AVOID SPINNING IN ADD
AVOID THE S.P.I.N. CYCLE OF ADD
I often compare the ADD mind to Niagara Falls, both wonders of gargantuan movement and energy. The trick to making use of the energy in Niagara Falls, and to doing well in life with ADD, is building a hydroelectric plant. You need to hook the energy up to some contraption that can turn it into a useful product.
Whoever makes your diagnosis could say to you what might have been said to someone who lived next to Niagara Falls all her life but never understood how to deal best with a waterfall. “This waterfall is an insurmountable obstacle if your goal is to paddle. But, if you will change your plan, I can show you how you can turn this waterfall into something wonderful. This waterfall can generate enough energy to light up millions of homes. People will pay you for all that electricity. You just need to throw away your paddle and build a hydroelectric plant.”
When treatment begins, you are on your way to building that plant. Treating ADD may seem as difficult as building a hydroelectric plant—but it can be just as successful. You need to know some of the major pitfalls. This chapter and the next address two of the most common.
After an initial burst of improvement at the beginning of treatment of ADD, there is usually a leveling off. This may be followed by long, frustrating periods during which the person with ADD—or the entire family—feels stuck, as if they are simply spinning their wheels instead of making the kind of progress they should be making. Such spinning happens in people of all ages, but it is especially a problem in older adolescents and adults. With children, the natural forces of development, coupled with the influence of parents and school, usually prevail and the child progresses.
However, when the diagnosis is not made until late adolescence or adulthood, prolonged periods of going nowhere can stultify treatment. As one woman wrote to me, “I know you know this already, but there are some people who stubbornly resist help, who are caught in patterns too deeply rooted in the subconscious to be freed from. Sometimes I wonder if I am one of those. So don’t bet your money on this horse. Remember, you can't save everyone, kid.”
I call these periods of being stuck “spinning,” based on an acronym, S.P.I.N. The term sums up the usual causes of getting stuck:
“S” stands for Shame.
“P” stands for Pessimism and Negativity.
“I” stands for Isolation.
“N” stands for No Creative, Productive Outlet.
Getting un-stuck often depends on reversing the influence of some or all of the components of SPIN. You can do this with a therapist, a coach, a spouse, a support group, a friend, a pastor, a relative, or all of the above. Let me offer some suggestions on each element of SPIN.
Shame: The older you get, the more shame you are apt to feel if your ADD is undiagnosed. You feel ashamed of what a mess your pocketbook always is in. You feel ashamed of how late you usually are, no matter how hard you try not to be. You feel ashamed that you haven’t made more of the abilities you were born with.
The shame may penetrate to deeper levels. You may feel ashamed of your thoughts, desires, and predilections. You may feel the only way you can be accepted is by putting on a mask, and that the real you is fundamentally flawed.
Such shame is toxic. It is also traumatic. It raises your stress hormone levels and eventually corrodes your memory and executive functions. While your fifth grade school teacher may have planted the roots of that shame, you are now the one who intensifies it. You imagine harsh judges everywhere, as if the world were swarming with strict fifth grade school teachers. You project the harsh judgments you are making of yourself out onto everyone you meet. Soon the world becomes like a huge set of judgmental eyes, looming down on you, and your only option is to hide.
With a therapist, with a friend, with a spouse—with someone, because it is all but impossible to do this alone—you need to talk through or “confess” what you take to be your sins. As you do this, you will discover that they are not nearly as bad in the eyes of others as they are in your eyes. It is all right that you have messes. People enjoy your unpredictable remarks, and those who don’t can look elsewhere for friends. It is all right that you are late. Sure, it would be good to try to be on time, but as long as people know you are not just blowing them off, they can forgive lateness. If they can’t, you don’t need them as friends, either. How boring it would be if everyone were “normal.” Where would Monty Python or Mel Brooks have come from? Remember, what is strange today becomes truth or art tomorrow.
Not only does shame hurt, it also is the chief cause of a huge problem in adults who have ADD, namely, the inability to feel good about their achievements. It is common for ADD adults to be all but impervious to positive remarks. Whatever they have legitimately achieved they feel must have been done by someone else, or by accident.
