Tuesday, December 10, 2013

This Is Your Writing Brain on ADD

My older sister and I are similar in a lot of ways. We're both writers. We're both readers. We both majored in English. We both adore good chocolate. And on and on.

We're dissimilar in a lot of ways, but it turns out that one thing I thought was a difference actually isn't.

As an adult, Mel was diagnosed with ADD. The diagnosis made so much sense for her, at least with my limited understanding of the condition. She can jump topics in a conversation like hummingbird flitting from flower to flower, only faster. I can keep up, but I assumed that it was because I grew up around her.

The thing is that Mel's ADD has a bit of the hyperactive ADHD in it, although I wouldn't classify her as hyperactive in the typical sense. She's high energy, for sure. When I've mentioned to close friends that ADD runs in the family, they always follow that up with, "Mel, right?"

And then I have to say that well, yes. She's the one who is buzzing around all the time, always doing and thinking. But there's also the son of a different sibling with significant ADHD, and I suspect the parent of that same nephew has it too, which is why a desk job is out of the question. Plus at least two of my kids have it.

And so do I.

For a very long time, I had no inkling that I had the condition, and I haven't been officially diagnosed, but I recognize it all too well . . . now.

The thing is, back in the day, I did well in school. I was never a behavioral problem. Yet now that I know the signs, many of which I just thought were normal things, and that everyone was like that, I can point to parts of my personality that are actually signs of ADD and realize with startling clarity that yes, that's me. I see the signs in my childhood, with a big memory that screams "ADD" from 2nd grade. I'm betting my parents could point to some of the same things much earlier.

I've learned, thanks to early posts on The Weed, that technically the condition I have is ADHD-I. The means I have the inattentive sub-type of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Essentially, I lack the hyperactive component, but it's considered to be under the same umbrella. And because I don't fly around like a hummingbird, I had no clue that I also had the condition.

It took me researching ADD for the sake of one of my kids to realize that holy cow, this is me. My son is quite open about his ADD, so I feel all right mentioning him here. Like I did, he did well through grade school. Sure, he was disorganized, forgot notes, and his backpack was a disaster. He has horrible handwriting (as do I). But it turns out that he's very smart, and grade school frankly isn't that hard. The first time his grades plummeted, getting him glasses was enough.

Enter junior high and puberty, however, and we had a perfect storm for his ADD to cry uncle. His grades tanked, he grew frustrated and depressed, and nothing I did helped. He misplaced simple things like flashcards and other small but important items, which yes, he'd done in grade school, but now the stakes were much higher.

I learned that he'd drift off during conversations, but you wouldn't always know it, because he'd still be looking right at you, seemingly fully attentive, but his brain was off on some other planet, designing a video game.

He had no control over such drifting. The effort he put into homework, only to have nothing to show for it an hour later, was heartbreaking.

At one point I thought he had to have hearing loss, because I could be six inches from him, but he wouldn't hear me. I even had his hearing tested, but it came back normal. I dug around further.

That's when I started researching ADD, and I learned about hyper-focusing, which is exactly what he did. I tested him once when he was making a batch of cookies. While they baked, he sat at the computer, maybe ten feet from the oven, reading an article or playing a game or something. When the timer went off, I waited to see what would happen. Nothing.

I didn't turn it off. I waited. It beeped for a solid minute. Nothing. Finally I called his name. Again. And a third time. I raised my voice with his name, and he jumped. "What?!" he demanded.

I stood there staring at him expectantly, waiting for him to hear to obnoxious beep and get his cookies out of the oven. Instead, he just looked at me and again said, "What?"

"Do you hear something?" I asked.

Only then did he tune his attention elsewhere, notice the timer, and get up to take the cookies out of the oven. Classic hyper-focusing. He was so focused on the computer that nothing else existed. The house could have been burning down, and he wouldn't have noticed until the monitor was obscured by smoke.

Hyper-focusing suddenly sounded awfully familiar. I remembered reading a book in eighth grade and having no earthly idea how much time had passed or that a classmate was asking me an important question (likely several times) before I was pulled from the story and back to earth.

