Saturday, August 29, 2020

ADHD and me (getting to know me, part 99)

I never heard of ADHD until I was 30, when my dad was diagnosed with the disorder. Immediately, the whole rest of the family recognized ourselves in the same diagnosis, and some of us (myself included) went out and got diagnosed, too. Still, although I am now 53, I have a very superficial understanding of ADHD and how it has affected my life. Back when I was first diagnosed, science was only just beginning to see ADHD beyond hyperactive boy children, so the diagnosis didn't really provide me, a spacey (that is, "primarily inattentive type") grown woman, with a lot of guidance. Then again, I could never tolerate the stimulant medication that is typically prescribed for ADHD at anything like a useful dose. So basically, I have been untreated and uncounselled for ADHD all my life. 

This past week, I got intensely frustrated with one of the ways this brain-kink manifests in my life, which is something I call "stuckness" or "an excess of inertia." I just can't get started on things, or switch from one thing to another, even things I really want to do and know I'll enjoy. I very much wanted to go for a walk in the park, which is literally right outside my door, and does not require any special preparation or equipment or planning. I wanted to go in the morning, but it was 1:00 in the afternoon before I finally managed to get out the door. I was literally crying with frustration before I left. It felt like literal paralysis, like being stuck hip-deep in marsh mud, as if I were exerting every ounce of energy in my body to move a muscle that just would not move. I try and try, so hard, to go and I just can't go.

So later on, when I got back, I started to Google around about ADHD and what I guess was the state-of-the-art term last time I talked to anyone about it (a dozen years ago): "executive function." And I am finding that the state of the art has progressed a whole lot since then. I'm finding that some things that I never would have connected with ADHD are now considered part of or closely related to it.

There's a thing they're calling "Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria," that sounds familiar, but I always attributed to being ostracized in 4th grade. But according to this article on WebMD, "up to 99% of teens and adults with ADHD are more sensitive than usual to rejection. And nearly 1 in 3 say it's the hardest part of living with ADHD."

Here's another author who has coined the term "Emotional Distress Syndrome." As I understand it so far, he means something like Complex PTSD, which is a kind of PTSD resulting not from a single traumatic event, but from a prolonged series of events or one long drawn-out event. Neurologically, spending too much time in "fight or flight or freeze" isn't good for you, it can cause lasting harm. Now, I've said I have complex PTSD from having had major depression from the age of 9 to ... 24? 26? however old I was when I discovered Prozac (and not remembering when that most life-altering thing took place is also typical of ADHD). But again, yes, the depression was a real and crushing thing, but I also had undiagnosed, uncomprehended, untreated ADHD all my life. And I really have no idea how it has affected me.

And there's more. Sensory overload is another piece of it -- I have a very low tolerance for noise (the washing machine can really stress me out), and now I find that that, too, is strongly associated with ADHD. For some people it's smells, or textures, or light, though I think maybe noise is an especially common stressor. And you know, I've always said that clocks and I just don't get along, and now here I find they've put a name on that, too: "time-blindness."

But let me skip over any more details, for now, and say a little about how I'm feeling about it. Pretty emotional! I'm feeling a lot of things about it, all mixed up together.

One, there is a consolation in knowing that some of the things I struggle with are part of a bona fide "disorder" (although I think I still prefer "syndrome," since some of the aspects of it are positive, at least sometimes). It defuses the shame I feel at not measuring up to some standards that are not, after all, reasonable for me.  

Two, it's discouraging to realize that some of those things I'm still, always, going to have to struggle with. I may cut myself slack because I'm just wired the way I am, I may be able to laugh at my "time blindness" instead of beating myself up for being late everywhere I go -- but I still have to try really hard to be on time, because it puts other people out. And it's always going to be hard, in a way that "neurotypical" people can never understand.

