Career Day: I’m a Writer, and I Have ADHD
“ADHD helps me write,” I tell the preteen audience. “And writing helps me understand what’s going on in my head.”
It’s Career Day at the middle school where my wife, Margaret, teaches. I’m here to tell these sixth, seventh, and eighth graders what it’s like being a writer for a living. I’m standing at a lectern in an empty classroom waiting for the first group of students to file in and I feel the sweat soaking through the back of my shirt. I fiddle with the remote control for the video projector — on and off — making sure it works. It’s hard to tell with the lights on.
I don’t know which clips from the TV shows I wrote I should show. I probably shouldn’t show any of them. The shows were all produced before these kids were born. The material doesn’t relate to their lives, they’ll be bored sick, and I’ll look like I’m bragging about working in Hollywood and setting up impossible and worthless goals. Besides, I’ve only got fifteen minutes, and I can’t possibly explain how conflicted I feel about my past TV writing career and that I’m conflicted now, that I’m always conflicted and unsure, constantly confused, and that the only way that I can find even a hint about what’s going on in or outside my head is by writing. That’s why I’m a writer. To survive. To beat the random overwhelming noise into a shape I can start to understand, before I get overwhelmed and burrow into a corner of a dark closet.
Stop it. You are not at your therapist’s office. It’s Career Day. Today the students at your wife’s school are hearing from a flight attendant, a couple of EMTs, a vet, a real-estate entrepreneur, and me — whoever or whatever that is.
I look up as two teachers corral the first group of 30 into chairs facing me and tell the kids to be quiet and listen to the presentation. My blazer is sticking to the back of my wet shirt. What can I possibly say that will be of any use to these young people?
“My name is Frank South, and…” I have no idea what I’d planned to say. The notes in my hand are gibberish. I can feel the rolling heartbeat of a panic attack coming on, so all I can do is keep talking and try to be honest somehow. “Like I said, I’m Frank South and I am a writer. And I have ADHD. That’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and I think that ADHD helps me write. And writing helps me understand.”
From there I went on with a rapid-fire description of my daily househusband routine, squeezing in writing after laundry and shopping and before picking my daughter up from school, who also has ADHD, and how we both struggle with procrastination and being overwhelmed, and how writing helps me understand the life I’m living a little better, which is a more important a job than the TV jobs I used to have — and I do show a short video clip from Melrose Place that the kids love, and that I discover relates to peer pressure and bullying.
But it was when I said out loud in the classroom how much I needed writing in my life day to day that I realized what was missing. Because despite what I said that day, recently I hadn’t been squeezing much writing into my life at all.
About a year ago, with my family and me facing some difficult life transitions on the horizon, I decided to take some time off from writing. I put aside this blog and other projects as well. Without the distraction of trying to write about my life, I thought, I could focus on the others in our family who might need help when the troubles we all felt were looming, finally hit.
And hit they did. My wife Margaret’s younger sister, Lizzie, who had been diagnosed with ALS the previous year, went into a serious decline over the summer and died last September. We live close by, so I was able to assist her husband, Earl, with hospice and caretaking. But the unrelenting nature of the disease and the family’s heartbreak was terrifying. And somehow, sometimes it seemed so impossible and ridiculous we laughed and never cried until the end.
In February of this year my father, whose injuries and struggles with dementia I’ve written about in ADHD Dad, began deteriorating physically and emotionally and I went up to Delaware for a few days to help. I was home in Georgia for a week, feeling pretty confident that things with my dad were stable, when I got the phone call that he’d died. The next morning, driving back up to Delaware, recent events banged around in my head — Lizzie, Dad, suffering, laughter, death, love — I couldn’t make sense of any of it. I couldn’t attach it to real life.
These are trials we all face in one way or another. Our family is getting through, providing help and strength to one another, and avoiding self-pity like the plague. My ADHD actually helps in emergencies — there’s nothing like hyperfocus for organizing med schedules and keeping things clean. But I was coming unmoored and detached from others. I was missing something, an understanding of my place in all of this. A real sense of what others were going through. I need to write to find that.
This weekend, Margaret brought home thank-you notes from some of the kids who saw my Career Day presentation. One of them, a seventh-grader named Ashley, wrote “I enjoyed the story of how you began to write. I feel the same way about forgetting things, because I have ADHD, too. I have enough imagination for about ten people. So I think I’ll pursue being a writer.”
I’ll pursue it too, Ashley. I’ll write right here about the last year in my ADHD life, and probably this year, too.