The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Category: Essays

For my terrible memory, a song

My memory is legendary.

By that I mean, I can shock and amaze just about anyone with my ability to forget. No matter if it’s information I use daily, weekly, or just once. When I was a kid, I asked my parents this question every time we had pie: “can pie tins go in the recycling?” Through store-bought pies of all kinds, for all seasons, year after year, I asked if each and every tin was recyclable. Every time, they told me. I still don’t know whether they told me yes or no.

I do, however, possess a secret weapon. If they’d wanted to shut me up, they only needed to sing to me.

The singing officemate

For several years, I shared an office with a dear friend of mine. He still, to this day, understands music’s power over my brain better than almost anyone. At work, he used that to both of our advantage.

Our desk phones required a passcode to dial long distance. I remember everyone having the code written on a note somewhere near their phones. I must’ve lost mine, and asked him for it, a la the pie tins, every time I needed to make a long-distance call.

One day, he began singing the following to me, in a lilting little tune: “0097310, that’s how you dial long distance.”

I didn’t ask him for the code again. It’s been over four years since I quit that job, and more than that since the organization got a new phone system that did away with long distance codes. He sang me a similar song about the username and password to the company laptop.

Mixtape life story

I can also tell you what albums I was listening to at major turnings point in my life. Eighth grade: Weezer’s blue album. The summer I was 16 and pining for my not-yet-boyfriend: U2’s Rattle and Hum. Two years later, the summer before I left for college and we broke up, I’d moved on to Achtung Baby. Freshman year of college, second semester: The Who’s Who’s Next. Sophomore year: Dashboard Confessionals’ Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. Thursday’s War All the Time. Senior year: a Something Corporate mix CD from my roommate. My first year out of college: Arcade Fire’s Funeral. The summer after my son was born: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl and Phish’s Farmhouse. It’s almost like I’ve stored the emotions and memories of these times inside the music. Without it, I’d lose my personal history.

Music: the key to my brain

I’m an auditory person. I’ve always had music in my blood, but I don’t even need a melody. I love certain words and phrases, their cadence and ring. I remember voices, even if the people they belong to exited my life half a lifetime ago.

Maybe my emotional attachment to music and sound helps me form better memories. Maybe the affinity keeps my brain engaged and allows me to encode information more effectively. Either way, music unlocks a secret door in my brain. Behind the door lies a rich world of emotion and memory. In a way, music lets me forget one thing, and one thing only: it lets me forget my brain is impaired at all.

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Caught up in the excitement

There are people who think ADHD is a gift. I’m not one of them.

Just today, I read this sentence in a comment thread: “I have reached the conclusion that ADHD persons are are blessing to the world and that having ADHD is a gift rather than a curse.” Not to be judge-y, but I bet this person doesn’t have ADHD. If he does, he’s in a near-delusional state of denial.

That said, I’ve had some time to reflect on my gifts this week. I’ll admit, ADHD isn’t 100% doom and gloom. Lots of us grow up to be emergency room doctors, firefighters, or professional snowboarders. Our lust for high-stress environments leads us to careers our laid-back counterparts would rather avoid.

We have dopamine to thank for this. The neurotransmitter of pleasure, reward, and motivation. I reject the “ADHD is a gift” narrative because dopamine has no conscience. It doesn’t nudge us toward becoming an emergency room doctor rather than a drug addict. It doesn’t care whether we balance our brain chemistry by running marathons or picking cruel fights with our spouse. I imagine it costs society at least as much as it provides in so-called gifts.

But for today, I can appreciate it a little more. Because I’m existing in a time of great inconvenience.

Roughing it with ADHD

Our kitchen renovation is officially underway. Last night, our downstairs looked like this:

Living with me on a normal day isn’t always a treat, but right now, I’m cool.

I prepared for this renovation like crazy, thanks to my flair for crises, over-planning, and roughing it. I’m the person who breaks out in goosebumps before hurricanes and snowstorms. I stockpile canned goods, put the kitchen matches near the stove, charge up the camp lanterns, and try to hide my disappointment when the electricity stays on.

