Little ADD Things: If I can’t see it, I forget it exists

There are several things that I often say. I apologise too much, I say “isn’t it” a fair amount, and I blurt out nonsense whenever I catch sight of an animal. (“You’re a great dog yes you are yes you are!”) One of the things I’ve said a lot recently is “Sorry, if I can’t see something I forget it’s there.”
I’ve come to realise this is pretty central to my experience of having a weird brain, but I figured I’d note it down – along with the strategies I use now – in case it helps anyone else. It’s pretty embarrassing to admit, but I doubt I’m the only one.
I need to have things around me that I use, or am working on. I like to have things out because once those things are put away, I forget they exist.
This goes for projects, whether creative or schoolwork. When I’m working on something, I like to be immersed in it; but once the project work is tidied away into folders I’m liable to forget it’s important. And as soon as I forget, I move on to something else.
I like the project to be visible and present. Whenever I research organisational skills, I find the suggestion “Put sticky notes up around your room! Put reminders up!” But reminders didn’t work for me, because they quickly fade into the background.
The best thing for me, generally, is just to have the project itself be as visible as possible.
When I was working on my dissertation, I had the document with my draft in it constantly up on my laptop. I also had the contents page, the notes page, and a list of sources to look at. I had a browser window open, where my research was tabbed and bookmarked. I had the books and notes out, too, so all in all I couldn’t walk in my room or open my laptop without being reminded that I was on deadline and should schedule a research trip.
I figured out I needed to do this because I previously procrastinated for four months and did no dissertation work whatsoever. I had some notes in a folder saved in a corner of my laptop, and that was it. But once I started working on it, and the project became visible and ever-present, my brain clicked into action. “Oh, this is important! Well, let’s do it!”
This all leads to some… eccentric habits, and odd situations. Like keeping all your clothes out on hangers, (because when you put them away in drawers you forget they are there). Or being surprised when you open a drawer and find an entire old project that you forgot about but for a brief time was the most important thing you’d ever done.
I got a new laptop last year through the disabilities programme at university, and had to have a ‘training session’ with an advisor. The advisor was horrified to see my Documents folder, which was a kind of bin for essays and other writing. It meant whenever I clicked on Documents, I could see everything I was working on at once. It was a kind of maelstrom of works in progress, completed essays, old poems, and article drafts.
“This is terrible.”
“But I like it this way,” I said.
“Put everything in folders,” she said. “Divide the folders by subject or topic.”
I practised saving documents neatly into the right folder for two weeks. After that I went back to saving files straight into the bin, with a sense of relief.
Having individual folders probably works for many people, but for me it was dreadful. I was a lot more likely to continue working on that important essay when it was the first thing I saw in Documents, not when it had been saved into the Japanese Art subject folder where I’d never look at it again.
I am not saying this is a perfect system, or even a good one. But this way the documents are alphabetised, and they’re out where I can see them. It’s like those people who have cluttered workspaces, but still know where everything is.
This also goes for books. I like Kindle because you can scroll through all the books you’re currently reading – all together! All in one place! – rather than having to hunt around to find all the books you’re reading. It even shows you where you’re up to with each book. Its layout is such that I feel comfortable saving books into folders and setting up reading lists.
I am still trying to find the perfect system. I’ve made great progress in minimising the amount of clutter in my room, tidying away anything unnecessary or unused and keeping the things that I use visible in my living space. But like everything else, it’s a never-ending work in progress.