Three, after all, I'm proud of myself for managing as well as I do. I'm proud that my laundry is folded and my furniture is dusted and my dishes are done, and I almost never go to bed without having brushed my teeth, and I spend a little less than I bring in each month, and my car maintenance is up to date. Those things are real triumphs for someone with ADHD, they are all things that I didn't use to do.

Four, I'm aching, grieving for all the struggle having ADHD caused in my life, and for all the pain having so little understanding of it caused in my life. It's given me a new perspective, especially, on all the stress of my working years.

Five, I regret how I've hurt others, especially the way I reacted to my dad's temper in his last years -- it was ADHD-type temper, and I inherited it from him and know damn well how quick and ephemeral it was, and that it didn't reflect his real feelings about me. I trust he understands, now -- forgive me, Dad. And for those I blew up at in the same way, I'm sorry.

Six, I'm interested, fascinated even, to learn more about this phenomenon. Of course, studying with ADHD, even studying a topic I'm interested in, is anything but focused and linear. And that's fine, because honestly, there's a lot to process. Only being able to read half a page or a page at a time allows me time to reflect on the information as it relates to my own life, past, present, and future.

Seven, I'm feeling very, very grateful for the life I have now. Working for a living isn't supposed to be easy, I know, but I think the ADHD just made it a whole lot harder than it would have been otherwise. My vows of Silence, Solitude, and Simplicity would drive most people crazy, but for me, it's pure peace and freedom. It's a relief, making up for all those years of feeling like Atlas carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. 

Having ADHD must be why I love the Liturgy of the Hours. It's definitely not for the content. There are gems in it, sure, lots of them. But it is also very often infuriating. The language ignores women when it's not actively insulting us, the psalms and prophets are full of blatant political propaganda and insults against neighboring tribes, and I've always been uneasy with what seems to me the arrogance of dogmatic statements of theology (because God is a Who, not a What, and how do we get off thinking we can define the inmost nature of God?). But, the liturgy has a strong structure, it gives my days a strong structure, and it has rhythm (even music), and just enough variation to stay interesting. Everything I need is available in one place, for when my ADHD brain is feeling overloaded, but there's plenty of flexibility to go outside the breviary when it starts to get too hard to stomach. And after all, however clumsily, it does keep constantly referring me back to my Invisible Husband, God, the center and ground and delight of my life.

I feel like I'm tapping a can of worms here.... there is a lot I could say about why I am a Catholic in spite of everything. But that's a harder blog post to write, and writing any blog post at all is one more thing that having ADHD makes really challenging. I'll get to it, though. Probably soon.

Meanwhile ... thanks for sticking with me. God bless you. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Follow Your Bliss

 "I really care about how humans smell smells in the environment and how insects smell smells in the environment, and how they smell humans." -- Dr. Leslie Vosshall, a molecular neurobiologist at Rockefeller University, as heard on the Nature podcast.

I got to do one of my favorite things in the world over the past few weeks: dress up in heavy chest waders and slog through sticky, stinky marsh muck, craning to see the next plot marker over head-high thorny vines and occasional poison ivy, during a humid Mid-Atlantic heat wave, carrying a heavy backpack, a clipboard and pencil, for the biennial emergent vegetation survey. Ah, what bliss! My ecologist friend thanked me profusely and repeatedly, and I just kept on assuring her that I love this! But she says -- and maybe this won't surprise anyone but me -- she can't get anyone else to go out more than once on this project. To me it is almost as hard to grasp that most people would pay money NOT to have to lie down and wet their hair in muddy water to stave off heat exhaustion (whereas I just sit there with my phone trying to get a good enough picture of the snails crawling all over my waders to enable me to identify the species) as it is for me to believe in those old Merry Maids commercials, with the women dancing around with feather dusters and huge smiles on their faces ("house cleaning may not get you going, but it really moves us!"). *shudder*

And that is how I know that this is my vocation (and in fact, I wrote "study of the natural world" into my Rule of Life as a hermit). Not merely that I love it, but that my love for it is weird. It is peculiar to me. House cleaning is not my vocation (if you ask me, enjoying house cleaning is weird). I try to keep my house reasonably clean, but I definitely don't love it. I do love being a hermit, living a prayerful life in substantial solitude. I love it so much that it was totally worth it for me to retire with half a pension -- so I'm not going to be paying Merry Maids to dance their dusters around my house, either. 

