Thriving with ADD

I developed “failure syndrome” at a fairly young age, only, I didn’t know what it was, nor did my teachers. According to an ERIC digest published in 1998, it is a clearly defined pattern of behavior based entirely on lack of confidence. At the time, they treated children like me as lazy, especially when evaluating the results of frequently applied intelligence tests. I was tested three times before I was twenty-four. Each test revealed that I was more than capable of learning. In fact, I had exceptional processing speed and problem-solving skills. So, why couldn’t I learn like the other children in my class? Why were my parents consistently frustrated with my performance in school and worse yet, why was I descending into profound depression as early as eight years old?

Fast forward forty-plus years and one day, the lightbulb, nay, the nuclear explosion glowed brightly above my head. I was sitting in my son’s teacher conference when it happened. I was so surprised by the revelation that I actually began to cry, not just because I was experiencing the cathartic understanding of my life as a student, but more because at the same time, listening to the teacher describe my child’s classroom behavior, I felt the gripping fear that he too would struggle the way that I had. It had already begun, his turn at “failure syndrome.” Everything the teacher told me was a replay of my own school experience. Why was I afraid – actually, terrified? Because my child had been happy, social and confident until his eighth year, just as I had. In third grade, a major developmental period for children, he began to say the exact same things I had. “Why am I so stupid? Why can’t I remember? Why do I make so many mistakes?” The big difference is that he has a mother and teachers who understand him and who will fight for his success.

remember feeling complete despair at fifteen. It wasn’t until I was twenty-four, and had failed at college, that I was diagnosed as depressed, even after having been in some kind of counseling on and off for six years. At one point, I’d sought counseling through the college. As a matter of course, they tested my intelligence and processing skills, as well. They reported back to me what I already knew, but still could not transcend. The more I tried to learn like everyone else, the more I despaired. It just didn’t make sense. No one had ever suggested that I had a learning “disability.” In fact, quite the opposite, they couldn’t understand it either. They marveled that I spoke about my brain as though it were a separate entity, with a great weight tied around it. They’d even say, “you are capable” repeatedly, as though those words were going to magically turn on the part of my brain that can sit in a classroom and follow the industrial revolution’s idea of standardized education.

As if the ADD component wasn’t enough, the depression that followed added a new wrinkle to the problem. While ADD is an inability to control certain brain waves (theta), depression adds a layer of seismic disturbance akin to snow in the television. With that much random brain activity, it is hard to focus on one single thing and as the anxiety increases, as it inevitably does, as students, my son and I stare at a page and watch as it actually begins to expand visually. Suddenly, twenty math problems is Kilimanjaro and we’re without cams.

After the meeting with the teachers, I began to read about how to help him and in the process, I learned how to help myself. I had always seen my mind as a handicap, a perception that really solidified when my son (and as a matter of understanding, I) was “diagnosed.” The more I read, the more I realized that ADD is not really a handicap as much as it is a type. We don’t learn poorly; we learn differently. The industrial revolution abandoned apprenticeships for classrooms, and in the process, immersive learning was abandoned for text books. For 150 years, we’ve been torturing highly-creative, kinesthetic learners, turning them into anxiety-ridden, insecure adults by forcing round pegs into a square holes.

The more I read, the more I realized that my brain is uniquely suited to the systems work into which I stumbled. My capacity to follow multiple threads means I can have several processes running on several computers in different rooms and not only remember each process, but switch between them quickly. My brain is not damaged; it is different, and that is a beautiful thing. I had, over much time and struggling, developed coping skills to get me successfully through my days. They were adequate, but often not perfect. I had already started applying those coping skills to managing my child’s learning, setting an example for him to someday manage it on his own. The more I read, the more I realized that my coping skills were among the items listed as best practices for brains like ours. It was hugely satisfying to learn that I developed coping skills that are documented as effective for my learning “type.” It was also an enormous relief to find confirmation that my understanding of how we package ideas is quite accurate, and the way in which I assimilate information is a teachable method.

