Managing ADHD without medication – my continuing journey

This is a story of my personal journey – I’m not an expert but this is what is working for me and this is how I got here and why.

I found this article today – it talks about over diagnosis on ADHD/ADD.  In children, which is mostly where the controversy comes from – these articles all tend to ignore adult ADD and diagnoses of the same. I know a number of adults who have slipped through school and uni and are working who suddenly hit a wall and go ‘wait, I should be doing better than this, wtf is going on’ and go and find out actually, yes, ADD.  This started me thinking and led to this blog post.

I always envisaged this giant rubber wall in my head that I would literally bounce off and fail to be able to do certain tasks.  As it turns out, my brain had organized itself into a way of thinking where it just shied off certain things. Turns out I’m also pretty well numerically dyslexic (cannot convert currency, cannot do mental arithmatic, forget all the formulas I have learned by heart the next time i try them, I transpose numbers, I misread numbers, clocks and are meaningless to me without a lot of parsing, etc).

I’ve talked about it before on this blog what it’s like to have ADD – this is pretty apt self portrait of my daily work. So much trying to distract me.

Me at work with ADD

Me at work with ADD

So I was diagnosed after seeing a psychiatrist (after talking to a friend who had just been diagnosed as an adult and her saying ‘um you should look into this for yourself’) – she ruled out anxiety and depression for the cause.  I did this test that was very similar to an IQ test that compares you to people of the same gender and similar educational level and also measures how long it takes you to do each question and how many stuff ups you do to get there – and it came out that on pattern matching I was excellent (well I am an artist!) and on concentration and attention span I didn’t even make the main graph. Which is pretty much, yeah,  attention deficit.

Nothing to do with intelligence and in fact I’ve managed to function at a high level by learning tricks to compensate for my brain (also if you do ten things at once and cycle through them, you can finish things by coming back to them if you keep doing this). Actually explains why I constantly failed IQ tests and did really poorly on multiple choice tests for all those years – I never got good marks in exams. It’s an inability to retain the points in memory for as long as it takes to answer the questions.

I have very strong associative memory but I have to work on getting things into that memory. Once there its there forever. If not there, i forget it pretty much immediately. I never understood the concept of cramming for an exam, for example. To remember anything i have to read it and repeat it and draw little diagrams that cover it and remember the diagrams. The idea that you’d read some text and be able to blurt it all out the next day is utterly alien to me.  Still – this tricks of learning means that anything I need to know, I learn, I know deeply, and I can regurgitate at will (though the brain is a bit more like tape memory of sifting back through memories to find the knowledge, rather than flash memory, of going straight to it).

See how many analogies I use. I find them useful!

Here is a good painting analogy of the inside of my brain – compulsive things happening for random reasons at all corners of this picture. This is what it’s like in there. Nothing seems to relate to anything else and there is weird shit going on all the time.

Aunt Mabels' birthday party

Aunt Mabels’ birthday party

It’s not boredom and it’s not stupidity and it’s not a choice of behavior. It just is. I’m the least lazy person I know and I’m pretty driven and I’m also pretty darn competent at tasks I undertake to do. Also – VERY HIGHLY CREATIVE. I get to have this really excellent bonus in my brain, which is a drive to do more intersting stuff all the time and it flashes with images and stuff all day and all night and that is just great. However, there is also more disturbing compulsive behaviors that I have to fight constantly with to overcome and has left me drained and stressed.  I get tired suddenly, easily, and totally and i just conk out and go to sleep, or have to leave things, or cannot move some days. And when drained and stressed, I tend to get bipolar reactions to things. I was actually misdiagnosed with cyclothymia years ago – mild bipolar. Actually not a total misdiagnosis, but the cause of the bouts of manic and depressed behavior (never extreme but really obvious to me) were caused by having no energy and my brain just doing wierd shit to compensate for that due to the trying to overcome the issues with the ADD.

After my diagnosis I took ritalin for a few years. Oh I loved that stuff. For the first time ever I was able to just sit down, start work, and KEEP WORKING. It trained my brain into doing what I could see every one else around me doing, just being able to focus and not having to force my attention every 10 seconds back onto what I was looking at. It really helped me to learn that my brain COULD look at a single task and do it for hours.

Ritalin however gave me constant stomach irritation, and was starting to fuck me up when I was not on it.

Time for another analogy to explain this: my natural state is like I’m looking into a tropical fish tank full of all sorts of coloured and darting fish. I tend to follow one for a bit, then get distracted by another, etc. Sometimes I can follow a fish for a while and watch it but usually I look away even if I am finding it interesting and focus on another fish for a bit. It’s like that all day.

On Ritalin, one fish comes to the foreground and gets a spotlight on them. All the other fish recede into the distance and drop colour and become really not worth focusing on. I know they are there but I’m not finding myself bothering to look. Or I can choose to bring another fish to the front.  Ritalin lasts for about 4 good hours and you get a lot done in those four hours. My work productivity increased – but there was a price.

