“You have a Ferrari engine for a brain – and bicycle brakes.”
That’s how Dr. Edward Hallowell explains ADD and ADHD to his younger patients. It’s an explanation he’s used in some of the numerous books and articles that have made him a nationally recognized expert on the subject. It’s also what he told me when I met with him last week – and it’s remarkable what a difference that metaphor makes.
I have ADD. I know I have ADD. I’ve known it for nearly a decade, and suspected it for far longer than that. But something about this diagnosis has made me resist admitting it, much less embracing it … and yet that’s exactly what Hallowell says I need to do, both to solve the persistent problem I'm having in developing a consistent exercise routine and to improve just about every other area of my life.
“This is the biggest change you can make, to really embrace your ADD,” he says, when I tell him of all the changes I’ve been trying to make this year, and of my recent wondering whether it’s ADD that’s keeping me from focusing on that last big goal, regular exercise. “Embrace it, not put up with it: ‘I’m so glad I’m not one of those boring attention-surplus people!’”
So why haven’t I embraced it? For one thing, when I first heard of ADD, it was as ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – and, as any regular follower of this project knows, hyperactivity is not exactly my problem. But it turns out that ADD, or distractibility and other symptoms without the hyperactivity, is more common in girls and women.
And when I was researching a book about helping your child learn to read and needed to bone up on common learning issues, I came across a self-assessment for this form of the syndrome. (I hate calling it a “disorder,” because who wants one of those? Especially if she already feels disorderly enough!) I’d point you to an online version, but I just spent 10 minutes haring around the Internet looking at different sites, and I can save you the trouble: Google it and pick one, because they’re all pretty much the same. (And if you can do that, you may not have ADD!)
Anyway … reading that simple checklist was a revelation.
I saw myself in every single item, and every single one was something that had caused me difficulty in some key part of my life: completing assignments in college, organizing my finances, keeping a neat house, getting important things done even when I really wanted to … and sometimes all of the above.
There’s a book about adult ADD called “You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?!” and that phrase, for me as for many others, sums up what it felt like to discover this diagnosis. (The book itself is a bit dated now, but still a reassuring resource.) So I talked with my therapist, who agreed, now that I mentioned it, that my symptoms were consistent with ADD. She suggested I try medication, and I did, and it helped. QED: ADD.
But, as Hallowell told me, that’s just not enough. “The usual treatment is just ‘diagnose and medicate,’” he says. “The medical model is better than its predecessor, which was the moral model: ‘You’re bad.’ … But the ideal treatment is comprehensive, and it begins with education.”
And education, it turns out, is what I need more of. Because I have been thinking of my ADD as a disability – a disorder, just like it says right there in the name – and Hallowell instead encourages me to think of it as just one way of describing who I am. More than that: He calls it a gift.
“When you manage it right, it’s an asset in your life,” Hallowell says. Every symptom of ADD and ADHD, he goes on, is actually a positive if you turn it around: Distractibility? “Curiosity.” Hypersensitivity to stimuli? “Creativity.” Hyperactivity? “Energy!” When you put it that way, who wouldn’t want to have ADD?
“When you present it that way,” he says, “there’s no shame. That’s the disability: believing you’re a loser, believing you’re impaired.”
So, OK. I’m not a loser. I’m driving a Ferrari. So how do I improve the brakes?
Here’s where I get some useful advice from Dr. Barbara J. Green, Hallowell’s colleague at a new center they’ve just opened together, the Center for Integrative Counseling & Wellness. The three of us are talking in the center’s light-filled, peaceful offices in Hingham, where they’ve brought together mental-health workers, a mindfulness coach, a yoga instructor, even a nutritionist, to provide what Hallowell calls interdisciplinary, multimodal treatment. It’s all designed to go beyond that “diagnose and medicate” model to incorporate all the supports that Hallowell says you need to really thrive with ADD, including what he calls “Vitamin C, for connection”: personal relationships that reduce stress and improve health.
And – fortunately for me and Project Louise – some of the treatment the center offers includes advice on developing an effective exercise routine. Even if – especially if – you have ADD, because in addition to all its other benefits, exercise can help calm your mind and improve your focus.
OK, OK, I get it already. I need to exercise. But how do I make myself do it?
Green has a nice concise list of tips:
- Schedule it. Realize that it’s a chosen goal, and commit to it in your schedule.
- Be realistic. (Hmm, where was she back in January when I was thinking I’d go straight from no exercise at all to hanging out at the gym five days a week?)
- Mix it up and make it fun.
- Get a buddy, or find a class – you’ll feel more committed and enjoy it more.
- Make a flexible Commit to it, but let it change if it has to, rather than just giving up.
- Keep a log or a journal. The positive reinforcement of seeing that you’re doing more now than you used to will keep you going.
- “Try and try and try again.” It takes time to develop a habit. Keep at it until it sticks.
She also offers a few words of wisdom that go beyond exercise (and, by the way, sound strikingly similar to the advice Coach Allison has been offering since Day One):
“Focus on what you’re doing, not on what you’re not doing,” Green says. “Don’t beat yourself up.”
More specifically, she adds, if you develop an exercise routine and then it stops working, “instead of beating yourself up, ask, ‘Why has it stopped working? What can I do to fix it?’"
"It’s not about losing weight,” she says. “It’s about creating something healthy that you can live with. It’s the opposite of a diet. It’s creating a life that you can write your own story for.”
So, yeah, maybe it’s time for a new story. One with a Ferrari in it.