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.

My ADDled Brain’s ADDiction

“There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.”

                –Deepak Chopra

I admit it. I have an addiction.

I also have mild depression and anxiety — conditions not uncommon to people with ADD or women going through perimenopause, of which I have both.

Yay for me!

Though it’s not destined to destroy my physical health like alcohol or drug addiction, mine does feel self-destructive. It affects my ability to pursue my career and creative goals.

My addiction? Puzzles.

When I’m feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed and want to avoid work, I turn to online jigsaw puzzles, word games, crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

Side note: Nearly 1 in 5 American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Now substance addiction is a different animal than say, gambling or puzzle playing, I don’t deny that. Using alcohol, drugs or even tobacco has true physiological effects. But in terms of brain chemistry, I wonder how different those addictions and mine really are.

For me, I think doing puzzles calms my overwhelmed and sometimes anxious brain, much like a heroin addict who soothes his anxiety or pain by shooting up. OK, I admit, that’s probably a stretch given the physical ramifications of not taking a highly addictive substance, as in withdrawal, which is a serious health concern in and of itself. But either way, both addictions result from a lack of impulse control (as embarrassing as that is for me to admit about myself).

Self-proclaimed Puzzlecrossword addict Dean Olsher is ambivalent about crossword puzzles. In a 2009 interview with Melissa Block on NPR, Dean Olsher spoke about his book, “From Square One: A Meditation, With Digressions, On Crosswords.”

Olsher confirms my thinking about puzzle addiction. Reading from his book on NPR,  he says, “Entering a crossword is like stepping into the clean, white cube of an art gallery or into a church or a Japanese rock garden. There are days when solving puzzles feels like a practice — the next best thing to seated meditation … It is more honest, though, to think of crosswords as a habit, like smoking. It’s just something to do every day because it’s there.”

Soothing, right?

However, Olsher also asserts that puzzles “have an addictive, immersive quality that keeps people coming back for more.” Part Zen and part addiction, he likens them to their own form of mental illness.

Yiiiiiiiiikes!!!

According to an October article by National Institutes of Health, researchers found that “addiction’s power lies in its ability to hijack and even destroy key brain regions that are meant to help us survive.”

Healthy brains reward healthy behaviors, it says. Exercising and eating healthy foods switches on brain circuits that makes us feel good, so we’re motivated to repeat those behaviors.

When a healthy brain senses danger, it elicits a chemical release that prompts the body to react quickly — the so-called fight-or-flight response. According to a  Harvard Medical School article on depression, “Every real or perceived threat to your body triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produces physiological changes. We all know the sensations: your heart pounds, muscles tense, breathing quickens, and beads of sweat appear.”

But drugs and alcohol mask those chemical responses by hijacking the brain’s pleasure/reward circuits, the NIH says. Addiction sets danger-sensing circuits of the brain into overdrive, making an addict anxious and stressed when not under the influence, leading them to want more and more.

For substance abusers, it becomes a vicious cycle that has them using drugs or alcohol to avoid feeling bad rather than to feel good.

And those stress hormones? They are produced as a result of increased activity in the frontal cortex of the brain — lo and behold, one of the areas of the brain affected by ADD and depression!

If you’re tempted by something questionable—like eating candy instead of a healthy dinner or buying things you can’t afford—the frontal regions of your brain can help you decide if the consequences are worth the actions. But if your frontal cortex isn’t totally functional, as is the case with addiction, ADD and depression, you may not have the ability to rationally stop yourself from doing something you know won’t be good for you. I feel that. It becomes an intense struggle to control impulses. And, like any addiction, it gets in the way of living life.

But I can report now that I have cut down on my puzzle-playing over the last few months during which time, this post sat in my draft folder. Maybe I felt the need for some good news before I came clean to you.

I’m far from cured. I still take an occasional trip to my favorite online puzzles. But I’ve deleted games from my phone and I often stop myself when I feel the urge, so I’m getting there. So does PA exist — a support group for puzzle addicts?

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 Bussi-www.idealphotography.com

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 …

Phoney foibles

Yup, so I did it again.

It was back on Oct. 4 — I had another of those dyslexic, forgetful, foolish days.

In the car on the way to the airport I decided it was time to set a security code on my cell phone. And, no, I wasn’t driving — I have a hard enough time multitasking when I’m sitting safely in one place.

Anyway, in the past I’ve had luck with the pattern feature where you slide your finger over a pattern of dots you set in order to gain access to the wonders of the cell phone universe. I’m somewhat of a visual thinker so the pattern thing is usually pretty good for me. Some sort of color-coded do-dad would be even better.

But before I continue, a caveat: It was dark (before 6:30 a.m.) and I was functioning (or not) on cold- and stress-induced sleep deprivation. Both SO and I had colds so if it wasn’t his coughing keeping us up, it was my headache or worry … but, enough about that.

Anywho, I set a pattern and promptly forgot it. Not kidding. However, I was pretty sure I hadn’t turned the security lock on. I was able to get my boarding pass up on the phone, after all. But as soon as I got on the plane, I discovered I was wrong. I spent at least half the flight trying to crack the code to no avail. Crap those damn things are good!

It’s the bike lock all over again (see The stupid things I do thanks to my ADDled brain).

Got to Salt Lake City for a layover where the wi-fi is free. I spent about a half hour live chatting on my laptop with a Verizon representative about how I might get my phone unlocked.

It’s complicated and I won’t bore you with the technical details. Suffice to say, I wrote much of this on the plane to New York and didn’t know how I was going to call my parents when I got there. I hoped there was a pay phone somewhere. Remember those? In the meantime, I wrote emails to my parents and brother explaining my dilemma and suggested they call me at a certain time since I was still able to receive calls, I just couldn’t make them.

