I’m almost certain that if I had been a child in this decade, that I would have been diagnosed with ADD. My brain works in a manner that is not the same as many other people and I know this. At any given time, I can be thinking of several things at once, which can cause me to get distracted really easily – sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. I have a hard time focusing on just one thread, which is often why conversations with me can sometimes seem to suddenly head into left field. My mother’s brain works like this too, which means she and I can carry on up to three simultaneous conversations at once.
This was not always the case.
Up until I was about 6, I spent the majority of my time at home with my mom. Mom could not have the radio on, or the TV while she did any task that required her full attention, so the TV was reserved for periods after school, with breakfast, or with dinner. We did not live in the city, so there was no traffic noise – just the wind and the birds. We would go outside and she would teach me to notice the world around me and what each thing meant: the presence of a certain bird or insect. Which plants in the forest were edible or dangerous. She’d show me where to find newts and mice and bird’s nests. On the beach I learned about currents and winds and waves, ducks and tide pools. There was a lot to see and everything was relevant. And being the precocious and voracious child I was, I asked millions of questions.
When I turned six, I entered the school system where I was required to sit at a desk and focus for extended periods of time on one thing. But my mind couldn’t settle. There was too much to look at, too many people to talk to and too much to know. I got in trouble repeatedly for fidgeting, for talking, doodling or daydreaming as I stared out the window to see what the creatures were doing in the woods. I had also developed a good imagination – being an only child I had required the skills of self-entertainment and this was to my detriment in a classroom setting.
I forgot things: sometimes right in the middle of saying them. My teacher made me stand my text book up so that I could only see the book and I would let other people alone, but this only helped marginally because once I was done I’d be back to daydreaming. Or I’d read ahead, or I’d draw little creatures on every page of me notebook or put my hand up and ask a completely random question.
One day there was a parent teacher conference and I was to attend with my mother. I remember feeling very small as I swung my feet in the chair as my teacher expressed her concerns about my ‘distracted’ behaviour and how it disrupted the class. I was to work harder to concentrate in class or there would be consequences. I don’t remember what they were but I was familiar with the term ‘consequences’. When mother said the word, it always had a capital C.
Luckily for me, by then my mother had discovered that I adored reading and that was the only time I could completely focus on something to the exclusion of all else. If I could use the same skills at my school work and get through the next task without getting into trouble, then I could reward myself with a paragraph in my book, or a drawing in a notebook. It was hard and I had to work at it, but I knew that I didn’t want to get into trouble again. I would focus on the task at hand so that I could do something I liked as soon as it was completed. I wasn’t always successful and more than once the teacher would look over her glasses at me with that disapproving look. But I started getting the remark “conscientious” in my report cards and that remained a consistent comment until my graduation.
To this day I have to use this system to get myself to complete tasks I find repetitive or difficult. Instead of having quiet around me I often find that I need noise to occupy that “omg squirrel!” part of my brain so that I can accomplish my work. To this end I have the radio on at work – both to quiet my excitable brain and to drown out the conversations of my coworkers. If I get interrupted while I am in the middle of a complicated task I often have to start over because I forget where I left off. But I know that my ability to concentrate is something that is not a given to other people.
ADD is no small thing and while I understand where medication can be an asset I fear that medicating children is not helping to teach them useful tools for coping later on in life. A cousin, instead of medicating her son, enrolled him in karate. He loved it, and his ability to concentrate skyrocketed because the sport requires a discipline that she was unable to instill in him herself. He went on to get his black belt and he uses the sport to help him focus and sort out his feelings when he is upset.
Our world is so full of sensory input that we often don’t pause long enough to think about what this does to tiny minds that are designed to take everything in as a mechanism for learning how to function as a human being. Kids need to learn language, social structures and everything else in a short period of time – which is amazing. We have TV and computers and phones and toys and all of this stuff happening all the time that is it any wonder some of us struggle to be able to sit still, or focus or follow one thread of a conversation at any one time?
We were designed to be aware of our surroundings as a survival mechanism. We needed to know what the weather is doing so that we can find shelter. We needed to know the plants and seasons and the migration patterns of the animals we used as prey. We needed to know who our neighbours were in case they decided they wanted to raid us. Now we don’t need that since we can just walk to the nearest grocery store. and I find that many people have turned off this awareness skill almost completely so that they are oblivious to the world beyond their direct influence to the point they don’t actually see all the people they walk along the street with downtown. This is also a survival mechanism and one we are unwittingly teaching our children.
Buddhism teaches mindfulness, which begins as an awareness of everything and everyone around you and how your actions affect those things and people. The next is to let go of the things you cannot change and I think that is something that few of us ever truly grasp. A child does not have this ability to let go and must pick up and examine every piece of information that comes her way. If we understand this and give him or her the tools to help them sort the relevant from the irrelevant then perhaps we won’t need to resort to potentially harmful medications as a means to regulate behaviour. Surely you remember bits of this part of your childhood yourself, or see it reflected in the lives of people important to you. The endless “why” of preschoolers to the more complex brain-stumpers delivered by older kids. We just need to teach them to use their minds in a manner we never had to and that is turning out to be a huge challenge.
reading: Hyperbole and a Half – Allie Brosh
Word Count: 3680