Movers, Dreamers, and Risk-Takers: a long and winding book review that ends up being mostly about me.

Also see my interview with Kevin and enter a drawing for a free copy.

Short Version:

I like it.  Book is fun.

Long Version:

I was contacted by a promoter about doing a review of this book and I agreed.  I like reading and writing, so why not?  When I got the book, though, I remembered that book recommendations from other people are a complicated business.  You see, being a writer and writing teacher, having degrees in creative writing, I’ve developed a sensitive aesthetic when it comes to books.  Sort of the way my wife, a musician with a highly trained hear cannot stand the blues because of all the note bending, so do I have a sensitive ear for language—the other night at the poetry workshop I go to, for instance, I had to explain at length why I loved a poem except for the word “imaginary” that stuck out like a wrong note and ruined the whole effect for me. Yep.  I’m that guy.

So this business of “oh, here’s a book you might like” is a precarious situation.  I read many many books, but I cannot read every book I start.  If something in the writing puts me off, then I’m done.  It’s like being set up on a date by your parents.  Or when my wife’s uncle and I first met; we’re both English professors, so people assumed we would hit it off (we did, eventually; I can almost get past his specialty in 18th century British literature, when everyone knows the 19th century is where it’s at).

So I received Kevin Roberts’ book Movers, Dreamers, and Risk-Takers: Unlocking the Power of ADHD with this trepidation.  Roberts is a writer and stand-up comedian and ADHD coach, and I automatically think hmm, too many job titles, a jack of all trades and master of none.  Even though I fancy myself an English professor, blues guitarist, poet, blogger, publisher, woodworker, yoga-meditation-contemplative educator, and, well, okay, maybe three isn’t so many.

I was also wary of the cover.  It seems like the other 1,001 self-help books out there, promising hope that only if you read this book, you will fix everything in our lives.  My Buddha self bristles at that; the only real problem (that voice says) is our own desires, created by the same media-advertising complex that created the self-help industry in the first place, and that little (or great) feeling of unease that we all have is called suffering and the Buddha says through meditation and mindfulness we take on the desire directly, rather than the impediments to fulfilment. Were he alive today, his book would be The Buddha:  How to Eliminate the Self and Achieve Nirvana in Eight Easy Steps.

Anyway, I start reading, and my English professor/literary self starts to get a bit critical.  Too many linking verbs; cut the word count by 5%.   I read a lot of memoir as well and am a humor addict, so I have a high standard there (like, David Sedaris).  So some of the humor’s not working for me at first.

But then I read the most apt description of my own experience with ADHD I’ve ever read:

Procrastination, although an often annoying and self-sabotaging behavior, can serve to increase cerebral arousal. ADHDers often talk about needing intensity in order to get motivated to work.  While it may always seem like an unproductive behavior, leaving things until the last minute creates a crisis, which then creates the level of neurotransmitters and cerebral arousal needed to stimulate the brain enough to focus on the task.  This is why many ADHDers function well in jobs that require crisis and intensity.

This quote puts together what I’ve read about ADHD neurospychlogy with my experience.  If I had this explanation ten years ago then maybe . . . . It also explains that although I started this review a month ago, I only really got going last night.  Okay, early this morning.  Okay, like 10:00 this morning.

This book is, like most ADHDers, a combination of many things: memoir, humor, psychology, and self help.  There are bits of science intertwined with stories of therapies gone well (and wrong) as well as the adventures of growing up with undiagnosed ADHD in a house full of similar minds: “my family made me seem normal, despite a stream of negative messages from the outside world.”

For instance, here’s my favorite joke from the book:

If, when you ask your kid, “How many times do I have to tell you,” she answers, “Forty-five,” she might be ADHD . . . and a smart aleck.  And, by the way, she is actually correct.

I am reminded of the number of times my wife has told me not to leave the freezer lid open downstairs . . . I better go check it now.

I am also frequtenlty reminded of myself reading this book.  For instance, he writes that ADHDers are attracted by get-rich-quick schemes “because we value our independence and bristle at authority . . . . We prefer to be on our own, but often lack the skills that we need to be independently successful.”   This week I am on my own with the kids because my wife is visiting her mom on the East Coast, and I encouraged her to go and looked forward to the opportunity to get some solitude (after the kids go to bed).  I imagined all the things I would get done!

