ADHD: How My Brain Sees the World

Thursday , 30, January 2014 2 Comments
(photo courtesy of

(photo courtesy of

I feel like I need to write this post before I go much further, as the unique way my brain works has a pretty intense effect on mindfulness on every level imaginable.

Background:  I’ve struggled with a delicious combination of depression and anxiety for the majority of my adult life.  I didn’t always KNOW it, but, looking back, it’s pretty clear.  Sometimes it was like quiet background music, ever-present but not too distracting.  Sometimes it was a dark cloud that followed me everywhere, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t make it go away.  At its worst, it verged on debilitating–the cloud became a set of chains I drug with me everywhere.  Some days, they were just too heavy to lift so I stayed home and waited for the day to end.  Thankfully, people I love helped connect me with the help I desperately needed, and life moved on.  The depression and anxiety came back from time to time, so I played what I fondly refer to as “med roulette” for a long time, searching for SOMETHING, anything, that would help.  In the fall of 2011 my family practice doctor gave up and sent me to a psychiatrist.  Hallelujah!  Someone who knew what he was doing.  After a few tests and long conversations, the long-sought answer… (drumroll)


What?  Don’t get me wrong, I more or less trusted the guy.  But… what??  I was a rock star student from day one.  I’ve never had trouble holding a job.  People usually equate ADHD with the kid (usually male) in the elementary school classroom who can’t sit still, can’t get his work done on time (if he remembers to do it at all), blurts out comments at inappropriate times, and has papers shoved all over the place in his train wreck of a desk.  If that’s ADHD, I certainly didn’t fit the mold.

Turns out that stereotype ≠ reality.  I soon learned that symptoms and diagnosis go far beyond that to include things like:

  • easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds
  • difficulty paying attention to detail
  • inability to sustain attention on tasks or activities requiring concentration
  • frequent shifts from one uncompleted activity to another
  • procrastination
  • disorganized work habits–difficulty with organizing tasks or setting up needed tools
  • difficulty sitting quietly when required/expected to do so
  • restlessness, or getting up frequently to walk around
  • impatience
  • blurting out answers or difficulty waiting for others to finish sentences
  • difficulty sleeping
  • habitual lateness

One questionnaire asks adults to rate themselves on items such as:

  • “It is hard for me to listen for long periods of time at meetings.”
  • “I jump from topic to topic in conversation.”
  • “My home and office are cluttered and messy.”
  • “I often start reading books but rarely finish them.”
  • “I pick up and drop hobbies and interests.”
  • “Meal planning is challenging for me.”

Uhhhmmmm.  First, that list more or less describes my world.  Second, anyone who knows me well is chuckling right now, if not laughing out loud.  The more I talk to people who’ve known me for a long time, the more I find that I, apparently, was the only one who was surprised by this diagnosis.  Third, there’s fascinating research related to all of this that I’d be happy to pass along.

Thinking back, it does make sense.  In college I always took something to class to “work on” to keep me entertained during lectures.  Some days I had to consciously force myself to stay at my desk and not literally stand up, scream, and run from the room.  One graduate assistant, a very organized guy who shared an office with me, once told me he was watching me work–jumping from task to task to task–and marveling at the fact I ever got anything done at all.  I’m reading at least three books right now.  I’m finding it a miracle that this blog made it past its first post.  In fourth grade, apparently my teacher told my mom I was a great student but when she assigned things, it took forever for me to sit down and start working.  In seventh grade, I remember having “in-class work time” to write papers, and I always had to go back after school to get real work done.  I was a great student–but looking back I can see that often I did well primarily because I’m so damn stubborn that I was willing to spend whatever time necessary and to sacrifice whatever I had to in order to do well.

The day I told my current boss about my new diagnosis, he said, “Well YEAH…”  Then stopped, got a serious look on  his face, and said, “Oh, you mean literally, for real.”  Yeah.  Apparently people noticed.

So, we started treatment.  Not surprisingly, once we started treating the right condition, my anxiety and depression lessened.  Turns out that not being able to focus, constantly making mistakes and taking extra time on tasks, and questioning one’s self-worth due to fears of constantly having to pretend that one has her act together can lead to anxiety and depression.  Huh.  Imagine that.

Treatment helps.  The first day, I walked in to work, sat down, and started responding to e-mails I’d been dreading for weeks.  After about half an hour I stopped and looked around in that “how the hell did THAT just happen?” kind of way.  Those first few days I realized I could teach without being totally thrown off my game at every shuffle of paper, every cough, every student who came or left early.  I realized that when reading, I’d spent my entire life jumping from sentence to sentence up and down the page.  No WONDER I’ve always felt like such a slow reader!  When I can focus well enough to read the sentences in order, everything makes so much more sense!

Treatment isn’t a miracle cure, unfortunately, and all of this adds an extra dimension to my journey toward being more mindful.  Mindfulness at work requires setting up systems and processes to handle large amounts of information, staying present in the moment to make sure I’m focusing attention where I need to be, staying on task for long stretches of time, ignoring alluring distractions, setting boundaries so I don’t over-commit myself, etc.  At home I have to overcome urges to constantly start new projects while abandoning old ones, avoid getting sucked into the vortex of internet surfing, etc.  You get the idea.

It’s a dimension of who I am and therefore a constant companion on this mindfulness journey.  A noisy one that wants to pull me in a thousand other directions, like that road-trip travel companion who wants to take a detour to see every giant ball of twine and cow made out of butter when you’ve got a different destination in mind.   Figured I’d best introduce you to that companion before we go much further, because she certainly makes this journey more interesting and challenging.

2 thoughts on “ : ADHD: How My Brain Sees the World”
  • Dad says:

    Wow, well said! I see so much of my life in your thoughts & feelings. Too bad I didn’t see it 20-30 years ago!

    • Kelly Stephens says:

      Thanks Dad! It doesn’t surprise me at all that you can hear yourself in my words–we’re kind of connected in that way. I wish you would have had the chance to see it 20-30 years ago too, but I’m so lucky to have you along for MY journey with this.

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