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Life at Full ThrottleAttention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults
By Catherine Avery
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Catherine Avery, Ph.D.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow I Forgot Santa in the Bathroom
Every AD/HD adult has his or her own story to tell: some parts are painful; some elicit deep regret or unresolved shame. But there are also "AD/HD moments" that are so common to adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder that, when viewed with the correct mixture of irreverence and humor, provoke gales of laughter, as well as a sense that those of us with AD/HD may actually have a little more fun in this adventure called life-that is, if we allow ourselves to. I have always told my children that when I am old and senile-rocking back and forth on the porch with a toothless grin-I will be in the process of reliving some of the funnier moments of my life. And believe me, I've amassed enough to humor me for years of senility.
In this book I will talk about the AD/HD experience from a unique set of perspectives: as a clinical psychologist who has evaluated more than two thousand AD/HD children and adults over the past fifteen years; as a mother who has parented two children with attentional deficits; and as a woman who has lived with the symptoms of this disorder for as long as she can remember. I have no intention of making excuses for adults with AD/HD, and I believe that identifying and taking ownership of problem behaviors is critical to success. However, I will also not condemn those of us who, despite these efforts, repeatedly fall short of our plans and expectations. There is a middle ground that is composed of compassion, experience, education, and humor that I encourage clients with AD/HD to find, and I hope to maintain this perspective throughout this book.
Because humor is so important in the life of an AD/HD adult, I will start with my finest "AD/HD moment": when I forgot Santa in the bathroom. If the particularly observant reader notices that my AD/ HD moment extended for well over a month, let me just say that time is relative in the AD/HD world.
The following story is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth-at least I think it is. The AD/HD imagination is so fertile and the tendency for AD/HDers to create stimulation is so second nature that it is possible that I've added a bit here and there as I've told this story over the years. Dr. Edward Hallowell, speaking at the first national AD/HD conference for adults, noted that people with AD/HD tend to exaggerate when telling a story and asserted that they shouldn't feel guilty for their penchant to embellish for the sake of entertainment (or stimulation). I have taken this gem of wisdom as blanket permission to let go of years of guilt over the fact that I exaggerate from time to time-particularly if I'm restless ... or in a good mood ... or in a bad mood ... or if I have a particularly engaged audience ... or if I'm trying to engage an audience ... Hmmm, let's just get back to Santa, okay?
It was November, the beginning of a crazily busy season for those of us who do not plan well, and as PTA president of a local elementary school, I was in charge of organizing a Christmas party to be held immediately following an all-school Christmas concert. Now, there are some people who excel at planning large events like this-first organizing a committee, identifying tasks, and delegating responsibility, and then following through to make certain that the various tasks have been completed. These people that I am describing do not have AD/ HD. Most people with AD/HD are wonderful at the initial planning stages where imagination and creativity are a plus. But translating ideas into action requires ongoing coordination with others who seem to function best between the hours of 8:00 am and 8:00 pm. Midnight powwows have not yet caught on in PTA circles, although that's when many people with AD/HD do their best work.
Large projects also typically involve meetings, a concept that sends shivers up the spines of my more hyperactive brethren. In the AD/HD world, the word meeting is translated as follows: "An indefinite period of forced captivity, during which time one must try to remain focused while simultaneously stifling the overwhelming desire to interrupt, doodle, or pass humorous notes." The mere prospect of group meetings is often enough to convince AD/HDers that it would be less painful to tackle an entire project by themselves. Initially the idea of "going solo" is met with great enthusiasm and splendid imagery of ultimate success, and memories of disastrous past projects are overshadowed by the excitement of a new venture. So, in true AD/HD form, I decided that there was clearly enough time to plan and execute the party by myself.
To my credit, I had the entire party planned a month ahead of time-in my mind. I would solicit donations from local businesses and make up darling little Christmas goodie bags, one for each elementary school student. The bags would be decorated during art class. The art teacher, of course, would be smitten with this idea, and the final products would be filled with the donated holiday treats and set out on a large table by the entrance to the cafeteria. I had run over this scenario countless times in my mind, imagining little children pulling their parents by the arm, saying, "Come on, Mommy and Daddy! You have to see the bag that I decorated all by myself!" We would have a group of parents bring in homemade desserts, and to top it all off, Santa would arrive in full costume, with a burlap bag filled with candy canes.
