Living With ADHD: My Formula To Sidestep My Brain's Algorithms

09/10/2015 11:14 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Fake Dictionary, Dictionary definition of the word ADHD. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

There is a self-referential episode in the Mahabharata where sage Vyasa tries to get Ganesha to scribe the Mahabharata. Ganesha accepts the task but imposes the condition that if Vyasa stopped dictating, he will stop writing and the epic will remain unfinished forever.

If you have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you would ideally want to work like Ganesha - in long bursts where you are so constantly stimulated that there is no room for distraction. ADHD makes you a bad finisher and makes you liable to abandon projects. You could be so distracted that it takes an incredible amount of effort to get back to the task. Once you are distracted, you might even forget that you were doing this task and thus leave it unfinished. Moreover, ADHD makes it incredibly hard to do grunt-work, which is essential in finishing tasks or projects.

"[I]t affects your ability to follow and execute plans, which affects everything from work to family life."

ADHD makes your thinking Markovian, in the sense that you are constantly evaluating and optimising based on your current state, unmindful of your earlier decisions and plans. This can sometimes lead to hilarious consequences like the day when I turned around a dozen times in quick succession, not able to make up my mind on which shop to go into! More seriously, it affects your ability to follow and execute plans, which affects everything from work to family life.

The biggest problem on the family front is your inability to plan and your indecisiveness, which makes it hard for family members to plan their lives. ADHD also leaves you with a warped sense of priorities which leads to occasionally atrocious decision making. You are liable to gaffes and making inappropriate comments which affect the family also. ADHD also causes forgetfulness which can make it hard for people to trust you with tasks.

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At the workplace, ADHD makes it hard to execute routine tasks, to follow up and to work in a planned and disciplined manner. As a friend who also has ADHD once told me, "One way of looking at my ADHD is to model myself as two people not talking to each other. One is the executive brain, making decisions for others to follow. The other is the grunt brain that is expected to follow through on decisions that the executive brain has made. Both of these people work individually on their own." People with ADHD find it hard to coordinate between their "grunt brains" and "executive brains" and thus find it hard to do tasks others find trivial.

ADHD is a "spectrum disorder" in the sense that different people can have ADHD to vastly different extents. For example, this story in Mid-Day talks about Aarti, a Mumbai girl with ADHD. Although she and I share a diagnosis for the same condition, there is little in common between us, for her condition (based on the story) seems far worse than mine.

That ADHD is a spectrum disorder also means that it is hard for people to understand. The most common reaction when I explain my condition to someone is "but I go through such things, too. These things are normal". The difference between a person with ADHD and the average person is not that there are symptoms that only affect the former - it is the extent and frequency with which some symptoms affect them.

ADHD it hard to diagnose. There is no laboratory process to detect ADHD, and psychiatrists rely on "clinical methods", by interviewing the client and family members. There is a standard questionnaire used for diagnosis, but that it's a spectrum disorder means that it's not hard for people without (or with low levels of) ADHD to assume they have ADHD by taking the questionnaire.

Over-diagnosis of ADHD and overprescription of the standard drug Methylphenidate are well-known problems, especially in the U.S. There is no known cure for the condition, but Methylphenidate is a stimulant that helps boost attention and concentration for short periods of time (up to a day), and it has no known side-effects. One doesn't need to have ADHD for Methylphenidate to boost concentration, which possibly explains the allegations of its overprescription to schoolchildren in the U.S. (ADHD mostly affects kids and disappears by adulthood. I'm an exception who got diagnosed in adulthood).

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Methylphenidate didn't work for me. While it definitely helped in concentration, it also impaired my lateral thinking, and my ability to connect seemingly unconnected concepts - something I take pride in. I'm only one data point, though, and know people who swear by Methylphenidate and the effect it's had in helping them navigate corporate lives.

What has definitely helped me, however, are the lifestyle changes that minimise the effects of ADHD. At the time of diagnosis I had already gone freelance and leading a "portfolio life" (with multiple parallel careers), and this has been invaluable in dealing with the effects of ADHD.

"The impact of my "silly mistakes" has been substantial at times. Yet, knowledge of my diagnosis has meant that I've trained myself to not be too hard on myself when such mistakes inevitably happen."

Having control over my own time means I can make the best use of time when I'm able to concentrate, and take time off when necessary. Having multiple careers increases the chances of finding something stimulating to do at any given point in time. I'm careful about the kind of work I take on, preferring to take on work that is intellectually stimulating (it helps, I'm pretty good at Maths and Economics and related subjects) and eschewing work which places a premium on attention to detail (such as writing code).

It is important to note that I haven't solved the problem, but only tried to sidestep it. There have been meetings where I've been incredibly distracted and which thus ended in disasters. I've frozen on a couple of occasions when I've been invited to give talks, unable to control the distractions in my head. The impact of my "silly mistakes" has been substantial at times. Yet, knowledge of my diagnosis has meant that I've trained myself to not be too hard on myself when such mistakes inevitably happen.

Finally, it helps to have obsessions - things that can help you focus in times of extreme distraction. For example, I can get lost looking at old cricket scorecards, and turn to that when I'm unable to focus. Exercise is another option - when you are doing squats while carrying the equivalent of your body weight on your shoulders, there is little chance for any kind of distraction. While your mileage might vary, having something you can get immersed in is important.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no cure, and these lifestyle improvements also don't help completely. Bad days will remain, but your focus should be on minimising them and making the best use of your time when you are good!

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