There are one or two last behaviours that might suggest a slight Attention Deficit cast of mind.

For example, I’m horrifically impatience. I’m ok if I know how long there is to go[1], but I’m driven frantic by delayed trains, doctors’ waiting rooms, speeches, meetings and workshops, or waiting to take children home from clubs or parties.  Then, every moment contains the possibility of an end to the torment but doesn’t, and this state could continue indefinitely. I’m going to have hysterics, I’m overwhelmed by claustrophobia; I’m panting with the horror of it. I’m going to puke. I think I might eat my own head. Once, during an interminable leaving speech, I actually burst into tears.[2]

I always have a book with me. A book is a charm that promises to ward off the storms of angst that gust up through my chest, into my throat, making me unable to breathe. It never works, though, because by then I’m too worked up to concentrate.

I remember, at Ascot House, morning meetings made me climb the walls. They could be done in 5 minutes, but, instead, they wandered on and on, with no guarantee of an ending. There was no need for any of the comments to be made – they were trivial and self-evident, yet I couldn’t leave and go and do something useful until they were finished. It was awful. I wished somebody would just shoot me.

I guess everybody hates waiting, but…

Actually, does everyone? Are we the same? How can I tell?

  • footnotes:

[1] Those thin, constantly moving lines at Disneyland are a stroke of genius!

[2] I was very anorexic and needed to get home to eat my snack.

Not Mad, Sweet Heaven! (or as unpleasant as I paint myself, hopefully!)

I’m most unhappy if somebody flatly contradicts something I know to be true. Reality quivers at the blow, because, If the fundamental principles of my understanding are false, I’m delusional, and I would not be mad.[1]

It’s commonly a disagreement over remembering events, though not always[2]. I understand that a memory is a thought you are having in the present. It is not a stored item; it is a neural circuit being re-used. And brain circuits don’t fire in isolation. They are part of a whole tangled, interconnected network, a glowing haze of electricity that envelopes your brain, each part feeding off and triggering the others, to create an aggregate identity.

Past events leave their legacy in the brain in patterns of synaptic connections, but memories are recreated every time you access them. And you alter them to make sense in the light of your current understanding: they are strands in that moment’s neural web.

So, perhaps you revise an experience to make it match those of your companions, or rationalise the number of people who were there, or add in something you learned later, or you merge two similar events. Memory is fictional, subjective, unreliable. I know this.

But it is one thing to understand it theoretically; it is another to be confronted by a blunt denial of what happened. Your memories make you who you are: “I know this. I was there. I saw it”: “I, I, I”. You are the person who was there under these circumstances. If they deny this, they are dismantling your identity. They are threatening to tear it apart, letting the darkness in.  Because if I’m wrong in what I remember, my life becomes a fiction.

And my interlocutor becomes forbiddingly unknowable[3]: Who are they? How can they sustain and inhabit this alien interior world and still be a person like me? How can we empathise with and understand each other? In one rebuttal, someone I knew is lost to me.

Obviously, I can’t leave the contradiction unresolved, and it needs to be resolved in my favour. I need to hammer away at them until they adopt my version, admit I’m right. It’s an attempt to salvage our connection; it’s a matter of survival.

Anorexia makes this worse. Your thinking becomes even more rigid, but you also become far more anxious. You automatically struggle against any suggestions from other people. The wilful, unpredictability of other, autonomous minds is terribly threatening. They’re like bulls in the china shop of your delicate personal ontology[4]. You can’t control them and so they could destroy everything.

No wonder we become dishevelled, feral little creatures pushing people away with flailing arms, shouting “No No No”. It’s an alarm call, a call to arms, a resistance.

  • Footnotes:

[1] “Oh let me not be mad , not mad, Sweet Heaven!

Keep me in temper; I would not be mad” – King Lear, I.5, 40-1

[2] With my kids, it’s just defiance of my nagging, rather than a different reality, but it still rattles me. I’ll say, “Do you have to stand right in my way when I’m trying to drain the peas?!”

Danny will say, “I’m NOT standing in your way!”

I’ll say, “What?! I’m trying to get to the sink and you’re standing between me and the sink. How is that not standing in my way. It’s a statement of fact!”

Danny will stoutly maintain, “Dad, I am NOT standing in your way!”

Jo will say, “don’t engage with it.” It’ll be unclear if she’s addressing Danny or me.

[3] I feel the same way about anti-vaccers, conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, Trump supporters and people who think they can cure cancer by changing their diet. I don’t feel this way about Conservatives, Brexiteers, Soviet/ Russian apologists or those who have a sneaking sympathy for the Cambridge spies. I don’t agree with them, but I think I get where they’re coming from, misguided though they are.

