My Kind of Beauty

A place to me to dive a little deeper about computers, science, math, art, music, or whatever else I want.

ADHD is not a superpower

It's kind of a pain, if we're being real...

by Aaron Tagliaboschi
13 May 2021

I’ve had ADHD for about as long as I can remember; at least two decades. It came as a surprise to exactly no one, and continues to do so when I tell people today. I’ve taken various meds, but it’s really hard to understand and recognize the effect ADHD medication has on your own behaviour in the moment, so I ended up stopping in high school. I didn’t really understand until after I got back on in college.


Let’s back up and examine what ADHD is, or more specifically how it presents to me (You are, after all, reading my blog…). In broad strokes, I struggle with regulating executive function, which is a subject I rarely see anyone talk about or learn about, but makes a ton of sense when you do.

As I understand it (a statement we’ll get back to in a second), executive function is a set of mental skills and thought patterns that can act as a scheduler for the brain, picking tasks and priorities to achieve higher-order goals and making sure all tasks are completed. I struggle greatly with both of these things. Everything from forgetting why I walked into a room to physically straining to remember the word I was in the middle of typing.

The flip side is a term you probably have heard of: hyperfocus. As it’s generally explained, hyperfocus is when you intensely concentrate on a task or activity for a long time, to the detriment of other things you might need to be doing (cleaning, homework, eating, sleeping, etc.), My experience, however, is a bit…more than that. It’s very difficult to explain, but for me it can turn into a flow state dialed up to 11. It’s very…disassociative, in a way. People use the term “tunnel vision” but it’s like saying that blind people just see “black”. I genuinely don’t process perceptions outside of the task I’m working on.

You might think “but that does sound like a super power” and honestly, you’d be right…if I had any say in when or how it happened. As it stands, I don’t. This sort of makes it as much a liability as it is an asset. Unfortunately, it damn near never anything even remotely productive. I spent an entire day struggling to get work done, then sat and whittled for over an hour without even thinking. The only reason I stopped is because I fell so far into it that I got careless and plunged the knife into my hand. The hole is almost gone.


Another fun aspect of ADHD means that if I need to do anything that I might perceive as being difficult to get through or a slog in some way, I feel very actively compelled to not do it, even more so to not even start. It’s like procrastination, but with some solid anxiety to go along with it.

Imagine setting a mouse trap, like a classic cartoon wooden snap trap. They aren’t quite powerful enough to break fingers, but they do hurt. Trust me, I know. Now I want you to close your eyes and actually imagine one in front of you. To set one, you need to pull back the clamp, pull a pin over, and trap the pin precariously under a trigger. Remember to not touch the pin, it’s supposed to go off with less than the weight of a mouse.

Now take that anxiety, and inexplicably tie it to loading the dishwasher. It takes all of 10 minutes, maybe 20 if I haven’t done it in a while, which of course I haven’t because I can’t start it. Unless the alternative means answering that email that’s been sitting in my inbox, growing moldy. In that case, I’ll spend an hour cleaning my kitchen.

It’s actually one of the reasons I haven’t been posting here super often, even though I really want to. It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I actually have a pretty solid draft on my reMarkable, and several other ideas and drafts. But my handwriting is so atrocious that the OCR can’t handle it. If I want it off of the “page” and on to the computer, I have to re-type it at some point, and that little bit of friction is enough to leave several 2000+ word manuscripts sitting on my notebook, staring at me. The more it builds up the worse it gets.

What’s odd is that many of these bits of time consuming tasks are very adjacent to the same things I can lose myself in. For instance: sweeping. I love to sweep. I can focus on the little actions it takes to flick that little bit of dust, holding the broom at just the right angle so all of the bristles are on the ground. How smooth can I get the economy of motion just right. It’s very meditative. Mopping, on the other hand, feels incorrect no matter how hard I try, and I find it very difficult to even start.

shrug


It occurs to me that the reason executive function is talked about so little is because of how deeply it’s ingrained into the typical mode of thought. I’m sure you’ve seen someone talk about posture and ergonomics, maybe with running. But I can be sure that you’ve never heard someone talk about how far to the side to lean with each step. You might not even realize you do it, but your feet aren’t under your center of gravity when you walk. On the fly, your brain takes in it’s own kinesthetic measurements and combines it with your inertia to know how much it needs to lean to not fall over.

You may have no idea what “kinesthetic” senses are. They’re the combination of internal models and muscle and joint senses that let you have an intuitive sense of where your proprioceptors (hands, feet, head, that sort of thing) are. You may have no idea how that would even work, but you can look at an object on a table and pick it up without any clue what angle your elbow needs to be at for your hand to get there. I get the sense that executive function acts the same way.

Let me tell you a story. It’s the first time I realized what my meds actually do to me when they work correctly:

I was sitting at my desk in my dorm, doing some homework. Not “hyperfocused” or anything, just doing homework. I sharpened a pencil, reached over to my trashcan to dump the shavings out, and noticed that my trash needed to be taken out.

I got up, tied the trash up and walked it out to the dumpster. I remember smiling at the little bit of sun between the door to the building and the dumpster. The campus really was beautiful, with petals falling from trees like a Kurosawa movie. I smiled to myself, threw out the trash, got back to my dorm, finished my homework, and took a walk to enjoy the afternoon sun.

A completely mundane story. Absolutely nothing special. But I know for a fact that it would have been impossible without my meds. The instant I was distracted by how nice it was outside, I would have never gotten back to my homework. Everything else would disappear from my mind. Not “forgotten” or “ignored”, but just gone. Like I was never doing them in the first place.

A little while ago, I saw a post on Reddit about someone who discovered that people audiate (make a voice in their head) and “talk to themselves” in their head. The comments were split down the middle, with half being amazed that people actually talk to themselves and hear voices in their head and the other half being amazed they don’t. Same for people who audiate while reading.

In computer science, there’s this idea of a “stack”, like a stack of cards. A list of things where you can only see the first thing. You can put things on the top and take things off the top. If I put something on top, the thing underneath it is gone. If, for instance, I was cleaning and suddenly got a phone call that actually required my attention, when I’m done with that call I’ll just wander off. I didn’t choose to stop cleaning, in fact I really need to. I didn’t “conveniently” forget just to put it off another day or so. The idea that I was cleaning and working toward that goal is gone from my head, like it had never been there in the first place.

I just cannot imagine what it’s like to be able to keep a stack of things in your head to be working on. To just decide to go work on something else, put that on the top of your stack, then finish it, talk it off the top of the stack and remember what was underneath.

To be real honest, that sounds like a superpower to me.

AT