Oh, if I hear that joke in the mocking of my personal quirks one more time.
The comparison to “Dug”, the talking dog from the animated movie Up, has plagued me for most of my adult life. I (apparently) was (am) distracted by every little thing that had (has) nothing to do with the current situation I was (am) in. I was the poster child for ADHD, the butt of every hyperactivity joke, and even I joked that I had it. But in hindsight, I didn’t really know what it was.
It wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I took to address the issue as my productivity was only achieved by brute force. This was taking its toll. I didn’t think I could move forward without addressing it. But I came to learn that the effects of ADHD went further than simply being distracted by something shiny on the periphery.
What is it, Really?
The National Institute of Mental Health defines ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also known as ADD) as an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.1As this may be common knowledge, let’s delve deeper.
Inattention, a generic term, refers to behaviors such as missing details and making careless mistakes in work, trouble engaging in lectures or long reads, starting tasks but failing to finish, forgetfulness, mood instability, and general distraction. To those who have ADHD and are aware of it, the knowledge can generate anxiety.
People suffering from ADHD report being “on edge” or “feeling like things will go terribly wrong” in fear of losing track of their attention.2 The experience is often described as a “chronic sense of [feeling] overwhelmed.” As a result, those who experience ADHD are at increased risk for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use, and suicide.3 It is believed 4% of American adults and 5% of children live with the disorder. 13
Hyperactivity and Impulsiveness are also traits of ADHD. This may be fidgeting or squirming, always moving, not waiting your turn to speak in conversation, or not be able to play games with others. Often, there can be emotional outbursts of anger. It is difficult for one with ADHD to have a calm emotional discussion.5 Studies show those with ADHD suffer from a deficit in response inhibition, working memory, and delay aversion.8
Hyperfocus is a flipside to ADHD.4 This is where things become counterintuitive. ADHD is an inability to control your focus and attention, not necessarily the lack of attention. This happened in my experience with the early childhood discovery of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I nearly became obsessed.
The Biology of ADHD
MRIs reveal less connectivity between key areas in the brain. The biggest differentiator is the development of the middle-prefrontal cortex. This region is associated with language, reasoning, planning, and complex social behavior.9 One potential explanation is that inattention and deficits in executive functions are due to developmental impairments in prefrontal-striatal circuits. This area is responsible for communication from the frontal lobe to the basal ganglia and intercedes motor, cognitive, and behavioral operations.10
Research reports those with ADHD often have different levels of the neurochemical dopamine. This was initially thought to be due to a lack of dopamine transporters, the protein causing the termination of dopaminergic circulation.10, 12 However, it appears to be due to too many dopamine transporters, taking the chemical from the cells before its effects can be adequately administered. This cellular behavior is correlated with a genetic variation of the gene DAT1.11 This gene variation appears to be predictive of ADHD. Low levels of Norepinephrine and serotonin, other neurochemicals, also may cause ADHD symptoms.14,15 A common treatment for ADHD is the prescription of stimulants which work by increasing norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain.20
ADHD and Relationships
Relationships are challenging from the start, yet they can be even more challenging to someone experiencing symptoms of ADHD. Those with the disorder typically have a negative self-image, a lack of self-confidence, and shame from “failures”.5 At first, this may not be evident due to the ability of those with ADHD to hyperfocus. This hyperfocus may be valuable at the inception of the relationship as all of their attention is focused on the object of their desire, but it does not last. Forgetfulness, inattention, and apparent disengagement may hurt the partner of one with ADHD.
The ADHD partner is often oblivious to how this makes the other feel. Additionally, there is a tendency for the ADHD partner to question the other’s commitment and love due to the associated negative self-image and self-confidence.
Marriages with an ADHD partner often find the unaffected partner handling the bulk of the responsibilities. They may have financial troubles as well as sexual problems.
ADHD can make it hard to maintain friendships as well. Social skills are difficult to develop for one with ADHD. Often their aloofness makes them seem shy and their impulsiveness can have them coming across as aggressive.6 Often overwhelmed with daily life, those who suffer from ADHD can find their friendships more difficult to manage and a source of further overwhelm. Friends may become frustrated at not being able to get their attention.7
Also, it can be hard to date or make friends with someone who has ADHD. The ADHD person may not be fully aware of social cues or body language, they might miscommunicate or misunderstand, they can be disorganized in their thought and surroundings, and the disorder makes intimacy more difficult.
