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Mental illness, attention deficit disorder, and suffering

Mental illness, attention deficit disorder, and suffering

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Mental illness, attention deficit disorder, and suffering

Freddie DeBoer has an article this week titled
“Mental illness doesn’t make you special”.
Usually Freddie and I are in close agreement and this article is not
an exception. I think many of M. DeBoer’s points are accurate. But
his subtitle is “Why do neurodiversity activists claim suffering is
beautiful?”
Although I am not a neurodiversity activist and I will
not claim that suffering is beautiful, that subtitle stung, because I saw a little bit of myself in
the question. I would like to cut off that little piece and
answer it.

This is from Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren (1945):

‘No, I don’t suffer from freckles,’ said Pippi.

Then the lady understood, but she took one look at Pippi and burst out, ‘But, my
dear child, your whole face is covered with freckles!’

‘I know that,’
said Pippi, ‘but I don’t suffer from them. I love them.’

I suffer from attention deficit disorder. Like Pippi Longstocking suffers from freckles.

M. DeBoer says:

There is, for example, a thriving ADHD community on TikTok and Tumblr:
people who view their attentional difficulties not as an annoyance to
be managed with medical treatment but as an adorable character trait
that makes them sharper and more interesting than others around
them.

For me the ADD really is a part of my identity — not my persona, which
is what I present to the world, but my innermost self, the way I am actually
am. I would be a different person without it. I might be a better
person, or a happier or more successful one (I don’t know) but I’d
definitely be someone different.

And it’s really not all bad. I understand that for many people ADD is
a really major problem with no upsides. For me it’s a major problem
with upsides. And after living with it for fifty years, I’ve
found ways to mitigate the problems and to accept the ones I haven’t
been able to mitigate.

I learned long ago never to buy nice gloves because I will inevitably
leave them somewhere, perhaps on a store counter, or perhaps in the
pocket of a different jacket. In the winter I only wear the cheapest and most
disposable work gloves or garden gloves. They work better than
nothing, and I can buy six pairs at a time, so that when I need gloves
there’s a chance I will find a pair in the pocket of the jacket I’m
wearing, and if I lose a pair I can pick Up another from the stack by
the front door.

I used to constantly forget appointments. “Why don’t you get a
calendar?” people would say, but then I would have to remember the
calendar, remember to check the calendar,
and not lose the calendar, all seemingly impossible for me.
The arrival of smartphones improved my life in so many ways. Now I do
carry my calendar everywhere and I miss fewer appointments.

(Why could I learn to carry a smartphone and not a calendar? For one
thing, the smartphone is smaller and fits in my pocket. For another,
I really do carry it literally everywhere, which I wouldn’t do with
a calendar. I don’t have to remember to check it because it makes a
little noise when I have an appointment. It has my phone and my email and my messages in it. It
has the books and magazines I’m reading. It has a calculator in it
and a notepad. I used to try to carry all that crap separately and
every day I would find that I wanted one that I had left at home that
day. No longer.)

There are bigger downsides to ADD, like the weeks when I can’t focus
on work, or when I get distracted by some awesome new thing and don’t
do the things I should be doing, or how I lost interest in projects
and don’t always finish them, blah blah blah. I am not going to
complain about any of that, it is just part of being me and I like who
I am pretty well. Everyone has problems and mine are less severe than
many.

And some of the upsides are just great. When it’s working, the focus
and intensity I get from the ADD are just great. Not just useful, but
fun. When I’m deep into a blog post or a math paper the intense focus
brings me real joy. I love being smart and when the ADD is working
well it makes me a lot smarter. I don’t suffer from freckles, I love
them.

When I was around seventeen I took a Real Analysis class at Columbia
University. Toward the end of the year the final was coming Up. One
Saturday morning I sat down at the dining room table, with my class
notes, proving every theorem that we had proved in class, starting
from page 1. When I couldn’t prove it on my own I would consult the
notes or the textbook. By dinner time I had finished going through
the semester and was ready to take the final. I got an A.

Until I got to college I didn’t understand how people could spend
hours a day “studying”. When I got there I found out. When my
first-year hallmates were “studying” they were looking out the window,
playing with their pencils, talking to their roommates, all sorts of
stuff that wasn’t studying. When I needed to study I would hide
somewhere and study. I think the ability to focus on just one thing
for a few hours at a time is a great gift that ADD has given me.

I sometimes imagine that the Devil offer me a deal: I will lose the
ADD in return for for a million dollars. I would have to think very, very
carefully before taking that deal and I don’t know whether I would say
yes.