The problem with Ritalin over the years i was taking it, was increasingly: When the stuff wore off, it was like someone dumped food into the fish tank and all the fish suddenly became a massive pile of disconnected flashes of colour in a feeding frenzy. Frenzy is a good description. It was literally like all the four hours of repressed thoughts would suddenly emerge and scream ME ME ME ME ME but I couldn’t focus on a single one. It was depressing and tiring and tiresome and I couldn’t cope. My brain switched into overdrive and I started getting the mood swings cause I couldn’t relax. I’d get teary, too. sob sob sob. Initially on ritalin this was for an hour or so after I ended it, but by the end it was days and days of disjointed, fragmented thoughts. I started to really hate this. I had to take ritalin as a calming medication on the weekends just to be able to get some respite.

That was not good.

So I took a radical totally nother* approach – I went to a hypnotherapist. In fact she’s so awesome I’m recommending here here: Soula Stott in Malvern, Melbourne. Nicest person you will ever meet and bloody good at what she does. Hypnotherapy was a thing I kind of scoffed at for years as I’m really seriously not into ‘woo’.  I’m a scientist. I’m an atheist. I’m an experimenter. My job is ‘senior test analyst’ and I’m really analytical and like to prove things to the nth degree before making decisions. I don’t believe in extraordinary thing unless there is some science behind it and then it’s not a matter of believing it, but going with something counter intuitive to how you would like to think something works (hey think about string theory. that’s nonsensical and yet – life is nonsensical and hard to understand. Awesome, isn’t it!).  However. The more one finds out about the understanding of how the brain works, the less one knows about how and why the brain works. The ritalin was fixing a problem by force. I needed to get off it and see if there was anything else I could do.  There is a LOT of research behind hypnotherapy to suggest that actually, it works.

I’d already seen her over other things. The first time was over my issue with sugar – that is another blog post in the making. Lets just say that I’m very responsive to hypnotherapy. I have not voluntarily eaten sugar (cake, chocolate, dessert, jam, sweet sauce) for going on 2 years now after one session. She really helped me on that one.
It sounds fucking weird (it IS weird) but she got my subconcious to ask my ‘lack of concentration’ and ‘lack of attention’ why there were there – AND THEY TOLD ME. Ok that was freaky. They told me: we are terrified of being bored, we can’t stand it so much, that we protect you from it by making you forget you are bored. I get bored so fast when not DOING enough things creative, that as a very small girl I learned to just switch off my memory rather than go crazy bored, and that behavior stayed with me through to adulthood. I was not stimulated in the right way for me growing up – and I compensated by just learning to forget being bored. My entire adult life has centred around not being bored. Always carrying a book and a notebook and music, never putting myself in any situation where I dont’ have 80 things to do. You should see what I take on a long plane journey – multiple books, artwork, embroidery, writing stuff…  I can see the family trait on my Dad’s side – we are all constantly moving and doing stuff and shifting furniture and making things.  If denied these things, I go a bit feral.

So somehow this all got warped and I developed this compensation that has never really worked very well for me once I wanted it to be stopped.

I’ve had three sessions now on replacing these responses with more appropriate responses. A bizzare side effect of this stuff was suddenly I stared reading and writing poetry. I know, right?  We have also started dealing with the compulsive behaviors I have (eating sugar was one of them – giving that up has helped a lot. I did not have a healthy relationship with it).  Understanding boredom and learning to be ok inside my own head without external stimulus. Being able to ‘boot up’ and just do things without this compulsion to NOT just do things. Learning to focus on the task at hand and deal with the stray thoughts that pop in (like you have to learn to do in meditation I guess). Learning to accept that i need a lot of physical activity and I will always need to do random stuff and go off on tangents but learning how to not spend all my energy getting back on track. Not stressing about this stuff. Accepting the bad with the good.  It’s taking time and I have really good days and less good days (the torture of that fucking ITIL 3 day training course – enforced lack of being able to do my own thing – ARGH!). Not beating myself up when I find myself wandering around. Allowing boredom to not dominate my fears. Art is really good for me.  All of this is helping.

I went off Ritalin what must be 6 months ago. It’s been ups and downs but mostly a really positive experience, the side effects gone. I’m back to being very effective at work – I’m finding new tricks. I’m not going home tired cause I’ve used up all my thoughts, and I’m finding I can focus on the single fish for maybe 20 mins instead of 2 mins (not four hours), allow the randomness in, and then get back to it.

I don’t know what journeys other people have with managing ADD. It was a big leap to go this way. My pscyhe told me I’d be on Ritalin forever and I was initially ok with it but then my digestion really just got too disgusting and I was needing it more and more for less effect.  I am not saying everyone one on it should stop it that is a DUMB thing to say – that this is THE ANSWER. It’s been MY answer and it opens the field for others to mabye look into it but it might not work for anyone else.  It was the right way for me and I’m so glad I went and did something else about it, and it’s worth a look if you’re at all wondering what do do about it. Ritalin trained me into knowing how to think on one thought for ages, i just needed to be able to get there without the external chemicals. The brain is a constantly changing mass of gorp and I for one am really fascinated by how thinking different can cause such massive physical changes, and I’m going to continue managing my life carefully in the best way I can.


* I know nother is not a word. I just like using it to annoy certain people. Hah.