A couple years ago, I realized that I probably have Attention Deficit Disorder.
I was reading up on ADD because I have several friends diagnosed with it, and I was startled by how much we had in common. I began to wonder what, exactly, the difference was between having ADD and not having ADD. The more I read, the more I realized how much I fit the descriptions I was reading.
My mother has told me for years that when I was in fifth and sixth grade, my teachers regularly brought up in parent-teacher conferences my inability to pay attention in class. My mother was confused by this, because I was a straight-A student, and she couldn’t figure out how I could be getting good grades if I wasn’t paying attention. In those days, ADD was only just starting to be diagnosed, and mostly it was diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in boys. I did not fit the profile for ADHD, since I was not disruptive in class and I was intelligent enough that whatever I was getting in class was enough for me to do well in school. But I spent many hours in class reading a book under my desk, where I would lose myself so thoroughly that the entire class would go to lunch and I wouldn’t realize it, something brain scientists call hyper focus. Throughout my teens, my mother called me the absent-minded professor, because while I was a brilliant student I was notorious for losing things and leaving things behind. She complained that I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached. And when I worked at Sears during high school, I would regularly go to the stock room looking for something for a customer, get distracted on the way, and forget why I was there. I joked with my colleagues that I was getting senile at the ripe old age of 17.
All of which is pretty much textbook for girls with ADD. But I’ve never confirmed it with a diagnosis, mostly because a diagnosis requires that all of this interfere with my life, that it be a disorder. And for me, at least, it’s just how I operate in the world.
As it turns out, I come from a long line of people with attention issues. My grandfather’s inability to sit still was legendary, and well into his 80s he was a familiar sight pacing the driveway or walking the neighborhood. My mother looks back on her own childhood (and adulthood), and sees the same behaviors and challenges that I have, and even more so in her brother. All of which means that I was surrounded with people who knew how to cope, and could teach me all the ways of managing distractibility that many people get from professional counselors.
It’s true that I couldn’t live without checklists and routines, and sometimes I get distracted on the way to write something on my to-do list, and whatever it is never gets done. It’s true that I still have to look for my keys every time I go out the door, something that drives my husband nuts, and the altar guild finds my prayer book in a different place each week after worship. But it’s also true that none of that particularly bothers me, although I still feel bad about the poor lady I left standing in the aisle at Sears for over 20 minutes while I didn’t look for the bra she asked me to find two decades ago.
In fact, the only downside to not having a diagnosis is that I still find myself reluctant to claim what I need to function at my best. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve come to realize that some people actually enjoy the presentations at clergy conference and diocesan convention. There are people out there who look forward to spending hours sitting with other people in a room and learning about what’s going on in the diocese, or the newest ideas in self-care, or whatever this year’s day-long program is about. I’ve always assumed that everyone was suffering the way I was, sitting and listening in a ballroom or church sanctuary, growing ever more anxious and irritable and coming home exhausted.
And then this year, after Diocesan Convention, I had an epiphany. It was the first time in years I did not have a task that required me to spend some time away from the convention floor, and it was held in a church that didn’t really have enough space for everyone who attended. I arrived early to secure a seat, and found myself crammed into the inner side of a pew, shoulder to shoulder with the four people between me and the aisle. And so I sat still, not wanting to disturb the others sharing my pew, and grew more and more frustrated and desperate for the whole thing to be over.
It was only after the last prayer was said and I chatted with the two members of my church who serve as representatives to convention that I realized my frustration was not shared. Around me everyone was talking about how wonderful the worship was, how interesting the presentations, and generally, how much they had enjoyed convention. My experience had been so very different! By the time Eucharist came around, I just wanted it to be over; by lunchtime, I was so tired I almost cried when I couldn’t find a seat or figure out where my compatriots had gone to in their quest for a place to sit. Far from buoyed up by a wonderful day and excited about the church’s future, I was snarky and irritable.
