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By Rick Green
A few months ago I blogged about those dark moments, when things would overwhelm me, and I wished I’d never been diagnosed. “It would have been better to just carry on like I was.”
That despair engulfed me when my best efforts, latest strategy, or brilliant new tool, would fail. One step forward, 37 steps back. (Warning: Steps may be exaggerated for dramatic effect.)
Gradually, the idea that ‘ignorance is bliss’ has faded. Completely. Today, I am nothing but grateful that I know how my brain works. Or doesn’t work as I’d like it to, sometimes. I love knowing. I wish everyone knew about ADHD.
In fact, that desire to tell people what this is and how much can be done to transform it was the driving force behind ADD & Loving It?! and especially the sequel, ADD & Mastering It! The first film told the world: This is what ADHD actually is. And there is hope.
The second laid out the way forward. As in, “Here’s what you can do to reduce the downside and focus on your strengths.”
Knowing changes everything.
Most of the world still denies or dismisses ADHD.
We hear from people all around the world who cannot find any resources, any expertise, or any understanding of what they are struggling with in their lives.
Have you ever had someone suggest that ADHD was a recent invention? Or that it didn’t exist before video games. “There was no ADHD before the internet.” Or before fast food came along or TV or Rock and Roll. Or before aliens started bombarding us with weird mind-altering negativity beams. (Which sounds hard to believe, but is equally hard to disprove.) “No one had ADHD when I was a kid.” True. And no one suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder either.
A doctor ‘invented’ that diagnosis around 1980. So, are we to assume that before President Reagan took office, soldiers who fought in wars that were killing, and living with the constant fear of death, never had any problems after they were discharged? Every veteran returned to their families feeling chipper and eager to get on with life? And then some doctor invented a problem…
As the son of a combat veteran, let me assure you PTSD was around back then. But sufferers were diagnosed with ‘Combat Fatigue.’ Before that, ‘Shell Shock.’ Before that, ‘Lack of Moral Fibre.’ Or ‘Cowardice.’ And the treatment was punishment: shame, dishonorable discharge, or execution.
Notice that the farther you go back, the more it’s seen as a failing, a lack, a weakness. Rather than the natural outcome of seeing and doing and enduring terrible things.
I should be clear, my dad eventually found a way to live with memories of combat, but some of his buddies never did recover.
A Character Flaw or A Neurological Challenge?
Today, PTSD isn’t just the collateral damage from combat. We now understand it can show up in anyone who’s endured trauma—be it a huge natural disaster, or something personal–rape, torture, or an abusive relationship.
So, yes, in your day no one was diagnosed with PTSD. No label. No name. No understanding. No appreciation or insight into the neurology behind it.
And yes, in your day there was no ADHD. But, that doesn’t mean every kid was fine back then. And kids were just fine to be who they were. I know. I was there! And I have the report cards to prove it wasn’t OK.
Like PTSD, ADHD has moved from a moral failing to a neurological challenge.
In my talks I often mention Dr. George Sill. In 1902 he described what we now call ADHD as, “…a defect of moral consciousness which cannot be accounted for by any fault of environment”.
Neurology Trumps Morality
Here’s the thing, the neurology of ADHD is complex, partly because everyone’s neurology is complex. But a key factor in ADHD seems to be a neurotransmitter named Dopamine.
As signals rocket around your brain telling you to sit up, sit down, or do the Harlem Shake, the messages switch from electrical to chemical, and then back to electrical. And one of the chemicals created to carry the message is Dopamine. If the amount is too low, or isn’t there long enough, the message is never delivered. It’s lost in the noise.
It’s not that I forgot we had guests coming over this Saturday. Honestly. It’s that I never really made the memory in the first place. That’s what makes ADHD so frustrating. You can’t forget what you’ve never remembered.
“But I Already Told You! TWICE!”
Sure, you told me twice. You could tell me a 100 times. If I ain’t got the brain juice … If there’s a gap in the wiring… one bridge out on the highway… well, then it goes in one ear and out the other. Actually, it doesn’t even get that far. It fades to nothing en route. It’s a radio wave at the wrong frequency, and I’m tuned out.
The worst part is, I can look like I’m listening and really taking it in. But do not be fooled, that furrowed brow is me concentrating, but on a dozen other things.
