Living in the Now

My friend Mark recently wrote a post that spotlighted some of the frustration experienced by those of us with ADHD and the people in our lives. This is my response to his post.

“The problem is remembering to live in the now.” ~Mark

That is what the “chronically normal,” as Dr. Fred Frese calls them (referring to people who do not have psych diagnoses), would have us believe, because that is how they perceive the universe and therefore is what they conceive of as Right.

To someone with ADHD, however, the proposition isn’t so simple. We live in multiple “nows.” Our mental processes are not unidimensional, and trying to make them so does not make us better; it cripples us and makes us stupid.

Think about physical processes for a moment. As you walk, you are simultaneously breathing, moving your legs to propel yourself forward, making continual minute adjustments to the positions of all your body parts in order to hold yourself upright, maintain your balance, and navigate around obstacles in your path, taking in and processing visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile sensory inputs that inform you about your environment, turning your head and moving your eyes to the best positions for taking in those signals, dilating or contracting your pupils and flexing your corneal lenses to focus the visual inputs and adjust for variations in lighting, and blinking your eyelids periodically to keep your eyes lubricated and clean.

If “living in the now” meant choosing only one activity to perform at any given moment, how would you prioritize this list? Silly question, right? They all have to happen simultaneously or there’s not much point in doing any of them.

“Normals” are only capable of having one conscious thought process at any given moment, so to them the solution is absurdly simple, and they label us as “disordered.” This is only because from their perspective, we are less capable because we cannot think like they do, when the truth is that we are more aware than they are and therefore have more “now” to deal with.

Since we are expected to live and function in a society created by (and therefore for) the “normal” majority, we’ve been forced all our lives to try to function the way they do in order to Do Things The Right Way. But our mental universe has more dimensions in it than theirs does, and requires a lot more processing as a result. More processing means more possible ways in which to fail at masquerading as a unidimensional thinker.

Caviat: While it might seem unfair that the normals got to invent the rules of society, the truth is that it’s not the sort of thing we like to do, and someone had to do it, so it was nice of them to step in and take care of the mundane details while we were off doing and thinking about more exciting and interesting things. And awkward as it may be to have to try to fit our square pegs into the round holes they’ve built for us, it would be ever so much worse to be imprisoned in a unidimensional mind. I think we’ve really got the better end of the bargain. We just have to learn to adapt as well as possible so as not to upset them too much.

“Normal” society doesn’t provide the necessary stimulation to provide our brains with the amount of fuel required for multilevel processing, so some artificial supplementation is helpful. If we traveled to a planet without the right level of oxygenation, we’d have to supply our own, and this is no different. ADHD medications are a big help. If your brain actually has the energy it needs to process on all its multiple levels, it’s easier to juggle all the “nows” without dropping any of them.

Habits and routines are another way of coping. The human brain can turn often-repeated processes into learned reflexes, so that a given sequence of actions can eventually be converted from a conscious process into a single nearly unconscious reflexive action. Learning to walk is one example. Learning to drive is another. When you first started driving, you had to consciously scan for traffic signals, signs, the actions of other drivers, lane markings, and curves in the road. If that scanning revealed the presence of a stop sign ahead, you had to consciously think of what to do next — move your right foot from the gas pedal to the brake and slow the car, watch the approach of the sign, adjust your speed according to the distance left to travel, bring the vehicle to a complete stop at the appropriate moment, and so forth.

After a while, however, the entire process became practically unconscious. Your brain now notes the presence of the sign without your conscious attention to scanning for it. Your foot reflexively moves to the brake at the right moment and applies the correct amount of pressure, the car comes to a stop, and the entire sequence happens smoothly without your having to pay any attention to it.

Developing routines is one of my most powerful coping skills for ADHD. I create a list of steps, even writing them down if necessary, and follow those steps the same way in the same order every time. ADHD people are creative and flexible and don’t feel the need to always do things the same way, so this isn’t as easy for us as it sounds, but it can be done. It takes time and practice and in the beginning you’ll often miss a step or get them out of order, especially when something unexpected happens to disrupt your routine, but if you work at it, eventually it becomes a reflex, and you don’t have to worry about it so much.

