I am a misunderstood genius. Or so I like to think. Sometimes it takes a little superiority to get me through those days when I can't seem to make any progress or I'm feeling like a failure. I'm not the one with the disorder, I tell myself. My brain works better than average. If others can't see that, well, that's their problem.
It's egotistical thinking, for sure, and though it makes me feel better, it doesn't help me get my work done. But is it so far off the mark? After all, the two places you're likely to find adults with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) are at the highest ranks of leadership — visionary entrepreneurs, brilliant artists, superstar entertainers — and on our nation's couches, unemployed and discouraged. ADHD can be an enormous advantage if the situation is right. Unfortunately, the world is full of wrong situations.
I've managed to avoid many of these most of my life, without quite knowing how. However, it was a very wrong situation — an employer suddenly made radical changes to my job, adding administrative tasks and lots of minutiae — that led to my diagnosis of ADHD, inattentive type, at age 36. I was astonished (isn't that about hyperactive kids?), but when I read a list of symptoms, I laughed out loud at some and cried at others. I could have written that list.
My diagnosis helped me figure out the right work scenario — I am my own boss now — but it also renewed my struggle to find my place in the world. I have always felt I was living in a slightly different universe than everyone else, my own little planet spinning on an axis tilted just a little past Earth's. Knowing about my ADHD has helped me understand what planet I'm from. Now I'm working on communicating better with the earthlings.
I've learned to second-guess my perceptions, to stop and think about whether I heard everything someone said to me and perceived it the way it was intended. I've learned to read instructions twice, to stop myself before I blurt out something just to jazz up a conversation, to ask questions instead of letting my brain automatically fill in the blanks. In a noisy restaurant, I glue my eyes to my companion's lips and try to catch every word instead of listening to the people at the next table (when I say, "I couldn't help overhearing you," I mean I really couldn't help it).
I'm also figuring out how to enjoy living on my home planet and taking some pride in it. I've learned that people with ADHD have enormous powers of observation. That's part of our problem — we're observing everything around us instead of what's right in front of us. But in doing so, we see things that others miss. On a nature hike, I'm the one who first hears the woodpecker's call, or notices the tiny, strange fungus, or spots the bear in the brush while everyone else walks right past him.
There's more to this than observing simple reality. Many with ADHD can find a subtle beauty and value in ordinary things. We often describe ourselves as "always bored," but I don't think it's boredom as much as high expectations for every little thing in a world bursting with fascinating stuff.
I now have the courage to appreciate and use other strengths, too, like the ability to see the big picture and to get things done on my own schedule — which usually means productive bursts between long periods of languishing. I'm more confident about working independently, doing what I'm good at, and making my own career instead of modeling it on everyone else's. I am now a freelance writer/handyman/substitute teacher — and I've only just begun.
The term for our condition is still evolving. Doctors first called it "Morbid Defect of Moral Control" (that fits me sometimes). For a while researchers thought it was brain damage and called it "Minimal Brain Dysfunction." ADD became the official term in 1980, morphing to ADHD in 1994. But I don't think that process is over yet. New research is finding links to other conditions, such as autism, and broadening the understanding of what causes ADHD and what it's all about. As researchers begin to grasp the full range of gifts that ADHD brings, I think they will look for a new label again.
May I suggest "Misunderstood Genius"?
This article comes from the June/July 2004 Issue of ADDitude.