On writing about mental health and exploring vulnerability

Last year I wrote a post where I declared:

“One problem with [media] presentations of mental illness is that they assume everyone’s problems will be helped by the same techniques. More importantly, the issue is always placed firmly in the past tense: “I was anxious, but then I…”

I’ve been writing this blog for ten months now and it’s taught me a few things: like, writing about mental health is hard. Sometimes you just have to crack on and do it.
Since writing that post I’ve definitely hit a temptation to place experiences in the past tense. “Should I write that my anxiety is flaring up? Should I be open about my intrusive thoughts? Or should I couch it in general terms?”
Sometimes this tension occurs because it’s hard to write from the centre of ongoing experience. You end up removing yourself from your writing, however autobiographical it looks. But then I find the more of myself I put in a post, the more people enjoy it, and I still don’t know why.
One thing I do know is that whilst I use my experiences to write about mental health and disability, the blog isn’t dedicated to documenting my issues. I don’t really like people using my blog to check up on me personally, because I think the content of my writing is more important than whatever it says about me.
The paradox is that I write openly, so I have to remember that my life is not public domain and I am under no obligation to share everything.
I once saw the poet Warsan Shire read, and I remember the room went quiet. There were gasps and some tears. By the end of the reading I had heard exquisite poems that explored vulnerabilities and trauma, but I knew as much about Shire herself as I had at the start.
Nor did I feel I needed to know. That’s not what her work is for.
Some people are keen on investigating the hidden autobiographical meanings in confessional poetry and this is because the poet has played a trick. They’ve confessed, but they haven’t told you everything – and why should they? Vulnerability is a precious thing which should be handled with great care.
The compulsion to overshare in public can be cathartic, but it’s also addictive. We live in a culture where women’s suffering is frequently consumed as entertainment. In that environment I know I must take responsibility for my own experiences, and take control of what I share.
And lastly, that leads me to Liz Jones.
Much as I hate the Daily Mail, I like its journalist Liz Jones: she’s a good writer, albeit highly problematic. She has written openly about topics like her anorexia and OCD, her body image issues, and her self-hatred.
Last time I looked, the comments on her pieces were a mix of vitriol and concern. Liz Jones was mad, she was ugly, she needed help and the editors should intervene. It was like seeing a crowd watching someone having a breakdown.
My thoughts:
1) How awful to see someone’s suffering packaged as a fun lifestyle column to entertain readers.
2) It was brave of this writer to share private experiences, and a shame that she was stuck with an audience of Daily Mail readers.
3) What was drawing me, as a reader? Was it a negative fascination with Ms Jones herself, or was it that I had a nagging feeling she might be playing a trick – leading readers to believe everything she said was confessional, and then possibly making things up?
4) Was I complicit in suffering as spectacle? After all, it doesn’t matter what you think about a crowd if you’re part of it.
So I stopped reading.
I have no easy answers to these questions. But I admire anyone who writes from a place of vulnerability, who writes of unpopular experiences, who opens their wounds in writing. I just hope that vulnerability can be handled with care, not exploited by other people.
Lastly my thoughts on this are summed up in Jenny’s Diski’s piece ‘In Defence of Liz Jones’ and I suggest you read it in its entirety:

“I couldn’t see what the universally abominated Liz Jones… had done wrong… She was making a very personal statement about what it was like to be someone who continuously experienced life as not worth living…
In a world that didn’t demand an upbeat ending to every story, she might have been thought to be offering a real insight into a long-term depressive’s point of view. Other people in her condition (I’m one of them), seeing the way she’d been attacked, might conclude that it was better not to talk about their experience, for all that society presently tells itself that it is vital for people to express their feelings.”

Thoughts about thinking

On being illogical
Once I got in trouble at school. I was pulled aside by a fearsome teacher who bellowed at me “YOUR PROBLEM IS THAT YOU CAN’T THINK PROPERLY!” I was sixteen at the time. I still don’t know what she meant.
Actually, this teacher was constantly telling me off for the illogical way I thought. (She once told me that sometimes I “bordered on lunacy”.) This is because grammar schools like logical thinkers, not scatty maladaptive daydreamers.
Anyway, a while ago it struck me that maybe I don’t think properly.
I’d just finished writing an opinion at the time. Looking at what I’d written, it hit me that this was apparently something I thought – but I didn’t
know I thought it, until I wrote it down.
I am very suggestible; I can convince myself of anything. Sometimes arguments about abstract topics don’t feel real to me, so I pick the side that seems least bad. Later on, I see a contradiction of the position I chose and realise that I should think that instead. I am at best thinking about things that involve real situations and people, rather than solving abstract logical problems.
I wrote in my notebook:

“Maybe I don’t really think – I just seem to absorb ideas and sensations and arrange my impressions somehow. (But then, isn’t that just another way of thinking? It is just not the trad. academic way, where you have very verbal and linear thought processes.)”

