The first thing you need to do before you read further is name your brain (if you haven’t already). There is a great deal of evidence that our brains are milliseconds to seconds ahead of our conscious experience of self. Really. Most of us seem to think of our “self” as residing a little behind the forehead and we think we’re “calling the shots.” Well, evidence is building that we’re not. Some neuroscientists argue from such evidence that since “we” (our conscious experience of ourselves) are not even “calling the shots,” therefore “we” do not even have free will. In the spirit of this new understanding of the mind/brain, I say name your brain and then when one of your choices goes wrong, you have someone to blame. For me, it’s Jimmie. Sped past that cop at the stoplight? “Thanks, Jimmie.” Just grabbed a hot plate from the microwave because you forgot they get hot in microwaves? “Thanks, Jimmie!” Forgot to check the oil in the snow blower and blew the engine? “Thanks, Jimmie!” You get the idea. If you relax into it, even the loss of free will is not a big deal – as a friend of mine says, “I can’t wait to see what I do next!”
Now, the thing that makes travels with Jimmie even more interesting is he is a classic Baby- Boomer ADHD model brain (tape deck optional). We still do not know where these models come from or why they cropped up so large in my generation. My first awareness of what we call ADHD was in junior high trying to read. I would try, and try, and try, and still read the same sentence or paragraph over and over.
Comprehension would become aggravated and complicated by thoughts like “didn’t we just read this?” or “this looks so familiar.” I would get this frustrated, sick feeling in my stomach and then often just throw the book at the wall (I have long since stopped throwing books). Jimmie and I pretty much knew by sophomore year at university what the problem was but had learned some coping skills “on the streets”, as the saying goes. One was we did much better reading things that we really enjoyed. Another was that we needed an environment where there was a lot going on and we could do different things from time to time. We also learned to fake interest in stuff we knew little about because if we could find someone who really was interested in the stuff, and pepper them with questions, their excitement could get us interested. Finally, we learned if we exercise really, really hard and exhaust ourselves, it was easier to read (even things we were not interested in).
My Baby-Boomer, ADHD model brain also comes with an odd feature regarding time referred to as “chronesthesia.” Chronesthesia is a sort of mental time travel where one’s past, future, and present co-exist in one’s consciousness. Jimmie and I don’t really experience time as a line; for us it feels more like a sphere (and for you skeptics, the recently deceased physicist Stephen Hawking wrote about a quantum universe where space-time would curve back on itself like the surface of a sphere). For Jimmie and me, moments don’t “feel like” one progressing to the next. For us it all “feels” like each moment sits right next to every other moment. The benefits of this are that when a student who I have not seen for years pops by the office, for me it is like I just saw them yesterday. I can however, get confused as to why they look so different today and are toting children with them who did not exist yesterday.
By my senior year in university, I understood how Jimmie and I worked best together. All of this meant that we needed to work somewhere with flexibility, where there were lots of new things going on, where we could focus on what we liked, and where there were lots of people excited about stuff we knew nothing about. Jimmie and I (and numerous parents and mentors) agreed that life as a university professor would be best for us and safest for the world. I write “safest for the world” because the brains of many people who suffer from ADHD but lack the loving friends, mentors, and parents Jimmie and I had, find that substance abuse (alcohol, cannabis) sometimes dulls the edges of the ADHD symptoms. Some of these people and brains go on to develop problems with authority and relationships that keep them “un” or “under-employed.” Guiding people and brains with ADHD to (as Joseph Campbell used to say) “follow their bliss” is really important. As many experts have written, people and brains suffering from ADHD can do anything; they just struggle to do it as efficiently as those people and brains who do not suffer from ADHD.
Friends of mine, reviewing drafts of this, asked me if I was comfortable “outing” myself (and Jimmie). I asked them, “how much time did you spend with me before you assumed I had attention deficits?” They were all like “a couple minutes; you’re right; go ahead.” Even most of my students have picked up on the situation with me and Jimmie halfway through the first lecture. I have learned for the students’ sake, to label digressions (“that last three minutes was an editorial triggered by the Karl Marx t-shirt in the back row and will not be on the test”). I have also learned to have students put requests in emails so they have a “paper trail” of sorts. I also want to add that should you and your brain be among the afflicted, you will need the goodwill of others in your life, at times, to pick up the slack. Ask me to stop at the store on the way home, Jimmie and I show up with boxes of boots and rain gear – “Oh, you meant grocery store! And you texted a list? Oops. Thanks Jimmie!” Joining me for a night on the town? Jimmie and I have only planned to go “out.” If you want to go somewhere specific, you’d best be clear. If you work with me and say, “We need to meet to solve a problem,” I am ready, like right now. If you want me to plan it in a calendar, I have excellent assistants for that (without whom I could not function as a university department chairperson).
All of this brings me to my main theme which is kindness. As I noted, no one knows why human/brain units like Jimmie and me exist or how we came to be. All we know is we exist in a world with seven billion other souls and we have to find a way to get on together. All these reasons are reasons why, particularly for people and brains who struggle with ADHD, it is critically important to be nice to everyone – you’ll need almost all of them at some point. Having misread something or been “wrong” so often has helped Jimmie and me (well, he would say just me) cultivate humility, humor, and acceptance that have made our lives much better. Once I accepted that I could feel really certain about something and turn out totally, absolutely wrong, it was a lot easier to hold things lightly. This learning practice also taught me (almost by accident) a lot about the importance of caring and empathy. People showed Jimmie and me these precious human qualities when we were obstinately insisting on a point and Jimmie and I learned that reflecting them back was the very least we could do. We think this in part led me to become a counselor, then a psychologist, then a faculty member. We really “know” what it feels like to totally feel “right” and then be catastrophically “wrong.” Jimmie and I hold “being right” fairly low in our priorities because a) most of the time we aren’t (or at least not in the way we thought) and b) it makes being a professor a lot easier. My job is not to teach others what to think but how to think with whatever brain model they are operating with. It turns out that where human beings and brains are concerned, you can never go wrong basting them in kindness. This much Jimmie and I have learned on this long, strange trip. “Thanks Jimmie!”