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ADHD, Calvin, and Me - Elf M. Sternberg
ADHD, Calvin, and Me
The comic there on the left appears in many different places on the Internet, and in several different forms. It's a commentary on Ritalin or Adderall or any number of ADHD medications that supposedly turn children into good little drones or workers. The sympathy it's meant to evoke for Calvin & Hobbes is strong, and when I first saw I had the same impression of pathos most people do.

Except that I have wrestled with ADHD most of my life, and recently I decided to do something about it. I went to a psychiatrist who, after a five-hour interview and multiple hours of testing, prescribed for me an older ADHD medication, dextrostat, and I have to say that I can't look at that comic with the same sense of identity I used to.

It's Sunday as I write this, and like every Sunday there are the chores. You know that phenomenon known as "structured procrastination?" I have something similar: structured distraction. I would deliberately choose three different tasks, and round-robin them. As the "activation energy" for one task faded away and I was tempted to another, I would have the others there at hand, visible and triggering, so that I was doing something useful with my time most of the time. The context switching costs for this technique have always been nasty, but at least they kept me on task, and since I'm aware of what's going on, I've been able to route around this annoying dysfunction and become a good programmer who produces fine and useful code products.

As I said, there were chores. I had a list of kitchen cleanup and weekly food prep times, which I had made before taking my meds. As I was doing each chore I kept glancing at my phone. "Nah, gotta finish this first." A little voice in the back of my brain was yelling, "What do you mean? Twitter is right there!" But I ignored it and kept on doing. The kitchen only took about 45 minutes total. Only when every line item on the list that involved being in the kitchen was finished did I allow myself to sit down and write this little essay.

(There are other line items, but they involve either going out, or are dependent upon other people whose time I can only ask for.)

Since the tasks involve only my hands, I did allow myself to dictate the first draft into my personal voice recorder. This told me two things: one, the dextrostat doesn't wreck my ability to multitask, only my ability to do so wastefully and two, it doesn't at all wreck my creative faculties.

I feel for Calvin. I do. My parents never medicated me as a child; this left me to fend for myself as best I could, with the most well-meaning people poorly informed with the resources of the mid-20th century trying to help. Forcing medication like that on a child who's succeeding is a terrible thing; using it to manage a troubling kid seems wrong to me. Any medication that would blot Hobbes from Calvin's universe just feels like evil.

Yet for an adult, things are different. Now I know how to ask my Hobbeses (and I have rather a lot, being a writer and all) to be patient with me. I don't tell them to go away, and they do come back. Even while the medication is active, I can ask them to come 'round and help me with their stories. At those times, my muses and I have conversations, not shouting matches.

For me, it's a goddamned miracle. Oh, this is what it feels like to be focused and productive! Low-dose Dextrostat has given me the voluntary control over my attention span I never knew I was missing without breaking anything else: not my creativity, not my sense of self, not my emotional range.

ADHD is real, and no amount of cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, or nutritional "balancing" has ever made a goddamned difference in my life. Timers and notebooks have been all I've had. Ever since my first Palm pilot up to my new and shiny Android watch, they've been fantastic tools, but this is different. If you're an adult, and you've been wrestling with a mind that won't let you do and be, seriously, think about seeing a doctor and getting it treated.

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