For close to a year now, I’ve been thinking about sharing this story in hopes that others may benefit in some way. Today, seemed to me like that right day to put it out there. It took me a long time to find the right words to express myself on this topic, and I hope you don’t see this as over-sharing. Instead, I encourage you to consider if this might help you better understand someone in your life who may not always be able to articulate how they feel and function.
If you didn’t already know these things about me, I trust you will use this new information for good and not for evil. 😉
A year ago, at age 46, I learned that I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
One of my adult daughters was being tested for ADD. The therapist shared that since she had no history of traumatic head injuries, her ADD is likely hereditary. At the time, I could name only one or two people in my extended family who had been diagnosed. As she began listing the characteristics, I could remember certain behaviors in my mother, my grandmother, and a few other family members. I also mentally checked each one against my behavior. I have or had a good number of the characteristics.
Though my daughter was diagnosed with ADD, I wrestled with the feelings that I might have this same problem for weeks before deciding to be formally tested myself. I wasn’t sure that I wanted a label of any kind, let alone the label of ADD. But, I also saw some of the ADD characteristics in my other children and I thought that if I did have ADD, it would let me better prepare them for some challenges they will face should they also be diagnosed.
There were many ADD characteristics that I no longer consider a major problem for me such as, procrastination, poor organization, lack of follow through, reading comprehension, and difficulty completing tasks (due to distractedness). I handle all of those things very well now.
I sometimes have other behaviors noted for those with ADD that I do see as ongoing challenges for me. These include a tendency to stop listening, a constant need for mental stimulation, conflict-seeking behavior at times because it provides mental stimulation, a tendency for over-thinking things, a desire to talk things to death, or occasionally missing or misunderstanding an intended verbal message.
I wanted to know if there was a reason behind why I do some of the things I do. Still, I took the test twice.
Before deciding on seeking a formal diagnosis, I marked up a copy of my daughter’s questionnaire one evening at home during the time she was being evaluated. I was “off the charts” with ADD based on the scoring model I located with a Google search. The therapist administered the second test about a month later and I just barely scored within the ADD classification. I told the therapist of my first test, and she asked to see it. We talked some about things I had overcome in life. For example, always losing my keys or wallet, or how in high school and college I had to have music playing while I studied to occupy my brain so I could concentrate on reading. And how I am successful at building and creating new things, but not so good at keeping them going for a long time.
She asked me a lot of questions about what was going on in my life when I took the two tests. She told me that the high-level of stress in my life during my self-administration of the test heightened my ADD traits, while the less stressful time at the administration of her test significantly lessened and almost eliminated the traits. This is not uncommon for those with ADD.
She also called me a textbook case of a high-performing adult with ADD.
Apparently, I have learned over my lifetime how to accentuate the positives of ADD. I am creative, empathetic, loyal, charismatic and fun-seeking. And I have developed excellent coping skills for many of the negatives such as always leaving my wallet and keys in the same place; keeping a detailed calendar and a checklist; developing comprehensive systems and process to facilitate reaching my goals, and hiring people who excel at the day-to-day management the things I create and build.
There seemed to me to be some surprise, although not verbally shared, that I was able to maintain long-term relationships with others; I understand from my research this is something most adults with ADD cannot achieve. I suppose they just anger or hurt people one too many times with their behavior.
I know I’ve come to the brink of pushing people out of my life, from time to time, with my behavior. I’m also certain I anger or hurt more people than I intend.
Over the summer, I decided to begin seeing this therapist on a monthly basis to look for additional coping skills on those remaining, and those I find to be problematic, ADD characteristics. I find value in those monthly visits, although I probably don’t need to see her because I’ve been mostly successful through introspection at figuring out how to resolve my ADD challenges. I suppose I’ve been in the form of self-therapy for 30 years—constantly working my problems once I can identify them, or once they’re pointed out to me.
“You have a quiet intensity,” she told me once. “Some of my clients with ADD come in with such negative energy it’s like they’re Pig Pen from the Peanuts comic strip. But, instead of a cloud of dust surrounding that person, it’s a cloud of negativity that I feel like I’m brushing off for days after they leave. Your energy is different; quiet and not negative at all.”
Most of the time.
Then there’s the matter of the rabbit hole.
Not unlike the rabbit hole, Alice falls into there are things that trigger an intense focus, known as “hyperfocus” for those with ADD, that borders on obsession. For me, this is like diving into the rabbit hole where I see nothing but the light at the bottom of the hole, and it becomes the object of 100% of my focus as I make my way through the darkness. I am never distracted from that light.
One of my hyperfocus triggers is stress. The other is high interest in a topic, a project, or sometimes a person. For example, stress triggers my impulsively to eat when I’m not hungry. I’ve been known to wolf-down two brownies inside of 30-seconds and have a third in my hand before I realize that stress has turned me into a thoughtless eating machine. High interest in a topic or pursuit of a passion might mean that I devour a 500-page book in three days of almost non-stop reading, or be so engrossed in a painting I’m working on that I’ll paint all night long and not realize the time until I see the sun rise. Unfortunately, a person who’s the focus of this intensity, generally wishes they weren’t–it’s rarely a positive thing.
