Taming the Shoulder Devil - ADHD and Life
Originally, this was going to be part of the FAQ… but I realized it was going to be too long, and I wanted to do it justice. Then, I was going to make it my inaugural blog entry... but I wanted to make sure that it didn’t just slip back into the archives, never to be seen again. So here we are, and I’m going to keep it a little raw since it is a very personal issue. I’m not going to cite numbers and studies and statistics. There are plenty of excellent books on the subject, and I’d be happy to recommend some to anyone who wants to contact me directly. This page, however, is about me. It’s about how having ADHD impacts my life, how I’ve come to own it, and why I feel no shame in putting it out there on a web page where I’m asking people to trust me with their business’ future.
Misconceptions about ADHD abound. That’s actually a theme you’re going to see a lot when I talk about mental health in the workplace: misconceptions. In the case of ADHD, a lot of these misconceptions concern what ADHD is (and what it isn’t), whether ADHD is over- (or under-) diagnosed, the efficacy of medication, and whether or not ADHD even exists. Well, the brain is a stunningly complex thing (as well as a constant source of wonder), so it should be no surprise that no two are exactly the same. It is best to think of the diagnosis as an umbrella under which a cloud of closely-related conditions hang.
I do not take medication for my ADHD. My brain does not respond well to any I have tried. Some people just have brain chemistries that don’t quite conform to the ‘right kind of abnormal’. Either the drug in question does nothing at all, or its side effects are worse than the condition it’s supposed to treat. I once suffered a period of what my doctor called “Disorganized Thinking” and I called “a screaming wide awake nightmare” while trying to treat my ADHD with medication. I’m not saying this as a condemnation of the drug companies--what they do is amazing. There simply is no panacea. Anyway, ADHD medication does not work for me, and I have come to be grateful that it doesn’t.
The Shoulder Devil
Winston Churchill had his Black Dog; I have my Shoulder Devil. He’s my worst enemy and my best friend. He’s always there, sitting on my shoulder, and he (always) wants to show me “the coolest stuff!” If I’m working on the computer, he reminds me, “Hey, you haven’t checked up on what NASA’s up to in a few days. What sort of nerd are you?” If I’m at the mall to get shoes, he’s always quick to point out all the stores I’d rather spend time in. And he’s very compelling, because he’s never silent, and he’s always right.
The Shoulder Devil has another side too, a helpful side, and this is the part that most people don’t understand about ADHD. If I’m reading the rules for a new board game, laying everything out so I can explain it to my friends later, the Devil has already come up with a dozen one-game-in-a-hundred scenarios that need rules clarifications. If I’m almost finished writing a solutions report for a client, Shoulder Devil jumps in to ask, “How does this impact their current Accounts Receivable department?” And once I’ve answered that question there is another, and another. He wakes me up at 4 in the morning with questions and ideas. It’s the paradoxical mirror of ADHD. The same condition that can make a person flighty and easily distracted can also provide that person with a laser-like focus bordering on obsession.
So, how do I tame the Devil? How do I minimize the downsides of ADHD while maximizing the benefits? Once again, there are tons of books and websites on this subject, but I’m going to talk about what works for me personally.
The Shoulder Devil doesn’t just want to show me cool things; sometimes, he wants me to buy him shiny toys. Unchecked, this is a financial nightmare. However, I have a strategy for coping with this. Say I’m going to buy shoes and the Devil wants to look at the Lego store. Instead of going to the Lego store, I do something fun on my phone for 10 minutes (and yes, I set the timer). Usually he is satisfied with this, and we can go and buy shoes. Sometimes, of course, you have to give the little guy what he wants. It’s just a matter of balance.
The H in ADHD is for hyperactivity, and people seem to think that this means “bouncing off the walls.” In my case, it simply makes me fidgety. I like to keep my hands busy. I cope by making sure I have nothing in my pockets that can make a noise when I’m giving a presentation. It’s amazing from how far away you can hear a set of keys. Instead, I carry something with me that I can fiddle with quietly. A poker chip is a good size and weight, for example.
Some people with ADHD I know are frequently late due to getting distracted. I don’t have that problem. My father has been an international traveler for the vast majority of his life; therefore, I was raised with an almost paranoid get-there-early-and-wait mentality. Often, when he and I are meeting up somewhere, we’ll each text that we’re going to be late -- only to have both of us arrive early, just not as early as we would have liked.
So, how do I activate the Shoulder Devil? How do I get him to focus on a project or problem? The easiest way is to talk about the project with someone who doesn’t know anything about it. As they ask questions, and I answer (or, better yet, think about answers I don’t have), I force a level of engagement with the topic that sticks with me and echoes for days. It doesn’t work for everything (for instance, no force on earth can get me to engage with the game of Cricket), but it’s a good start.
Now, when I’m working with a client, I obviously can’t go talking about their project to just anyone. Therefore, I have other tricks that I can do alone. Sometimes, I turn off everything in my apartment that makes noise and I clear the longest possible continuous path around it. Then I go for a walk, just me and the Shoulder Devil, in silence, no distractions, and I mentally explain the situation and my thought processes. Eventually this develops its own inertia and I’m not even in control any more. Thoughts are just coming; it would be difficult to stop them. When that happens, I keep a notebook at hand at all times, so I can catch the ideas before they disappear. I do a similar thing by taking a shower with the lights out, reducing everything to white noise while I brainstorm. I don’t get billed for my water usage, otherwise I would not recommend it.
There you have it. The Shoulder Devil, my friend and business partner. He’s annoying sometimes, but I couldn’t give my clients the level of attention I do without him. Ultimately, he’s less destructive (and better for the rent) than my first roommate.
I hope that you understand ADHD just a little better now, and why I’m not ashamed to admit to having it. After all, I’m in good company.