ADHD and Me: Tales of a “Different” Thinker

In my day, we didn’t have “ADHD.” We had “Shut the hell up and do your homework!” and “WHAT is your PROBLEM?”  They were both a valid educational diagnoses entered into the DSM Negative 5, the book of guidelines on such things. They were reinforced and treated by a backhand, in the case of some families, or eternal isolation in solitary confinement by others–being confined to The Room to miss out on all the three-channel major networks had to offer.

I think I have ADHD.  Nobody’s ever really diagnosed it except for my family and all my friends, but I know I think differently.  I consider this a blessing, but being around linear thinkers is often a challenge.  I am not permitted to rake leaves or mow the lawn, for instance. I go from pile to pile raking or mow in pretty designs, when my husband, the approved mower goes straight in rows as if a scout from Yankee Stadium is about to come by our yard.  I clean like a waitress, always having my hands full, bringing things to their place and picking up something else for my return trip back. I say this is efficiency. He says it’s chaos.  “Can’t you just finish cleaning in one damned area?”  No, because who would put back this glass?

There are many other things I do differently–my mom tried to alphabetize my spice cabinet.  Even though each jar was uniformly labeled in Martha Stewart blue, something bothered her and she started to move jars around. I had to stop her. “Mom, the amchoor does not go by the adobo. It goes by the garam masala, hind, and kalonji.  The adobo goes by the guajillo and chipotle. Cinnamon and cloves go in the middle, because they’re for curries AND baking. Understood?  No, they don’t understand. Nobody does; it’s my cross to bear.  Thoughts are not linear–they are a spider web, reaching out in many directions.

I say perfectly logical things that connect all parts of the universe.  One thing reminds me of a thousand different things–strings connected to frequencies that all join together.  “What do you mean you don’t understand the link between that cappuccino and coffee farming in general which led me to think about fair trade and a project I can do with my class? It makes perfect sense to me.” Admittedly, few close people in my life have been able to follow these connections, and they probably have ADHD worse than me.  One is now finishing up a Ph.D in something to do with the brain that I sometimes understand. I’m want her to switch gears just a little bit and study me so I can go to my husband and say, “SEE!  I told you I was awesome. And now it’s been proven by medical science!”

Thinking differently is not a curse–I get a flash of an idea, and I stop, write it down and make connections. The fact that no one sees those connections immediately only makes them more valuable to me.  Eventually, I’ll convert them to something, but even if I don’t, they didn’t hurt anything but a small section of a rainforest by taking up a page in a notebook. This makes me wonder why schools–and life–always seek to put thinkers in a box, make them conform, and make them bow to The System.

In school, I always carried one notebook–a marble composition book. I could not have a separate notebook for each class.  If I did, would have had the wrong notebook constantly.  Instead (this worked for high school, college, and 1.5 grad schools) I dated each entry by class and subject, creating a time capsule of sorts.  I dreamed, doodled, thought, and connected away never taking “the notes,” only making connections with the world around me–books on the topic, comments the instructor made, independent thoughts that filtered through.

The notes weren’t in English per se–they were a combination of symboled shorthand and the shortest word for the concept in any language I happened to know, all floating through in lines and patterns on the page. No one dared to ask to borrow my notes so they were perfectly safe with me.  The notebook had to be a black marble composition notebook, because otherwise I’d rip out pages for other things, leaving me with an anorexic tattered notebook full of holes.

Years later, I have a row of these things on my shelves, and I can pick up every single one and use the contents inside–I’ve used them to teach even 10 or 15 years after the notes were taken.

That’s effective!  Again, why do we, as educators, shove every kid in The Box? Why won’t ed reform break us out of The Box instead of building new ones?

I show these notebooks to my students to tell them individuality is a beautiful thing–a gift–and when combined with dedication, motivation, and passion, it does breed success.   My failure has been predicted by no fewer than the following:  An elementary teacher.  I’m told I  was a “gifted underachiever” as early as second grade.  My physics teacher. I liked him, but apparently I didn’t take notes using “the system.”   One of my undergraduate advisors.  He assessed that I didn’t “have what it takes” rather than finding out I worked full time (and often overtime) off campus during college to eat all while taking a double-overload. “You’ll never make it in grad school.”  Finally, my student teaching supervisor who told me I couldn’t teach on crutches, must come back to the program later, and shouldn’t expect to get a job like that.

People just think differently than me. And I’m glad.  I spent enough time listening to the voices of failure and reason in my own head, as do we all.  Writer Neil Gaiman gave a commencement address this past year, advising the graduates that he was grateful he never knew what was impossible, because then he never would have done it.  How many things have I failed to do or not done to the best of my ability because of the voices of “reason”, or because I “think differently?” How many times has that affected us all?

I’m not sure–but when I see a ninth grader with books barfing out of his backpack pull out a little marble composition book for my class with papers filed in a system only he can understand, I always smile.