In Philosophy lessons, I always preferred discussing moral questions to solving logical ones. Ethical questions are so complex and many-sided that it was more fun to explore them, through narrative, questions and discussion, than to ‘solve’ them.
Perhaps this is because I was raised Christian. When Christians answer ethical questions they work from a firm moral foundation, which gives them confidence to approach the question from all angles and admit it if they don’t know the answer. But then, that’s not at all exclusive to Christianity.
Perhaps it’s because I seem to understand ethical problems best through narrative, not logic.

Unbalanced brains
When I had my ADHD assessment I tested highly on verbal comprehension, reading accuracy, spelling, and working memory. That made sense because I know I can write, analyse books, comprehend complex texts, and play around with words.
In contrast to that, I scored much lower on remembering sequences, and on processing speed.
The clinical psychologist told me I have a processing delay. That explained why I sometimes see something happen and take a minute to understand what I saw. It also explained why I was branded “slow” in school, despite simultaneously being labelled “gifted”.

A superior way of thinking?
Society prioritises a certain kind of thought. Logical, linear thought, rationality, and set opinions are valued over intuition, making connections, vision, sensing, receptivity, pattern recognition, faith, and observation.
The qualities I listed second are often seen as being fuzzy, imprecise, inferior ways to think. But I’d contest that qualities like intuition and sensing can be extremely precise and useful skills.
Take music: a good conductor should have a painfully acute ear, and must be able to sense the ebbing and flowing energy in a performance and pick out any mistakes immediately. They must observe every aspect of a performance. Most musicians can hear music in their head, and have a strong sense of beauty.
Learning the science of music requires logic, yes, but music requires all your abilities. Pattern recognition and sensing are vital to music, and other disciplines too. We undervalue those skills greatly.

Let’s talk about the way Western society worships ‘cleverness’: which is basically seen as the ability to do maths and science, memorise a lot of information, problem-solve, and win arguments. In some circles, every issue must be up for debate (however sensitive), and being emotionally invested in a position is simply weird.
This attitude is based in a very white, Western, masculine conception of thought, which is itself rooted in structural oppression and prejudice. It was held for centuries that women are more intuitive, emotional, prone to hysteria and incapable of logic, whilst men were naturally more rational. (Those views are still being aired.) White supremacists also hold that other races are intellectually inferior and incapable of rational thought.
In this paradigm, white male = capable of rational thought, which makes you fully human (“I think, therefore I am.”) Anyone perceived to exist outside this bubble of rational thought must be less human. Rational thought has long been a trump card, held over the heads of people who are assumed to be inferior.

I am not saying that rational thought is Bad in itself; it can be used for great purposes, by people of any background. But I am saying that there is no superior thinking style, and that logic and rationality are perhaps overrated. Your way of thinking does not make you more or less human than anybody else. There is no inferior way to think!
Intuition, pattern recognition, sensing and emotion have long been seen as inferior to logic. How much of our prejudice against non-linear, intuitive thought is based on a bigoted view of thought?
That leads me on to my last point: that it’s ableist to worship logic.
I was 19 before I found out that some neurodivergent people find it hard to think in a linear, logical way. Before that I’d assumed being a good person and being rational were somehow the same thing, but neurodiversity advocates like Mel Baggs changed my perspective.
Much of Baggs’s writing is about hir thinking style, which is non-verbal and based on sensing and pattern recognition. Like many other Autistic people, sie is also preoccupied with ethics.
Being unable to think logically in the conventional way does not make someone wilfully ignorant, nor does logical ability necessarily make you a better person; you can build a logical argument to justify the most evil actions. Let’s not forget Aristotle and Plato argued logically for slavery, and 19th-century scientific racists thought their own arguments were highly rational. Thinking style has nothing to do with character or views.
However, different thinking styles have everything to do with people’s brains being wired differently, which makes for an interesting and diverse world.
So let’s not dislike ourselves for “not thinking properly”. Enjoy the way you think. It’s the only way you will ever know, and the world would be poorer without it.

