Confessions of a recovering asshole, or, how I learned to stop worrying (literally) and love prescription stimulants
by admin on April 29, 2011
This post is 40 years in the making, yet four weeks ago I had no idea it would exist.
I have been delivered from distraction and freed from the crippling anxiety and depression that I always assumed was the typical human experience. Today, I sit upright. I feel competent. I get things done and end my days guilt-free, content and ready for more. In other words, I’ve achieved what many consider a typical human experience. Only for me, it’s absolutely extraordinary. Here’s my story.
I have adult Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. 1 That feels so good to say, that I wish to repeat it. I have ADD! It’s an actual thing, like a banana or a field mouse or a lousy haircut. Any person with the inclination and time to kill can find a book on the subject and read all about it. Years ago some physicians and eggheads much brighter than me assembled their collective knowledge, observations and experiences to identify a specific compliment of traits which, when present in an individual to a certain degree, constitute this thing called ADD. It’s a thing some people have 2 and I’m one of them. And it’s freaking great.
Why? To answer that question, we must board the Wayback Machine. There I am in 6th grade at St. Ann’s Monastery School in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Which one is me?
The young man in the front row, hand raised, Eye Of The Tiger?
No, my friend.
The lad in the back, chuckling with friends?
That’s a good guess, but no.
Ah, then it must be the kid at the blackboard, anxious and perspiring, a dusty piece of chalk held between uncertain fingers, Adam’s apple straining against a clip-on tie. Right?
Another good guess but I’m afraid you’re wrong. It was a trick question, actually, because I’m not in the classroom. There I am in the hallway. Once again I’ve dismantled Sr. Dolores’ patience and she has made me carry my desk into the hallway, close the door, and sit alone.
I’m what the educational system calls a Huge Pain In The Ass. Back in 2nd grade, my classmates unanimously voted me “Funniest Student.” I single-handedly caused my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Olivetti, to retire (she told the principal that Dave Caolo was the basis of her decision). I was a truly loathsome child.
I rarely paid attention. I scored B’s on report cards but never tried. The words I heard most often were “doesn’t apply himself,” “does not use time wisely” and “does not meet his potential.” I was distracted, antsy, impulsive and “out in space” for most of the day.
Things worsened in 7th and 8th grade. By the time I hit high school, my interests leaned towards playing my drums very loudly, driving my father’s Ford Taurus as if it were an Indy car and other high-risk behaviors. I maintained a solid B average but still never tried.
At the same time, I often forgot to complete simple tasks or failed to finish what I started. Not out of malice or laziness, but because tasks like keeping a clean bedroom, mowing the lawn or raking the leaves seemed impossible. I’d look at the yard and think, “Jesus Christ, look at all those fucking leaves. Every single leaf in Pennsylvania has blown onto our lawn. There is no way on God’s green Earth that I — or anyone — can clean all of that up.” So I’d leave it. And get into trouble.
Lazy. Dumb. Uninterested. Bad. This is what I heard, and it’s what I believed.
In college things improved a bit. I moved to Boston and made some friends. The new city was exciting, as were my classes and teachers. I got to work in real recording studios (I attended Berklee College of Music) and talk with world-famous musicians like Pat Metheney, John Scofield and Will Calhoun. It was a tremendous time that I still treasure among the best of my life.
As my freshman year progressed, I noticed odd behaviors in myself. As deadlines loomed (final exams, scheduled performances, lesson times, etc.), I failed to perform the tasks necessary for successful completion. While goofing around in my dorm room I’d think, “You’ve got a performance final in 5 days. You ought to be in a practice room.” Yet I didn’t go. There never seemed to be enough time. I knew I had to practice, but there were also a million other things that needed to be done, always at the last minute. I’d put off Project A to complete Project B and so on. I felt like I could never catch up, even if the day had 25, 30 or 50 hours. I was chronically behind, always scrambling, always distracted and flustered.
For the first time ever, I failed a class. It was devastating. Half way into my sophomore year, I dropped out. After moving back home, I took a degree in psychology from a local school. I loved my time at Marywood University, but the sting of leaving Berklee, Boston, my friends and the dream of being a professional rock musician was very painful. 3 It was then that I first felt like a failure, a screw-up, the person who can’t do anything right. I was 19, and that feeling would intensify and become my default state for the next 21 years.
