Friday, February 24, 2006

ADHD: Upsides to Thrill Seeking

The number six symptom in Hallowell and Ratey's Diagnostic Criteria for Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults is a need for high stimulation.
6. A frequent search for high stimulation.
The Adult with ADD is always on the lookout for something novel, something engaging, something in the outside world that can catch up with the whirlwind that's rushing inside.
My mother tells of a story where my late brother, Ryan, created a new sport one day. It involved BMX bikes and trampolines. Now, one thing you have to understand about Utah is that a family is not a real family unless there is a trampoline in their backyard. It is that important. When a neighbor moved away and left their trampoline behind, my children could finally hold their heads up high in school even though the trampoline wasn't large enough to bounce two hyperactive chinchillas on. You would think with access to a full olympic sized trampoline my brother and his friend would have been content. But Ryan had ADHD and why be content with jumping on a trampoline when you can ride your bike off the roof holding onto a rope and swing onto the trampoline instead?
I have my own escapades involving roofs to recall. I especially liked the challenge of climbing out my bedroom window and walking along the apex to the chimney. At one point I contemplated rigging ropes from the chimney into the canopy of trees around my house. All I had was my Mum's clothesline and even I knew that wouldn't hold me. Oh, what I could have done with some real rope. I eventually did get into those trees. I had lots of fun moving from tree to tree 25 feet above the ground for an afternoon, then I forgot about it and moved on to something new: playing in traffic. Behind the wheel, of course.
The fact is that many people with AD/HD have this need to fill their mind by pursuing something exhilarating but risky. There's an abhorrence of boredom that drives their impulses. Gambling, drugs, sex, extreme sports, creative banking, foolhardy activities, and unhealthy relationships litter the lives of so many ADHD adults. Common sense flies out the window and normally intelligent and bright people get caught up doing something dumb for the thrill of it - the challenge - all for those few precious moments of intense clarity hyperfocus can bring.
Instead of belaboring the negatives of this behavior, however, I wanted to contemplate upsides to it. Are there any benefits to needing high stimulation? I asked my mother-in-law what she thought and she started laughing out loud. Eventually, I had to hang up. For all I know, she's still laughing.
I contacted an editor friend of mine and asked her what benefits she could think of. She felt that the need for more intense experiences often produced "more experiences, period, since people with that sort of wiring tend to try to cram as much into life as they possibly can. This results in more to think about, more to write about, which makes them very interesting people to be around." I always knew I liked that girl. Too bad she wasn't talking about me.
One byproduct of seeking out the new thrills continually is increased creativity. Old ideas are abandoned for exciting, brand new ones. If tapped, that can be a valuable resource for the person with AD/HD. In addition, an unquenchable thirst for new information makes one well suited for the tech industry which is in a state of constant flux and development. I've heard it said as well that these types of individuals excel at sales - people who love the thrill of closing the deal. Personally, I'd rather continue my exciting life as a beta tester for the pharmaceutical industry. Oh, boy. Thrills galore.
High stimulation can certainly lead to negative behavior, but the upside for us is a very varied existance. We don't so much think outside of the box as live there. While that makes fitting in difficult, when we harness our skills we can stand out from the crowd in beneficial ways. Sometimes that's lucrative, sometimes it simply adds spice to life. It's not all dangerous. Here I ply my creativity with words and communication, challenging myself to improve with each column. Over there I explore fractals, illustrate critters, master technologies, and channel the need for thrills through the acquisition of knowledge. Recently I discovered my wildly ecclectic music collection, refined by over 25 years of seeking out new and exciting forms of music to fight off boredom, has had interesting side benefits. My iTunes library has made me youthful and hip to my kids. I hadn't planned on that happening, but my 30gb collection of meta tagged MP3s has been a treasure trove for my 13 and 11 year olds who have bonded with me because of it. Or maybe they just love my collection of Euro Vocal Trance.
Adult ADD is an asset when we minimize the downsides and nourish the upsides. Analysts would have you see only the negative aspects of AD/HD because that's how they're defined in their books, but we benefit from the need for high stimulation all the time. Keep it safe. Keep it legal, but keep getting bored. You're bound to discover something new and exciting again any minute.

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