It all ADDed up — Part I

You’d think I’d have been upset. But a few years ago, when a psychiatrist told me I had Attention Deficit Disorder,* it was a relief.

That diagnosis — one I’d always suspected — didn’t exist during my childhood. But it explained a lot about my life. Why I experienced so much failure in school, jobs, relationships. Why I’d made so many less-than-ideal decisions. It also confirmed that, like many with ADD, I have dyslexia  my brain sees things differently than so-called normal brains so I had trouble reading and writing.


So here’s the ugly truth: I struggled in school though I did well enough. My teachers and parents seemed to know I was intelligent but didn’t know how to help me focus. I had to work hard to get good grades.

Particularly in my first few years in college.

You see, I thought I wanted to be a biomedical engineer and the thought still appeals to me. I love the idea of conceptualizing and creating things to help people live better lives. And although I did well in science and math in high school, unlike my college cohorts, I did not take advanced placement courses. Remember bell-curve grading?

So there I was at a midwestern university with more than 100 students in an un-air-conditioned lecture hall. The temperature and humidity were nearly identical at about 100. The chemistry class was taught by an assistant whose command of the English language left something to be desired. Not exactly the best learning environment for even the most conventional of learners.

By the end of the first week of my third semester at this university, I was throwing my shoes at my dorm room door in frustration. I decided something had to give.

Needless to say, I never did get a degree in engineering. Was that a failure? I sure saw it that way at the time.

Skip forward several years. After transferring to Goucher College — a small, liberal arts college that was women-only at the time, I found a new world. More nurturing than the university where a dean told me my SAT scores were the lowest in my class (they were in the top 80 percentile or better nationally). The only reason I got into the school of engineering was because I was a women, he added.

Yes, that really happened. But that was 1979. Although I was aware of gender discrimination, it didn’t occur to me that’s what this was. In reverse. But not really. By accepting a student who didn’t fit the criteria of the school, weren’t they merely setting me up for failure? Probably.

But I don’t blame anyone. It’s just how things were then. And besides, that’s not the point.

After four and a half years of college, several changes in majors and a parental bribe to pay for off-campus dance classes in exchange for not changing my major once again (this time to dance therapy), I graduated with a degree in elementary education. Big whoop. (Apologies to education majors everywhere — a very noble and under-appreciated profession). But before I had finished school, I realized teaching was not for me – not in the traditional sense anyway.

I hate to admit it, but I probably read only half of what I was assigned in college and still managed to graduate with decent grades. I just didn’t have the ability to focus enough to read that much. And I needed more focus than most given the dyslexia.

According to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., “About 50 to 60 percent of people with ADHD* also have a learning disability,” he wrote in ADDitude magazine. “The most common of these is dyslexia, a language-based learning disability that affects reading. Eight to 17 percent of the population is affected by dyslexia, and it is vastly misunderstood.”

As a very young child, when I learned to write my name, it would often come out Joby (the legal spelling of my name is Jody, but I changed it because I didn’t like the aesthetics of the J and Y). Turning that ‘d’ around should have been a clue that I had this so-called disability. But again, we’re products of our time.

Although it was 1877 when German neurologist Adolf Kussmaul coined the term word blindness to describe people with reading difficulties, there is still not much known about dyslexia. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that scientists started investigating the underlying causes of the condition.

All this to say, children growing up in the mid-20th century were not diagnosed with and therefore not taught how to overcome the challenges associated with dyslexia and ADD. We just learned to cope. Or we didn’t. And we failed. Occasionally.

* I use ADD and ADHD interchangeably.

Run For Your Life: Coming Out From Under the Covers

“You initially become funny as a kid because you’re looking for attention and love. Psychologists think that’s all to do with mother abandonment. I think John Cleese has his depressions, and Terry Gilliam’s the same. All of us together make one completely insane person.”

                                                                         –Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame)

Last weekend, I ran the second 5k race in a matter of two months benefitting mental health treatment and suicide prevention.

The first one was in Gardiner, Montana, within view of the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Last week’s race was right here in Bozeman and raised more than $15,000 for our local crisis help center.

Roosevelt Arch -- entrance to Yellowstone National Park

Roosevelt Arch — entrance to Yellowstone National Park

Yes, of course that’s a great thing.

But I can’t help thinking how sad it is that we haven’t found suitable treatment for depression to prevent suicides. The Rocky Mountain West, and Montana in particular, historically has had the highest suicide rate in the nation for many — too many — years.

In 2013, once again, Montana topped the list with nearly 24 deaths per 100,000 people. Not exactly a proud moment for us.

