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.

Space Crying?

Finally, after fifty years living in the state of Florida, I visited Kennedy Space Center. I had a very good reason. He’s eight, brilliant and amazing, mercurial and funny as hell. He also has the attention span of a fruit fly.

I wandered the halls, and slowly digested the glorious accomplishment that is space flight. He parkoured every surface possible, staying occasionally at one or another simulator long enough to get frustrated and move onto the next. Slowly, as my heart swelled in pride at what man can accomplish collaboratively, it broke simultaneously as I realized if I don’t intervene, my little man will grow up feeling as though he is capable of nothing.

Before we left for KSC, we had the teacher’s conference I dreaded, the one I hoped would never happen. As I listened to descriptions of his behavior in class, the pain in my chest grew as I relived all those moments I experienced as a child. So now, I look at him with entirely different eyes. Now, I see him as having the same debilitating symptoms that clotheslined me and I worry that I am not equipped to help him. I also see what his future will be like if I stand frozen and helpless, as I am at this moment.

You see, normal brain function allows one to get from point a to be point b with relatively little intervention. But in his case, as in mine, it’s constant, exhausting course correction. Eventually, the course corrections sound like nagging, and then “failure syndrome” develops. “Yes,” you think, “I see that mountain over there. Yes, intellectually, I know I COULD climb it. Yes, I KNOW I will fail.” Why? Simply, because it’s too big.

I will never be the kind of person who sits behind a desk all day, every day. Neither will my boy. Repetitive activities actually make us anxious. In fact, recently, while on a brief IT contract, I watched the workers on a production line for a few minutes as I waited for a computer to reboot. I felt myself becoming very depressed. I realize, though, that if I can’t figure out a way to effectively help my child, then he will be relegated to a job he hates because he won’t be able to get through the education he wants.

I remind him that some of the most amazing minds in history had ADD: Edison, Einstein, Tesla, Ford and many more. I remind myself. I get frustrated and I yell and then I hear him regurgitate to me the distilled version of whatever I found annoying. “Mommy, I can’t do it. It takes too long.” “Mommy, this is the way IIIIII write.” And to an extent, he’s right. I want him to be himself and at this point, his grades are stellar. But part of becoming a productive adult is finding a way to maneuver in a world that was designed for people who can get from point a to point b without constant course correction.

So, I watched the video depicting how an idea for a reusable spacecraft became the Space Shuttle and I began to cry. I watched how humans come together and creatively solve problems. I watched how great minds achieve great things, and I secretly mourned my failures and feared for his. As a parent, I have a choice to dig in my heels and fight for him or to let him sort it out the way I did. At this point, it is a simple choice for me. It was too hard to learn what few coping skills I have and I lost many, many years doing it. I don’t want that for him. I want all of the things that he’s interested in to remain the smorgasbord of possibilities that they are, today. I want him to believe that he can climb that terrifyingly large mountain in front of him and I want to watch him scamper off into the distance to try. Someday, maybe, he’ll cure cancer or he’ll figure out how to grow food safely in space, but I know that if I don’t help him now, in 40 years, he’ll be me, mourning all of the opportunities that were lost to fear. I don’t want that for him, so nose to the grind stone, I’m going to figure this out.

If you are a parent that doesn’t have to guide your child through every activity, thank your stars. Yes, he is healthy, and happy most of the time, but I see the shine wearing off as he begins to struggle more and more with focus. I’ll find my answers, which are going to be different from the next person’s. In the meantime, my new eyes will just have to adjust.

All the Knowledge in the World

What if you could assimilate everything you heard? I mean everything.

I began to think about this while sitting with my morning coffee klatch at Starbucks. I am usually the only female member of this daily gathering. I mention that because my perspective is unique among them. I’m female, and those experiences that are uniquely female have often affected what I learned. I can hear you asking what you believe might be a stupid question, ‘what does being female have to do with this?’

Simple. I was raised in a household that believed that marrying well was my best option. It had nothing to do with my intellectual capacity. It had to do with a philosophy that had been learned from the previous generation. Men were the bearers of political, economic and financial knowledge and were saddled with the burden of thinking and providing. What purpose, then, did I serve, I wondered? I, a woman as non-compliant and ill-suited for ornamentation as any I’d ever known. I would never be anyone’s trophy wife.

Why is this important? Well, that’s another very good question. Now, I am nearly fifty and I am amazed by what I don’t know, despite the amount of information I have assimilated, through education and reading. I sit, nearly every day now – a relatively new development in my daily routine – and I absorb information from the six men that make up the other members of the daily klatch. Among them are two financial planners, three real estate investors, business owners and a martial arts expert. Some are a mix of those things. All are highly intelligent, well-read and diversely experienced. Except for two, they are a decade older than me: an important detail. I have at my disposal, every day, an impromptu classroom of makeshift professors discussing how the economy is faring, what is trending in the stock market, what will happen to real estate values in the next few months and the position of world markets at any given moment. They hang out at Starbucks because they can. I hang out at Starbucks because for roughly $8 a day, I get a world class education.

Now, don’t think for a minute I am not already educated. In terms of volume, I am just as well-read in my field. From me, they learn about photography and technology and occasionally, insight into the female mind. But as an insatiable student, I want to learn it ALL. They don’t see themselves as teachers, but I do. In fact, I’ve met many people who can’t comprehend how they can be perceived as teachers. Maybe, I’m just a better antenna than most.  Maybe I care to learn more than most. So, I listen. I ask questions. I assimilate everything I can and I respect and value their knowledge and expertise. I understand that the very nature of learning is that it is constant and cumulative, and no one person can ever fully become the educational equal of another. Education, especially that which is the result of experience, is as individual as a fingerprint.

As Voltaire said, “The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.” But damn it, I’m going to do my best to know as much of nothing as I can.



Shifting weight in the old rocker under a tattered manta, wrapping it tighter. Cold, the uncomfortable intruder.

I wish I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy, and free. The pages were so heavy with time that no whisper remained as she closed the cover. Worn, fraying, faded.


Setting the old book on the low table, she threw off the manta and reluctantly set her woollened feet on the floor, scarred and grooved, groaning and squeaking. The leathers protested as the rockers bore all her weight for the moment she took to stand.

Deep, noisy breath broke the stillness as a smile forced its way up from her belly, her arms stretched to their full length. Another deep breath and the footfall accelerated in ernest. Cold, the ultimate motivator.

The lamp sat quietly on the old oak sideboard, rust pock-marked the bright red enamel of its curves. A kaleidoscope of colors swirled in the glass, burned in over decades. It seemed that there was never enough paraffin to keep the old thing burning brightly. She turned the cap gently, and filled the reservoir counting to five, squinting as the fumes rose, strong and sharp. Full for now. Nearly gone were the ridges of the tiny regulator’s wheel, but the movement was smooth and with a shhhhh the flame once again burned high enough to flood warm, yellow light into every corner of the room.

Back to the quiet corner, only just a few quick steps, she grinned widely as she sat, wrapped again in her still brightly colored manta, picking up the new book. Lighter with time, but thick with images crafted from words woven into brilliant, wildly colored tapestries. New, gifted to her by hearts and minds so rich with their own words.

She opened, listening for the whisper as the pages popped to life. Page 1.