Instead I am reminded how difficult it is to stay on schedule without another grownup around (I just get done with the dishes with the last meal—after stretching out the task taking too many Law and Order breaks—and these kids want to eat again!) and I have wasted my “alone” time playing Bioshock.  Another quote: “I, like many ADHD adults, used to hide in front of my computer screen, playing games, not answering my phone for hours on end, and disengaging from the world.”  HAVE YOU BEEN SECRETLY FOLLOWING ME AROUND, KEVIN ROBERTS???  No, that’s first-person-shooter paranoia.  (Have you seen Bioshock, though?  It’s Art-Deco meets The Fountainhead meets Night of the Living Dead.  Three of my favorite things: aesthetics, overconfident philosophers getting their comeuppance, and zombies.)

So I realize that my initial reaction of, eh, too many things going on in this book was actually rooted in jealousy, in that I wanted more of it to be about me.  He offers advice to parents, spouses, and teachers of children and adults with ADHD.   Some of it seems radically simple, but good.  For instance, he has a chapter titled “Do The Opposite” which begins thusly:

Trying to help an ADHDer create lasting change can be a thankless task, if not an exercise in futility. . . . The first mistake most people make is thinking ADHD folks are just like them.  If ADHDers could conform to accepted behavioral standards, armchair wisdom holds, their troubles would be over.  Many of the choices we ADHDers make seem counter to logic and reason . . . . Often, the more [people] try to help the ADHDer, the more they succeed in pushing that person away.

The result of a long conversation I had last week with my wife—rather, a long argument—was a brilliant solution she came up with.  When she wants me to get something done, rather than ask me to do it, and then reminding me later that I agreed to do it, and then getting fed up with my excuses and further promises, she decided instead that she will “hire” me for jobs, just say “can you work for me from one to three on Saturday,” and she will tell me what to do then.  I actually get a lot done when I can focus on something, such as pulling weeds from the side bed.  I need to get started.  When I go outside I see the weeds, and the brush pile that needs to go to recycling, and the old television antenna that needs to come down, and paint that needs to be repaired, and the driveway that needs to be replaced, and the stump that needs to be pulled, and the garage that needs to be cleaned out, and, and, and.  So although I seem to resist being told what to do, I instead resist piling a job on the could-you-get-this-done-soon stack.  Just having time set aside to focus on a task (with another grownup around) is relief.

I’ve also tried the “do the opposite” strategy with my kindergarten son who shows signs of ADHD.   I realized, after reading this chapter, that no matter how hard I try, I cannot make him hurry, unless I physically move him or get him dressed or whatever.  And, he resists changing activities most of the time; every night, he resists going to bath time, even though he loves to have a bath.  So, this opposite strategy means that in order to make him move, I have to make things a game, a joke, silly fun time.  For the attention-typical world, that would be a delaying strategy, but it makes things go faster and smoother with him.

Furthermore, one of his pieces of advice is to create the sort of intensity ADHDers need to get going.  There are many strategies for this, but they are less crazymaking than the usual procrastination/crisis strategies ADHDers seek.  In order to finish this review, for example, I created all sorts of bad mojo in my life, but here I am cranking it out, getting juiced by the creative energy, the sparking assoications (I have a friend named Mojo and he’s a nice guy), feeling energized and a sort of calm even though I felt raving and stuck last night.  He has strategies for creating that creative intensity without all the self-flagellation and constant disappointment.

So, in order not to risk giving away the whole movie in the preview, I’ll stop there. And I’ll go re-read this book.  In fact, even though I got the free copy, I’m buying it for my Kindle, so I can re-read and re-highlight it.  And stop spying on me, Kevin Roberts!

Come now, Mr. Bubbles. Time to go answer your e-mail.

Supplements are not Supplemental

Pema Chödrön

Pema Chödrön (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I started the summer semester in a general funk.  (For my academic year, “summer” starts mid May.  My kids are finishing school this week, but I’m already a quarter of the way in.)  I had blamed a couple of things.  For one, I’m back on a totally online teaching schedule.  Also, there are no meetings or committee work going on.  So I’m not around bodies.  When I’m around other people in a professional context, it energizes me.  Going to the coffee bar to do some work has a similar effect, but I was back to my old self who couldn’t get energized to do anything, not to do the steps that would allow me to do the work.  I also was blaming it on allergies, and the weather, and whatnot.

But the real culprit was that I ran out of some of my supplements, and thought, well, I wasn’t taking it all that often anyway, so I guess I don’t need it.

