Attention Deficit Disorder and Art

For those of you who don’t know it, I have ADD. I am currently medicated on Ritalin which I take when I need to concentrate, and I take when I need to calm the swirling thoughts in my head.

I managed to get through school, uni, and a large number of years working in IT with undiagnosed ADD.  I always knew there was something amiss in my head, but not what. I was tired a lot, moody a lot, unable to cope a lot. I would cry on the way home when I worked full time, wondering how no one else seemed to be as traumatized by work as I was. I thought of it as a big wall I just could not get over, this thing that blocked me from doing some of the things I wanted to do.

One thing that I did do, all through primary and high schools, and uni, was I drew on my class notes and my lecture notes. I drew incessantly. I drew on my exams (I liked the ones with the full blank pages). I rushed through the questions and made utterly stupid mistakes as I misread things and answered things wrong, and (now that I am conscious of it), my hand would always circle the wrong answer in multiple choices, even I knew the right answer – I never did well on those sorts of exams. It used to confuse me cause I KNEW the work, but that was never reflected in my marks.  I scraped through my undergrad degree (with lots of drawing thorugh lecturs) and made an effort in third year to get into Honours, which i actually hated almost every minute of (self paced research study – URGH!)

I cannot read aloud accurately, having to read aloud during class was torture – I still cannot do this. My teachers always told my mother in parent teacher interviews that I was not up to reading standard – but I was way ahead, that however did not translate to reading aloud standard. I cannot give a presentation to save my life (still) cause I forget what I’m saying and frankly, i FORGET HOW TO READ PLAIN ENGLISH if I’m public speaking.  But I can take a bit of text and turn it into a visual representation that makes sense. I love to read. Just not to read out…

I drew because I was inattentive, because I was bored. I never said a word, I never acted out, I was the shy one who never spoke in class (yes, to people who only know me as an adult, that is hilarious).

It’s how i learned to draw. I painted when I could but it was messier, harder to do, more expensive, and I was poor for a long time and so i just drew.

I see things very visually and make mental pictures of things. All of the things I like to do involve the visual stuff – art, sewing, cooking, etc. I make giant process maps in my head and i translate everything around me into pictures. I remember pictures quite intensely. I love to look at art too, other art.

When i finally did get a diagnosis, my Psyche told me that it’s fairly common for professional women in their mid 30s who were ‘high functioning’ undiagnosed ADD to come in and say ‘OK – what the heck IS this’. That’s the age where all the ability to compensate fails to work any more cause you should be getting better professionally, however you hit a wall and stay there. That is what happened to me. I hit a wall. And then I had a conversation with someone who had ADD about her symptoms  and ” said ‘but all that stuff is normal” – and she said “NO IT IS NOT”.

So I went  and tracked it down, and if anyone has tried to get medical professionals to listen to them when they don’t appear to have a problem, that is freaking hard. I had one doctor refuse to give me a referral to a psychiatrist BUT try and put me on anti-depressants! (I have never been back to that doctor). I had a psychologist tell me that there was nothing wrong with being a bit erratic and I should just accept myself for what I was (mistaking my quest I think for low self esteem).  I had a number of years ago been diagnosed with cyclothymia (mild bipolar) – which is from what i can understand it, a side effect of the energy swings of the ADD. I still get the mood swings, but if I treat the ADD/fluctuating energy levels with respect and am on top of that, I get way less mood swings.

I finally saw an excellent psychiatrist who put me through a series of tests and showed me graphically that i have negligible attention span and short term memory (my spacial reasoning is excellent though! and ironically I don’t remember what the other data points they measured were). You know when you go into a room and forget why you’ve gone into it and you stand there helplessly? Apply that to almost everything – work tasks, going shopping, where did i put my car, what was I just thinking, what did I mean to do now, how come I’m doing the washing, I thought i was in the middle of the dishes – wait I am, better go start the vacuuming….. I have gotten good at getting into habits (keys in the same place, car in the same place, same train every morning) – these counteract a bunch of naff behaviors.

It turns out I also have dyscalcula, which is a form of numerical dyslexia. I have issues with understanding and consistently applying equations, numbers, and time concepts to daily life. I am always amused by my professional job, which is testing software that does superannuation calculations – I have managed to translate and parse the things I need to do into a series of pattern matching exercises. I happen to be good at it too.

In all of this, what is the significance of art?

Been thinking about this a lot. I have used art work to sooth and calm the swirling in my head for years. It started in class when I drew on my work, and that in effect has been the thing i go back to whenever i need a time out from trying to concentrate or think.

I find i can direct the energy and concentration and turn off the chaos by getting out a pencil or a brush, and working on a piece of art.  Selecting and choosing colours and working on a bit of something till it looks right, is awesome therapy for the messed up brain, it soothes it and calms it and gives it something to look at. I guess art to me is self-medication, it is the thing I can hyper-focus on. I’ve always done it, I went through some old photographs of things I’ve done through out the years. The times i was most stressed (at work and personally), were my most creative times artistically. It’s been the thing that has propped me up forever and helped me through some very trying times.

There are a lot of reasons I’m choosing to shift to a more art based lifestyle, but really it comes down to : It makes me happy to do it.  🙂