So, if you have a child with ADD, consider yourself lucky. He or she is probably empathic. She has a mind that will spring into action to solve a problem before anyone else recognizes one exists. He will pinch a bleeding artery in an emergency situation. She will invent the lightbulb of the future or solve world hunger. Each is a free spirit and truly amazing.

It should be understood that even with this new understanding that my son and I learn differently, we still face the fear of sitting in a classroom all day. When I need to learn a new product for work, for example, I lock myself in a room with a computer and reverse engineer that product. In that way, I make it a reality by touching it, making mistakes, creating an end product. But on occasion, I HAVE to sit in a classroom, as I will in a few weeks, and despite my knowledge and new skills, I still fear that I will fail miserably. I understand what school looks like for my son. I hope that I can show him, as I venture back into a classroom, that with the right tools, we can adapt the classroom to our needs, instead of trying to adapt to the classroom. I send him to a Montessori school (see why here), which I highly recommend for children like him, but that will only carry him through elementary. He’ll soon have to move on to middle school, where everything changes.

Also of note is that a few weeks ago, I started drinking Bulletproof Coffee. Now, I am not recommending that this is a fix as I am not a health care professional nor a nutritionist. However, I personally have noticed a difference in my memory and most importantly, my motivation. It could certainly be psychosomatic, but I am rarely a victim of “suggestion,” so it’s unlikely.

I will recommend the op-eds Learn More in Less Time and Note Taking Study Skills, and a YouTube channel such as Mariana’s Study Corner. I had already started to develop some of these habits, and they are working for me. I will be incorporating more of them in my future learning. If you have a child that struggles to study, building a routine and materials that are unique to them will keep them interested in the process.

What is your Meta Material?

I fly my geek flag high and proud. So it should be no surprise that I squealed with delight when I came across a show about invisibility cloaking. My inner Trekkie got all hot and bothered over it.

There were several segments, separated by scientist and their particular solution. But all solutions had one thing in common: meta-material.

It wasn’t long before my mind began to wander, visualizing the many forms meta material could take. It was great entertainment for the mental workspace that is my imagination. Toward the end of the documentary, my imagination resolved that the concept of meta material is neither new, nor exclusive physical. We all have it.

For some, it is actual clothing. Take, for example, a priest. His frock is the meta material, the narrative of his life. Within his frock he is hidden, so that only the reflection of his faith and his commitment are visible to his congregation. For some, it is a countenance, an aspect of depression, cynicism, or perhaps disdain. That countenance ensures that no one will get or stay close. They add certain textures and colors to their meta material, clarifying the message. For still others, it is a symphony of behaviors: some self destructive, some flamboyant, some wildly entertaining. But it is ALL meta material.

It takes us years to design and build our own and it takes a crisis for us to remove it. Consider, the next time you have a conversation with someone, that their meta material might be pretty heavy and perhaps between the two of you, it is as thick as the wall of China. Imagine the possibilities if everyone discarded theirs.

Talent and Execution, Part I

“All you have is your fire,
And the place you need to reach.
Don’t you ever tame your demons,
But always keep ’em on a leash.”
Arsonist’s Lullaby, Hozier

I know a lot of hugely talented people. And in all honesty, some of them intimidate the hell out of me. I try to maintain some level of objectivity as I witness the genius unfold in their work. I try to remember that art is inherently derivative. Even that which is considered innovative is born of some wildly explosive idea that has been expressed in generally accepted media: paint, photographs, stories, films, performance. It’s all, down to canvas on which it is applied, an executed idea. And that is where the rubber meets the road (if you’ll pardon the overused adage).

Without execution, creative ideas die on the vine.

The great irony is that people who are highly creative tend to be brooding, self-critical, and often depressed. There are a number of studies that prove it. In an article for the Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, Adrienne Sussman writes:

“Thus far, we have seen that manic depressive disorder and schizophrenia are both significantly more prevalent in artists than in the rest of the population, that neurologically they share similarities with the biology of creative thinking – in short, that these altered mental states could indeed contribute to creativity and artistic production. Knowing that this connection is scientifically supported, how are we to ethically treat these illnesses?”