It’s the one skill I did learn in school—pretending I’m hearing.
It takes practice to nod, and grunt, “Yeah, Okay,” while mentally building a mock up of a space capsule, or writing a comedy skit, or dreaming about Jennifer who sat two rows up, one seat over in class.
The impact of ADHD can be infuriating. For me. For others. For loved ones. For people I’m working with… who may not want to work with me after a while. (Hopefully they’re ADHD and they’ll forget that I forgot…)
Those were the moments when I’d sink down, defeated yet again, convinced nothing had changed nor ever would, and sob, “I wish I’d never been diagnosed. I wish I never knew there was hope, because clearly, I can’t find it. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s getting better!”
Of course, that wasn’t true. Lots has changed. Things are better. But at that moment, one thing had thrown me for a loop, and that one thing became everything. I couldn’t see anything else. I couldn’t sense anything other than what was right there, turning to crap in my hands.
Middle Ground? Perspective? The Big Picture? Nope.
If my wife Ava pointed out the positives, I’d dismiss them. They didn’t matter. This incident was proof that nothing would ever change.
This is the hidden scourge of ADHD. When something goes wrong, everything is wrong. All that there is… is this moment, here. This crappy, frustrating, stupid moment.
And when things are going well, soaring, wonderful… then life is perfect! Always has been! Always will be! (No wonder ADHD can be misdiagnosed as BiPolar!)
In Eastern meditation practices the goal is to be in the present moment. Fully present to right now. To reality. The world around us, what is present.
With ADHD, we can be fully trapped in NOW. Stuck in NOW. Stuck in this thing! This damn computer program! This missing cell phone! This overdue and unpaid bill!
What’s the Opposite of Zen? That’s Me.
We aren’t at peace, ‘present to this moment, fully in the now.’ Instead, we’re stuck in a limited, tiny, imagined reality.
The past, with it’s lessons and progress, the future with it’s hope and opportunity… they don’t exist. It’s only now. We cannot see how far we’ve come. Only where we’re stuck at this second.
Looking back, I realize that when I was struggling, lost, muttering, “I wish I’d never been diagnosed,” what I really meant was, “I wish I didn’t have ADHD.”
Do you know what I mean? Have you been there too?
I’ll explain how I managed to leave that behind in an upcoming blog…
By Rick Green
I’ve stopped and started taking ADHD medication four times.
The first time I started was nearly 15 years ago.
The fourth time I started medication was yesterday.
In other blogs, I’ll tell the story of each start & stop. In this year’s ADHD Telesummit I actually talk about the most recent time I stopped. (July 17, 2017 6pm PST, 9pm EST playbacks available)
Each time I started taking medication was for the same reason—Overwhelmed and Stuck. Each time I stopped was for a different reason.
But today, I want to reveal why I stopped taking medication the second time, and why I started again. Because it was the only time I succumbed to pressure and other people’s opinions.
In this case, it was the only opinion that really mattered to me. My wife’s opinion.
Ava and I had worked together for 15 years on The Red Green Show. In 2007 we married. The caterer told us that in all his years of handling weddings, he had never seen such a happy couple.
At that point I was no longer taking medication. Why had I stopped?
After all, this little pill, this dopamine booster, actually worked for me.
It was much better than my old ADHD medication: 6 cans of caffeinated cola each day, and the adrenaline rush of taking on a thousand things at once, writing and producing television, performing comedy onstage…
On medication, I could stick with tasks that I didn’t want to do. I mean, that I REALLY did not want to do.
As well, interruptions were less disruptive. I could focus on what was important. Prioritize. Not spend too much time hyper-focused on a trivial task. My memory was better. I only had to read things 2 or 3 times to remember them. And it even helped with my motor mouthing and interrupting.
So Why Stop?
You should understand that Ava was vegetarian, sometimes vegan, heavily into yoga, and rarely, if ever took medication for anything. Ava wasn’t pushy about her lifestyle. She was simply into healthy living.
Whereas I… [Awkward clearing of throat.] “Hey, potato chips are made from a vegetable!”
So while Ava didn’t come right out and say it, I knew she was not pleased that I was taking Ritalin every morning. There was always a look, “Do you still need to take that?” Ironically, she had no strong opinion about the thyroid pill I took every morning as well.
