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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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3 Comments & Reviews

  1. Great article on ADHD and handling a crisis. I see this in my son.
    So my question is, what type of career should he pursue? I know this sounds like what an EMT or ER doctor needs, however, he also has to make it through the training/education piece.
    Thanks for any insights.

  2. Wilkej it sounds like your son would make a great EMT as long as that is something that interests him. Believe it or not a lot of EMTs (myself included) have ADHD and it really does make us great at our jobs. Most ADHDers struggle with staying in the same job for a decent amount of time and tend to “job hop” too much for employers to feel they are a reliable candidate (for me, typically around the 6 month mark I’m bored and wanting to move on) but with a job like EMS or even ER, things change enough from day to day that boredom is not as much of an issue and it allows us shinies to enjoy the job even on the boring days because we know that the next major call could be just around the corner (it also helps that at least on the ambulance we can do pretty much whatever we want between calls as long as we get the truck checks, paperwork, ect done).

  3. I definitely relate to the frame of mind described in the article – in a crisis, I say I “go cold”. My sense of time changes and it feels like things are moving in slow motion. Emotionally, I step outside of myself. I don’t exactly lose my emotions; they’re still present and I’m aware of them, it’s just that they become just another piece of data flowing into my context to be considered when making a decision. I experience them later, when things the crisis is over and things come rushing back in.

    For context, I’m a programmer. I’m almost 40, and have been in this industry for almost twenty years. It’s by far the best compensated career that I’ve found that fits my skillset well.

    In terms of positives:

    * Hyperfocus means that when a new concept strikes me, I can (and do) spend many hours learning everything I can about it, to the exclusion of everything else. That lets me “skill up” more quickly than my peers.

    * There is always something new to learn or create, so I rarely find myself truly bored with my job. Before this, I would love a job for a few months while I was learning it, then immediately lose interested and just kinda go through the motions because I had to. That rarely happens in this field.

    * As a “senior” – my current title is “Senior Staff Software Engineer” – I have to (“get to!”) respond when things break. It can be very high-stress when a system goes down and your company is losing money until it comes back up. I once worked for a transportation company where every minute the system was down cost >$100k. I work in healthcare software now, and the system being down means people might not be able to access care. The stakes involved trigger the “crisis” state this article talks about and makes me significantly more effective than most of my peers. I can prioritize limiting the impact of an outage, restoring service, understanding the cause, and preventing it from re-occurring much more easily than most people.

    Now for the negatives:

    * Lack of on-demand focus means that I often nearly miss deadlines. In some environments, this is a huge problem

    * Lack of organization means that if I have a week to complete a project, I’ll have nothing to show for four days, then come up with a fully-formed solution in three hours on Friday morning. If your management chain doesn’t understand this, it can be seen as “inconsistency”. I’ve been fired for this – multiple times – even though my overall output over time (say, a month) is about as consistent as my peers.

    * Not sure if it’s ADHD, but I often have a hard time reading others’ emotions. This has led to situations where I thought I was doing well, but was actually being seen as failing.

    I would recommend software engineering as a career for someone with an interest in logic, math, or computers in general who has ADHD – but with caveats. It can be rough to get your foot in the door, and ADHD can pose challenges especially early in your career. Once you get to the level where you’re spending more time advising others than you are actually writing code, the advantages begin to take over and the disadvantages fade.

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