In my first post I discussed the fact that my brain is weird. I describe it to myself as having a front part and a back part, kind of like a swimming pool. The front part is the shallow end; it’s easiest to move around in and get stuff done. The back part is the deep end, where all the play happens; a lot of floating, and movement is not all that precise. As long as there’s enough water in the deep end, the water stays in the shallow end. But if the water drains out of the deep end, the shallow end drains into the deep end and the whole pool is pretty much pointless. Can’t get much done without water. Here’s how that translates into real life: if I don’t have the back of my brain filled up with something, my ability to focus decreases to almost nothing. As I write this I have Boomerang Channel on in the background (best channel ever, if you like good cartoons). I was vaguely aware of MGM cartoons a little bit ago, and now the Scooby Doo Gang is running away from a zombie or something. I could care less, but it fills up the back part of my brain so that I can focus on this.
Allow me to explain this a little more concretely. Daniel Amen, MD, (of Amen Clinic) has done a lot of research in the area of SPECT scans – images of brain activity – and improving wellness by understanding unique brain activity patterns. You might have seen some of his programs on PBS. SPECT scans are not pictures of the brain, but of brain activity. The top part of the picture is called the Prefrontal Cortex, or Frontal Lobe; it’s located behind your forehead and eyes. The Frontal Lobe is extremely important: it’s where all your thinking, judgement, decision-making, and impulse control happen. It’s where “think before you talk” and “just say no to drugs” and “cross all your t’s and dot all your i’s” happens. Notice how the color in the Frontal Lobe is a darker purple? That’s because most brain activity is happening there. The dents toward the back are not holes – they’re just less active parts of the brain. Notice how this normal brain is fairly smooth . . . if it was a hill it would be a fairly relaxing walk.
Now check out this ADHD brain. This brain is just relaxing, not trying to get anything done . . . maybe focusing on deep end stuff. Right away you see that even at rest there are already big gaps in brain activity, especially in the Frontal Lobe. If you were trying to take a walk across this brain you’d have to watch your step carefully and take a couple of detours. Even at rest it’s hard to focus, to make decisions, to avoid saying dumb stuff.
Well, people say, you just have to try harder. Everyone gets distracted sometimes. You just have to learn to eliminate distractions, focus on your work, practice social skills. Everyone has to do this. You’re making too much out of it. Here’s the thing: the normal brains CAN just try harder. It works for them. Here’s what happens to the ADHD brain when it tries to concentrate and “try harder.” Yup. Don’t try walking across this brain. . . It looks like a lava field. I’ll spare you the physiology because it’s complicated, but when the ADHD brain tries harder . . . it short-circuits. This is why I have rarely studied hard for a test or read my answers through again – I do much better if I review and then go with my gut. It’s why I do much better writing papers than taking tests. This is why I gleaned more information in college if I worked cross word puzzles during lectures. Not kidding. If my concentration is just slightly off-center, it works much better.
So is this how I always live my life, with my brain full of activity holes and always looking for just the right balance of focus and distraction? No. I’m properly drugged. People have a lot of mixed feelings about this, and I expect that eventually I’ll write a blog about mental health meds. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and personal conviction. My opinion about my ADHD meds is based on personal experience and science, and there’s a lot of science. But a picture is worth a thousand words, so here you go. . . an ADHD brain on meds. Notice how it’s almost normal? Not totally normal (Praise God! – Who would want to be normal if they didn’t have to be?), but pretty close.
The reason I’m writing all of this is because of what happened in my brain at church on Tuesday night. Every morning I take Concerta; fantastic stuff that lasts about 8 hours. My brain starts getting a little jiggly around 4:30, so if I want to get anything out of church at 7 I have to remember to take my short-acting meds around 4. It’s a stimulant, so I take it too late I’ll have a hard time sleeping. Timing is important. On Tuesday, I forgot. It was the first day back after a 3-day weekend; I have the sort of job where that just means I had 50% more to worry about on Tuesday. Then I rushed to Gilroy on Tuesday night for a meeting that had been cancelled without my knowledge. It was on the way back, around 6:30, that I realized I hadn’t taken my med that afternoon. Crud. It was too late. I’ll just tough it out, I told myself.
I don’t know if this is all ADDers, but my sensory perception goes into overdrive. I will describe this for you to open a window to my inner brain . . . NOT because I’m upset with anyone or anything. It’s no one’s fault – no one else is inside my brain – but things that are usually completely normal or generally overlooked or even enjoyable take on a whole new meaning. I had a headache right off the bat; shouldn’t have sat in front of the speakers. Awesome music, but every beat of the drum or twang on the guitar set off a gong inside my skull. Even on normal days, the best way for me to focus on worship in a room full of excellent music and rejoicing is to use a lot of imagery. On difficult days, the image is a completely dark tunnel with a bright light at the end; my job is to make it to the light. Odd, maybe, but it works for me. I was just settling into my tunnel when it was time to shake people’s hands. Tunnel goes poof! Drat. I don’t think I really got back into it. I have this ability, when I know a song well, to shift it into the back part of my brain. I can sing perfectly, harmonize, everything . . . and not even realize I’m doing it. A war wages inside my head: focus on the song, think about a memory the song conjours, get rattled back to reality by a particularly loud something, realize I’m forgetting that I’m singing, trying to find my way back to my tunnel, feel guilty about forgetting I’m singing, remember other times I forgot I was singing, get rattled back . . . I have discovered that a consistent sensation such as pain or cold helps me to focus by filling up that deep end. I was able to focus a little more when I started digging my nails into my hands. By the time we sat down to the sermon my hands were red and I was almost in tears from frustration.
