What qualities do you look for in a therapist to treat your attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD)? My past shrinks have included the dream dissector, the distant judge, the clinical diagnostic, and the nervous Nellie (with whom I terrified with my ADD/ADHD and comorbidities) -- each was ultimately ineffective.
by Frank South
So, as I mentioned in my last post, in two months my non-ADD/ADHD wife, two ADD/ADHD kids, our big dog, and my rattled, ADHD self are packing up our life and leaving Hawaii after living here for ten years and moving to Georgia to be closer to our elderly parents and the rest of both sides of the extended family. Outwardly I’m doing fine -- got the calendar marked, packing, throwing stuff out, and putting things aside for a garage sale.
Inside, though, on a day I’m supposed to sort through a huge bin of VHS tapes of old TV shows I wrote or directed, I’m a full-panic, freak-out disaster. But I’m learning to use calming techniques to keep the panic-fire in my forehead and chest from exploding into a three-alarm inferno -- during which I have been known to get so agitated my hyperventilating free-associating literally comes out of my mouth backwards. So before I get that far, I dump all the VHS tapes into the garbage. I don’t like living in the past; the image of me sitting around misty-eyed with future grandkids watching old episodes of “Melrose Place” and “Baywatch Hawaii” flat-out scares me to death. But dumping the tapes only helps temporarily.
Because right now I see this move, my future, and the future of my family, as an uncharted thick forest filled with threat.
I can handle it, though. I lie down, work on my breathing, and calmly let what’s bothering me float away, just like my psychiatrist has suggested. But what floats up, and won’t go away, is the fact that when we move to Georgia, I have to find a new psychiatrist.
The next day is my therapy appointment. I usually show up a little apprehensive because I have no idea what I’ll say after we get settled and he asks the usual, “So, how are you doing?” Not this time. This time I have a definite problem to discuss. But when my psychiatrist -- let’s call him Mike (not his name, but he reminds me of my football coach friend Mike, so it fits) -- asks that start-off question, I’m not paying attention. I’m staring at a nature print on his wall. I always thought the two monochrome, contrasting images in the print were of a dead leaf on the left side and a tree branch against a gray sky on the right. But now I’m not sure. That isn’t a tree branch on the right. Is it a stream, splitting up over pebbles? And the leaf, is that a hand? No, it’s a leaf. I think. Maybe a maple leaf. But that’s definitely a stream over pebbles, not a branch.
When I catch myself weighing the odds of the print being an intentional Rorschach/Escher mess-with-your-mind test/trick, I close my eyes, shake it off, and turn to Mike. He’s sitting in his chair, smiling, at ease, waiting for me to answer the seemingly simple "How are you doing?" question in whatever time it takes me, and in whatever way I will.
I’ve had therapists in the past who would have been calling out little verbal slaps, “Frank? Frank?” trying to force me to focus. That’s the hall-monitor type, who let you know that if you’d do just this, just so, you’d be all better -- I never lasted long with that type. I’ve had worse, though.
In my early twenties after having a mild breakdown, I had a psychiatric intern treating me who prescribed large doses of an anti-psychotic. Week after week I sobbed that the meds didn’t help, and worse, that they turned the whole world into incomprehensible pudding. He just nodded and hmmm-hmmmed and made notes on his stupid little pad. I finally managed to quit him and the meds, and pull myself together on my own, but you can probably tell I still hold a tiny grudge.
In my thirties I saw a psychologist who told me I didn’t have a drinking problem and said everything was my wife’s fault. This one was my all-time fave for a while. Then I got tired of blaming everyone else for everything and bored with acting out pretend fights with my father by punching a couch cushion. (My father, by the way, has never been anything but supportive and kind to me. The therapist might have had some father issues though.)
In terms of therapists, I’ve had the dream dissector, the distant judge, the clinical diagnostic, the homey guy with an afghan over his lap, and the nervous Nellie who seemed ready to jump out the window in fright every time I showed up. As a matter of fact, until the therapist I had for seven years before Mike, I was convinced I’d never connect with any of these people. I kept on saying whatever it took to make the therapist happy so he’d write the prescription for my meds and that would be that.
But Mike and his predecessor Richard (whom I wrote about when he retired) changed all that. Both these guys have listened intently, but more than that -- when it comes to talking, the language and subject matter have always helped me find the way to deal with my problems from my perspective. Like frontier scouts, they’ve helped me cut through the forest to find a route that takes me where I want to go. As a bonus, both Richard and Mike have dropped a bunch of bright, sparkling insights in the path for us to discover together.
So when Mike asks me how I’m doing, I try to answer as honestly as I can. “I’m okay, I guess... It’s just that prism thing you know? Things are fine if you look at it from one way, but turn it just a little and it’s obvious your life is an empty, pointless sham. Maybe it's not that bad, but lately it seems like I’ve been fighting off the darkness more than usual. But maybe it’s just how I’m looking at things. Like that leaf print on your wall -- one minute it’s a tree, the next minute it’s a roaring river with a man’s desperate hand reaching out for help before he drowns or is dashed against the rocks. Is that print supposed to do that? I mean did you get it to help people think about their perceptions?”
Mike glances at the print. “Actually, I got it at Pottery Barn. I thought it seemed peaceful.”
He smiles. I shrug. And we spend the next forty minutes cutting through the forest of darkness and confusion I constantly fight, hunting for different ways to calm down and bring in some light. Right at the end I remember what I wanted to talk to him about -- it’s only two months before my move. What am I going to do? After finally finding Richard and then Mike, I would feel too lucky for it to happen to me again. Besides, Richard recommended Mike, and Mike doesn’t know any psychiatrists in Georgia does he?
Mike says no, he doesn’t. But then his eyes light up. “I’ve got an idea, a project for you. Why don’t you start looking for your new therapist now? Call some psychiatrists up; tell them what you’re looking for.”
“What, you mean like... shopping?”
“Yeah,” Mike says, “Why not? It could help you put into words what you want from a therapist. You could even write about it.”
It’s not shopping, I think later in the car. It’s psycho-phone-therapist-speed-dating, with witnesses. But it might be the way I can find my next frontier scout.