Mental Illness Series Part 3: Attention Deficit Disorder
The worst part about losing my job, yet again, was the look in my boss’ eyes.
He’d been trying, for a long time, to help, to give me something to do that would help me survive & allow me to focus on music. I showed up, once again, with no notepad or writing utensil. He had asked me over and over and over again to bring these things. I forgot. I forgot. I forgot again. He is upset now. I am not moving fast enough and my laptop is stalling. I feel his eyes on me. He exudes power and confidence and organization and productivity and industriousness. My opposite. Intimidating. I feel small. I feel as if he is looking at a disobedient five-year old. My imagination runs wild. He is sick of me. (Get out of here coral) I can’t focus. I can’t focus. I am starting to think irrationally. All of this happens within, all he can see is an apparently blank face, which must be infuriating. He cannot see the turmoil happening inside. I realize this and it fuels my irrational thoughts. Where is my notepad? I’m going to starve. What will I eat next week? Miscellaneous rapid fire thoughts. I show no emotion, yet. I try to focus on the immediate. But I’m anxious now. My mind is racing.
And then, just like that, in the moment where I need to prove something, anything at all in order to keep this job, I have forgotten what we were talking about.
No! Fuck! Not now. Any other time but now.
I look foolish. It is excruciatingly obvious. He has really tried, for me, for a while now. How could I have fucked this up? I am unbearably uncomfortable now. I can feel the disappointment and frustration emanating outward in waves, their origin his gaze, penetrating me to the core. I have no answers. I have no excuse. I am the excuse.
Shame is a visceral phenomenon. My fight or flight is kicking in, an acidic tingle in the back of my eyeballs hints at what is coming (Run) Now, the tears form. (Get out of here get out get out) He gets up to retrieve a pencil and pad, pissed, shaking his head. I get up fast, sprint to the bathroom. It is empty thank jesus. I walk into a stall, lock it. Back to the wall, sink to the floor. Defeated. The embarrassment. Breathe.
I hang my head. I go deeply into my mind.
Lazy. Shy. Clumsy. Weird. Daydreamer. Offbeat. In her own world. Spaced out. Unresponsive. Passive. Awkward. Aloof. Impulsive. ‘No common sense’ was an old family favorite. (My former boss, after I returned, said something along the lines of: you need a team, you need help, you need some kind of interface to deal with reality.)
He’s right, I thought. I have felt overwhelmed by external demands my entire life, as if the accomplishment of life itself was too much to handle. Living with ADHD can be like having fourteen televisions on in your brain, all on and loud at the same time, constantly switching channels, and being told to follow the plot of just one of them. Hyperactives cope by trying to do everything at once. Inattentives (thats me, there are less of us) simply stop, or never start at all. This is a very, very real neurobiological difference in brain functioning, which leads to differences in cognition, which subsequently leads to differences in behavior. This has been studied extensively. ADHD is not a deficit in my opinion, but the phenomenon is most certainly real. (More on this later.)
Later on, he’d be less pissed off. ”You’re so in your head” he’d say, more sympathetically now, the skin between his eyes wrinkling. I would feel then, as if he could not possibly see me, except through a lens tinted with pity, except as all the things I can’t do. I feel as if he thinks how I am is a flaw. I assume so. This is the message we get our whole lives, more times and in more ways than NT’s can imagine. And by NT I mean neurotypicals, namely people who, because science, are taxonomically grouped with “those who perceive reality correctly and therefore behave within society accordingly.” There is a spectrum.
I am curled up in a ball on the floor in a gray bathroom stall. Memories slam around in my head. The bits and pieces. It is all coming together now. I am 22 years old looking back.
Flashback. I pulled my file while working at Prep for Prep at 19. I was 12 years old in Prep.
‘Great ideas, great potential, inconsistent.’ Every single teacher. Quirky. Quiet. Very original ideas. Not working up to potential. Inconsistent. Messy. Late.’ The recognition sizzles inside. Diagnostic buzzwords dropping like bombs. I’d been researching for months. ADHD. People like me often take refuge in labels at first, when they finally discover “the one” that explains it all. Labels can make things feel better. Labels can put the life long isolation from other people in a less personal context. They can eventually take you from ‘me vs the world’ to ‘me versus myself and my ADHD’, to, eventually and with much inner struggle, ‘me vs a society that stigmatizes people like me’ instead. All I’m saying is that they can help us begin to recontextualize years of feeling defective. Also, for all you who have no history of ‘mental illness’ and are not familiar, it is very, very normal for people to not arrive at the diagnosis that actually explains their situation until YEARS after their first contact with the mental health system. This is simply the nature of the process.