Of course, every ADHD “gift” has a dark side. Mild over-preparation easily tips into hoarding and obsession for some.

But taken in moderation, we folks with ADHD can turn inconvenience into fun. We thrive on novelty. Many of us spent our youths getting into trouble for weird behavior and clowning around. Most people I’ve talked to assume we’ll be surviving on takeout this month. Not so. I happily carried my camp stove to the front porch and ignored the funny looks from neighbors as I cooked dinner. I threw myself into advance food preparation with an enthusiasm I rarely possess for normal dinners. We’re existing in a weird, different, and somewhat extreme situation. It’s not just any old night when I have to make dinner in a normal kitchen. I’m in my element.

A rare note of gratitude

I rarely talk about the upsides of ADHD on this blog. There are enough yahoos doing that on the internet already. I’m not grateful for my ADHD, just like most well-adjusted people wouldn’t be grateful for bipolar disorder. But every once in a while, I encounter a situation that forces me to admit, “hey, I’m actually an asset to this project. My unique combination of traits, some of which are rooted in my ADHD, really bring something to the table.”

People with significant ADHD-related impairments know, I don’t have the opportunity to say this every day. To be able to acknowledge a gift — that’s a gift unto itself. I’m going to try to appreciate it, if only for the duration of my self-induced, kitchen-less hardship.

I have ADHD, and sometimes I can’t spell my own name

I’ve never had real a nickname, but my dad sometimes called me “Jacly” when I was a kid. The joke started when I forgot the last letter of my name at the top of a school paper.

Fourth-grade Jaclyn knew how to spell her own name — obviously — but my attention span wasn’t always long enough to write all six letters.

It still isn’t. I still catch myself writing “Jacly” on official documents. I also forget words in sentences, or I write words with the letters out of order. Occasionally, I find post-it notes with sentence fragments or unlabeled telephone numbers. I got distracted before I finished writing, and now I can’t figure out what they mean.

In the moment, I don’t realize these attention lapses are happening. There’s no way I can tell myself, “hey, focus!” and prevent them. I call myself detail-oriented. I’m proud of my ability to fill out forms correctly and completely. Still, I make weird mistakes all the time — especially when I’m writing by hand.

I don’t remember whether I liked my dad calling me “Jacly.” I can see myself appreciating that someone gave me a nickname. Just as likely, I might’ve gotten my hackles up. All the anguish I remember from my childhood stemmed from my ADHD, though I had no idea at the time. ADHD’s quirks and foibles — like misspelling one’s own name, or throwing a third-grade classmate on the floor after he cuts in line — can come to define us. And that hurts. Maybe it’s who we are, but it’s not who we feel we are.

That dissonance haunted me all through my young life. I wrote in my journal about a desire to leave home and start over. I hated going to school knowing everyone had an opinion about who I was. I didn’t feel like I fit others’ definitions of me.

I still struggle with this, but I try to keep a sense of humor. I try to look for opportunities. Every time I write “Jacly,” I smile and hear my dad’s voice as I go back to add the ‘n.’ I try to view mistakes as opportunities to show my real self: someone who’s neither selfish, nor irresponsible, nor slapdash. I do that by admitting my mistakes, apologizing when necessary, and acknowledging how my actions affect others. I’m upfront about my memory and attention issues. I hope this openness helps people realize it’s not about them, or my feelings toward them. I talk about my post-it notes and my organizational systems because I want others to see I’m trying. I try to laugh at the silly stuff, and keep working on the important stuff.

Because I’ll always misspell my name on occasion. Every once in a while, my post-its — or another system — will fail me. It’ll probably be my fault. But I can practice resilience. I can forgive myself and maintain a decent attitude. I can resist the impulse toward defensiveness, blame-shifting, or turning all that anger inward. I can own Jacly, but reject negative, self-destructive labels. Then, I can brush myself off and keep trying, assuming it’s not too late to add the ‘n.’

