Recently I had a succession of days when I found myself falling into a dark cavern of brain fog and was painfully unable to hold things together with the lists and support systems that usually help me keep life intact. I’ve always been distractible, jumping around to more unfinished projects than ever felt sane, but had learned how to cope with my tendencies well enough to prevent major suffering, and got by amazingly well with incredible amounts of extra effort, that left me exhausted but succeeding in most things I wanted to do.
As the older sibling, I’m the one who always pulled through, put on a good face, kept my grades up, impressed the boss, and generally made a good impression in public, despite what I was always fighting inside. So I’m too familiar with feelings of turmoil, but unaccustomed to them affecting my outward life.
Well, last week everything fell apart. I locked the keys in the car when I was miles away from home and my brain couldn’t hold a thought for more than three seconds. Too many times I had no idea why I’d entered a room or was holding a certain object, and I sadly forgot a huge end-of-season party at the community-supported farm where I’m an enthusiastic member and had volunteered to put in a chunk of hours to help prepare the food. I also left the stove on when I exited the house for a few hours, and the scary list goes on….. It was impossible to ignore that my brain seemed to be shutting down much more than usual, for whatever reason. Fortunately, that extreme has lately ebbed a bit, but it led me to explore these issues in more depth.
Caregivers are already quite crazed half the time (or more), and juggling so many details to help manage and advocate for another person’s life taxes even the best brain. I had therefore given myself lots of space and compassion for error and various kinds of kookiness over the past few months, but it was now blowing up in my face, and I was wondering if I’d end up moving into the memory care facility while my mom was still alive there.
One of my first coping strategies is doing research, so I’ve been on a library siege of brain books recently, ranging from diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s (do I have it?) to ADD/ADHD, which has plagued a few members of my family in a major way, including my mom, though the disease was unknown when she sought help in her 40’s. Hormones, infections, diet, stress, and so many other factors could be at play, but I finally had to admit to myself that I’ve been struggling with memory and organizational issues most of my life, and now that it’s come to a pathetic-feeling peak, for the first time in my life I’ve stopped dismissing this part of me.
I’ll review the Alzheimer’s and false-Alzheimer’s books in a future post. Today I’m discussing three enlightening books that address distraction as a permanent disability, including adult (and child) ADD/ADHD.
Since ADD has become a sorely overused descriptor for any kind of brain-stress symptoms, even mild and temporary, and is probably overdiagnosed among active children- especially boys, I have to admit that I’ve felt incredibly skeptical about the whole topic as it became glaringly popular over the last decade. When my younger sibling used the term to explain everything that was wrong with her life, I rolled my eyes internally. When she and her son were formally diagnosed and started medication, I had a similar reaction. I’m well-versed in holistic health, and chose to frame their obstacles and my own through that lens. Then my sister started trying to tell me that our parents had ADD too, which closed my ears completely, since I knew for a fact that they had other health challenges that caused look-alike symptoms. Parkinson’s and ADD share low dopamine issues, and my dad’s highs and lows and inability to function organizationally was explained away in the 70’s by bipolar issues, which they then knew very little about.
The books I recently read, Driven to Distraction, Delivered from Distraction, and The Disorganized Mind, were a startling reality check for me. Not only could I see the pathology of my family there, but also my own brain patterns since childhood. This is the environment we grew up in, and then adopted, for either genetic or behavioral reasons, or both. I’d learned to self-coach myself out of the most destructive patterns, but life has been incredibly hard for me to negotiate, and I’d never realized that not everyone struggles in the ways laid out in the books- I just thought other people were more adept at circumventing it, and that I needed to try harder. Forgetting that I already spend most of my waking hours trying to organize my life, I kept resolving to do better and devote more time to attempts at structure.
The books helped me see the difference between “normal” distraction, and that which might need special accommodations for success. After seeing my childhood family’s craziness illuminated in the case studies, I felt terrible that I’d dismissed my sister’s analysis so quickly. Although I still would not first seek out medication for myself if I were formally diagnosed, there were plenty of effective strategies laid out in the books (especially The Disorganized Mind), for me to play with to try to ease my brain load and painful, embarrassing struggles with transitions and completion.
The authors of these three books are an incestuous group. By that I mean that the authors, Edward M. Hallowell, John J. Ratey, and Nancy A. Ratey are all related through their professional practice and through marriage. Yet each book is distinctive enough to merit reading all three. Please note that I found all of these titles at the public library and have no interest or connection to their sales. I’ve provided links only for your informational reference.
The Disorganized Mind – coaching your ADHD brain to fake control of your time, tasks and talents, the “life coach in a book,” by Nancy A. Ratey, is the most practical of the three books for gaining instant strategies to help distraction and increase overall life effectiveness, whether or not you have ADD. Ms. Ratey covers potential problems in all aspects of daily life, and as a person who has overcome immense disability in this area herself, knows all the tricks, downfalls, and ways a distracted brain can convince you that you’re busy even though at the end of each day you feel you’ve accomplished nothing important that you earnestly intended to get done. I feel her book, along with my all-time favorite organizational book, Clutter Busting, really get to the underlying issues and confront them head on, with strategies for even the queens and kings of avoidance and procrastination. If you’ve read every book on organization out there, and think no one can help you, try these two before you give up!
My next favorite was Driven to Distraction, by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, both doctors with ADD. I listened to this one on audio CD, while commuting. If I had been reading the book in print, I might have lost patience with the many detailed case studies they outline in great detail. As it was, the auditory storytelling worked great while I was engaged in driving and could tune in and out as certain portions caught my interest.
I found this book incredibly helpful in seeing the many different manifestations of attention issues and where they intersect to form a common “disorder”. I disliked that the book (like their other book, Delivered from Distraction) is so heavily weighed toward medication as a support, rather than trying other options first, but that didn’t take away from its basic merit.
The same authors came out with a second, similarly named book, Delivered from Distraction, that like its predecessor, outlines everything you want to know about ADD/ADHD through both case studies and simple narrative. I found the case studies less rich here (maybe because their earlier book was in audio with a fantastic reader?), but it gives an excellent summary of the latest research in the field, including behavioral and some nutritional strategies.
Most caregivers are somewhat distracted on a regular basis, as the environment demands, and this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem. But if you find that you have chronic angst regarding your mental functions, and wonder if you might have early dementia sometimes, it would be worth checking a few of these books out to inform your concerns before jumping to conclusions.