Tangent: Two years ago, when I received a third diagnosis (which turned out to be wrong which is mad typical for adhd especially for women) one of my best friends flat out said he thought I was being a ‘hypochondriac’. I could see in his eyes that he did not take it seriously, I could see that he thought my endless online research was me looking for something, he saw it as me allowing ‘the man’ to tell me there’s something wrong with me when there isn’t. And I understood that. But I still knew I was ‘different’. I still faced things that made life as usual, made conventional ‘success’ unlikely. I still struggled with basic things that he never has. I was still failing most of my classes, again, and he wasn’t and never has and never will. Although he’d been through a lot and had friends and family deal with serious ‘mental illness’, having gone to hospitals, having been on meds, having been bed ridden with a non-physical issue….my experiences were on another level.
And therein lies the key difference in our relationship to diagnostic psychology.
It hurt me really bad. And he said it thoughtlessly because he was not personally familiar with what its like to ‘go through the system’, he didn’t understand how the process works. I have another friend who believes she qualifies for ADD and talks about it all the time, yet has never had a serious problem in school or in keeping a job. Can you see why this is so frustrating? I admit, all the little bits and pieces of ADHD do sound like regular issues everyone has. But it truly is the degree, constancy, and above all the observable consequences in ones life, that makes it a real disruption. The other day, while venting about my struggle to keep traditional jobs, another close friend suggested that I was just ‘psyching myself out’ and something along the lines of ‘it’s just that you don’t wanna do it’ slipped out. (UGH. NO.) Everytime, it makes me want to isolate, it makes me question my relationships. Do they know me? Will anyone ever understand? Even the people that are closest to you will truly struggle to realize that you’re not just a lazy fuck up, especially if you are inattentive and most of it is internal/invisible. If you know someone with ADHD or any label, please don’t do this to them. We do not work like you, which is precisely why we tend towards unconventional careers. It takes years of learning self-discipline and creating external structure in our lives, to do the same things you can. To explain it as simply as possible, in ‘normal’ brains there is a chill little dude who sits at a switchboard in your skull. His job is to prioritize, structure, self control, regulate, manage, define, plan and do all that logistical shit, his name is ‘Mr. Executive Function’. Some of us were born with little dudes who are just not very good at their job. Stimulants are like artificial little dudes that we ingest to make up for it. Anyway, I am not going to wake up one morning and simply be able to decide to not be late, remember details and stay on task. I will have to bust my ass for a long time, and it will never come natural. Having to defend my character/protect my self esteem from comments like these, all the while trying so hard to do things people take for granted, gets mad old. I can’t put in words how painful and isolating invalidation in its many forms can be. End tangent.)
I set a record at Shellbank Junior High. For lateness. 100 times in 7th grade.
A year later. 8th grade, I am failing geology. I do not care about geology. I cannot do all these impersonal little details about rock formation. I physically cannot force myself to do it. My little man wont budge. My grades depend on it. I know it. Dr. Miller knew boarding school was my best chance. He knew I wouldn’t thrive in the prison like high school with the fights and the metal detectors next door. I knew it too.
He replaced the 65 I actually earned with a 95. I got into Taft.
9th grade. Set a school record for demerits (at a very old school.) Mostly for constant lateness and a messy room.
Teachers never really saw me shine academically at Taft, only in dance and music…until my senior thesis, which was about black women’s hair. Something I cared about, that stimulated my mind, sending me into an overdrive of inspired focus. They invited me to speak with them about it, light in their eyes as they felt my passion and the way it made it easy for me to write sixteen well-researched and thoughtful pages, six past the limit. That light dimmed as they noticed missing commas, poor attention to detail, and a serious lack of organization of my thoughts. Because many given the label ADHD-PI (PI stands for primarily inattentive) tend to be pretty smart, I kept getting by. Quiet and obedient, and, secretly, completely elsewhere. Nobody noticed, my grades weren’t perfect but thanks to raw intelligence, they were enough. Until college.
The roof caved in.
Shitty grades the entire time, unless it was something I loved, like social theory or ballet. Incompletes, absences, lateness, walking into class only to gape in horror at the papers everyone else brought in. I frequently forgot entire assignments. I thought it was only depression, anxiety, and being too idealistic to care about grades on pieces of paper.
