In the Mind of a Writer With ADHD
On a bright cold day in April 1993 or thereabouts, I was in an elementary school computer lab populated by a ragtag assemblage of low-end Macintosh LC’s and rather more quaint Commodore Amigas and 128s. I sat hunched over in my miniature ergonomic chair, mouth agape, entranced by 256 vibrant colors of edutainment diffused across a 12-inch monitor, poised to make history on a microcosmic scale.
My game of choice was Word Munchers, a Pacman clone designed to impart basic grammar skills upon jaded schoolchildren. See, you controlled this little monster, and you had to make him eat words that conformed to specific vowel sounds, or words that were only adjectives, or words that rhymed with other words and so forth. The specifics aren’t important. What’s important is that on that day in April, after two hours of hyper-focused gameplay, I beat the game. I was in the first grade, and I beat the entire game on the fifth grade level.
I tell you this not to brag, but to say I have no taste for self-aggrandizement is a grievous understatement. I recount this story because, as pathetic as it might sound, beating that inconsequential game on that bright cold day remains the apex accomplishment of my entire life. For one fraction of a second, I was open to options I had never before considered. Everything seemed within the realm of possibility. I know it sounds reductive to posit that my entire self-image could be based upon a single incident from my childhood, but on that day I cast a shadow from which I’ve never been able to fully emerge. There’s no way that I could ever live up to my own grandiose expectations.
Last year, at the age of 28, I was diagnosed with ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Contrary to the unfair stereotype of a child with ADHD being a malcontent who revels in kicking the backs of chairs and assailing other people with various calibers of Nerf ordinance, growing up I was always exceptionally deferential to my elders. I was quiet, calm, unassuming and stable. Somewhat akin to Martin Prince, though lacking his social cachet. At least that’s how I was for the first few years, before I burned out.
For me, having ADHD is like using a color wheel without the little spinny top part — I have the advantage of being able to see all of the colors at once, but I’m at a distinct disadvantage in that I can’t discern which colors are best suited for one another.
My perception ends up unified. I see the past, present and future all as one. I simply can’t navigate. I can’t command my mind to go where it needs to go. It’s not that I can’t focus on anything, it’s that I feel compelled to focus on everything all at once. Or one precise thing to the detriment of all else.
I can make conceptual connections and empathize with other beings in ways that many neurotypical people can’t or don’t want to, but I’m barely functional in almost every other regard.
I lack the ability to delay gratification, too. I’ll put off anything I am doing, no matter how important, if I think there’s something I can do in the immediate moment to help someone else. I do it even if that help is not really needed. I might spend hours or even days intensely focused on perfecting a cookie recipe if I feel there’s even the slightest chance a plate of perfect cookies might cheer someone up. All other concerns become secondary and tertiary.
My capacity to make decisions, at least in a timely manner, is severely encumbered. I’m felled by an abyss of contingencies, all of them equally weighted, suffused with infinite possibility.
This form of paralysis has wreaked havoc on my ability to successfully complete a great multitude of work over the years. It doesn’t matter if I am faced with jotting down a brief reflection on a subject or engaging in an extensive literature review — when I sit down to write something and consider the limitless options before me, I become enmeshed in my endlessly tangential thoughts.
This becomes especially apparent to me whenever I attempt to engage in any form of deep reading. It takes me a very long time to finish a single book, and as a consequence I feel innately dull. It’s impossible for me to read more than a paragraph at a time without stopping to ponder for hours, or staring at the wall for days. I’m a dilettante — an imposter. I’m constantly vigilant lest others find out and feel compelled to discount me altogether.
Emotionally and intellectually stupefied. Exhausted. Untrustworthy. A flake. A disappointment. I’ve internalized these perceptions. They are part of me. I have brown hair, green eyes and I am a complete screw-up.
As I attempt to salvage some semblance of self-respect from my formative years, I’ve come to understand in many regards I hold myself to impossibly high standards. If I create anything I perceive to be less than perfect or ideal, I tend to take it as a failure, unworthy of being shared. Years ago I wrote a letter to the editor in which, upon publication, someone erroneously changed my use of the word “averse” to “adverse.” There is literally not a single other entity in the universe who could possibly care about this, but it still bothers me immensely my name was attached to the misapplication of a word.
I understand the fallacies inherent in what I’ve just said, but I nevertheless can’t surmount them. Perfection is illusory and the relentless pursuit of it is innately self-destructive. I would never hold anyone else to the same unattainable standards to which I hold myself. I would do everything within my power to find the beauty in others’ work — to encourage tenacity. Why can’t I afford myself the same courtesy? Because to do so would constitute self-pity. Egotism. Naval gazing. It would be distasteful. Logic has no bearing on my self-concept.
I suppose everybody has a set “person” they feel they’ve become. Some people mold themselves into this person but most elect to have others do it for them. We’re all shaped by forces greater than us. After a while this personality becomes hardened and stringent, like the shell of a cicada. We become afraid to molt the shell because the process leaves us naked and vulnerable to the world.
I don’t like what I’ve written. It’s laughably maudlin, serious, my anecdotes are too personal, too specific, too boring. I haven’t said anything others haven’t said more eloquently a thousand times before. My writing is redundant, inelegant and not remotely transcendent. Nevertheless I’ve chosen to share it with you in the hope that doing so will allow me to finally emerge from the shadow of my 7-year-old self, or break free of my spent cicada shell or whatever other metaphor you might see fit to employ. I write to accept myself for who I am. I will never be the world’s first fire-fighting cyborg clown to be appointed Secretary General of the United Nations, and I need to be OK with that. I am OK with that.