Saturday, December 13, 2008

What is ADD?

This question appeared in the comment stream on another post, "" and I thought it warranted it's own post.

First of all, let me state clearly, for the record, that my family uses jokes and songs to handle stress. In fact, we've even written and sung and laughed about music that dealt very specifically with mental illnesses and child abuse! It's not because we are making light of those things, but because we are making those awful things lighter in our own lives--taking hold of them, accepting them, and then putting them in a place where they do no define and control our entire existences. For us, it's a healthy way to accept our lives for what they are and move forward.

Thus is it with those specific kinds of ADD jokes. We aren't mocking people with ADD, since most of the family has it. We are accepting it for what it is and laughing at ourselves as a way to not let the negative take over. I mean, really--there is humor in ADD, despite the fact that it can be a debilitating disorder.

Now, the question:

Defining ADD, I had always pictured people overly distracted and/or easily distracted, unable to control their ability to concentrate. The way you talk I am hearing something different. You make it sound like a positive (blessing/curse), is it just a hypersensitivity or over-need for stimulation?

I completely welcome comments on this one--and if they get emailed to me directly, I ask your permission to copy them into the comments stream so that people can get various feedback--because there is a lot to say about this subject, and everyone's experiences are different.

ADD is the label for a set of behaviors that result from a group of specific brain anomalies. There are actually several places in the brain that can function 'wrong', and there are actually several varieties of disorder that are labeled ADD. In fact, most childhood disorders, both mental and physical, include symptoms of ADD, including things as diverse as juvenile fibromyalgia, childhood bipolar disorder, and having alcoholic or bipolar parents.

Around my house, we have the theory that there is physical ADD (your brain is wired wrong in a specific set of ways), which is genetically inherited and active from birth, and cultural ADD (while not wired wrong, your brain has been trained to react to stimuli in very ADD kinds of ways), which is learned or triggered by environment, like being abused, having ADD parents or siblings, or the scientificially-indicted watching too much TV as a toddler. I also believe strongly that many cases of ADD are actually reactions to food allergies--specifically to preservatives and artificial colors (including Red 40 and Yellow 5, and there is some evidence pointing to sodium benzoate).

So what IS ADD?

Dr. Hallowell says: "ADD is a misleading name for an intriguing kind of mind. ADD is a name for a collection of symptoms, some positive, some negative. For many people, ADD is not a disorder but a trait, a way of being in the world. When it impairs their lives, then it becomes a disorder. But once they learn to manage its disorderly aspects, they can take full advantage of the many talents and gifts embedded in this sparkling kind of mind. Having ADD is like having a turbo-charged racecar brain. If you take certain specific steps, then you can take advantage of the benefits ADD conveys--while avoiding the disasters it can create."

As far as my experience is concerned, major ADD characteristics include not being able to control where you focus or for how long (sometimes you skip around too much, other times you focus too intensely on one thing), an inability to organize your life (which is also a characteristic of random people) in conventional ways, an inability to think--even when you want to--unless something else is going on, too, and a frustrating inability to comprehend and fit into 'the box' of societal expectations, behaviors, and norms. There are many other factors, as well, and I imagine different ones are more prominent in different people than others. For example, a major characteristic for one of my sisters' forms of ADD is a propensity for seeing the negative in every situation--but it's not depression. And the worst thing about all of these is the harder you try to be 'normal' or 'like everyone else' or 'focus', the worse the problem gets.

These characteristics sound exclusively negative, but they really aren't.

The jokes I posted make fun of the first characteristic I mentioned. Sometimes in conversation, people with ADD jump around a lot--verbally or physically. Sometimes they tell you the same story over and over and make the same point over and over because they are overfocused on that and can't move on. And sometimes they just 'don't listen' because something you said set their brains on a track and it raced away. Or they start bouncing around, get up and literally run or jump, or start fidgeting with things--cues that a non-ADD person is bored, but cues that a person with ADD is deeply interested and trying to get their brains to stay focused (physical motion for some reason helps the brain keep on track). Upsides of this are creativity and the ability to make novel and significant connections where other people don't automatically see them. And then, in those times when they are overfocused, to fully develop a project quickly and in a more complete way than you'd ever guess (or 'win' a computer game in one sitting, which isn't necessarily a plus to moms and wives who can't break in).

People with ADD don't organize well. They make piles everywhere, so their physical and digital desktops are crowded with stuff, and they can't seem to get places on time, turn papers in, finish things even when they want to, or work on only one project at a time. This can seriously hamper their lives--they miss appointments, double-schedule their calendars, and forget to pay bills and speeding tickets, can't find their drivers' license or passport to save their lives, and never quite get around to other important things, like seeing a dentist for a broken tooth, or taking finals in college. It can also allow them to work on more than one project at a time and get them all done well. It makes for high productivity possible because they can mentally keep track of and work on hundreds of things at once. Medication can help them get over the inability to finish these millions of things without getting rid of their ability to work on them and do them well--which lets someone like Tim write, record, edit, and fully produce hundred of songs in the time it takes 'normal' songwriters to just get the notes down for a dozen or so. In the meantime, he also has created and manages dozens of vocal groups, goes to conferences all over the nation to speak and teach, has taught himself how to run live sound and a home recording studio. The trick seems to be to get the ADD under control enough that you can 'organize enough' and then recognizing what you just can't do and getting help with that (like having your wife pay the bills). Also, because people with ADD can't organize in the conventional way, they have a strange and marvelous ability to look at chaos and not be overwhelmed by it, making them particularly helpful in dealing with disorganized situations like natural disasters or cluttered rooms--not because they can get them organized, but because they cut right to the human needs and provide attention, love, and help where the people need it, not where the room needs it. So so so many 'normal' women walk into the house of a woman who is in need and only can think to get the mess cleaned up because they don't have that ADD ability to ignore the chaos and focus on the people. People with ADD also have an unusual ability to look at chaos and discern patterns, making them really good data analysts and creative problem solvers--as long as they don't have to implement the solution.

