Thursday, September 3, 2015

Inside the Hyper-Stimulated Mind

I was recently at a conference in which the speaker, stating that he'd been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) as a child, offered an alternative definition of sorts. He said that in fact, he didn't have a deficit of attention at all - it was quite the opposite. To him, everything gained his attention. He explained how, looking out into the audience, everyone's outfits - including the multitude of colors - every light fixture or decorative column, the colors and shapes on the carpets, the shine of of everyone's jewelry, all called out for his attention. At once.

Now, I realize that, most likely, the term "deficit" is used in conjunction with focusing on a single item, task, or situation. But I thought he brought up a fantastic point. The general public seems to have adopted the phrase "ADD" (like they have the names of other mental health conditions) as a way of describing the very generic inability to focus or pay attention to or even remember things.  In reality it's much deeper than that. I'm sure someone diagnosed with ADD could do much more justice here, but hopefully I'm getting my point across at least slightly.

So, why write about this if I do not have ADD, you ask? Because what the speaker said resonated with me in describing my anxiety and panic. And I thought that perhaps a further description may help those who do not truly understand (even if you genuinely try to), what it's like when I experience an episode of any of these three.

Imagine you're standing in a room, doing a common, every day task - ordering a coffee at a coffee shop, talking to a friend, you name it. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing that should make you run for the hills, or hide in the corner praying it ends soon, right? Then, suddenly, everyone surrounds you and starts talking right in your ear and in your face. Some quietly but still as persistent, some almost screaming.  You can't decipher what they're all saying, but there must be 20 to 30 people talking right there in your headspace.  Then, people start throwing things at you from all angles. You are trying to figure out where it's coming from, what's going on, how to avoid it, but there's so much talking right in your most private circle of space that you can't concentrate. All you see are images moving about. Then, flashing lights, all different colors, and blaring noises - say something like a siren or a smoke detector or fire alarm.  Then, despite it not seeming possible, all of these people, flashing lights, sirens, projectiles get closer, so that you literally can't move without hearing, seeing, feeling them all.  And through all of this, you're still trying to order your coffee, or talk to your friend - the one person talking to you at a normal distance and volume about something that you actually want to focus on - and pretend none of the rest of it is going on because somehow, miraculously, they're completely unfazed by it.  It's like they don't even notice.

You try all of the tricks you know - deep breaths, closing your eyes for a moment, focusing on the face of the person you mean to speak to - all without trying to draw attention, and nothing works. At this point, you know you cannot stop it, nor can you take it any more.  You have two options: 1.) You can either explode and break down. You can scream "everybody shut the hell up" at the top of your lungs and beg, hope, and pray that even the sirens and flashing lights somehow understand this command to stop, or 2.) You can shut down. This means literally turn away from it all, including the one friend or barista that you actually were trying to converse with. And in order to do this, you literally have to extract yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically. You can try to, as inconspicuously as possible which usually isn't very, stop whatever you're doing and let your mind and senses glaze over until you've shut down every sensory option as completely as you can (you probably have a look on your face that's somewhat akin to the ghost-like look just before someone passes out), or you can up and leave the place all together, which is equally as difficult and conspicuous if you're in mid-conversation.

I realize that everyone with panic, or severe anxiety, experiences this differently. But this is how I experience it, and I promise you, it's not fun. It's not fun knowing you basically have to make some sort of a scene, have some sort of an episode, or end up in the ER, and having to make that choice.  It's not fun knowing people worry that you're going to "freak out" and don't want to invite you to things, or get nervous when they do. It's not fun wondering "How did I handle that? Was I ok? Is anyone embarrassed by me? Ashamed to be there with me?" "How will people treat me the next time they see me/I go back to that place?" And most importantly, it's not something we choose.  Not really at least. Well, I guess technically I have the choice to explode, implode, or get hospitalized, or to avoid social situations all together out of fear of one of these happening. But that's not much of a choice, is it?

So please, if you know someone who has a diagnosed condition, instead of joking around about their condition, or using it as some common place term and furthering the stigma, instead of being ashamed or embarrassed or angry by someone who's struggling, offer help - true help. As in, don't help now and hold it against them later.  And if someone has a problem with them, or with you for helping them, give them your favorite hand gesture, or call them an ignorant jerk, or possibly even try to educate them if they seem like a reasonable person. Whatever you think might make them take pause. But however you do it, stand up for us, and for yourself for helping us and being a decent, caring human being, and work to change the stigma. Because if in that moment we can't, and you don't, who's going to? 

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