Can you learn to love reading?

I have a young cousin who doesn’t like reading. She’ll open a book and read it to you, but after a minute you realise she’s making the story up or telling it from memory. Drag her through a text, word after word, and she quickly gets frustrated.
I’ve tutored other kids who felt similarly. They know how to read, but it’s such hard work – whether that’s because of learning disability, bad teaching, or any other reason. They have been taught to read; technically they know how to do it. But ask them questions about what they’ve read, and they go blank and shrug. To them, the page is full of traps. Reading is a horrible, grinding, plodding chore.
You can teach someone to read. But can you teach them to love reading? To read a book and understand and enjoy it? Plenty of people leave school knowing how to read, without learning to love reading. I’ve met educated adults who have never read a book for fun.
The latter always surprises me, but then I can’t remember when I didn’t read for pleasure. I thought reading was for pleasure, even though at school they said it was work.
Once I’d learned to read, I was unstoppable. When I was six my teacher phoned my parents and said wearily “We’ve run out of books for your daughter.” Dad asked if the school had a library. “She’s read the Junior Library,” the teacher replied.
Being a bookworm as a child is probably more fun than being one as an adult, because most adults aren’t really expected to read. No one will give you a gold star if you’ve read twenty books in a month. You don’t have to read for pleasure.
Why should you read for pleasure, anyway?
One could argue that reading is a necessary skill, and it doesn’t matter if you love reading so long as you can do it. You don’t have to love driving to drive a car. You don’t have to love maths to pay a bill. Reading for pleasure is just an extra.
To which my response is: what a drab, dry view of the world, where enjoying art is an extra! Where everyone reads the bare minimum only because they have to!
I think reading for pleasure is one of the best things anyone can do. Reading fiction helps you become more empathetic. Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom, it develops the mind, the imagination, and the heart.
And in daily life, we are now more than ever surrounded by words. On sites like tumblr and AO3, everyone is writing. Everyone is reading. Almost no one earns money from it. Why are we all doing this, if we’re not getting something out of it?
A love for reading is an advantage – albeit to the soul and not the wallet, although books in any format are less expensive than most hobbies. Capitalism doesn’t reward a love for reading, but then capitalism will only reward what is beneficial to itself, not what is beneficial to you.
Returning to my point: you can be taught how to read, but you can’t be taught how to love reading.
Not directly.
Good teachers can infect you with their enthusiasm for books. You can be put in the vicinity of a lot of books, which always helps.
But you’ve still got to sit down with the book and fight it out. You and the page. You and the author’s voice. You have to go forth and conquer.
To me, it seems people usually learn to love books by being… interested. There is no way to understate the amazing things humans can do if they are very interested in something. Take 
the author Sally Gardner:

I eventually ended up in a school for maladjusted children because there was no other school that would take me… I had been classified as “unteachable” but at the age of fourteen, when everyone had given up hope, I learned to read. The first book I read was “Wuthering Heights” and after that no one could stop me.

Then there’s the author Sue Townsend:

I was afraid of my primary-school teacher because, when we had to read out loud, she’d slap our legs if we got a word wrong. As a result I didn’t learn to read until I was eight, when I stayed at home ill… My mum brought a pile of Just William books home from a rummage sale and I taught myself to read with William—The Outlaw… Once I started to read, I never looked back.

