Why my challenges are also a blessing

A few months ago, I challenged myself to do something scary. Really scary. I spoke about having ADHD and dyslexia in front of hundreds of people over two nights here in Bozeman.

It was a PechaKucha talk meaning I had six minutes and 20 seconds to tell my story. I created a Powerpoint of 20 slides that played 6 seconds each behind me on stage at The Ellen Theatre. It was a powerful experience hearing people react to my words as I spoke.

It was also affirming having folks — even people I didn’t know — praise the presentation. More importantly, I was surprised and pleased to have several people thank me, themselves having been recently diagnosed or having struggled with these issues for years. Some even sought me out for advice.

Whoa!

If I think back on the days when I first started keeping this blog, I realize how far I’ve come from that anxiety-ridden, depressed woman. Now, I feel strong, confident and capable. And I’m getting things done … not despite, but BECAUSE I have ADHD.

Don’t get that? Watch the video.

A silver bullet? How a notebook changed my life

If like me, you’d never heard of Ryder Carroll, you’re not alone. It’s not like the Brooklyn-dwelling digital product designer is a household name. Until yesterday, I’d never heard of the guy either. But he changed my life and so many others when he invented a system of task organizing he dubbed bullet journaling.

I first learned about keeping a bullet journal during a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators meeting when author Janet Fox spoke about it. I was intrigued but felt like it was too complicated and free-form for me. How could I possibly keep my ADDled brain organized with something so seemingly random?

But a bullet journal can be complex or it can be fairly simple. The idea is basically to keep all your thoughts, ideas, to-do lists and calendars in one place – a notebook. Any notebook. That you WRITE in.

It starts with a few pages in the front of the book that will serve as your index or table of contents – this is key. Then numbering pages as you go along, for each topic you write about in your journal, you enter it the index so you can find it again later.

So, for example, you know all those scraps of paper you’ve collected over the years with suggestions for books to read – you can put all of those on one page in the journal with the heading “Books to Read.” Then when you are heading to the library or bookstore, you can scan the list (finding the page via your index) and pick which book to seek out.

OK, so maybe this seems counterintuitive with all our phone apps meant to keep us dialed in to our lives. But here’s the thing. How often do you actually go to your Goodreads list? Where do you keep your ideas for your next project or notes for that project? Have you lost them? Do you use multiple apps to keep track of all the things that pop into your head daily?

I used to do everything on my phone and kept a random notebook with thoughts. But I found all those apps overwhelming and the ideas would get lost in the ever-present notebook. Maybe that’s just me. I do still use Google Calendar for my appointments and the mundane tasks of life, but all my lists and ideas – they go in the bullet journal. The reason this works, at least for me, is because it keeps all my goals and lists organized and in one place so I CAN FIND THEM AGAIN.

Bonus: I’m not using digital media, so I don’t get distracted by something I see on the web or an email that’s popped into my inbox. In other words, I’m not tempted to “multitask.”

Yes, I put that in quotes.

McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Levitin wrote about the phenomenon of multitasking for The Guardian. Quoting Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist Earl Miller, he wrote, “‘When people think they are multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.’ So, we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.”

I love that. It sounds a lot like ADD and not exactly productive, right?

E.J. Masicampo, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University, studied something called the Zeigarnik effect whereby unfulfilled goals can linger in the mind … even hound us. Ever wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat realizing you’ve got a project due in a day that you haven’t even started? It’s like that.

Essentially, his team found that participants who planned out a goal were less likely to get distracted by another (easier?) task than those who had not thought about a plan.

“If you just take a moment to make a specific plan for a goal that was previously unresolved and worry-inducing, then it gets rid of that stickiness,” Masicampo told Nicola Davis of the Guardian.

Levitin noted using a blank notebook might also have a positive impact on productivity. Some people spend time creating gorgeous layouts in their journals – some may be daunting to see. On face value this may seem a waste of time, but Levitin thinks otherwise. “Research tells us that if you can take time off from your workflow and let your mind wander – maybe doodle, listen to music, draw pictures or even just stare out the window – those periods of inactivity are actually essential to having productive periods of activity,” he says. “When you’ve got a piece of paper in front of you, it sort of encourages you to expand your visual field and expand your imagination.”

A plethora of research has also shown how expressing one’s thoughts in writing can improve mental and physical health. By jotting down a thought as it pops into your brain, you can temporarily put it aside and stay focused on the task at hand. Can you say productivity?

