Focus & Attention

“I Can’t Follow Directions — And I Love It”

I have trouble following multi-step instructions as they’re written, so I innovate, backtrack, and jump ahead instead — and have a grand time doing it.

A leopard print sweater with green trim, made by someone with ADHD who has problems following directions
Leopard print sweater with green trim, cartoon/illustration

When I was 10 years old, I had to sew an apron to earn a Girl Scout merit badge. I did all the cutting and the piecing and the sewing according to a pattern with strict directions. I picked out pretty fabric. I pinned. I snipped. I sewed. But when I held up what I’d made, it didn’t resemble an apron. The sides were uneven, the bottom too long, and the pocket sewn shut. Everyone sighed. “This wouldn’t have happened if you had just followed the directions,” my grandmother scolded. But I couldn’t follow the directions, not without help. I had undiagnosed attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Moving from step one to step 10, in sequence, is pretty much impossible for me.

This happens with ADHD. Instructions get fuzzy. It’s difficult for me to follow directions without skipping steps or changing or rearranging something. This makes it hard for me to help my kids do certain crafts, for example, crafts that call for gluing down tissue paper, then adding googly eyes, then pasting on ears and nose and, crap, those whiskers won’t stay glued on, so let’s use tape. Not what the maker intended, but when the creation is complete, the result is often better than the original.

Not Following the Rules

Artistic — that’s what we call people who don’t follow the rules, who create their own path, who use surprising materials and take things in interesting directions. That’s what many of us with ADHD do. I love to make things, and I’ve learned that anything I try to make according to strict directions is doomed to fail. My ADHD neurology won’t allow it.

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That doesn’t just apply to art. This innovation I learned, this making-do because I can’t move from point A to point B without a detour, has helped me in many areas of my life. Take dressing. It’s hard, in many cases, for ADHD women to read subtle social cues that tell us how to act and behave. We interrupt a lot; we blurt out odd or inappropriate statements. We spend too much time on our phones. We also miss subtle cues, like what’s in style and how we’re supposed to dress. So, long ago, I decided to say forget it, and started dressing not in ways society called fashionable, but in ways I liked. I embraced thrift-store fashion, the leopard-print cardigan. I mix stripes and plaids. I spent an entire year wearing nothing but dresses, because I wanted to. Right now, it’s long tulle tutu skirts. I pull one on with a tank top and a black leather jacket, and everyone says I look awesome. They always do. Because in a sea of leggings and boots and bland tunics, I stand out.

Because I hate explicit directions and find them confining, I imagine my children must feel the same way. So I had no worries eschewing the traditional stay-in-your-seat-for-seven-hours classrooms, even though my husband is a public school teacher. Instead, we school at home. I made up our curricula, from insects and electricity to reading and the Revolutionary War. We are free to roam over all of human knowledge, however we want, in whatever order we want. I had confidence I could give them the education they needed: I was used to making things up, either in part or whole-cloth. And since my seven-year-old can cite the dates of the Battle of Yorktown, and reads at a fifth-grade level, with no tests and no desks, I think I’ve done something right.

This ability to innovate also reaches into the ways that my husband and I cope with my mental health. Both of us have ADHD; both of us are used to making things up on the fly. I also have several mental illnesses, including mild BPD, which means I sometimes run off the rails. Rather than freak out about these emotional trainwrecks, we work with them. We problem-solve. What can we do to make this better? It might mean that he drives me around in the car while I sing along to Hamilton: The Musical as loud as possible. It might mean we pile the whole family in the van and go get some ice cream at Sonic. It may mean my husband shoves my glue gun at me and says that the kids need Wild Kratts costumes. We know we can’t fix whatever’s wrong with me, but we can deal with it in the short term, and that calls for some creative solutions.

We Make Different Choices

This creativity also works with our relationship itself. Yes, sometimes in the cutesy oh-look-I-scheduled-a-sitter-spontaneously way. But most often in the gentle ways that two people move around each other without argument. He leaves his underwear on the floor; I accept it and pick it up. I leave the bathroom a mess of makeup and hair product; he ignores it. We’re supposed to remonstrate with each other over these transgressions: “You did this and you can’t do it because” — because why? We don’t adhere to traditional beliefs like that. Because we don’t care. Our ADHD lets us look at the situation, question it, and decide to make different choices. We’re so used to making things up that making up real life is no big deal.

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We’re also willing to make life choices other people find questionable — the type we rationalize with the phrase “you do you.” I have an Emotional Service Dog, a weird solution to crippling anxiety, and he helps me immensely. I’m willing to try things most people would scoff at. My kids have never heard of Minecraft or Pokemon. Our dream vacation is hunting salamanders in the Shenandoah Valley. Most people would call us weird. We call ourselves different, because we’re not afraid to be our authentic selves and go after what we really want.

No Point A to Z for Us

That’s because we learned an important lesson when we were young. We can’t trek straight from point A to point Z. We take detours. We linger. We backtrack and jump ahead. We’re not running on the same sequential, linear, neurotypical time.

We made another apron, my grandmother and I, with my following every directive she made, feeling stupid each time I jumped ahead or went too fast or missed a step. But when the Halloween popsicle-stick house I was making for my youngest didn’t go according to plan? I just cut up some extra popsicle sticks and slapped them onto places the directions didn’t call for them to go. They masked the glue-gun lines. They filled in the roof gaps. They looked awesome. I always hated that apron, and lost it as soon as I could. I cherish that Halloween house.

I’ve discovered a secret: It’s best if it doesn’t go according to plan. Then it’s really yours. In that lopsided popsicle stick house, I saw creativity. I saw innovation. I saw love. And most of all, I saw beauty.

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