Most of my writing comes from mulling over recent events as played out either in social media or research findings. Today’s post is a little different. It’s no secret that I live with persistent pain, fibromyalgia to be exact. I’ve found that being open about my diagnosis, and that all the strategies I advise to others are also strategies I employ, and that none of them are ‘the secret.’
I posted recently about a struggle I have dealing with reviewer’s comments on papers I submit for publication. Now peer review is a thing, I think it’s a good thing though somewhat exploitative (I’m also a reviewer – we do it for free, we do it as part of our academic ‘service to the research community’ but we do it for large publication companies that receive articles for free from researchers who utterly rely on getting published for their grant applications, careers…). My struggle isn’t with unfair or unkind reviewers because to be fair I’ve had really good reviewer comments.
My trouble is associated with two peculiarities of mine. I get horribly, horribly anxious when I read reviewer comments, and largely I’ve learned to deal with that. I understand that the aim is to get the best version of what I’ve written out there into print, and as I’ve said, reviewers have generally been fair. Uninformed in some cases (no, Classical grounded theory is NOT the same as Strauss & Corbin, or Charmaz! CGT holds different philosophical assumptions, and in qualitative research, philosophy of science matters), but readily rebutted. Nevertheless I feel highly anxious and worry that I won’t be able to address the reviewer’s concerns adequately. That old imposter syndrome is alive and well in this woman!
The second peculiarity is one I’ve only just got a handle on, though the effects have been with me forever. You see, about 12 months ago I was diagnosed ADHD.
Yes. At 58 years old, I got a new diagnosis that helps explain some of the things that I’ve had trouble with my whole life.
Time for a quick segue. Diagnoses are an odd phenomenon, particularly when it comes to intangible concepts like emotions and cognitions. Unlike acquired diseases, there don’t seem to be readily identified biomarkers – because, of course, unless it’s viewable it’s not real (yeah, right). In other words, we have to rely on what a person says and does to determine whether they have the right to a certain label. And labels in ‘mental health’ are notoriously unreliable, shift with changing political and societal norms (how long ago was homosexuality removed from being thought a mental illness? 1973…). People like Steven Hayes have argued that the entire notion of diagnostic criteria in DSMV is flawed (Hayes, Sanford & Feeney, 2015). Diagnoses for most mental health problems have not led to effective treatments that target the purported mechanisms involved (Hayes, et al., 2022). What diagnoses may do is allow social permission to receive certain considerations. For example, someone with an accident-related pain problem in New Zealand will be able to access free therapy from a multidisciplinary team, while someone with a non-accident-related pain problem such as hand osteoarthritis, or migraine, will have to rely on the scant publicly funded chronic pain services. Diagnoses matter, as anyone in NZ who has been told their pain is ‘not injury-related’ will tell you.
ADHD is not, let’s be quite clear, only reserved for children (particularly boys) with a tendency to leap around a classroom making noise and generally being disruptive. ADHD is a neurotype experienced by around 2.5 – 5% of adults (Young, et al., 2020) and typically considered under-diagnosed in girls and women precisely because of the stereotypical understanding of ADHD. It’s at least partly heritable (some estimates are about 70 – 80%, with 12 independent genomic loci that increase susceptibility to ADHD), generally responds well to stimulant medication (though this does in NO WAY ameliorate all the problems associated with ADHD), and can be found in people from all walks of life and all levels of intelligence.
ADHD describes lifelong patterns of difficulty regulating attention, emotions, and behaviour. There are three major groups of problem: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity (Australian evidence-based clinical practice guideline, 2022). Different people experience different problems associated with ADHD. Mine include atrocious organisational skills, but great responsiveness in high pressure situations; a terrible short-term memory but great visual recall; lousy object constancy (if I can’t see it, it just doesn’t exist); overwhelm in busy sensory environments but exceptional capacity for laser-focused attention on what interests me – to the exclusion of remembering to eat, drink or pee.
People with ADHD often feel out of kilter with others in the world. We might get told we’re weird, or lack social skills, or we ‘have potential’ if only we’d learn how to harness it. Women in particular are often treated for depression and anxiety without anyone asking how it is we’ve developed these issues. We’re great on social club quiz evenings because we have immense recall for utter trivia, but we routinely have to return to the house four or more times to pick up our phone, lock the doors, fetch our glasses and our handbag.
How does it affect me and my writing?
Well, ADHD means I’m fascinated by novelty. Dopamine is the ‘molecule of more’ – and drives me to dive down rabbit holes to find stuff out. Once I’ve found something out, I like to cement my knowledge by writing or talking about it. It makes me a good teacher though sometimes I info-dump way more than anyone else wants to know! Being novelty-driven also means I write fast, as I speak, and once I’ve written something – it’s done. That novelty buzz evaporates and it’s like a switch in my mind flicks off and boom! I’m on to the next thing.
