I am 2 months into a brand new job. A big important high profile job that I am super stoked about. A job that allows me to be creative, provide leadership to a sector that I love, make decisions that draw on all of the experience I’ve had over the past 20 years or so, and work with lots of smart caring passionate like-minded people. A job that feels like it was designed specifically for me. Things were going great. The boss of all bosses even went out of her way to tell me that she was impressed with my “executive presence”. BOOM! Amazing right? Truly it was. Until …
I was on a skype meeting with about 60 people from around the province. The presenters started talking about one of my initiatives and asked if I wanted to provide additional detail but … the session was in lecture mode which meant the entire audience was muted. So I typed in the little group chat box (you know the one that’s visible on the screen to everyone who’s on the call?) to ask if they could open my line. They couldn’t figure it out and carried on to say something about my project that wasn’t quite right. Grrrrr. Because it would be virtually impossible for me to be doing just one thing at a time, I was also live messaging with my friend who was on the same call. (Can you guess where this is going?) In frustration, I typed something to my friend. Something that started with “fuck” and ended with “me”. Or I thought I had typed something to my friend that started with “fuck” and ended with “me”. I had meant to type something to my friend. But … when I glanced up at the screen … I saw my words flashing in the group chat box. Nobody else had typed anything so it was just there … all by itself … big black letters on a stark white background. For a moment the whole world stood still. I could feel everyone on the call holding their breath. The presenter paused and stumbled over her words. I mean seriously?!?! Who would type “fuck me” on a work conference call with lots and lots of people??!?!? She must have been more than a little ratted.
I couldn’t believe what had happened. I reached out with my finger and desperately tried to erase the message from the screen. As reality sunk in, all of the blood rushed from my body. I knew I needed to say something. Anything. Quickly. My brain rushed to my fingertips and I almost typed “oh shit”. Fortunately something along that well-traveled neural highway rerouted that message and I managed to instead type “OMG I am soooo sorry.” I spent the next 24 hours trying not to vomit and waiting to be fired. In the end, I reached out personally to anybody I could think of who was on the call. When I checked in, I was relieved to find that people generally found it hilarious and had massive amounts of empathy for what they knew I was going through. (Either that or they didn’t notice because they hadn’t been paying attention.) Many people said they liked me even more because of it. Maybe so but … I’m pretty sure that whole “executive presence” thing has gone out the window.
The thing is that this wasn’t a one-off incident for me. Not a completely out of character lapse of judgement. In fact, these kinds of things happen so often that people who know me best refer to them as “andrea moments” or “going full andrea”. I’ve tried to pretend they are “blonde moments” but truly they are the brilliantly messy and spectacularly high voltage ADD moments for which I have become somewhat famous. Moments when my brain moves at lightening speed and circumnavigates things such as consciousness, ration, discretion, tact, and care for my own happiness, safety, and overall well-being. (In fact … I’m kind of wondering if blogging about my ADD moment is another ADD moment. It’s a mental wormhole.)
So what is Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) all about anyway? When you think of ADD, you probably think of the 10-year-old boy who can’t sit still, who is constantly disrupting others, and who has a kind of wild look in his eyes. The boy who is barely passing school. The boy who has jumped off the 2nd floor roof of his house, severed his brother’s ear with a homemade javelin, took out his best friend’s front tooth with a bb gun pellet, and burned down a shed with fireworks. The boy who got a bit older and started skipping classes just a bit more often than the other kids, partying just a bit harder than anyone else, bouncing from part-time job to part-time job, and driving a bit faster than his buddies. Maybe he started smoking when he was 11. Maybe he’s dating the hippest bad girl in school. Maybe he sold his mom’s brand new camera for $50 so he could buy beer for his friends. Instead of jumping off the 2nd floor of his house, he’s now cliff diving into shallow pools and long-boarding down steep city hills. He’s hiking in the mountains in the winter with nothing but a sleeping bag and 2 granola bars. He’s disappearing into on-line gaming for so many hours at a time that he misses dinner and then breakfast and then lunch and then dinner again. He’s surfing by himself in stormy weather because that’s when the waves are the most fun. If he’s really lucky, maybe he’s playing rugby to channel some of his energy or writing music to harness some of the creativity that oozes from his body and brain non-stop. When he graduates (if he graduates), he’s likely to take time to travel or work some sort of physical job. He’ll do that until everything starts to settle and he finds his groove. Biochemically and actually.