I am not saying that being interested in something can always make you able to do it. What I am saying is that a love for reading cannot be taught, it is something you must discover for yourself. There are no short cuts, but plenty of rewards.
Virginia Woolf wrote:

“However we may wind and wriggle, loiter and dally in our approach to books, a lonely battle awaits us at the end. There is a piece of business to be transacted between writer and reader before any further dealings are possible.”*

*The Common Reader, Robinson Crusoe

Becoming a better reader

For someone who likes reading, I don’t think I’m very good at it. I read too fast – gobbling up reams of words, sometimes without even understanding them. I can only read for about an hour before getting distracted. I sometimes lose track of the story because I’m too busy analysing it in my head as I read it. I talk out loud to the author (“Come on, Hilary, that’s a bit sexist”) and I have been known to throw books across the room or scribble in the margins when they disappoint me.
More frustratingly, I often can’t visualise a story while I’m reading it. I understand most people can do this, but I can’t.
To me, it’s all about the music the words make.
I recently read Lucky Jim and cackled throughout, because God, even the way that book’s written is funny. It’s like a brilliantly told joke: you don’t just laugh at the content, but you laugh because the phrasing, the word choice, even the parentheses, are damn hilarious. It works as a piece of music as much as a piece of comedy. I don’t really visualise the book, I just… hear it.
Sometimes I read a story where I can tell the writer has carefully transcribed a scene which they can see very clearly: but I can only imagine a small bit of the scene at a time (rain on the window, wet fields, the branches of a tree). I can’t hold the whole scene in my head. At this point I feel like apologising to the author: “Sorry! The problem is not with your vision! I just can’t SEE things!”
So, I am trying to attune my senses. Trying to become a better reader.
That doesn’t mean teaching myself to visualise, but it does mean becoming more sensitive to the music of the words: knowing when a phrase is perfect, when a sentence’s cadence is satisfying. Asking myself, why is this sentence funny? What is it about this phrasing that makes this sentence work, while that sentence falls flat on its face? How can you tell one writer’s tone apart from another’s?
It’s difficult, learning to listen. But I know it’s possible, because at the age of eleven I taught myself to play piano.
Before then, music was a language I didn’t understand. I knew sometimes it made me shiver with joy, but didn’t know any more than that. I could hear music without really listening to it – like an English person who goes abroad and doesn’t speak the language.
Once I became more sensitive to music, it began to sound different. Colours and textures emerged from familiar songs: flights of silvery top notes, the bird-like call of a flute. Now I could tell apart the layers of harmony in a piece; I could appreciate the detailed work in a performance, its energy, its power.
But really I am still learning how to listen to music, just as I am learning to become a better reader. Everything is a learning process.
I’ve been reading both series of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, a book which always makes me want to read more deeply and widely. Woolf wrote that it is hard to be a good reader, that “reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing.”
To Woolf, the ‘common reader’ was someone who is “guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing”. The common reader is not a scholar nor a critic, but someone who reads for pleasure. This “hasty, inaccurate and superficial” reader is a kind of magpie, snatching up odds and ends for their own purpose.
I really don’t know if Woolf thought of herself as a common reader, but she certainly was not one. I think there have been few more imaginative, visionary, informed and responsive readers in the history of the world than Virginia Woolf. Take this, from her essay On Not Knowing Greek:

“Pick up any play by Sophocles… and at once the mind begins to fashion itself surroundings. It makes some background, even of the most provisional sort, for Sophocles; it imagines some village, in a remote part of the country, near the sea. Even nowadays such villages are to be found in the wilder parts of England… [but] If we try to think of Sophocles here, we must annihilate the smoke and the damp and the wet thick mists. We must sharpen the lines of the hills. We must imagine a beauty of stone and earth…”

I could write for pages about Woolf and her clarity of vision in response to books. I am forever envious of such imaginative visual power. But I will close with the thought that there are all kinds of readers; we can never know exactly what happens in someone else’s head when they read. Maybe there is no ideal reader. Maybe reading is as personal as thinking.
How do you read?
How do you think?