[4] Epistemology?

Further Revelations from a Misspent Youth (don’t get your hopes up!)

As a young man, I liked pitting my wits against those of my peers. Or I thought I did. I was both self-obsessed and blind to my own psychology.

In truth, I found it mildly distressing and distancing. I’d have been happier and more secure in my friendships if I hadn’t argued. When people are annoyed with you, they dislike you.

I just assumed humans were argumentative creatures, until Jamie brought up the topic of ADHD. Then I began to wonder if it was more pathological behaviour than a natural response to individual situations. Perhaps it was just me. But, if so, why? Was it caused by that ill-defined quality I’ve been calling impulsiveness: the unfocused, distractible brain?

I’m impulsively free with my opinions, it’s true, but uncomfortable if people disagree with me. I’ll make some outrageously provocative statement then gasp in horror if someone takes issue with it. I’m not sure my relationships are robust enough to absorb the damage.

Yet If we have to break off I feel like I’m suffocating. It feels unjust, unnatural, not right for the conversation to remain incomplete. I have a compulsive need for intellectual resolution as well as reconciliation. And I’d like to be right, please, because being wrong is a sign of your alienation. You didn’t understand life. Your mental landscape was a fiction, which makes you more unreal. And that sounds like anxiety.

So even superficial matters of personal preference became contentious and laboured. Music, books, films, art: no one was enjoying themselves, but the only way out seemed to be to plod through the debate. I’m boring.

Like you hadn’t noticed.

Confessions of a Justified Arguer

I’ve adopted the word “impulsiveness”, to describe a quality I discern in my own brain activity – a sort of undirected neural charge that seems to leak out of its proper channels and cause interference. It seems to fill my head with a hiss that degrades my clarity of thought. It’s not the right word but at least it gives the sense of an interior, intangible property of mind that has real-world consequences[1].

I employ the term to describe various bits of my psycho-pathology, why, for example, before I became ill, I couldn’t walk away from any discussion. Everything had to be explored and developed to its bitter end. “Bitter” is the significant word: as a student, enlivening political debates would be corrupted by this urge. They’d degenerate into exasperated arguments, become nastier and more personal[2], as all participants refused to compromise, agree to differ, or even change the subject, even though we were all completely sick of it.

I was the worst. I wasn’t a megalomaniac: I didn’t need to win so I could glory in my triumph and superiority. I just became stuck on developing my line of argument until it was undeniably logically correct and thus undeniably convincing. I was trying to prove to myself that I had rational intelligence. I was obsessive not domineering. The ideas of logic and reason were reassuring in their neatness and order. They promised control over your world and thus safety. It’s a pity that they are both illusions.

As a teenager, this inability to let things drop led to some furious rows with my parents. If I was warned off saying something, if it would be a really bad idea, then I felt an urgent need to say it. With strangers, cowardice usually held me back, but I guess I felt safe with the Old Pair.

It was probably just truculence, combined with an anxious lack of trust in myself. I’m no different to anybody else in this respect. Nobody likes being pushed around, and everybody worries that they’re going to shout “BUM” at a funeral, or jump off a cliff, for no reason. Those are just your typical intrusive thoughts.

I thought of it as standing up for my rights. I wouldn’t back down until I was hit[3]. That seemed to mark a natural end, a resolution, because I’d refused to be intimidated by the threat of violence. Once I’d been hit, Honour was satisfied. I had successfully resisted the threat, so there wasn’t any need to continue.

A few years ago, my dad said, “You were a strange teenager. You just wouldn’t stop. It was almost like you wanted to be hit. It was like you intentionally provoked us until we hit you and then it all blew over.” I was horrified. I’d been signalling my heroic defiance exclusively for them, yet, for years, my parents had misunderstood my gestures as some weird, masochistic abnormality, my victories as a sort of necessary quelling.

  • Footnotes:

[1] And, who knows? It may have an actual electrical signature, synaptically, which would make it more real.

[2] Argumentum ad hominem

[3] They were excellent parents, but this was the 1980s. Everybody got smacked. I wasn’t physically or psychologically damaged, because I knew my parents loved me and would never take it too far. I appreciate that this was not the case for many others.