If that’s the image that comes to your mind, you’re not wrong and you’re not alone. That’s the image most of us come up with. It’s the image of someone we actually know. However, ADD is not just that little boy.
When I was growing up people knew nothing (literally NOTHING) about ADD and ADHD. Even now, it is hardly ever diagnosed in girls. That’s because girls with ADD don’t look a whole lot like that little boy we all know. Our ADD plays out against the backdrop of gender norms that pressure us to be quiet, sit still, be kind, think about others, and leave the heavy lifting to the boys. So … like many other grown-up (ish) girls, my ADD is self-diagnosed … a diagnosis that came after years and years of wondering why I was so flaky and why I did so many dumb-ass things. Things that messed with my self-esteem and influenced various life choices … diverting me from safe predictable paths that probably could have led to very happy endings. Probably. If I wasn’t so flaky and didn’t do so many dumb-ass things.
Before you start to roll your eyes at this whole ADD self-diagnosis (yeah I’m talking to you mom!) … let me tell you that I have some pretty respectable credentials. I have a masters degree in counselling psychology so I’ve studied this kind of stuff from an academic and theoretical vantage point. I’ve also worked in the community living field for 25+ years so I’ve actually delivered and designed services for people with ADD. Plus … you know that little boy I described above? That little guy we all know? Well … I raised him. “He” is a composite of my two stepsons who came into my life when they were 6 and who are now 23. Twin boys. Both officially diagnosed with ADD. Those things “he” did are all real things that me and my little guys lived through together. So yeah … I do actually know what I’m talking about. On top of that, I’ve started to research what ADD looks like for adult women. Turns out that my story is not entirely unique.
I wasn’t disruptive in class. At least not like the little guy above. But … I was a day-dreamer. Constantly looking out the window or doodling in my notebook. One of my teachers suggested that my parents get my hearing tested because she had to repeat herself for me so often that she assumed I might have hearing loss. (As an aside … it’s not true that people with ADD can’t concentrate. In fact, hyper-focus and immersing yourself in something for hours at a time is pretty typical for people with ADD. Books, video games, drawing, journalling, doing puzzles, playing guitar. Anything that lets your brain hone in on one thing and quiet the noise.) I got bored easily and it was physically painful for me to sit still for hours at a time. I couldn’t wait to move and run. I did well in school but it wasn’t without a lot of effort. Creative and theoretical and conceptual stuff came easily for me. But … if I had to memorize anything I was doomed (fuck me!). The only way I got through those kinds of courses was to take meticulous notes (because that kept my brain on task in class) and to rewrite those notes word for word multiple times (until they started to sink in and stick). Sometimes I would stay up all night writing and writing and writing. I’d drag my ass to school with basically no sleep and try to get as many facts as I could onto the page before everything started to fade. My brain wouldn’t hang onto that kind of information for long. As soon as a test was over … my brain would reboot and make room for more entertaining content. Speaking of staying up all night, like many other girls with ADD, I struggled with insomnia. I know I know. You have insomnia too. Nope. You don’t. NOT LIKE THIS. As long as I can remember I’ve had trouble sleeping – the trifecta of insomnia – where it takes hours to fall asleep, you have trouble staying asleep, and you wake up early. Even at the age of 6 or 7, I would be the last one to fall asleep in our house. Every night. I would call out to my parents to turn over album after album after album – Elvis and ABBA mostly through my earliest years. Until eventually they’d have to go to bed and I’d lie there awake with my mind still racing and my body vibrating with energy. The only thing that gave me half a chance at falling asleep even for a few hours was being active. Very active. All the time. Competitive sports saved me. I was always involved in something. Usually many things – skating, basketball, track, volleyball, racquetball, gymnastics. Honestly anything that kept me moving.