Planning ahead and being fearless: what I learned from The Grand Budapest Hotel

I wanted to tell the story of how, and why, I learned that planning is a Good Thing.
I should say, to begin with, that I’m a work in progress. I’m still quite scared of planning, which is because I’ve never really… done it very much. I live mostly in the present. If asked to plan something out in detail I would do so, but it takes a lot of work to make the plan correspond with reality. Aged 10, playing Carmageddon on the computer with my brother, I usually ignored the map and drove around the desert till I reached the fuzzy edge of the world. This is what I’m working with.
So, anyway: last summer, I fell in love with Wes Anderson’s movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. I downloaded the soundtrack, thought about it often, recommended it to other people frequently, all that jazz. It was odd. Grand Budapest isn’t the most substantial movie in terms of storytelling, emotional message or morals. It has problems of race representation that I won’t go into here.
Really, it was the craft that hooked me in: the gorgeous set design, the camera work, the music. The film is a series of little artificial worlds where everything is detailed, sharp, clean, and done right first time. One reviewer wrote: “The jeopardy Gustave and Zero escape from over and over again is presented like a Tintin comic strip.”
I was watching a lot of films at the time. Partly, it was because I was actively figuring out how I processed the world.
I’d realised I wasn’t interested in films for dialogue, because often I couldn’t process all the dialogue in a film on first viewing. I hear it, but films provide so much sensory stimulus that the dialogue becomes another soundtrack, which blurs together into a sound akin to the trombone noises made by Charlie Brown’s teacher.
I found out I liked watching foreign language films, because with knowledge of the storyline, you were free to concentrate on the visual and aural world unfolding in front of you. Whilst watching, small details jump out at you: the wings of a butterfly, the icing on top of a cake, the colour coding, a man in the background carrying a statue. (This beautiful essay on the visual language of Pacific Rim explains more about alternative ways to process films.)
Because of my lack of attention, I frequently lose track of what’s going on; my family still teases me for getting out my phone in the cinema while we were watching Inception, which I found completely incomprehensible. But there were some films I’ve seen, like Annie Hall, which are dialogue-heavy but completely understandable. Somehow, they bypass the part of my brain that doesn’t process dialogue.
Then there’s the 1960s film Daisies – a surreal movie where two witchy beauties gasp out non sequitur lines of dialogue like spells. (“Die! Die! Die!”) Again, somehow, on first viewing Daisies went straight to a part of my brain that wordlessly… got things.
I have never had the instinct to find a logical explanation for things unfolding around me, which was maybe why I connected with Daisies so well. The film was just a series of moments blossoming outwards.
I connected with the visual storytelling of Grand Budapest. But 
I was also watching films for their craft – absorbing how they told stories and built up worlds.
In a world where many mainstream films are made quickly and look generic, it struck me as brave to spend so much time on constructing Grand Budapest. To make something so fiendishly, gloriously elaborate.
Artists like Anderson, who have the ability to plan ahead in detail and envision a completely articulated world, are astonishing to me.
In a previous post, I wrote about how growing up with ADD has affected my perceptions, how I didn’t feel left behind in class, but like I was “speeding ahead, flying from A to Z” while my classmates plodded from A to B. “Yes, their method was correct, but if you flew you got a much better view.”
This, of course, affects how I make things, too: stories, essays, poems, cartoons. I often think in broad brush strokes and big pictures, not in terms of small details.
The problem I was fighting whilst watching Grand Budapest was, I realise now, that I felt (and feel) scared a lot of planning ahead – of thinking in extensive detail when sketching out new work. Of taking the time to create something that elaborate.
It was a two-pronged problem.
One: I was worried that if I planned too much, something bad would happen and I’d never get time to do the thing I was planning.
Two: I know how distractable I am. I figured that if I planned too much instead of doing, nothing would get done.
Living with ADD is like living with a very excitable, impulsive friend. “Oh, you’re working on that thing? Awesome. Anyway, I got tickets for Disneyland, let’s go! Now!! RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!!” And off we go.
In December I spoke to a counsellor at uni about this. She asked me, “Why don’t you prioritise your tasks?”
I replied: “Because I have a terrible fear of something bad happening, so I do as many things as I can in case I get hit by a car tomorrow.”
Long story short: on January 9th, on my first day back after Christmas, I walked into New Cross and got hit by a car.
It’s a lot less dramatic than it sounds; I fell over, got straight back up again, and got a lift home from the driver.
Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt at all. Nor did I straight away decide to change my whole life.
Instead, after the accident, I found myself making small incremental changes.
An important change happened when I realised my fear of the Bad Thing was actively stopping me from doing anything.
I then had to sit the excitable friend down, as it were, and tell them: “Wes Anderson would never have made that movie if he was jumping from A to Z all the time and worrying about the Bad Thing. Artists have to love the letters in between. Please, just assume that you have today to figure things out.”
Like I said before, ADD makes you live in the present a lot of the time. But most artists need space and time to make art. Clearing this time and space, in a world that is always demanding our time and attention, is revolutionary. Focusing on detail and craft is revolutionary.
Which is my small realisation.
Thanks, Wes Anderson.