According to the World Health Organization:

  • An estimated 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression worldwide.
  • Over 800,000 people die due to suicide every year.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15- to 29-year-olds.
  • Depression affects women more often than men.

Last week’s race was held on Halloween and aptly called “Run For Your Life.” Complete with “real” trailside zombies it was good fun. Costumes were strongly encouraged. So I rehabilitated an old wizard costume from 2008. It was just easy.

Photo: Paul

What I didn’t recall until I was off and running in my moon-star-sequined-adorned graduation gown, was that this was the same costume I wore the day a friend decided to end her life. I have a picture of that day on my desk — a good friend and I in costume mugging for the camera, arms around each others’ shoulders. A fun day as our friend’s struggle and final decision wasn’t revealed until the following day.

It is impossible to describe what it feels like to learn someone you know and care about took their own life. Unfortunately, too many of us DO know that feeling.

Equally saddening is the fact that way too many of us know what it feels like to have no hope.

At the Big Bear Stampede race in Gardiner, my friend, physical therapist and world-renowned ultra-marathoner Nikki Kimball brought tears to my eyes as she spoke of her own struggle with depression. She says suicide doesn’t kill people, depression kills people.

She’s right, you know.

And in addition to successfully treating my achilles tendonitis (YAY!), she’s taught me that we all need to be brave, come out from under our down comforters and talk openly about depression!

So I’m here to tell you right now that, yes, I have struggled with depression on and off since puberty, I think.

It’s a complicated thing and just because I sometimes have this gnawing feeling that I’m not good enough … deep down inside, I know that not only am I good enough, but I’m actually better than good.

That’s one thing that keeps me going.

But it is fairly common for people with ADDled brains to have co-occurring depression. We are so often misunderstood and it is frustrating to live in a world that doesn’t support our creative talents or accept and accommodate our oft-distracted ways.

Lucky me, I have the trifecta of ADD, depression and perimenopause (that time in a woman’s life when her hormones are dissipating, if you will — another condition also often associated with depression. I wrote more about perimenopause and what it does to some women’s brains (me included) in an earlier post.

All that being said, there’s hope. Yes, there really is.

I’m happy to say that there are throngs of people who are coming out from under the covers and sharing their experiences with mental illness on blogs, in books and support groups. Here are some good examples on the web:

  • Kat Kinsman — an editor at CNN wrote and was interviewed about her experience with depression. I highly recommend checking out her piece as she also has a list of other resources at the bottom of her article.
  • Author William Styron, author of “Sophie’s Choice” and a brilliant man well ahead of his time, wrote “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.”
  • Pick the Brain is a website “dedicated to self-improvement with a focus on personal productivity, motivation, and self-education” and includes articles on psychological topics.
  • Daisies and Bruises: The Art of Living with Depression.
  • Bring Change 2 Mind is a nonprofit started by actress Glenn Close with her sister, Jessie Close, and nephew, Calen Pick, (mother and son, both of whom have mental illness). Its aim is to remove the misconceptions and stigma surrounding mental illness. I had the privilege of interviewing and writing about Jessie and her son before their speaking engagement here in Bozeman a few years ago.  BC2M’s website has an excellent blog featuring a variety of writers with equally varied diagnoses.
  • Jessie Close also wrote a book about her experience with bipolar disorder called, “Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness.”
  • Smart Girls with ADHD
  • ADDitude Magazine
  • Dr. Ned Hallowell and Dr. John Ratey (co-authors of many books on ADHD).
  • I found some of these blogs on Healthline that posted a slide show of the best depression health blogs of 2015.

This is a short list, for sure. There’s many others. If you have a great one that you’d like to recommend, I’d love to see it in the comments.

Here’s to throwing off the blankets, feeling the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair …

So many jobs, so little time

So truthfully, my track record with jobs has been, well, somewhat scattered. It’s almost embarrassing. I’ve often wondered why I’ve had so much trouble staying in one job and in one place for very long. I can’t even count the number of places I’ve lived in the last 20 years — four since moving to Montana about six years ago (for example).

In a recent conversation, the reality of my checkered past became too abundantly clear to me.

Sure, I can blame it on having ADHD in a world of supervisors (and you know who you are) who often don’t appreciate a wildly creative mind or know how to usefully focus that energy. But a recent article in ADDitude magazine caught my attention.

In the article, “8 Most ADHD-Friendly Jobs,” adult ADHD experts “suggest good jobs for your unique skill set — creativity, enthusiasm, energy and problem-solving skills,” to name a few. I was curious so I started going through the list.

1) Education

Teacher: My undergraduate degree is in elementary education. I truly love kids as long as they are someone else’s.

