ADHD? Who, me?

Ok, let’s just say you’re reading this because you might have attention problems, as they’re sometimes called. Maybe you know someone who does. And maybe sometimes you wonder-if attention problems aren’t just part of the human condition. It’s a good question. In fact, it’s a common belief, in this fast-paced world, that everyone has attention problems.

I see the point: To some degree or other, everyone goes through periods where stress is exponential and focusing is hard.

But this is a whole ‘nother level of stress. People with ADHD live in stress more often, and it’s spills out into life around them. Repeated episodes of emotional distress build into wicked cycles, things fall apart, and havoc is wrecked, again. It’s the fall out of the Emotional Distress Syndrome of ADHD.

Imagine the proverbial snowball rolling downhill — and the snowball picks up all kinds of debris along the way. Branches, trees, small animals, abandoned buildings, other people’s entire lives... Excuse the messy metaphor, but, as you may know, this can be a messy, chaotic way to live.

No doubt, stress is everywhere. But contrary to popular belief, everyone in the world can’t claim to have ADHD. It’s more like 3 to 5 percent of the population, and that’s according to the most conservative of many estimates. The more liberal end of the spectrum says that 10 percent of us have this particular neurological condition.

So is it real, or what?

Spoiler alert: Yes. ADHD is real.

The research, especially in recent years, has made it quite clear that this constellation of symptoms is an inherited, neurological condition. But since I’m not a scientist, and since neuroscientists are probably learning something new about ADHD as I’m writing this, I won’t attempt a detailed explanation of the ADHD brain.

Instead, I’ll draw this picture in very broad strokes.

The brain of a person with ADHD may have a smaller-than-average prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates planning, evaluating, delaying gratification, focusing, doing more than one thing at a time — all those processes we find so challenging. And the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the dopamine receptors appears not to be as efficient as it could be. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s ability to get motivated and experience pleasure, among other nice things.) So, the “reward circuitry” of a person with ADHD may be interrupted, slowed down, otherwise less efficient.

Perhaps to compensate, the limbic system, the primeval part of the brain that perceives threat and acts on adrenaline-the fight, flight or freeze part-seems to be overactive in the ADHD brain. So the nervous, stressed, caveman-running-from-a-mastodon instinct is overactive. And the part that prioritizes and plans ahead is under-active.

That’s how I understand the science of ADHD.

And here’s my interpretive version: The prefrontal cortex of a person with ADHD cannot rest easily or often in the details of life. Because its reward circuitry is interrupted and/or incomplete, there’s no incentive for it to finish what it starts. Instead, it wanders around in search of something shiny, something to galvanize its attention. When it lights up or engages fully, its efficiency can quickly become obsessive. Adding a column of tax figures would not light it up. Working a wickedly difficult Sudoku puzzle just might.

How Does It Feel to Have ADHD?

As those who have lived with, worked with or fallen in love with someone diagnosed with ADHD know, there’s just something different about ADHD-ers. After two decades of observing myself and others, I’ve gotten a pretty clear picture of how it feels to live life with ADHD.

Different. Weird. Out of sync. People who don’t have ADHD, “regular” people, don’t seem to have trouble doing things that strike us as very, very difficult. That could be because at some point in their early to mid-twenties, their non-ADHD brains underwent a maturing process. So, if they simply focus on remembering a task, it’s likely to not get forgotten! (Can you imagine?)

Non-ADHD wisdom is full of trying harder, sucking it up, going back to the old drawing board, pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. These slogans can be very helpful, I hear. Unless you have ADHD-in which case your bootstraps snapped years ago, and you’re still trying to pull yourself up using that invention you almost-but-not-quite got around to patenting, the thing with the pulleys. If only you could remember where you put those drawings...

If you’re part of the three to five percent, your view of the world is skewed, from just about every vantage point. Organization, follow through, vision, clarity, communication — all just a little out of step with what you experience going on around you. You’re constantly thinking of what’s either behind or ahead of where you are right now, ping-ponging backward and forward in time. The ADHD brain seems to shift gears a few beats early. It has trouble settling down in the present, particularly if the present contains a lot of details. There’s a persistent restlessness, a neurological hum. You can’t always commit — to a conversation, a thought, a relationship. You want to commit, but you also feel compelled to fidget or fiddle or pace, just to keep your mind engaged. Someone asks Are you paying attention? You say of course. You hope you are, anyway.

Untreated, unmanaged ADHD is a quick path to neurological chaos.

Prognosis: Good News and Bad News

Now imagine that you not only have the inherited, genetic condition known as ADHD, but a few other strikes against you. Say you’re growing up in poverty, or with a weak family system, or in an educational system that doesn’t have time to understand how best to teach you. Or with mental illness or addiction — in your genes and/or your surroundings. Now the constant misplacing of keys or reading glasses, on top of everything else, can start to feel downright unmanageable. And those are just every day, private annoyances, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, your ADHD isn’t just about you. Other people are affected by the actions of your scattered brain. Maybe sometimes you’d like to live alone, in a vacuum, but it’s not possible. The short version is this: ADHD is no joke, and you ignore it at your peril. Untreated, unmanaged ADHD is a quick path to neurological chaos. It can be more than frustrating to go through life this way. The frustration can morph into serious discouragement. The discouragement can grow into a sense that life is a matter of unrelenting struggle.

But having ADHD can also be very stimulating. It can be fun. I mean it. Imagine a stone skipping across the surface of a lake, and now imagine being that stone! You can’t seem to get below the surface of the water, but what you’re doing feels close to flying, and somehow that heightened sensation feels more normal than risky. You may not know how to plan your day, but you do know how to entertain yourself. That’s a rare skill. Give yourself credit.

ADHD adults are constantly looking for stimulation, whether or not they do it consciously. This can drive their loved ones and bosses crazy, or impress them with out-of-the-box thinking or finding answers that others don’t.

Under the right circumstances, being one of the three to five percent can feel special. You’re a rare jewel, blessed with the ability to see the big picture, while others bog down in daily details. But I wouldn’t get too attached to the buzz you get from this particular feeling, as it tends to be fleeting. And more often, living with ADHD is a series of significant challenges.

So the truth is that there are strikes against you, and it does little good to ignore the truth. On the other hand, if that’s the only angle from which you see your ADHD, it will suck the life right out of you. What I’m saying is this: You have a serious responsibility to come to terms with your brain chemistry.

So how do you do that?

Knowledge is power.

It starts with a diagnosis.

And, we’ll talk about that in the next installment.


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© 2016 James M Ochoa, LPC, The Life Empowerment Center, Austin, Texas

Focused Forward: Navigating the Storms of Adult ADHD
by James M. Ochoa, LPC
Published by Empowering Minds Press
February, 2016
Available on
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