy relationships.

Doesn’t medication fix ADHD?

Some people believe stimulant medication does the hard work for us, or even gives us a leg up. Sorry, but no. There’s a difference between making something easy and making it possible. Medication gives us a choice we previously lacked. It allows us to begin the hard work in the first place.

And sometimes we find ourselves in a catch-22, because our environment can make ADHD symptoms worse. If a neurotypical person appears to have ADHD during a time of stress or upheaval, imagine how a person with ADHD will react  — even on medication.

People are usually surprised to learn that every one of my elementary school report cards had a bad grade in the “behavior” column. When my husband and I finally took the plunge and gut-remodeled our kitchen, I saw myself become that kid again.

Chaos without = chaos within

“Major life disruption” barely scratches the surface. Our kitchen, dining room, and part of the living room were out of commission for six weeks. Contractors knocked down two full walls, took down a plaster ceiling, and built a new kitchen from scratch.

Construction noise invaded through the floor of my office for 8+ hours per day. I fielded frequent interruptions when the workers had questions. I cooked all our meals on a camp stove on the front porch and washed dishes in the bathtub. Clutter and dust invaded everywhere. Our cabinets were delivered before the room was ready, and the boxes turned our entire downstairs into a rat maze. Meanwhile, I tried to stay on top of my pieces of the puzzle: picking up backsplash tile, choosing appliances, writing checks, keeping drinks in a cooler for the workers.

In other words, this was one of those times when a neurotypical person would’ve developed ADHD symptoms. I felt like a crappy friend, a lackluster writer, an impatient mom, and an unproductive human. One afternoon, I was outside and saw a kid I did not know being mildly irresponsible with a stick. Instead of asking him nicely to stop what he was doing, I grabbed the stick and broke it into little pieces in front of him. I was stunned by my lack of impulse control. Living in my house was like living without ADHD meds.

The ADHD management catch-22

Meds allow me to function like a reasonably normal person — under the right conditions. That’s where it gets fuzzy. While meds make those conditions possible, they don’t let me sail through life. That is to say, if I keep my house/office organized, exercise regularly, maintain a daily yoga practice, prioritize and guard my time, and eat a healthy diet, meds fill in the missing piece of the puzzle. They prevent me from destroying all of the above.

It’s a delicate balance. Managing my ADHD symptoms has allowed me to build an organized life. At the same time, that organized life is a critical part of my symptom management. Give me a chaotic environment, and meds won’t help. Without them, I’m powerless to tame the chaos.

Maybe it happens to you, but it’s not your normal

So, yes, this stuff does happen to everyone sometimes. And for the six weeks I spent in the thick of that renovation, I did just have to suck it up and power through it. What I don’t expect myself to do: suck it up and power through every day of my life as though it’s an extenuating circumstance.

If you find yourself turning ADHD into a character judgement, imagine one of your toughest times. A time when you felt like you were barely keeping your head above water. Every move you made was to put out a fire. The whole world felt like it was working against you, and you felt sure you’d never get caught up and settled down.

Now, imagine that’s your normal. It’s all you’ve ever known. Imagine asking yourself to power through that feeling every day, for the rest of your life. That — daily, hard-wired impairment — isn’t something that happens to everyone, and it’s not something you can expect to get through on willpower alone.

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How to make a smartphone work for you when you have ADHD

This post is adapted from an excerpt of my upcoming book, Order from ChaosPreorders will open on Amazon soon. Stay up to date by joining my mailing list!

Back in July, I wrote about ditching my smartphone for a week.  Even though I depend on my phone, I don’t love it. I can spend a lot of time tapping around without remembering why I picked it up in the first place.

Since my smartphone-free week, I’ve worked on several concrete strategies to get the most out of my phone. Loosening the smartphone’s grip on our attention can spark discomfort at first. However, the less time I spend with a smart phone within arm’s reach, the less interested I am in using it, the less it distracts me, and the better I feel.

What’s your smart phone actually for?

We throw a lot of money and attention at our phones, yet most of us never ask why.