Me & my ADHD: Letting go of the careers that could’ve been.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been sure of my path. Each year, I’ve thought, this is what I’m meant to do. And each year has found me doing something different.

By ninth grade, I’d picked my future college: Berklee College of Music in Boston. I’d never visited, but I loved Boston. My future as a musician was a forgone conclusion. Eager to make sure everything was perfect by senior year, I printed the entire application right then and there.

Sounds very un-ADHD — that is, if I’d ended up going to Boston, or going to school for music. I did neither. As tightly as I’d latched onto that specific idea — going to Berklee and majoring in music performance — I got derailed. Someone I respected and trusted told me something I hadn’t considered: music majors practice a lot. Over eight hours per day, he said. I’d have to give up almost everything else.

Everything else: Writing, art, photography, reading, publishing my zine. The idea of turning my back on those many passions — even in service to my greatest one, which I’d used as a lifeline throughout my adolescence — spooked me.

So began a long succession of college majors. I spread my undergraduate career over four majors and two universities.

Ability, interest, and time intersect

I used to think I could do anything. That I hadn’t and wasn’t — well, it gnawed at me. I envisioned my 30-something self as someone who’d earned two PhDs, hiked the Inca Trail, and learned to speak seven languages. While many of my peers honed and narrowed their passions throughout their teens and 20s, I wondered how anyone could settle down with just one life path. The world was too interesting for that.

I’ve changed gears and started over a lot. I’ve been accepted into undergraduate programs in psychology, education, and fine arts, and graduate programs in business and community art. I regret not studying neuroscience, physics, creative writing, or music performance in college. My favorite class senior year was Geology. My favorite class freshman year was Arab-Israeli Conflict and Peacemaking. I’ve held — and loved — jobs in a cabinetry shop, print shop, IT support desk, and community-based non-profit. My strongest natural talent is playing the flute.

I believed I was smart enough to get a PhD in anything. I had it in me to be a successful entrepreneur, I had the potential to write the next Tony Award-winning musical, and my latest blog project was sure to go viral. The only thing holding me back was time: how would I find time to do it all?

As I neared my 30th birthday, I faced a sudden fear that time was running out. I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I asked myself, when have I ever focused on one thing for long enough to accumulate 10,000 hours of practice? Eventually, I realized that through all of this, I’ve always been a writer. Before I could use a pen, I’d sit next to my mother and dictate stories to her while she copied my words into construction-paper books.

Not all that shines is worthy

Over the past few years, I’ve pondered my identity and my long-term goals. I’ve realized, finally, that if I want to be successful at anything, I have to learn to let go. I have to let go of my dreams of being a famous musician, a Supreme Court Justice, and a neuroscience researcher. As I failed to do all those years ago, I need to pare my life down and make time for my craft — and I have to keep that craft the same, year after year.

It hasn’t been easy. I’ve been working on the same novel draft since 2009. I’ve gotten tired of it and wanted to quit so many times, I have no idea how it’s gotten this far. Likewise with this blog. I’ve come up with 1001 justifications for retiring it and moving on.

I don’t know how I’ve kept it up. I’ve never stuck with anything for this long. All I can say is, it started to feel good. I pitched my manuscript to agents last August and got wonderful feedback. Now a few are waiting on the full, revised manuscript. People have written me from all over to tell me how much they appreciate my blog, and how much my writing has helped them. To quit now would be to let a lot of people down, not least of all myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a letdown before — plenty of times. But it takes on a different meaning as I get older. The questions at parties and holiday dinners twist my heart a little more. I’m closer to the end of my life than I’ve ever been, and I’m beginning to grasp the consequences of starting over every few years. And so I’ve resolved to let most of it go: all the careers that could’ve been.

Yoking to a path: the anti-ADHD

My 30s have been about choosing a path — one path — and tilling that soil for multiple seasons. Our identities are shaped by the work we do each day. That work is like a marriage: something I choose daily, deliberately, and continue to choose throughout my life. It’s not something that sweeps me off my feet on a weekly basis, nor is it something that should change with everything new and shiny. It requires work, intention, dedication. It’s not always fun or exhilarating, but in the end, it’s deeply rewarding. It’s where I’ve chosen to belong.

