Saturday, January 7, 2012

What is it like to have ADD, Part II: The Radio Metaphor

A few months ago Mo at Milligrams requested a post about what it's like to have ADHD.  Since I was writing a blog post, I gave my long, detailed answer

This week I was asked the same question by a friend in my stained glass class.  When people in real life ask me about ADD, I don't give them the long answer.  They don't need to know what my typical day is like.  They don't need to know what it's like to have your mind wander all over creation.  They need to understand the experience of ADHD quickly and concisely.

Since I have trouble with "quick and concise" when I write, I've put the important bits in bold.  The bold face type is what I would say to someone in real life who asks about ADHD.  The rest is just elaboration and explanation, in case you're into that sort of thing.

When someone I know in real life asks what it's like to have ADD, I turn to my radio metaphor.  The radio metaphor looks something like this:

Having ADD is like driving through a rural area with your radio on.  Unfortunately, the radio in your car is stuck in the "on" position and the volume control died a long time ago.  Since you're out in the boonies, your radio is picking up two or three stations at once.   All you're getting is garble and horrible, earsplitting static.   You wish you could change stations, but you can't.  None of them come in clearly.   

I gave this explanation to my friend, who was very sympathetic.  "That sounds really hard," she said.  Another friend who had been listening, nodded and said, "I'm deaf in one ear, and it's a similar experience.   I can only process half of what people are saying, and I can't filter out what's important."

That was on Tuesday, and in the days since, I've been thinking about her hearing loss, and my grandmother's hearing loss, and how similar they are to the ADHD experience.  As with my mental "radio", they have trouble tuning into any one thing in their audible environments.  But I have ADD; I can treat my condition.  What does treatment do for the radio metaphor?

Taking medication for ADD allows your "radio" to tune to a single station.  Finally, you can enjoy some blessed quiet -- only one radio station at once!  But there's a catch (isn't there always?): you don't always have a choice about which station that is. 

For instance, you might open the fridge door, notice that it's pretty full, and decide that you'd have a lot more space if you put the leftovers in smaller containers.  So you do that.  You're on meds, so you can finish the task without getting distracted by something shiny.  Which is great, right?  Yay, a task has been accomplished!

Except that you opened the fridge door for an entirely different reason -- you need to make lunch and eat it before you have to meet someone in half an hour.  In other words, you needed your radio to be tuned to the "making lunch" station, but it jumped over to the "deal with leftovers" station instead.  And you don't know to change it back.  Fortunately, since you're on meds, after you finish the task you remember that you have somewhere to be, only now you have ten minutes instead of half an hour.  So how do you tune your radio?

Pills don't teach skills.  Getting control of your radio is a skill.   

In order to tune your radio to the station you want, you need to learn skills.  You need to learn a lot of them, but I'll use just one as an example: scaffolding.

"Scaffolding" refers to creating habits and routines that support your day to day existence.  For instance, my keys and my sunglasses are in the hat that I wear every day.  I know they will be there, so I don't have to spend half an hour looking for my keys every time I leave the house.  My wallet?  Always in the outer pocket of my bag.  My cell phone?  Either on the charger or in my left jacket pocket.

Neurotypicals can take paying attention for granted.  For ADDers, it takes a ton of energy.  By building the scaffolding I described above (and believe me, that's only a small part of it) I can free up a great deal of mental energy.  I can put that energy toward learning other ADD coping skills.  I can learn how to keep track of what tasks I need to accomplish, and I can learn how to tell which ones are the most important or time-sensitive.  Eventually, when something unexpected happens to disrupt my routine, I can figure out how to deal with it instead of allowing it to disrupt my whole day -- or my whole week.

In other words, I'm finally in charge of choosing the station on my radio.

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