In keeping with October’s theme of ADHD Awareness Month, we decided to interview our very own Executive Director of LCL, Anna Levine.
LCL: When did you know you had ADHD?
Anna Levine, Esq.: I’m not sure. I always knew it was difficult for me to sit still or to listen without interrupting, but I did not know necessarily there was a name for it. I just thought I was weird, and maybe also that I was inferior to my peers. Because my ADHD expresses itself in impulsive behaviors like excessive talking, I felt like I was weak, like somehow the reason I could not be quieter was because I somehow had less discipline or will power than my quieter classmates or colleagues. It was not until my late thirties or early forties (after I felt that my ADHD was impacting my work performance and after dealing with a child who has ADHD) that I decided to seek out a diagnosis. By the time I had made that decision, I had already done a fair amount of research on ADHD and had taken multiple self-assessments, I was certain that I had ADHD. Getting the diagnosis was just a formality, a confirmation of a conclusion I had already reached myself.
LCL: What does your experience of ADHD look like?
Anna: I find myself getting restless easily—that feeling of constantly being on the go. I also frequently find my mind wandering and catch myself daydreaming. Sometimes I find my mind is so quickly on to the next topic that I forget to file things away into my short-term memory. I have a great memory, but sometimes my mind is racing so quickly that I might forget whether I had already asked a person a question or whether they had previously answered it.
LCL: What obstacles did/does ADHD create for you?
Anna: Mostly I think the talking too much and interrupting people a lot has been the biggest obstacle. Especially when I was a child I think people did not understand that this was not a willful action on my part. Being interrupted is not fun and can really throw a person off. I get that. So, the person being interrupted feels that I’m not listening, or disrespecting them or completely self-absorbed when this not the case at all. In fact, it’s the worst feeling. I hate feeling like I was not listening, that I dominated a conversation, or that I am the most annoying person in the world. So, I am often very hard on myself.
I have also had a problem arriving places on time, but this is improving. It always takes me longer to complete something than I thought, so I end up arriving at my next appointment late.
Another obstacle I have faced is finishing long-term projects that I want to do but do not have to do. I have over the course of my life had several pretty decent ideas about pieces of fiction I would like to write, and I think they’d be pretty good if I actually wrote them. But, because the payoff is speculative and sometime in the distant future and I don’t have an agent/publisher/boss breathing down my neck, I’ve never done it, which is a little disheartening. (Sigh.) Maybe someday.
LCL: What strengths/advantages do you see in your ADHD?
Anna: I think my ADHD has given me great curiosity. Or maybe it is just that my curiosity goes well with ADHD. I am easily entertained and excited by the wealth of information out in the world. I don’t get bored. I’m a good learner. When I am interested and engaged, I am prone to hyper focus. I pick up new skills (that do not require athleticism), concepts and information easily. I am also flexible and adaptable. I am not easily phased by major life changes such as moving to a new country, new job, etc. etc. I embrace those types of challenges.
I ask a lot of questions and am good at extracting information and learning from people through my verbal interactions with them. Although the impulsivity can be an obstacle as explained earlier, it can also have social advantages. I think people generally find me entertaining and fun and enjoy hanging out with me, even my 23-year-old kid.
LCL: What strategies do you use to address your ADHD in your professional and personal life?
Anna: I have developed some very effective strategies that have helped me focus at work. I always try to keep my work area tidy, including my virtual workspace. I keep my inbox and my desktops (both physical and virtual) clean. I keep simple to-do lists and always calendar important deadlines and reminders. I seem to complete the work I commit to completing in a timely and capable manner, albeit frequently at the 11th hour. I have used earplugs, not only to drown out noise but also to help me focus. I know my limitations; I am not one of those people who can listen to music or podcasts and work at the same time. I need quiet to focus. Having slightly open cabinet or closet doors for some reason is also a huge distraction. I try to make sure that the space is comfortable and to limit the distractions that I can limit.
I have also used medication to treat the symptoms of ADHD.
I am always examining my own behavior and trying to improve. That said, there are certain symptoms of ADHD for which adaptive strategies are harder to find or internalize (at least for me). For these, I am honest with people and try to explain to them in advance (before they may have taken offense) that from time to time it may appear that I am not listening or interested. I apologize for that and explain that this is a symptom of the ADHD. I acknowledge that this is not an excuse for the behavior and try to validate that it is disruptive to the person on the receiving end. My hope is that if I openly and honestly warn people and explain the problem and what I am doing to address it, maybe they will be more understanding when said symptom manifests, because 1) they will understand (assuming they believed me) that it was not done out of malice or disregard, 2) I am aware of the problem and welcome feedback, 3) I understand that it is annoying to people to be interrupted and 4) I am working on it, always, all the time, every day.
If I had a magic wand that would allow me to fix just one defect of character, it would be this one. I would cast a spell that would make it that I only spoke when it was precisely the right moment to do so and never made any statements that I did not think about thoroughly before making them. Alas I don’t have the wand. Let me know if you find one. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on my adaptive strategies.
LCL: What misconceptions or incorrect messages did you hear/believe about having ADHD?
Anna: Many people associate ADHD with professional or academic dysfunction. While this can often be the outcome, it is not necessarily so. I always did well in school and even was an excellent test-taker.
I’ve also noticed that people talk about their “ADHD” far too frequently. I used air quotes there on purpose, because I find that people refer to themselves or their friends as having “ADHD” without actually having gone through a diagnosis, or even taken a readily available and pretty reliable self-assessment. I think that is kind of irresponsible and perpetuates misconceptions about ADHD. People also use “ADHD” as an adjective a lot, as in, “I’m being so ADHD right now.” If you’re distracted and don’t have an ADHD diagnosis, just say “I’m distracted.” Even people without the condition sometimes or even frequently exhibit some of the symptoms. Who doesn’t get distracted sometimes? ADHD is neither a state of being that comes and goes nor a disorder that can be cured. At least that’s not my understanding. I’m no clinician but my understanding is that ADHD is an essentially permanent condition that can be treated with medications, behavioral therapy and adaptive strategies, but it’s always there. Sometimes the symptoms may be more obvious than at other times, but it does not go away. It’s not like being hungry or tired. ADHD is not an adjective.
Anna Levine, Esq. interviewed by Shawn Healy, Ph.D.