I was sitting at my coffee table working on a kitchen design for a client because, well, my new home office is not yet organized enough to actually work in after my move a month ago. The TV was on to provide a little background noise and my dog was languishing in the chair adjacent to me. I had my pencils and my scale ruler and several hours before I had to pick up my daughter from school so the runway was clear to cross this off of my to-do list. And then there they were… little spits of blue flashing in my periphery. A dying slice of tree at the back of my yard was a playground for bluebirds.
I grabbed my camera and hoped that my movement at the window had not distracted them from their “work” and started clicking away. What a moment. A moment that I would have missed if I had been in my office focusing on the task at hand. A memory that I would have missed capturing if I had dismissed it as ordinary. A mistake, only, if I had failed to take the minute of distraction to follow my delight so that I was recharged and ready when I returned to the details of my design. A design that I am able to do, well, for the very same reason that I am distractible. Because I am considered “Attention Deficit”.
Attention Deficit Disorder and its Tasmanian Devil cousin, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a genetic, brain-based syndrome that has to do with the regulation of brain function and behavior. There are various contributing factors that include chemical and structural differences within the brain that are impacted by environmental and cultural influences. To net it out… my brain works differently and I respond uniquely to everyday challenges that require attention, concentration, motivation, learning, organization and social skills. And all I can say is “isn’t that amazing?”
Isn’t it amazing that while I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my 40’s that I was able to navigate school systems and job interviews and career paths and children? Isn’t it amazing that while I tried to squeeze my thought processes into the socially acceptable boxes that they were so stubborn that they developed into a strength? And isn’t it amazing that after feeling like I didn’t fit and didn’t matter I learned to channel that “alien-ness” into individuality and a unique expression of ability. Because the problem is not the capacities or capabilities of a person with ADD — it is the attention that is given to the word deficit.
My brain is not deficient. In fact, it is jam packed with so much stuff that it must crank 24/7 to process it all. Those momentary distractions are vital to my well-being as they are like a branch on tree where a bird can light, momentarily to catch it’s breath and find some sustenance before taking flight again. And I have found that if I follow those distractions like bread crumbs on a path, I am led to discoveries that fill my life with joy. Because as I look back over my life, those distractions were compass points leading me to my passions, people and purpose.
It wasn’t always easy or clear. I was a daydreamer who preferred to spend time in her room rearranging the furniture or reading and writing. As a 5th grader, the teacher checked the box on my report card that indicated a “lack of self control” and I remember quite specifically why. You see, I had been given a pass out of class to use the restroom. As I rounded the corner in the wide terrazzo-floored corridor in my old-school elementary school the hall echoed with quiet as the recently waxed floor winked with promise. I looked left and right and then focused intently on tap dancing all the way down the hall. The 8 foot solid wood doors that flanked the passage muffled the sounds of the class inside but it apparently did not stifle my joy of the dance as the noise from my leather-soled school shoes sounded like applause as it bounced back to me. Not so much to the teachers and students inside the rooms. As I reached the restroom doors that were at least 40′ from where I started I turned and saw my teacher standing, arms crossed, impatiently tapping her foot. Busted. I did my business and returned to class and waited for my fate.
But my fate wasn’t fatal. My mother questioned the assessment saying that I had been potty trained since I was 2. She kind of just laughed in an “Oh, that’s just Diana”, way. It didn’t release me from feeling different but it did help me reframe it as something that was uniquely mine which eventually evolved into the knowledge that since I wasn’t doing it ON purpose, I could use it FOR purpose. And most importantly, while I felt different from everyone else, I felt normal for me.
It was normal that I didn’t learn the same way as everyone else. I was encouraged to figure things out that allowed me to adapt, compensate and sometimes cover for what were considered deficiencies. It didn’t feel abnormal until 2 of my children were also diagnosed and in that therapists office in 2002, when I joked, “I think they get it from me” and the doctor looked me in the eye, shrugged and said, “Yes, I think you are right”. Psshhh. Like someone stuck a pin in my balloon. Deflated. Diagnosed. It wasn’t just “Diana”, it was ADD.
That meant the cacophony in my head that juggled my to do list and children’s activities and the stack of books on my table and pile of laundry on the floor wasn’t a product of my busy schedule, but of my brain? I multi-tasked like a circus plate spinner, successfully keeping track of everything with a color-coded calendar and a cabinet door of post-it notes and while it wasn’t fool proof, it wasn’t failure, either. And it was failure that had us in the therapists office because my children were struggling in school. School was making them feel like failures and now this therapist was telling me that I and my overthinking, underutilized brain had led them to this.
But, it was my normal. I had found a therapist that was willing to work with me as well as them because I didn’t see them as students that needed to be fixed to fit the system. They weren’t broken. I came to her because I needed to learn how to parent them through this time when the system would remind them, every day, that they were not right. The attention they got for this disorder was what felt deficient, not my children. because they were normalizing away the very systemic benefits that my out of the box thinking had added to my life. Without a diagnosis of my own, I had somehow navigated the world and survived so, surely, I could figure this out with them.
It was hard. Because every IEP and teacher conference was laced with words like lazy and lacking that I knew not only was being applied to my children but implied of me. I began to tell my children that even superman was considered deficient while he was hiding his differences until they could be revealed as special powers. That path nearly killed us as we were reminded constantly that we were not normal and outside of the box was not celebrated inside school buildings.
School has changed since I was a child. Back then, even in a small town, they taught to the student instead of the test. My diet consisted of real, farm grown foods that didn’t have the toxic-to-the-brain chemicals that todays standard diets do. And there wasn’t a standardized, social-media streamed message of normal and acceptable that was more relentless than my brain that I could not turn off. If you ask me, it’s that message that is the real distraction as the belief that we are broken is for the birds.
I often think about that moment as a fifth grader when the joy of dance overcame my fear of punishment. I can see Mrs. Hooven standing there, head tilted just a little, lit from behind by the sun streaming in from the front doors of the school. Her face was in shadow but in my imagination, there is a small smile because in her head she hears my music and her tapping foot was simply keeping time with mine. There is not a box to check on a report card for thinking outside the box.
I am attention different, not deficient and I wish I had followed those moments of delightful distraction as dots to connect instead of ways to disconnect. And so in the coming weeks I will write more on the methods and the madness that were a part of this journey in the hopes of helping someone else who may be struggling. I am not an expert… I am simply experienced as both a parent and a patient. I hope that in passing along any knowledge and understanding I have gained will help you grow and gain ground on your own path. A path where our distractions, perhaps, should become the focus. Thanks for your attention… now back to work:)