But, like that little boy above, I did dangerous things. Often by myself so nobody would try to stop me. Things like climbing the tallest trees in the woods behind our school. Things like putting on one rollerskate and launching myself down the steepest hill in our neighbourhood. And a bit later … things like driving my VW jetta 170 kph on a winding highway. Things like scaling the guard rails of the steep cliffs to get a bit closer to the wild atlantic ocean thrashing hundreds of feet below. It wasn’t just about the adrenaline or the physical challenge or the competition (although admittedly that was part of it). It was also because when I was doing stuff like that, my brain had to concentrate on one thing. Surviving. I liked that feeling of my brain narrowing it’s focus. All of the other mental distractions fell away.
Speaking of dangerous things …
As I got older, there were boys. Boys who liked that I acted before I thought things through. Boys who liked that I had lots of energy and didn’t sleep. Boys who liked that I was a bit flakey and got super lost every time I went somewhere (it made them feel very useful). Boys who could turn off my brain for a while simply by lying down with me in a sunbeam. Boys became my allies and my refuge. I felt more comfortable around them than around girls. By the time I hit university, I knew that they could be counted upon when the pressure of holding it all together got to be way too much … so much that my brain was pure electricity and my body was vibrating with tension ALL THE TIME. If you were paying attention, you would have seen the wild look in my eyes and you would have noticed the constant motion. Literally. Like the iconic image of the trapped wild cat … eyes darting pacing endlessly back and forth in her cage … waiting for the chance to burst free. Boys became my favourite escape. I made some of my best bad decisions with boys in my early 20s … ummmm and 30s and 40s. (We’ll skip over those details to protect the innocent.)
As an adult, I’d like to say I outgrew ADD but that idea of outgrowing it is (in my humble opinion) one of the biggest ADD myths of all. It’s true that there tends to be a bit of a settling that happens, but it doesn’t ever go away. The ADD brain is actually mapped differently than the non-ADD brain and that doesn’t change just because we’re suddenly old enough to drive and vote and drink. It’s just that most of us pick up some strategies and tools along the way. We learn how to manage. In many ways, that little boy we talked about earlier has an advantage. He was diagnosed and has a label to make sense of why he feels different from other people. That will help with his self-esteem. It’s possible that he even had people along the way who were intentionally supporting him to build up his repertoire of coping skills. That will help with his ability to manage and regulate his behaviour. It doesn’t often go down that way for girls. We just cruise into adulthood white-knuckling it all.
How has this played out for me as a grown-up(ish) girl with ADD? Well I continue to struggle with impulsivity (as you’ll remember from my opening story … fuck me). I get mentally and physically restless and start scanning for things (anything) to keep me from feeling bored and will do things like harassing my friends until they have no choice but to come play with me (as you’ll remember from my opening story where I was incessantly messaging my friend who was trying to concentrate on the call). I have trouble focusing and get easily distracted by all the shiny things … even if I’m in the midst of a metaphorical glitter pile my radar is always scanning for something even more glittery. I have a tendency to hyper-focus on myself in relation to others so I’m constantly polling to make sure I’m okay with my people. The good news is that I am a bit more aware than I used to be. My self-diagnosis came as a relief. So much fell into place for me when I was able to give it all a label and I have since been able to develop a few new techniques to help me deal with my trickiest tendencies. The latest addition to my toolbox are the photos above and they are hot off the press.