Don’t call me clean, organized, or hard-working.

Sometimes I wonder: what does it mean to be good at something?

When people praise me for being organized, motivated, or a hard worker, I don’t feel complimented. Being told I’m “good at” something doesn’t make me feel accomplished.

hold-the-praise

Perhaps because “good at _______,” “hard worker,” and “organized” all hint at innate aptitude, not actual hard work. I avoid discussing so-called natural “gifts” (including those often attributed to ADHD) because gifts don’t set us apart. The nature and quality of the work we do — personal and professional — is what defines us. ADHD makes it difficult to maintain consistency in this work. Success ought to be recognized for what it is, not cheapened with random labels like “organized” or “creative.”

Telling someone he’s good at something can be a comment on ourselves, too. It’s like admiring a person’s physical appearance: we fail to consider the complex reasons she might be thinner or stronger than we are.

This doesn’t come naturally…I have ADHD.

natural-gifts-labels-adhd-pull-quoteI won’t be so presumptuous as to call my house clean or uncluttered, but others have said this about me. Sometimes, I envy friends with messy homes.  I’m not naturally clean. I don’t love tidying up my whole downstairs every single night. I was born a collector, not a minimalist. Maintaining an alphabetized filing system and emptying my inboxes regularly isn’t easy.  It’s like when people tell me I’m good at yoga. Nope. I’m committed to a surprisingly modest daily practice that’s accessible to just about anyone.

And so it is with everything in my life. All my good habits are “for now.” None are particularly ambitious. I expect to fall off the wagon and get back on over and over, for as long as I’m alive. I set the bar low enough to clear, even it makes my goals embarrassingly small.

I’m not an overachiever…I do what I need to do.

Despite my hard work, I only do what I need to do to stay sane. I don’t keep boxing up and giving away my possessions because it’s fast and easy. I do it because I won’t clean my house if there’s clutter all over. I do it because an uncluttered, lower-stimulation environment gives me an uncluttered mind. I maintain an obsessive system for my calendars and to-do list. I write everything down on sticky notes. This is because my memory is so terrible, it’s embarrassing and a little scary.

Sure, you can tell me, “wow, I’m jealous, you’re so organized.” I’d like to point out, though, it’s like telling a person in a wheelchair, “wow, I’m so jealous, you have great upper body strength.”

Likewise, when you call me a hard worker, sometimes I’m reminded of the flip side: I have to work harder than the average person to get the same results — so I do. I maintain my lifestyle because I enjoy the significant personal benefits it provides. But is this worthy of praise?

We can un-earn praise.

And, because ADHD makes us unreliable at times, there’s another worry: if you think I’m a calm, attentive parent, what happens when you catch me on a bad day? When I’m tired, or my meds are wearing off, or I’m in an environment that’s too overstimulating and my brain shuts down? If you think I’m super organized, what happens when I forget something big and important?

A couple weeks ago, I referred to parenting experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s criticism of vague praise: it’s something you can take away. “Organized,” “put together,” “calm,” and “good listener” feel tenuous to me. I suspect many people with ADHD feel the same. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop — for someone to uncover our ruse.

Instead of marveling at my natural aptitude for cleanliness and order — it’s imaginary, anyway — ask me about my process for keeping my email inbox empty. Ask me about my favorite organizing book or app. Not only will I feel noticed for who I truly am — a person with flawed neurochemistry who’s worked very hard to construct and environment that supports my and my family’s well-being — I’ll talk your ear off about how you can do the same.

Natural gifts are just that. A great many of them end up gathering dust. When we recognize each other, it should be for our willingness to learn, to forgive ourselves, and to keep trying even when progress is slow.

“ADHD? Nah, everybody does that.”

“Everybody does that.”