The next thing I knew, the concert was a week away, and the series of events that transpired will be only too familiar to those readers with organizational deficiencies. At the risk of precipitating a posttraumatic stress response in my AD/HD comrades, let me share with you the following sequence of events, which began with a great plan and ended with an abandoned Santa Claus. As my husband would say, "What were you thinking?" Do you really want to know? Welcome to the AD/HD world ...
How did three weeks slip by? Jeez! There's no way I can ask the art teacher to take on the bags as a Christmas project at this late date-I should have spoken to her weeks ago! I'll just have my three children decorate them. Let's see, that would come to one hundred bags apiece, with the youngest still in diapers. Hmm ... what about inviting all of their friends over for an afternoon of drawing? Yes! We could make it into a neighborhood party-maybe throw in a little caroling as well! Well, now that that's settled, I better focus on getting the bags filled through donations.
My enthusiasm must be contagious because the local businesses are very generous. I now have tons of little gifts, and the hospital kindly donated white bags for the children to decorate.
Yikes-the party is tomorrow! Luckily someone has taken over the dessert portion of this event, and it sounds very well organized. Santa is all lined up as well, and I have hundreds of candy canes that have been donated-probably enough for every child in town. I still haven't figured out when to tackle the bags. The kids are tired, and the house looks like a bomb went off. It will take thirty minutes just to clear the table so that we can start decorating the bags. Too late to call their friends, unfortunately.
Dinner is over, and it's already 8:00 pm. My husband is telling me in a strained voice that it's too late to start such a large project with the kids. No problem. I'll just do it myself after the kids go to bed. But wait, what about the report that was supposed to be finished by tomorrow? I have to write that while I'm still alert. I can always decorate the bags later.
The report took a lot longer than I anticipated, but I'm really happy with the final product. I've read it over six or eight times and made minor changes in wording so now it flows seamlessly. I tried to decorate a bag; but I'm realizing that my artistic talents have not improved since kindergarten, and the bags aren't turning out at all like I had envisioned. My rendition of a decorated Christmas tree looks more like a menacing primeval creature with an unfortunate skin condition. There is no way that I can complete this stupid project. What was I thinking? Tomorrow is a full day at work, so an all-nighter is out of the question. We'll just have to settle for plain white bags. The kids will be thrilled with what's inside!
Back from work now-later than I thought-rummaging through the basement for a box to throw the bags into. The kids aren't bathed yet, but a washcloth should do the trick. Using the kitchen sink as a makeshift bathtub while cooking grilled cheese and giving last-minute instructions to the teenager who has arrived to watch my youngest, we are able to leave the house with seconds to spare. Calling out words of encouragement as my two oldest dash to their classrooms, I rush into the cafeteria prior to the concert, the large box of bags banging wildly against my torso. The other moms, dressed in cute holiday outfits, have already set up a beautiful display of homemade Christmas cookies. I start lining up the bags on a brown laminated lunch table. It's not easy to organize three hundred white bags in a fresh and creative manner, particularly when I forgot to plan for any table decorations. I try to place them randomly, and the table looks like a lost and found for rejected lunch bags. I place them in straight lines, and the bags suddenly look suspiciously like ones you would be given to transport a urine sample to your next OB/GYN appointment.
Gotta run-the concert is starting! Despite the frenetic pace of the past hour, I'm caught up in the magic of childhood as I watch class after class march up on stage, waving to their parents while smiling broadly, elbowing the students next to them, and giggling mid-song. Some stare off into the crowd, seeming to have forgotten that they are supposed to be singing, while others sing out with great gusto, appearing as though this very moment is the highlight of their young lives.
And it's over. I rush back to the cafeteria before the crowd gets there. Here comes Santa! Hey, you look fantastic! Sure, I'll give you a cue when to come out and surprise the kids. The bathroom in the basement? Great idea!
Would you look at the wave of people coming through the door! The room is filling up so quickly. There must be five hundred people in this room! But why is no one picking up a bag? I bet they don't realize that the bags are for the kids. I forgot to make some kind of sign. I'll just head over there and encourage kids to pick them up and look inside. Hmmm ... their reaction is less than inspiring. Their eyes are glued to the cookie table, which is beautifully decorated and arranged. The parents look sympathetically in my direction but hurry over to get a cookie themselves.
Thank God, the crowd is starting to thin out. It was so overwhelming; I can't remember talking to a single parent. I hope at least I looked friendly. Glad to see that all the cookies haven't been eaten yet; I'm suddenly famished! Oh good, here comes my wonderful husband, still dressed in his work attire, with the kids in tow. The kids race over to eat the last of the cookies while my husband pitches in to help clean up. The cafeteria has emptied out as quickly as it filled up; only my family and the clean-up crew remains. A member of the clean-up crew is saying, "Wow, it was so busy there for a while, I didn't even notice when Santa came out with the candy canes ..."
