Countering the ADHD half-ass curse

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I love the show “Parks & Recreation.” One of my favorite moments of the NBC series is in Season 4, Episode 16, when Ron Swanson sagaciously tells Leslie Knope, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

That’s great advice. One, problem, though: I struggle to whole-ass even one thing. And I’m not alone.

What motivation?

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is, at its core, a problem with motivation. As I noted in a previous post, according to an article published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry in 2011, “Disruption of the dopamine reward pathway is associated with motivation deficits in ADHD adults.”

In other words, a person with ADHD has a lack of motivation to get motivated. And that, in turn, results in a whole lot of people, myself included, unable to get things not only done but also done well. The obvious solution is to sacrifice quality in the name of punctuality. But it’s not exactly ideal to have approximately 4 percent of the U.S. adult population not living up to their full intellectual potential. Remember, ADHD and intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive: Many ADHDers are born with an unusually high level of innate intelligence; many ADHDers tend to relish conducting research, especially online (more on this in a future post). 

Speaking, I flatter myself, as an ADHDer of both of those kinds, I can tell you firsthand how incredibly frustrating this is. I often have what I, at least, feel are genuinely brilliant ideas, but even if I manage to get them out, seeing a project or task through to completion always feels like a pipe dream for me. After all, the more complex your ideas, the harder you have to work to take them out of the realm of the hypothetical and put them into practice. 

Fighting back

Woman-in-cafe-with-laptopThe fact remains that ADHD or no, ideally, we’d all be able to work. It’s a source of financial security and the key to realizing the American Dream. Plus, much as we may deny it, life without some work is frankly kind of dull.

So what’s to be done?

First of all — and this is essential — you have to find work you like. I’m not saying you have to love every single moment, but you have to be interested in whatever the object of the work is and be enthused by the prospect of doing that work. This advice applies to job-related work and regular, everyday tasks, as well. Last year, I had a brief stint as an office manager at a nonprofit — I know, I know, nothing says ‘bright future in administrative work’ like chronic ADHD *ironic face*. But I believed in the mission of the organization and hoped that eventually, I would be able to move on to a position more suited to my talents. Yeah, that turned out to be a terrible strategy. If I never see another copy machine again, it will be too soon!

Likewise, you have to work within the constraints of your ADHD, dedicating your most focused time to the task in question, even if it means having to neglect (temporarily) household responsibilities or reschedule (politely) social commitments. That is a lesson I’m just now learning. In the past, I’d put other areas of my life on the back burner because I felt I had no choice; often, I wouldn’t even realize I was doing it until after the fact. Now, however, I prioritize with intentionality. 

Finally, you must, must, MUST play to your strengths. To establish myself as a name to remember in the blogosphere, I’m supposed to have an active presence on multiple social media platforms, promoting every post multiple times. But with only 10 hours a day in which I can concentrate, I just don’t have the time to play the social media game. One thing I do have going for me, though, is a natural talent (again, I flatter myself) for writing. So I’ve chosen to focus on producing the best content possible for every single post, rather than attempting and failing to give my blog an ongoing active, involved social media presence (and I hope I’m succeeding).

Conclusion

The ADHD half-ass curse is no laughing matter. When you’re in thrall to it, it can derail your life, and thus, your happiness. But if you find work that is meaningful to you, work that you could see yourself doing if you didn’t have ADHD, and find innovative ways to do it with ADHD, you can face the working world like any other woman. Good luck!

 

Women and ADHD writer’s block: a crash course

From time to time, I suffer from a terrible side effect of ADHD — not of ADHD medication, but of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder itself. It is highly destructive, perhaps especially for women, and it has a name: ADHD writer’s block.

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What is ADHD writer’s block, you ask? Well, first you have to understand the science behind ADHD. Now, full disclosure: What I am about to tell you *may* not actually be correct. You see, even though I’m confident that the cause I’m going to provide is right, so far, it’s politically correct just to say ADHD is thought to have that etiology. I know in my bones this explanation is accurate, and I’m pretty sure scientists haven’t thrown their weight behind it definitively only because they’re terrified they’ll turn out to be wrong. Still, this should not be taken as credible medical advice. Having said that, the primary source of ADHD is almost definitely, in a word, dopamine — or rather lack thereof. I think Jessica McCabe explains it best:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s part of the reward system in our brain. We do a thing; we get a hit of dopamine; we feel good. The problem is, in ADHD brains, there aren’t as many dopamine receptors as there are in the average brain. We kind of have to flood our brain with dopamine to feel the effects. You’ve heard of heat-seeking missiles? We are dopamine-seeking missiles.

