When I was diagnosed with ADD, in my early 40s, I cried and cried — right there, in the office, and then out on the street, then in my car, and then at home. Not because the diagnosis upset me, but because of the indescribable relief I felt.
I imagine that this is something many people with ADD go through, the gut-wrenching, liberating sensation of having a name for what has always just felt like: There’s something wrong with me. Or the question without an answer I constantly asked myself: Why can’t I seem to do what other people can do?
My story is a common one, for the first four decades anyway: struggles with homework, when I did it at all; struggles with time management; chaotic living spaces wherever I lived, and even where I didn’t live. Sometimes it seemed like I had only to enter a room for it to become a mess, and I had more unfinished projects than I could count.
When I looked over my life, glanced backwards through the years, images of half-upholstered chairs and partly-knitted sweaters came to view, along with primed walls I never painted — the word failure rising above it all, like skywriting for everyone to see.
But knowledge is power, and I learned that when I was diagnosed. Once I knew I had ADD, and after I stopped weeping with relief, I was ready to take it on. I bought books to help me understand what exactly this strange condition is. I looked into meds, too. I studied systems, and I tried to simplify everything in my life. I was gung-ho for it all, and I probably expected a miraculous transformation, which, of course, never came. But thanks to some gained self-knowledge and the help of Ritalin, I was able, for the first time in my life, to progress on a professional path and that alone changed everything.
Focused Enough to Write
I had always wanted to be a writer, but I had never been able to stick to it. How could I? I’d never been able to stick to anything. After my diagnosis, though, I developed decent work habits, I went to graduate school, handed in assignments, and, after seven years of hard work, I sold my first book, a collection of short stories. Emphasis on short.
That turned out to be important, because, in the same book deal, I also sold the promise of a second book, and that one was to be a novel. A novel, for a writer with ADD, is a whole new ballgame — and not the fun kind.
Think about the last novel you read. Now remember all the characters, all the scenes, all the plots, and all that time management that went into writing it. Who? What? When? How? It was dizzying how many questions I had to juggle all at once.
Writing a novel also meant I had to stick to a single project for what seemed like forever. When I sat down to write, I was in despair. My brain couldn’t handle 300 pages of ideas, or even 250. It didn’t matter how I color-coded pages or drew charts. The information overloaded my circuits, and my wires fried.
If I’d never been diagnosed with ADD, I would never have been able to see my way through. The first, and maybe the most important, change it brought, was that I didn’t hate myself for all the trouble I was having. I didn’t have that awful feeling of being mysteriously bad at everything. I was mad at the ADD itself.
Tackling a Novel, Folding the Laundry
Creativity may seem different from remembering to finish folding the laundry or taking a recipe all the way from shopping list to cooking to cleaning up, but there were more similarities than I had thought. I decided to try to use the knowledge I’d gained about ADD to help me as I wrote. I began to treat the novel as I would any other overwhelming task, by breaking it down into manageable steps. I wouldn’t focus on what overwhelmed me, but on the little tasks I could complete that added up.
That could have been done in any number of ways, but what I ended up doing was to write the book in 50-page chunks. Every three months, I wrote 50 pages. That was my job, and it was manageable. It wasn’t the way I might have gone about it if I were wired differently — and, at times, I regretted that I had to impose this strange system on my process. Except that it worked. Fifty pages, then 50 pages more — doing it five times resulted in a complete draft, something I could read as a whole and revise without having to hold the entire thing in my brain.
Then I got out the colored highlighters, and started drawing charts and using calendars to check the chronology until I had a novel I could be proud of — a novel that will be published this summer.
If I had known how much my life was going to change because of my diagnosis, I would have cried even harder than I did the day I was first told. I had so completely bought the message that I was a failure, I never imagined I would be anything else.
These days, I’m still messy, still disorganized, still challenged by managing time, but I have a couple of published books to my credit and, occasionally, I even get the laundry folded and put away. Most important of all, I have learned that it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, how mundane or creative the task. I have ways to help myself and to get the job done. For decades there was terrible chaos, confusion, and a good dose of self-loathing in my life. Now there are strategies — so there is always hope.