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What do Fireworks and ADHD Have in Common?

Note from Ned

Fireworks

It being the season of Independence Day, I thought I’d write about fireworks, but not the kind we gather to watch on the Fourth of July, but the kind that animate life with ADD.

We who have the trait so misleadingly called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD (even though I still call it ADD, which is what it was called when I first learned about it in 1981), have fireworks in our brains all the time.

This can be good or bad or both.  We can surprise the world with a new idea that went off like a firecracker in our mind, or we can upset the world with a harebrained scheme that blows up in our face.

We never know what we are going to think, say, or do next.  That is not to say we are always reckless.  At times we can be super-focused, methodical, logical, and precise.  It’s just that at other times we can go off half-cocked.  We don’t plan or intend to do either: be focused or half-cocked.  These states of mind simply arise, de novo, out of the blue, without warning, aura, or premonitory signs.

One of the best ideas I ever had came to me out of nowhere while being interviewed by Catherine Crier about 25 years ago for the TV show 20/20.  With the camera running she asked me to describe ADD (as it was then called).  I ticked off the three defining symptoms: distractibility, impulsivity, and restlessness or hyperactivity.  But then, unplanned and without having thought it before that very moment, I added, “But if you turn each one of those negative symptoms on its head, you get a positive.  The flip side of distractibility is curiosity.  The flip side of hyperactivity is energy.  And what is creativity but impulsivity gone right?”

Most of my work with ADD since then has centered around developing that idea, especially the idea that creativity is inextricably linked to impulsivity, spontaneity, and disinhibition.  The analogy I developed to describe ADD, “race-car brain with bicycle brakes,” grew directly from that brief moment, that idea-out-of-nowhere, I had while Catherine Crier was interviewing me.

We never know when one of those fireworks will go off and be wonderfully useful, or when they’ll be duds.  All we really know is that they will continue to go off.

Other useful ideas regarding ADD that I’ve had also came out of nowhere, like comparing medication to eyeglasses, or saying that telling a person who has ADD to try harder is like telling a person who is near-sighted to squint harder.  Those came to me literally in the midst of writing a short essay about ADD.  When I started to write, the ideas had not yet hatched.  But as I typed words onto the page, pop!, the analogies appeared.  Out of nowhere, otherwise known as the unconscious or the imagination.

My imagination is like a black box.  When I reach in I never know what I will pull out.  Sometimes what comes out is irrelevant, misshapen, or or impossible even for me to understand.  But other times it is something new, useful, and true.

Of course, we can’t just rely on the fireworks to carry the day.  We have to hone our ideas, develop our projects, advance our lives piece by piece, day by day.  Often our tasks are frustrating because progress can be slow, and mistakes can abound.  We, or at least I, make tons of mistakes.

I am not a wealthy man because I never took the time to learn now to manage money well (and because my wife and I decided to send our three children to private schools and colleges).  Had I found a way to make money management come alive to me, I am pretty sure some fireworks would have gone off and I would have made a lot more money.

But that was not to be, at least not yet.  We go where curiosity and enchantment lead us, where the fireworks explode, where the action is, the disruption, the new.  We, or at least I, often ignore the sensible in favor of the new and different, the prudent in favor of the offbeat and risky.

We live close to the edge, not because we like danger (my whole life has been an ongoing search for a safe place) but because we love to chart our own paths and discover new lands.  We do without maps, instructions, and directions not because we want to court disaster but because we want to be the map-maker, not the map-follower.

I often say to Sue, my wife, “The only thing that’s harder than being me is being married to me.”  She laughs and says, “That’s the truth! But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Thank God for Sue and all the Sue’s out there who love us for our fireworks and for our duds and inadvertent explosions as well.

  Happy summer to you all!

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