ADHD and I N T E N S I T Y
At least a handful of times a week I find myself saying the following to a client: “...and when it comes to ADHD, it’s even more so.” There are so many things that all human beings experience, and that same experience is magnified in intensity in individuals who are neurodiverse. Here are some:
Everything a person with ADHD feels seems to have the word “very” in front of it. We aren’t tired, we’re exhausted, we aren’t sad, we’re devastated, we aren’t happy, we’re ecstatic. You get the idea. Our emotions are just so big that it’s either very difficult for us to conceal or even deal with them or it doesn’t even occur to us to do so. How can I cover up an elephant with a Kleenex?
While typically not to the same degree as the cousin spectrum, Autism, ADHD individuals often experience senses in 3D high definition. The common habit of cutting any and all tags from clothing is a perfect example of this hypersensitivity. And I’ve often wondered if it’s responsible for my low pain tolerance.
When I am really into something “That’s cool.” just does not cut it. Characters in fiction are either window-dressing or the most perfect thing ever. Jokes either are not funny at all or hysterical, fall-out-of-my-chair-laughing. Intensity also comes with extremes. There are no middle sliders when it comes to ADHD.
Speaking of extremes, hyperfocus is one of the lesser-known ADHD traits because it is so contrary to the truly terrible name (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). When I’m really interested in something, I can focus on it, to the exclusion of all else (even food) for hours. Sometimes even days or weeks, with brief periods of rushing through necessities to get back to That Thing.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a “little crush”, except maybe on some of those fictional characters I mentioned. When I love, it is intense and all-consuming. Some people are scared by how deeply, immediately, and completely I love. That's just how those of us with ADHD are.
Non-romantic love is the same deal. We with ADHD have huge hearts. Many ads for a charity designed to tug on the heartstrings can reduce me to tears. One of the statements that hurt me the most in the past is “You don’t care.” It always comes like a slap in the face. How can the person not see how much I care? It feels like I’ll bleed to death with the sheer intensity of how much I care about so many things.
This is a big problem when it comes to things that harm us to care about. If I gave all my money to every charity that brought me to tears, I’d be bankrupt. Over and over again. Learning to say “no” to things and people that are harming me to care about is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
I’ve often said that I’d rather not eat any of a food than not have enough. I’d prefer to save up to buy and eat a tub of ice cream all at once, once a year than have one spoonful and that’s it, frequently. I overindulge in food, TV, even craft projects.
Luckily, I realized this propensity early enough in my life that other things that would be even more harmful for me to overdo are not a part of my life. But they are for so many others with ADHD and lead to devastating addictions.
As a result of the instinct for survival, the human brain is naturally wired to watch out and spot dangers. In the modern world, sabertooth cats are few and far between, so our brains watch out and spot negativity. The ADHD brain is even more like this. We are Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity. It takes a lot of effort to cultivate a positive cognitive bias, looking for and spotting good things, because we naturally have a negative cognitive bias.
They’ve even identified a whole condition known as Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD for short) to describe the ADHD experience of real or perceived rejection being intensely and unbearably painful. My experience is even a lack of explicit approval can trigger RSD.
ADHD can even be extreme... about being extreme. While we obviously have many, many things where lack of impulse control is the theme, there are occasions where we can stubbornly stick to something with limpet-like tenacity. My journaling practice is the best example I have of this. Journaling is so important to me that despite everything, I’ve been doing it, every day for 5 1/2 years. It has been a struggle and there have been many times where I considered ditching it. But something really stubborn in me simply refuses. Even in the face of other people’s requests, which is also really, really hard for me, I have refused to miss a single day.
It often feels like everything I do is either really, really hard, or so simple it isn’t even worth mentioning. There is no medium difficulty. And once I’ve done something, no matter how hard it was at the beginning, in hindsight it seems super easy and simple. The ADHD brain doesn't often give us credit for working through something hard because once it’s done, we forget the hard part.
We also run huge risks of Imposter Syndrome because we assume anything we can do must be easy for everyone. If he had infinite time, energy, materials, medication, and wasn’t nearing 65, I am fully convinced my ADHD father could build a house, from the ground up, by himself. The concept that not everyone can do the plumbing for a bathroom or install a phone system doesn’t entirely make sense to him. He can do it, his brain tells him, blithely, so everyone must be able to.
And it also doesn’t really make sense to me that not everyone could meet with people, every week, listen to their challenges, and work with them to figure them out and identify actions to take, and then how to accomplish those actions despite a neurodiverse brain type. I do it, day after day, so everyone must be able to... Right?
What intensity does your brain create?