As an adult, I could focus so intently on my writing that reality faded, and my fictional world came to the fore. There were times I drove my husband crazy because my focus was so totally on one thing, and I was entirely oblivious to something else that really did need my attention.

When we told my son's teachers that he had ADD, no one believed us. He was well behaved, they said. He paid attention in class. (Sure, they thought he was paying attention. He looked like it. He wasn't climbing the walls with hyperactive behavior. He was even sitting still and looking right at the teacher.)

As a teenager, I did well in school by focusing on nothing but AP US History or whatever else was on my plate. Yet I probably had no idea what was going on outside my bedroom door. Very much like my son. I was one of the lucky ones; I was able to use a symptom to my advantage. Hyper-focusing became my superpower. It's how I got stuff done. (Other stuff fell by the wayside, of course. I was supposed to clean out the kitty litter? A week ago? Wait. What kitty litter?)

My son's case was far more severe, and I knew we needed to do something. I'd previously been anti-medication, but that was back in the days when I smugly thought that ADHD was usually just bad parenting. My son was suffering, and he needed help. I'd learned enough from other sources (a neighbor with severely ADHD kids, my nephew, Mel) to finally admit that medication can help because this disorder has a biological basis.

So I buried my pride and went to our family doctor. He listened to my son's symptoms (which consisted of a lot more than what I've discussed here) and agreed that my son was a likely candidate. I also learned something that was huge and worth mentioning here:

ADHD medication doesn't act like an upper on someone who has an ADHD brain.

Rather, we'd know within a couple of days if the medication was helping the symptoms, and if it wasn't, then, in his words, "The proof's in the pudding." If meds didn't alleviate his symptoms, my son, quite simply, didn't have ADD.

Some people think that medication is about zoning kids out, as if it's Valium or something. That's not what the medication does. In a sense, people with the condition have part of their brains that can't stay "awake." Medication turns that part of the brain back on, so everything else can focus. For hyperactive kids, they act out and move around constantly in an effort to wake up their brains. When it's woken up, they can sit still and focus. 

For someone without true ADHD or ADHD-I, however, the medication does act as an upper, which is why the medication can be abused in the wrong hands. Someone with ADHD doesn't get addicted to the medication; it simply helps them think clearly.

No, that's too simplistic. Meds do far more than that. In the cases of my two children who have both been diagnosed, medication has been a huge boon in helping their self-confidence, easing depression, and calming anxiety, because they can try to do something and actually accomplish it. For a growing teen, those things are huge. Simply put, medication helps them be their best selves.

After a week or so on medication, my son couldn't tell a difference, but his dad and I absolutely could. He was more himself. It was like I had my carefree, happy son back. The daily hair-pulling frustrations fell away, leaving his awesomeness to shine. We could have long conversations, which he was fully present for.

When he forgot to take his medicine one day, he came home from school with his eyes opened. "I had no idea what it was doing, but now I do. Today, school was so hard." He took his medication faithfully after that, although he'd often spend weekends and school breaks off it. A couple of years later, he said it wasn't working as well as it used to. I thought that maybe he was building a tolerance to it, or maybe he was imagining something.

But when we saw the doctor next, he nodded and said, "He's grown three inches really fast. Of course he needs a higher dose. He's a bigger kid now."

We've done more than give him medication to manage his condition, of course. We've studied a lot and implemented coping skills and techniques, and he's done much of that on his own as well, wanting to understand himself and how to best succeed. For example, in his high-school psychology class, he researched ADD and wrote a paper about his theories on how it works and why certain behaviors he'd figured out on his own helped him cope.

The same goes for my next child with ADD. She knows that she'll forget important papers or items at home if she's rushing out the door in the morning, so she's made a habit of packing her backpack the night before to be sure she doesn't forget stuff. She makes detailed lists to keep herself on track. She color codes her to-do list. And, like her brother, she uses timers as well as other tools.

As for me, I've come to see how ADD has affected my writing in both positive and negative ways. There was a time when being able to hyper-focus helped me crank out words fast. But as I age, I find that sustaining that hyper-focus is getting harder and harder. I've almost lost my one ADD strength altogether; I can't really hyper-focus anymore.

