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My mind is a train yard

I suffer from have ADHD. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I was diagnosed with it at an early age and while it was fairly difficult in childhood, as an adult I've largely learned to deal with it and developed coping mechanisms to help with the more difficult aspects. I thought I had it mostly under control and that it no longer was influencing my life in any major way. I would laugh with my friends about it when I would get hyperactive and jumping back and forth between topics. It had become a joke. It's easier to ignore that way. I was wrong.

 I read an article recently about people who have ADHD and things to remember/tips for living with them. I learned that many of the things I do, ways I act, and my general mannerisms are a result of, or influenced by, the ADHD. After learning more about ADHD in comparison to ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), I learned that in 2013, ADD was reclassified to be an under-diagnosed  aspect of ADHD. There are apparently three kinds of ADHD: The first involves inattentiveness. The inability to pay attention, being easily distracted, "Oh! Shiny!", etc. The second involves hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Fidgeting, the inability to sit still, the inability to sit or stay quiet when you should, constantly interrupting people, etc. The third, and the one I have, is combined. As the name implies, it is a combination of all of the above: inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness.

As a child, ADHD was largely believe to be related to sugar. The more sugar a child has, the more the ADHD will "act up". As a result, I was not allowed to have sugar, except on special occasions, and even then, only at home or when able to be supervised by an adult. I remember these delicious red sugar coated apples that we would have in the school cafeteria for lunch. My mom had already spoken with the school faculty (this was back when parents actually knew their kid's teachers and faculty) and they knew me and my ADHD. They also knew that I was not supposed to have any sugar if possible. Every day I would ask them if those colorful sugar coated apples had sugar in them, and every day I would be told they did, after which the lunch lady would apologize and get this sad look on her face. She didn't like preventing me from having those candy coated apples as much as I didn't like not being able to have them.

I knew it was all in my best interest though, so I didn't fight it too much. The one part I didn't care for was occasionally having to drink a small cup of black coffee before going to school on the nights that I had had some ice cream or other highly sugary sweets before bed. I guess it was believed that the black coffee would absorb or cancel out the sugar. I'm not sure. Either way, caffeine doesn't seem to affect me overall the same way it does most people. It doesn't really make me hyper or awake or anything. I guess it somewhat makes me a little more capable of focusing, but only at certain thresholds. Anything beyond some uncertain amount and it begins to have the opposite effect and makes me more easily distracted.

Moving back to the symptoms and such, I can't sit still. I'm always moving. Always doing something. Even when I appear to be physically motionless. Right now, I'm rolling an 8 pound barbell around with my foot that I have at my desk from when I used to go to the gym every day. I'm listening to music with one earphone in from my tablet, typing this email on one monitor, debugging in another, and listening to a conversation with the other ear. Oh, and I'm also reading this and rephrasing as I'm writing it in my head. I wish I could focus. If I make an effort and try to stop moving, all of that attention and activity moves inward. I start to feel the air on my skin, the differences in temperature between my fingers and my forearm. The texture of the keys beneath my fingers and the palm rest beneath my hands. I feel what I can only assume is my bodies natural effort to keep balance and stay upright causing me to sway imperceptibly from side to side. I feel the air passing through my nostrils. And if I'm laying down, I will be able to feel, see, and even hear my heart beat in my neck, behind my ears, in my stomach, and sometimes my legs. There's always an intense amount of input and things I'm noticing and things I'm thinking about. Fidgeting and keeping in motion help to mask and distract from all of those observations. It helps me focus.

I can't look at someone when they're talking to me. I have to soften my focus so they become a blur if it's someone that needs you to look at them while they're talking, like a boss, or I have to stare out of focus at a wall, or desk, or something else in the area that's relatively bland in order to listen to what's actually being said. If I'm looking at you while you're talking, there's a very slim chance that I'm actually able to focus on what you're saying. It had better be pretty damn interesting in order to hold a controlling share of my focus. If I'm looking at someone while they're talking, I'm hearing what they're saying, but my focus quickly shifts to the shapes their mouth is making, the individual sounds of the words, that twitchy thing their eye is doing. I'm replaying the sentence they just said over in my head, I'm thinking about my response, I'm thinking about their response to my response, I'm thinking about my response to their response to my response, I'm thinking about what I'm going to have for dinner, I'm deciding if I'm hungry, I'm starting to feel the clothes on my skin, I'm starting to hear background conversations and white noise. It's difficult. Thankfully, most of the people I interact with in any significant fashion don't question when I zone out while they're talking and start staring at the wall or the table. They know I'm listening and that, whatever they're talking to me about or whatever problem they need me to help with, I'm already thinking about and working on a solution or whatever the next step is. Not everything about ADHD is bad.

ADHD causes me to be extremely easily distracted, which makes it difficult to start on new projects, or get started back on them once I get stopped. It makes it difficult to not interrupt people's conversations because I've gone off on several other thought processes since they've started talking and just remembered/realized something incredibly important and relevant (or not) to the conversation and forgot that they were talking. It makes it difficult to feel normal in social situations because I'm constantly thinking, constantly analyzing, and constantly questioning. I never know what's "normal", I don't know what I should be doing with my hands, or I become acutely aware of the way I'm walking or standing or breathing. I hear and listen to all of the sounds and conversations around me. There's things in every direction that all attract my attention. It's difficult.

