What is it like to have an attention deficit disorder brain?
I have always sought comfort in familiar things. I watch the same shows again. I read the same books again. For months on end, I listen to the same songs. My routine is not about scheduling, it is about having a list of familiar activities. I feel like I am trying to escape my brain. I found refuge from the chaos inside my head.
My brain starts doing somersaults when I touch a pillow. They have ugly heads. You wouldn’t stop poking her, so you made her cry in the sixth grade. Remember when you talked about hitting in the job interview? Remember when you drank too much champagne on a date and cried out in The Hunger Games? There are similarities between people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The vast majority of adults with attention deficit disorder are not hyper on the outside but on the inside.
The team is short-staffed. It is often half-baked big ideas that turn my mind into a clown car. There are ideas for work. There are ideas for a new book. There are ideas for a nursery for a baby who is not yet born. My brain doesn’t know where to put all the possibilities that the world has to offer. They fall in there like balls in a lottery machine.
Good habits have been developed by me. I take my medication. Every morning I make to-do lists. There are sticky notes on my desk. I don’t listen to music while I work, but my fan helps drown out the sound of my brain arguing with itself. I keep all the pages of the projects. It is not uncommon for people with attention deficit disorder to have trouble seeing an entire task from start to finish. I pick up one thread, follow it for a while, grab several more, and before I know it, I have a ball of yarn. I have developed the patience to occasionally pull a thread free.
It is a formidable task to fix things. In his book ADDitude, William Dodson, MD, an adult ADHD specialist in Denver, Colorado, writes that it is hard for us to block out stimulation in people with ADHD because they have amplified senses. I don’t like shirts tags. I don’t like being touched by strangers. Loud music in the morning makes me stressed out. I turn my phone upside down on my nightstand to not see the light that charges it. I like to escape from household sounds by listening to ambient noise. My husband bought me a white-noise machine after I slept with an osmotic fan facing the wall.
Hyperfocus is a feature of ADHD that I have learned to channel. It is 1:45 p.m. when I sit down to work at 8:30 a.m. It is a good sign that I like my job because it only happens to people with attention deficit disorder. It also means that my house looks like it was hit by a tornado and that I often forget to eat lunch. When I first learned how to manage my time, deadlines would appear out of nowhere, and I would find the motivation to make a final product in record time. I felt like the hare was keeping up with the tortoise, with frantic spurts of focused energy.
The team is short-staffed. The trash goes into a pile of importance. Stimulants help the striatum choose the most important task, rather than half a dozen at once.
All of my unfocused thoughts clamor for attention when I get out of the zone. The reward pathway has a built-in executive team in the corpus striatum, which helps filter the constant influx of thoughts and emotions, and file them in their proper places. Some items should be addressed immediately, others can wait, and still others should go to the trash. Occasionally, the team will send the most important item on the agenda to the prefrontal cortex for attention.
A chemical reaction is motivation. The reward pathway of the ADHD brain is off-balance, and it takes a lot more dopamine to make us feel happy or satisfied. If you don’t pack a big enough dopamine punch, it’s hard to muster the will to perform mundane tasks. It’s common to find novelty-seeking behavior. People with attention deficit disorder might become firefighters, drive recklessly, or abuse substances in their search for a boost. RDS is related to both addiction and Procrastination. It might be called a lack of will. It comes down to brain chemistry, not laziness, but they would be right in a way. There is one thing that ADHD brains are good at, and that is recognizing things they don’t want to do.
Some people with attention deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are not adrenaline junkie. People with more hypersensitive ADHD may be living in a constant state of sensory overload. These people might avoid crowds and loud venues with so much stimulation. Many seek refuge in video games, where they have control over the amount of sensory inputs. We are the donkey and dopamine is the carrot. There is only one carrot.
I seem to have feet in both camps. I’ll be happy to jump off a cliff, ride roller coasters, visit new places, or drive a four-wheeler. When the time comes to regain control over the level of stimulation, I seek refuge in familiar, comfortable activities. There are novel experiences during this time. Order something fun for dinner. Taking a different route home adds to a feeling of bombardment and stress. To escape the chaos and get my dopamine boost, I watch Lord of the Rings over and over again while I play Candy Crush. I work out to the same songs. I play music on the piano. I’ve read Harry Potter a dozen times. My brain doesn’t know where to put all the possibilities that the world has to offer.
Sandy Newmark is the founder of the Center for Pediatric Integrative Medicine and the author of the book, “ADHD Without Drugs: A Guide to the Natural Care of Children with ADHD.” A lot of kids with attention deficit disorder also have a sensory processing disorder, so it might be a reason to seek familiar activities. In my case, this behavior has carried itself into my adult life, which is not uncommon in the area of ADHD.
These behaviors are made sense of by the psychology of ADHD. People with ADD have different ways of self-soothing. Ned Hallowell, MD, founder of the Hallowell Centers and author of Driven to Distraction, says that it can help to have a routine and repeat it over and over again. They want to change their inner state. I call it the itch at the core of the disorder. Some of the most adaptive ways to scratch that itch are having a creative outlet, physical exercise, or close relationships. Compulsive activities, gambling, substance abuse, surfing the net, video games, those kinds of things are maladaptive ways.
Hallowell says you are leaving one place but entering another. You enter into the world of the TV show when you watch TV. You are escaping into the thrill of the ride when you ride at an amusement park. Drug creates a world for you when you escape into it. You are never leaving into nothing. Every escape is also an entrance for people with attention deficit disorder.
I would like to imagine a world where more people chase what makes them happy, instead of what they think they are supposed to do. I think we have figured it out.
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