The kicker is that estrogen modulates dopamine systems. According to a November 1988 article in the New York Times, “In two studies involving 200 women … the women performed better on tasks involving verbal skill or muscular coordination when estrogen levels were high than they did when the levels were low.” In other words, the higher your estrogen levels, the higher your dopamine levels; and the higher your dopamine levels, the stronger your verbal acuity. Thus, women are left experiencing heightened difficulty expressing themselves, both in conversation and in writing, during certain times in their monthly menstrual cycle and throughout their lives. 

During a bout of ADHD writer’s block, I, for one, feel tremendous amounts of frustration. I cannot overstate how aggravating it is to have half-formed brilliant ideas floating around in your head, but then be unable even to start typing when it comes time to write them down. Sometimes snatches of individual sentences will flit in and out of my mind, but when I set out to complete them and commit them to paper (well, to WordPress, anyway), they come out as gobbledygook, or worse, they don’t come out at all. This was a dangerous game for my brain to play with me back in grad school when I would need to write multiple-page papers on very imminent deadlines. And if you’re a professional writer, like me, it can actually put your career in jeopardy. Not to mention, it’s just plain annoying!

OK, great. But what are we supposed to do about it? Is there even anything to do about it? The answer, fortunately, is yes, there is:

Coffee.

As Devon Frye explains,

Caffeine is most commonly used to overcome sleepiness and increase productivity; in some people with ADHD, it’s thought to combat common symptoms like distractibility and inattention in the same way that stimulant medications do. […] Caffeine works by stimulating the autonomic nervous system — responsible for regulating heart rate and other involuntary bodily functions like digestion. In the brain, caffeine stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine, and blocks the absorption of others, like adenosine — a chemical linked to sleep and relaxation.

So, there you have it. I usually am able to get my writing work done thanks to caffeine* — caffeine delivered in coffee form, that is. Personally, I get the most potent benefits from a regular coffee drink such as a Starbucks Grande Caramel Frappuccino (100 milligrams of caffeine) with an added shot of espresso (about 64 mg caffeine) thrown in. Of course, your mileage may vary. After all, I’m pretty sure I have the severest ADHD in literally (yes, literally, literally) the whole world; you may need less caffeine to achieve the same effects.

Coffee-with-pen-and-paper

In any case, after about 15 minutes of intermittent sipping, I’ll suddenly notice myself finishing incomplete thoughts and finding the language that will enable me to evoke them. Now, that’s my kind of ‘java-script!’


*For the record, coffee is not the only palliative for ADHD writer’s block. More suggestions on how to combat ADHD writer’s block can be found in Beth Harvey’s February 2016 post on her blog Smart Girls with ADHD.

5 videos that women with ADHD should watch ASAP

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers! One thing for which I’m very UN-thankful is ADHD writer’s block. I’ll go into more detail about it in a future post, but suffice it to say that I’ve started writing about five different blog posts but haven’t been able to finish any of them. Rather than renege on my goal of posting every Monday and Thursday, however, I thought that today, I’d change things up a bit, and let others do the talking for me. So I combed YouTube and came up with five videos that are seriously worth a watch if you’re a woman who has ADHD or thinks she might. 

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The videos

1. “ADHD and Relationships: Let’s Be Honest” 

Jessica McCabe is an ADHD goddess. The vlogger’s popular YouTube channel, “How to ADHD,” has been comforting and informing ADHDers and neurotypical allies alike for a few years now. I chose this particular video because of its applicability to the lives of adult women, but seriously, check out the whole series when you get a chance.

2. “Russell Barkley: Is ADHD Different in Women?

Russell Barkley is one of the foremost experts on ADHD, and this video offers a rare opportunity to get his take on ADHD and adult women, specifically. One interesting moment in this five-minute clip is at around the 02:57 mark, when he explains the relationship between gender roles and niche picking in the lives of women with ADHD.

3. “ADD and the Female Brain — The Answers!

This is a delightful little video from ADHD expert Daniel Amen and his ADHD wife Tana, a health and fitness expert. Their back-and-forth in this video is really entertaining; plus, it includes excellent advice on how to keep those dopamine levels up all day long (I’ll explain more next week about dopamine for those who are unfortunate not to know about it yet).