In my experience, I was so distracted with both the management of my thoughts and emotions that I often didn’t (and still sometimes don’t) consider my friends and partner’s experience. I had a constant feeling of overwhelm. Everything was an emergency and I had to do it NOW. Often, I’d be so overwhelmed that I’d freeze, do nothing.
I’d give up.
I became habituated for much of my adult life that there was nothing I could do. I felt helpless, empty, and isolated.
Attention Deficit Trait
While ADHD is a diagnosable disorder, the attention deficit trait or ADT is lesser in severity, yet growing in prevalence in our culture. In the modern world, our brains are asked to process an enormous amount of information each day. A study conducted some years ago showed that the average worker was interrupted fifty-six times per day, taking a total of two hours in total to recover from those distractions and it only seems to be getting worse. Even the smallest interruption more than doubles the worker’s error rate.18
Once we’ve exhausted the mental resources of our frontal lobes, the lower and more primitive regions of the brain take over in a reversal. Our perceptions become viewed through a primitive lens perceiving fear, anxiety, impatience, irritability, anger, or panic.16 Our bodies respond by going into fight or flight mode. The, now secondary frontal lobe, reports to the lower brain that it continues to experience overwhelm and the process continues. Once you enter here, it’s a downward spiral.
An ADHD expert, Dr. Hallowell refers to this trait as “a non-stop traffic jam” in our minds when we are “overstretched, overbooked, and ready to snap!”17 This trait is characterized by a constant feeling of rushing, a lack of depth in thought or feeling, difficulty staying focused on a thought, feeling overwhelmed even when you’re not, and a compulsion for electronic dopamine hits, such as checking email or social media frequently.
This alone could explain the increase in the popularity of meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. All of these items work to reduce our cognitive load.
The ADHD Perks
While ADHD provides challenges for many, it also has some inherent benefits. Hyperfocus, perhaps paradoxically, is a benefit of ADHD. If an ADHD person is involved in an activity they enjoy, they are likely to get hyperfocused on this activity.18 Also, those with ADHD may become more resilient due to the fact that they must overcome more obstacles than most due to the disorder. Additionally, those with ADHD are typically more creative than others on average. And while impulsive, their impulsivity can come across as bravery, and they are often positive and high energy.
A Personal Note…
Growing up, I had a hell of a time paying any mind to anything I didn’t want to. Early on, I had trouble reading. I could read the words…but it wouldn’t stick. That was the case until I picked up the Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Suddenly, that stuck. This was evidence that I wasn’t just a fool with a low IQ (the jury is still out on that).
I’d fall behind in class because I couldn’t pay attention. I understood the information, but most of the time I’d study, I wouldn’t be able to let it all sink in. I couldn’t think about anything but music in high school. And by the time I got to college, I had to come up with some tricks. My calculus teacher confessed she had never met anyone who could explain what calculus did but couldn’t get the right answer.
I also feel there was an emotional component at play. A feeling of impending doom. How could I succeed in life with my mind in one of two modes: overwhelmingly excited or chronically overwhelmed?
My inability to concentrate on things I was expected to concentrate on, left its mark on my life. I wanted to go to school for pre-med to eventually become a psychiatrist. But there was just no way. I just chalked it up to being too dumb. But the truth was, I just couldn’t grasp it, though I loved the information.
I managed to access a certain level of focus, a flow state when I wrote. I latched on to this. I wrote term papers for cash. Yet I couldn’t perform on a test because I could not study. Though I’d try, the locus of my focus just would not be controlled.
Throughout the course of my life, I believed this was the normal experience of everyone. But the anxiety, the fear, and the inability to be productive without extreme effort took its toll. I sought out treatment. A combination of meditation, exercise, and medication has radically improved my life. I sometimes feel guilty, as the medication is not something I was socialized to believe was an acceptable solution. But even that comes and goes. I can’t believe what I currently experience is the typical experience of those without ADHD!
For those of you who made it this far, thank you for reading. If the experience I’ve shared, or the examples in the article ring true know this: Life can be better! Take the steps to do something to improve yourself…Contact a professional.
Life can be better!