At this point, our documentary ADD & Loving It?! was just one idea out of dozens that I was developing. So this was before we’d interviewed 75 ADHD experts for TotallyADD.com. Over 30 of the top names address every aspect of medication in our epic series, ADHD Medication: Straight Answers to Big Questions.
But at the time, neither of us knew that ADHD medication had first been used in 1937, or that the long-term effects were fairly well understood. I just trusted the doctor when he said, “If you don’t like how you feel, don’t take the one at lunch.”
Until I learned the facts, there was a nagging feeling that taking medication was kind of cheating. After all, everyone feels overwhelmed at times, right?
And, I was worried that it might have some long-term effect on my liver, brain, heart, or, well, who knows what?! But not really sure where to find reliable answers. Well, truth be told, I assumed it was safe and Ava was concerned. Vaguely. On principle.
Ava’s vague concerns became my vague concerns. Maybe I didn’t need it. My life was going well. I was managing. Mostly. I convinced myself I didn’t need medication any more. (You know where this is going, don’t you?)
So… I stopped. Cold.
That’s the beauty of stimulant medication. I didn’t have any severe withdrawal symptoms. Perhaps a slight headache for a day. Far less than the ones I’ve had whenever I had cut out caffeine from my daily intake.
And then my wife and I started making ADD & Loving It?! It was exciting. We’ve never done a documentary before.
The film follows comedian Patrick McKenna, and his fabulous wife Janis, as he went through the diagnostic process. It was mind expanding. We realized early on that this was going to change a few lives. Including our own.
Along the way, Patrick and I were fortunate to meet and interview nine amazing ADHD experts. (We had no idea we’ve eventually sit down with over 70 experts!)
It was exciting, but overwhelming at points. My stress levels rose. There was so much to be done, to think about, to remember…
Near the end of filming, we shot an entire afternoon of Patrick and Janis talking on a very comfy couch. They opened up about everything they had gone through, what they were learning, and what the future might bring
My final question to Patrick was, “How do you feel about medication now that you’ve heard from all of these experts?” Patrick admitted that in the past, he had bought into the myths he’d heard from other people who had no idea themselves.
Opinion vs. Reality
Now that he had the facts, now that we had interviewed so many experts, now that he and Janis had done a great deal of reading, Patrick said that he was looking forward to trying medication.
He said he was looking forward to experiencing that calm that other people talk about, but that he had never known. I smiled and nodded. Been there done that. ‘Good answer,’ I thought.
But for Ava, Patrick’s answer was a bolt of lightning. A revelation.
She was stunned! “Patrick has never experienced the kind of calm that she had regular access to? How is that possible? What is that like?”
Never experiencing calm?
Ava experienced periods of calm at an early age, growing up on a farm, later doing yoga, and mindfulness. But she tried to imagine never being calm while standing in line, listening to a conversation, or doing a boring chore.
After reminding me about what Patrick’s lament around ‘never experiencing calm,’ Ava said, “It made me realize that I have no idea what it’s like for you. I cannot imagine what that must be like to not experience being calm. If you need to take medication, if it helps you, then you should take it.”
“I thought you were against medication on principle.”
She took my hand and said, “My opinion does not trump your experience of life.”
Tears welled up in my eyes.
Here’s what I want you to get: Ava wasn’t saying, “I understand.” She was saying, “I will probably NEVER understand. So I have to respect your choice.”
I started taking medication again. And life got simpler. Calmer. Less scattered.
For me, as for many people who find medication works, the little pill in the morning became the keystone, the catalyst that allowed me to do mindfulness and yoga, build supports and stick with them, create new habits and not completely forget about them. (How is that possible? I still don’t know.)
Everyone Has An Opinion. Only We Know What It’s Like
“My opinion does not trump your experience of life.”
Think about people you know who have strong negative beliefs about ADHD medication, (That may actually be most people in your life.) Now imagine if they had that same attitude.
Think about the knee-jerk hostility and disdain you’ve confronted. Imagine those people apologizing and admitting, “My opinion does not trump your experience of life. Do what’s right for you. I don’t want you to suffer for no good reason.”
What would that be like?
