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ADHD



ADHD

Writing these posts is the most difficult part of my job and IMO that's weird. I'm good at technology. I'm good at English. I have a lot to say and want to say it. So what's the problem?

I have what's called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The ADHD name is one of the most egregiously misleading names for a thing I can think of. I don't have a deficit of attention. If anything it's a surplus. Not all people with ADHD are hyperactive. Finally, while it can be make life difficult, I have a hard time seeing it as a disorder, because of how many things I'm good at because of it.

A friend of mine who has a child with ADHD asked me for some tips a while back. I've been thinking about what to write for a while and haven't really settled on anything so here we go. This is going to be a bit stream-of-consciousness or I'll never finish it.

Pro Tips: various friends have asked me for tips on how to manage this beast, so I'm going back through and adding a tip related to each section.

Living with ADHD

As a father, I've spent a lot more time than I otherwise would trying to remember what it was like being my son's age. He's 4. Fortunately I can remember quite a bit going back to around this time in his life. It's a huge help when, as @Jasont1022 puts it, "he's being four". This introspection often turns up memories of my awful academic life, which makes a lot more sense now.

I remember hearing about ADD on TV as a kid, but I don't remember ever hearing my parents or teachers mention it. Even in high school in the late 1990's, nobody really brought it up. Looking back, almost all of the big problems I had academically fit the profile.

Even though I was convinced of my diagnosis for years, I finally went in to get tested for ADHD in 2010. My doctor sent me to a specialist in San Jose. The test is administered what appeared to be an ~i486 era PC running a simple-looking DOS application. Of course, the test broke. The doctor, who I suspect will retire any day now, looked at the results and said something like, "oh yeah. You are definitely ADHD." The test broke because my response times when wired up to the computer were much lower than the software designers thought was possible. Clearly this software predates DOOM.

We discussed treatment options and explored a few digressions before he had to (politely) kick me out. I declined the idea of using neuro-feedback treatment and agreed to talk to my doctor about medication if I decided to explore that avenue (more on that later).

Pro Tip: if you think you have ADHD or are on the Autism spectrum, take the test! I wasted too many years of my life wondering. I tried lots of techniques before getting a diagnosis but never really stuck with them because I hadn't really acknowledged there was a problem.

The Problem

I remember going to parent-teacher conferences many times during my K-12 education. I didn't usually pay much attention, but there's this one phrase that came up almost every time: "Al never turns in homework, but he always aces the tests and quizzes. If he'd just apply himself ...." I know my teachers were frustrated. What I don't think they ever understood is how frustrated I was too. I wanted to do it. I just couldn't find the energy, no matter how hard I tried.

As it goes in life, every person with ADHD will have different experiences. One that I think is common is what I refer to as 'the hump'. There might be a clinical term for it, but who cares. It's the hump. It's related to impulse control, which is certainly something I struggle with, but the hump is something like anti-impulsiveness but really it's an impulse problem. Umm. Let me tell you about homework.

Pro Tip: if you know somebody has ADHD, please, please, please don't ask "why don't you just knuckle down and do it?" Most of us can't even answer that. It took me 30+ years to figure out the answer and I still can't "just do it."

Homework

Earlier this year my employer sent me to Japan to speak at a Cassandra conference. I'd been toying with the idea of learning Japanese ever since my first exposure to subtitled anime and decided that time was imminent, so I found a teacher and started taking lessons.

I really love learning Japanese. Ask anybody who has to put up with my practicing on them. It is rated one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn; this is attractive and daunting simulateously! The real problem for someone with ADHD is how Japanese is usually taught: by rote. While many consider rote work to be trivial, when you have ADHD it's the opposite.

I think about doing the homework every day. Every damn day. And I don't. Some days I make it as far as standing up to go get my books, then I find some distraction.

As I write this, I have an assignment I need to do for tomorrow and suddenly it's attractive because it would mean switching from writing this.

This is a normal every-day feeling for me.

When I go to do the homework, for whatever reasons the impulse to do anything else is irresistable. By anything, I mean anything. I'll clean toilets, doodle, get thrown out of class .... anything.