On the forums I began to browse this summer, I found out how common the timing of this breakdown is if you qualify for ADHD. In hindsight, it makes sense that all of my final papers were written on stimulants. Because college doesn’t provide the daily structure of K-12, we become, increasingly, unable to function like everyone else. It becomes more obvious the older you get and the more responsibilities you have. Most undiagnosed inattentives hit a massive brick wall either in college, or in the first real job afterword. This is all proven and backed up by statistical and anecdotal evidence.
I am still on the floor of the bathroom, ruminating, terrified of facing my boss and the inevitable end of another job. It was supposed to be so easy. All I had to do was promote something on social media and to companies. Send emails, make phonecalls, follow a pretty simple plan, complete a month long project, keep on top of details, track progress in Excel. Basic things. Simple things for a reasonably intelligent adult.
I couldn’t do it.
Inattentive type. Dreamers, loners, space cadets. As kids, we probably walked into things and dropped things and lost everything. We sometimes get any number of random diagnoses thrown at us throughout our lives until this one, the right one. Depression or anxiety are commonly comorbid. Overwhelmed by the pressure of regimented school/work life in modern America, we are scatterbrained, ‘elsewhere’. People sometimes look at us funny when we communicate. Sometimes we slowly stop trying to communicate. We become lost in the inner worlds we live in. Or we try harder, harder still, those are usually the hyperactives though. Sometimes they get on people’s nerves for being ‘a lot’, but on the flip side, sometimes inattentives not being present can really make people feel uncomfortable and alone, as if we don’t care about others or are ‘aloof’ (if I had a nickel yo..)
I am cognitively incapable of being highly motivated by external force unless that force is something like a gun to my head. Apparently I don’t have the normal amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter partially responsible for concentration, motivation and the like. We live inside a cavernous, foggy, loud inner world that makes all the little details of the external one so hard to navigate. Friends and and family lose faith in us, slowly, over time, because the only thing we are consistent with is inconsistency. We are people who never keep a phone or keys or show up on time, and piss their friends off as a result. People whose minds jump from tangent to apparently unrelated tangent in a way that can sometimes tire people out. People who cannot think in straight lines, who can’t naturally plan or stick to a schedule for the life of them, people who hide the fact that they stopped listening thirty seconds ago and struggle endlessly to fill in gaps while engaging in the tiring dance of socializing in which our quirky personalities are definitely not always well received.
(Are you starting to feel like you understand a bit more? I feel that I have a gift in writing and breaking things down for people, and I feel compelled to use it to spread understanding and compassion for millions of others like me. This post, as usual is very personal but the personal is political. It’s not just the huge famous activists that have the biggest impact. Sometimes, it’s a few people within a social circle who have the tenacity to give stigma the finger and speak up. In a small but important way, they make a difference in the lives of people around them. They know how fucking scary it is to ‘tell your business’ and appear less than perfect to others, we live in a society that puts so much stock in appearances. I hope that by now, people understand that the point of my blog is not to get attention for myself, but to speak out about things that desperately need to be voiced. THAT is how you fight stigma, not just by talking about how stigma is bad. I open up to demonstrate that it is OK to do so, I do it to show the world that you can and should love your flawed, imperfect self and not feel ashamed of your differences even if those differences are currently pathologized. How can we collectively heal and fight stigma if people don’t talk openly about things which society says they should hide? Fuck that. You free others as you free yourself, yall.)
Woah tangent. We have issues with short-term memory. We can’t even hear people speaking to us sometimes. (Getting screamed at and kicked out of a classroom at 12 for this sucked. It would have seemed impossible to onlookers, she was speaking loudly, right next to me. I really didn’t hear her. She made me go stand outside. So embarrasing.) We can be extremely creative and can hyperfocus, which is the ability to concentrate intensively on one thing. It can make us unhumanly focused and productive, barely eating or moving, if something makes our hearts glow or our minds perk up, (this explains why I constantly make music and research things I care about for hours at a time, barely registering the outside world in an almost trance like state.) Fitting in and being able to respond in the way people expect us to in social situations can also be a real struggle. One on one is easier, following what is happening in a group can be hard. We miss social cues, zone out during small talk, may be withdrawn, passive, impulsive, the list goes on. ADHD is more than the cultural stereotype of the 8 yr old boy spazzing out in class, guys.
We sometimes grow up believing there is something really wrong with us at the core of who we are, and if we don’t have one of those super supportive validating families, we get very little evidence otherwise.