Should you clear a space for wonder?

I have a confession to make to the guys at NASA: when a photo of outer space comes up on my timeline, I keep scrolling. I’d like to be able to appreciate space photography, but I process it as pretty colours and unintelligible visual noise.
Sometimes I look at the caption, which tells me that life has been found on Mars, or a new planet has appeared, or at this very moment ten galaxies are all having sex with each other at the same time, or something. It is too big for me to process – even looking at the photos is perplexing and stressful – so I shrug and move on. Sorry, NASA.
Is this normal?
Maybe right now, other people are also scrolling past stars and thinking “This should be interesting. This is a fascinating thing people give up their entire lives to study. I just don’t have the brainspace in my day to feel wonder about this, so my only reaction is ‘Oh, that’s good. Keep on doing what you’re doing, faraway cluster of stars’.”
And maybe the reason I’ve been concerned about this is that everything has always been so strange and magical to me. So it’s odd that at the age of 22, I look at outer space – the Big Strange – and just think “Eh.”
Continue reading

“Made-up American disorder”: being an adult with ADD

“Kids: if anyone tells you you have ADHD, pay no attention.” – Sickipedia

I really wish I didn’t have to write this article. Believe me, given the choice I’d be sitting here writing a cheery short story, or a song about my cat… But circumstances have crept up on me, and now writing about my experience of ADD* (attention deficit disorder) feels unavoidable.
I write out of a sense of frustration. On its worst days, being the way I am is like having a tangle of wool for a brain; you’re told that you have to untangle the wool, but you can’t let anyone see what you’re doing. You can’t let anyone see that you’re struggling.
People often assume that I am better at life than I actually am. They tell me I seem calm and together, and wonder how I manage to pursue so many things I love. Actually, my life feels like a crazy balancing act sometimes – like juggling spoons on a tightrope.
I have always seen myself as a naturally visible, colourful person. But as an adult with ADD, as a multiply marginalised adult, I feel invisible sometimes, left behind by my inability to concentrate. I expect myself to be brilliant at everything, to have time for everything and everyone I love. Then I end up feeling burned out and inert, skipping between websites or activities at random, constantly late for everything, unable to do basic tasks. It is hard to do things that you love.
To be honest, when I see articles or blogs about children with ADD or ADHD I sometimes feel a slight surge of jealousy. These children, bright and brave: I don’t envy their struggle, which is one I know all too well, but I wish I could have got help at their age. I slipped through the net. I wasn’t diagnosed with ADD until age twenty-one, after turning up at the university student services offices and saying “I just can’t work. I want to work, I just can’t.”

