Friday, October 7, 2011

The Tendency to Drift Away…. (Celebrating the silliness inherent in ADHD!)

By Cathy Avery:
Although I am reluctant to discount the relevance of my alien abduction theory, another cause of significant time loss for AD/HDers is the tendency to drift off and get caught up in other thoughts. Cynics of the world will say: “Everyone daydreams from time to time….and now you are calling it a disorder?” Let me give you a brief example of a non-AD/HD lapse in attention, and compare that to what could be called an “AD/HD mental road trip”.

A third grade teacher alludes to her family dog while illustrating another point. Joe, the student without AD/HD, may briefly think about his family dog, or the neighbor’s dog that barks late into the night, and then will refocus on what his teacher is saying. His AD/HD classmate, Claire, however, has a slightly different flight of fantasy, which goes something like this:

Wasn’t Gizmo cute this morning in the car, the way he sat on my lap and put his paws on the window? That’s why Dad won’t ever let Gizmo ride in his car…. Mom said Aunt Liz had to put Günter to sleep, which means he won’t be at the farm this summer when we visit. So we can bring Gizmo and not worry that Günter will attack him. I wonder if Günter ever attacked a cow….he sure was big enough! Are we driving to the farm or taking the ferry with that awful karaoke singer and the smell of gasoline? Morgan threw up last time and I was really close myself. If we drove I wonder if we could talk Mom into stopping at an amusement park along the way. Too bad the farm isn’t in Ohio, then we could go to Cedar Point. Everyone’s talking about the new roller coaster that goes 120 mph…I wonder how tall you have to be to ride that. How tall am I now anyway?

While Claire is lost in a world of swirling images and a rapidly shifting memories, she is interrupted by her teacher who is asking her a question, FOR THE SECOND TIME, and Claire not only doesn’t know the question, but has no clue what topic is being discussed. When you come out of a deeply engrossing daydream, you often aren’t quite sure whether you have been out of the loop for thirty seconds or thirty minutes, and that complete loss of orientation can be startling, particularly when you suddenly find yourself in the spotlight.

Paying attention requires constant vigilance, for AD/HDers and non-AD/HDers alike. After a brief period of time everyone’s mind begins to wander, particularly if the material is boring or repetitive. The key difference between
those who have AD/HD and those who do not is that non-AD/HDers seem to
catch themselves more rapidly after losing focus and they reorient themselves to
the task at hand. Unfortunately for AD/HDers, the ability to regroup and refocus
seems to be out of whack, as if the very task of refocusing has become boring and repetitive, and without a “snooze alarm” in place, the AD/HD mind is set free to wander hither and yonder for extended periods of time. Statistics indicate that approximately thirty percent of students with AD/HD have failed or had to repeat a year of school , and one has to assume that the information that is missed by AD/HD students while daydreaming is one factor that contributes to school failure.

As adults we would like to believe that we have outgrown certain problem behaviors that we exhibited as children, but in the AD/HD world, I would argue that given the right circumstances, our behavior would be frighteningly similar. Point in fact: As a psychologist, there are times when I will visit a classroom to observe an AD/HD client “in action”. My job is to sit in a corner and unobtrusively watch the identified student with AD/HD. Not wanting to single out the child that I am observing, I will casually look around the classroom, until I suddenly realize that I haven’t been observing the AD/HD student at all; rather, I have become sidetracked by the brightly colored borders on the bulletin boards to my left. So I focus in again, trying desperately to understand the teacher’s explanation of how an inclined plane is an example of a simple machine, which makes absolutely no sense to me…And off I go on another “mind excursion”, wondering whether my poor understanding of scientific phenomenon is due to the fact that I never pay attention long enough to grasp the concepts, or whether even in a moment of great personal clarity, the logic behind certain scientific phenomenon will continue to elude me, like a pesky and whimsical fairy that materializes for a split second and then scampers off to play in more fertile
territory. Based on these illustrative classroom experiences, I have come to the
somewhat unsettling conclusion that if I were placed back in the third grade at the age of forty-nine, I would be passing notes back and forth with my newfound buddies within the first fifteen minutes of class.

As adults, although most of us no longer have to sit in class for hours at a time, there are still situations that force us to fall back on our early training in “sustained faked alertness”, a skill that is honed to perfection during high school science classes. Most notably is the horrid phenomenon of meetings. Every where you go, there is some bozo who says: “We better have a meeting on that”. Meetings, as I believe I’ve mentioned, are the bane of an AD/HD adult’s existence, and they seem to magnify every embarrassing and intrusive quality of this disorder. To begin with, the purpose of most meetings is to review a situation from various angles and perspectives. Reviewing anything for the AD/HD person is generally quite tedious, and therefore there is a high probability that the AD/HD adult will drift off shortly after roll call. Which brings up an important AD/HD survival tip: if you are ever asked to record
minutes for a meeting, don’t do it! Despite your best intentions, there will be huge gaps in your minutes during which time you may be thinking about what to pick up for dinner, whether your colleague across the room has had breast implants, or whether there is anyone in the entire room that actually finds the meeting interesting.

When placed in an unstimulating environment, AD/HD individuals will automatically and unconsciously create their own stimulation. Daydreaming is
probably the most common means of creating stimulation, and although
daydreaming in the wrong setting can be downright embarrassing, I have to
admit that in general, daydreaming is a highly enjoyable activity for those of us
who have the capacity to drift effortlessly from one tangent to the next.
Sometimes I amuse myself so thoroughly while daydreaming that I find myself
grinning like a Cheshire cat -- which is not good etiquette when the rest of the
group is discussing serious departmental issues.