When I get reviewer comments on my work, a big part of me thinks “oh but didn’t you get it? I’ve written it, can’t you see?” because I’ve forgotten about the background information I hold that the reader probably doesn’t also hold. Another big part of me thinks “but I organised this to tell a story this way, now I don’t know how to change that” because I find holding on to multiple points really difficult, and structuring a cogent response to reviewers means not only remembering what I wanted to say, but also what the reviewers found – and my response to their comments. That’s a lot of cognitive shuffling, to say the least, especially when one of the problems my ADHD brings is holding onto information in memory then selecting the right response at the right time.
Once I start thinking about these multiple perspectives and which bit is most important I begin to get anxious. My anxiety is about choosing a response that says what I want to say and aligns with the reviewers ideas. What if I get it wrong? What if I can’t sift through the various points and decide what needs to change? All the overload hits my poor mind, and I freeze.
Part of this is because I was diagnosed later in life and I’ve experienced a lot, and I mean a LOT, of negative feedback about focusing on the wrong things. Doing it wrong. Being wrong. Working really hard on something that ultimately didn’t count for much where it matters. And academic life is full of negative, even brutal, feedback. I mean, we debate ideas with vigour! A good part of me thrives on intellectual debate in the moment. In the quiet of a late night… not so much. It’s overwhelming.
Another part is that ADHD means I see relationships between things that might not occur to others. It’s a big quirk of ADHD – as a group of individuals, we’re often ‘the creatives’, seeing connections and solving unique problems in ways that aren’t logical. That’s because our minds see connections quickly, and linear logic is not often our friend because… well it’s boring and linear. Free association is where my mind lives! Hunches, intuition, improvising, mix’n’match… Precisely because of this, when a new piece of information hits, it disrupts what I’ve already assembled, and for me it’s not just about altering this one part, that single change ripples throughout the whole network of associations I’ve made. Where oh where do I start?
As an older woman learning that yes, I do in fact have an explanation for the difficulties I’ve faced throughout my whole life, has meant an enormous shift in my own self-compassion. When I consider what I’ve achieved despite my ADHD, as a single parent with two ADHD children (undiagnosed until 2 years ago), while working full time, studying part-time, and generally maintaining a good long-term relationship and long-term employment, I’m a little astonished. And at the same time… afraid that really, I am ‘not achieving my potential’, ‘could try harder’, ‘has the capability if she’d only be more consistent.’
Why reveal this in a blog about pain self management?
A couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s my blog, so I can write what I want!! And writing a blog for as long as I have demonstrates that yes, I can certainly be consistent in some circumstances. The context of my consistency matters, because it’s something that I can use to support my neurotype, my ADHD traits.
Secondly, because while I’m now diagnosed and treated and experiencing the incredible benefits of a successful therapy (what? my mind can be quiet? I can focus? I can make choices instead of reacting? OMG it’s awesome!), I still need to deal with both my quirky executive function AND the experiences of a lifetime of dealing with it and the responses from the world around me. Nearly 59 years of consistently stuffing things up, double-booking myself, forgetting details, getting overwhelmed and stuck, not being able to sort my way through a complex situation, being criticised for exactly the sorts of things my brain does well. Things like seeing connections between things that appear to be left-field, but make perfect sense to me AND could be just the sorts of innovations we need to progress pain management beyond the recipes and algorithms that fail to understand that people are individuals.
You see, the diagnosis of ADHD gives me a label, and access to more knowledge about people with ADHD as a group. What it doesn’t do is give anyone a good idea of the unique way ADHD plays out in me.
And BTW, people with ADHD are disproportionately more likely to experienced chronic pain, so if you’re a clinician trying to help someone with chronic pain, and that person has ADHD – there’s a good reason they didn’t do their home exercise programme, or apply their pacing strategies. These both require effective executive functioning. And if that person you’re trying to help is a woman who is also ADHD and attempting to run a household (all that planning, organising, maintaining – the cognitive labour of keeping a household running) – heaven help you! That woman could do with some compassion, simplification and support, rather than judgement and shaming. She’s already had enough of that. True story.
ADHD Guideline Development Group. Australian evidence-based clinical practice guideline for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity. Melbourne: Australian ADHD Professionals Association; 2022.
Hayes, S. C., Ciarrochi, J., Hofmann, S. G., Chin, F., & Sahdra, B. (2022). Evolving an idionomic approach to processes of change: Towards a unified personalized science of human improvement. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 156, 104155. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2022.104155
Hayes, S. C., Sanford, B. T., & Feeney, T. K. (2015). Using the functional and contextual approach of modern evolution science to direct thinking about psychopathology. the Behavior Therapist, 38(7), 222-227.
Young, S., Adamo, N., Asgeirsdottir, B. B., Branney, P., Beckett, M., Colley, W., Cubbin, S., Deeley, Q., Farrag, E., Gudjonsson, G., Hill, P., Hollingdale, J., Kilic, O., Lloyd, T., Mason, P., Paliokosta, E., Perecherla, S., Sedgwick, J., Skirrow, C., . . . Woodhouse, E. (2020). Females with ADHD: An expert consensus statement taking a lifespan approach providing guidance for the identification and treatment of attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder in girls and women. BMC psychiatry, 20(1), 404. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02707-9