Individually, each trigger is mildly troublesome. Together those triggers are a recipe for disaster, particularly in my interpersonal relationships. This is why I let so few people close to me—they can’t handle my intensity, even outside of the shorter periods of times when the combination of stress and passionate interest push me into obsession and hyper-focus. I can become incredibly overbearing and difficult, especially when I’m in pursuit of my set goal. The life stress only fuels greater focus to move more quickly to achieve that goal—even those goals that I know I cannot achieve by the force of my own will.
I understand that being my friend or member of my immediate family is not an easy thing for the average person.
I’m prone to over-think things. I sometimes have such preoccupation with feelings and worries that I want to talk through everything so that I can push those preoccupations aside. I’ll stick my foot in my mouth occasionally. I may sometimes misinterpret things said and become defensive, and every once in a while I need to withdraw completely to reflect and process all of the information and feelings that fill up my mind.
ADD makes interpersonal relationships hard for me. While I know the triggers of the rabbit hole and I continue to work on adjusting my response, I’m never going to be completely free of these traits because it’s the way I’m wired. ADD occurs when electrical impulses don’t make it through to the frontal lobes of the brain where the executive control systems manage response and behavior. Essentially, what the rest of my brain is telling me to do doesn’t always make it up to the front of my brain so I can do it, or not do it, as is almost always the case. I’m making it sound a little like a mental illness here, but it is not, nor is it classified this way.
A very minimal amount of medication does provide some relief of the impulsively and helps me clear my brain of some of the many thoughts that bounce around up there, but there is no cure. Nor would I want there to be; although, in all honesty, I wish I could sometimes dial it back even more. The rabbit hole is too shallow, and I’m often through it before I even realize that I need to touch the dials.
My close friends and family must be ready and willing to accept the good and the bad that I carry in a box marked ADD; just as I would be to ready and willing take the good and the bad that comes in any box, or boxes they may carry with different markings. For me, it’s about the whole person. Besides, no one comes without boxes or baggage anymore, do they?
I am intense, yes. I talk too much at times. I’m moody, and I brood occasionally. I realize such intensity, focus and attitude is a bit much for some people. This is particularly the case when I try to compress myself into the expectations others may have of me. The compression and boundaries of the expectations create stress, which when coupled with my high-desire to achieve, send me into the rabbit hole. I’m thankful for those who tolerate me at those times.
The fact is, ADD is really just a different way of thinking or processing information. It makes me who I am. I’m not going to be able to change my ADD-fueled tendencies much, but I do not make ADD an excuse for my sometimes poor behavior, impulsiveness, or lack of attention. I am imperfect, and I continually work on minimizing the impact such tendencies have on others. And those in my life have had to learn to accept that ADD, or whatever ADD does that makes me think differently, is a vital part of what makes me the person they call a friend or part of the family.
All this considered, I don’t think I’d want to be anyone else.
When I was seven, my granddad had a mild heart attack. As part of his rehabilitation, his doctor suggested that he walk a couple of miles, several times a week. He liked those walks, and occasionally he would ask me to tag along. I enjoyed those times with him. He was a great storyteller and always had something to say to keep me entertained.
The walks were long and meandered for a seven-year-old. Sometimes we walked for blocks in one direction. Other times, we seemed to change course at every corner. There were times when he got bored with the city blocks, and we would find ourselves walking on the railroad tracks near the house. I think he liked the track walks the best because his stories were imaginative and exciting.
On one of our railroad track walks, we decided to cross the Kanawha River on the train bridge. As we got to the bridge and the land began to fall away, I noticed that I could see the river through the cross ties. I hesitated, but he kept walking. He didn’t know I had fallen behind and I wanted to catch up desperately so that I was not alone on that section of the bridge.
I took a few more quick steps, hopping over several more ties until everywhere I looked I could see water. I froze.
Although the space between the cross ties was only a few inches wide I could see the trestle, then the river below. I was terrified of falling into the river.
It was an irrational fear. I knew that I was too big to fall through the spaces of the cross ties, but my fear kept me from moving forward just the same.
My granddad was about fifty feet ahead when he realized what was happening. He called my name, told me to look at him–not my feet or the water–then walk straight ahead. After what seemed like an eternity, I worked up enough courage to start the walk out to him. I didn’t have a choice. I was too far out on the bridge, and I could see the water between the cross ties behind me, too. No one was waiting behind.
He kept talking to me as I ambled toward him. When I finally stood beside him, I was relieved. Even though I could still see the river through the ties and trestle, he made me feel safe.
He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I know that was scary for you. There are going to be many times in life when you’re going to be so afraid of something you won’t know what to do. When this happens to you, I want you to remember what you did today. Look straight ahead, keep your head held high, and start moving forward. If you can do this, you’ll always be fine, just as you are now.”
Throughout my life, every time I’ve found myself afraid of falling or failing in life, I think of my granddad. Then I hold my head high, look straight ahead, and start moving forward.
And I’ve always been fine.