4. “Ask Sari: ADHD & Estrogen

In this video, Sari Solden, who is one of a handful of experts on women with ADHD, gives us a refresher course on the impact of estrogen on symptom severity in ADHD women and offers advice on how to manage the fallout resulting from hormonal fluctuations. Short, sweet, and very relevant.

5. “Failing at Normal: An ADHD Success Story

Another gem of a video featuring Jessica McCabe front and center. Grab the Kleenex box and watch this TEDx Talk RIGHT NOW. Just…trust me.

 

It’s OK to know your own limit if you have ADHD.

I always hear people talking sympathetically about how ADHD makes it harder to do certain things. But despite that apparent understanding of my disability, the neurotypical party line seems to be that we ADHDers need to keep pushing ourselves to our “full potential,” and that we will be able to do more if we try.

The problem is, neurologically speaking, ADHD makes the very act of trying a challenge in and of itself. 

Double trouble

To quote the abstract of an article published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry in 2011, “disruption of the dopamine reward pathway is associated with motivation deficits in ADHD adults, which may contribute to attention deficits.” In other words, a hiccup in the nervous system of a person born with ADHD results in difficulty paying attention, AND trouble getting motivated to OVERCOME this challenge.

Think about this for a second: Wouldn’t it be sufficiently sucky to have impaired attention OR motivation? Wouldn’t either be enough on its own to have a deleterious impact, in both the short term and the long run for someone who, like any of us, is, after all, only human? I think we can all agree the appropriate answer would be ‘Oh my god, yes.’

Young woman in pink shirt working

Below average

And neurotypical people don’t seem to realize just how VULNERABLE being unmotivated can make you. Decades and decades after the birth of the American Dream, at least in the U.S., Western society continues to value a healthy work ethic above perhaps any other quality. So, it’s one thing to realize you lack the motivation to clean the kitchen, and decide to hold off on doing it tomorrow in the privacy of your apartment; faltering in this way in public, meanwhile, exposes you to the censure of your friends, family, colleagues, etc. It feels sort of like literally everybody else in the world is giving you side-eye.

Furthermore, this problem isn’t confined to questions of productivity; sometimes, even maintaining the ability to go about what to an outsider looks like ordinary daily life can be a significant struggle as well.

Do I speak from personal experience? You bet I do.

Reality check

Between Oct. 25 and Nov. 8, I was visiting my boyfriend in Washington, D.C., where he’s in grad school. Washington is actually a lot like Portland; it’s big on public transportation. But it and I have always had a fraught relationship; the sequencing involved in navigating transit infrastructure is a sizable challenge for me. However, in D.C., I didn’t have an alternate means of transportation, i.e., my car.

Anyway, after a week of walking whenever outside my boyfriend’s apartment, I admitted to myself it was time: I had to take the bus. Unfortunately, this happened to coincide with me discovering that my pharmacist had not given me a full 28 days’ worth of my immediate-release Focalin when I went to fill my prescription for the month. Long story short, I was undermedicated and faced with a task that would require a tremendous amount of effort on my best day, on what was, in fact, my worst.

After about two hours, I managed to work up the motivation to input the information on my iPhone necessary for Siri to guide me to the bus and tell me what to do once I got on it. But to my utter lack of surprise, I was unable to find the bus stop and realized I would have missed the bus even if I had been able to pinpoint where to get on it.

I knew what my parents and my boyfriend would tell me to do: figure out where the stop was and wait for the right bus, or walk to an entirely different stop if necessary. But at that moment, I knew making even that tiny extra effort was totally and completely beyond my abilities. So although it was far more expensive than the bus would have been, I ordered a Lyft. 

It’s inherently empowering to cease pretending to be in denial about yourself and what you’re capable of. The politically correct response to others pushing you to find more motivation within yourself is to express appreciation for their confidence and a plucky resolve to prove them right. However, I’ve had ADHD all my life, so the extent of my neurological stamina has long since revealed itself to me. I know what I can and can’t do. More importantly, I’m AWARE that I can’t do what I can’t do, and I understand WHY I can’t, as well. I and all people with ADHD deserve to live life authentically, limitations and all.

And that is just what I intend, from now on, to do.

 

7 things about ADHD I wish I had always known (ADHD Awareness Month post #6)

This is the sixth and final post in my series on ADHD Awareness Month. But rest assured, although the series is wrapping up, I’ll still be publishing writings on ADHD-related issues; just not necessarily so many per month. — DRD


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Having lived with ADHD for as long as I can remember — and even longer — I’ve learned a few valuable lessons about my disability the hard way; I’ve done my share of learning by doing. I can’t help but feel that my life would have been a lot easier if I had known said lessons from day one. I hope that someone out there reads this and they — or their child — can benefit from my experience. Read on!