People will tell me "just do it man!" For whatever stupid reasons, it always has the opposite effect. I'll sit down all ready to power through it and there's this ... wall. Hill. Hump.

My guess is that this is what drug addicts feel like when presented with drugs, but fortunately that's not a problem I have so I'm not sure.

Pro Tip: ask for homework assignments before class and do them during the lecture.

One of the best grades I got in high school was in Geometry, a subject that normally comes with soul-crushing rote work. For most of the students, this is what happened, but my teacher that year must have heard about me and we came up with a setup where I could jam on the homework during class while tuning into the lecture as needed. Since I normally picked stuff up from the books anyways, I had no problem keeping up and got a B+ in a class that I normally would have failed outright.

Family

A lot changed when I left home to go to university. I didn't do well at university, but I also didn't have the stress of parents trying to push me into better grades. I managed to get my stuff together and land a good job as a sysadmin when I left university, so I haven't really talked much with my parents about ADHD. I should probably change that.

My wife has known about my ADHD since the day we met. We're polar opposites. She's the kind of person who loves repetitive tasks. It has been a point of contention from time to time, but usually we end up balancing each other out.

What really has gotten me thinking more about this subject lately is watching for signs that my son has inherited ADHD from me. I'm actually not that worried about it, because I know what it is and can empathize with him. What does worry me is that most of the world, and especially the educational system in the USA, is designed for scale, which means a lot of busywork, which is the hardest thing for me to do. I've already started working with him on practicing impulse control. It won't hurt, even if he's NT.

Pro Tip: find your hump. Your wall. Your addiction. Think about it and how your loved one must feel being helpless to "just do(n't) do it". A little empathy can go a long ways.

An Experiment

Let's say that neurotypical (NT) is like walking along on a flat plane. If I've interpreted what my academically successful NT friends tell me, homework is like being asked to take a tedious detour, but it's no big deal, you just do it.

When I'm presented with the same task -- even though I know exactly what to do, how long it will take, how to optimize, what the finished product will look like -- my mind is stuck as if I'd been asked to dispose of trinkets in some far-away volcano. I'll hapilly build you a forge, grind the trinket into dust with my teeth, or any number of "creatively lazy" ideas, but I cannot take a step forward. It's a little like anxiety, but without that whole-body awfulness. It's just in my head. And it's just as hard to manage as a full-blown anxiety attack. Actually, I know how to handle myself in an anxiety attack, but I still don't know how to make myself do homework. Even when it's for something or someone I love.

One of the paradoxes of ADHD is that sometimes you get the exact inverse of the hump. Some thing, in my case usually something my peers find banal, will grab my attention and I won't be able to put it down until I've conquered it. Programming does this to me sometimes. In this case, it can be pretty cool, or sometimes boring.

Pro tip: Find an opportunity for mastery in every task. The desire for mastery is, in my case, untouched by ADHD.

For example, when I do the dishes (bar none, my least favorite chore), I get every pan sparkly, every plate completely clean. It takes me even longer to do the task this way, but without the added challenge of doing it well, I wouldn't be able to do it at all. Just ask my mother. Oh boy. Anwyays, you'd be surprised at how many ways there are to wash dishes.

Drugs

I've been consuming what should be lethal amounts of caffeine since forever, but especially from the time I started drinking coffee around the age of 13. Adding milk and sugar was too tedious so I started drinking it black. There are other reasons, but mostly it's the tedium of preparing the cup 3-10x a day that drove me to black coffee. I can't tell you how happy I am that it's so easy to get fresh beans these days.

There's a story in there somewhere but this section is supposed to be about drugs.

I've had an Adderall prescription for a couple years now. It works. The problem is it makes me really irritable. OK OK. I make the Hulk look like a Zen Master. Anyways, it does make it easier to get past the hump, but only a little bit so I don't take it often. I will probably ask to try something else next time I see my doctor.

Pro tip: Adderall does not need to build up can be taken as-needed. Use it to practice getting tedious jobs done then practice without it. Repeat forever.