I’m of two minds about supplements.  First, I’m a skeptic.  There are so many charlatans and snake oil salesmen out there.  Plus there’s the placebo effect, such as when Hank Azaria’s character in The Birdcage gives Nathan Lane’s character “pirin” tablets to calm his nerves, which turn out to be aspirin with the A and S scraped off.  I think one of the strongest forces of human nature is self deception.  In that way, I’m even the anti-placebo.  I don’t want the supplements to work.  They’re expensive, and the ones we need are mail order, so if we screw up and run out, there’s no running to the drug store to get more.  Plus they are pretty much not taken seriously by our doctors.

But they work.  I finally admitted I needed to order my B-12 and after a day I started feeling normal again, meaning only mediocrity instead of raving incompetence.  I use a spray, and have tried other drugstore varieties of B-12 and they don’t work, even though I want them to because they are cheaper.  I also take Megared krill oil. My wife, having done hours of research about our youngest to try to avoid giving him prescription meds, ordered me a new supplement for me, monolaurin.  A whose whatsit? I asked my wife.  “It’s a fatty acid that helps your brain.”  I can never remember the names of things (I had to go get the bottle to write this) so I just call it the fat ass pill.

Now, I’m hesitant to write this, because I strongly believe that we all respond to substances differently and I don’t want to be giving medical advice or anything but this new fat ass pill IS F-ING AWESOME! Again, this is the skeptic saying what is this piece of hogwash you’re giving me about coconuts? But I was wrong.  Very very wrong.

I’ve taken it for two days now, and I’ve had two of the most calmly productive days I can remember.  Way different from too-much-Ritalin mania.  I’ve worked steady and focused for two solid days now, despite having my sleep interrupted by allergy attacks (mine and my family’s) and sinus headaches.  In fact, I went to the office this afternoon and worked steadily on my real work the entire afternoon, without drifting to Facebook or SecondLife or People Of WalMart.  I did the magic productivity trick: I asked what is the most important thing to do now?  Then I did it.

So, here’s my regimen right now (again this works for me, for now):

In the morning: coffee, Concerta 54mg, B-12, krill oil, monolaurin.

Another dose of caffeine in the afternoon: coffee if I’m being good, soda if I’m not.

At dinner, B-12 and monolaurin again.

I eat regular meals and try not to hit the vending machine too much.

I’ve also been going to yoga class twice a week for ninety minutes, and usually do a few minutes each day, just to stretch out my back.  I’m also an amateur Buddhist, and have been reading texts on mindfulness again and meditating.  Those practices are usually the groundwork for good mind/body stuff.

(As an aside, my favorite Buddhist writer is Pema Chodron.  In the recent book I’m reading, she recommends having some sort of reminder to pause and be aware of breath.  I use Google Calendar for everything, and I do hundreds of appointments with students each semester.  For every appointment, Google pops up a reminder for me, which lately has been annoying, until I took her advice.  Every time I get a Google reminder, I pause and stare at the word OK and count three full breaths.  It’s a silly little practice, but it has the effect of centering my mind, a mini-meditation before I talk to a student.)

It’s hard to know what’s essential, what affects mood exactly.  My short list is meds, exercise, food, sunlight, caffeine, alcohol, meditation, allergens, atmospheric pressure, working environment, positive feedback, finances, bodily pain, digestion, writing, reading, relationships, holidays, phone calls, and le Tour de France.  I love July, for example, because it has sunlight, good pay, my birthday, and that bike race with the fancy name.

I tend to think that therapies or interventions work on three different areas: physiology, environment, and psychology.  For example, drugs work on brain chemistry, accommodations work on the environment, and talk therapy or mindfulness works on the thinking.  All these things intertwine to make a person, and none by itself makes a whole person.  I spent many years in talk therapy and put many things to rest, but never addressed the core issues, never understood why I kept doing things counter to my logical self interest. I spent many more years trying to force myself into roles that I thought I should occupy, given the way I read the environment.  The real need was to fit in, instead of making my own way.

Le tour de France 2007 - Waregem

Le tour de France 2007 – Waregem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These last two days I’ve been productive, resilient, positive, and not so worrisome.  I’m also not having those deep existential night fears about dying; that’s my litmus test for good mind.  If I think about mortality and its inevitability, and I get that sort of down-to-my-toes terror, then I’m in a bad way. If I think about it and convince myself it’s not going to happen, then I’m in denial. If I think about it and feel equanimity, then I am in a sane way.

