Five years ago, at the age of 30, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), combined type. In case you don't know, there are three kinds of ADHD. The first is the one you automatically think of: the loud, boisterous kid who is always out of his seat, throwing things, shouting in class, and generally making a nuisance of himself. That's hyperactive-impulsive.
According to WebMD, symptoms include:
- Fidgeting, squirming when seated
- Getting up frequently to walk or run around
- Running or climbing excessively when it's inappropriate (in teens this may appear as restlessness)
- Having difficulty playing quietly or engaging in quiet leisure activities
- Always being 'on the go'
- Often talking excessively
- Difficulty delaying responses
- Blurting out answers before questions have been completed
- Difficulty awaiting one's turn
- Frequently interrupting or intruding on others to the point of causing problems in social or work settings
- Initiating conversations at inappropriate times
The second kind is the kid in the back of the room, staring out the window and having absolutely no concept of anything going on around her. That's inattentive.
- Difficulty paying attention to details and tendency to make careless mistakes in school or other activities; producing work that is often messy and careless
- Easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli and frequently interrupting ongoing tasks to attend to trivial noises or events that are usually ignored by others
- Inability to sustain attention on tasks or activities
- Difficulty finishing schoolwork or paperwork or performing tasks that require concentration
- Frequent shifts from one uncompleted activity to another
- Disorganized work habits
- Forgetfulness in daily activities (for example, missing appointments, forgetting to bring lunch)
- Failure to complete tasks such as homework or chores
- Frequent shifts in conversation, not listening to others, not keeping one's mind on conversations, and not following details or rules of activities in social situations
The third kind is both, at alternate times. That's combined type, and that's me. (And, apparently, Calvin as well.)
I've had this on my mind, because I recently found a box of old papers and things. In that box were my report cards from elementary school. They were the old-style report cards where your teachers wrote on them by hand, not the fancy printed kind that just have numbers and averages. They have actual comments from the teachers regarding my progress, and several of them stood out to me in very unpleasant ways. They said things like,
"Not working to her full potential."
"Needs to try harder."
"Needs to pay attention more in class."
"Talks too much."
Aside from the last one - which is true - the main problem with these criticisms is that they are completely abstract. None of my teachers, from the third grade through the eighth, made a single concrete suggestion for my improvement, other than what was, essentially, a request that I shut up. And it's very frustrating to a child (or, I imagine, to anyone, really) to be told that you need to try harder when you are, in fact, trying as hard as you know how to try and nothing that you do is working. Or to be told to be more organized, but nobody bothers to show you how.
Something that annoys me about the symptoms listed above - especially under "inattentive" type, is the frequent use of the word "careless." Especially terms like "careless mistake" or "messy and careless." No one seems to understand that this is as careful as I am capable of being. Messy? Don't you get that this is the neatest handwriting I am capable of producing?
"Disorganized" is another trigger word for me. Call me disorganized? Screw you. I know where every single thing I own is. Do you know why I know where it is? Because I can see it. I know, for example, that my external drive is a "desk-area" item. It lives somewhere in the desk area. If I turn and look at my desk - and perhaps lift a stray notebook - I will be able to lay my eyes on my external drive within ten to fifteen seconds. Do you know what happens if some well-meaning person (*cough*MOTHER*cough*) decides to "straighten" my desk area?
I WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FIND ANYTHING FOR WEEKS.
Why is that? Because my brain does not process spatial stimuli the same way hers does. She looks at my desk and sees clutter. I look at it and, largely, see individual items: my TARDIS jounral, my yarn bow, my lotion, my small notebook, the stack of books over by the printer that are for my paper.
Is it cluttered? Yeah, from a neurotypical person's perspective, probably. But you know what? I need it that way, because otherwise I can't find anything. You know the old saying "Out of sight, out of mind"? That is literally how my brain works. If I can't see it, it's gone, and I have no idea where it's at, or even where to begin looking for it, and I need a new one.
Now, here's the important part of this post. (If you've made it this far, you get a gold star.)
How do your characters think?
If you're writing about a character who's scatterbrained - to use another term for ADHD people that just makes me feel so good about myself - can you get inside that character's mind? Do you write her as almost aggressively clueless and twee, or do you really stop and think about the fact that inside her mind, there are processes going on, and they sound like this:
I need to remember to get peanut butter when I'm at the store. I'm almost out of peanut butter. I do like a good peanut butter sandwich. Heh. I remember when I was in college and I was so broke that I ate nothing but peanut butter and day-old bread for two weeks around finals. Was that junior year or...? No, I remember, it was the first semester of my junior year, because that was when the coffee shop I was working at just went belly-up overnight and I couldn't find another job because I was going home over Christmas, and no one would hire me if I was going to be gone for a month right away. Man, that sucked. I loved working at that coffee shop, too. It always smelled so good. I love the way roasted coffee beans smell. Oh, and I remember that guy who worked there, the one who made the chocolate latte things and they were so good because he put one of the other syrups in them that you wouldn't expect. Which one was that? I can't remember now. Was it hazelnut? Almond? No, almond would be gross. I wonder what it was. I should look him up on Facebook and ask him. I remember his name was Rich. What was his last name? Blakely? Maybe? Bleecker? No, that's stupid, that's that street in Manhattan where all the nightclubs are. I'd like to go to Manhattan; I bet it's awesome. I wouldn't want to live there, though; the rents are ridiculous. What kind of idiot would pay thousands of dollars a month for a studio apartment in a crime-ridden neighborhood? I'll take my nice, grassy half-acre, even if I do have an hour's commute. Oh, that reminds me, I'd better get gasoline before I go home.
And somehow the peanut butter never gets bought. And did I mention that that entire stream of consciousness took about five seconds? As well, about half of those thoughts weren't even in words; they were in pictures - people's faces, for example, or maybe the coffee shop sign, or a memory of being behind the counter - or in vague ideas like the smell of roasting coffee beans combined with a feeling of happiness. The mind of the ADHD person moves like lightning, and in ways that many neurotypical folks don't really comprehend.
I recall, as a child, that when something would happen, my parents would ask me what I was thinking when I did it. And I would shrug and say that I wasn't. They would reject that answer. "You had to have been thinking something." I probably was, but let me redirect your attention to the above stream of consciousness and the fact that it happened in an eyeblink and mostly in conceptualities. Try explaining that to your dad when you're seven and he's standing over you with a strap in his hand.
How your characters think is as important - and sometimes more important - than what they think. Try to give your audience some insight into your character's mind, but don't assume that all minds work the same way yours does. Try jumping into the mind of someone who's neurally different from you. It could be a fun roller coaster ride.