My smartphone helps me stay organized and keep in touch with people I love. It’s like a digital Swiss Army Knife, and it’s a lifesaver for someone with ADHD.

Of course, there are many models of Swiss Army Knife, to suit a variety of needs. It wouldn’t do to carry a knife with every available tool attached.  Nor should we install every app we enjoy or think we might use. There’s not room, in my day or in my brain, for everything.

For each app, I ask myself: is this something I truly need or want to do on my phone? If an activity can be done better on a computer or other device, I avoid the app. Even though I enjoy games, I limit myself to tabletop gaming and dedicated game consoles, like the PlayStation or Xbox. I have a Facebook account, but I don’t keep the app on my phone. I use my phone only for what it does best — for me.

Notifications and home screens: your first line of defense with the phone in your hand

Notifications — those little banners at the top of your screen, the red number in the corner of an app icon, or a color-coded blinking LED — are supposed to make you look at your phone. Pick it up, and you can find yourself down quite the rabbit hole.

Almost every app provides options for customizing or disabling its notifications. Rather than find a reason to turn off an app’s notifications, I ask myself to justify keeping each notification turned on. Any notifications I do have will cause the phone to vibrate, not make noise. I wouldn’t want a person sitting next to me and interrupting me every time a new thought crossed their mind. I don’t accept that behavior from my phone, either.

In an emergency, people can reach me the same way people have communicated for over a century now: they can call. I always have my ringer turned on.

When I do pick up my phone, I want minimal distractions and maximum utility. Check out my Android home screen, pictured below. When I’m checking a notification or sending a quick text, this is all I see — no social media, no news. Subsequent home screens offer more tools, curated based on frequency of use.

Even if you can’t create a 100% customized experience, all smartphones allow the user to rearrange apps on the home screen(s). The red numbers in the corner of an app’s home screen icon can be disabled, and social media apps can be moved away from the primary home screen.

Literal phone containment

I’ve discussed this in a previous post, so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say, a dedicated home for cell phones sets expectations for phone use and family interactions. Our cell phone basket lives next to an outlet with two USB charging ports. It also houses our portable chargers. Not only has this reduced the amount of time I spend searching for lost phones, I rarely fidget with my phone. The act of getting up and going to the cell phone basket serves as its own barrier: I won’t bother unless I have something specific to do.

Turning the smartphone into…a phone

Despite the benefits of disconnecting, a complete break — even for a few hours — isn’t possible for everyone. I don’t have a landline, but I need a phone in my home office.

Many established landline telephone manufacturers, such as Panasonic and Vtech, now offer systems with Bluetooth technology. Mine cost me less than $100 and includes a corded desk phone and two cordless phones. The corded base station sits on my desk on the second floor of my house, and I keep a cordless unit on the first floor and in the basement. The base station connects to my smart phone via Bluetooth. A call to my cell phone causes everything to ring in unison, just like the old days of landline phones. I can make or pick up a call from anywhere in my house, regardless of my cell phone’s actual location. In other words, my smartphone — with all its apps and distractions — can live out of sight and out of mind for the work day, without severing my connections with the outside world.

Give it time

Perhaps this all sounds well and good to you, but you’re thinking, “this could never fit into my life.” I assure you, most of us can survive with a bit more distance from our smart phones. At first, you may feel disconnected, uncomfortable, and afraid of missing out. Give it a month. Think of it like one of those sugar detoxes, where you work through your cravings before you start to feel healthy again. Chances are, you aren’t the exception here, and you will acclimate to the reduced stimulation and distraction.

And I don’t spend my days cut off from the world, either. I have a telephone number through Google’s Voice service, which allows me to send and receive SMS (text) messages via Google Hangouts on my computer. My desk telephone lets me make and receive calls whenever I like. I’m still available, but I’m far less distracted.

What about you? How do you manage distractions from your smartphone? Have you ever tried to give it up entirely?

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Bad ADHD memes, & my real reason for taking stimulants

Memes. They strain my personal ‘no trolling’ policy.