In the meantime, don’t forget to appreciate the advantages of having a brain capable of parallel processing. A three-dimensional creature living in a two-dimensional universe would certainly seem weird, clumsy and inept to the natives, but only because they would be incapable of comprehending its true nature and advanced capabilities. 🙂

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3 Responses to Living in the Now

  1. Felicity says:


    Maybe I’m prejudiced by not believing in “normal,” “healthy,” or “sane,” but I have trouble believing in the big binary you’ve advanced here. I can’t imagine that all people without ADD diagnoses (or rather, all who couldn’t get one) have such similar experiences of consciousness (or, for that matter, that it’s such a dull, priggish experience of consciousness, but I guess you’re gettin’ back at the world for not being very ADD-compliant!) I also have trouble imagining all the ADD diagnosees are “creative and flexible” — I think you’re confusing how awesome your family is with how ADD-diagnosed your family is! 😛

    I just think there’s more of a spectrum at play here. Some people CAN parallel-process and don’t do it all the time, or do it differently, or do it less…some people more. I may be slightly biased by the fact that my current job seems to only work for people with at least a touch of that ADD-spectrum magic. Anyone without it seems to quit in frustration within two weeks. (And I don’t think everyone I work with is flexible, much less creative 😉 )

  2. Ruth says:

    I admit that it’s quite likely I’m biased… 😉 I’m pretty sure people who don’t have ADD don’t find their ways of thinking boring or dull.

    You’re also right that it’s not a black and white thing; not all people with ADD function at the same level or in exactly the same ways. Things are easier to explain if you can reduce the number of shades of grey, so I do often tend to oversimplify in order to get to the root of a thing.

    It’s also really hard to describe the experience of ADD in words. Spoken (written) language is pretty limited when it comes to communicating about the inner workings of the mind. For instance, I struggled with the “parallel processing” terminology. I don’t think that’s really an accurate representation. Everyone’s brains process in parallel. In people with ADD there is more awareness of and conscious involvement in the parallel streams. Some of us seem to be able to limit that awareness, and some are hopelessly distracted by it. (I’m not sure how much of the difference is due to learned coping skills and how much is due to variations in the level of ADD a person has.)

    That’s not all, though — we don’t just think about more things at once; we also seem to think about them in a completely different way. I call it “big picture” thinking, and it seems to also affect (or be related to) how we remember things.

    The thinking and remembering that ADDers do seems to focus more on relationships between things than on the things themselves. It’s why I can walk past a partially assembled jigsaw puzzle and instantly point to multiple related pieces spread out amidst the jumble, or scan a Sudoku puzzle and effortlessly pick out all the 3s or know almost without looking which two numbers are missing from a particular row or column. It’s also why I have such a hard time memorizing facts and terminology, and why in engineering school I learned to derive mathematical formulas from scratch because it was easier for me than memorizing them.

    I remember how two things are connected; how they relate to each other, affect each other, or derive from each other. That has meaning to me. Remembering their names, however, is difficult. If there’s no functional relationship, I have nothing to stick it together with in my mind. My non-ADD friends in nursing school breezed through anatomy, while I struggled and sweat and drove myself mad trying to remember which name went with which body part. In physiology it was my turn to shine and theirs to sweat. This substance triggers that gland which releases those chemicals which cause these reactions. I remember the cause and effect relationships easily, and given a hypothetical change in the system I probably won’t have much trouble telling you what the outcome will be. Just don’t ask me to give you the anatomical or chemical names of the parts involved!

  3. Peggikaye says:

    I think that you have hit the nail on the head my friend!
    My children, who are not ADHD, but carry their own neurobiological ‘disorders’ of OCD and Tourette’s Syndrome … both say that
    “I am normal in my Abnormalities!”

    My oldest, in learning about his ‘disorders’ (he refuses to recognise them as a disorder, but rather, a difference) he realized that for a child with this particular genetic ‘disorder’ …this DIFFERENCE …this genetic mind make up .. he is a perfectly normal child.
    His brain makes the brain signals it is SUPPOSED to make for a child with tourette’s and OCD. He is not abnormal … he is not different … he is normal in his abnormality …

    HE IS normal in his abnormailities …
    He has no problems with it …and if people have trouble with him … then THEY are the ones who have significant problems.

    I LOVE my child’s take on life. HE is my inspiration (in spite of the fact that I maintain he’s buying his way through college (hush Enrico, I’m bitter)

    People with ADHD are not abnormal … they have something that makes them think in a different way …

    They are normal in their ‘abnormalities’ …

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