Saturday, March 18, 2006

AD/HD: Dealing with Distractibility

(cc) Douglas CooteyThis week was going to be a departure from my usual Adult ADHD topics. I was going to cover my session Monday with my Cognitive
Behavior Therapist. Some people had expressed interest in what that was all about. Too bad I forgot to go.

Let's see. I had the reminder phone call from the secretary. I had my PDA set to beep at me. There were no scheduling conflicts. Kids were picked up on time. So what happened? Well, I got caught up helping my kids and didn't have my PDA by my side1. Out of earshot, out of mind.

But my humiliation makes great grist for a column on easy distractibility, the mainstay of the AD/HD mind. Coincidentally, the very next criteria Hallowell and Ratey list for Adult ADHD
is this very topic.

As evidence that at least one of them has Adult ADHD, Hallowell and Ratey list the most commonly known attributes of ADHD as number eight, somewhere after pathological boredom and bad breath.

8. Easy distractibility, trouble focusing attention, tendency to tune out or drift away in the middle of a page or conversation, often coupled with an ability to hyperfocus at times.
The hallmark symptom of ADD. The "tuning out" is quite involuntary. It happens when the person isn't looking, so to speak, and the next thing you know, he or she isn't there. The often extraordinary ability to hyperfocus is also usually present, emphasizing the fact that this is a syndrome not of attention deficit but of attention inconsistency.

It's a wonder any of my paper route customers ever got a paper when I was in High School. There were so many distractions pulling at my attention. Forest paths, dirt roads, ponds, juvenile delinquency, etc. Then there was always the busy stage within my mind filled with ideas and daydreams. With all the distractions going through my head I'm lucky I didn't ride my bike into a tree. Some may say that all young men have this problem (distractibility, not riding into trees), and young girls, too. And they may be right, but most kids grow out of it. The ability to focus is seen as a sign of maturity as children learn to be productive. In comparison, kids with ADHD are seen as immature, and their adult counterparts are seen as cartoon characters. The only adults with AD/HD who are respected are those that are dead or have internet startup companies2.

Because society doesn't tolerate failure, there are an awful lot of angry and bitter adults with AD/HD out there. Some of them leave me comments. They take umbrage with my light-hearted approach to disability. They dismiss me as "cute" or claim I don't fully understand the issues at stake. Perhaps they feel if I trivialize AD/HD I trivialize them. Well, I've tried the sober approach. All it did for me was make me uptight, grumpy, and no fun to be around. Now look at me! Shamelessly absentminded and invited to parties every weekend - any day now. Just think how popular I'd be if I actually made my meetings.

Of course, making light of screw ups doesn't mean I make excuses for myself, but I won't beat myself up either. Nothing breeds distractions like a good blue funk brought on by brow beating. I just wish more people in positions of authority realized this. Although it is true that discipline and willpower are the attributes that help people focus and accomplish great things, telling somebody with ADHD to "stop dilly-dallying", "hurry up and get it done", or "stop fidgeting around and pay attention" doesn't build character the way they think it does. It is more like telling somebody who is colorblind to separate the eggshell white cards from the antique white ones then getting mad when they can't.

Distraction sure isn't colorblind. We all experience it, but being distracted to the point of irritating others takes the kind of talent only AD/HD people have. Years ago my wife wouldn't allow me to cook because I'd constantly melt pans on the stove when cooking ramen. I'd get distracted drawing and forget all about them. Of course, I'm an expert at cooking ramen now. Even spaghetti. I may branch out into manicotti one of these days. But this is because we analyzed how I worked and figured a way to help me stay on track. If my wife had just yelled at me for ruining her pans I'd still be melting them today. Recognize our limitations, teach us to work around them, and you'll soon have less to get frustrated about.

Well, within reason. We can no more NOT be distracted than you can NOT be frustrated when we make you late, or forget to put gas in the car, or tune out when you're trying to talk to us. But our heart is in the right place. If yours is too we could meet in the middle somewhere and get along just fine. Focus, like patience, takes effort and practice.

As for my recent cock up, I've called and rescheduled. I even left an apology. If he chooses to charge me, then he charges me. I really can't help that; I did miss the appointment. I have a feeling, though, he's used to that sort of thing. He has AD/HD himself.

Coping Strategies:

1) Keep that PDA by your side!
2) Would you work at a paint store picking swatches of color for customers if you were colorblind? No, neither would I. Then why do we work at jobs that expose our AD/HD weaknesses while ignoring our strengths? Perhaps it's because we want to do the job but don't give enough study to whether we can do the job. Adults with AD/HD who have figured this out are happier at their jobs and more successful all around because they work within their strengths. They have found jobs where their AD/HD is either not exposed, or is even an asset.