Teachers said I was smart even though my test scores were usually the lowest. When I was first diagnosed as ADHD back in the early nineties, no one really seemed to know anything about it other than it was the reason I wasn’t doing well in school, why I couldn’t sit still in class. So my emotional volatility, my inability to feel like I was good enough, all these things that are also parts of ADHD, I thought I felt because I was a truly broken and unexceptionable human being.
I was ten back then. For the next thirty years, I didn’t learn much about my ADHD. But strangely, that’s when my ADHD was transforming me into the person I am today. In fact, as a writer, my ADHD arguably had a greater benefit to me than my bachelor’s degree ever was. While I was failing freshman English in high school, my writing skills were tested at grade level “16.9”, nearing a post-graduate level performance.
So when people say ADHD is simply “having a short attention span”, I realize I have a really great opportunity to reframe it. I like to remind people of the average magnifying glass.
A magnifying glass is a fantastic tool for bringing things into focus. It makes what’s in front of you larger and blurs away the peripheral. It’s a marvelous tool for focusing on fine details for long periods of time. In the brain, dopamine helps us keep that magnifying glass clear and focused.
A magnifying glass is a wonderful way to think of the neurotypical attention span.
People with ADHD have something akin to the Hubble telescope.
A telescope is a great tool for viewing many things at once and recognizing patterns beyond the view of those around you. Imagine the person quickly recognizing constellations while everyone else is struggling to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the night sky. This skill is tremendously helpful if you’re trying to recognize behavioral patterns, particularly if you fear abuse or ridicule. The problem is, when you have to view something close through a telescope, it’s confusing and overstimulating. Your mind can’t take it and you have to pull your eye away.
That’s ADHD, attention deficit hyperactive disorder.
Why do people with ADHD take so much information at once?
ADHD is usually the product of several things “going wrong” at once. The reason people with ADHD struggle with sensory integration disorder (imagine cringing when you rub backpack straps together, or panicking when more than one person is speaking at a time) is first dysfunction in the cerebellum. This part of your brain rests at the rear bottom, just on top of where your spine connects.
Dysfunction here can make it harder to discern one stimulus at a time, or focus on the present without the past experiences or future expectations intruding. The brain becomes overstimulated and the individual may become irritable, often without knowing why. This can also be associated with low dopamine states. This dysfunction is also closely tied to impulsivity.
The second reason people with ADHD have this telescopic intake of their experience is their prefrontal cortex. The dysregulated prefrontal cortex contributes to both their vast emotional spectrum and churning turmoil. While dysfunction in the cerebellum may cause a momentary consideration of the past or future, it’s in the prefrontal cortex that the fully developed doomsday scenarios or memorialized wrongdoings reside.
Low dopamine states can contribute to this, too.
Even the above is a huge reduction of what ADHD is. But you see “inattention” is only a minor detail.
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Panicking when the ADHD “Telescope” is Empty
For me, understanding how my attention span was different was enough to really appreciate the ways in which I had always stood out. Until that point, I thought all those things were simply me being “defective”. But the more I learned, the more I discovered these were also the things that have always informed me as a writer.
Before I began writing Agony, I outlined it and every subsequent book. I created everyone’s backstory, and triedtried to put all the events on one timeline. I drew out some of the locations, not all, but sketched out most of the significant scenes. The reason for all of this is my mind spirals in a vacuum.
That’s what makes the start of every lesson difficult for me. In the first few minutes, I don’t understand the relevance of what’s happening, so my mind can’t contextualize it. My brain panics and shuts down. I remember it happening year after year starting in middle school. I remember sitting in physics with Ms. Flaska, thinking “I really should pay attention…” and then it was a week later. I thought the reason I didn’t understand how pulleys worked was because I didn’t remember anything, not because I was just a kid learning it at the same time as everyone else. But that belief that I was struggling because I was innately inferior would cause me to give up and become cynical, avoid the teacher lest she discover my inferiority, and never even attempt homework.
Because why struggle when you can’t do it?
Over time, tiny tidbits of information that I had been able to absorb slowly began to connect to other things I learned or observed. Being reminded that someone had once tried to teach me this brought to my attention the fact I had learned something. So now, when I find I have “spaced out”, I try to remind myself that it’s okay. If I can just learn one thing, it will help me when I try again.
But similarly to that situation, when I’m beginning to write a book, I feel crushed by future events. I know where I want things to go and what I want to happen. But I am so afraid some thoughtless detail, comment, or action by the character will betray that.
Prefrontal cortex dysregulation creates ADHD’s “big picture view”
Part of the reason it’s hard for me to forget about that possibility is that very prefrontal cortex dysregulation. When we’re triggered by something, even the fear of being seen as inadequate, it’s in the prefrontal cortex where we remember our greatest humiliation, or plan for the worst case scenarios. When your dysregulation is really bad, you may sometimes feel like you live in the past and future simultaneously.
That sort of perspective is helpful when worldbuilding, or crafting a character arc.
I’m a big fan of outlining and doing research, even when what I really want to be doing is writing. Because without being able to see everything at once, I miss the big picture and my sense of direction. I can’t tell you what I’d be like without ADHD, but I know my ADHD is not only why I tend to see the big picture, it’s why the events in my stories can be so much larger than life, it seems.
My book Agony is like Groundhog’s Day if Bill Murray were in Los Angeles instead of Punxsutawney, and if instead of trying to avoid the insurance guy who says “Bing!”, he’s trying to escape the nuclear apocalypse.
To be able to tell a story about how these experiences changed the characters, it was important for me to see them in the moments before. It was important to know how their lives would interconnect, and what the significance of each scene would be to future character moments. My ADHD allowed me to more easily draw on an upcoming emotional moment when I needed a detail on the fly because my brain learned to process multiple thoughts at a time.
I’m not saying you need to have ADHD to be a good writer. But when I was first diagnosed, I knew a lot of adults who would have laid good money on the idea that ADHD would prevent me from ever becoming a good writer.