18 thoughts on “ADHD and Me: Tales of a “Different” Thinker

  1. If we all thought alike, what a horrible, monochrome world we’d live in! I make far-reaching connections in my head all the time. Writing is a great organizer. The only thing I try to step back from is when my attention is governed by our cultural insistence on multitasking ALL THE TIME. That’s when I need to go outside, go to the gym or flop in a chair with a good book, to make it all stop if only for a little while. Well-written and enjoyable post! Now onto the 50 other things I do in the morning….

  2. I really must introduce you to Josh and Luke. 🙂
    “This makes me wonder why schools–and life–always seek to put thinkers in a box, make them conform, and make them bow to The System.” With Josh, we put the problem on him. Why can’t you do this- why is your locker a disaster- why are you so disorganized- I don’t care if you don’t like math, you still can’t pull out a book and start reading- how on earth are you ever going to…
    We never got him a diagnosis, it just wasn’t done back then. Luke has one though. And I’m not sure if it’s better knowing or worse. Now instead of putting it on him, this mom wants to tell every System Worker in this world to back off because no matter what behavior plan they put him on he will NEVER be just like everyone else or just like they think he should be. And while his struggle in the system and with certain things in life brings me to tears at times, the fact that he’ll never be either of those things makes me say THANK GOD.

    • I used to go to IEP meetings for students years ago with samples from my notebooks and ask the kids, “What system works best for you?” They’d be aghast. They’d never had their “system” validated before–now, let’s be clear, they’re teens–sometimes they don’t have “a system” and need one imposed (sometimes the messy room is a messy room–needs to be cleaned, sometimes the desk is a sign of genius).

      Everyone has a place in life if they choose to maximize potential. I didn’t do well sitting in cubes with files. I need to be everywhere simultaneously. If you put me in a box, I won’t thrive. But am I a failure? I would not cast that label on myself:)

      Curious to see the direction that ed reform is headed on many of these issues. I’m still trying to clarify a bunch of the conflicting messages swirling around, then I’ll have a better idea.

  3. I’m all for ‘different’ thinking but as a very non linear (read scattered, very likely ADD) thinker myself, I find the lack of efficiency exhausting. The piles of interesting thoughts and ideas are meaningless if they just end up in a million notebooks. I wish someone had labeled me early on and handed me a few strategies to make productivity easier. And, by the way, at 41 my bookbag is still barfing books and papers…

  4. I admit I have a “Shut the hell up and do your homework!” problem! But categorizing it as ADHD isn’t right in my mind. Just because someone works differently in order to process information or remember things easier. As you know I could get my work done and done right but I couldn’t do it in complete silence! Either talking with Cynthia or humming to myself always made me feel better!

    • True, there are real medical criteria in diagnosing such things. I’ve been handed more than one book, with a finger pointing that said, “Hey, this is you!” It ends up being a catch all term. But the bottom line is that people shouldn’t feel that different has to be a diagnosis or that even if it is it’s somehow an issue. Maybe it’s really a gift or blessing…

  5. Mrs. Casey, you’ve seen me grow from a mere 14-year-old freshman who had a touch of “Shut the hell up and do your homework!” syndrome, to a more efficient 17-year-old senior who still has some shutting up to do, but never once did you tell me that I wasn’t capable of doing my work. I’ve had teachers who thought of me as a lost cause, a kid who wasn’t worth the time of day, until they saw what I was actually capable of—straight A’s and honor role. I don’t view my method of working as procrastination, I view it as working efficiently! I work well under pressure, in fact, I prefer it. When I’m up to my eyeballs in homework is when I really shine, so I pile up those IOU’s from as many teachers as I can until I can’t bare it. I do things differently, and I never understood why, but teachers like you inspire me to continue thinking the way I do, because being different is okay.

    • Thank you!!! That was really, really touching! Sometimes, I’ll admit, procrastination is procrastination, so you do have to be on guard.

      Time management is a critical skill to have as you graduate and move forward. I’ve always been on overload, so I always knew if I didn’t get XX done, there’d be no second chance. Even today, I was just thinking today that it would be great to sit and have coffee with my Google calendar which runs my life. I have to adjust the bells, whistles and alerts that it uses to command my life.

      You just have to make sure you stay one with that vision–because this next year is going to be a really big one for you! You’re going to knock it out of the park:)

  6. “The Box” suffocates so much potential along the way. I, too, hope ed reform can find some way to at least build more rooms in the box, because we have so many square pegs that are daily asked to jam themselves into round holes. ~ Kat

    • Well, Kat, I’m afraid that ed reform will be building padded rooms–I may need one. You give me 250 students and I’m fine. I’m not even unhappy with the new direction in standards/data collection. I’m unhappy with the ratings system that makes me not want to take the educational chances that do well–sure, they can continue to do well for my students and I can score really high, OR maybe something happens and my genius didn’t quite align to “the test” or a group didn’t get something…I want my data to promote analysis not fear and concern. I take what I do very, very seriously…We shall see long-term.

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. you and me, we’re the same. I know we don’t know each other from Adam but reading your work let’s me know that being “weird” is a good thing and I’m glad I’m no where near normal. kudos!

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