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What is it like to have ADD?
by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D
Copyright (C) 1992

What is it like to have ADD? What is the feelof the syndrome? I have a short talk that I often give to groups as an introductionto the subjective experience of ADD and what it is like to live with it:

Attention Deficit Disorder. First of all I resentthe term. As far as I'm concerned most people have Attention Surplus Disorder.I mean, life being what it is, who can pay attention to anything for verylong? Is it really a sign of mental health to be able to balance your checkbook,sit still in your chair, and never speak out of turn? As far as I can see,many people who don't have ADD are charter members of the Congenitally Boring.

But anyway, be that as it may, there is thissyndrome called ADD or ADHD, depending on what book you read. So what'sit like to have ADD? Some people say the so-called syndrome doesn't evenexist, but believe me, it does. Many metaphors come to mind to describeit. It's like driving in the rain with bad windshield wipers. Everythingis smudged and blurred and you're speeding along, and it's really frustratingnot being able to see very well. Or it's like listening to a radio stationwith a lot of static and you have to strain to hear what's going on. Or,it's like trying to build a house of cards in a dust storm. You have tobuild a structure to protect yourself from the wind before you can evenstart on the cards.

In other ways it's like being super-charged all the time.You get one idea and you have to act on it, and then, what do you know,but you've got another idea before you've finished up with the first one,and so you go for that one, but of course a third idea intercepts the second,and you just have to follow that one, and pretty soon people are callingyou disorganized and impulsive and all sorts of impolite words that missthe point completely. Because you're trying really hard. It's just thatyou have all these invisible vectors pulling you this way and that whichmakes it really hard to stay on task.

Plus which, you're spilling over all the time.You're drumming your fingers, tapping your feet, humming a song, whistling,looking here, looking there, scratching, stretching, doodling, and peoplethink you're not paying attention or that you're not interested, but allyou're doing is spilling over so that you can pay attention. I can pay alot better attention when I'm taking a walk or listening to music or evenwhen I'm in a crowded, noisy room than when I'm still and surrounded bysilence. God save me from the reading rooms. Have you ever been into theone in Widener Library? The only thing that saves it is that so many ofthe people who use it have ADD that there's a constant soothing bustle.

What is it like to have ADD? Buzzing. Beinghere and there and everywhere. Someone once said, "Time is the thingthat keeps everything from happening all at once." Time parcels momentsout into separate bits so that we can do one thing at a time. In ADD, thisdoes not happen. In ADD, time collapses. Time becomes a black hole. To theperson with ADD it feels as if everything is happening all at once. Thiscreates a sense of inner turmoil or even panic. The individual loses perspectiveand the ability to prioritize. He or she is always on the go, trying tokeep the world from caving in on top.

Museums. (Have you noticed how I skip around?)That's part of the deal. I change channels a lot. And radio stations. Drivesmy wife nuts. "Can't we listen to just one song all the way through?")Anyway, museums. The way I go through a museum is the way some people gothrough Filene's basement. Some of this, some of that, oh, this one looksnice, but what about that rack over there? Gotta hurry, gotta run. It'snot that I don't like art. I love art. But my way of loving it makes mostpeople think I'm a real Philistine. On the other hand, sometimes I can sitand look at one painting for a long while. I'll get into the world of thepainting and buzz around in there until I forget about everything else.In these moments I, like most people with ADD, can hyperfocus, which givesthe lie to the notion that we can never pay attention. Sometimes we haveturbocharged focusing abilities. It just depends upon the situation.

Lines. I'm almost incapable of waiting in lines.I just can't wait, you see. That's the hell of it. Impulse leads to action.I'm very short on what you might call the intermediate reflective step betweenimpulse and action. That's why I, like so many people with ADD, lack tact.Tact is entirely dependent on the ability to consider one's words beforeuttering them. We ADD types don't do this so well. I remember in the fifthgrade I noticed my math teacher's hair in a new style and blurted out, "Mr.Cook, is that a taupe you're wearing?" I got kicked out of class. I'vesince learned how to say these inappropriate things in such a way or atsuch a time that they can in fact be helpful. But it has taken time. That'sthe thing about ADD. It takes a lot of adapting to get on in life. But itcertainly can be done, and be done very well.

As you might imagine, intimacy can be a problem ifyou've got to be constantly changing the subject, pacing, scratching andblurting out tactless remarks. My wife has learned not to take my tuningout personally, and she says that when I'm there, I'm really there. At first,when we met, she thought I was some kind of nut, as I would bolt out ofrestaurants at the end of meals or disappear to another planet during aconversation. Now she has grown accustomed to my sudden coming and goings.