So, there is science that illustrates why bullet journaling works for so many people. In fact, Carroll, the bullet journal’s creator has ADHD, but relishes the break from screen time (which has its own negative effects on the brain).

Writing on nice paper is soothing to me and there’s a certain gratification I get from checking off a finished task (which I will do as soon as I post this). My bullet journal keeps me accountable and organized – like any trusty sidekick should.

10 Reasons You Can Be Happy You Have ADD

AD:HD Highway to white black

  1. You notice things – lots of things, many of which others miss. And your friends are tickled when you point out the eccentric guy walking down the street with the perfect symbol for peace and harmony: a dog balancing a cat on its back who is balancing a rat on its back (that really happens – or used to anyway – in Bisbee, Arizona).
  2. Alternately, you have the ability to hyperfocus – spending many undistracted hours working on a problem or project often without taking a break to eat or sleep. Maybe Attention Deficit Disorder is a misnomer. I think we should rename it Attention Difference Disorder, or as my mosaic-artist friend Lisa Lord calls it, Attention-to-Detail Disorder.
  3. Speaking of details … some people with ADHD are nothing if not detail-oriented — known for relentless curiosity and vision, meticulous work and seemingly boundless energy. Just don’t get caught up in the endless, mind-numbing pursuit of perfection. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t exist.
  4. You can be ultra-sensitive to sound, aroma, touch, pain, flavors and emotions. But noting fine detail is fodder for great descriptive writing and inspiration for a variety of creative pursuits.
  5. Similarly, many of you feel deeply – OK, so maybe being a drama queen isn’t your thing. BUT, how about being able to read people’s emotions and feel compassion? As a writer and reporter, this trait enables me to get people to speak honestly about difficult personal things. Or to get typically close-mouthed sources (can you say sheriff’s deputies in northern Maine?) to give up information they may not otherwise share. People trust people who exhibit compassion.
  6. Your passion and enthusiasm can be contagious. This can go both ways, of course, but I prefer to think of this as part of our charm. People react to and appreciate the enthusiasm you exhibit for things you are passionate about. This makes you a persuasive influencer and an inspiring motivator.
  7. Creativity is your muse. You may see solutions to problems others miss. You astound bosses, coworkers and others with your ability to think beyond the obvious.
  8. You aren’t necessarily organized, but with the right tools, you can be. Learning how to use time wisely, setting up reminders and organizing your life doesn’t necessarily feel like a chore – that perfectionist in you loves structure and structure keeps you on task. You just have to get there (this is a subject for another day – but I’ll get to it, promise).
  9. For some, drinking caffeinated drinks makes them sleepy, happy or more focused. So, go ahead, have that late-night cappuccino (just don’t go overboard).
  10. You are more apt to take risks, are stimulated by adventure and are typically more resilient when things don’t work out. According to Psychology Today, people with ADHD are 300% more likely to start their own business. So, hey, you are in amazingly successful company including Sir Richard Branson, Michael Phelps, Jim Carrey, Justin Timberlake, Jamie Oliver, Howie Mandel, Charles Schwab, Terry Bradshaw, Pete Rose, Simone Biles, Ed Hallowell (one of my favorite people with the so-called disorder), Greg LeMond, David Neeleman and Paul Orfalea. (Check out the links for inspiration).

And if perfectionism weren’t one of my issues, I’d have finished this post a week ago … just saying.

 

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.

pexels-photo-278888

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.

Guilty pleasures?

Is it wrong?

I’m researching Amazon birds while drinking coffee — coffee being one of many crops destroying these gorgeous creatures’ habitat.

But I am at Cold Smoke Coffeehouse drinking Papua New Guinea, grown nowhere near the Amazon rainforest, though I’m sure there’s destruction going on there as well. But anyway, some of the proceeds from the coffee sold at Cold Smoke goes to supporting El Porvenir, a small nonprofit providing clean water and sanitation to Nicaraguans. I always thought Cold Smoke’s slogan was simply a punny comment about what happens when one drinks too much coffee: “Drink Coffee. Give Water.”

Photo on 8-19-16 at 1.27 PM

So is that supposed to make me feel less guilty? It doesn’t.

Guilty as charged, your honor!

But I’m supposed to be avoiding caffeine as it may exacerbate hot flashes, according to renowned women’s health expert Dr. Christiane Northrup.

So what’s a guilty, aging, coffee-loving girl to do?