I've found stimulants to be quite useful in getting things done, but also noticed the toll they take. I take the pills on days I think I'll really need them. It seems to be a stress tradeoff - save a little avoidance stress now, pay the price later. Take it for a few days, pay for a couple weeks.

Running

When I started running, my wife said, "don't turn into one of those running freaks." I'm afraid I've failed again. I'm one of those people and I love it. Over the years I've tried a lot of different exercises and didn't find any I could get into. Weight training is cool but I can't focus. Karate was fun, but I couldn't get into practicing outside class so I fell out.

Our Samoyed, Rufus, joined us in early 2013. Being a working dog, he needs a lot of exercise to be mentally healthy, so once he cleared all of his shots I started walking / running with him every day. It was really, really hard at first because I couldn't run more than a block without running out of air, but there was a challenge in that. Before I started running, I never really spent more than short periods on any atheltic endeavor so I didn't appreciate how mental a lot it is until recently. As a trombone player, I should have known, but then again maybe that's why I could never get past "pretty good."

Running is a mental exercise. Getting that first mile is simply a matter of practicing the art of convincing yourself that you're not actually going to die and you should try to go just a little bit further. That's a mouthful, so we call it running.

The other burden of owning a sled dog is that they are stuck wearing a fur coat all year round, so running with Rufus in San Jose heat isn't so great for him. My workaround is running with him after dusk. This has the additional benefit of being quite a bit more dangerous than running in daylight. I call it a benefit because I've found that just managing my breathing and the hazards around me are enough to keep my mind busy for the whole run. Add in my desire for mastery and it's a pretty good way to keep from getting bored.

I know people who feel like being in better shape helps them deal with the ADHD. Running has definitely benefited me and I suspect most of the benefit comes from the mental work of running more than the purely physical part.

The runner's wall is probably the closest thing NTs will experience to the hump. It's a feeling you get after running some distance, where your mind and body conspire to convince you that your ass looks just fine as it is and it's awful hot outside and nobody else will know if you only did 2 miles instead of 3 so maybe you should go home and have a nice glass of lemonade. I usually hit the wall a couple times on every run.

The first wall is between the time I decide it's time to run and the time I close the door behind me. I call it the procrastination phase. It takes about an hour and drives Rufus crazy.

The second is usually around 1.5 miles. I'm all warmed up. Usually feeling pretty good. This is the easiest to overcome because I know I have plenty of resources (water, sugar). Just keep pushing on and it passes.

The third wall comes around mile 3. One way I mitigate a lot of the risk of running at night is by using the same route every time. I know where every sidewalk bulge is. Where the Sweetgum trees are. One result is that around mile 3 I'm usually going uphill. The other is that I am practicing monotony.

Pro Tip: practice monotony. Find some thing that is engaging enough to do regularly and combine it with something monotonous. This similar to chasing mastery while doing monotonous tasks, but inverted. Find monotonous tasks (that can be) attached to activities that are motivated by mastery and do it. Practice!

Teh Internets

I suppose the self-help gurus are correct to say that the Internet brings too many distractions for most people. For me, it's the best time to be alive because there is just about the right amount of input to keep me engaged and interested in the world around me.

Pro Tip: Go ahead and indulge in all the wonderful things the Internet has to offer, but keep practicing that impulse control. When I'm reading/watching content I often have the urge to bounce over and tweet about it. The trick is to not do that and wait until the end or pick some arbitrary checkpoint like half way through to hit before switching to Twitter or whatever.

YMMV

I've only talked about my own experiences with ADHD, so please keep in mind that it manifests in a lot of different ways. My life today is awesome because I've changed myself and my environment to make success possible. I practice being better at the things ADHD makes difficult. I have a kick-ass job where I've been allowed to experiment with maxxing out my ADHD traits to see what's useful (See Twitter. And most importantly, my friends, coworkers, and family know I have ADHD and accept it as-is without trying to fix me.

If you want to learn more about the symptoms and treatments for ADHD, one of the better overviews I've read is the National Institutes of Health article on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Pro Tip: Managing ADHD, like everything in life gets easier with practice over time. Find every opportunity to integrate practice into your daily life. I find lots of tiny actions to practice control a lot easier to stick to than large blocks of time.