Surviving Middle School (and Life) with ADHD…

“I spent the morning smashing flies…I killed one fly against the doorjamb. Another I stalked into the kitchen...A third fly wavered by the kitchen window. When I swatted, a wild ferocious swing, a whole trembling crowd shot from the window like pebbles from a blunderbuss, then settled back. My heart pounded. I felt flushed with disgust and irritation. Why must I always have such obstacles to my writing?”
-Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark (pg. 9)

Prior to middle school, when grades started to matter, I never considered my excess energy to be a disadvantage. On the contrary, it helped me run faster, think up strange and outlandish ideas, and consider the world from a more buoyant perspective. I excelled in subjects like art, phys. ed, and English because their curriculums allowed for this energy and the unconventional thinking that accompanied it.

As for focusing on anything other than these classes, friends, sports/dance, and creative writing, I was at loss. I’d sit for hours, studying the ceiling tiles of my social studies and math classrooms, waiting for those 45-minute periods to be over. If I wasn’t distracting myself in this way, I was doodling poems, drawings, or stories in the margins of my notebooks, which better resembled blank pages with colorful borders. Reflecting on this time, I have conflicted feelings about my Monkey Mind’s affect on my middle school experience. Tests came back with poor grades and that didn’t help my self-esteem, but I was nurturing creative ideas, perhaps just in the wrong setting.

This came to a head when my 8th grade homeroom teacher sat my parents down and said something to the effect of, “Some students just can't meet our school’s standards.” (Okay, that's a really diplomatic version of what she actually said.) Of course, Mother dearest, being a true Sicilian woman, balled up her fists and was about to slug Teacher, when she took a breath and restrained her primal impulses, for the rest of the hour.

The truth was, I wasn’t meeting my New York private school’s standards. On the other hand, what support was a kid like me given? At that point, very little (*see next paragraph). The message Teacher gave was “buck up or get out.” 

I didn’t leave that private school. Instead, I developed as a student throughout high school due in part to my brain’s natural development, Mom & Dad’s help as makeshift tutors, my supportive new homeroom teachers (*I am forever indebted to Sandy Taylor & Eva Rado...You are very, very fortunate if you end up in such a supportive house), and my diagnosis of ADHD. Now, the diagnosis itself wasn’t what elevated my grades. What changed was my approach to schoolwork. Once I recognized my excess energy and subsequent lack of focus as hurdles to academic success, I discovered ways to adapt.

Many of these techniques I still use to keep my goals on target. Without them I wouldn’t be close to the final draft of my current novel (more to come on that!). So here are some words of advice for those of you with ADD/ADHD...or the occasional bout of inattention:

1. Exercise often.
A favorite gym teacher of mine, Dee Middleton, dubbed me “Squirmer” back in elementary school. I tend to think of my mind and body as separate entities that rely on each other. If my body's restless I won't be able to sit long enough to focus and if my mind's choked with thoughts, a run helps to clear it. Running, dancing, and gymnastics are how I burn off the extra energy that comes with ADD/ADHD. They also help me sleep. Find your own ways to stay active.
Caitlin, Missy, & me after Adult Gymnastics at Chelsea Piers

2. Find a quiet space.
Oh New York City, you temptress. Why sit in your bedroom whittling away at that looming project when you could be out with friends, attending a play/concert, or playing Frisbee on the Great Lawn? The city is full of fun distractions but it’s the quiet spaces…the parks, the libraries, the museums…help tune out its noise.

One of my quiet spots: The American Museum of Natural History (Penguin habitat!)
3. Make a routine & keep to it.
I'm a morning lark, but you might be a night owl. Figure out when your mind’s most alert and commit that time to projects that require sustained focus.

4. Limit caffeine.
I tend to joke that coffee & I are like alcohol & normal people. It throws all of my inhibitions out the window. While a Venti Iced Coffee is helpful for creative thinking and staying awake, it jostles my logical focus. Pay attention to what your mind/body can handle...it is a stimulant, you know.

An interesting article on caffeine (courtesy of my dear friend, Laura Duane):

5. Make an outline...& stray from it.
I have a love-hate relationship with outlines. My logical mind loves them, my Monkey Mind loves to stray from them. I usually let one take the lead and then impose the other on later. For instance, write an outline and then explode it with creative ideas or write stream of thought and then discover the linear patterns in your scribbling. Outlines help with all sorts of projects...term papers, novels, but also organizing events or writing your fall bucket list.

6. Go to bed & let your unconscious take over for while.
Dr. Mom Phd’s words of wisdom. They helped me through every midterm and final in high school & college.

7. Limit distractions (Tuck away that smart phone!) 
Friends & Family, I am so so sorry for not returning your text/email/facebook message sooner, but I’ve turned off my mobile data. It’s just too much of a distraction for me.

8. Take a walk.
Stretch your legs, breathe fresh air, listen to music...and then return to the task at hand. If dieters crave dessert, then I crave a break. You'll come back half-satiated and ready to tuck back in for another hour or three of focused attention.

9. Hug a puppy.
...or any form of unconditional love. Can't hurt.

The Greatest Brussels Griffon. Gatsby.
10. Have a support team.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a person or group of people who support you. Every day these friends and family members provide a stable foundation for you to try new things, be it a new job, hobby, class (the trapeze is on my to-do list!), or voyage around the world.

11. Sleep! (Added 9.3.11)
During the week, I live on the early bird special schedule. I usually tuck into bed around 9:30pm in order to wake up at 6:30am and start writing before the workday begins. Call me crazy, but it so rewarding to do something personal for yourself before launching into the day’s activities. Sleep is important for everyone, but for those of us with ADD or ADHD, we expend so much energy it’s important to refuel for the day ahead. After a night of less than eight hours I find that I’m either wired with inattention or impatient with exhaustion. Trust me, you’ll feel better and those around you with thank you.

I’m not sure if this is true for everyone with ADD or ADHD, but I feel more rested when I stick to an earlier schedule. Even if I stay up late into the morning hours and somehow manage eight hours of sleep, my mind just doesn’t operate at the same level. Always interested to hear if you have similar or different experiences! Feel free to post comments below.

Until next time... Thanks again for following along!

Julie & my Monkey Mind