ADHD: The Hyper-Focused or Zoning Out Coin Flip
Tuesday, May 4 2010 Douglas Cootey
There is one aspect of Adult ADHD that has perplexed and befuzzled my wife for all twenty one years of our marriage. I like to think of it as the coin flip of attention extremes. Heads, I ignore you because I'm hyper-focused, or tails I ignore you because I'm spacing out. I can't for the life of me imagine why she'd have a problem with this.
[caption id="attachment_1369" align="alignright" width="250"] 'Night Train' by Kevin Dooley[/caption]
We all know the criteria by now. Adults with ADHD suffer from easy distractibility, trouble focusing, and the amazing ability to zone out in the middle of a song, book, page, conversation, project, etc. But those who live with these adults also know they can focus almost superhumanly on something at times. So which is it? Does ADHD mean we can't pay attention or does it mean we can't pull our attention away?
I'm afraid the answer is a little of both. Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder is not really a good description. It's more like Attention Discrepancy Disorder.
I'm sitting at the table typing away when I become aware somebody is talking to me. It's my wife. She sounds a little like this:
"hmmnamanammnmmmmananhmnhmanahmmnahmnanout the garbage?"
"Douglas, I've been asking you if you could take out the garbage."
In a perfect world I'd say "Sure, honey!" and jump right to it. Unfortunately, I live in Bizarro World where "yes" means "if I remember", and anything that takes me away from what I'm working on makes me grunt in near monosyllabic sentences.
"Mmm, in a moment."
"So you'll take out the trash?"
"Yes, hon? What is it?"
Have you ever heard a primal scream? I have on a regular basis. My wife is really good at it by now. I'd almost prefer her frustration to her reaction to the flip side of my attention extreme, however.
We're sitting at the table talking about something I felt was worthy of a meeting. I really, really wanted this meeting. I made her stop everything she was doing to have it. She's sitting at the table listening to me discuss the issues, then it's her turn. She stops mid-sentence.
"Are we finished?"
"What? Oh! I'm so sorry! I was just distracted by the web page. I was sorta working on it, um, before I asked you to talk to me."
But it's too late. She's hurt by my lapse in attention and feels quite rejected. The simple solution would be for her to learn about my ADHD and stop taking these momentary lapses so personally, but I live in Bizarro World. The problem is that I'm so intensely in control most of the time that she doesn't recognize when I'm intensely OUT of control. I don't always ignore her. I don't always zone out. But when I'm bad, I'm really bad, even sometimes being hyper-focused and zoning out in the same conversation.
I don't have a solution to offer you or myself. The attention span in my head takes hard lefts and hard rights but never seems to stay on track moving forward. If you have adult ADHD, you know exactly what I mean, and if you don't, you may still wonder if I'm just making it all up.
The best way I can describe it is to have you imagine that attention is a train. Unless you are tired, your tracks probably lay fairly straight. For adults with ADHD, our tracks are filled with junctions with flaky switches. Anything can set a switch off and the track changes our direction of thought. We want to go straight. Bless our ever lovin' hearts, we truly do, but for some reason we find ourselves suddenly heading off towards parts unknown. Other times we're supposed to come to a stop at the station, but we're so focused on the destination that we forget to apply the brakes and whoosh right by you.
Don't cash your ticket in, though. We'll come back for you. It'll occur to us eventually.