Previously, my life had followed a pattern, which I noticed at age ten or eleven but felt unable to prevent. At the start of the school year I would be organised, proud of my new school books, determined not to make a mess of things this time. Eventually (usually by about December, sometimes even late September) I would slip into a hazy mess. A teacher once described me as “absent-minded professor.”
Books, pens, rulers and letters went missing, I seemed to scatter chaos wherever I went. In class, the teacher’s words buzzed around me: I ended up staring at the Kings and Queens chart on the classroom wall, while inconsequential thoughts rushed through my brain. Homework was handed in late, or went missing.
When things had truly descended into chaos, I would get told off by a teacher:
“What is going on? I know you can do so much better than this, if you just worked harder and got organised…”
I would apologise over and over, driven to contrition by the teacher’s concern. Then I would do an excellent run of homeworks or turn in a great project, partly out of guilt, also to prove that I wasn’t lazy.
I did not feel left behind. In the lessons I loved I sometimes felt I was speeding ahead, flying from A to Z while my classmates used the normal, plodding method to get from A to B. Yes, their method was correct, but if you flew you got a much better view.
Probably if I had been seen as a complete dunce, something might have been done earlier. But thanks to my mother – who had fought for me to be seen in the best way possible – I had gone down at an early age as a gifted child, which complicated things: everyone knows gifted children are different. Gifted allows you to be somewhat weird, whilst also raising everyone’s expectations.
When I went on to grammar school, my skill in some lessons (and the fact I was always reading) allowed me to slip the net again. Grammar school is a diffuse place in some ways, where it is easy to feel that no one is particularly concerned about you unless you fail spectacularly. For people who fail, quietly and consistently, in some areas of their lives and studies, it is easy to escape the radar. I was a quiet student, outspoken in the lessons I liked, daydreamy, and did not fit any stereotype. I passed my exams, sometimes doing very well.
Whenever the “organisation failure” did get noticed, I was blamed for allowing it to happen. (“The problem with you,” a teacher told me, “is that you don’t think properly. You jump to conclusions that amount to complete lunacy.”)

There is a laundry list of things that frustrated me then, and continue to exasperate me now: my inability to concentrate on things that aren’t immediately gripping. My distractibility. The fact I find it difficult to complete a project, after an enthusiastic start. The initial burst of energy, and the tailing off. The underachievement. I am painfully aware that I often start books and don’t finish them, that I usually can’t sit through a film, that I am not as good as I wish I was at any of the things I love. These days, I envy other people their persistence and ability to learn and retain information. I sometimes still feel this is all my fault, even though ADD is recognised as a disorder.
At twenty-one, I was sent to see a kind psychiatrist, who confirmed what the student office thought. He gently explained that he dealt with many talented young people who had struggled with these same symptoms, and that there were ways to cope with it.
Afterwards I spoke to my doctor, who looked sceptical. “We don’t really comment on ADD,” he told me, looking at my non-clinical report. “Plenty of doctors think it’s a made up American thing.” Other people said the same thing, more or less. A Google search results in “is ADD a real disease?” (New York Times), and “ADHD does not exist” (New York Post).
It’s odd, to live in this world. To know that there is a coherent explanation for the way you are, but to constantly see that explanation questioned or snatched away from you.
But, I have hope. Not so long ago, dyslexic children (like the novelist Sally Gardner) were being labelled “unteachable” and accused of laziness. But now, thankfully, dyslexia is much more accepted. Someday ADD will be accepted, too.
Perhaps that’s the reason this article has been nibbling at my brain: I want to prove that the way I am is real, that it matters.

*My official diagnosis is ADHD (inattentive type – not hyperactive) as a specific learning difficulty, not a medical diagnosis. As I am not hyperactive, I prefer to use the term ADD to describe myself. More information on the difference between ADD and ADHD here.