ADD can prevent you from thinking without also doing other things. However, if you are free to do other things, ADD brains are highly creative, as I mentioned. So I've learned, as a mother, not to say, "Could you please stop running about?!" to my children and instead say, "What are you thinking about?" when they are dashing madly about the house, bouncing off walls and crashing into each other. Turns out the running and jumping allow their unusually brilliant minds to function--and more often than not their brains are working on novel storylines, solutions to problems, computer game designs, inventions, or other highly creative things that 'normal' people would never come up with. So it can be a serious problem--nobody lets you learn at a jog in public schools!), but when an ADD brain is allowed to think, it is often unusually bright and creative--and my kids are in pretty good physical shape for computer addicts because they have to hop down and do laps several times a day in order to write that novel (at ages 5 and 7) or complete that computer game they're designing. This also is easily managed through diet, exercise, and medication, so it's not really the end of the world.

The inability to fit into the box or comprehend social norms can be a serious problem for people with ADD. Instead of comprehending that 'this is the way it's done', they see every situation as a new thing to think about and see no reason to accept 'the way it's done'--they always want to know why, and if the answer isn't reasonable to them, they don't accept it. This makes it hard to keep jobs, fit in socially, sit through primary (instead of, say, walk out or lay on the floor) or meetings at work, respect personal space, play what everyone else is playing, etc. This makes them feel like outcasts, even if they have a large social group that really likes them a lot. It also makes them inclined to do things that other people think are odd. On the other hand, it tends to make them more inclined to see each individual around them as a person with flaws and talents, and gives them an unusual ability to analyze situations and people and customs and really 'figure them out'--often allowing them to come up with solutions to social and governmental problems that people 'on the inside' can't see. Being outside the box is not always a bad thing, especially if you are grounded in something solid, like the gospel, so that you aren't just drifting randomly (trying drugs, joining gangs, shoplifting).

I could go on and on.

Bottom line, to me, is that every person on earth has a package of challenges and talents, and part of the point of life is to learn how to overcome or work within your challenges and how to use your talents. People with ADD are lucky--their challenges have been clearly defined, in some ways, and thoroughly analyzed, and there are actually pills you can take to help with them (how many of us wish we could take a pill and have our handicaps minimized!). They are unlucky because their challenges can mask their talents and put them in a position (especially if they are forced to conform, like in school, and are subject to ridicule for being different) that it's hard to discover them, and their mental make up can make it hard for them to accept and use their talents (people with ADD tend to see every small imperfection--in themselves and others--and tend to be fearful of producing work that is less than perfect, so they can be paralyzed in their production).

It has been much easier to understand and study who we are (me with fibromyalgia and Tim with ADD) so that we don't condemn ourselves or each other, and so that we can finally accept what we are and move forward, working around our weaknesses and capitalizing (and focusing) on our strengths.

I think of it in terms of story (as I do so many things). It's like that novel plot I published here years ago--everyone on earth is born to be a super hero, and every superhero has both super abilities and super handicaps. The people who become heroes (instead of normal folks) are the ones who learn to use their super abilites to serve and not let their super handicaps stop them.

So yes, ADD is a disorder. But so is being human. We have to work with what we have--color with the box of crayons we were given, as Sister Lee used to say--and not spend our whole lives focusing on what we can't do or don't have.

I'm trying to raise superheroes.


Anonymous said...

Love that last line! Thanks for the good info and perspective :)


Anonymous said...

It is so funny, when I read the comment, signed Laura, I thought, "What, I didn't read this? How could I post a comment to something I haven't read?" In other words, this post is AWESOME!! Thank you so much for writing it and for ignoring my earlier, totally tactless and insensitive comment. You'd think for someone who has had all kinds of labels and aspersions cast in the last few years for mental illness would be a little more tactful and understanding. Oh well, thank you for being forgiving. You have taught me many great lessons!! (Yes, truly). One of which, is that it was like reading about myself on this post. Also, I didn't know you have fibromyalgia--I'm so sorry. I have a close friend here in Utah and I am amazed at what she goes through. So, hurrah to you!! Homeschooling and five kids and fibromyalgia!

As to other things, I feel the same way about my kids, superheroes, that's my goal. This (knowing more about ADD) insight is fantastic because it gives me more tools. I definitely need to do more research now. See, in the last few years I have been diagnosed with Major Clinical Depression, Obesessive Compulsive Disorder (I found your comment about over-organizing funny because this is actually one of the things I am learning to overcome--it can be done!!), and a few other things which I honestly can't remember at this moment . . . it's been seven years since I was diagnosed . . . but, now as I go back and research, I remember I was also diagnosed with ADD. I never thought much of it, it seemed par for the course and we were so busy dealing with the severity of the depression, that the ADD was glossed over. However, now the depression is well in hand (most of the time), and other issues haven't 'gone away,' I am seeing that they are the ADD ones. Awesome!! Now I have tools--I have already put the books on hold. Thanks for the heads up!