(Back to the office)
I drag myself, albeit unwillingly, out of the bathroom, back to his desk. We mutually agree to let me go and I walk out. I can’t tell if the last look on his face is anger about having ever paid me at all, or just straight up pity. I don’t know which is worse. (I am not good enough. I am not responsible. I am not an adult. My shit should be together at all times and if not I am bad.)
I walk outside the Soho office onto Broadway, make a left towards Canal. The heat is oppressive. The world is oppressive. But nothing is as brutal as the booming of my megaphone loud inner critic. Stupid. Lazy. I hear the voice of my brother echoing in my back of my mind. The last words I ever heard from him were ‘What’s wrong with you, Get your SHIT together Coral’. Click. He hung up.
I feel physically sick now. Instead of getting on the train and trapping myself in a hotbox of other people’s emotions and sweat I keep walking, walking. I need space. The whirlwind is strong and there are old, dark thoughts mixed in that I can’t ignore. I beat six years of severe anxiety. The coming/going depression is at a level I can handle, weeks go by and I don’t even visit those stomping grounds anymore. What is wrong with me, still?
I thought I was free. I found my mission, my purpose, in music, in outreach, in innovation, in writing. In contributing to a more beautiful and humane existence on earth. I found my spirituality, my center, my soul. I found myself. All the years of isolation and introspection, the long inner journey towards a far away light. I was supposed to be walking out of the tunnel to the other side, not walking about all aimless in the city because I lost yet another job that I absolutely needed to continue feeding myself.
Last night, one of my close friends asked me what my plans are for September. I don’t have a new apartment lined up. I don’t know what to do and paralysis is trying to set in. There are a million little details of finding a new job and moving, a million things on an endless to do list. I really, really can’t tell A from B or up from down in my head, they all blend into a single cacophonous symphony of ‘fuck, I’m just going to sit here and implode”, even though my wellbeing, my life is at stake… can you wrap your head around that?
Imagine being in a car and there are fifty zombies running towards you, you can see them very clearly in the rearview mirror. Your foot is on the gas, but your brain refuses to send the signal to it that will cause it to press down and move. In fact, your brain refuses to send ANY signal and you are forced to sit there. And wait. One of the hardest parts of being so called ADHD-PI is starting things, anything at all.
Where was I? (Checks) Oh, here I was. My friend asked me what my plans are for September. ‘You need money, you need a job’ he says. I do, and I know it. I see the zombies very clearly, but my little man is asleep at the wheel, my foot limp on the gas pedal. I sit there. I wait.
Many of the people on the ADD-pi internet forums find solace in sharing not only neurobiological and psychological but spiritual characteristics, many feel this intuitive sense of ‘I came to do something beautiful here that hasn’t been done before and doesn’t fit into a box yet’ too. Yet, this summer, as I spent hours browsing them, I saw myself, time and time again, in the words of the others, in their stories of a lifetime of shame. Lazy, stupid. Just try harder. You need tough love. You worry us. You stress us. You are a problem. Just do what I do.
Just be like me.
I can’t ‘just keep a job’, he doesn’t understand. (“You need a job to survive”) I bristle inwardly. I know that, and my intelligence and self-awareness recoil at the blow. Now I can’t look at my friend in the eyes. I want to throw something at him. I’ve been rolling a massive stone up a steep hill for too long to not experience even a statement meant in innocence and concern as a painful pin prick.
Just be like me.
Again. The fear of yet again being misunderstood and labeled and chastised again, by someone I love. I am starved for understanding, for someone who loves me to say, hey, I am aware that both very real cognitive differences and intense life circumstances are combined in your situation to create something that is really tough and unique. I see past my own perspective and realize that you cannot simply wake up one day and make a choice to just magically do everything you should do. I respect you and know you want to thrive, and if my understanding of your situation is so limited that my idea of ‘helping’ is reminding you that we must work to eat and live, I will rethink my understanding and ask you questions so that I may truly understand, if I want to. I will offer you thoughtful suggestions and tangible ways of helping that may help you without belittling you, by, for instance, being someone you can check in with briefly every week to see if I accomplished goals. Also, I totally understand that ADHD is not a real defect, disorder, or series of irresponsible immature decisions, and that it only truly exists as a problem within a specific matrix of modern American society, which is obviously fucked up and asks way too much of us, like for instance that we must work within an exploitative economy to pay for the expensive right to exist for most of our adult lives….or sit in buildings being conditioned to be docile workers for most of our childhood, becoming almost entirely domesticated in the process. I listen to you, I know you are misunderstood, and as a result I want to understand you deeply, so I did some basic research and I know that ADHD exists as a diagnostic category because
1) It is incredibly profitable to pharmaceutical/psychology/psychiatry industries
2) It is incredibly useful for controlling unruly humans whose behavior poses a threat to a system that should have ended with the industrial revolution, but lived on in the way we conduct schooling and the workplace in modern times, which are incredibly outdated but remain because they are the building blocks of capitalism, reinforce capitalist ideologies, and extend biopolitical control right into our brains/bodies.