1. People will tell you to go easy on yourself, but still, expect you to be ‘on.’

I’ve found that even if you tell your manager, for example, that you have ADHD, and he claims to understand that this makes you function differently, his understanding nevertheless flies out the window when you have a deadline to make but quite clearly aren’t going to be able to. 

2. ADHD has nothing to do with your personality or morality.

I spent a horrifying number of years of my life feeling guilty — often, despite not having done anything wrong. And even when I did err, I was convinced that whatever act of misbehaving I had committed was evidence that my character left something wanting. Moreover, I was sure that with the right resolve, I could ameliorate this situation and become a better (read: less ADHD) person. I don’t think I’ll ever stop regretting this now that I’ve realized how wrong I was back then. I’ll never get back the time I wasted feeling guilty for nonexistent or out-of-my-control incidences of ADHD-ness. Don’t make my mistake.

3. You shouldn’t necessarily believe teachers who say, “Oh, I’m so ADD too!”

I was diagnosed relatively young, back in pre-k; meaning that I knew I had ADHD — and all of my teachers knew it too — for all 12 years of my lower education. And I swear, every single year a new teacher would tell me upon learning of my ADHD diagnosis, “OH, that’s totally fine, I’m really ADD too.” Unfortunately, that usually turned out to mean, “I don’t understand ADHD at all, but I think I’ll bond with you by saying I have it and referring to it in the pejorative.” Over the years, I heard many teachers say a lot of stupid, cruel things without seeming even to give it a second thought, but that is not ADHD. There’s a difference between wanting to think before you act and not being able to, and just deciding that you’re so wise, you never need to think twice. In the end, only one of my teachers ever turned out to have ADHD, my AP World History teacher during my senior year of college. How did I know he had it, and that he was the only one of my teachers who did? One day I was sitting in his classroom at the end of lunch when he walked in, looked around his desk, and announced that he just realized he had lost a pair of Bruce Springsteen tickets. I’m totally serious. But you know what? He was also one of the best teachers I ever had. 

4. Medications may “last” 12 hours, but that doesn’t mean you will.

Here’s a fun (by which I mean, not fun at all) fact: Even if the prescribing information for an ADHD medication says it lasts up to 12 hours, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use all 12 of those hours effectively. You see, even when medicated, people with ADHD have to expend more energy to complete tasks that seem to take our neurotypical counterparts no time at all. Do that for a full workday, and the remaining man-made focus you have left in your nervous system via medication is reduced to the equivalent of potential energy,  never getting used. (This is a lesson I’ve started learning literally in the last few weeks.)

5. Stimulant medication isn’t the be-all, end-all. 

From ages 5 through 22, I was on some form of the stimulant medication methylphenidate (aka Ritalin). For over 5 years now, I’ve been taking both an immediate-release dosage and extended-release dosage of dexmethylphenidate (aka Focalin). I first went on Focalin because when I was a senior in college, I discovered, to my horror, that my medication did not seem to be working anymore. Like, at all. That’s when I went on Focalin. But just two years later, I again ceased to feel medicated enough on a day-to-day basis. It was then that my PCP put me on bupropion (aka Forfivo), which belongs to a class of antidepressants known as Norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors. Later, I also started taking guanfacine (aka Intuniv), a non-stimulant ADHD medication initially formulated to treat hypertension. As it turned out, for me, at least, these Forfivo and Intuniv were the magic bullets of ADHD treatment regimens. 

6. Coffee is your friend.

During my ‘bad concentration’ time of the month, and especially toward the end of it, my verbal acuity temporarily goes out the window. Somehow, this always seemed to happen *right* when I had a big paper due imminently (like, in two days, or even sooner). One day, in desperation, I did some Hail-Mary googling, seeking confirmation that yes, in fact, coffee does help ADHD people concentrate. According to a post published recently on ADDitude, it “arouses the central nervous system by stimulating the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, and by blocking the absorption of adenosine, which induces sleep.” I’ve found that a Starbucks frappuccino with a shot of espresso enables me to write even when my medications are at their least potent. Pardon the pun, but I really do think you should give it a ‘shot!’

7. ADHD is nothing to be ashamed of. People should be ashamed to think it is.

…Self-explanatory!

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