Searching for weaknesses

So I was sceptical of the ADHD suggestion, but still sifted eagerly through my life, looking for signs of scattiness. I registered, hopefully, how distracted I got by the TV at Ascot house, which, by Diktat of the management, must be kept on at all times.[1]

TV thought-proofs my brain, jostling out all ideas with its hyperactive chatter, making them seem distant and unreal. Perhaps I lack the ability to focus or to filter out incoming sensory data or at least to prioritise one sort of brain activity over an another [2]. Is it a deficit I was born with, or has starvation compromised my pre-frontal cortex (which governs concentration)?[3] Or does TV do this to everybody?

I knew I talked too much. That was why I’d starved myself silent. Unsure of the right expression, I’d repeat and repeat myself. I hated my gabbling word-hysteria, which left me dry-throated, headachy and embarrassed; bored, because I’d heard my own anecdotes so many times before; frustrated, because all I had to offer was my own experience, my own opinion, and I offered it, and this was the result: in trying to reach out to another person I’d completely failed to connect and was just as isolated as ever. But was I talkative to an abnormal degree? Or not?

And what about impulsiveness? am I impulsive? If so, ADHD could be the cause of such sudden lapses of will-power. It would excuse my moral weakness. Impulsiveness could be a catch-all term, the fuel that drives my conversational completism, my digressiveness, my interruptions and over-talking, my badgering and bullying, my (slightly) (obsessively) compulsive refusal to let things lie; my over-thinking; my fussy over-writing.

Is impulsiveness the reason I had to be one of the main contributors to every therapy session? I told myself I was being kind to the person who was running it; I wanted everything to go well, but I was downcast if somebody else came to the rescue. It needed to be me. Was this solipsism? And was it obviously so? Did I sound like a twat, or stupid or critical or attention-seeking?

  • Footnotes

[1] What is the logic for that?

[2] See Hannah Critchlow, 2018, Consciousness: A Ladybird Expert Book, London: Penguin, p30

[3] Although mental functions seem to be governed by a complex alliance of different neural structures, that stretch throughout the brain. See Carrie Arnold, 2013 Decoding Anorexia, Hove: Routledge, pp22-27

The Joys of Internet Self-Diagnosis

At Ascot House, Jamie’s suggestion that I might have ADD started a mad scramble through my behaviours looking for things that could simultaneously prove the suggestion true, and that would be excused by the suggestion.

A quick glance at the NHS website turns up LOTS of interesting, possibly self-validating, information. Here is the full list of “Symptoms in Adults”:

  • carelessness and lack of attention to detail (Yes, that’s me)
  • continually starting new tasks before finishing old ones (Oh my God, Yes! All the time!)
  • poor organisational skills (Absa-bloody-lutely!)
  • inability to focus or prioritise (Yes!)
  • continually losing or misplacing things (Hmm…I guess so, but who doesn’t?…)
  • forgetfulness (My memory is non-existent. It’s one of the main reasons why I feel so cast adrift in the world.)
  • restlessness and edginess (Yes, a bit, and much worse when I was younger.)
  • difficulty keeping quiet, and speaking out of turn (Yes, definitely.)
  • blurting out responses and often interrupting others (Yes.)
  • mood swings, irritability and a quick temper (Not the mood swings, really, but I’m highly irritable and occasionally quick-tempered. But, again, who isn’t?)
  • inability to deal with stress (Oh, yes, indeed!)
  • extreme impatience (Yup.)
  • taking risks in activities, often with little or no regard for personal safety or the safety of others – for example, driving dangerously (This one is more complicated. I’m probably kind of anxious and risk-averse, but I also don’t think through the consequences of my actions.)

“Related Conditions” suggested include depression (perhaps, probably, maybe…), OCD (Hmm…again, maybe? Mildly?) and dyslexia (as previously discussed). Most importantly of all, though, “The behavioural problems associated with ADHD can also cause problems such as difficulties with relationships and social interaction”.

This is all brilliant stuff. I’m like the proverbial anorexic in a bakery: I want (and don’t want) everything, every symptom, every associated condition.

However, “In adults the symptoms of ADHD are more difficult to define…hyperactivity tends to decrease in adults, while inattentiveness tends to get worse…Adult symptoms of ADHD also tend to be far more subtle than childhood symptoms.”

ADHD is a pathology: it exists in the manifestation of its symptoms, rather than being a definable condition with symptoms, like cancer or heart disease. These symptoms exist on a continuum with perfectly normal behaviours. If you can have the condition without strongly manifesting the characteristics of the condition, if a diagnosis is so easily purchased, you can have a character-altering affliction without really having it. Everything dissolves into a vague and uncertain mist.

This does nothing to allay my sense of anxiety and uncertainty, my sense of the insubstantiality of identity. How can I tell if I’m a charlatan? A fiction? How much reality can there be in the world?

