The Emotional Side

“You Have No Idea What Real Brain Freeze Is”

“In order to get into a position to thrive, we have to make our own wings,” writes former Hollywood screenwriter Frank South about hurdling challenges and learning how to find success as an adult with ADHD. Get ready to be inspired.

Does this sound familiar? For most of your life as an ADHD adult, you have had no idea what’s going on. Everyone else was flying toward goals you didn’t understand, on big, wide confident wings. Neurotypical people navigated hard winds that blew you out of the sky.

Bruised, confused, and tired of losing, down in the dirt for the zillionth time, you take stock. Your wings aren’t big, wide, feathered, or muscled. They’re fakes. And not good fakes — just balsa wood and thin paper, held together with Scotch tape.

Almost every neurotypical adult slips a mental gear once in a while. “Lost my train of thought there for a second,” the normal will say in the middle of a conversation. Or, “I just got brain freeze!” With a laugh, the person picks up where he or she left off. If you’re the adult with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) in the group, you’re thinking, “You call that brain freeze? You have no idea what real brain freeze is.” You don’t say that; you don’t say anything. For personal or professional reasons, you don’t want to reveal that you’re ADHD, and that you have a “disorder” label slapped on you that might color everything you do or say around these people forever. That’s what the docs call it, a disorder. No wonder you keep it a secret.

Sure, there are adults with ADHD who are “out,” like comic Howie Mandel or Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, but they’re accomplished and famous already. To be honest, their well-deserved success doesn’t as much inspire you as make you jealous.

Even worse is the thought of trying to describe to your friends or coworkers what real brain freeze is. That could lead to your telling them what it felt like a few years ago, when you went to get help with your sleep problems. You thought that was probably what caused your memory glitches, increasing irritation with friends and coworkers, and trouble sustaining a relationship or keeping a job. You needed some sleep. Maybe cut down some on the alcohol and caffeine. Then you saw the docs, took some tests, and “disorder” came into your life.

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Fly Right?

You told yourself, “OK, I’ve got this.” It takes a month or so, but you accept your diagnoses. You understand that you’ve got ADHD — or dyslexia, OCD, or ODD, with generalized anxiety or a mood disorder along for the ride. The point is, you say “fine” to whatever the docs say about your brain wiring. You’re not fighting it or denying it anymore. Knowing is better than not knowing.

You are irritated, though. The old you would have told these docs to shove it. Still, you sit in your acceptance seat, using your “listening ears,” just like Mom used to say when you were a kid. Today, grown up and determined to fix yourself, you nod as you listen to the doc explain what’s what in your frontal and temporal lobes. You hold on to your prescription of meds, nutritional tweaks, exercise, coping skills, therapy, or all of the above. You Google psych sites until dawn, and order paperbacks with your diagnoses in the titles on Amazon.

A month later, after being on meds, making appointments, picking up tips and tricks, it looks like all of your panic, self-loathing, and confusion is behind you. Notice how calm you are. In through the nose, out through the mouth slowly on a 10 count – the breathing exercises work. Ushering you out of the office, your therapist assures you that you’re through the hardest part. “It’ll take time,” the shrink says, “but now that we have a handle on what the problem is, we can work on it and get things under control.”

Breathing and counting as you walk down the carpeted hallway toward the receptionist, you think that your therapist is exaggerating the tough part. It’s easy once you get your head junk screwed down. You’re beginning to feel it’s possible for you to start to live with a future like a normal person.

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You pull out your wallet, breathe and count, and step up to the receptionist to make your next appointment. She asks if next Wednesday, the eighth, at 9 a.m. is good for you. The numbers throw you off your count, but you nod. Then she asks if you could please call your insurance company about your copay for extended treatment, since there seems to be some confusion about your coverage. Can you pay the full amount today?

“What?” you say. “Seventy-nine,” she says.

Your count is gone. Breathing? There’s no breathing. That’s the trouble with putting something in the conscious control booth; it forgets how to work automatically. And you forgot that you said you’d pick up your girlfriend at work (a half-hour ago) because her car is in the shop. Wait — was that today or did we just make the plan today? And your car has to go in, too. Was that the plan for today or was it the other one? Stop. Doesn’t matter. Focus.

Besides, you know you promised her you’d pick up something somewhere special for dinner. Not Panda Chinese, not what’s the name of the Italian place near Best Buy? Olive Garden — not that one. Some place she read about. You wrote it down on half of an envelope and put it in your wallet, no, maybe your coat pocket, shirt, pants?

The receptionist smiles at you, waiting for an answer to god knows what. You don’t remember, you can’t say, your brain is frozen, every door is locked. It was just a simple, stupid question. Say something! Slapping all over your body searching for that scrap of envelope, your hands go numb and your chest tightens. You grimace in her direction, trying to hide your misery as those old winds of panic, self-loathing, and confusion blow away your fancy new wings. Fake is still fake, just like you, and you plummet out of the normals’ blue sky.

Even with supportive med or non-med therapy, exercise, nutrition, meditation, and all the best planners and apps in existence, it’s hard to thrive as an ADHD adult. The world is geared to the linear neurotypical who soars ahead as you puzzle over where somebody with your disorder can possibly fit. I have three puzzle pieces that might help.

1. We can fit anywhere we want to fit. First, we have to do some work on how we see ourselves. We often hide our diagnoses — a big part of who we are — from others because we fear judgment, stigma, lower expectations, or pity. But we’re our own harshest, most unfair, and most unforgiving judges. Every time we fail, it’s more evidence that our disorder hobbles us, makes us less. But it doesn’t. We do that to ourselves.

Take that word — disorder. We can turn that word into a positive force if we want to. The “order” of the neurotypical world could use some help if you ask me. The disordered insight of non-linear minds — prone to hyperfocus, sensitive to other stimuli and alternate ways of seeing, hearing, and thinking — can expand everyone’s understanding of everything, from art to science to being a better human being. Our disorder helps us see through the cracks of accepted, ordered reality and glimpse stuff the linears fly right over.

2. In order to get into a position to thrive, we have to make our own fake wings, use them, and trust them. We have to work hard to glide with the social norms — getting to work on time, listening to and remembering things that are important to others, but not to us. When we mess up, we fly back again with our fake wings, without excuses and without sabotaging ourselves with self-loathing. We have to work harder than others to get where we want, but we’ll take surprising leaps and have startling insights along the way.

3. Watch for people you admire, and learn from them. The more I’ve gotten down to the nitty-gritty work with my ADHD, the more grateful I am to people like Michael Phelps and Howie Mandel, who have had the courage to tell their ADHD stories. The jealousy was just for a while. Two guys I worked for way back when I was a writer in showbiz were the people who inspired me to paste my fake wings back together and keep working at the seemingly impossible balance between creative and crazy.

I suspect both Robert Altman and Aaron Spelling had ADHD brain wiring, or something like it. I have no proof. Back then I wasn’t diagnosed, but I felt an instant connection with them. They were different in some ways — Altman the film artist-director, Spelling the TV juggernaut. They had hyperfocus nailed, so I listened to what they said and tried to work as hard as they did.

Both knew how to strap on those fake wings and fly in the normal world. As practiced and professional as they were, they had to work much harder at the parties, the studios, the appointments, the schedules and budgets, than they did when they were in a story conference, their eyes afire with discovery, challenge, and risk.

From these guys, I learned how hard you have to work your fake wings to fly in the linear world and to find a place where you can stretch your real wings and soar.

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