I’ve even come to grips with the fact that super human speed exceeds my physical ability. Though it has taken me a long time to understand and accept it, I also know this: I can be a “hero” to someone...
The summer between my fourth and fifth grade was unbearably hot, but it did not prevent my friends and me from playing together outside. We welcomed the freedom summer brought to our lives and were out from morning to night, often taking a break from our activities to sit under the tree we had just climbed, or to chase the ever-present lightning bugs at dusk in the in hopes of capturing enough in a jar to light the way home. We were prone to occasional role-playing, engaging in a game of “Army” or “Cowboys and Indians.” This particular summer brought on a new game, though. It was the summer of the superheroes.
Superfriends, a Saturday morning cartoon about a team of superheroes, had launched the fall before, and my friends and I were hooked on the idea of having some special power and secret identity behind which we could hide. While we had read the comic books, the cartoon brought the characters to life for us. It also didn’t hurt that the Superfriends had a couple of kids and a dog as sidekicks. It gave us hope, I suppose, that we could do something extraordinary in our lives.
We didn’t confine ourselves just to the superheroes that appeared in the cartoon. That summer we became any superhero we chose. Sometimes I was Thor, other times I was the Flash. Once in a while, I became Captain America or Aquaman. Everyone had his favorite superhero, but no one ever really wanted to be the Batman.
“He’s useless as a superhero,” my friends would say. “He doesn’t have any superpowers at all! Sure, he has gadgets, but he can still die from being shot or from falling off a building. Who wants to be a superhero that can die? Who wants to be a superhero that’s SO normal?! He’s not even a superhero, you know? He’s just a man!”
Occasionally a new kid would join us and be such a Batman fanatic that he would suffer the barbs and crazy talk to assume the role. Unfortunately, the Batman was always the first one “killed” by whichever arch nemesis we were fighting that day. He was first to die because he was human and the most vulnerable of us all, but mostly, we just needed to make that point. I always felt a little sorry for the Batman and that new kid whose faith in the character couldn’t be swayed by the thought of early death.
Although I secretly wanted to be the Batman, I didn’t have the conviction of character, or frankly, the desire to endure the taunts of choosing to be him that summer. The Batman died at least 100 times that summer. He kept coming back. Not once did I take on the role.
As an adult, I know that we each selected characters to be that summer to provide a needed distraction from our own shortcomings and fears. We were on the verge of our teenage years but still wanted to hold on to our childhood belief that we could be someone—anyone–powerful and important, but not who we really were that summer. I know now that I wanted to be Thor because he was strong and in control, neither of which I could quite manage as one of the smallest of my friends. The Flash appealed to me because he was very fast and I was not fast at all. Aquaman controlled the water, and then the water controlled me. Captain America was my favorite because Steve Rogers, his alter ego, was a sickly young man who became a perfect human specimen with the help of an experimental serum. I longed for an experimental serum of my own.
Of all the characters we played that summer, I think I learned the most from Batman; the superhero that no one aspired to be. You see, the Batman was just a regular guy trying to make a difference. There’s nothing easy about being a superhero. But, the man who was most vulnerable even with all of his wits and gadgets working for him, and the occasional kid who took on the role, taught me this. Superheroes can come from all walks of life, and we should never be afraid to do the right thing even when some early death, speaking metaphorically, is sure to result from our actions.
Today, I am no longer sickly or afraid of water. At 6′ 3″, I’m bigger than most of my friends, but I know now that I will never really be in control of things. I’ve even come to grips with the fact that superhuman speed exceeds my physical ability. Though it has taken me a long time to understand and accept it, I also know this: I can be a “hero” to someone just by being a regular guy who tries to make a difference. This is what I strive to do every day.
So, yeah, I can finally admit it. I’m the Batman.
I hope you are, too.
Inspired in part by Five for Fighting’s “Superman.”
Night comes quietly
surrounding me in darkness
but for a tiny flicker of light
just beyond my grasp.
Sent to guide me
she leads me to the place
I need to be unknowingly
long since lost to time.
Doors thought closed for eternity
now open effortlessly
when touched by the softness
of her light.
once locked behind those doors
blooms with gratefulness
for what it now feels.
Shadows creep in
to remind me of the light’s brevity
and of my life desires
that never shall be.
© 2010, David L. Harkins
In each of us lives darkness
black as coal and full of desire,
that lies dormant in the midnight
though it longs to feel a fire.
The fire brings great brightness
to the heart of the darkest dark;
as it dances with abandon
flirting madly as it sparks.
When the sparks flash in the darkness
the blackness feels the heat,
that’s created by a passion
when light and darkness meet.
Once the darkness is ignited
white light burns deep inside,
emboldened by combustion
once begun, won’t subside.
Though as the fire burns lower
and the light begins to dim,
embers glow with excitement
for what will come again.
The darkness is quite patient
as it quietly sits and waits,
for the fire to build inside again
and reconnect the fates.
You see, the darkness holds out the hope
for the passion of the light,
to dance again with abandon
to bring a fire, burning bright.
© 2010, David L. Harkins