tl;dr In the wake of the recent Simone Biles “scandal”, it’s important for people who are in like situations to stand up and be counted. So, although this is something I’ve never really kept a secret, it’s well past time to ‘fess up and admit: I, too, have been diagnosed with ADD.
Simone Biles, for those who haven’t heard, was recently victimized by Russian hackers who sought to expose her as a gymnast who takes forbidden medication and thus expose her as much of a fraud as the Russian gymnasts who were banned from the Olympics were. Turns out, she takes Ritalin, as prescribed by the doctor, and has for most of her (admittedly, to this point, fairly short) life. She’s not hiding from it, though, and has come out publicly to say that she’s not ashamed of being somebody who wrestles with ADHD.
Attention Deficit Disorder, cousin to its more easily-spotted condition, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), is not an uncommon thing among adults. Daniel Amen, of the Amen Clinic (one of the leading organizations involved in ADD/ADHD and autism research), has estimated that 1 in 10 members of the general population has ADD/ADHD. He’s even suggest that there are biological reasons for why human beings would evolve such a scenario among the brain’s chemisty: the characteristics of the ADD/ADHD individual are actually the exact same characteristics one would want in a hunter: broad spectrum of attention, quick shift of focus, intense burst of focus on a particular topic/subject/entity/scenario for short periods of time, and so on. Granted, ADD/ADHD doesn’t do well when you’re trying to be a “farmer”, which requires careful and close attention to detail over long periods of time and an ability to concentrate despite what might be going on in the background. But that’s why 1 in 10 are ADD/ADHD, and the rest… aren’t. Or at least, according to Amen. And the CDC, who probably know a few things about medicine.
ADD and ADHD aren’t what you think they are, but numerous other places that describe it in much more glowing detail. Suffice it to say, it’s generally not what most people think it is, and in fact I’ve known a number of adults that I’m pretty sure are undiagnosed ADD/ADHD. ADD/ADHD is, however, considered a medical condition, and not something that can be corrected with “better parenting” or “stricter rules”; in fact, that’s probably the easiest way to turn your kids into extremely anxious and unhappy teenagers. It’s sort of like saying “Your lack of one arm is just due to bad parenting and lax discipline; if your parents would just take a more strict position, you could do everything two-armed people could do, too.” And if you think it’s limited to just kids, I’ve got an interesting question for you. Two of them, in fact: one, do you think ADD/ADHD just popped into the world a few years ago, and two, what do you think happened to all the kids with ADD/ADHD before now who grew up with it? Some of us figured out coping mechanisms on our own, some of us never really got a handle on it (ever known an adult who just couldn’t help but be the center of attention, even at great personal cost?), and some found chemical ways to provide the stimulation, usually at great personal cost.
Myself, I was diagnosed as an adult. The story is one that I’ll not tell here, but suffice it to say it was one of those “OH!” moments. Specifically, the psychologist was saying that somebody else I knew very well probably had ADD/ADHD, because they did X, Y, and Z, and my reaction was classic: “They can’t possibly have it because I do all those things, too.” The psychologist looked at my wife, my wife looked at the psychologist, and then they both looked at me, and I went, “OH!” (ADD/ADHD does not always mean “not clueless”.)
The bigger fact is, I have a personal issue.
In fact, my issue is that ADD/ADHD is considered to be a “disorder”. I don’t consider it as such. Yes, it means that my brain is wired a little differently than most other people’s. What you consider to be stimulating, I don’t. Or, to be more precise, it’s not enough. That, you see, seems to be the heart of the ADD/ADHD individual’s condition: we don’t get the same “jolt” of stimulation of a given situation or scenario than other people do. That means we go a little extra distance to create that little additional stimulation that all brains crave. Sometimes that means jumping up and down and generating laughs from the audience (the ADHD scenario); sometimes that means allowing our brains to drift off into other worlds and imagining stories in our head (the ADD scenario, sometimes called “dreamer” syndrome). Either way, it’s a quest for stimulation.
I don’t consider that a disorder, personally. I like being able to switch topics quickly. As a matter of fact, I find it incredibly helpful in social situations—I can listen to a couple different conversations around me (if they’re not too far away), and that gives me the ability to “pop in” to a given conversation—and sometimes bring my current “circle” of conversation partners in with me—to another conversation while maintaining the topic’s consistency, and use that as an opportunity to make a few introductions. Then, I can shift away, and suddenly I’ve introduced a group of people to one another that might never have met, and good things typically happen out of that.
It’s also what allows me to maintain some level of focus on a variety of different topics. Programming languages, platforms, data stores, you name it, but well beyond that, I read across philosophy, psychology, history, political science, sports (the ESPN app on my iPhone is awesome), current events, fiction, and a few other things besides. I tend not to finish a book linearly. shrug There will be a number of times when I don’t finish the book at all—once I’ve gleaned what I want out of it, I will unashamedly put it down and move on to the next. Or bounce back and forth and see if the two have any mutually-supporting ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, I have to manage it the same way anybody has to manage personal shortcomings. I have a terrible time with being on time for things—I keep underestimating the amount of time it will take me to get ready for a thing, and how much time it will take me to get there. I have a hard time keeping my schedule in my brain, and I can easily get distracted into doing something far more stimulating—like writing this blog post—than the thing I’m supposed to be doing.
Unlike Ms Biles, I choose not to take meds; I tried them, and frankly, I didn’t care for the way that they made me feel. Not any sort of physiological reaction (though frankly they can really do a number on somebody’s personality and make them feel “wooden” or “zombie”-like, which is never a good thing), but because I simply didn’t care for the idea that somehow I needed medication to be “normal”.
I’m not broken. I’ve never been broken. I’m different, sure, and that means that when I try to interact with the “normal” world (if there is such a thing), I have to make allowances. Just because I have ADD doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to be late to the meeting—it’s not an excuse. My deadlines for articles and books and whatever-else still remain the same, and I have to make sure that I can meet those expectations that others have of me. Such is life.
But that “different wiring” in my brain makes speaking at conferences a thrill, not a fear. You want to talk about stimulating? My, oh, my, nothing gets the old adrenaline going like standing in front of a room of a thousand-plus people and getting them to laugh at your jokes, making up one-liners on the fly and having them land solidly, having people come up to you after the presentation and saying how inspired they are by your talk, and more. I get little jolts of electricity in my brain just thinking about it. It’s a large part of the reason why I continue to speak—not because I owe the community any kind of payback, but because it just feels good to do so.
As I get older, I’m either slowing down, my brain chemistry is zeroing out, or I’m finding other ways to get that stimulation, though, because now, it’s not quite what it once was. Maybe the “speaking” drug is starting to lose its potency and the stimulation I derive from it isn’t as strong. Or perhaps I’m simply craving a different set of challenges I want to sink my teeth into. (More on that on Monday.) Whatever the reason, speaking represents a huge stimulation, but now I’m finding other ways to get the same.
All of this is basically to say, Simone Biles, you’re not alone. And if you’re somebody in this industry with ADD/ADHD (and believe me, there are a lot of us—disproportionate to the rest of the general population, for certain), but you’re not sure how to embrace it as opposed to being embarrassed or ashamed of it, it’s OK. You don’t have to be public about it. I’m not doing this because I expect everybody else to follow suit.
I’m doing this because I don’t mind, and because it’s been said that somebody has to blaze that trail. Ms Biles is, perhaps unintentionally, doing that for teenage girls; perhaps I am here to do that for forty-something adult technologists. I dunno. Nor will I make much of a deal about it after this blog post.
But if any of you ever want to talk about my experience with ADD, my Inbox is always open.
Now, what was I doing before I got distracted, again…?