Two experiences this past week, on the opposite end of this spectrum, really solidified a quandary in my mind. Why are some hugely talented people commensurately successful, and others miserably struggling?

The first experience was painfully watching a friend decompensate publicly on Facebook. There were a number of factors involved in the meltdown, but it created for me a mix of emotions. The first was helplessness that my friend was in pain. After that, several emotions passed through me, but the final and most powerful was anger. I was ANGRY that someone so full of talent had so functionally disabled himself. I considered his history of depression, then I considered my own, and then I considered the commensurate level of talent. There is brilliant and dysfunctional, and then there is pretty damn good and excellent at coping. There is a lot of variation in between. Which brings me to the second experience…

I shot a film festival for my sister and some friends, this past weekend. I was actually in a sea of creative people as writers, directors, actors and producers milled around waiting to have their picture taken in front of the TBUFF (Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival) step-and-repeat. Among them was someone that is part of a family so talented that it should be criminal (I kid. I covet their genes.) But their obvious creative talent (name one, they’ve got them all) isn’t the most impressive part. No, that lies in their amazing execution of that talent. I think about this often when I can’t get my hands around an image I want to create or a story I want to write because I’m still learning how to execute what I see and hear in my head. It is that demon: one whose neck I can reach, but cannot quite grasp. Saturday night, I was downright phrenetic as I tried to absorb the energy surrounding me.  I got a creative buzz so voluptuous that when I finally got home at 2am, I couldn’t sleep.

If my new acquaintance happens to be reading this, then I hope he accepts my apology for trying to monopolize his attention. But hey, it was entirely his fault for exuding that effusive energy on which we “creatives” thrive.

The Truth about Depression

With all of the misinformation flying around the inter webs today in the aftermath of yesterday’s news, I feel like there are some things that need clarification. And I’m laying it out here because we need to talk about it.

A few weeks ago, twice in the same day, friends privately messaged me complimenting me and asking what it is that I do to keep my outlook so positive. I was touched. First, I had to ask if they were kidding, and then when they said they were serious, I was deeply moved. It told me that I was doing something right. What is not apparent is that I’m a lifelong depression ‘manager.’ I call it that because there is no ‘cure,’ or ‘fix.’ There is only management. The public needs to understand that, like diabetes, depression is a failure in a complex series of chemical reactions. It is not ‘sadness’ in the general sense of the word. It can be temporary, life long, severe, mild, moderate, but the ONE thing it is NOT is a choice.

Before I was diagnosed (at 24) I felt a consistent battery of symptoms: sensitive to external stimuli (e.g. noise), lethargy, lack of focus, emotional confusion, memory loss, irritability, lack of appetite, obsessive compulsive disorder. It was a constant barrage of neurological activity. The causes are not as well understood as is the failure. So, when you look at a person whose aspect is so grey, so defeated and think to yourself, ‘if only they knew…,’ remember that they probably do know, intellectually, but their body chemistry won’t let them FEEL it.

Imagine being locked up in a room with no windows and doors, and you are being chased by a swarm of bees. THAT is how I describe it. You are trapped in a huge volume of stimuli that you cannot escape. And I am a moderate case. Imagine a severe case. When finally I found the treatments that worked for me (and I was lucky that I grew up in a medical household), my life changed dramatically. I could learn. I felt liberated. I was free from the bees. I owned it. It no longer owned me.

So people, when you talk to someone who is truly depressed, don’t say things like ‘Oh, what do you have to be depressed about?’ because they really don’t have an answer. They need coping skills, and possibly medication and education. But they DO NOT need sympathy, or judgment. No one is more aware of the damage it can do than the person running from the bees.

