Friday, June 21, 2013

ADHD Combined Type or Plain Old Lazy?

Parents, teachers, and coworkers often mistake ADHD combined type for a lack of ambition or general laziness. ADHD combined type differs from what we traditionally consider laziness in several important ways, and it’s important for people with ADHD to understand that they are not lazy or failures, but reacting to very real brain differences.

My sixth grade teacher was sure that I was toying with her. I couldn’t do the 100 page color-by-number packet that she sent home, even though it was ‘fun’ work and should only take a few hours. I took a zero instead. Then a few weeks later, I turned around and finished an entire pre-algebra book that she’d given me for enrichment in a few days of non-stop math immersion. 

When she assigned a simple poster project, I put mine off until bedtime the night before and threw it together in 15 minutes without using a straightedge or bothering to make sure my letters were neat and uniform. Then, when we had to write poems on Ancient Egypt, I turned in two times the minimum number, lovingly crafted and revised, and went on to win a prestigious county-wide literary prize. 

 I was clearly lazy, obstinate, and refused to work up to my potential, except when I exceeded expectations. Obviously, I was out to make her crazy.

Because she wasn’t familiar with ADHD combined type in girls, my teacher assumed that fairly typical ADHD behaviors were laziness and a bad attitude. I’ve met other adults who grew up thinking that they were lazy and useless. When they received a diagnosis of ADHD, they suddenly realized that they’d had a very real learning disability all along. Even if you’re not ready to seek an official diagnosis, there are some common signs that could mean that your ‘laziness’ and ‘bad attitude’ are actually signs of adult ADHD.

Why Do They Call Us Lazy?

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a lazy person is sluggish and avoids activity and exertion.  However, the National Institute of Mental Health explains that people with ADHD Combined type have both inattentive and hyperactive symptoms. They have trouble focusing and staying organized, but they’re also always on the move, involved in things, and shifting from project to project. Going by the dictionary definition, it’s almost impossible for someone with ADHD-C to be last.

So why do other people think that people with ADHD are lazy? In my own life, I’ve noticed that it’s because people can’t understand what’s going through my mind when I’m not completing an unpleasant chore or attending to something they see as important. They can’t understand ADHD, and they understand feeling lazy, so they translate my behavior into something they can understand.

If I was lazy, when I wasn’t doing the dishes I’d be napping, or watching television, or sitting on my porch drinking iced tea and watching the cars going by. Instead, I neglect the dishes because I became really involved in a political argument and I’m scouring the internet, looking for historical supports for my position. Or because I’m writing a novel. Or I’m trying to illuminate a manuscript. Or I just noticed that every doorknob in the house is loose, and I’m looking for the screwdriver so I can fix them. 

With ADHD combined type, the problem is not that I’m too sluggish to finish a boring task. It’s the opposite. I’m too active to focus on a boring, mundane chore when there are so many challenging, interesting things that demand my attention. This constant shifting, or perpetual multitasking, is a very common experience among my friends with ADHD.

Procrastination: Poor Planning, or Pouty Plodding?

Another trait that often gets people with ADHD combined type called ‘lazy,’ is our tendency to procrastinate. People who see us rushing to complete something at the last minute assume that we put it off because we were busy having fun. In this worldview, a person with ADHD combined type is like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ants. In reality, I’ve noticed that problems with procrastination often come from the long-term planning problems associated with ADHD.

The research seems to support this theory of procrastination in ADHD. In the Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics researchers explained that for many adults, ADHD causes procrastination and missed deadlines because of poor time sense and the inability to plan complex tasks. The scientists taught adults with ADHD planning techniques, and found that the classes reduced procrastination and improved day-to-day functioning.

I’ve seen this in my own life. I used to be a terrible procrastinator. I’d look at a gigantic project and panic, knowing that it was too big to ever complete. My teachers and my parents worked very hard, over the course of a decade, to teach me to break problems into smaller steps, and to work on manageable chunks of a large project. Instead of thinking “I have to gather data from 20 different sources,” I learned to focus on one source, then the next, until the project was done.

In some ways, my experiences in learning to plan and to avoid procrastination demonstrate how ADHD combined type can be considered a learning disability. Most people learn to break projects into manageable chunks at a fairly young age.

 For those of us with ADHD-C, it takes a lot more time, patience, support, and effort to learn this important life skill. On the other hand, it is possible to learn this skill. If you have ADHD-C and a tendency to procrastinate, take heart. You’re not lazy. You just need focused, careful instruction in how to plan and break projects up into smaller tasks.

Working on the Weekends

Another trait that I share with a lot of my friends who have ADHD combined type is that we all have projects and hobbies which allow us to explore our interests and talents. When we’re working on something we love, time stands still. We get into a zone of concentration where, instead of being extremely distractible, we can no longer hear, see, or feel distractions. We’re totally uninterruptible when we work on something we love. My husband jokes that a nuclear warhead could go off right next to me while I was working, and I’d never even blink.  

This tendency to shift between hyperfocus and total lack of focus with no middle ground is part of what makes people with ADHD unique. If we find a project dull, like the poster boards and busy work packets of my youth, it becomes nearly impossible to concentrate on it or finish it. If, however, something catches our interest, we’ll think about it and work on it for days at a time, only coming up for air when we’re hungry or need to use the bathroom (and thinking about it even then!)

Researchers have noticed this tendency. For instance, in Neurodevelopmental Psychiatry: An Introduction for Medical Students , researchers from the United Kingdom described hyperfocus as one of the key symptoms of adult ADHD.  In my own life, two things seem to reliably trigger hyperfocus. One of those was ancient languages, so I majored in Classics in college. The other is writing, and I’ve made a career of it. If you have adult ADHD combined type, find out what triggers your hyperfocus. Successful people with ADHD excel by finding their passion and following it.

Not Lazy, Just Misdirected

No matter what teachers or parents may have told us in the past, people with ADHD combined type are not lazy. It’s not that we don’t want to expend any energy. It’s just that we frequently misdirect our energy in inefficient ways. That means that we can work very hard, yet not seem to make any progress on boring or routine chores.

Meanwhile, if something catches our interest, we’ll throw our hearts and souls into it and let it become our work and our hobby. There’s a reason that so many famous inventors and entrepreneurs are said to have ADHD. They found their passion, followed it, and made something new and amazing.

For me and for many of my friends with ADHD combined type, the harangues of childhood still echo today. We worry that we’re not good enough, that we’re failures, that we’re lazy. We are not lazy. We are hardworking women who can achieve great things when we focus. You just can’t judge our characters based on the state of our unmatched sock piles. Speaking of which, the kids are asking for clean socks again…

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