What ADHD Feels Like
If I had to describe it, I’d say that having ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) feels most like subject-specific mental exhaustion. Reading one type of book can make your eyes cross and trail over the surface of the page without comprehension of a single word. Another type of book can lock you into its narrative like a straightjacket until you look up at the clock to see that it’s 3 AM. The worst part is that you can’t control which of these subjects elicit which response. You want to be able to intelligently consume Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but your attention is held by The Stinky Cheese Man & Other Fairly Stupid Tales.
When keeping my focus on the math lesson felt like a sleep-deprived game of Operation, my inability to focus would turn to mischief in order to find something to hold my attention. While I largely had this mischief squelched by my second-grade principal’s bulging stare and wooden paddle, many other children with similar attention spans have followed their quests for attention-quenching down darker paths. Fortunately, the worst of my quests resulted in volumes of doodles and stories — probably one of the reasons I became a writer.
Attention issues also impacted my childhood outside of school. During peewee soccer, most of my time on the field was spent as goalie — usually blowing on dandelions and watching airplanes in holding patterns as the opposing team would send the ball flying over my head into the net behind me. As a little league outfielder, though I had a hand-stinging throw that could make it all the way into home base, fly balls would soar over my glance of the picture I had sketched in the dirt with my finger. Despite being a head taller than everyone on my basketball team, my coach would routinely advise that my parents give me a caffeinated soda before every game to keep me “in the zone.”
Kids on Amphetamines
Notwithstanding a lackluster career in organized sports, my ADHD was never quite debilitating. Still, as preparations for college began to appear faintly visible on the horizon of early high school life, my grades became of more significant consequence. In my freshman year, I recall being prescribed 30 milligrams of Adderall XR, a potent time-release amphetamine, by a primary care physician after a short questionnaire. During my first few days on the medication, I rode a buzz strong enough to distract me from the fact that I had forgotten to eat. While the medication certainly helped increase my focus on subjects that I had struggled to grasp, the side effects zombified me. Though an active writer, artist, and musician, I was suddenly devoid of all creative ideas. My mouth continually tasted like carbon steel. I would sleeplessly toss and turn in bed. I became so skinny that my eye sockets became visible on my face. After a few months, without consulting my doctor, I stopped taking the pills and never returned for a refill of my prescription.
Yoga Math & Equation Graffiti
Without the medication, though my creativity and body-mass-index increased, my attention span for certain subjects returned to its diminished state. Comprehending books required silent spaces and reading out loud. Mathematic concepts required real-world applications and physical representations. One of my college math professors, also a yoga instructor, taught dividing fractions by multiplying by the reciprocal. The only reason I remember this is because, to demonstrate, he stood on his head in the middle of class. The rest of my math education was thanks to an early-era YouTuber named Chycho, who would teach concepts by scribbling equations on the side of interesting buildings using sidewalk chalk — sometimes illegally, I believe. Chycho’s approach to math was just innovative enough to get me through basic college mathematics.
Over the years, I continually had to find new ways to overcome my ADHD. I would still read out loud. When I needed to complete tasks for work, on would go giant headphones, bumping repetitive instrumental music (heck, I still do this). All of this was an effort to push out what I believed to be the main distraction in my life — the world. Yet, no matter how repetitive the music was or how interesting the work, I still had trouble focusing. Then one day, while indulging in my fascination with self-help/optimization, I began to learn more about meditation.
Approaching Approachable Meditation
As a teenager, meditation seemed pretty interesting. At the time, I was primarily into its vibe of trippy, “out-of-body “ness. Over the years, I never looked any deeper into meditation because it seemed out of reach — like a practice intended for mountain top yogis or Buddhist monks in hidden monasteries. It wasn’t until I heard a podcast with comedian Pete Holmes swearing by something called “TM” (Transcendental Meditation) that I began to see meditation as even something I would be capable of doing. Pete has described himself as “a big ole dummy” with others calling him a human “golden retriever.” This was to say that Pete, despite being a brilliant comedian, is a highly approachable person. If I saw Pete in person, I would have no qualms approaching him for a chat that would probably end in a brotherly bear hug. If he was an avid meditator, what could this mean for me?
Upon investigating TM, I immediately slammed into road-block number one: it’s enormously expensive to learn. The barrier to entry is nearly $1,000 — sometimes more. I didn’t have an extra grand to throw at something just to try it out. Still, as I continued to investigate meditation, I came across Mindfulness Meditation. The basic idea is that you sit, close your eyes, and focus on the raw sensation of breathing. When you notice that you have become distracted by a thought, you return to focusing on the breath. This information was available for free in addition to an internet with more guided meditations than you could ever hope to listen to. You can probably guess which style of meditation I chose to attempt.
Keeping in mind that I had no specific reason for trying meditation other than general self-improvement, my expectations were almost non-existent. I heard that meditation was a great way to relieve stress, to exercise your mind, and somewhat helped with spiritual endeavors, though those claims were immensely vague. I began my attempts to meditate with recordings of guided sessions. I used Sam Harris’ app “Waking Up” until I ran out of free courses. I moved over to a free guided meditation application but quickly found the forced-soothing tones actually to take me out of the meditative experience. I needed to learn how to meditate without training wheels.
Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics
I’m not positive how I came across it, but I purchased the audio version of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris and Jeffery Warren. You may recognize Dan Harris as a correspondent for ABC News. The book’s own description defines it better than I can — “ABC News anchor Dan Harris used to think that meditation was for people who collect crystals, play Ultimate Frisbee, and use the word ‘namaste’ without irony. After he had a panic attack on live television, he went on a strange and circuitous journey that ultimately led him to become one of meditation’s most vocal public proponents.”
The book was essentially a “woo-woo”-free introduction to meditation for people who couldn’t care less about chakras, third-eyes, and dharma. I consumed the book in about a week’s time, learning many important truths along the way (more on that in a bit). Before I was even finished, I had already established a daily meditation routine…for the most part.
My first few times really meditating on my own were fraught with difficulty. For those with ADHD, our inner narrative is already like a ricocheting bullet in a Warner Brothers cartoon. Mindfulness Meditation mostly asks you to, whenever possible, turn away from those thoughts and return to your focus on the raw sensations of breathing. The brisk air entering your nose. The warm air rising up from your lungs. While somewhat possible, an ADHD person attempting to wrangle their thoughts is much like trying to put socks on a cat…and to keep them on.
Initially, every time my mind would stray (which would usually happen within about two seconds or less), I would become disappointed in my inability to focus. My internal monologue would grow hostile. I would become convinced that my brain was just broken — utterly incapable of remaining balanced on the high wire of my breath. As I got further into the book, I learned the total game-changer — staying focused isn’t the goal of meditation. What is the goal? Realizing that you’re thinking — thinking about thinking. In meditation circles, this is known as “meta-awareness” and it is largely what separates humans from other animals — our ability to observe our own thoughts. As Tim Ferriss once said on Dan Harris’ podcast, it is like being able to look into the washing machine of our mind instead of being thrown around by it. Obviously, I’m paraphrasing.
I Spy a Wandering Thought
The book went on to explain that every time you realize that you’re lost in thought and you return to using your breath to bring you back to present focus, it is like a “bicep curl for your mind.” You’re literally training your mind to be able to quickly spot when your attention has gone off the rails and to automatically course-correct. Repeatedly doing this action during sitting meditation conditions your mind to do so automatically. The more you do this, the easier it is to do when you’re not meditating. The realization of this turned what once was a one-man butt-kicking session turned into a game of “spot the thought” with my own mind. Though difficult, every time I would notice myself thinking during meditation and return to the present sensation of my breath, I felt like I was scoring points in some kind of game.
I began to build meditation sessions into my daily routine. They started out as five minutes and gradually worked their way up to fifteen-minute sessions. My most extended session to date is 47 minutes.
Over time, I really didn’t think much about what I was doing. It wasn’t till a meeting at work that I realized what had started happening to my brain.
Breakthrough Realization #1
It was another day and an ordinary meeting. While the details of an upcoming project were being discussed, my input wasn’t immediately needed. My mind started to do what it would usually do — zone out and wander. As I began to drift into thoughts about what outer space smells like or a time before house cats were domesticated (two thought that occurred in about two second’s time), I sniffed slightly. The crisp, conditioned air of the conference room chilling down my nose hairs alerted my present consciousness that I was in the midst of wandering thought. This quickly brought my attention back to the meeting, like a camera lens finding its target. It wasn’t until after the meeting that I realized what had happened — the muscles I had been flexing during meditation had begun to be able to hold the weight of my focus. One other event made me realize the full importance of this realization.
Breakthrough Realization #2
One evening after putting my son to bed, I plopped down on the couch with the book I was about half-way through. Though I no longer needed to read all of my books out loud to keep my eyes from doing mindless flyby’s of the words on the page, I still required a near-silent mouthing of the words to properly process them. After reading a few pages, I felt how quiet the house had been for the last few minutes. Hmm. I put the thought out of my head and continued reading. Suddenly, it dawned on me — I had been reading completely close-mouthed and following every word, sentence, and paragraph of my book. At first, I thought this was just absentmindedness on my part — that I had just forgotten to mouth the words and that there’s no way what I had comprehended what I had stoically read. I flipped back through the pages. I recalled every word and action of the book. Oddly enough, I began my old method of mouthing the words again, only to be distracted by my mouth movements. Reading completely close-mouthed was now my preferred method of comprehension.
Something had shifted my brain. Focus-correcting had started to become the new default mode. Even for subjects that once failed to hold my attention were now within my grasp. Mindfulness Meditation is resetting my mind to easily focus by exercising mental muscles.
As I approach over four months into my daily Mindfulness Mediation practice, I’m reasonably sure that this method can treat ADHD. No, it can’t “cure” ADHD, but it can keep the symptoms of the disorder entirely manageable for people who keep up the practice. Even more than that, because Mindfulness Meditation allows people to realize that they can observe their own thought process, they can recognize that they are beyond their process — that they aren’t their thoughts. When you know that you are beyond your thought process, negative thoughts are much less likely to control your life. For this reason, Mindfulness Meditation is being used to treat anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, addiction, eating disorders, and a wide variety of other mental health issues. The potential results are immensely promising.
Once my son is old enough to be able to sit quietly for three seconds, I’ll likely begin teaching him how to meditate. I’m still holding my breath. That counts as focusing on it, right?
For addition help meditating, check out my One Minute Meditation Tutorial.
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