The Birdcage

The Birdcage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Diagnosis II: Eeyore gets groceries

I came away from my day of testing last month with mixed messages.  Yesterday’s results session offered absolute clarity.  Any doubts I had about testing went away yesterday when the doctor went over the report with me.  No one has ever described my interior life so accurately.  It is shocking to feel so deeply understood by someone who I’ve only spent a few hours with.

She began the report by saying how insightful the cognitive testing is, and how grateful she was to have such a tool.  She told me when I went in for my first interview, that she had me pegged for ADHD, that I hit all the criteria.  Then, when she began to go over the results of the testing, at first things seemed unclear, until they took a look at the whole picture.

She started with the measures of IQ.  On the verbal measures I tested at 98th percentile (“so, you’re in the right career,” she said).  Reasoning tested at 95th percentile. Damn, not quite Mensa, I thought,  but still, yay for me.

Then she started to go through the scores that measured things like visual and auditory processing and executive function.  It seems on a lot of measures I tested at average or just below average.  For example, on the test where I had to click when the computer said or flashed 1 but not 2, I had good accuracy, but surprisingly slow reaction time.  Below average for the visual, in fact.

They were astonished that I worked so slowly on the connect-the-dots test (called the “Trail Making Test”), and that I even made mistakes, practically unheard of for people in my IQ and advanced degree range.  The report says:

It is quite striking that Mr. Taylor struggled so much on the Trail Making Test.  Not only was his speed significantly slower than expected for his age and intellectual ability, but he actually made errors, which is very atypical for someone of his intellectual level and educational background.

Throughout the meeting the doctor marked where my tests fell on the bell curve of averages for my age and the split was striking.  IQ at the top; everything else middle or below.

They were also confused on my divided memory test: I had to remember three letters while counting backwards by threes.  I did okay on the short duration, lousy on the medium duration, but better on the long duration.  I told her that I had figured out on the long duration just to make a word out of the three letters.  I could remember one word, but not three letters.  She said that’s the intellect at work, constantly compensating for deficiencies in memory and processing.  There was a note on my evaluation that my performance often improved once I “settled in” to a task.

Something else I found really interesting was that my own perception of how I did on many of the tests was way off.  On the “1 and 2” test, I thought I was clicking really fast, especially when responding to the visual cues. But my response time was low, especially on the visuals.   On some of the language stuff, though, I thought I was struggling, but I scored really high.  I thought I did really well on the tower test, but again, only average for my age.  And I had no clue that I did so poorly on the Trail Making Test.

One thing we discussed about these problems in my life was grocery shopping.  My wife’s in charge of the food, so sometimes I go to the store with a list of things to get.  If there’s more than three things, I need a list because I can’t remember four things.  However, if I have a long list, I have to triple check the list.  I get things from the list, check the list frequently to remind myself what I have done and what I have left to get.  At the end of the trip, I have to stand in the store and check the entire list one more time to make sure I got everything.  If I don’t, what happens is that I’ll have thought something like “I’m in frozen foods now, but I should get the ice cream on my way out so it doesn’t melt.”  At the end of the trip, that somehow has translated in my memory to “I got the ice cream.”  I’ll get home and can’t believe I don’t have ice cream.  So I have to check the items one by one right before I check out to make sure I actually got them.  Add to that my slow visual processing, and I have to be extra careful that I don’t get something “diet” or “lite” (’cause we eat real food in our house).

This all adds up to far more mental effort than it should take, and my wife worries about me because I’m gone ninety minutes to pick up ten things and we live two miles from Meijer.

So certain tasks, which should be easy for me end up being mentally taxing.  Because they are simple tasks, they are also frustrating because I keep making mistakes, or my mind moves faster than my perceptions or my execution or there are gaps in my memory.  (In fact, in my technical communication class today I could not for the life of me remember the name of our textbook.  A student said “um, Technical Communication.”)

When I teach an online class, there are a lot of things to keep track of and a lot of settings to manage on the web site.  When I get a new week’s materials ready, there might be twenty or thirty tasks to get the materials ready to go.  I can think of all the tasks rapid fire, but I can’t hold more than a handful in memory.  I try to work fast to keep up with my brain, but I end up making a lot of mistakes unless I am slow and deliberate.  What happens, then, is a lot of mistakes or a lot of procrastination because the task seems overwhelming.

I’ve learned to keep a legal pad next to the computer so I can write down the list of tasks that comes zooming out of my brain as I’m thinking of them and before I forget them.  It’s like I’m writing down my working memory.  The list helps keep me from getting overwhelmed.  When I am in a bad way, the tasks keep circling noisily in my head like a flock of birds, and I resist even getting started, because choosing a task makes some of the others fly away.  So I read the news or watch funny videos on the computer instead.