Maybe you’ve seen memes like this, too. I feel like they’re everywhere.

Bad ADHD memesAt best, they’re ignorant and insulting. If you see one, please — don’t share it, don’t like it, and if it makes you feel crappy about your own life experience, feel free to tell the original poster.

We need more balanced perspectives out there. To that end, I started thinking: what’s the real reason people take stimulant medication for ADHD? The real reason parents give their kids ADHD meds? Actual people and actual parents, not the generalized “they” targeted by memes.

I take stimulant medication every day of my life: when I’m working, when I’m on vacation, when I’m sick, when I’m going for a hike.  I do it to stay safe, calm, and content.

Scandalously boring, right?

Meds don’t make us zombies

Some people think stimulants are part of a conspiracy to turn our children into obedient, conformist zombies.

I know some people have a bad first experience, especially if the dosage is too high. With Ritalin, this can lead to a zonked-out feeling.

It can take a while to find the right medication and dosage. When it’s right, you don’t feel like you’re ‘on’ anything. Many people don’t invest this time and assume their first experience is a representative one.

But obedient zombie sounds a bit lofty, don’t you think?

Clearly these folks are in a different place. I’m not yet able to worry about being obedient, conformist, or zombie-like.

I’m just trying to be safe, calm, and content, like everyone else in the world. I take meds so I can drive a car without killing myself or anyone else; pay my bills; keep writing; be creative; curb my temper; connect with a small handful of friends; remain in a healthy marriage; and avoid living in a constant state of chaos, stress, anxiety, and despair.

When I have all that under control, I’ll look into the obedient zombie thing.

Meds let me do what I want to do

Stimulant medication helps me get where I want to go in life. I’m happy when I’m creating. I’m happy when I’m working hard. I’d be working hard with or without medication, but not necessarily in the right (or any) direction.

When I’m unmedicated, I’m not doing what I want to do. I don’t pay bills or write stories or sing while playing the guitar. My most valuable projects stagnate, clutter accumulates, and I’m not a very good friend. I get angry often and always seem to be in a crabby mood.

Meds don’t give me a competitive edge or allow me to stay up all night writing the next great novel. They help me reconcile my inner and outer selves, bringing me closer to the person I know I can be. And maybe, after several years of slow and steady effort, I’ll actually finish that novel.

Having ADHD often means struggling with the things we want to do. It might mean struggling so much across the board, we can’t figure out what we want to do, let alone how to do it.

I’ve been there. It’s awful, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I wasn’t calm or content, and because I was young, I probably wasn’t particularly safe, either.

What I really wish I’d medicated (not childhood)

Looking back, I don’t wish I’d medicated away my adventurous, tomboyish childhood. I hope we all know childhood isn’t a disease. I never would’ve wanted a dose of meds that stopped me from climbing trees, running around at recess, playing paintball in the woods with my friends, and catapulting myself from the swingset (even at age 17).

But I wish I’d learned how to keep myself safe, calm, and content at a younger age. I wish I’d had more than one friend in elementary school. I wish I’d been able to stay out of trouble and stop getting my parents called in for disciplinary meetings. I wish I hadn’t damaged my hearing by fighting through mosh pits to stand right against the speakers at every concert. I wish I’d had the sense not to drive too fast. I wish I’d felt in control of my brain and my behavior, instead of feeling constantly at war with myself.

I was experiencing something more than the general anguish of youth. I wish I would’ve known that. I’ve worked hard to craft a satisfying life for myself. Sometimes I wonder, what if I’d started that process sooner? What if I’d had a full toolbox?

Every time I see a meme claiming ADHD is just a result of bad parenting, a broken education system, Barack Obama, and greedy pharmaceutical companies, I think: how ignorant. The system is imperfect, but some people are really suffering. And who are these meme-spreaders to delegitimize our experience? Who are they to tell us we don’t deserve a chance, even if it comes from a prescription drug?

How about you? How do you respond to memes that tempt you toward online conflict?

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