ADHD: Why We Do What We Do

Those of us with attention deficit have always known we're different — now here's an explanation, finally, of why we act the way we do.


Filed Under: Myths About ADHD, Adult ADD: Late Diagnosis, ADHD Social Skills, ADHD Time Management

Why We Love a Crisis

Sometimes, a person with ADHD can hit the do-or-die deadline and produce lots of high-quality work in a short time. A whole semester of study is crammed into a single night of hyperfocused perfection. Some ADHDers create crises to generate the adrenaline to get them engaged and functional. The "masters of disasters" handle high-intensity crises with ease, only to fall apart when things become routine again.

Lurching from crisis to crisis, however, is a tough way to live life. Occasionally, I run across people who use anger to get the adrenaline rush they need to get engaged and be productive. They resurrect resentments or slights, from years before, to motivate themselves. The price they pay for their productivity is so high that they may be seen as having personality disorders.

Why We Don't Always Get Things Done

People with ADHD are both mystified and frustrated by the intermittent ability to be super-human when interested, and challenged and unable to start and sustain projects that are boring to them. It is not that they don't want to accomplish things or are unable to do the task. They know they are bright and capable because they've proved it many times. The lifelong frustration is never to be certain that they will be able to engage when needed, when they are expected to, when others depend on them to. When ADDers see themselves as undependable, they begin to doubt their talents and feel the shame of being unreliable.

Mood and energy level also swing with variations of interest and challenge. When bored, unengaged, or trapped by a task, the person with ADHD is lethargic, quarrelsome, and filled with dissatisfaction.

Why Our Motors Always Run

By the time most people with ADHD are adolescents, their physical hyperactivity has been pushed inward and hidden. But it is there and it still impairs the ability to engage in the moment, listen to other people, to relax enough to fall asleep at night, and to have periods of peace.

So when the distractibility and impulsivity are brought back to normal levels by stimulant medication, the ADDer may not be able to make use of his becalmed state. He is still driven forward as if by a motor on the inside, hidden from the rest of the world. By adolescence, most people with ADHD-style nervous systems have acquired the social skills necessary to cover up that they are not present.

But they rarely get away with it entirely. When they tune back into what has gone on while they were lost in their thoughts, the world has moved on without them. Uh-oh. They are lost and do not know what is going on, what they missed, and what is now expected of them. Their reentry into the neurotypical world is unpleasant and disorienting. To the ADDer, the external world is not as bright as the fantastic ideas they had while lost in their own thoughts.

Why Organization Eludes Us

The ADHD mind is a vast and unorganized library. It contains masses of information in snippets, but not whole books. The information exists in many forms — as articles, videos, audio clips, Internet pages — and also in forms and thoughts that no one has ever had before. But there is no card catalog, and the "books" are not organized by subject or even alphabetized.

Each ADDer has his or her own brain library and own way of storing that huge amount of material. No wonder the average ADDer cannot access the right piece of information at the moment it is needed — there is no reliable mechanism for locating it. Important items (God help us, important to someone else) have no fixed place, and might as well be invisible or missing entirely. For example:

The ADHD child comes home and tells Mom that he has no homework to do. He watches TV or plays video games until his bedtime. Then he recalls that he has a major report due in the morning. Was the child consciously lying to the parent, or was he truly unaware of the important task?

Next: Why We Forget Sometimes

You know you have ADHD when you lose the remote in the freezer. Or head out to meet a friend and wind up at the grocery store instead. Download your free digital copy of You Know You Have ADD When... for more humorous reminder moments. Plus, get email tips for managing adult ADHD.

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