As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, daydreams can also be quite extensive, and the AD/HD adult may zone out for significant portions of a meeting. Although this certainly could be cause for celebration, if you are unexpectedly called on for input, you no longer have your old elementary school standby to fall back on -- “I don’t know”.

“Zoning out” is not the only method of creating stimulation in an otherwise uninteresting meeting, but given my experiences, it may be the safest (or least damaging) way to pass the time. One of my most memorable meetings took place while interning at a psychiatric hospital. Typically the staff would meet on a daily basis to discuss the progress of each patient from various perspectives. These meetings were generally quite interesting and I had no difficulty staying focused and alert. The head of this unit, however, was a psychiatrist who was not a team player, and when he took the floor it was clear that he relished his position of “educating” the rest of the group in a very long-winded manner. There was one meeting where, in my mind, he took things too far -- and while stretched out in a lounge chair, his diamond patterned gold acrylic socks in full display, he proceeded to monopolize the meeting for what became an intolerable length of time.

While stewing over my forced and prolonged state of captivity, I noticed a little ball of light bouncing across the wall. Luckily I had not yet developed my theory of alien abductions, or I may have jumped to the erroneous conclusion that they were coming in for a landing. I stared at this bouncing light, fascinated by the seemingly whimsical manner in which it danced across the wall, and upon shifting uncomfortably in my seat, I noticed that the light swung rapidly across the wall in an exaggerated fashion. I realized at this point that the ball of light was in fact a ray of sunlight reflecting off the face of my watch, and its constant movement merely exemplified the severity of my physical restlessness.

Once I realized that it was I who controlled this lovely ball of light, I began to move it across the wall in a more purposeful manner. In the middle of this exercise, I inadvertently moved the ball of light across the line of vision of the pontificating psychiatrist, who actually squinted! Unbelievable! I could create discomfort in the very person who had been torturing me for well over an hour! I tried moving the ball quickly across his line of vision -- he squinted. I moved it s-l-o-w-l-y across his eyes -- and he shifted uncomfortably in his chair. This was too good to be true, and a campaign of self-righteous retribution ensued. I’d let him relax for a minute and then ZAPPO -- the light would hit him straight in the eyes once again! I was so absorbed in my efforts that I was completely unaware of anyone else in the room except for the psychiatrist and myself, until it occurred to me that I had not checked my surroundings since embarking on this game of cat and mouse. I quickly scanned the room, only to
discover that a team member was staring at me, openmouthed and with an
expression of total disbelief. Although I had a brief moment of panic, he
quickly winked at me and smiled in a way that suggested, “Torture him some
more!”, and I knew that I had found a like-minded friend on staff.

Although my efforts to amuse myself in meetings are typically not so elaborate (and gratifying), I discovered after being treated for AD/HD that I had utilized a more subtle means of creating stimulation in meetings -- namely instigating conflict. What could be more stimulating than to observe your co-workers arguing over an issue -- particularly if it is a topic that would typically be quite dull? This, in fact, is a technique that young children with AD/HD employ with their siblings when things become a little too quiet at home, and I was discouraged to realize the extent of my maturational stagnation. Since becoming aware of this destructive tendency of creating stimulation through conflict, I’ve made a concerted effort to curb this impulse, along with the impulse to interrupt, doodle and pass humorous notes. My God, meetings are exhausting!

Drs. Hallowell and Ratey offer a compassionate perspective on the difficulties that AD/HD adults experience when placed in a situation that creates boredom and frustration, as well as proactive solutions . They suggest that the AD/HD adult must be sensitive to the mounting feelings of frustration that develop in certain settings, and to avoid reaching a “point of explosion”. Once aware that the insidious symptoms of boredom are approaching a critical level, the AD/HD adult is advised to pull away before he or she says or does something that he or she might later regret. In my case, this would mean leaving all meetings before the door is shut, a recommendation that I could happily live by.

I recently discussed the issue of meetings through a series of e-mails with a childhood friend, also diagnosed with AD/HD, who is currently a department head of a large company. Due to her administrative position, she is required to attend a large number of meetings on a weekly basis, and since I avoid meetings if at all possible, I took the opportunity to “pick her brain” and gain insight into how other ADDers manage meetings. This professional noted that if she is running the meeting herself, she has no difficulty staying focused and she is often complimented on how efficiently her meetings progress. She has assigned “time keepers” at each meeting, and if an issue gets bogged down in discussion, the time keeper will sound an alert, and they will move on to the next agenda item. (As far as I’m concerned, this should be a mandatory practice for every meeting).

She noted that if she is required to attend a large meeting that is not directly related to her area of expertise, she will bring other work that she can focus on unobtrusively. However, once a week she is required to sit through a
lengthy administrative meeting that is attended by four other department heads,
and she admitted that she is almost beside herself with pent-up energy and
frustration by the time the final agenda item has been dissected in painful detail.
To my amazement, she reported that when she brought up the idea of meeting
every other week instead of weekly, her colleagues overruled her. This suggests
that there are people in the world who actually enjoy meetings, and for once in
my life -- I’m speechless.


  1. Sarah, I came to your blog after you messaged me at Twitter about typos. this is good stuff!