This Is What It’s Like

Yeah, pretty much
Yeah, pretty much

The past couple of days, I’ve had several conversations about ADHD. In the first one, I was trying to describe what it’s like to live with the condition, but I wasn’t having much luck. After several attempts, I was down to “If you don’t have it, you won’t get it.” That’s a pretty shitty way to end a discussion and neither of us was satisfied. That led to another conversation with a friend who happens to have ADHD. They described it as standing in front a multiple stereos, all turned on, all up loud and all tuned to different stations. Which is about as good a definition as I’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, it didn’t answer the question I was wrestling with. During the first conversation, I was trying to explain why it often looks like someone with ADHD doesn’t give a shit about doing stuff they don’t like. How many of us who live with the little ball of fun that is ADHD have heard this one: “I notice you don’t have a problem doing things you like. You’re just lazy/don’t want to (insert task)/ not trying hard enough, etc.” I don’t know about anyone else, but that was a constant refrain during my childhood. It didn’t help that I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, either pre-dating or in the midst of much of the early research that informs our understanding of ADHD. And, of course, being in an evangelical/charismatic cult, I was told more than once that I was possessed by an evil spirit of laziness and prayed for constantly. Not only did that not work, I came away with an unreasoning fear of being possessed by a demon. That was fun.

So, how do you tell someone who doesn’t have ADHD what it feels like and why it might appear that you’re lazy/just don’t fucking care? Here’s what I came up with: Imagine that every day, at work, at school or at home, a succession of people walk up and give you instructions. But, each one does it in a different language. The first person comes to you, speaking Chinese. But, you don’t speak Chinese and can’t understand what they’re saying. The next person speaks to you in French. Guess what? You don’t speak French, either. Then, someone else approaches, speaking German and, you guessed it, you don’t speak German. A fourth person walks up and speaks to you in English and, you’re like “Finally, something I can understand!” So, you set to work with a vengeance on the task they’ve given you. Of course, that’s on a good day. Many days, you’re hit from all sides at once and you do your best to focus on the one person you can understand; all too often, though, they get drowned out in the cacophony of crap you don’t understand.

Now, those of you who are “normal”((whatever the hell that means)) are probably thinking “Why do you just say ‘I don’t understand?” We do…, at least, initially. But, society is a ruthlessly “majority rules” situation and it’s set up for the way most people learn/understand and those people don’t understand why you can’t, well, understand. So, every day, no matter how loudly you scream “I CAN’T UNDERSTAND A GOD-DAMNED WORD YOU’RE SAYING”, people keep coming up and speaking to you in ways you…just…don’t…get. Eventually, it becomes too much and you say “Fuck it, I quit”. It’s not that you’re lazy, or not trying; it’s that you’re frustrated. And, that frustration is made even worse by the fact that people think you’re lazy and/or don’t give a shit. Nothing could be further from the truth. People with ADHD want to understand and contribute in the worst way. Unfortunately, it’s often not all that easy for us.

So, what to do about this problem? The best answer I can think of comes from one of my favorite books, To Kill A Mockingbird. At one point, Atticus Finch (the greatest father in modern literature) tells his daughter, Scout,

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

So, the next time you think someone is lazy/doesn’t care/just isn’t trying, take a minute to “climb inside of his (or her((girls have it too, you know))) skin and walk around in it”. You might be surprised at what you find.