One of the main reasons adults with ADD can’t take pleasure in their own successes and creations is, simply, shame. They feel too ashamed to feel good. They feel too defective to feel nourished. They feel it is practically immoral to feel proud of themselves. Healthy pride is such an alien emotion that they have to look back into the dim recesses of their childhoods to find the last time they felt proud of themselves, if they can find an instance even then.
Shame prevents you from allowing your best self to emerge. Shame gets in the way of every forward step you try to take. You call a business and instead of asking to speak to the president or person in charge, you figure you’re too small potatoes for them, so you speak to an underling who can do nothing for you. You apply for a job, but instead of making a strong case for what you can do for the company, you present a self-effacing persona that is charming, but uninspiring. You go shopping for clothes and pick outfits that allow you to recede into the background as much as possible. You shake hands, but have trouble making strong eye contact. You want to ask a question at a lecture, but you fear that your question is a stupid one. You have a bright idea, but you don’t do anything with it because you figure it must not be that good if you thought of it. You do all the work on a project, then don’t speak up when someone else gets credit for what you’ve done. When someone doesn’t call you back, you assume it was because they found you lacking in some way. And on, and on.
Try as best you can to override your feelings of shame. When you shake hands, make eye contact and give a strong handshake, even if you feel second-rate. When someone doesn’t call you back, assume they’re simply too busy and give them a call. If, indeed, they do find you lacking and reject you, don’t internalize their judgment. Look elsewhere. You don’t want someone who rejects you, anyway. And remember, rejection in one place is just the first step on the way to acceptance somewhere else, unless you let that first rejection stop you.
It is heartbreaking to watch an adult contribute wonderfully to the world, only to feel every day as if she hadn’t. It is painful to watch an adult work hard and do much good, only to feel as if someone else had done it.
To allow the adult who has ADD to take deserved pleasure and pride in what he has done, he needs to detoxify the shame that has plagued him for years.
To detoxify his shame, he needs to engage in a deliberate, prolonged process. It will take some time. But it can and should be done. As long as he feels intense shame, he will never feel the kind of joy in life that he has every right to feel. He will stay stuck in a painful place. Instead, with someone else’s help, he can work toward accepting and enjoying his true self.
If you struggle with this issue, you should try to get rid of the people in your life who disapprove of you or don’t like or love you for who you are. Get rid of or avoid the people who are overly critical of you rather than accepting of you. Get rid of the harsh fifth grade school teachers in your life—and within yourself.
Getting rid of that witch within you will be a lot easier if you get rid of the ones who surround you. Your shame has allowed them to stay. You have felt that’s what you need—daily reprimands, daily belittlements, daily control. But that’s the opposite of what you need. It’s your shame that’s let those people into your life. Your determination not to be ruled by shame any longer will send them away.
You need acceptance. You need people who see the best in you and want to help you develop that. As you surround yourself more and more with people who see more good in you than you see in yourself, the frightened, ashamed you will start to feel less afraid, less ashamed, and you will dare to feel proud, a little bit at a time.
Pessimism and Negativity: Pessimism and negative thinking create a roadblock that conscious intent can actually dislodge like a battering ram if properly aimed. Pessimism and negativity—which may be boulder-sized due to years of failure and frustration—block your growth at every turn. If every time you have a new idea or go to meet a new person or begin to play a game you feel, “Why bother? This won’t work out well,” you constantly reduce the chances that anything will work out well.
One remedy for pessimism is to achieve some successes, but in order to gain those successes you may need to overcome your pessimism. Sounds like a Catch-22, doesn’t it? But there is a way out of the Catch-22. You can control what you think, to a certain degree. You need to work on dismantling your pessimism. That does not mean you should become a foolish, empty-headed Pollyanna. However, it does mean you should escape the embrace of Cassandra, the doom-sayer inside of you.
Controlling what you think is the domain of what is currently called cognitive therapy. Aaron Beck, and his student David Burns, have written superb, practical manuals on how to break the shackles of negative thinking. Also, Martin Seligman describes a method for achieving optimism in his book, Learned Optimism.
My favorite book on this topic for the ADD audience is The Art of Living, by the Roman philosopher Epictetus, as translated and put into a modern idiom by Sharon Lebell. One reason I like to recommend it to people who have ADD is that it is short—under 100 pages. Another reason is that it has stood the test of time, and then some. Epictetus lived over 2000 years ago. He is the true father of cognitive therapy. His basic, guiding principle is that a person should determine what he can control and what he can’t and then work on what he can control—similar to the serenity prayer used in Alcoholics Anonymous.