So I initially thought teaching would satisfy the joy I felt when I saw a student finally get a concept she’d been struggling with. I loved the creative aspect of teaching, but lacked neither the motivation to deal with the politics of the education system nor the patience to contend with unruly kids.

Nixed that idea.

Day Care Worker: Tried that in Maine for about three months. What was I thinking? Worked in the 2-year-old room. Was sick a lot. Didn’t get paid much. Need I say more?

Practicing high-angle rescue techniques with my former Wilderness Rescue Team members in Maine.

Practicing high-angle rescue techniques with my former Wilderness Rescue Team members in Maine.

2) Medical field

Emergency Medical Responder: Yup, did that too. Before moving to Montana, I was a licensed EMT and certified Wilderness EMT. I volunteered with a local fire department and two different search and rescue teams in Maine. I also taught wilderness medicine to adults (teaching adults was much more my speed).

And I used my enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits to also teach skiing and other basic outdoor skills. But of course, making a full-time living out of that was challenging.

3) The Arts

Where to begin? I was a dancer, singer and actress first. But when people began recognizing me on the streets of Baltimore, I retreated backstage.

I designed and created costumes, sets and exhibits; painted and sculpted scenery; hung and ran lights; constructed sets, costumes, props, furniture and parade floats; set up large and small musical and theatrical productions; and toured with several shows in a variety of roles. In other words, just about anything one could do in the entertainment field, I did. And I did it in Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Maine, across Canada and all up and down the east coast. And I won’t brag here, but let’s just say, you’re likely familiar with many of the places I worked and people I worked with.

The entertainment industry is fickle though and after many years in the field, I could no longer bear freelancing and living in New York. So I all but gave up that career upon moving to Maine.

4) Food

Food Service Worker or Chef: Never had either of these jobs, but as I’ve written about in a previous blog entry, the kitchen is one of my go-to Zen places where time disappears and my focus becomes nearly indestructible.

I’ve considered a culinary career, but I enjoy food too much to make it my job. I’ll settle for superhero home cook, thank you very much.

5) Journalism

Journalist: This is where I had the most success.

Journalism presents something new almost every day so ADDer’s like myself rarely get bored. That’s not to say I didn’t occasionally want to jump out of my seat and run around the room during an overly long government meeting or an attorney’s entirely too verbose opening statement. But of course, that would not have sat well with presiding officials.

Like many ADDers, I’m inherently curious, social and love to learn. So the tasks of interviewing people, doing research or experiencing new things were, and still are, my favorite aspects of the job. I was able to use my creative energy when writing or shooting photos or video.

But it was often a challenge to write some of the longer stories.

Sitting still too long at a computer makes me antsy. I don’t always get up to move to refocus, though I’m sure that would help. Instead I often find myself distractedly surfing the web or reading other articles that aren’t pertinent to the task at hand. Notice the present tense — this is still a challenge.

But working for daily newspapers provided me with hard-and-fast deadlines — something I typically adhered to. In fact, I need deadlines in order to be productive.

And reporting was truly the first job I truly felt I was having an impact and that was very gratifying. I still like to consider myself a voice for the voiceless, which is why I suppose I’m keeping this blog …

Copy Editor: Though I have never officially been a copy editor, I really enjoy the tasks involved in playing with words, making copy more clear, concise and grammatically correct and mentoring other writers as my editors mentored me throughout the years. It is something I am seeking to do more of, as a matter of fact.

6) Small Business Owner/Entrepreneur

Like many with this so-called disorder, I always have more ideas than time or focus to do anything with most of them. I have stacks of notebooks filled with random thoughts and project ideas and an undated to-do list that gets longer even though I occasionally get to cross off an item. However, things have improved in that realm for me and I am finding ways to keep track of and act on more of them. Though I don’t have any interest in being a business owner, as freelancer, that’s exactly what I am.

And though I am never happier than when I am free to schedule my own days, it does take a certain amount of dedication, discipline and commitment. I  keep track of my projects, hours, fees, etc. on self-designed spreadsheets and my calendar and task list are critical to keeping me on track.

Working in journalism was a good compromise despite being at the mercy of scheduled meetings, etc. Much of my schedule was set by me.

Now working from home (or wherever I decide to take my laptop), I have even more freedom and mobility and I am much happier because the only person I have to answer to is myself. I still have deadlines, but they aren’t daily and I can schedule my work around bike rides, lunches with friends or errands. I feel incredibly fortunate to make a living this way.

Other jobs on ADDitude’s list were beautician/hairstylist and high-tech/software developer. Out of the eight job categories, I have worked in more than half of them and have at least an affinity to most of the others.

Does it count that I cut SO’s (significant other’s) hair?