Listening to our wonderful senior warden talk about how much she had learned and how glad she was that she was to be the rep this year, I realized that maybe my attention issues sometimes interfere with my life after all. Maybe our rep is the one who is unusual, and everyone else in that room was just as cranky as I was. But there’s a strong chance that it really is just me -- or at least, just me and all the other ADD folks in the room. And maybe I have lots of company because, well, I have lots of company, but we might not be the majority.
Looking back, I also realized that I enjoyed clergy conference and clergy day more this past year, in part because on both occasions I hadn’t made an effort to sit still in the room for the entire thing. At clergy conference, when we broke up into small groups, I blew the off the workshop on writing to go and actually write. At clergy day, when they came to the hour dedicated to providing information about a health plan I’m not on and don’t ever anticipate using, I went off and took a lovely walk with a clergy colleague in the same situation.
In other words, when I gave up trying to be a good girl who sits still and pays attention in class, everything got better -- my experience, my mood, and in all likelihood, how much people enjoyed sitting with me at lunch.
But I feel guilty skipping out on stuff, even when my presence offers no particular value. I feel self-conscious when I work on an embroidery project while listening to a presentation, knowing many people see it as a sign I’m not paying attention. Without an official diagnosis, I’m reluctant to say I have ADD, which might make it easier for people to understand why I do that stuff. But I’m beginning to think I’m not doing anyone any favors, since forcing myself to be the good and attentive person I think I should be makes me rather unpleasant company. Especially since now that I think about it, it doesn’t seem to have that effect on everybody.
I wonder if I should, perhaps, consult a professional and see if I qualify for a diagnosis. But I’m not sure what difference it will make. I don’t really want to take medications, and mostly I do just fine. I have a pretty impressive collection of coping mechanisms and organizing strategies, and I’m already surrounded by people who are fully aware that if it looks like I’ve forgotten something, I probably have, and who cheerfully offer reminders. I don’t know if it matters if I have ADD or if I’m just one of a pretty large gorup of people who have a limited capacity to sit still and listen. I think perhaps all I need to do is give myself permission to need regular breaks and to find ways to contribute that don’t require me to sit around a table for more than three hours.
Maybe, in other words, I’m not disordered at all. In fact, maybe none of us is disordered -- we’re just different. Some of us love chaos and change, and others value order and stability. Some of us thrive in settings where there are constant distractions, and others are much more productive when allowed to stay focused on a single task until its completed. Maybe the problem isn’t having a disorder, so much as it is the way the world tends to insist that there is only one way to be successful. Maybe I don’t need a diagnosis, just a willingness to acknowledge my weaknesses and stop feeling guilty about the need to make adjustments because of them.
The world would be a better place if we all did that, in fact. As St. Paul says, there are many gifts, and the hand cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you.” A couple years ago, I asked an adult parishioner with autism to be cantor for the Easter Vigil. The vigil is a service we do only once a year, so the proper order isn’t ingrained in me like Sunday morning Eucharist, and I have a tendency to skip collects or forget that we were going to recite a psalm after an energetic skit telling the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. But order is very important to Michael, so that year he took on the role of reminding me what came next as the vigil progressed from story to story. The result was a lively, creative service that also moved in an orderly fashion, and it was far more wonderful than it would have been if it had been left to just one of us.
Maybe my attention issues are worse then most people’s, or maybe not. Either way, I know how to adapt, and I’m going to work on feeling less guilty when I do so. I hope you’ll do the same thing, because all of us are made in the image of God, and we are all so much more than the sum of our weaknesses. I may not be the person you want organizing rehearsals, sending out reminders, and labeling costumes as the church school prepares for the Christmas Pageant, but I am totally the person you want in charge of a half dozen sugar-hyped “sheep” and a Mary talking nonstop in excitement, while Joseph’s mom is on the phone to tell you that he has a fever of 102F and can’t come. Chaos is my natural element, and that can be a good thing.
Now, if I could just quit losing my car keys…