By Rick Green
We are preparing to launch a new streamlined, cleaner version of TotallyADD.com. We’re doing this while still running the current site, which is already a full-time job for two of us (and a part-time job for several others) which includes creating videos, blogging, sending out newsletters, Friday Funnies, booking live and online events, and more…
So updating 8 years of website stuff has been… daunting.
The individual tasks are not necessarily complex. There’s just a HUMUNGOUS number of them.
I mean, clicking two Lego blocks together is no big deal. It gets challenging if you’re making a 30-foot Lego reproduction of the 1939 World’s Fair.
What’s Needed Now? What’s next?
With hundreds of To-Dos it’s been easy to slip into overwhelm. Several times a day. Even hourly.
Plus we have to decide who should do what, who should review it, and where to store it or upload or render or export… (Or any number of verbs that are needed to get something on the web.)
What is the most brain-straining, is separating what is Urgent from what is merely a “great idea that would be nice to have.” Cause I can come up with lots of great new ideas while someone else waits in frustration for me to finish something Urgent.
What should I do first? Then what? And after that?…
This is about ‘Prioritizing.’
My tendency is to make the simple, quick-to-complete tasks my priority. When it’s fun and rewarding, I can hyper-focus and go for hours. Even if it’s challenging. In fact, I’m starting to see that the more challenging a fun task is, the better. If there’s a challenging task that isn’t going to be fun, or turns out to be un-fun…(Is that a word? What’s the opposite of fun? Taxes? Learning Morse Code? Montezuma’s Revenge? Losing a Mixed-Martial Arts fight? Radish-flavoured ice-cream?) (You see how I can go on and on when something’s fun.)
The good news is that folks who are doing the website renovation have done this before. They tell us what they need next, “Could you please send me…”
Or, “Could you review this page and see if it needs more…”
Or, “Are there any images where Rick doesn’t look goofy and…”
To my surprise it’s gone very well.
I credit my low levels of important rage and despair to 3 ADHD-friendly strategies.
They’re drawn from the 36 tools, tips, and solutions that Patrick McKenna and I demonstrate in ADD & Mastering It! (Which, BTW, is still running on some PBS stations, a tribute to the value of the ideas in the video, and perhaps the rather humorous way it’s all presented. It’s also available in the TotallyADD shop if you want strategies that we trust and use in our lives.)
The three strategies are:
1. Start Small – Don’t Multi-Task – Chunk It Up
Here’s how I use these 3 strategies with work: I get a request like, “Can you send me 17 images of Blah Blah Blah that are 500X500 pixels and include kittens.”
My first response is, “Arrghhh! Where do I find the images? And cropping and resizing them? And doing color balance and… this will take all day! Do we even have 17?…”
Then I pause, (Deep Breath) and Start Small. I decide to search for one image, knowing that when I find one, I usually find others.
I also Chunk It Up. I can’t face a whole afternoon of searching… And I shouldn’t. It’s not worth it.
So I tell myself that I’ll spend a maximum of 15 MINUTES looking for images and then stop.
That seems manageable. I won’t be doing it all afternoon. Just 15 minutes. That’s eminently doable. I am awesome at 15 minute jobs.
2. Bite-Sized Pieces
So I start the timer on my phone. Then I start searching.
At the end of 15 minutes I either have 17 images, (“Oh, right, I created that file folder last year.) Or I have some and I’m energized and I reset the timer for another 15 minutes. Or I’m on a roll and I don’t hear the timer on my phone go off. Or I have found a few, but I’m frustrated and I stop as I promised myself I would. At that point I may ask if they REALLY need 17 different images. Or ask Ava or David if they know if there’s more images somewhere.
3. One Thing at a Time
And finally, I avoid what my natural inclination wants me to do, which is MULTI-TASKING.
Like you and everyone else, I am convinced that I am way more productive when I’m multi-tasking. Unfortunately virtually EVERY STUDY ever done has shown that we are actually LESS productive. We feel busy. It wakes up the brain. But multi-tasking lowers productivity, accuracy, and speed, while producing more errors and omissions. (Which is why, for example, talking on the phone, even hands free, reduces your driving skills to the level of an alcohol impaired driver.)
Just stick to one task.