But what if the Devil came and offered to cure my depression, and the
price was my right arm? That question is easy. I would say “sounds
great, but what’s the catch?” Depression is not something with upsides and
downsides. It is a terrible illness, the blight of my life, the worst
thing that has ever happened to me. It is neither an adorable
character trait nor an annoyance to be managed with medical treatment.
It is a severe chronic illness, one that is often fatal. In a good year it is
kept in check by medical treatment but it is always lurking in the
background and might reappear any morning. It is the Joker: perhaps
today he is locked away in Arkham, but I am not safe, I am never safe,
I am always wondering if this is the day he will escape and show Up at
my door to maim or kill me.

I won’t write in detail about how I’ve suffered from depression in my
life. It’s not something I want to revisit and it’s not something my
readers would find interesting. You wouldn’t be inspired by my brave
resolve in the face of adversity. It would be like watching a movie
about someone with a chronic bowel disorder who shits his pants every
day until he dies. There’s no happy ending. It’s not heroic. It’s
sad, humiliating, and boring.

DeBoer says:

This is what it’s actually like to have a mental illness: no desire
to justify or celebrate or honor the disease, only the desire to be
rid of it.

I agree 100%. This is what it is like to have a mental illness. In
two words: it sucks.

And this is why I find it so very irritating that there is no term for
my so-called ⸢attention deficit disorder⸣ that does not have the word
“disorder” baked into it. I know what a disorder is, and this isn’t
one. I want a word for this part of my brain chemistry that does not
presume, axiomatically, that it is an illness. Why does any deviation
from the standard have to be a disorder? Why do we medicalize human
variation?

I understand that for some people it really is a disorder, that they have no
desire to justify or celebrate or honor their attention deficit. For
those people the term “attention deficit disorder” might be a good one. Not
for me. I have a weird thing in my brain that makes it work
differently from the way most other people’s brains do. In many ways
it works less well. I lose hats and forget doctor appointments.
But that is not a mental illness.
Most people aren’t as good at math
as I am; that’s not a mental illness either.
People have different brains.

Some variations from standard are intrinsic problems, but many are
extrinsic. Homosexual orientation used to be a mental illness. But
almost all the problems that queer people face are extrinsic: when
you’re queer your main
problem is that other people treat you like crap. They hate you and
they’re allowed to tell you how much they hate you. You’re not
allowed to love or marry or bring Up children. It sucks! But “I’m
unhappy because people treat me like crap” is not a mental illness!
The correct fix for this isn’t “stop being queer”, it’s “stop treating
queer people like crap!”

DeBoer says:

Today’s activists never seem to consider that there is something
between terrible stigma and witless celebration, that we are not in
fact bound to either ignore mental illness or treat it as an identity.

I agree somewhat, but that doesn’t mean that the stigma isn’t a real issue.
Take away the stigma from queeness and you solve almost all of the
problems queer people have that straight people don’t also have. With
mental illnesses the problems are deeper and harder to solve, but some
of them are caused by stigma and should be addressed. Mentally ill
people will still be mentally ill, but at least they wouldn’t be
sitgmatized.

Many of the downsides of ADD would be less troublesome for
everyone, if our world was a
little more accepting of difference, a little more willing to
accommodate people who were stamped in a slightly different shape that the
other cogs in the machine. In Pippi Longstocking world, why do
people suffer from freckles? Not because of the freckles themselves,
but only because other people tell them that their freckles are ugly
and unlovable. Nobody has to suffer from freckles, if people would just
stop being assholes about freckles.

ADD is a bigger problem than freckles. Some of its problems are
intrinsic. It definitely contributes to making me unreliable. I
don’t think losing gloves (and books and jackets and glasses and bags and wallets and
everything else) is a delightful quirk. People depending on me to do
work timely are sometimes justifiably angry or disappointed when I
don’t. I’ll accept responsibility for that. I’ve worked my whole
life to try to do better.

But when the world has been willing to let me what I can do in the way
that I can do it, the results have been pretty good. When the world
has insisted that I do things the way everyone else does them, it
hasn’t always gone so well. And if you examine the “everyone else”
there it
starts to look threadbare because almost everyone is divergent in one way or
another, and almost everyone needs some accommodation or other. There
is no such thing as “the way everyone else does”.

I don’t think “neurodivergent” is a very good term for how I’m
different, not least because it’s vague. But at least it doesn’t
frame my unusual and wonderful brain as a “disorder”.

Returning to Freddie DeBoer’s article:

There is, for example, a thriving ADHD community on TikTok and Tumblr:
people who view their attentional difficulties not as an annoyance to
be managed with medical treatment but as an adorable character trait
that makes them sharper and more interesting than others around
them.

Some people do have it worse than others. I’m lucky. But that doesn’t
change the fact that some of those attentional difficulties are more
like freckles: a character trait, perhaps even one that someone might
find adorable, that other people are being assholes about.
Isn’t is fair to ask whether some of the extrinsic problems,
the stigma, could
be ameliorated if society were a little more flexible and a little
more accommodating of individual differences, and stop labeling every
difference as a disorder?


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About the author: Charlie
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