Who Am I and What Am I Doing Here? The Background Story of Executive Dysfunctions.Posted: 2011/09/08
Before I get into the topic at hand, I feel that full disclosure is necessary, because I did something just before I started writing that is proof positive that my ADD is legit:
I sat down at 12:16 a.m. with the full intention of cranking out a quick blog post in keeping with a class I’m taking with Ev Bogue, in which my current assignment is to post every day for the next five days. I figured I’d knock it out in 30 minutes, since I’d already given myself a lead at the end of my last post (“an overview of the system,” you may recall).
As I stared at the blinking cursor in the title field brainstorming clever words with which to fill it, the phrase “the system is down” popped into my head — and like a bird after a shiny object, I abruptly rerouted to a 20-minute search for this, thinking I might embed it at the beginning of the post as a clever diversion (which it seems I have now done).
In the process of my search, I took a walk down memory lane from college (round two) in 2003-05. So naturally, I had to share what I’d unearthed from the recesses of the interwebs on Facebook, so that those I went to college with could partake in the reminiscing. This entire escapade (including a preface of several minutes of trying to get the Image widget to work on my WordPress sidebar after noticing I didn’t have my face on the main page) took 45 minutes — and none of it was in any way crucial to producing the post I set out to write.
I tell you all of this not to complain, make excuses or bore you — complaining is a waste of my time/energy and yours, I have no need to make excuses for something I didn’t have to tell you in the first place, and I like to think that my wordplay is engaging enough to keep your attention for 3 paragraphs of digression — but to be completely up front and honest with you about the reality of my lived experience. As an ADDer (to borrow a term from Dr. Ed Hallowell), I am not approaching this blog from the standpoint of someone who has found all the answers and wishes to impart them from on high, but as one who lives on the ground striving to follow the advice I dole out. A wise and amusing man once told me to “stay close to those who claim to be seeking the truth, and run like heck from those who say they’ve found it.”
On that note, I think it productive, at this early stage of Executive Dysfunctions, to tell you a bit about who I am, what I’m doing, and how I got here.
I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in 1993, the summer before fifth grade. I had shown textbook signs of it since early childhood: high intellectual aptitude, but underachievement in school; daydreaming in class; social awkwardness, especially among my age peers; painful difficulty concentrating on required tasks; unbreakable absorption in activities I liked. Getting me to do homework was like pulling teeth; once I did it, I’d often forget to turn it in. My room was a disaster area to the outside observer (my parents in particular), but I could actually find just about anything in it (except, of course, little things like my house key, math homework, basketball jersey…).
Upon my diagnosis, I began taking a low dose of Ritalin, which after some adjustment worked like magic for the next 4+ years. Almost overnight, homework time ceased to be a battle with my mom, my class participation improved dramatically, my grades went from hard-earned Bs (even unmedicated, I’d always pulled through at the last minute on sheer determination) to easy As, and I had more than one close friend for the first time in my life. It seemed that the wonder drug had solved all my problems.
If the story ended there with a “happily ever after,” I wouldn’t be writing this right now. At the time, the improvements were so marked and welcome that my family and I either overlooked the remaining issues or didn’t associate them with ADD; I’m willing to bet it was a bit of both. Back then, the available information and common knowledge about the disorder among medical and educational professionals was limited; the neuroscientific research that widened its scope wouldn’t come out for nearly another decade. Treatment was almost entirely pharmaceutical and focused primarily on improving concentration and academic performance. For children with a component of hyperactivity (ADHD), some behavioral treatments were available, but even in the privileged educational setting I was in, no one was addressing the social and life skill aspects of the disorder because they simply didn’t know that they were related.
In a nutshell, my high school career was an anticlimactic encore to a stellar performance in middle school. Not only did the Ritalin quit working just after I hit puberty, sparking a three-year round of medication roulette with a host of unsavory side effects, but the increased academic independence of high school was devastating for my limited study skills. When I was told what to do every moment of the school day, it was easy to adhere to the structure with the help of medication; once I was left to structure my own work, I floundered. No one — myself included — seemed to think that this might be in any way related to ADD or the fact that I was changing medications every few months because nothing was working like the Ritalin had. The assumption seemed to be that if I had problems with organization and time management, it was due to irresponsibility on my part, not a malfunction in my brain or a lack of support to counteract it.
To be clear: I do not blame or resent my schools or my parents for these shortcomings (though there was a time that I did). I understand that everyone — teachers, parents, doctors, and me — was doing the best they could with what they had. Research had yet to reveal that ADD stemmed from a hindrance of the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, or that this was responsible not just for an inability to concentrate and a tendency toward impulsivity, but also for the malfunction of other regulatory processes like planning, analyzing (breaking down) and synthesizing (integrating) information, and choosing the appropriate action in a given context, among others. (Dr. Thomas E. Brown gives a helpful overview and visual aid of these executive function impairments here.)
As an adult, I stopped taking medications altogether for about 6 years (ages 19-25). For the first half of that time, I was so resentful about my experience with ADD that I got on the bandwagon that it didn’t really exist; I latched onto a conspiracy theory that it had been invented by pharmaceutical companies to sell Ritalin, and subscribed to a (reasonably well-justified) school of thought that characterized ADD as the pathologization of right-brain dominant thinking.
As time wore on, though, I began to see that my life’s chaos was not simply a result of my poor decisions, but that there might actually be something different about my brain that made those decisions more probable. Ignoring it wasn’t going to solve anything; if I wanted to stop struggling through life, I was going to have to face my disorder and learn how to live with it. At first I saw this as a chore, a burden to be borne and resigned to. The more I’ve learned about ADD, however, the more fascinating I find it — and, through such wonderfully positive approaches as Delivered from Distraction, the more empowered I feel about it.
In the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about ADD, time management, goal achievement, simplifying one’s life, and the intersections of all of the above. I’ve tried several systems, followed advice from scores of articles, listened to webinars, studied medical journals, read and dog-eared a few books by, for, and about ADDers, and taken college courses that address the complexities of a spectrum of special needs in the context of learning. I have also become a devoted reader of a few bloggers in what was once called the minimalist genre and has since transcended that label. In the process, I’ve found things that work well for me and things that don’t work at all for me; I’ve also compared notes with others who have my disorder and similar challenges and learned where our experiences are similar.
So, what am I doing here?
I’m sharing the sum total and the continuing accumulation of my experience with you.
I’m taking what I’ve learned — not just through reading, but through trial and error, triumph and failure — and making it into a digestible, cohesive, replicable system that you can adapt to your needs. This will come in the form of blog posts like the two I’ve posted thus far and, in a few months, an e-book that brings it all together, complete with lessons, worksheets, and easy-to-follow instructions.
To make this happen, I need your input!
Please take a moment to tell me about your own experiences, challenges and concerns with AD/HD and other executive function differences by filling out this tantalizing form.
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The overview of the system has, obviously, been postponed until my next entry — which, fortunately for you, will come tomorrow! Stay tuned!