And beyond this is the unknowability of other people, because I don’t know if the way my brain works is the same as the way yours does. I don’t know if my thought structures are normal or abnormal.

Rude, Ungrateful Brats!

I don’t feel so bad about laying off to my family.[1] I’m forced to have meals with them so Jo can check what I’m eating. I like to make conversation by regaling them with some interesting story I’ve read in the newspaper or a book. They are safely neutral topics.

Meggie won’t have any of it.[2]  As I start, she’ll cut in and say, “I don’t want this. I don’t want one of your stories. I want talking – conversation. Talking is good.” Of course, I can see the justice in this comment, but I still find it hurtful. I subside back into my shell muttering, “But that’s what I do; that’s what I am.”

  • Footnotes:

[1] Family (noun, count.): a group of people you can constantly bore, irritate and be nasty to, without being abandoned; a connection you can’t quite break, no matter how much you twist it; a bunch of people you can’t get rid of.

[2] Children (noun, pl.): family members with the right to be rude, insulting and neglectful.

The moral of the story is…

It doesn’t help that I crave conversational completeness; I can’t abandon a topic until it’s been fully developed, until all has been said (largely by me), a thorough working through of my theory. (Look at these blog posts!) I need to reach a satisfying conclusion, for some reason, and I feel a sensation of frustration, a frantic anxiety, if the conversation ends before that point. Which it always does.

Often, half way through a diatribe, having pursued every digression and bored my poor companion almost to death, I’ll lose my place, forget why I was saying all this. Then I’ll feel a sensation akin to desolation, as if my whole identity had gone slack, lost coherence, as if I exist, properly, only in the activity of the telling, as if, at rest, I’d disappear.[1]

Realising what I’ve done, then, I’ll try to return to my companion’s subject, give them the chance to voice their ideas.  But the moment has passed; they couldn’t be bothered to talk about it anymore: the laboured extension of the topic is incongruous. If I know then quite well, I’ll switch abruptly to firing clumsy questions at them. This doesn’t work either. I’m still setting the agenda. I’m so anxious to involve them that I’m not engaging with their answers properly. I’m badgering them. It’s become an interrogation.

Anyway, asking people direct questions makes me feel shy and embarrassed. It doesn’t seem my place to pry: perhaps I’ll be intrusive and offend them. I want people to like me. I’m venturing out of a safe harbour into a tempest-torn open ocean.

So, you see, I hop from one topic to another, trying to complete them all, pecking at them, like a foolish blackbird on a lawn. I bore people.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to attribute all this to a medically sanctioned condition, rather than to moral weakness?


[1] I also feel I owe it to my interlocutor (my listener!) because, if there’s no point, no punchline, why have they been putting up with my deluge of shite?


How to Spice Up your Relationships

So now I’m searching every aspect of my personality for evidence of ADD. How about this one?

When I developed an eating disorder, I became very anti-social. It was an enormous relief, which surprised me, given how highly I prize friendship. It was a return to nature, a rewilding, because I’ve always been rubbish at relationships. I didn’t realise this: I wasn’t aware that there were alternative ways of being and I thought everyone experienced things as I did.

Thinking about it, I’ve always floundered across those dance floors, making heavy weather of the simplest interactions, while (some) other dancers move around me with ease and grace. (Though, God knows, there are a lot of flat-footed bastards out there.)

Every conversation is a nightmare of frantic improvisation. I’m out of my depth and comfort zone, so I gabble. I fill the space between us with words, because I want to relate to people, and that’s how it’s done: by talking, right?

Any time somebody volunteers some information about themselves, I try to show interest and engagement by responding. I talk. I take over the conversation. I witter on until their attention wanders. I’m doing it because I’m trying to connect. I’m trying to talk my way into a connection, because all I can offer is my words.

It has the opposite effect.

This might be a link to attention deficit disordered behaviours: if I was calm and centred, I could foster some wonderful stories. As it is, I’m filled with an almost anguished pressure to speak. My unspoken words seem to be stifling me until I can get them out.  Then they smother everybody else’s. It’s impulsive.

For example, my next-door neighbour revealed that his family was Irish. His grandfather had Anglicised his surname to avoid prejudice when he’d first arrived in Britain to work in armament factories in the Second World War. I didn’t coax the details out – did he feel Irish? What did he think was the cause of his grandad’s sense of persecution? Instead, I matched it with a similar story about one of Jo’s friends.[1] Both are excellent stories, but I’d taken over, and couldn’t get back to next-door’s one. We’d only passed on the street. It was time to go.