That means rather than find some images and start trimming them to size, while also answering a request for a description of a video, and three other tasks on the new site… I stick to finding the images. Then I move on, trimming all the images to size. Then to sending all of the images.
I should say, that’s the ideal. In reality I can forget I even have any ADHD strategies that work and there goes the best part of a day.
Ideally I finish one step and move on. It’s not easy. I used to be awful at this. But mindfulness, medication, commitment, and repetition have produced a transformation in my ability to stick with things. Even if only for 15 minutes.
And if it’s a job that will take longer than 15 minutes? If it’s fun, no worries. If it’s not what I’d consider fun… I chunk it up.
It’s worth noting that I’ve also set things up so I’m not interrupted by email, phone messages, and notifications from the 103 pieces of software on my phone. In ADD & Mastering It?! we call this strategy, “Bending the World to You.”
Once I’m done a task I pause to actually acknowledge it and feel the pleasure of accomplishment. Doing this gives me energy. Motivation. And confidence.
My natural instinct was to IMMEDIATELY start on the next task, thinking, “I’m on a roll.” Rather than realizing, “My brain needs a break to reboot for what’s next.”
Then a break: a few minutes of brisk walking, stretching, or, more commonly, refreshing myself with chocolate-covered almonds. (Hey, nuts are healthy.)
The Lesson? One Strategy is Not Enough
Which strategies I choose vary from job to job and day to day.
What it’s worth noting is that I have a lot of strategies to choose from, and even when I’m doing something I’ve done before, it’s never enough to use one strategy. It takes a multi-modal, holistic approach, with various mutually supporting strategies. One is never enough.
Which is also true of chocolate-covered almonds.
When I learned I had ADHD Google was a novelty, websites were primitive, Youtube and Facebook didn’t exist, and dinosaurs ruled the earth. (Not sure about that last one.) So I learned about adult ADHD by reading books… (Okay, skimming books.)
I was overwhelmed at how much there was to learn.
New research and discoveries mean that today there’s even more for the ‘newbies’ to learn. And there are some things to unlearn. (Once dismissed as hooey, Mindful Meditation now has thousands of studies that show its effectiveness on a number of health issues. Including ADHD.)
There’s more to learn, and more ways to learn it: Blogs, Podcasts, E-Books, videos, and more. (Overwhelming, right? I know!)
Where do I start?
So I wrote this blog about how to manage information overload. And what I wrote was… well, overwhelming. Then I had the unexpected presence of mind to ask, “What’s the minimum that I want people to know?”
So I started over.
Here’s the minimum that you need to know: Find out the minimum you need to move forward.
Rather than be overwhelmed by tools, tips, strategies, and all there is to know, ask, “What is the minimum I need to know to move forward?”
Find out enough to be able to move forward.
Notice that a car’s GPS says, “Drive one mile and then turn left…” It doesn’t describe the whole route. It lays out your next move. What you need to do to move forward.
We can be enthusiastic, and impatient to get our ADHD handled.
But if you make a dozen lifestyle changes this week, you’ll be overwhelmed. And if things do improve, you won’t know whether it was the fish-oil, exercise, yoga, new agenda, the five apps you’ve download, or your new coach.
If you make a dozen changes how will you identify the 7 that made no difference, the 4 that really did help, and the one change that has actually been counter-productive?
Don’t wait to learn everything. Start experimenting now. Make one change. See what happens.
Even before I was fully diagnosed I was experimenting with adult ADHD strategies and finding which ones helped me. And I’ve keep adding new tools and strategies, and discarding ones that no longer work for me.
Figure out what is stopping you now, and address that.
As you move forward, you’ll learn what you need along the way. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get there. If you get derailed, disheartened, or stuck, don’t make a big deal out of it. Figure out what’s stopping you, deal with it, and move forward. Get out of neutral, or reverse, and into forward.
THAT’S IT? THAT’S ALL?
No, that’s not all.
But that’s all you need to know to move forward.
ADHD & POOR SLEEP? IT’S ALMOST UNIVERSAL
My wife and I attended two large ADHD conferences that were about a month apart, and were were able to interview some great experts. One of the topics that came a lot was sleeplessness.
Poor sleep. The ADHD adult as a ‘Night Owl.’ Sound familiar?