In secular culture "vocation" is generally equated with "career," which means it is limited to one dominant kind of activity that pays well enough to support the other aspects of life. Some women (and fewer men) consider parenting to be a vocation, but again, generally that implies that it's a full-time job, in this case supported by the other parent's paid work. In the Catholic Church, on the other hand, "vocation" means a "religious vocation;" e.g., priest, nun, hermit, that sort of thing. 

Both definitions are more limited than the sense in which I understand vocation. My vocation, for example, includes being a solitary religious contemplative, and it also includes direct study of the natural world around me. I don't get paid for either of these aspects of my vocation. Then again, to one who loves God, all of life is religious life; and if one discerns one's true vocation in prayer and the humility of clear-eyed self-knowledge, then that vocation is a religious vocation, whether it is the priesthood, or nursing, or painting, or football, or molecular neurobiology and the study of how insects smell humans. And/or, I should say, since vocation may as well branch out like streams in a marsh (some paid, some not) as flow together in a single, purposeful channel. Depth vs. breadth is just one of the aspects of vocation to be taken into account in the discernment process.

I'm not sure I've ever actually read a whole book by Joseph Campbell, but his phrase "follow your bliss" lodged itself in my psyche many years ago. I am deeply convinced that God calls us through joy and passion, and that He calls us one at a time, individually and entirely uniquely. We are so used to thinking of, and hearing about, the virtuous life as battling our natural inclinations, and sure, in another sense that's true, too. But let me just take the example that St. Paul uses in his letter to the Philippians (3:13-14), that of the athlete single-mindedly pursuing victory. Elite athletes push themselves through pain and exhaustion and frustration. They must battle their natural inclinations to rest, to give up, to settle for good enough, to have one more cookie or one more beer, to skip practice in favor of hanging out with the exciting new boyfriend or girlfriend, to roll over and go back to sleep on a cold morning. Why do they do it? Because they have a passion for the sport, surely. Because no joy, for them, compares to winning that gold medal or tournament. Because playing at the utmost limits of their ability is elating, exhilarating, and nothing else can compare to it, for them.

There is no real contradiction between self-denial and self-realization. If we are doing what we are called, what we are uniquely designed and motivated, to do, then we will find the burden light, we will naturally want to press on toward the goal. But it's still a burden and a pressing on. We still have to discipline ourselves. It's just that we give ourselves a far better chance if we are disciplining ourselves for the sake of something we love and want, something that we find compelling. Bad habits still have a strong pull, especially when they are first challenged. We are naturally inclined to anger, to sloth, to gluttony, to lust, etc., and we do have to battle those inclinations. But we give ourselves more of a fighting chance if we can oppose them with whatever sparks bliss in us. 

And what sparks bliss in each one of us is totally unique. Each one of us has a combination of history, temperament, gifts, interests, strengths and weaknesses, as unique as voice and fingerprint. None of us is ever going to be able to fulfill all of our unique potential. Most of us are so side-tracked, so early in life, by social expectations and the imperative of making a living that we have at best only a vague idea of our deep, unique vocation. And then again, vocation is not static. We grow and change and move on to new challenges and new circumstances. But for a whole lot of people, this pandemic has blasted so many of our expectations and so many ways of making a living, that this might be a fine opportunity for a lot of people to think about turning in a completely different direction. 

I'll leave you with this gem that I just discovered recently: Wishcraft, by Barbara Sher, whose unique vocation in life was to help other people discover their own unique vocations, and then find a way to follow them. What God makes you for and calls you to, God will make a way for you to do. 

God bless you.