I know what it’s like to be someone else.
You see, I’m mentally ill, as they say. Fortunately for me, my illness is quite treatable. So treatable, in fact, I know what it’s like to be a different person.
It all started about a year ago. I was giving a talk in church about focusing on what’s important. I suck at that because I have this insatiable habit of collecting hobbies. I have, at one time or another, obsessed over ballroom dancing, woodworking, photography, web design, cabin building, blacksmithing, primitive bow making, permaculture design, and, of course, novel writing. (This is a very condensed list of hobbies, mind you).
After my talk, a friend in the congregation said, “I think you have ADHD.”
I laughed. “Right,” I said. “No, I don’t have ADHD. My problem is not that I can’t focus. It’s that I focus too much…maybe just not on the things I should.”
“That’s exactly what people with ADHD do,” he said. “They focus on what they’re interested in, not on what they need to focus on.”
My smile faded. Then my brain began entertaining the idea. Could I be ADHD? Is that what was wrong with me?
That became my next hobby—my next unhealthy obsession. I scoured the internet searching for information. I took online questionnaires. I talked to friends I knew who had ADHD.
Yup. I totally had it.
Who knew, right?
That was why I always clutched the steering wheel when driving behind someone slow. (“What’s your hurry?” my wife would ask. “I just…I…grrr. They’re going slow!” I would respond.)
That was why I snapped at the kids when they interrupted a conversation.
That was why I bounced from hobby to hobby, never quite mastering the former before moving on to the latter.
That was why I couldn’t sit still in a meeting and why my mind never seemed able to focus on what a speaker was saying.
I wasn’t just stupid. I wasn’t just lazy. I wasn’t just lacking will power that everyone else seemed to have.
I had dopamine deficiencies. These deficiencies meant I never quite felt satisfied with what I was doing. These deficiencies propelled me to search for that thing that would finally bring satisfaction.
But it never came.
So I searched and searched for contentment, by woodworking or novel writing or blogging or podcasting or YouTubing or gardening or….
I never found contentment that way.
Shortly after, I saw a doctor and received an official diagnosis and a bottle of Adderall.
Lemme tell you.
I know what it’s like to be a completely different person.
I think I first noticed it when I was working in my garage the morning I started taking medicine. I had accidentally spilled a small drawer of screws, nails, washers, and nuts.
I didn’t mentally stitch a string of cuss words at the drawer.
Then I sorted the contents of the drawer. Did you hear me? I sorted the entire drawer of screws! I did not just throw all the screws, nuts, and bolts in an ever-expanding junk drawer. I sorted them.
And…here’s the shocking part: I enjoyed it. I found so much satisfaction from putting every piece of machinery in its place. There was that feeling of contentment I had never been able to find.
And it came from sorting a drawer of machinery.
I went to church the following day and just sat. Yeah. I just sat. My knee didn’t bounce. I didn’t shift second after second. My insides didn’t scream to get out of there and find something interesting to do.
Instead, I just sat and listened to the speaker! I felt calm. I felt peaceful. I felt relaxed.
I then said to myself, “Is this what it’s like for normal people to be at church? Is this why people actually like coming here?”
For 33 years of my life I had forced myself to sit through three hours of absolute boredom because I had deep convictions, but also because that was what I was supposed to do. And I wondered why everybody pretended they enjoyed it. I wondered why nobody seemed to talk about how incredibly boring everything was.
It turns out those people actually enjoyed it.
And now I was enjoying it too.
I am more calm. I am more patient. I no longer feel this insatiable drive to do something…something that I could never quite pinpoint. My body was like an unmanned motorboat in the ocean, racing at top speed from one direction to another, shifting course at every gust of wind or swelling wave.
I wasn’t lazy.
I wasn’t listless.
I wasn’t lacking willpower.
I wasn’t broken.
I just had a minor brain defect that happened to muck up the most important things in my life: my faith, my relationships, and my job.
I am extremely lucky my brain defect is so easily treatable.
If only depression were so easily treatable.
Or the tendency to be flaky.
I remember once hearing a friend say, “Don’t assume that just because it’s easy for you that it ought to be easy for everyone else. You have no idea what it’s like to live with their brain.”
Well, maybe I know a bit.
I know exactly what it’s like to have things that were once impossible become easy. I know what it’s like to have core characteristics of my personality change within a half hour of swallowing a pill.
Think about it. Nobody would say to another, “Hey. You should try blue eyes. Yeah, I know, I know. Your eyes are brown. Just turn them blue. I have blue eyes. It’s easy.”
Short of tinted contact lenses, we can’t change our eye color. We can’t change our biology. So why then do we expect someone’s biology to change when they behave different that what we deem is appropriate?
I know, I’m walking a fine line here. If we attribute every character flaw to biology, we lose some accountability. (It wasn’t me that killed my brother; it was my biology). But I wonder if there’s a way to retain accountability while allowing for forgiveness. Can we still hold standards of human decency while recognizing others’ dispositions may bristle against these standards?
Perhaps that “fine line” is this: we expect decency, but are quick to forgive and recognize when someone who fails is trying.
The truth is, most of us have no idea what it’s like to battle depression or alcoholism or anxiety. It’s easy, from our point of view, to say, “it’s easy! All you have to do is…” (change your eye color).
Yes, easy for you. Easy for me, maybe. But if it were so easy for that person, don’t you think they would have done it by now?
I know I would have long ago changed the way I did things if it were easy.
I’m just lucky enough that it is easy now.
So. Yeah. Peace out.
And don’t forget, my book is being published on Friday. Pre-order now!
As always, Dustin, I appreciate and respect your willingness to be honest about yourself.
You know, it is tricky when we try to … well, judge other people according to our own perceptions of life and how things “should” be. As someone whose family has been deeply affected by suicide, I think even “as long as they’re trying” gets nebulous, because biology can even affect the desire to try.
As a lifelong mentor, I walk the tightrope between being available to encourage people to try and helping them do so, and loving them right where they are. A lot comes down to asking questions of them, not making statements about what I think—questions like “Are you happy?” and “Are there any parts of your life you’d like to see get better?” But even answering that kind of question can be overwhelming for some people, because they’ve only known what they’ve known, so they just feel like where they are is “normal” (as you so vividly explained in your post).
I think that what your revelation brought about here, in addition to understanding, is deeper compassion, both for others and for yourself.
Very well said, Erik. Yes, it’s easy to forget that even trying is linked to biology. It’s a tough balance to find: how do you help someone get better while also understanding how their biology affects their efforts to do so? Deeper compassion, as you said, may be the best answer.
I loved your post! Thank you so much for sharing! Just as a note – if, for some reason the Adderall stops working for you, I have read many people swear by both Ginkgo Biloba and Vinpocetine – supplements which you can buy online or in health food stores – saying that it dramatically helps focus.
Thanks, Amy. I’ll have to look into that. (Apparently, some find they become tolerant of Adderall).
Great post, Dustin, thanks for sharing! I’m often guilty of being that guy that thinks, “just be happy. It’s not that hard.” But I’ve been striving for empathy, and this post is a good reminder.
I can be that guy too, just with other areas (e.g., “Just don’t be judgmental,” which is a very judgmental thing to think). 🙂