Here’s the funny and incredibly ironic part: the sermon was about waking up and paying attention. Again, not kidding.
This was almost a week ago, so I know I don’t remember everything. But here’s some of it (sermon points in blue):
- Eutychus fell asleep and out of a 3-story window. (Acts 20:7-10)
- “Be quiet!” . . . says the lady sitting behind me and 3 chairs over to the child (who I can’t hear) sitting directly behind me. Why do shushing parents often make more noise than their kids? I wonder what that kid is doing?
- Why did Eutychus fall asleep? Because Paul preached until midnight. Why on earth was the kid sleeping in a window? That’s the question. There’s a lot of windows in here. I wonder if this building used to be a department store or something. . .
- “Shhh! Be quiet!” Inward eye roll. . . I bed she would keep her kid out of a window.
- People get tired of waiting. Yeah we do. But a good sermon deserves good time. Maybe Paul shouldn’t have gone on 4 hours, but I wish Pastor wasn’t always promising to “not keep us very long.” I love his preaching . . . I could listen for hours.
- “Do you guys know what happens to my ego when you fall asleep?” Crap. Sorry, Pastor.
- “If you don’t quiet down right now I’m taking you out of here!” I still can’t hear the kid.
- CRASH!! (Really, more like a bump) My friend’s cell phone falls about a foot and a half into the aisle. It lands right side up. He picks it up. I remember when my cell phone dropped, right before that important phone call. Why did he even have his phone out? Probably using a Bible app. . . it’s so hard to tell when people are texting in church or reading the Bible.
- STAY ALERT!!! The Devil wants to put us to sleep so we can’t see the light! I’m trying, Pastor, I’m trying! Why can’t I do this? This is making me sooooo angry!
- Ding! Aw, C’mon! If you’re going to text at least silence your phone! My #1 pet peeve in church: people who text all through service, or talk without even bothering to whisper, while throwing out “Amens” and “Preach its” every once in awhile (sometimes in extremely inappropriate places because they’re not paying one iota of attention, like the time that lady shouted out a very loud “Amen!” right after Pastor asked us to pray for a lady who was dying), and then go up to the alter afterwards as if they have taken in a lot to think about. Listing all these times in my mind.
- “That’s it!” There they go. That poor child escorted down the middle aisle of a seated congregation. I’m still not even sure what he did that was so noisy. I can remember a few times that happened to me. Or when Dad told me to be quiet right in the middle of preaching. I remember when Dad got down out of the PULPIT to take Matthew out of church. . .
- “Weariness of the mind, burnout.” (I think these were supposed to be all reasons we fall asleep spiritually.) You got me there, Pastor. (Several minutes of stress-related contemplation followed by a reminder that my vacation is in less than 190 days.)
- “You snooze, you lose.” Man, I’m really missing out here. My brain hurts from trying to focus so hard. I know this is a sermon I’d take tons of notes on, but I barely have a page. I need to get the CD. How can ever do anything effectively on my own when I can’t even make it through a sermon? (I start to feel really guilty, tears are stinging the back of my eyes.)
- Ding! Seriously??? Did you really not think to silence your phone after the first one? Are you not hearing the sermon??? I’m only catching every 5th word, but even I get that this is the worst possible service to engage in OPEN distraction!
Suddenly, that mysterious and unexpected phenomenon of ADHD took over: hyperfocus.
You see, ADHD doesn’t mean an inability to concentrate, only an inability to control when and how you concentrate. During hyperfocus, I lose track of all else. I have almost no awareness of anything other than what I’m doing. No one else is in the room, there is no temperature, my body is nothing but the parts necessary for the task at hand. Click I did, finally . . . to the last 7 minutes or so of the sermon.
But God knows us so well. He made us, even the apparently broken parts. To Him, those parts aren’t broken. I don’t always understand that part, but I know it’s true. And that last bit of the sermon that my brain suddenly and inexplicably locked on to after so much tortuous distraction was about . . . Grace. “Eutychus” means “fortunate one.” Paul didn’t get mad or hurt because Eutychus fell asleep; neither did God. Eutychus got a second chance. God will wake us up. He knows about the things that distract us, the things that weigh us down, the things that cause us to sleep. He understands our minds, and He is merciful.
So I stayed in my seat during the alter call (which is usually the most distracting way imaginable for me to process a service) and let my mind wander a bit. I detest this battle within my mind, but I was so grateful to be reminded of how far I have come and how blessed I am because of it. It wandered over the fact that I wasn’t very fidgety all night. That God’s sense of timing and ironic humor is impeccable. That He knows what I need and just how to give it. That even though my brain is often completely out of my control, He always has and always will hold the remote. That I am so blessed to have discovered a good doctor who can treat and teach me, that I no longer have to struggle like this all the time. Without an occasional reminder like this one, I forget what life used to be like.
After church I made sure I smiled at the irritated mom and chatted with the new guy who had the beeping cell phone. I forgot to request the CD.
My consciousness has suddenly redirected to my television, where Cow and Chicken are dancing around a stage singing, “It’s good to be ugly after all.” Paul said it a little more eloquently:
“For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.”