There was some mention on two of my friends' journals recently of how impossible it is to describe having ADD. And it is
impossible, believe me. It's impossible to comprehend how anyone's brain works, so the only way I know that my brain is different from other people's is that other people seem to find easy what I give myself panic attacks simply trying to do. Not to mention that the social impression we get is not just "you're lazy and you need to try harder" but "only children's brains do this" and "it's just an excuse for bad behaviour." Well, bollocks to that.
Anyway, someone linked to this video
, which I think does such a good job, I was thinking "...isn't everyone's brain like that?" Note the constant music, the streams of information, the streams of thought and the diverse threads. When I was watching the video, I found I had multiple other thought streams, including things that had nothing to do with the video, but also "heh, I liked Curse of the Wererabbit
" and "Are grommets related to gimlets... delicatessen!" and countless other things. The point is - well, watch the video, that's my point.
Now, I don't know whether this is the same for everyone. I don't know if it's the same for everyone with ADD, and I don't know if it's unique to me. I also - sometimes I have to remind myself - have no professional
diagnosis that i do have ADD. However, I have a great deal of the symptoms, and every time I speak to or read a blog entry by someone with ADD I can point and say "that's what my brain is like." I recognise there are problems with self-diagnosis, and misdiagnosis for any condition, but thinking of myself in terms of having an Attention-Deficit brain has helped me understand myself and help myself better than any other way of looking at things, so that's why I 'identify' as ADD, and often relate my thought processes to ADD related terms.
Haha I done a pun.
I fixed on this metaphor about a week ago, but wasn't able to concentrate enough to write a post down: I was in the wrong physical location to have my thoughts align right, I was sick, I forgot, all the kinds of things I consider usual for my head. In that time I came up with a number of other ways to describe what I'm trying to describe here, but I'll try to stick to the original.
The brain is a cog-based machine. There are a lot of cogs - near infinite numbers in fact, that all deal with varying things: cognisant thought, motor functions, short and long term memory, sensory data collection, and so on. When I came up with the analogy, I had two cogs in mind, but as I continued to explore this, I realised those two cogs were simplifications of complex machines in their own right. Yes, that's right, I took the model so far I had to explain to myself that the original model was a model of the complex one, which still obviously is nowhere near
a literal interpretation of the complex mass of neurones on the end of my notocord. But never mind that, let's look at the cogs.
At the centre of my brain is a rather small central cog - but it's connected to pretty much everything, so I guess it's really a cylinder - and there I go again with the taking of metaphors too literally - anyway, small cog, going really really fast. We'll call this cog 'B', after this funny idea I had to give my metaphorical cogs fannish based names, and then I got all carried away with whether these names fully corresponded with the concepts I wanted to explain and realised i was losing the point. Anyway Cog B.
Cog B spins around at a speed fast enough to give it crazy amounts of mass, and deals with everything
. It takes in information from my sense organs, processes memories, makes connections between ideas and processes every piece of information ever. In any one minute it might have to deal with a full internal replay of an episode of Red Dwarf
, be singing Mitch Benn songs, make sure my fingers are on the right keys, keep track of my to do list, remember when I next have to eat, be digesting information about Principal Coordinates Analysis, planning what I will do for Christmas 2013, deciding whether or not to pick my nose, and I won't be aware of any
of this, except peripherally.
Meanwhile, there's Cog T. Cog T is large and obvious and forms my conscious state of being - Cog T is the Cog closest in decription to being me
. It's the boss cog, the analytical one and the one that likes to think it makes all the decisions. It's also much much slower, probably because it's got me on it, and so is pedal powered. It can only go as fast as I
can go. Which gets circular now when I explain that I can only go as fast as this wheel.
I have been told most of my life that I'm intelligent and quick-witted. This is not, in practice, the case. Cog B
is fast, but Cog B isn't very rational or sensible, and Cog T, which makes judgement calls about Cog B, is significantly slower. It also feels like it's slower than everyone's else's brain, which might be me making things up, but the most important thing is the speed differential between B and T, especially when B is clamouring for attention.
Like all the best machines, the brain can operate in a number of modes or settings, depending on how the cogs within it are set up to relate to each other. Cogs T and B can be set to interact with each other, or separated to varying degrees. The motor function cogs (Cog K. The person who gets the fannish reference I'm making here gets an icon) can be set to either. All of these settings produce different results.