Emotions compound the problems. Emotions already are prone to cause excitement, outbursts, distraction, and difficulty thinking. With ADHD, emotions become difficult. Emotions that are already overpowering and all consuming, like when losing a friend or a loved one, become even more overpowering. It's difficult to think, it's difficult to focus, it fills your entire mind and it's incredibly hard to even remember your name, let alone what you're supposed to be doing or where you're going or that you're even driving a vehicle right now.

Somewhat of an exception that proves the rule, the inattentiveness of ADHD is often paired with an inhumane ability to focus when things are actually able to grab your focus. Once you are able to break through that inattentive barrier and home in on something, everything else ceases to exist. Where you are, what you were doing, your need to eat, sleep, or blink go right out the window. The task you're doing right now is the only thing that matters. I believe this is the same thing that the overpowering emotions tie into. They cause such a focus on that emotion that everything else doesn't just get turned to white noise or zoned out, it actually ceases to exist within your mind. It's kind of scary. I consider this one of the borderline perks of ADHD though. Being able to so intently focus on things sometimes allows you to get some really intense work done in amazingly small time frames. I feel this is something that has helped me as a software developer.

There are some other aspects I would consider perks too. I think fast, amazingly fast sometimes. I can visualize really well. Many times when I'm debugging a program, I don't need to run it to find the problem because it's already executing in my mind. I'm stepping through each line of code and tracking down what variables would hold what value where, determining if that evaluation is going to result in the correct type, figuring out if that value will be null, and identifying the bugs in order to fix them quickly. Because I'm always running multiple trains of thought around in my head, it makes it incredibly easy to jump from one task to another quickly and to keep multiple complex concepts in my head at once. The downside is that simple concepts don't pique enough interest to be thought about for long. I typically get through my work and solve the problems I'm tasked with solving much faster than my peers. My work usually works with less issues and if issues do occur I'm able to track down, debug, and correct them quickly. The downside is that it often appears as though I'm slacking off, not doing anything, or messing with some toy at my desk. No, my desk is not organized in any way that someone who's graduated kindergarten would consider organized. Yes, I do have numerous toys and things I dismantle, augment, and tinker with at my desk (nerf guns, and old phone, and a remote controlled robot top the list currently). Yes, this works for me. When I'm turned away from my computer screen, tinkering on something with my hands, I'm focused on the problem I was just trying to solve. I'm doing something that requires my physical focus so that I can target my mental focus better. I need to fidget, I need to tinker, and I need to walk while I talk. Physical activity helps me to stabilize that train yard running through my head so that the proper locomotives get to their destinations at the proper times.

Another side effect of ADHD is that I confuse people. Often. Ok, constantly. In my mind, conversations never end. Even after we walk away from each other, that conversation is still playing in my head. Over and over on repeat. I'm analyzing what I said, I'm looking up information that I couldn't think of during the conversation because I was too distracted, and I'm formulating what I'm going to say next in the conversation. It may be weeks between when we last spoke and now, but if I pass you in the hallway I will undoubtedly be reminded of the prior conversation and pick up exactly where we left off with the piece of information I was missing previously. It usually takes people a few seconds to figure out what the hell I'm talking about, and I guess in my mind since the conversation never really ended, it doesn't make sense why they're not also still thinking about the same thing. This happens all the time. So much so that those same people that I interact with regularly have come to expect this and kindly wait the first few seconds of each conversation for me to mention something in my explanation that gives them context. It's one of my quirks.

To back up briefly, I'm sure some of you are questioning medication. There's plenty of drugs designed to help with ADHD and focus, so why not take some, right? Well, I did. I took it for about a year, if I'm remembering the time frame correctly. I hated it. When you take the medicine, you don't forget. You don't forget how fast you think, you don't forget how quickly you solve problems, and you don't forget everything you are capable of noticing. With the medicine, you still remember, but you can't run at that speed anymore. Your body still wants to. Your mind still wants to. But you are no longer capable of doing so. It feels like being trapped within your own body. You can see out from your eyes, but now everything feels so sluggish. Thinking and solving problems seems to take so long when single threaded. Moving your arms and legs feel heavy and clumsy. You can still see everything you once did, but it takes so much effort to notice them and think about them that it's exhausting, so you just focus on whatever the task in front of you is. It's uncomfortable. It's painful. And it feels like you're suffocating. You used to be swimming in so much information that it was unbelievably bright, but now you can barely see beyond your face. It feels so dark and cold. You feel like you're just shambling along in whatever direction you're pointed at instead of sprinting forward, finding new paths, and thinking for yourself. I hated it, but it was supposed to make me normal. It was supposed to fix my ADHD, to let me focus and not be such a trouble maker. Not stand up in my seat during class. Not interrupt the teachers when they were wrong. Not talk out of turn. Not be me...