3) Humans beings are categorized (normal/abnormal) as a way to control them and that’s the whole point of traditional/mainstream/legitimated state/medical/psychiatric/educational discourse. We are living in a sick, unsustainable system that puts money and conformity above fulfillment and individuality, it parades as normal simply because it is the status quo. People that cannot conform to the expectations of American society must be labeled and ‘othered’ in order for the whole scheme to work. Humans pretty much share the same DNA our hunter gatherer ancestors did, and modern society is not natural to us at all. The modern work and school world that you need stimulants to function in isn’t even two hundred years old yet, and the book that defines this as a disorder is a product of the 20th century! You good ma, I see the bigger picture and the context of all this stuff 🙂
4) You keep playing this song lately and getting all emotional: (https://soundcloud.com/raury/gods-whisper) What is an indigo? I don’t believe in that stuff, nah, none of that weird new age hoo-haa mystical shit is real to me, which is why I’m doing just fine within ‘the real world’ without ever questioning the larger purpose of my existence or the idea that the ‘meta’ physical world even exists. I looked up the lyrics to the song and read them:
“We are indigos
Living lives we chose
Show you’re brave
Those with faith
On a mission
Led by intuition
You should listen.”
Um yeah…nice song but Coral what the fuck is this nigga talking about? What are YOU talking about, you weirdo….intuition is a psychological process rooted in evolutionary drives for survival and nothing more, according to my bio class. And you don’t ‘choose’ your life…huh?
Gah whatever, you freak. I love you, so I think you should follow your own path and blaze your own trail. Those who are intimately connected to the whispers of their souls/their inner worlds should not be pathologized, they should be accepted and celebrated for the original contributions they can make to society. (I will add that I totally expect the vast majority of you to be a little, if not a lot weirded out by this one, maybe by me in general 🙂 Not much I can do about the fact that some of what I perceive is outside of the realm of what can be picked up on if with a purely logical/materialist mind state. I very rarely find people irl who have any idea what I’m talking about when it comes to metaphysical/spiritual narratives of certain phenomena that we normally discuss ‘rationally’, so yeah, be freaked out, but don’t negate the rest of this essay.)
I understand all these things Coral. Isn’t it refreshing that I did a little reading on your label? That way when you talk to me about it, I won’t dismissively tell you that you need to work to survive as if you aren’t aware of that already. I wont unknowingly make you feel like an idiot. I understand that the way you are is different but you are not broken or defective, I want you to feel safe talking to me about things because I know you probably already feel isolated and criticized and have for a long time. In fact, I just read a recent article that shed light on how different undiagnosed ADHD is for women and how normal it is for them to have also been depressed or anxious, for years.
I know you aren’t lazy and stupid, I see you working tirelessly on your passions and in your love, care and acceptance of others. I understand and accept you as you are right now. I believe in your capacity to forge new ways of caring for yourself, in your tenacity, strength and courage. I believe that people like you who cant ‘just get a job’ are actually kind of important in the grand scheme of things, as their differences force them to innovate new ways of survival and create new ways of understanding who we are and what the fuck is really going on in this crazy world. People who can’t just do what I do are incredibly important and they have every single right to exist on this earth even though they can’t just function like I do. I believe in you because I have seen how much you have fought just to exist. I approach you with love, faith, and belief in your inherent creative capacities, I am EXCITED to see how you face this challenge of rare developmental traits. So, armed with all this knowledge, I want you to feel entirely comfortable and we can now proceed, I will interact with you a little differently.
Sigh, a girl can dream. Or else, she must become her own best friend, and tell herself these things, whispering sweet nothings and ‘its ok, you’re ok, even though you fucked up’ to the soul she alone knows,
as she drifts off to bed. She must tend to the embers burning within her, she must remember who she is beyond the labels and the criticism, she must hold on for dear life to her value in a world that tries its best to take it from her.
Over her cold, dead body, she thinks, as she takes a deep, calming breath and drifts into the world she half lives in while awake.
Thanks for reading yall.