Oh God. No ... no ... no ... It is NOT possible that he is still in the bathroom. I'm sure I just missed him as well. But on the outside chance, let me go down there and peek in. That way I won't lay awake tonight, wracking my brain, trying to remember Santa's entrance. My husband, with a look that bodes poorly, says that he is going to take the kids home and relieve the babysitter, and while attempting to stifle increasing symptoms of panic, I take off at a fast clip, realizing for the first time that I have no idea where the basement bathroom is even located.
The school kitchen is dark and cavernous. I find my way through, enter a narrow, dimly lit hallway, and see the stairs that descend into the basement. Creeping along, holding my breath, I try to convince myself that Santa will not be in the bathroom when I open the door. I see a shadow through an iced bathroom window. I'm feeling lightheaded and a little nauseous. I open the door, and there he is, a big smile of anticipation on his face. "Are they ready?"
Luckily, this Santa was a particularly kind man, with a sense of humor to boot. He said that he had heard things quieting down upstairs and figured that I had all of the children sitting quietly on the floor, awaiting his entrance. I had to explain, while apologizing profusely, that everyone except the clean-up crew had already left the building.
Rather than becoming miffed, Santa was wonderful and generous in spirit, and offered to come back the next day and go from classroom to classroom, handing out candy canes. I heard later that he was a great hit. I also found out that the "Santa Story" had gone through the school like wildfire, and the teachers all thought that it was hysterically funny. I relayed the story to my parents over Christmas dinner, and my mother had tears of laughter streaming down her face.
Although I could certainly see the humor in the story, I was still stuck with the reality that I had forgotten Santa in the bathroom! So I had to make an action plan to get past it. I made a solemn vow that it would serve as a "learning experience," that I would analyze the situation, think about what I could do differently the next time, and make some changes in my life.
The Santa fiasco took place over fifteen years ago, and since that time a lot of significant changes have indeed taken place. My son was diagnosed with AD/HD, and I was subsequently diagnosed and treated for the disorder as well. Once I was able to focus for extended periods of time, I began to read voraciously on the topic of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. I attended numerous conferences on the subject and decided to focus my practice exclusively on evaluating AD/HD children and adults. As I heard story after story from parents of AD/HD children and from AD/HD adults themselves, I realized that the entire Christmas party, from the beginning planning stages to the sleepless post-party night, consisted of a series of common mistakes that plague AD/HD adults.
It's hard to explain what it's like to discover at the age of thirty-six that you have been struggling with a lifelong disorder. Don't get me wrong-I was very cognizant of the fact that I had always been impulsive, disorganized, forgetful, and inattentive, and I only needed to look at my school report cards for confirmation from each and every one of my teachers. However, not knowing that these were symptoms of a disorder, I had developed numerous theories as to why I did these things, and my theories were for the most part quite self-condemning. I impulsively interrupted others because I was the third child in a sibship of four, and this was my way of demanding attention. Yet I wondered if I would ever be able to move beyond my birth order and behave in a more mature manner. I was unable to concentrate in elementary school because I wasn't one of the "smart kids," and in high school I was more focused on social activities than academics. When I was unable to focus in college, despite a strong desire to do so, I decided that I was suffering from an extended existential crisis, and until I was able to figure out the meaning of life, I would never be able to focus on my textbooks. (To make matters worse, I kept forgetting the term existential and would spend valuable study time trying to recall the name of the crisis that I was experiencing.)
Discovering that inattention, impulsivity, and internal restlessness were symptoms of a disorder was a life-altering experience for me. I was still responsible for addressing these behavioral problems; but rather than focusing my energy on belittling myself, I could problem solve and try to determine more effective ways of coping with these symptoms.
Over time, I began to appreciate the value of humor because, despite my knowledge of this disorder and despite my attempts to compensate, I still find myself grappling with AD/HD issues on a daily basis. When you tear your home apart looking for your glasses, only to discover that they are perched atop your head, you have a choice of how to respond. You can berate yourself, feel sorry for yourself, or laugh at the crazy world of the AD/HD adult. I choose to laugh.
Excerpted from Life at Full Throttle by Catherine Avery Copyright © 2009 by Catherine Avery, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission.
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