So I stopped taking it, and I learned to cope. Things like emotions and people were the most difficult so I coped with them in different ways. Emotions it seemed easiest to try and distance myself from them a bit. I'm often perceived as cold or emotionless, but I spark up when you're talking about something interesting or something that is able to grab my attention. Things like feeling happy or sad were difficult to manage because of that whole laser focus thing. When I feel sad, I often feel myself slipping towards depression. I focus in on the sad thoughts and start piling on all of the other sad things that lead to those sad thoughts and it escalates quickly and often without me noticing it. I've become better at noticing when that's happening though and am able to distract myself enough now to begin focusing on something else so it doesn't get too far. I'm grateful for being able to do that. I feel I have many of my friends and my hormonal imbalance fueled teenage depression to thank for that. Looking back, my teenage depression got dark and deep. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was bad. I'm surprised my friends stuck with me through it and I'm very much grateful to them for it. I owe them more than I could ever repay.

Being able to distract myself away from sad thoughts helps sometimes, but it also causes me to lean towards being more logical when thinking about things that should be happy or enjoyable. For example, I don't care about food. Food is a necessity, not something I enjoy. I honestly do not have an opinion about where I go to eat. I'll fake an opinion sometimes because caring about what food you eat is the normal thing to do, but in the end it all goes towards keeping me running for another day, just to repeat the process, so what does it matter if I have a hamburger or a taco for lunch. My opinions on movies and many other things are similarly muted. Things aren't "good" or "bad", they're just okay. I like many movies, but I don't really have a favorite. I can say things like movie X was better than movie Y if I'm tasked with a direct comparison, and have seen them in relative close relation to each other, but neither is clearly the best. There will always be things that balance them out, mute them. Sometimes I'd like to care. I'd really like to be able to say that yes, movie Z was my absolute favorite, but I can't. I overthink them too much and end the end, they all become a series of various scenes, some better than the others, but as a whole it's just collectively "okay".  Not having an opinion is difficult.

Coping with people is a little more difficult. I still don't much care for social situations, but I enjoy being outside, so it's a bit of give and take. I typically ignore everyone I possibly can when outside so that I can focus a little better on what I'm doing. I'll often not see people's faces even when I'm talking to them. Waiters and cashiers, I'm sorry, but I likely would not recognize you if you came up to me 5 minutes later and said hello. I never saw your face. I saw the wall, I saw my plate, I saw my wallet and the things I was purchasing, but I never saw you. When people are talking and I have to pay attention, I can't look at them or I'll become too easily distracted. Instead I'll stare out into space or at a wall, or put that "hmm" thinking face on so that you know I'm thinking about whatever you're saying and still listening. It's not polite, and it's not ideal, but it's how I've managed to retain any information someone has told me. Often, if after someone says something to me and I don't hear them, I'll replay the sounds they made in my head to figure out what words went along with those sounds. It sounds weird, but if you've ever done it, you know what I'm talking about.

ADHD causes me to not be able to enjoy many things because I can't focus on them. It causes me to look like I don't care or that I'm not paying attention when I'm actually trying extremely hard to listen and not start counting the hairs sticking out of your nose or the tiles in the floor. I makes it difficult to form opinions on things due to the coping mechanisms that I've developed. It makes me overly self critical, it makes me question my sanity sometimes, it makes me wonder if these multiple trains of thoughts are possibly being driven by other conductors. It makes me think too much about how awkward I feel in public. It makes me forget to do things that I really wanted to do. It leaves me surrounded with half finished projects that make me sad to see not completed. It makes communicating with people difficult sometimes because they see me as weird, or scatter brained, or unprofessional. But...

There are upsides too. I do think extremely fast. I solve problems often before others are capable of comprehending the question. I can find distant relations between two topics or concepts. I can work on things simultaneously without too much degradation on either task. I'm great at understanding how things work. I'm fairly intelligent and always wanting to know more how and why. I can be extremely productive, when the right mood hits. And I think I'm a fairly interesting guy because of it all.

ADHD isn't the easiest thing to deal with, but it's not the hardest either. There are several positives that allow you do do things "normal" people can't. Many things seem to come easier to you because you're doing amazing things that you didn't even realize were amazing. There are definitely downsides, but they're much easier to manage and maintain. Exercise, physical activities, and the occasional logic puzzle or an enigma toy puzzle are good things to help give you focal points so you can get the thoughts you need to formed. some things of ADHD you can control with tremendous effort. Some things can't be controlled no matter how badly you want to. Sometimes it's a struggle and affects you in ways you never realized. I didn't realize how much of my mannerisms and personality was due to ADHD, and I'm actually a little surprised at it. Learning how much it's affected my life sort of hit home, and it kind of hurt. It's not something to be ashamed of or try to hide though. It's mine and I will live with it. All the best characters have some downsides that bring them back to humanity. ADHD is my super power. It comes with some drawbacks admittedly, but if the choice is between some being a single thread thinking, shackled imagination, point blank focusing zombie or an overclocked, multi threaded thinker with an intensified imagination and mental focus going in every direction a star's light travels, well, I only have one thing to say...

Where's my cape?


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