Next up: Change and fear …

Exercising the Distraction Devil

I’m just back from a lovely 25+ mile bike ride and it’s clear how exercise helps with ADD. I feel energized and happy and ready to get to work.

Experts say (and I know from experience) that ADDers required to sit in one place for long periods of time can get quite fidgety and distracted. Any sort of exercise, even getting up and taking a short walk, can help redirect an unfocused mind.

“Think of exercise as medication,” Dr. John Ratey told ADDitude magazine.

Associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of “Driven to Distraction” (which I highly recommend, by the way), Ratey continued:

“For a very small handful of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD ADD), it may actually be a replacement for stimulants, but, for most, it’s complementary — something they should absolutely do, along with taking meds, to help increase attention and improve mood.”

I know for me, the task of sitting still to write anything longer than a tweet can be excruciating.

This week, I was working on a short magazine story. After conducting four interviews, I was ready to sit down at my computer and punch out about 700 words.

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t stay focused on the story for more than an hour or so at a time. I washed dishes then wrote a little. Poured more coffee, wrote some more. Ate lunch, read the newspaper and played a computer game before typing up a few more paragraphs. Then I watered the garden.

At least the gardens weren’t dry, the kitchen was clean and my stomach was full.

People with ADD, myself included, are not only apt to daydream or lose concentration, but they can also become hyperfocused. When I’m in hyperfocus mode, it’s generally a good thing because it means I’m being productive. There are downsides, however.

When I’m in the zone, I tend to lose track of time.

Yesterday, for example, I had about an hour to pay a few bills online before taking the orange monster cat to the vet at 10 a.m. Before I knew it, it was 10 minutes to 10 and the feline was still out roaming! Fortunately we were able to wrangle him up, get him packed in his crate and I was only a few minutes late for his appointment.

When hyperfocused I also tend to shut out the world. Someone can speak to me and I hear his voice, but the meaning of his words don’t register. This infuriates my significant other. And I can’t say I blame him. But I’m working on it … really I am.

For now, I guess I can be content that the story has been submitted and I can get back to blogging since I started this post around noon. And now it’s past time for bed.

Um, what was I writing about again?




Destination Procrastination

“Procrastinate now, don’t put it off.”
                      —Ellen DeGeneres

Uh oh.

I’ve got a deadline looming and I should be writing a magazine article. Instead, I’ve turned back to my blog because, well, I missed a day and, honestly, it’s more fun.


Anyone who writes for a living will probably get a chuckle out of Stephen Pastis‘ take on procrastination and the writing life.

Pearls Before Swine: A Day in the Life of a Writer

But as I’ve said in earlier posts, time management is not a typical strength of people with ADD. It’s not that I want or intend to be late or that I can’t sit down and get something accomplished. It’s just that it’s sometimes difficult to get started.

Deadlines are crucial in helping me get things done. Without them, I’d lollygag on all sorts of things. Most of the time I need externally set deadlines, but setting my own often helps too.

But why is it so hard to get started?

According to a 2011 article in Psychology Today, procrastinators have at least one of three issues: They have a fear of failure, a fear of success or they are perfectionists. I’m not quite sure which I category fit, but I often put off what could have been done two days ago.

Calling it “structured procrastination,” Stanford University philosophy professor John Perry, author of “The Art of Procrastination,” believes procrastination can be beneficial.

In an article he authored for the Huffington Post, Perry describes structured procrastination as “the art of making this negative trait work for you.”

He gives nine reasons to procrastinate including:

* Some procrastinators are perfectionists and fantasize about doing the perfect job. But putting the task off often results in adequate work which, most of the time, is all that is needed.
* Given the chance, a lot of tasks disappear (in other words, didn’t need to be done at all).
* Not doing one thing is an excellent way of doing something else gaining one the reputation of someone who gets a lot done.

“People who clean their garages, write clever blogs, send thank-you notes and read a lot of books are invariably procrastinators ..,” Perry writes.

Temporarily skirting my responsibility to write the article, I check my email. Lo and behold there in my inbox an article in ADDitude Magazine about, yeah right, procrastination.

To the perfectionists out there, ADDitude says, stop the negative self-talk.

ADDitude’s other suggestions for us delayers include: break the task into smaller more manageable steps, create the right non-distracting environment, get organized with everything you need to complete the task, do something fun to relax before getting started and stay focused by not multitasking.

For another short detour on the road to completing YOUR task, I found the Ellen DeGeneres quote on Buzzfeed along with many others about procrastination.

So now it’s after 10:30 p.m. and I still haven’t started my article. I suppose there’s always tomorrow. Bets on whether I’ll get the article submitted by or before the Aug. 1 deadline?