One element of life we can control, at least somewhat, is how we think. Epictetus began his life as a slave. Ordered around every day, poorly fed, beaten, and abused as a slave, he evolved a way of thinking that refused to intensify his suffering by adding to it with wretched thoughts. He was so persuasive in teaching others his methods that he was released from slavery and became renowned as a great philosopher. His words were written down by his students and compiled into one of the first and best “self-help” books ever, a book that was so useful in dealing with difficult situations that Roman soldiers often carried copies of it as they marched off into battle.
It worked for Roman soldiers, and it can work today. I highly recommend this slim volume if you suffer from excessive pessimism or persistently negative thinking.
Isolation: Isolation is often the by-product of shame, pessimism, and negativity. It intensifies the shame and negativity, and can lead to depression, toxic anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and generally poor performance in all aspects of life.
Staying connected with others is the most important life line any of us has. And yet, as naturally inclined to connect as most people with ADD are, their shame and negativity can grow so intense as to lead them to cut themselves off.
If you feel this happening to you, do all you can to counteract it. You may feel that all you want to do is to hide. Try as hard as you can not to let yourself do that. Talk to a friend. Go see a therapist. Pick up the telephone and call someone you trust.
Isolation develops gradually, almost imperceptibly, and you justify it to yourself as it happens. “Those people are just a bunch of hypocrites.” “They don’t really want me there.” “I’m too tired.” “I just want to stay at home and relax.” “I need my down time.” “My doctor told me to avoid stressful situations.”
Of course, isolation is better than the company of nasty, disapproving, shame-inducing witches and warlocks. So, as you try to reconnect, do so judiciously. One friend makes for a good start. Have a regular lunch date. Or a weekly squash game!
No Creative, Productive Outlet: All of us do better when we are creatively and productively engaged in some activity. It doesn’t have to be overtly creative, like writing a poem or painting a portrait. Almost any activity can become a productive outlet that you feel good about. Cooking a meal certainly can be. Even doing laundry can be.
How can doing laundry be fulfilling? By turning it into a form of play, by turning it into a game. Children show us how to do this all the time. My 8-year-old son, Tucker, turns his bath into a creative activity every time he takes one. He adds a few action figures and the game is on.
If you are willing to be a little silly and let yourself go, you can turn doing your laundry—or anything else for that matter—into a playful, creative activity.
The more you can do that the more likely the activity will turn into flow, a psychological term invented by the great pioneer of the psychology of happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is the state of mind in which you lose awareness of time, of place, even of yourself, and you become one with what you’re doing. In these states we are at our happiest as well as at our most effective.
The doorway to flow is play. You can play at anything you do. If you have ADD, play comes naturally to you. So do it!
Play is deep. Play changes the world. Play can turn the most mundane of tasks into an activity you lose yourself in. Play is not a silly, superficial activity. By play, I mean creative engagement with whatever it is you are doing. The opposite of play is doing exactly what you are told to do; that is the refuge of people who have attention surplus disorder. For people who have ADD, play should come easily. You just have to get shame, pessimism, and negativity out of the way and make sure you’re not so isolated that you get too depressed to play.
To get out of S.P.I.N., play. As you play, you will find something you like to play at over and over again. With any luck, it will have value to others. That is called a great career: some form of play that someone else is willing to pay you to do.
At core, being stuck means not having a creative, productive outlet. If you hook up to a creative outlet you can’t stay stuck. Oh, sure, you can get blocked. You can have periods of inactivity or frustration. But then you will start to fiddle around—to play—and you will dislodge the block.
Adults with ADD who stagnate after starting treatment need to find some creative outlet to get going again. Everyone does better with such outlets, but for people with ADD they are essential for a fulfilling life.
Once you find a creative outlet, or several, you will be much more able to hook your waterfall up to a hydroelectric plant. Don’t say you can’t find it. That’s negativity speaking. Get with someone who believes in you, or listen to the part of yourself that believes in you. Brainstorm. Try this. Try that. You’ll find your hydroelectric plant.