The experts we sat down with (who have ADHD themselves) talked about the challenges of a mind that is coming awake as everyone else in the world is nodding off, fading away, and heading off to slumber land.
Dr. Roberto Olivardia talked about a sleep study he took part in that showed that his brain actually is waking up at 10:00 at night. Which worked well for him at Medical School and in being able to work without distraction because most of the world has shut down. (This was before the constant thrumming of the Internet.)
It works less well now that he is a father, a husband, and a doctor with clients.
As he described how he struggles, I nodded. And nodded. And nodded.
“Yep. I know that one.”
It’s like the Sleep Fairy is sprinkling magic dust over most people, and sprinkling some kind of stimulant over the rest of us, the adults with ADHD.
I CAN GO ALL NIGHT
I was surprised to learn that adults with ADHD suffer from higher rates of various sleep disorders like Restless Legs Syndrome, Sleep Apnea, and Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. That last one, as Dr. Kathleen Nadeau explained, is the fancy scientific term for being a ‘Night Owl.’
The ability to stay up late and be ‘on’ is one of the reasons I got into show business. Live theatre works for someone who is at their best in the evening. Or, if not their best, their second best. (The other time we tend to be at our best and most productive is first thing in the morning.)
So while other people were settling down in their theatre seats to enjoy an evening of comedy, we performers were back stage, revving up. In fact, I often went through a severe dip in energy starting at about 4:00 pm and running till about 7:00 pm. I’d be drained, head nodding, my brain a wad of sludge, feeling slightly ill. Time and again I was convinced I was coming down with something and I’d brace myself for the possibility that I’d be sick during the show.
What’s the shortest route to the washroom if I’m nauseous?
Then as I slouched in my dressing room, or in the green room, head lolling, the stage manager would pass by, “One hour to curtain, people. One hour.” My body would start to rally.
By time the Stage Manager called out, “Five minutes to curtain. Places please!” I was grinning, eager, hopping from foot to foot, itching to go. The dread had turned to excitement, anticipation, laced with just enough stage fright to keep me sharp.
THE PROBLEM: YOU’RE ‘ON’ WHEN EVERYONE ELSE IS ‘OFF’
Patrick McKenna, who went through the Second City system, experienced the same thing. What’s interesting is that after the main show had ended, around 10:00, there would be a break, and then the performers would come back and do another hour or more of improv. Which requires the most focus. You have to be alert, listening, and ready to boogie with whatever the other actors said.
At the end of the show the audience left satisfied and spent.
But I was always ready to do another show. And I was ravenous. We’d end up in a deli eating bagels and cream cheese and Caesar salad until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. Asleep by 3:00, up at noon…. It was great.
HOW DO YOU PUT YOURSELF TO SLEEP?
So you can imagine my shock when I started doing television. Up at 6:30 a.m. In makeup at 8:00 or 8:30. Going until 6:00 or 7:00 at night. Since I was always both a writer and a performer of the TV shows, and often also the director and producer, it was a dramatic shift.
How did I shift from one to the other? How did I move from a live theatre schedule to a TV schedule?
Basically, I didn’t. I stopped doing live theatre mostly.
As well, the first TV series I did coincided with the birth of my first child. Which disrupted life’s routines and schedules more than work ever did. So I had to let go of what felt ‘natural.’
What’s interesting now is that I have learned some techniques to get myself to sleep very quickly. In fact, it’s rare that Ava falls asleep before I do.
What are those techniques?
Computer and cell phone off. No exciting TV shows after 10:30. Reading a book that’s interesting but not thrilling. (No Stephen King. No Game of Thrones. No murder mysteries.)
As the 6 experts in ADDeep Sleep explain, there are routines you can follow, and also physical changes you can make to your environment to make sure your brain is being told, “Prepare to go Sub Warp Speed. Prepare for down time.”
If you’re struggling with sleep, ADDeep Sleep explains why your brain doesn’t want to go beddy-bye when society says you should, and what you can do to fall asleep faster and actually sleep better.
Because, as Dr. Annick Vincent says in the video, “Sleep is boring.” But lying in bed, and not sleeping is not just boring, it’s frustrating. To the point of exhaustion. Alas, exhaustion without sleep, without replenishing, without feeling refreshed. It feels like a waste of time. “Great, 7 hours and I don’t feel better.”