Post script: I have not had to take SSRIs since my father passed away 6 years ago. That is an important piece of information. I have found a management process that works for me. It’s not the same for everyone.

What is ‘what is’?

Naturally, I was seated in the first desk.  It was the only way I could stay awake. It wasn’t that Mr. Givens wasn’t interesting. Quite the opposite, actually. He was a quietly elegant man. Average height, slender, very late sixties, and full of a love and knowledge of literature that I’ve perceived rarely since.

He stood at the blackboard, grinned mischievously and asked the class to write four words at the tops of our papers: “What is ‘what is’?” I remember, clearly, the terror that bounced around my brain like bee-bees in a kettle drum and the pyrotechnic spinning wheel burning in my chest. Even I knew that I couldn’t possibly have anything worthwhile to commit to paper. I knew that I had neither the maturity, nor the command of concrete thought that it was going to take to answer such a question in an innovative way. Perhaps, had I just written that, had I just said that my ‘what is’ was a profound fear of not having the right answer, of sounding trite or glib. Then perhaps I’d have been able to write an answer that pleased Mr. Givens. But instead, I sat frozen, increasingly aware of the clicking of the second hand on the white, industrial clock on the wall and the furious scratching of pens all around me. I continued to stare at those four words, dodging the bee-bees. Staring. Staring harder. Squeezing shut my eyes. Searching my mind for a spark of clarity. Nothing. Nothing at all.

I knew that all of the brilliant kids around me were far more self-aware than I. Actually, I’m not sure that I knew to label it as self-aware. I just knew that they seemed to thrive. I was clinically depressed. Only, at the time, no one around me knew what that looked like. Looking at a teacher, hearing what they said, and trying at the same time to stop the bee-bees in my head and the spinning wheel in my chest; it was very hard work and I was exhausted all of the time. I couldn’t remember what I’d heard just minutes before, even though I’d done everything I could to focus on it. My grades suffered; my family suffered around me; and I began a slow decent into that state where feeling all of the time left no energy left to think. The bee-bees got louder and the spinning wheel hurt more. “What is” for me was just four words, written in perfect Catholic school penmanship at the top of a piece of cheap notebook paper with blue lines. To this day, that is all I remember writing.

The paradoxes of my life were many, and varied, and kept me from feeling like I had a place, much less a path. I didn’t understand what was happening to me and I knew that I was very much alone in it. I longed to identify with and belong to anything, but with all the “noise,” there was no room for anything else. I would get close and then my “what is” would stop my progress. My “what is” was debilitating fear.

Now, the word depression is often associated with images of people who won’t get out of bed or celebrities who drink themselves into oblivion. I showed up every day, and tried, but without the tools I needed to get past the “what is” that handicapped me. Long ago, I learned to cope with it. I understood the idea that depression is the emotional “snow in the TV screen,” as it was eventually described to me when I was finally diagnosed and treated several years later. In fact, when I admit to people now that I’ve dealt with it my entire life, they look at me as if I have three heads. “What???” they say, shocked. “How can you be depressed? You seem so happy.” Well, these days, my ‘what is’ is vastly different than it was for the teenager sitting at that desk, staring at that piece of paper.

Thirty-two years later, that scene still bothers me. Out of sheer curiosity, I’d love to know what all of the other pens scratched out on paper that day. If I had to write the same essay today, naturally, “what is” would be “perception.” I might, in a flare of drama, write only that one word. It really is no more complicated than that. The sky could be a perfect cerulean with big fluffy clouds, but a hundred different people will see a hundred different shades of blue. Depression dulls all the colors, covering everything with a veil of grey. A few years ago, I chose to live a life full of color and I’ve managed my ‘what is’ as best I can ever since. It isn’t always easy, and some never make it to this point. But it begins with avoiding triggers and then follows with tiny choices. I choose what takes up real estate in my head. I choose to spend time with people that add color to my world. I choose joy. I choose to explore, experience and thrive. I choose my “what is” every day. 

So, now ask yourself, what is your “what is?”