I love (LOVE LOVE LOVE) my new job and as funny as that little incident may seem, I really was devastated by what I had done. I felt I had jeopardized everything because of those ADD-isms that are managing to keep the party going long after there should have been a last call on some of those behaviours. So … I was VERY MOTIVATED to prevent something like that from happening again. I knew I needed a visual cue that would be right in front of my face to help interrupt my typical “decision-making”. I came up with powerful and personal images for my most common ADD errors. I have printed out each of the pictures above and put them in frames that now sit on my desk right beside my computer. Depending on what’s happening throughout my day, I move certain ones to the front. And … it has been helping.
Regina George (Mean Girls) – My Regina George error involves me assuming that everything is about me … that everyone is thinking about me ALL THE TIME. Haha that’s not quite as narcissistic as it sounds. It’s not usually in the realm of “everybody loves me”. It’s usually in the realm of worrying that something someone has said or done is because of something I’ve said or done (or not said or done). My people are SO IMPORTANT to me. They make me feel safe. So I constantly worry / wonder how they are feeling about me. That’s true in my personal relationships but also in my relationships at work … especially with my boss and my closest colleagues. I need to know they like me and respect me and value my contribution. I move this photo to the front of the line when I catch myself hyper-focusing on what other people are thinking about me.
Scrat (Ice Age) – My Scrat error is pretty straight forward. It’s the classic ADD “act before your brain kicks in” error. It’s the one that led me to type “fuck me” in a group chat box at work. It happens when I don’t pause to take a breath or think. When I just leap in without any consideration of my surroundings or potential consequences. I move this photo to the front of the line when I’m in danger of acting without thinking. It’s now at the front for all group conference calls.
Buttermilk (youtube sensation) – Buttermilk is a baby goat who runs around and annoys his friends just to keep from getting bored. He is fully aware that he’s irritating them but doesn’t care because he wants to have fun ALL THE TIME and knows that his friends love him. He banks on them forgiving him. My Buttermilk error occurs when I do that kind of stuff. I prioritize fun at all costs and quite often pull the people around me into the swirl. In my defence, I do actually work my ass off regularly. This one tends to kick in when I’ve been super focused on something for a long time and I just can’t take it any longer. It usually starts with a mental “fuck it let’s go” and then I’m off buttermilk-the-goating my way to some sort of mental and physical release. Often I’ll go right back to what I was supposed to be doing after I’ve exorcised some of the ADD energy (sometimes leaving my friends lying flat on their backs in my wake). I move this card to the front when I know that I’m feeling antsy and bored (especially if I have to concentrate on something monotonous or something that I don’t see as a priority).
Derek Zoolander (Zoolander) – My Zoolander error is another ADD classic. It’s the one I spoke about earlier … the one that involves constantly scanning for and getting distracted by the shiny things. Derek’s task is to walk down the runway with laser focus. Ignoring the pretty people and the flashing lights. Of all my ADD errors, my Zoolander error is the most pervasive and is the one that has been the impetus for some of my most memorable (questionable?) moments and big life shifts. It’s the one that fuels my gypsy soul. I struggle with it in the day to day and across the trajectory of my life. At work, I’ve been moving this card to the front when I have to get something important done. It reminds me that I need to focus.
Although I’ve been referring to these as “errors”, I have to be honest and say that these are some of my favourite parts of myself. They all have a positive side to them – a side that makes me lean into the bliss of life and see the positive in pretty much every situation. A side that makes me generally optimistic and empathic and fun. A side that gives me energy and a willingness to try new things. A side that lets me get a lot of shit done each and every day. However, I know that they are also some of my most destructive (and self-destructive) tendencies. My goal for the next little while is to try to rein them all in a bit … at least while I’m at work. I’m trying to remember that being present and careful and thoughtful is critical. Especially because this job is so important to me. I’m trying to remember that I can do this … that Regina, Scrat, Buttermilk, and Zoolander will all get to have many moments in the sunshine … that there will eventually be some sort of after-party that I can go to when my work is done.