Many of us with ADD crave high-stimulus situations.In my case, I love the racetrack. And I love the high-intensity crucibleof doing psychotherapy. And I love having lots of people around. Obviouslythis tendency can get you into trouble, which is why ADD is high among criminalsand self-destructive risk-takers. It is also high among so-called Type Apersonalities, as well as among manic-depressives, sociopaths and criminals,violent people, drug abusers, and alcoholics. But is is also high amongcreative and intuitive people in all fields, and among highly energetic,highly productive people.

Which is to say there is a positive side to all this.Usually the positive doesn't get mentioned when people speak about ADD becausethere is a natural tendency to focus on what goes wrong, or at least onwhat has to be somehow controlled. But often once the ADD has been diagnosed,and the child or the adult, with the help of teachers and parents or spouses,friends, and colleagues, has learned how to cope with it, an untapped realmof the brain swims into view. Suddenly the radio station is tuned in, thewindshield is clear, the sand storm has died down. And the child or adult,who had been such a problem, such a nudge, such a general pain in the neckto himself and everybody else, that person starts doing things he'd neverbeen able to do before. He surprises everyone around him, and he surpriseshimself. I use the male pronoun, but it could just as easily be she, aswe are seeing more and more ADD among females as we are looking for it.

Often these people are highly imaginative and intuitive.They have a "feel" for things, a way of seeing right into theheart of matters while others have to reason their way along methodically.This is the person who can't explain how he thought of the solution, orwhere the idea for the story came from, or why suddenly he produced sucha painting, or how he knew the short cut to the answer, but all he can sayis he just knew it, he could feel it. This is the man or woman who makesmillion dollar deals in a catnap and pulls them off the next day. This isthe child who, having been reprimanded for blurting something out, is thenpraised for having blurted out something brilliant. These are the peoplewho learn and know and do and go by touch and feel. These people can feela lot. In places where most of us are blind, they can, if not see the light,at least feel the light, and they can produce answers apparently out ofthe dark. It is important for others to be sensitive to this "sixthsense" many ADD people have, and to nurture it. If the environmentinsists on rational, linear thinking and "good" behavior fromthese people all the time, then they may never develop their intuitive styleto the point where they can use it profitably. It can be exasperating tolisten to people talk. They can sound so vague or rambling. But if you takethem seriously and grope along with them, often you will find they are onthe brink of startling conclusions or surprising solutions.

What I am saying is that their cognitive styleis qualitatively different from most people's, and what may seem impaired,with patience and encouragement may become gifted. The thing to rememberis that if the diagnosis can be made, then most of the bad stuff associatedwith ADD can be avoided or contained. The diagnosis can be liberating, particularlyfor people who have been stuck with labels like, "lazy", "stubborn","willful", "disruptive", "impossible", "tyrannical","a spaceshot", "brain damaged", "stupid",or just plain "bad". Making the diagnosis of ADD can take thecase from the court of moral judgment to the clinic of neuropsychiatrictreatment.

What is the treatment all about? Anything thatturns down the noise. Just making the diagnosis helps turn down the noiseof guilt and self-recrimination. Building certain kinds of structure intoone's life can help a lot. Working in small spurts rather than long hauls.Breaking tasks down into smaller tasks. Making lists. Getting help whereyou need it, whether it's having a secretary, or an accountant, or an automaticbank teller, or a good filing system, or a home computer, getting help whereyou need it. Maybe applying external limits on your impulses. Or gettingenough exercise to work off some of the noise inside. Finding support. Gettingsomeone in your corner to coach you, to keep you on track. Medication canhelp a great deal too, but it is far from the whole solution. The good newsis that treatment can really help. Let me leave you by telling you thatwe need your help and understanding. We may make mess-piles wherever wego, but with your help, those mess-piles can be turned into realms of reasonand art. So, if you know someone like me who's acting up and daydreamingand forgetting this or that and just not getting with the program, considerADD before he starts believing all the bad things people are saying abouthim and it's too late.

The main point of the talk is that there isa more complex subjective experience to ADD than a list of symptoms canpossibly impart. ADD is a way of life, and until recently it has been hidden,even from the view of those who have it. The human experience of ADD ismore than just a collection of symptoms. It is a way of living. Before thesyndrome is diagnosed that way of living may be filled with pain and misunderstanding.After the diagnosis is made, one often finds new possibilities and the chancefor real change.

The adult syndrome of ADD, so long unrecognized,is now at last bursting upon the scene. Thankfully, millions of adults whohave had to think of themselves as defective or unable to get their actstogether, will instead be able to make the most of their considerable abilities.It is a hopeful time indeed.

Visit The Hallowell Center website at: http://www.drhallowell.com/

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