The final diagnosis: ADHD with dysthymia (or “mild” depression, but with “severe symptoms”).  She suspected based on my case history that both have been there for a long time.  So long that I’ve treated them just as part of my personality rather than a problem.  The biggest problem is the drain of energy that the combination makes.  The ADHD makes a lot of tasks mentally taxing, frustrating, and discouraging.  Depression saps even more energy, and will make it difficult to sustain any effort that depends mostly on my own motivation (such as grading papers alone vs. at a conference with a student).  It makes it difficult to sustain the effort to make any long-term project work, or any time management or money management system.  I totally agreed.  I don’t know if when I fail at something like that if it’s a bad system for me, a bad system in general, or just my motivation working against me.  I didn’t finish my Ph.D., for example, because I could never make good progress on the dissertation.  I had a great topic, I found lots of research and read most of it, but spent hours and hours trying to decide on a note-taking system and stalling out and deciding on another system and stalling out again until I just gave up.

The best thing she said was that it is difficult to retain any optimism in this state: “It’s like you have to crank yourself up just to get to Eeyore level.”

*  *  *

The doctor made a bunch of recommendations, but its up to me to carry them out.  I just hired her, essentially, to do the evaluation.  The recommendations include seeing my doctor ASAP to get started on some meds, and a referral to a counselor and a computer-based training system called “Cogmed.”  All things I have trouble getting started on: making phone calls, seeing the doctor, checking with the insurance company to see what’s paid for.

Since the diagnosis, I’ve been through the gamut of emotions.  I felt greatly relieved and understood during the session.  In fact, I didn’t want it to end.  I wanted to stay and talk to the psychologist for hours.  On the way home I got tired and started to feel overwhelmed by the number of things I had to do that week and at the prospect of having to make phone calls to begin my treatment.  My wife had to go to a rehearsal out of town, so as I got the kids ready for bed, I had a good rumination session.  I would feel positive about the possibilities one minute (maybe I will be a novelist after all) and the next I was grieving for all the lost years spent doing half-assed and directionless work, or no work at all.

At one point I realized I shared something with my autistic son.  The school psychologist used the term “splinter skills” to describe his enigmatic abilities: advanced on some things, way behind on others.  The term has always stuck with me; the poet in me likes the alliterative esses and the two hard stops of the t and the k.  I’ve used the title for a collection of poems about about my son.  Turns out the apple doesn’t fall far from the Eeyore.

Used white paper behind apple and above apple ...

Image via Wikipedia

Eeyore being sad.

Image via Wikipedia

Why Doesn’t The Writing Cure Help Poets?

Here’s a fun study I came across today whilst not doing my real work.

The fundamental question: if expressive writing is supposed to be therapeutic, and if poets are some of the most expressive writers in the world, why are they so dang unhappy on the whole?

Here’s the direct link to a PDF file:

And here’s the abstract:

This paper examines the literature on creative writing and mental illness and relates it to the “writing cure” research that shows that expressive writing improves health. There is an abundance of evidence that professional poets have poorer health outcomes relative to both other writers and to the population at large. Why doesn’t the writing cure help them? The formation of a narrative, an element often missing in poetry, may provide the answer. Other possible explanations are that poets may be more depressed to begin with and may be even worse off if they did not write. For female poets, they may be subject to stereotypic expectations about writing themes, which may put them at further risk. Those seeking improvements in health through writing are advised to adopt a narrative style.

I fancy myself a poet, so I dunno.  I’ve always imagined myself happier as a “real” poet with publication credits, a couple of books, maybe a grant or other award.  Didn’t seem to help Sylvia, though.  Maybe she needed a more narrative style.

Maybe, as the article asserts, I would feel worse if I didn’t have any connection to expressive art, if I were, say, an accountant or a bricklayer or a farmer.  I think farmer would be the worst choice, given my propensity for killing plants.  Having to get up and do the same thing every day would not be me.  I come from a family of dairy farmers, but I did not inherit the dairy farm work ethic.  (Maybe that’s why no one in my family farms any more.)  Accountant I could do.  I love me a good spreadsheet.  An accountant who writes villanelles.  Maybe there’s an Excel template for that.

Or maybe—

<sigh> Back to grading papers . . .

Sylvia Plath

Image via Wikipedia