The 'perfect' mental situation would be T and K and B working in harmony, but this is not just impossible some of the time, as for example B spins out of control and T can't keep up, but sometimes not valid. There are times in which various functions are actually preferable, which I will try to explain here. One of the aims of the Buddhist practice I'm engaging in is to bring mindfulness to everything I do - to be in control of T and, while I can't be in control of B, at least to know what it's doing. This isn't going to be easy if it's possible at all, but it's one of the aspirations I have, to have these two cogs working better together.T working alone
: This is solely a mental exercise: Maybe because K can be trusted with B, maybe K is not needed at all, in which case B can be allowed to spin freely without T (and therefore me) being aware of its activity. But it's a situation in which every conscious thought is under conscious control and focused where I choose to focus it. It's the mental equivalent of unhooking T (which is pedal powered, remember?) completely from the rest of the machine and powering it under my own steam. This state is what I understand to be 'hyperfocus' in ADD terms, and while it's useful, it's knackering
A couple of weeks ago I attended disability awareness training at the N.H.M., with the intention of developing as a person and better equipping myself to understand and meet the needs of disabled people in general and visitors to the museum specifically. One of the exercises we did during this training was to emphasise the difference between the social and medical models
of viewing disability. The exercise itself was with the seminar leader asking us to do a series of mental arithmatic problems combining trivia and opinions and a variety of information. When that was over, everyone who couldn't finish was encouraged to look at why they didn't in terms of social ("the exercise was too fast") vs medical ("Jenny is too slow") explanations. I was one of only two people to finish, and I couldn't help but view my success
in medical model terms: "Debi can hyperfocus."
Because this is how I managed the problem: I didn't need Cog K, because I was sitting still, disengaged Cog B, and let Cog T do all the work. I focused soley on the issue at hand and solved each problem as it came up, dedicated all my mind to the maths and acquiring the general knowledge I needed. At the end of the exercise, I had an answer. But I also had a headache from thinking that hard. I'd disconnected T from B, and had to manually (pedally) power T. The headache that resulted (and lasted for hours after) is directly analogous to muscle ache after managing a hill on your bike.
And this is what happens when I 'buckle down and do things': I exhaust myself. It is, contrary to what I want to believe, not easy
to sit and just do one thing. It's a mental sprint and it physically hurts
. I can hyperfocus at work for maybe an hour at a time, but that has consequences.B working alone
: This is, I have to say, more or less impossible because T cannot be shut off. The best I can do is to give T something small and irrelevant to do with K, like card or computer games, organising CDs or taking a walk. It's the equivalent of free-wheeling: sticking my feet up on the T wheel and letting B provide all the power, and it c an be incredibly relaxing. It's also the default state to retreat into when I'm stressed or depressed. At these times i'll get a sudden compulsion to arrange all my music or sort out my gmail inbox or memory all my threads, or just play Civilisation II for days on end. Or I'll become physically restless and need to go on a walk. All so I can be on my own, away from needing to be social or to work, and just let B free-wheel. T at this point might pick up a couple of B strands, but there's no way it can ever keep up, and B is given free range.
Relaxing, sure, but not functional. It's not even like meditation, this state: it's closer to depression or even catatonia. I might be doing stuff (organising, walking &c), but I'm not really aware
, being caught up in the random thoughts that are so out of T's reach that I'll never make anything constructive out of. T and B together
: When there's hard thinking to be done; when T wants to do something specific that requires B do have more freedom to think and ponder and make connections than the hyperfocus setting allows it, then the best thing to do is to calm B down a little and connect them up to spin together. This might be composing stories, reading
stories, thinking about science, or just meditating. The important thing is to let B have its freedom but still have some steering control over it. This requires keeping it as indistractable as possible, and usually means I have to achieve a certain level of relaxation first, because the slightest jog of B into something undesirable could spin me out of control, usually into anxiety. When I want to immerse myself into a story, either in my head or on paper, or when I have to do thinking, I'll need certain requirements: to be alone; to be emotionally centred, and to be interested. These all cut down tendencies for B to pull me out. Headphones, for example, are an invaluable part of the first requirement, because they narrow my interaction with the outside world. It's possible to be on my own in the office and still not be actually
alone, because my ears will pick up occurrences outside my world and B will jump on them. Emotional distractions will preoccupy both T and B and lead me into a useless state of anxiety.
Anxiety, I'd mention, is also a case of B and T being together, but in a negative way. It's B free-wheeling into fantasy and hatred and stress, and T being helpless to do anything other than follow. The most reliable method for countering anxiety is just to put T back in control and hit the brakes. It's easier than it sounds, but remembering I have that power is difficult to do when I'm on a self hatred spiral.
The practice of meditation, for me, is an exercise in making these states more a natural state then something I have to force myself into: for someone whose brain is always working, always spinning, always pulling me along, to find stillness and peace for even 10 minutes at a time is - I don't want to say miraculous
, but I will anyway. I can't sit for much longer than 10, and I rarely sit in the actual moment for even a second while sitting, but I do quiet down a little when there, and it's not through blocking out, but through opening up. I rejected meditation for so long because I assumed I could never find peace like that, but I am definitely glad I took it up.
