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“The Day ADHD Saved My Life”

“When life is predictable, I often feel ready to explode. In a crisis, I can be calm and purposeful. The distinctive wiring in my brain actually prepares me for things like global pandemics and home invasions.”

Cordon tape seals off an active crime scene.
Cordon tape seals off an active crime scene.

For years I was told I was not living up to my intellectual potential — I was disorganized, unruly, impulsive, and lacking discipline. Then at 12 I was diagnosed with ADHD. The American Psychiatric Association calls the two distinct presentations “inattentive” and “hyperactive-impulsive.” I was classified as having both.

But many individuals with ADHD, myself included, are blessed with a unique set of strengths and abilities to counteract each of our less appealing “symptoms.” We are spontaneous, creative, inventive, intuitive, detail oriented, skilled problem solvers, resilient, compassionate, empathetic, imaginative, and have great determination. Most importantly, we have been nicknamed “masters of disasters” due to our uncanny ability to handle crises with ease.

There is a vast misconception that people with ADHD are unable to focus. We do focus, just not on the things we are expected to. What we do pay attention to is intrinsically linked to our interests or the shiniest object in the room; in a crisis, the thrill of the moment turns our focus on full blast. With the release of adrenaline, the person who cannot navigate everyday tasks and routines is suddenly powerful and poised.

Staying Calm Under Pressure

A year and a half ago, my roommate Nasli answered our apartment door to a man wearing a mask and holding a knife. He pushed her hard back into the apartment, shutting and locking the door behind him. Nasli ran to me in the bathroom where, before I could process what was happening, he had cornered us inside.

“Hand me your cell phones and keep quiet. Give me all your cash, jewelry, and anything else of value. I have a knife and friends waiting downstairs. I know you have a child. If you try to call anyone, I’ll kill your family.”

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All of my thoughts and reactions moved together fluidly, like Newton’s Second Law of Motion, force and motion in sync as I stepped forward. “Let’s see what I can do for you,” I said calmly. My roommate was crying and holding onto her cell phone. I took it out of her hands and handed it to him. I told her to stay there and then motioned for him to follow me out of the bathroom. “I think we have some things around the house you may want,” I said casually.

Unique solutions to challenging situations at a moment’s notice, that’s my superpower. When life is predictable, I often feel ready to explode. In a crisis I can be calm and purposeful. The distinctive wiring in my brain actually prepares me for things like global pandemics and home invasions.

Later on, the police showed us footage of him watching Nasli on the street, pacing back and forth outside the building. Now, even with his mask on, I could see he was jittery. Maybe he thought she would be alone and I was interrupting his plans. “Give me jewelry, laptops, iPads, cash, and then let’s go to an ATM. I know you have a car downstairs.” Instantly, I thought about the many stories I heard of victims in shock, following their perpetrator into a car, driving to an ATM, emptying their bank accounts, murdered moments later.

Hyperfocus to the Rescue

“We won’t be leaving this location,” I said. I made a quick inventory of everything we had in the apartment, from least to greatest value. Handing him a FreshDirect bag, I said, “So you won’t look suspicious to the neighbors.” I gave him two old DOE iPads, then an even older laptop. He picked up my wife’s work laptop. “You don’t want that one,” I said. “It’s a school laptop and has a tracker on it.” He dropped it; later the police retrieved his prints from it.

[Click to Read: Hyperfocus – the ADHD Phenomenon of Intense Fixation]

“That’s it. That’s all I have,” I said and handed him $200 in cash. “My family will be here soon and I know you don’t want to hurt anyone.” He paced for a few minutes holding his knife, his eyes narrowed as he searched the room. “What about jewelry. You have jewelry?” I could hear Nasli continuing to sob in the bathroom. I brought him out a bag of costume jewelry my daughter loves to play with. “Please go now,” I said, making sure to keep my voice even.

“You need to wait before you leave here,” he said. “You give the police a description of me or tell anyone and I’ll be back with more people.” He pointed to my daughter’s bedroom. “I know you have a kid,” he repeated. “Do you understand? It won’t be like this next time.” When I got to this part of the story a week later in court, I cried for the first time. Once the tears started, I sat in the witness box sobbing until my lawyer asked if I needed a break. I did.

When he left, we waited 10 minutes and then I opened the door to our apartment and scanned the hallway to make sure he was gone. I grabbed Nasli’s hand and knocked on every apartment on our floor. No one was home, so we went downstairs and kept knocking on doors until a neighbor answered. I called my wife before I called 911, knowing that she was on her way home with our six-year-old daughter. I didn’t know if he was still in the building or if he really had friends waiting downstairs.

Knowing my family was safe, now I called 911. Nasli looked at me, still shaking. “I thought you were going to offer him a sandwich and some tea,” she said. “How did you do that?”

“ADHD,” I replied.

By evening, my home looked like an episode of Law and Order. The head detective looked at me curiously. “You told him that your wife’s computer had a DOE tracker on it? How did you respond so quickly and decisively?” he asked.

ADHD in a Crisis

Sometimes when I’m involved in a task, I’m distracted by a pattern of water stains on the wall. Was it always there? Then I remember the pattern in a collage I made last year and I begin searching for it. It’s not on the bookshelf, but my daughter’s preschool memory book is filled with images that look like a warehouse of things, completely unrelated but all equally interesting. How do you choose one? The baby crying, a dog barking, a motor running, fingers tapping, someone chewing — each sound is as loud as someone speaking to me, someone I am really trying to listen to. I tell myself to hold eye contact; maybe they won’t know that I missed the most important part. When life is ordinary, I curl and uncurl my hair until my fingers are too tired to continue. When life is ordinary, I am the only one in crisis.

His fingerprints were taken off the laptop. He was on parole and had a history of assault and robbery charges. “He’s going away for a long time,” the detective said. “You know,” he continued, “this could have ended differently had you not remained so grounded and calm. Have you gone through any type of training?”

I paused, bouncing my knee as I had been doing since the police arrived. “I’ve always been good in a crisis.”

Staying Calm Under Pressure: Next Steps

Ilan Weissman is a nonbinary multimedia artist, educational reformer, teacher, writer and TGNB (Transgender & Nonbinary) child advocate. For 20 years, Ilan has been a teacher at the Ella Baker School, a progressive school in Manhattan. She is a classically trained musician, a creative technologist, and a semifinalist for the FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence.

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