Some of my coping mechanisms are things my son figured out that work for him, which he then shared with me, and I do all the time. But things have gotten worse in the last few years. I simply cannot accomplish what I used to.

My youngest child has been in school for several years now. Some time ago, I dreamed that when this day came, I'd be able to write for five hours straight. In theory, I can write 2,000 words in about 45 minutes. (A benefit of having been a secretary in college: I type fast.) For argument's sake, if 2,000 words took me longer, say a full hour, and if I could focus for five hours, I could whip out 10,000 words a day, meaning the equivalent of a NaNoWriMo book every work week.

Instead, I'm lucky if I can focus long enough to get in 1500 words a day. On some days, I can't do that much, but not for lack of trying. I recently had the chance to go on a trip with my husband as he traveled for work. He attended a convention during the day, and I stayed in the hotel room and wrote.

My past records for writing all day long without interruptions were well into the five figures. The few times I'd holed up somewhere for a Saturday and cranked out words were years ago, but my one-day record for writing was over 14,000 words. 

On our trip in November, the best I managed to write in the hotel room was 5,000 words in one day. And getting those words in was hard. My brain was beyond fried at the end of each day. While I made good progress on that manuscript, I came home with nowhere near what I'd hoped to accomplish. After all, I used to be able to do more, when I could hyper-focus. Now I'm just plain old ADHD-I, without the hyper-focusing superpower.

Managing my ADD is getting harder with age, no question. The condition is unquestionably getting worse. I don't know if that's typical, but I do know that I'm in the position of constantly trying new coping techniques, taking new nutritional supplements, relying on my accountability partner, and so on. Even so, I'm quite sure that I'll soon be the third family member on medication.

I'm eager to give it a try. My tired ADD brain has so much it wants to do, but the broken part of my brain keeps those things from happening, interfering with the smallest everyday activities. ADD not only rears its head when it comes to my writing; it also interferes with my family life, with being a wife and a mother. It causes problems with housekeeping, grocery shopping, errands, and with so many other very basic things that people with normal brains take for granted.

At times, I have to remind myself that I'm not crazy; I'm just ADD.

Somehow, I'll get things done, even if it's a lot slower than for other people and in a less direct way. And, unfortunately, a lot slower than I used to be able to do the same thing back when I could hyper-focus.

I'll report back if and when I get on medication. If I do as well as Mel has (she's finishing up her MFA in creative writing!), I'll be able to reach my goals . . . finally. I hope.

7 comments:

Lara said...

This is an awesome post, Annette! I am still pretty good at hyper-focusing, but it also makes my life crazier in some ways. I'm pretty sure at least my eldest daughter has it, too. For now, I just try to help her learn coping skills. I love the ideas you have that have worked for your kids.

Luisa Perkins said...

*sniff*

I love this post. Everything you've written makes me love you more--as a writer, as a mom, as a friend.

Mel said...

Whoa now. Wait just a second there . . . You hope you'll "finally" be able to reach your goals? I know plenty of people had their socks knocked off a long time ago (and continue to take great inspiration from!) all the amazing things you have already accomplished---and all the more amazing, in light of this information.

Sadie said...

I love this post. My 7 year old son was recently diagnosed ADD along with an anxiety disorder, and I have spent the last month pouring over books and articles and learning all that I can about it. He finally makes sense. It's a relief to know that I'm not just a horrible failing parent. There is actually something in his brain that is not working. There are so many people out there that are ignorant about it, and therefore make comments that curdle my toe hairs. I love that you can write about it in such a way that it is informative and understandable. Thank you!

Sadie said...

P.S.I just finished the book The Family ADHD Solution by Mark Bertin MD. It was phenomenal. I highly recommend.

Sue said...

My nephew is ADD. He was on medication for a brief time in i8th grade but didn't like it, so he doesn't take any. Instead, he forgets everything that isn't tied on to him.

He is a musician who has toured the world, and it's a good thing his band made is super organized.

;)

Annette Lyon said...

Thanks for the support, everyone!

Mel, That's part of the problem--I USED to be able to do all kinds of things, and I'd hate to think that my best work or achievements were years ago, forever in my past instead of still in my future somewhere. At this point, I fear I won't finish the next book at all, because I can't focus long enough to write it.