Friday, July 6, 2007

Once a Loser: An ADHD Success Story

Those of you who have slogged through my five-part Air Force Years memoir might be wondering, "Who the hell is this guy, and why is he such an irresponsible drug abusing jerk?"

I've often wondered that myself. The answers didn't really fall into place until this past year. That's when I learned, at the ripe age of 46, that I have a "disorder." Last December, after I self-diagnosed about six months earlier, a licensed shrink confirmed that I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and gave me drugs to fix it. Sometimes they even work.

One of the downsides of being ADHD is that minor feats of cognition, such as remembering to bring one's lunch to work, go to an appointment, or pay a parking ticket, are inordinately difficult. Successful people with ADHD, and there are many of us, find ways to adapt. Back in 2000, for example, I started using this huge Franklin-Covey planner, which I carry everywhere despite the fact that it weighs about six pounds. It helps, but I need a lot more than the Seven Habits of Success to fix my problem.

Today was classic. I'd written a 1:15 appointment with my shrink, a guy named Marty, down in my July Calendar. Last week, I made a lunch date with another guy, a marketing guy for a local publication who is also named Marty, for 1:00. I put that in my calendar too. So I look at my huge fucking planner, and I have a 1:15 with Marty on the master calendar and a 1:00 on the daily page, and I figure 1:15 being the more precise time, that must be when I'm due at the shrink. So I go, and he signs me up for more Adderall, and I return to a message from Marty wondering where the hell was I?

Two guys named Marty scheduled for around 1:00 today. What are the odds?

The thing about ADHD is that one doesn't suddenly contract this. It's about brain structure. It shows up when you're a little kid. There are problems with focus, hyperactivity, thrill-seeking, and, secondarily, esteem, that start early and don't go away.

In my case, I was the last kid in the 4th grade to memorize the multiplication tables, despite routinely getting the highest scores in my class on the standardized tests. By the second grade, I was labeled as the weird smart kid who doesn't apply himself to anything. In a Catholic grade school populated by sadistic nuns, this is not a good thing.

I was a failure at being a Cub Scout, since follow through on merit badge attainment was pretty much beyond me. By the sixth grade, I was smoking, coming home during school to huff Pam with my friends, and driving around in the family car without a license. By the eighth grade I was a pothead and a chronic truant. In the tenth grade, I got myself kicked out of my Catholic high school and both of the public schools, one right after the other.

As you would imagine, none of this endeared me to my parents. Three phrases are burned into my memory.

"You're too smart for your own damn good."

"If there's a half-assed backwards way to do anything you'll find it won't you?"

"Stop that god damn jiggin' around."

By the time I was seventeen, things at home had deteriorated to the point of no return. I dropped out of high school altogether and left. The period of couch and porch surfing that followed was brief, and turned into a few years of SROs and other cheap housing. I moved seven times in two years and then went into the Air Force.

Through a number of minor miracles, I found ways of being in the world that made an asset of my congenital extremism. The most interesting part of getting a diagnosis was that my life history suddenly made sense. I was "portrait of an ADHD guy."

I'm lucky. My tendencies led me toward work that I love, and because there are people around who compensate for my deficits, I've been able to adapt. The big picture vision, the intuition, the attraction to risk, the tenacity, the comfort with conflict and ambiguity, etcetera. I've learned to see my blind spots and figured out how to make it work.

There are those who dispute that ADHD is even a disorder. They see it rather as an alternate way of being. They talk about how Leonardo da Vinci was ADHD, and how people like me are these Superman characters who, in our visionary rebellious distraction, are the vanguard of humanity's next great evolutionary leap. That strikes me as the smug perspective of the ones who don't know how lucky they are.

Tonight my wife was telling me she had news of an ADD kid she grew up with. He's a bit over forty and, as his family puts it, he "still hasn't found his groove." Their family Christmas letters say something like, "Mark has started graduate school, Amy's theater group performed Doll's House to rave reviews, and Bill has a new mustache."

Lots of people, having been defined as a fuck up, come to own the label.

I'm sure that we have plenty of Real Change vendors that this describes. I sometimes feel much closer to them than I do to many of my middle class allies and colleagues. The outsider perspective is something I get. And, were I less lucky — if I didn't get into college, if I were more predisposed to alcoholism, were I less gifted, if I didn't get a few key breaks, if I weren't a tall, white, male — things could have gone very differently.

1 comment:

boulevardie said...

I guess partially due to the fact that I too have ADD, your story sounded almost a little too familiar...

Anyway, it's nice to hear that you've found a way to utilize ADHD into your own advantage, by joining the Air Force etc. Kind of gives way to hope that others too could find a way to turn their ADHD into a pro, rather than it being a con.

Anyhow, good luck learning how to manage your ADHD, it's one hell of a task to accomplish in my experience. (you might want to use the full names of people when scheduling appointments with them on your calendar, it's easier to tell between Marties that way... ;-) )