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“Your ADHD Is Not a Label, Man. It’s a Fact. Don’t Waste Time Denying What’s Real”

When my friend said this, my perspective did a flip-flop. I realized that there is great power in acceptance.

“I just want to say I’m grateful that this happened, not this now, but I’m grateful to be invited here for sure. Very grateful to everybody… everybody here. Really. But what I mean was back then, you know when… uh…”

I clear my throat, the microphone is slippery. I switch hands wiping the other on my jeans. This riser that the four of us who are meant to speak are standing on is really part of the installation and not meant to be a stage. I’m just now noticing that it is seriously narrow. The paper slippers they had us wear to not damage the painted surface barely fit over my boots, and sure don’t help with the footing.

Stop staring at your feet, idiot. Look up and get this over with. Still clearing my throat like “there was an old lady that swallowed a fly, I don’t why she swallowed a fly, I guess she’ll die.” Hope that wasn’t out loud. Quick glance around the small crowd in this New York City gallery for the faces of the three old friends who came to this art opening with me tonight. Could really use a nod wink smile lifeline about now. Can’t see them. Public speaking anxiety is setting in.

Can’t see much of anything really because the big gray floaters in my eyes that I’ve had for the last 15 years or so have settled front and center, blurring out everything. I’ve told my ophthalmologist that this happens like clockwork when I’m severely stressed, as if the floaters hear the alarm go off in my prefrontal cortex and move in to cut off incoming threats. It is as predictable as a Klingon attack—shields up—and which my ophthalmologist says medically is complete baloney and nothing he could do anything about anyway. And besides, he says, Klingons are Federation allies now. It’s Romulans who want to destroy you and blow everything you treasure into oblivion.

This pause is going on way too long. Minutes? Seconds? The crap in my head runs at all speeds. No way to know. Heart rate’s up, though. I have to speak, open my mouth and make enough words so I can hand the microphone back and get my paper feet off this unsteady skinny perch that feels like a cop is going to run up and grab me from behind yelling “Don’t do it, kid, don’t jump!” OK, stop. Stop following every random thought down a rabbit hole. You know better. Focus on here. Focus on now.

Back in charge, I blink, smile, cease with the OCD throat clearing, push down paper slippers, swallowed flies, floaters, Romulans, cops and suicide, get a handle on my breathing and the slippery microphone. But all the throat clearing has made a huge glob of phlegm that’s taken over all the space behind my teeth and I can’t spit it out and now my mouth is too dry to swallow, and with the head movies pushed down, all that’s left is “Phony, phony, phony, banamaramony – Phony.” What the hell am I doing up here? The people standing with me on this riser are substantial, respected art people. I’m an ex-TV hack who 20 years ago just said yes. Then they and their whole community of wildly talented artists invaded the show I was running, and for two years filled this nighttime soap with original set decoration, props, costumes, all made for the stories and characters, most filled with subtle topical political statements, and all reflecting the depth and care with which they were made. So that was it. All I did was open the door, and I was rewarded with, by far and away, the two years of programming I am most proud of in all my time in Hollywood.

In the middle of this half-second or five-minute silent storm, the substantial, respected art person standing next to me, Constance Penley, caught my eye and seemed to know what I was going through. She smiled and handed me her bottle of water and the lifeline I’d been looking for. I gulped, washed down the glob of doubt in my throat, and started talking. An avalanche of talking. Thanked Mel Chin, and everyone there, went on and on and I don’t remember anything I said, just that I went on a bit too long. I hope I got in some of what I felt about all of them and their work and how much meaning and value it added to my life. But I don’t know. I was too concerned with my own feelings to notice what was going on with the people I was talking to.

That’s the troubling thing to me about the interior storms, mind burrowing, self-doubt, fear, anxiety, confusion, self-loathing, manic episodes, and panic attacks that are pretty much permanent campers inside the wiring of many of us in the mental health community. Whatever your primary diagnoses—ADHD, Hypomanic, General Anxiety Disorder, mood disorders, or something else on the spectrum—it seems like the other stuff gets hitched to you in a comorbid trailer, ready to jump to the driver’s seat whenever you get some control on your primary. And they all want you to go inside, and to go as deep and dark as they can take you. Farther and farther into haunts of regret and shame and away from the light and mystery in other people’s eyes, and the music of their stories.

For many years, I bristled at words like “disability” and “disorder.” I resented the judgment and diminishing nature of those labels. I rejected that mindset, feeling it was limiting. Then some time in 2007, during a lunch in Hawaii with the quadriplegic writer, performer, and disability activist, Brian Shaughnessy, I began to see things completely differently. We’d been talking about everything from solo shows, books, politics, doctors, and family when out of the blue he said, “Your problem, Frank, is that you don’t accept your disability.”

“What?” I said. “No I don’t accept it as a disability, I don’t accept the label.”

Brian laughed and said, “It’s not a label, numbnuts, it’s a fact. Why the hell waste time denying what’s real? I sure as hell don’t. And neither does my blind friend Michael. There’s great power in acceptance, the power of accepting that you see the world differently than the regular Joe because your life experience is totally different. And then surprising the hell out of the regulars. Michael and I pretty much advertise our difference with society. But you look pretty normal, you can pass. Until you open your mouth and talk like you do, going all over the place, and still make great sense if somebody takes the time to listen. But most folks don’t. You’re pretty nuts, man. You should tell people the truth about it. You might get other people to open up, too.”

Not too much later I started writing about my ADHD, alcoholism, and my ADHD kids. And, like Brian, I tried to tell my stories without complaint, just as messages from a family with disorders and disabilities that bring the world into a different focus for us that some other people might recognize.

This last November after the election I thought about that lunch with Brian as I headed back to the New York gallery for a taped panel discussion about the art in Melrose Place. There was a change in mood because of the election results, a sense of doom. The Romulans had taken over. But as the discussion began, the mood changed. The talk turned to the power of art to challenge simplistic thinking about race, income disparity, health care, the disability community, and mental health. And I participated, talking freely, and listening and learning. And I started seeing the power of artists who had the courage to show the world how they saw it, experienced it, and how they wanted it to change for the better. But that means engaging in the world. Looking outward.

For me, I keep having this realization, or maybe rebirth of a realization, I don’t know. But this time it felt like a powerful tool to get me out of my own head. We can look outward with art, writing, self-expression, or any kind of engagement with others in the effort to make all of us who are different visible and heard in a world that needs all the difference it can get.

More by Frank South