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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