Anxiety grew as I assumed that I’d do everything wrong. I felt like Charlie Brown who once said, “Everything I touch gets ruined.” People made requests of me and I failed them. Scheduling snafus caused real problems. “I forgot” became a familiar chorus, much to the chagrin of those around me.
I had a series of failed romantic relationships, most of which can be blamed squarely on my impulsivity. As time went on, and the screw-ups mounted, I became profoundly anxious and depressed. It was a very long 21 years.
Then, about 3 or 4 months ago, I saw a special on PBS called ADD And Loving It. The show chronicled the life of several adults with ADD. It described their symptoms, experiences and coping mechanisms. The longer I watched the more transfixed I became. Eventually I was standing in front of the TV so as not to miss a thing, my jaw hanging open.
They were talking about me.
I was nodding and saying, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh my God, yes!” The participants described in eerily exacting detail problems that had plagued me all of my life. Super-specific things like walking out to the tool shed to get the lawn mower only to find yourself 3 hours later painting a picnic table and re-potting plants. Or buying novels, reading 1/4 of them and abandoning them entirely.
It was surreal and incredibly exciting. “Oh my God,” I thought. “I think I have this. I think that’s me. I must find out.” I made an appointment with a specialist and, after completing a full history and working through some diagnostic tools, we confirmed that yes, I’ve got ADD. It’s a real thing, it can be treated and my life can improve.
Relief soaked my whole being. Try to imagine it.
I’m not dumb.
I’m not lazy.
I’m not a screw-up.
I’m not a failure.
Instead, I’ve got a brain that works differently than most. As a result, I’m prone to distraction, impulsivity, difficulty with completing tasks, focus and organization. 4 There’s a bit of bad wiring in my noodle. I was born with it, and it can be repaired.
Today, my relief is nearly euphoric. I’ve begun treatment in the form of both medication (Ritilan) and behavioral therapy (strategies for working with the traits of ADD). The result is so phenomenal that it’s almost other-worldly.
Recently I sat in front of my computer to work. When I looked up at the clock, 90 minutes had passed. I’ve never, ever worked for that long in a sitting. Ever. Typically I can’t go 3 or 4 minutes without being compelled to do something else. Watch a YouTube video. Look out the window. Play the piano. Toss a ball for the dog. Iron a shirt. Every 3 or 4 minutes. If I’m lucky.
Today I feel — wait for it — happy. All the time. Yes, I’ve still got an enormous amount of work to do, shouting children and important responsibilities, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.
As a teenager I had all four wisdom teeth removed at once. I was given a strong pain reliever to take at home. Its effect was curious; the pain was still there, but I didn’t care. That’s how I feel now. I’ve got an overwhelming amount of work to complete, but it’s OK. I’m not anxious about it. I know it will get done. I know I’ll do a good job. I’m experiencing calm control. I’m focused and ready. And I’m happy. For the first time in I-honestly-don’t-know-how-long, I feel so goddamn, mother______g happy. All day long. For you this is probably typical.
For me, it’s a bona-fide, absolute, divine miracle. Gratitude radiates from my being like heat from the sun. I’ve never known such contentment.
So why did I call this post “Confessions of an asshole?” Because I have been immensely hard to live with for a very long time. For that reason, I’d like to offer formal, public and heart-felt apologies to many people.
To the well-intentioned educators who used all of their professional skills and knowledge to reach me. To my parents and sisters who had an unpredictable time bomb on their hands. To the professional contacts who begrudgingly accepted a pattern of unreliable performance for me.
To the lovely people who shared a romantic relationship with me, only to have it end so poorly. That was all me.
To my wife and children, who’ve lived with a profoundly depressed, irritable and unpredictable asshole for 10 years.
To all of you, I’m sorry. Forgive me. I know it’s been hard. I appreciate your effort.
The good news is that I’m here now. For the first time ever, I’m actually here, and it’s the best I’ve ever been.
- Technically, the DSM -IV now uses the term Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as the lone diagnostic term, as attention deficit symptoms can exist with or without hyperactive symptoms (the “H”), thereby eliminating a need for “Attention Deficit Disorder.” However, many clinicians and other mental health professionals still use the legacy term, so I will, too. ↩
- I like to visualize a teeny nugget of hyped-up dark matter embedded in my noggin. ↩
- And it still is. ↩
- Everyone experiences these things from time to time. That’s not ADD. It’s when they become so pronounced that your daily functioning is affected in a significant and often detrimental way that you may want to consider a professional evaluation. I AM NOT A PHYSICIAN AND THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. There, I said it. ↩