Tag Archives: ADHD

Battle in My Mind, by My Mind, for My Mind

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.

Normal SPECT

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.

Resting ADHD SPECT

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.

ADHD Concentration SPECT

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.

ADHD Medicated SPECT

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.

Ha.

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.” 

(2 Corinthians 4:5-12)

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An ellipses in action . . .

ADHD.  So many things come to mind when people hear this term.

Hyper.  Bad.  Crazy.  Distracted.  Cop-out.  Excuse.  Lazy.  Flakey.  Working below potential.  Label.  Unfocused.

I used to think the same things.  I was also a child, adolescent, and college student who spent most of her life distracted and working below her potential.  I had so many ideas and so much energy, but it was so unfocused and nothing ever happened.  Well, a lot HAPPENED, but not much happened according to plan.  The things that happened properly sort of fell into place by accident, and the things that I worked so hard to do right generally went awry.  People saw me as being really lazy, and my constant claims that I was doing my best got real old real fast.  I seemed flakey and full of excuses, and eventually I started to believe that I was.

Then I was diagnosed with ADHD.  Yup, I got a pill.  And one day I discovered that it’s possible to think about one thing at a time.  I learned that I could prioritize in my brain all the different stimuli competing for my senses.  Turns out that, when properly wired, my brain can make birds chirping outside less important than the conversation I’m in the middle of.  I was 23 years old.

I was pretty angry, but not because I found out I had ADHD.  I was angry because of the 22 years I spent learning to believe that I was lazy, flakey, and full of excuses.  Knowing I have ADHD is one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever been given, not because I have a legitimate excuse for not being able to meet all the expectations placed on me, but because I now have permission to meet them in my own creative way.

For Thou did form my inward parts; Thou did weave me in my mother’s womb.  I will give thanks to Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Thy works, and my soul knows it very well.  My frame was not hidden from Thee, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth.  Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Thy book they were all written, the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.  (Psalm 139: 13-16)

ADHD is a wiring issue.  It’s a variation in the electrical construction of the brain.  If I wanted to debate this I could pull out brain scans and cite studies and quote lots of information about dopamine pathways and prefrontal cortex.  I’m not writing about ADHD today.  I’m writing about who God has made us to be.

Psalm 139 has always been special to me as I wandered through the often confusing journey of my life, but even moreso since I discovered that my brain is different.  I imagine God looking out from the beginning of time onto the history of the earth, spread out before Him like a beautiful front lawn sprawled in front of the porch swing He’s sitting on.  He looks at each of us, smiles down at the anomalies, and says, “You will be like this.  It is not the perfect Heavenly body that I will one day give you, but it will be perfect in my eyes nonetheless.  You will struggle in ways that most people do not, but with those struggles will come strength and character and abilities that many people won’t have, either.  I’m only going to make a few people like you because, quite frankly, there’s only so much of you the population can handle at a time.  So, it will be a little lonely.  I give you two choices: reject my gift and fight the challenges, or embrace it and enjoy the blessings that it will bring.”

A new friend of mine said last week that he loves exclamation points.  He said that when he was born God must have put an exclamation point at the end of his name.  What a great new way to look at how we fit in to the Body of Christ!  When we think about our purpose and place, we usually think about abilities.  How often do we think about personality?  How many different kinds of punctuation does it take to create something worth reading or listening to?  My friend truly is an exclamation point; his energy brings everything around him to life, and I don’t think I have ever been in the same room as him without smiling at the excited reactions he can’t keep contained.  I have friends who are question marks, constantly questioning and challenging me.  My dad is a period; his emotion is controlled, but you know that when he puts his thoughts into words he’s probably right.  Just the way that – for the sake of humanity – God limits the amount of ADHD in the world, He also carefully parceled out punctuation marks.  You can’t please everybody; there will always be people who get annoyed at questions, roll their eyes at exclamations, and fall asleep if there are too many periods.  But we need them all.

Even though I have ADHD, I am not an exclamation point; I am an ellipses.  Those 3 dots that mean a thought isn’t finished yet . . .  I am passionate about what I think, but my thoughts are forever evolving.  I think out loud.  There is so much happening inside my brain that my thoughts overwhelm me if I don’t get them out in the open where I can shift them around.  So, I talk an awful lot.  I have learned that most people get real tired of ellipses real fast.  They ignore the last two dots, assume they’re talking to a period, and then get irritated when the thought isn’t over yet.  Part of having ADHD is realizing that there are times when you just have to pretend you don’t.  You learn how to look like you’re paying attention, how to keep your body still even though you’re bouncing inside, and how to cut off those last two dots even though your thought isn’t finished yet.  One of the biggest things I’ve learned to do is just shut my mouth.  There are a lot of things I don’t say, sometimes because I think people are sick of listening to me and sometimes because I’m afraid I’ll have to ramble for 5 minutes before I can get to my real point.

One of the stupid things I have done in my life is shut people out.  I’m fixing that now, in overdrive.  It’s fantastic.  What I’m discovering is how right I have always been when I tell people that we NEED each other.  (It’s so difficult to take your own advice sometimes!)  As I let in people my spirit wakes.  As my spirit stirs so does that special gift that God spoke over me at the dawn of time.  And my mind is filled to overflowing.  My thoughts swirl and grow and merge and separate and develop and regress.  A mass of dots that can’t figure out if they are the end of an unfinished thought or the beginning of completion.  And I can’t sleep.  I have a new appreciation for all those times that David wrote that he “meditated on God day and night.”  It’s really exhausting.  It’s not physically possible to do it for very long.  After about 2 weeks of minimal sleep I started thinking I was under spiritual attack.  Finally, I acted on one of the more dominant ideas in my mind: I shared some of the other ideas.  And I slept.

I am an ellipses; I must accept this.  My mind will always be full of thoughts and ideas; I must embrace this.  My thoughts must get out of my brain so I can sleep; therefore, I must remove them.  Why not try a blog?  It’s an idea I’ve been mulling over for a long time but I haven’t done it just because I’ll probably flake on it and then everyone will know. . .  Still, I’m a decent writer and this way no one has to listen if they don’t really want to.

I don’t plan on writing many journal entries like this one.  That’s not the sort of stuff God’s putting on my mind.  He is challenging me, and I want to pass that on to you.

What is your punctuation mark?  Are you rejecting it or embracing it?

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