Me and My Shadow: Life with ADHD
Frank South, who wrestled with attention deficit disorder since childhood, spills everything he’s learned about himself, the unaccepting world, and his ADHD brethren.
One lesson I’ve learned: We ADHD folks are everywhere.
We’re the creative vice-president in the cubicle who, while you’re yelling at us for missing another deadline, comes up with the intuitive leap that saves a whole product line.
We’re the spouse whose highly sensitive antennae pick up a vibe from our 13-year-old daughter that she needs to talk. So we sit down with her for a half-hour as she pours out her problems, leaving you waiting at the car place, after promising you we wouldn’t be late.
We’re the 20-something working at the fast-food drive-through who forgot to remove the pickle that you’re allergic to from the double cheeseburger. We feel terrible — I swear we’re not doing any of this on purpose — but we also find it so freaky funny that we’ll put the whole mess in a stand-up routine that will knock you out laughing when you see it on HBO in two years.
We’re the fifth-grader who makes you wish you had gone into the forestry service and been stationed out in the wilderness rather than teaching us. But then one day we not only hand in our homework — finally — but we also hand in a startling pastel-and-pencil drawing of you that captures the light coming across your desk from the window exactly the way it does every afternoon. You realize that we weren’t staring out the window, we were staring at the light coming in.
We are not stupid or crazy. Well, I could be fairly labeled crazy-ish, due primarily to my off-the-charts attention deficit disorder, hypomania, alcoholism, and some a mood disorder. When you get over being furious at the things we did or didn’t do, don’t waste time feeling sorry for us. We’re working on being less forgetful and accidentally destructive.
Even though we talk with shrinks and ADHD coaches, work on our social and organizational skills, and take our ADHD medication, our core ADHD selves are not going to change into anything normal. Guess what? I don’t think you want us to. That’s because we remind you of that part of you that doesn’t fit in, that’s dying to open the dark door down the hall.
Another lesson I’ve learned is to stop hiding and pretending we’re someone we’re not. No excuses — cop to the whole mess. Accepting ADHD as a huge part of who we are and how we see the world is, at first, creepy and embarrassing. “I’m not going to be labeled as some disordered freak. It’s not that simple. I’m not that simple. I’m complicated, deep, and well, OK, I admit it — I’m a genius. Sorry you feel bad about it.” OK — except that, until we snuggle up and own our attention deficit disorder, we’re the ones who feel bad about us.
And so then we do accept, accept, accept. Problem solved? Not really. We still forget everything that isn’t nailed down and labeled. No matter how many ADHD coaches and shrinks we work with, or how many ADHD meds we take, the problem is still the frustration. What was I supposed to get? That’s due now? What’s your name again? What do you mean, it’s Tuesday? And to be ugly and ungrateful about it, what really drives me bat-flap crazy are the understanding friends and spouses. One more sympathetic look or understanding nod and I think I’ll, I’ll… Well, no, of course I won’t.
I was a weirdo in school. Case closed. As a weirdo, you eventually accept guys sneaking up behind you and pushing the big stack of books out from under your arm. (I always carried all my books with me — as an ADHD student, I was never sure which ones I’d need.) Then, when I’d bend over to pick them up, my glasses would fall off.
At my 20-year high school reunion, I ran into the same guys at the bar, and as we talked — all of us adults. For no reason, the left lens of my glasses popped out and fell on the floor. When I bent over to get it, I hit my head on the edge of the bar, and my glasses fell off my face. The guys couldn’t stop laughing. As they walked away, shaking their heads, I saw twenties change hands.
The difference between being occasionally distracted and living with ADHD is pretty dang profound. ADHD doesn’t go away. We can’t shake out the cobwebs and clear our heads. The cobwebs and scattered processing are so constant, they’re boring. We’re always waiting for the right word. We’re almost always wrong about so many everyday things that we stop noticing, except for a sly, judge part of us that keeps tabs and can’t believe how lame we are.
Being diagnosed with adult ADHD did answer some of the questions I had about my past experiences in life, but it took a long time to near the neighborhood of the enlightened. I now occasionally get a glimpse of “enlightened,” but only the tiniest one — like the blurry view you get looking out through a train window as it zooms along.
My first reaction after my ADHD diagnosis was fear. I was scared silly, and, since I was still drinking then, I got drunk. It was my standard solution for any strong emotion at the time. With work — with various therapists and on my own — some version of reality started taking hold. Then I dealt with the drinking, and got sober. But that took a long time. I am a very stupid, stubborn man when I put my mind to it.
It took me four years before I could admit to being an alcoholic, and to see the connections between my ADHD and my drinking without excuses and self-pity. That’s hard — I love self-pity. All day in bed with self-pity, oatmeal cookies, and ice cream looks like heaven to me.
But I’m grateful for the diagnoses, grateful for the whole big mess, because now my glimpses out at the scenery rushing by are longer, and I can see slivers of beauty out there.
As a TV producer, I had to write 10 scripts to start the season. I had dry-marker calendars on my office wall that covered four months’ time. I had binders for each show, and each binder had color-coded dividers. I had a post-production binder, a casting binder. And on and on.
Whether we know we have it or not, ADHD makes us leery of surprises — because every day seems to be changing around all the time. So, in stressful situations, we become very fond of routine. Unaware of my ADHD at the time, I also self-medicated with mega-doses of caffeine. I washed down No-Doz with a zillion Diet Cokes, which I do not recommend, unless you’re fond of chewing off your lips.
None of this would have done a thing to help me if it hadn’t been for Kristy, my calm, organized, and intuitive assistant. She kept my rickety plans and structures from collapsing and, more important, was a nonjudgmental friend. Neither Kristy nor my wife, Margaret, ever acted as if my eccentric behavior was anything but normal.
The world is humming along. Everybody has filtered out the information they don’t need for the day and is off doing stuff. But we adults with ADHD don’t have filters. We don’t even have lint traps. While the rest of the world is flying around making stuff happen, we’re still in bed, staring in despair at the huge tidal wave of information that slams down on us every morning, filled with useless, pointless, mindless, but very interesting, junk. It’s so much junk that everything becomes junk — and that’s confusing and discouraging.
Here’s a way to look at things that helps me sometimes: Yeah, OK, you missed that appointment or the other one. But don’t listen to the judgments from others or, most important, from inside — because that’s the nastiest, most unforgiving judge of all. You have to decide what you think is not junk in the middle of all the distracting junk. And let’s be honest, most of the stuff out there is junk — so you might as well laugh about it. That’s the main thing: Laugh about it.