This ADHD public speaker living with comorbid Bipolar 2 learns how to share what it's like living with attention deficit disorder without having to lecture his audience.
by Frank South
“If you want to know where your heart is, look where your mind wanders.” -- Unknown
One, I know where my heart is. Two, my mind doesn’t wander. At night, using the distracting cover of dreams, my mind makes plans and plots quietly in secret. Then, sometime during the day when my guard is down, and when it can do the most damage, my mind breaks out of prison and flies into the high grass laughing like mad, the blood hounds braying in pursuit far behind.
I’m in a meeting with a principal at a private school where I’m being hired to do my ADHD show, Pay Attention. The principal, a kind and thoughtful woman in her thirties, has seen me do the show and thinks it’d be good for the teachers to experience ADHD “from the inside.”
All the teachers have a few students with ADHD, and many are having a hard time dealing with the individual inattention and class disruption that seems to have no solution. A few in the faculty think these kids are simply challenging their authority in the classroom and that ADHD is just an excuse, or even believe it doesn’t exist at all. Consequently the entire faculty will be required to attend.
Not only am I supposed to do the show, I’m supposed to do a Q&A afterward for an hour or so –- to let them see that though I too was an ADHD kid, I grew up to be at least a moderately solid citizen.
In a pre-show meeting we are reviewing a few aspects that the principal feels are vital for the presentation. “In the Q&A afterward, I think it’s important that the faculty doesn’t feel they’re being lectured to. We want them to be as receptive as possible to the insights you’re providing.”
I nod to her, and just as I begin to respond in a thoughtful, adult manner -- my eyes glaze over as I fixate on the L-shape and small size of the principal’s office.
Is this a purposeful slight to her? Does she suffer everyday under cruel disapproval communicated to her only by the configuration of the walls surrounding her while she works -- a dark, constant reminder wearing her down? Well, that depends on the relative size of the headmaster’s office, doesn’t it? He seemed like a nice guy when we were introduced, not the type to play punishing cubicle politics, but I was focused on him and his story about his ... was it his brother? Somebody in his family with clinical depression, but the point is I didn’t take in his office.
When did I become the guy everybody tells their family mental illness stories to? I guess I don’t mind. I obsess on my own craziness and advertise publicly for sympathy. My new shrink says no. Not my pattern. He says I’m an honest person. But I lie to him. But not about important stuff, just little lies to keep the sessions interesting, and he’s a straight shooter –- last week cleared up some new psychiatric classifications I got concerned about.
“Do you know that hypomania is now classified as bipolar 2"?
“Um, no...” the principal says.
My eyes, unglazed, are now locked right on hers. “I’m comorbid hypomanic. I like the term 'hypomanic.' It sounds easy-going, nothing to worry about, right? But 'bipolar 2' sounds kinda dangerous. But not dangerous enough for people to give you that step-back crazy space that straight 'bipolar' gets. 'Bipolar 2' just sounds second-rate, like you’re trying to be scary but you don’t have the stones to pull it off. My shrink says it’s just the medical profession trying to reflect the truth as they discover it. And that everything’s on a spectrum. If I’m on the bipolar spectrum I want to be scary. But then, like my therapist says, ADHD is on the autism spectrum, but I’m not autistic. Well, maybe compared to some people I am, but my therapist says not to focus on the labels, focus on the day in front of you. And I listen to him about that stuff, because mostly he makes sense. Don’t you think?”
There’s a beat as she stares at me. I better try to explain, tell her I was daydreaming before I lose this gig before I even get it. Then she bursts out laughing. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Frank. Like you and your therapist, it’s not a lecture if you listen.”
Whoa. That was a lucky landing, after that prison-break move my brain made. We talk more, and later I find out that she’s got family with some mental health issues so she has practice making metaphors out of mud-pies. Sometimes it takes a talented listener to understand what you didn’t even know you meant. We finish up, make plans and I’m set for my presentation and Q&A next month. As I’m leaving, she leans back against her office door and smiles.
“By the way Frank, don’t worry. You’re plenty scary.” I wave and head off to my car chuckling to myself, because that’s exactly what I needed to hear.