Purple Butterflies

I’ve been telling a lot of people about my recent diagnosis.  A common response is self-comparison.  “I forget things; maybe I have it too.”  I wonder how much of this response stems from the everyone’s a little ADHD meme. It’s true our symptoms are not unique.  As my wife said, “It’s not like you have purple butterflies streaming out of your nose.”

Most people get distracted sometimes, most people forget things, and have trouble getting started on or finishing something.  When people are tired or stressed, their ability to do executive functions declines.  There’s no symptom that I’m aware of that’s totally unique to ADHD.  If we had facial tics or extra fingers or the aforementioned limentis arthemis nasal discharge, it would be a different story.

Red-spotted Purple Butterfly - Bright Angel Ca...

Image by Al_HikesAZ via Flickr

I used to think ADHD was sort of made-up too.  When I started teaching college writing many years ago I remember working with a student on a paper about ADHD in children.  The issue was overdiagnosis, and she had listed the DSM symptoms in her paper: trouble sitting still, trouble paying attention, impulsiveness, etc.  I understood her argument, I said, because these are also the symptoms of being a child. And I congratulated myself on my cleverness. To me, the situation seemed ripe for overdiagnosis.  If drugs made kids compliant (something I’m not a fan of anyway having been largely bored by school), then there would be a conflict of interest.

But that’s not the same as saying that everyone has it (and by implication, no one).  That argument is a subtle aggression as those who do.  The subtext is that those who do fit the criteria are just lazy or immoral:  they just can’t control themselves in the way that most people do.

As a result of my early exposure to arguments about ADHD, for most of my adult life I’ve believed that I just needed more self-control.  I’ve been consistently inconsistent as long as I can remember.  I can do great things, but most of the time I can’t seem to muster up the energy to do so, or repeat the feat after one good performance.  I always did well with a coach, a good teacher, or a mentor, but take away that support and I struggled.  I thought that other people just had more energy, were more grown up, that if I could just get my act together and stop being a flake, I could achieve something important in life.

Some of those things are true.  Lots of people around me, in academia, do have more energy and stamina than I do.  But the reason is not morality; it’s the inefficiency in my head, my difficulty with certain partsof tasks that causes me to expend more mental energy than I have to.  But it doesn’t have to do with my maturity or morality.  That’s a story that’s grown around the problem.


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The difference between me and a lazy person is that I strongly desire to accomplish things, but can’t muster the day-to-day energy and focus that’s required of the things I want to accomplish.  A lazy person just doesn’t want to accomplish anything.  It’s become apparent to me why I have trouble with energy upon learning my test results.

I can illustrate the reason with an example. Recently at a committee meeting, we were revising a document.  I was one of two English professors at the meeting, so of course we were nominated to do the writing.  I deferred to my colleague.  The basic task of the revision was to take a long list of bullet points and condense it to the essential few.

There were many angles to consider and many points and counter-points going back and forth, and sometimes two or more side conversations going on as well.  A couple of people were taking notes on paper, but nothing was up on a screen or anything.  The man next to me did not speak English as his first language, so he had trouble following and kept whispering to me: Which one are we on now?  Did we take this one out?

I finally had to say to him that I have trouble following this format for a meeting and so couldn’t help him.  It was true.  I had given up trying to follow what was going on because I was lost.

I got lost for several reasons. Keeping up with the conversation required making a mental list and attending to several conversations at once.  It was also Friday afternoon at the end of a long week where I worked long days and evenings too (working with my online students in conferences).  I had trouble sleeping that week too.  Also, the meeting was held in a room that I hadn’t been in before. It was a large room, set up almost like a big classroom, but with a few tables pushed together in the middle with some chairs around it.  There were about three times as many chairs as people scattered throughout the room.  Also, I couldn’t help assessing the technology; the computer stations, the projectors, even where all the outlets were.  I kept getting distracted by all the things to look at in the room.

While I could not quite keep up with the conversation, I could contribute.  I could point out when a suggestion might conflict with another part of the document because I had that in front of me.  And I could listen (with my eyes closed seemed to help) when the drafts were read back and could pick out a grammar issue here or there.  I also know that I am good at this committee’s overall kind  of work, just not this particular task, so I don’t feel misplaced on the committee.  But I knew the task ahead of time and did not look forward to this meeting because of it.

I noticed that other people did not have the same trouble following along, even if they were not taking notes.  They could easily keep the mental list at the ready, and say “No, we said that in the second bullet.”  And it did not seem to strain them to do so.

When I thought about this meeting later, I remembered past situations as well.  I had been a member of the faculty senate a few years.  We would often work on the wording of a policy, but with forty-five people involved instead of a dozen.  In such situations I would quickly get frustrated and tune out.  My inner argument would say “I already know how I would write it, so I don’t have to pay attention while other people get up to speed.”  Or “They’re just arguing over minutiae.” However, there would be a bit of arrogance there; I often didn’t know all the important angles.  Also, it did not occur to me that I might actually not be able to keep up because of the circumstances (too many things to attend to, too much reliance on working memory).

I would excuse myself (you’re tired, you’ve got a lot on your mind) or berate myself (just grow up and pay attention).  Similarly, in my long, unhappy relationship with grading papers, I could not understand why I had so much trouble.  My self talk would say, This isn’t that hard, it should be easy for you.

It’s true, I have a high facility for language (again, test results!).  In fact, I don’t have trouble with a certain type of grading: rating.  Once a year, we do an honors exam on campus, part of which is an essay.  I’m one of the raters of the essays, and I have a pretty easy time reading the whole thing and forming an overall impression.  That’s true with poetry, too.  I can evaluate a poem pretty quickly and come to an aesthetic judgement right away.

But my problem with grading papers is to have to translate that evaluation to a message for the student that the student will accept and not tune out.  And sometimes the papers are so bad it’s hard to know where to start.  And when you do start, you have to keep the ten or twelve or fifty things in mind and select among them while writing and (back in the day) try to write neatly or (more recently) manage all the files and downloads and uploads and PDF conversions and putting the right score in and, ugh. . .

That translated to a lot of energy drain.  I would avoid grading papers until the last minute and then do them in a caffeine and sugar fueled rush, even from my days as a graduate assistant.  I would constantly admonish myself: You should be able to do this! There are people starving in the world and you’re making yourself miserable over nothing.

The way I see it now, it is true that, given my language abilities I should be able to do this easily.  But I can’t.  My troubles with working memory, focus, and motivation that stem from ADHD make it hard.  This whole mechanism has been a great mystery until recently.  I did not understand for more than fifteen years why I seemed to have so much difficulty grading papers.  I’ve had plenty of explanations, but none seemed to make sense at the core until now.  I never expect that grading won’t be a chore, but it shouldn’t be a source of absolute malaise.