My least favorite response to an attempt to describe ADHD.

Because “everybody does that” really says this: my challenges aren’t unique. I’ve chosen to put a label on normal life while others buckle down and get it together.

“Everybody does that.” A close cousin to “yeah, but you just need to do it.”

If that’s your frame of reference, you and I aren’t living in the same world.

I’m not everybody.

Everybody does that, but…

For example, I’m sure everyone has lost a check before. It happens. But so often, you dread ever receiving money by check?

This was me five years ago, when I first started taking medication for my ADHD. I got a sinking feeling every time I held a check in my hand. Four years ago, I finally established a good system for handling checks. Three years ago, our bank started accepting mobile deposits.

Even now, I still find checks when I’m cleaning our house. I found one last week from 2007. The envelope was still sealed.

Likewise, I’m sure everyone has bad days, weeks, even months or years. But you know a bad day is only a day long, right?

Most people with ADHD have a poor concept of time. I’m not just talking about running late, oversleeping, or going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole until 4:00 a.m. (though that happens, too). The ADHD brain literally perceives time differently. Unless we teach ourselves otherwise, now is all we comprehend. Not now is such an abstract concept, it may as well not exist.

During a bad day, or even a bad 15 minutes, everything else stops existing. Imagine being blind to everything but the emotion you’re experiencing right now. It’s overwhelming. The highs feel great, but the lows can be all-consuming. A minor frustration can trigger blinding rage.

One day I showed up to a doctor’s appointment on the wrong day, went home, and had an epic meltdown about what a worthless human being I was. How everyone was better off without me, I was incapable of managing my own life, and I was foolish to have thought I’d amount to anything. That self, the one who screwed up, was all my brain knew.

A half hour later, I couldn’t have articulated what I was so upset about. It was almost like I’d been a different person.

And lastly, I’m well aware that everyone gets behind on home improvement projects. Everyone procrastinates. Everyone has a longer to-do list than they can manage. But it’s a question of magnitude.

Like when we had water damage on a small portion of our then-guest room ceiling. I expect many, if not most, homeowners would put off getting it fixed. It’s not hurting anything, it won’t get worse (we made an emergency call to the roofer), and you can ignore it if you don’t look up.

I decided that would be a perfect excuse to take down the whole ceiling, which was plaster, and replace it with drywall. And while I was doing that, it would be silly not to take down all four walls. I didn’t foresee the need for a plan. I only had eyes for the sledgehammer and the reciprocating saw.

Over a year later, that room still sat empty in our home. Empty of furniture, lighting fixtures, doors, and walls. A sheet of plastic hung over the doorway. The stink of old plaster and wood wafted through our whole second floor. I could smell it the moment I walked into the house. To go without touching that project for a year might not be so bad, you say, but I know the awful truth: we were nowhere near making progress. I was pregnant, and we needed a bedroom for our son. Without that deadline hanging over our heads, I have no idea when I would’ve set foot in that room again.

…it’s a matter of scale.

Gina Pera, author of Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD(the book that started it all for our family), sometimes refers to ADHD as “extreme human syndrome.” That is to say, in a way, that everybody does do these things. But some more than others, and some to a greater extreme. Some of us feel deeply impaired in our jobs, our marriages, our lives.

Next time you’re tempted to say, “everybody does that,” remember this: not everyone feels completely out of control of everyday life, even when they should be thriving. Everybody may do these things sometimes, especially under stress, but not everyone lives in that space all the time. When it’s all you’ve ever known, the chaos, anguish, and shame can be unbearable.

I look relatively successful on the outside — most of the time — but it’s been a long, hard road. I’m still the same person who lost all the checks, inflicted my epic freakouts on loved ones, and left a room stripped to bare studs for over a year. Now I just spend a lot of energy externalizing processes many people learn and do intuitively.

I know for a fact everybody doesn’t do what I do every day. It’s because they don’t have to.

That why, whether I’m celebrating small victories or hanging out at rock bottom, the last thing I want to hear is, “everybody does that.”

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