So that worked out.

But I guess I should have gone with my intuition and gotten a new phone BEFORE I left for New York. It would have at least saved me a bit of stress and definitely sales tax. But well, I guess I’m happy with my new phone and my new plan, but Jeez — why does so much of my life seem to revolve around losing and searching for things?

Perhaps I can take comfort in knowing I’m not alone.

According to a recent poll by The Trending Machine of 800 American adults, approximately 39% of them had forgotten or misplaced a common everyday item in the previous week. Surprisingly millennial (defined as people aged 18 to 34) were two to three times more likely to forget or misplace something than “seniors” (defined as 55 or older — I’m not quite there yet, but close — am I really almost a senior?). Millennials were more twice as likely to forget even what day of the week it is — really?

ForgetfulnessChart

Even with my current no-set-schedule lifestyle (yes, freelancing has its perks), I don’t typically forget what day it is or to bathe, for goodness sakes!

The Trending Machine consulted Patricia Gutentag, a leading family and occupational therapist, about this phenomenon.  Her response?

“Stress!  Stress often leads to forgetfulness, depression and poor judgment,” she told them.

And even more interesting (at least to me), “We find higher rates of ADHD diagnoses in young adults,” Gutentag reported.

Millennials grew up in the fast-paced multitasking world of mobile technology. They are expected to and seem to enjoy being omnipresently connected. Combine those demands with the stresses of everyday life and a probably lack of sleep and you get brains that just don’t function optimally.

I’m curious about you, dear readers. How often do you forget, misplace or lose things?

 

My question for any psychiatrists, neurologists or clinical therapists out there who research this sort of stuff: I know from personal experience that ADHD is caused by a particular brain chemistry. I also understand that brain chemistry can change through behavioral patterning and experiences. So if that’s the case, are we cultivating a culture of ADHD so that at some point the “disorder” will become the norm?

I sure hope not.

Not because I like having this distinction (if you will), but because I don’t enjoy the struggles I endure because of it. I think the world would be a better place if we slowed down and learned to enjoy each other for who we really are, rather than looking to our cyber-friends for instant gratification. Just saying.

Stay peaceful all.

 

 

What us wheel-running gerbils can learn from chefs

“It’s like a very … Zen-like thing. All my knives are clean. Clean cutting board. Clear space to work. Clear mind.”

– Greg Barr, sous-chef at New York City’s Esca

One of the tenets of living successfully with ADHD is staying organized.

I use various tools and practices which I previously wrote about (see “Where is … uh, what was I looking for again?“). But this morning as I was on my way to join some friends for an open-water swim (in an effort to exe(o)cise the distraction devil), I heard a story on National Public Radio that was quite interesting.

Though the story didn’t mention a thing about attention deficit, apparently, we all, not just us distractible types, could learn something from highly trained chefs who use a system known as mise-en-place (French for put-in-place). It’s a technique taught and practiced in just about every culinary arts school and high-end kitchen. It is a way to marshal the culinary troops, so to speak.

The practice, as described by several chefs for the NPR story, involves gathering all the tools and ingredients necessary (and ONLY those things) for a certain job and place them at your work station in such a fashion to enable a chef to conserve movement, energy and time.

Culinary Institute of America instructor Dwayne Lipuma told NPR that a chef’s every minute and every motion is accounted for:

“Every component of one single dish is in one single corner so [a student’s] hand literally moves inches,” he explains. “Once [students] set up their station I should be able to blindfold them and tell them … and they should know that their tongs are always here, their oil is always right here, their salt and pepper is always right here. “

Same should apply for wily writers who should be working on other things rather than writing a blog post (ahem). When I prepare to sit down to work, whether I choose my couch, the kitchen counter or my deck as office of the day, I usually spend about 10 to 20 minutes setting it up — pen, paper, documents and phone on my right, computer on my lap, coffee and/or a glass of water nearby … you get the idea.

One could surely argue that I’d be more productive if my workspace wasn’t so mobile. But I have a good excuse besides the lack of a desk or comfy chair in my home office.

Writing is hard and the right environment is critical to my getting anything accomplished. Some days outside with the birds chirping and a view of the mountains is what my creative soul needs. Others it’s the austerity and coolness (it is summer after all) of the living room. But wherever I end up, my office rarely moves until I pack it in for the day.

Getting back to the chefs, they also say it is important to clean as you go. It keeps your workspace organized and makes clean up at the end of the day, so much easier.

Same goes for us average ADD folk who have a tendency to lose and/or forget things. Clean-as-you-go is a parallel notion to OHIO (which I also previously wrote about). OHIO is an acronym for “only handle it once.” If you take something out, use it, clean it and put it away. Mail: toss all the junk into the recycling bin on the way into the house, pay bills immediately or place them in the same spot every time so they aren’t lost when it is time to pay them.

You can, of course, reduce your paper inflow by receiving and paying most, if not all, your bills online. But that takes a certain amount of disciplined order on your computer (which is another discussion).

But in essence, the OHIO principle simply suggests you take that extra step or two to put things away immediately rather than placing them at the top of the stairs so you’ll take them next time you go down — that typically leads to a pile of stuff at the top of the stairs which gets forgotten, ignored and grows! Not terribly efficient or attractive.

According to the NPR story, other principles of mise-en-place include becoming “one with your list,” being punctual and time-aware and, somewhat ironically, slowing down enough to get things right the first time.

Now if I could only figure out how to stop procrastinating …