The states mentioned above are states of thought, and usually I touched on the motor function cog K as something peripheral. K, like the other cogs, also cannot stay still for very long, although that is again what meditation and mindfulness are beginning to help me with. So in cases like those above, where the important thing is what B and T, as the thought-cogs, are doing, I still need to find something for K to do. If I'm hyperfocusing, then it really ought to be aligned with what T's doing, be it writing down, typing, or just keeping still so T can work - and believe me,. keeping still is hard work
If B's more in control, K will be happy doing something to keep T mildly occupied. This can often be those things described above in the free-wheeling state, but even if B and T are working together in a more relaxed state, K might be playing games, organising things, and so on. This is why habitual movements are an unreliable indicator of something being wrong: sometimes I might genuinely be fine but just need some downtime to let my brain be free. If I immerse
myself in something habitual, however, and stay there for a long time, you can safely bet that there's something wrong and I'm fighting anxiety by keeping T separate from B and ignoring B's free-wheeling.
Watching TV and movies, incidentally, also requires certain conditions. I need to sit still for a long period of time, be at least partly immersed in what's going on in the story, and be aware of other people. Unlike reading, I can't really watch TV on my own unless I'm ill. I need a reason to stay in that seat
. This is why I'm learning to knit more than anything else: because having a laptop on my knee means I can't follow the story, and because the only other way I have to occupy K is to drink. If K is not doing something, I will get up and walk out of the room. I won't even notice I'm doing it: suddenly I will have a very urgent reason
to not be here right now, and I'll be standing in the kitchen wondering what that reason was. This is linked, like everything else, to B's state of restlessness: the more agitated my brain is, the more I'll be compelled to fidget.
All of my interactions with other people - my interactions with you
, are dictated directly by K's actions, and the degree to which B and T are controlling K. Because K is my motor functions and that's the only point of contact I have with the outside world. So in social situations, in livejournal posting, in anything you can see from outside, it's not so much what K's doing while B and T are doing other things, as it is which cog has predominant control over K.K under T's control
: Think of the slowest, 'dim-witted' non-functional being you can - not just Homer Simpson, but Banjo Lilywhite, Lennie Small, that kind of character. This is what I would be if Cog T had sole power over K, and I consciously thought about every action or existence that I did. That's not functional. Conversations would fly by without me being able to make a contribution. Decisions would never get made because I'd be weighing up every single possibility and assessing every variable for every option. This isn't (solely) hyperbole: these are compulsions I really have. I worry constantly whether everything I do is the 'right' thing to do. If I let myself, I will spend hours internally debating what to eat for dinner or in which order I should do things this evening. Sometimes it takes an active decision not to let it matter
for me to let a dilemma go.
This is, of course, usually because I've blocked out B, usually for emotional reasons. If B is too busy spinning into emotional turmoil because I've had a fight with my parents, or I'm stressed then I'll disconnect in order to try and avoid the worry. Then T will be too slow and I'll constantly forget what I'm doing, because T can only access memory through B.K under B's control
: If T is too slow, B is too fast. Another anxiety avoidance strategy is to disconnect T from K, and let B control everything, bringing T along for the ride.
This is what you (and I certainly have) may call 'classic' ADHD behaviour. Interrupting people because you've just thought of something
to say. Talking over the TV or play. Playing up for attention. Rash impulsiveness. This is the behaviour I was taught from a very early age is bad behaviour
and something to be curbed. Wait your turn. Don't interrupt. Be polite. FOR GOD'S SAKE SIT DOWN AND SHUT THE HELL UP. I still get people asking me to "please be quiet" in theatres (and yes, it hurts because I do my best!). The last Millicon I was in the canonshare room for five minutes and later found one of those passive aggressive "what is wrong with people that they can't respect my show?!" posts in a friend's Livejournal.
I've learned to hate that part of me, and I've worked hard to suppress it, which is why it maybe doesn't show as much as you'd expect it to. But when you're sitting with me in the pub and I'm staring at the flashy gambling machine rather than talking to you, or when I interrupt you with what seems to be a red herring, conversation wise, or when I seem desperate to say something and then when my turn comes up in the conversation and I can't remember what it was, please be patient. I probably won't let me forget it long after you've even forgotten it happens.
I'm sure there's more. I know
there's more, 'cause in the Google Document I composed this in there's a whole other section called 'how to give me anxiety attacks', which I've not finished and set aside for now (because writing it makes me anxious), but it's half five and I have a weekend of expo to help at, and Supernatural to watch and knitting to learn tonight. But these are my thoughts on what it's like to have my brain, and I'd like to thank you for reading it. It's not a complete or accurate picture, not really, but it made sense to me when I was writing this. And I do feel that I've learned a lot about myself in the composition. So maybe it can help people who need to learn about me.