I have a new friend at work. He arrived in Britain as an asylum-seeking child. He showed me a poem he’d been given by a well-meaning colleague. It was clever piece of writing which, read forwards, expressed a fear and suspicion of immigrants, but read from bottom to top explained the importance of embracing people who come to you in need. My friend said it was good, but, as an asylum seeker himself, he felt it was a little obvious, a little Anglo-centric, perhaps. He wondered if he was being reduced to a type, rather than being regarded as an individual.

Instead of encouraging him to explore this idea, I rushed in to respond supportively. I said, “I see what you mean. We’ve all heard these sentiments before, haven’t we? The poet knows it’s the pious position to take and bla bla bla and bleurgh, and on and on” until I noticed that his eyes had glazed over. Then I tried to haul on the reins and, swerving violently back towards him, I said “so, is that what you found?” but at that point all there was left for him to say was, “Yeah, I guess…”

Today he told me he was reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I told him I hadn’t read it, but I had read The Trial. Then I told him a lot of stuff about The Trial. That was effectively the end of the conversation. I didn’t learn much about Metamorphosis, or my friend’s thoughts on it, other than that he liked the simplicity of the prose.

  • Footnotes:

[1] He’d started going out with a Jewish girl at university, at which point his grandfather told him that his whole paternal family was Ashkenazi German Jewish. They’d escaped the Holocaust and had tried to totally obliterate their Jewish heritage in case it happened again!

ADD or not ADD, that is the question…

I needed a firm, medical diagnosis if I was going to feel comfortable with my new ADD identity. I wasn’t going to get it, but I could search out corroborating evidence for myself:

  1. I can’t concentrate on tasks for more than about 10 minutes. Then I have to do a burst of something different. This has been exaggerated by anorexia, because I can’t simply change activity, I need to leap up and burn off calories.
  2. When I am at my computer, I’ll have 3 separate documents open and will flick       between them, often mid-sentence, often to add a single phrase that’s occurred to me while doing something completely different. I do this both at work and when writing at home, on this blog, for example.
  3. Half way through any book, no matter how light and enjoyable, I start thinking, “Oh god! Please can it end, now!” It’s not because it’s boring, but some force pushes me away. I crave a neat conclusion, a goal achieved, which is why I don’t like books that just entertain. They’ve got to be illuminating, instructive, profound.
  4. This isn’t helped by my inability to concentrate. Any distraction at all is instantly taken up as the main topic for thought, lightly dusted by the book’s words. I read and read and read the same words over and over again, until they are nothing but gibbering sounds.
  5. When I am particularly relishing an author’s writing, I have to break off, before I get bored, before that whole sustaining illusion of edifying meaning is punctured  and deflates into pointlessness. Then I can savour it, enjoy its after-glow, for a while.
  6. I’m always reading 3 or 4 books at the same time, usually a novel, a non-fiction book, a history book, a literary theory/ analysis book, a poetry book. I’ll read a couple of pages or a couple of paragraphs and then switch to another.
  7. I can’t watch a whole film in one go, either, even if it’s brilliant and illuminating. I’m driven away from it after about 20 minutes by the urge to “Do something useful” Going to the cinema is purgatory: manacled to my seat I moan and mumble to myself like some wasted old man in rags, with a beard to his feet, who’s been locked in a dungeon for 40 years.
  8. As with books, I always have at least 6 Netflix or BBC documentaries on the go simultaneously. I flick between them every twenty minutes or so, which means I have to watch them on my own.
  9. I’ve seen great plays and thrilled at their immediacy and inventiveness, while simultaneously just wishing they were over. If Jo pins me down for a twenty minute “Family time” episode of Derry Girls or Father Ted, a game of cards, a family film, I squirm with the need to escape.
  10. I hate box sets and series where the story goes on and on and on without ever reaching the promised resolution, the comfort of a narrative structure. It feels like waiting for a bus that never comes, my idea of Hell – I think I might eat myself with the screaming, suffocating frustration of it.
  11. I can no longer watch Dr Who or the new Star Wars movies, both of which I used to love, because there is now too much material to get my head around. It’s formless.
  12. I loathe soap operas for the same reason, but also because they commit such violence on character. They’re always turning mild, henpecked husbands into monstrous crack-addicts, just to serve their clumsy attempts at melodrama. I find that existentially threatening. It gives them the quality of nightmares, where things can morph horrifyingly into other things.[1]

Is this desire for structure, control and order a response to anxiety? Is it normal behaviour? I know all such conditions exist on the ends of spectrums (spectra?), but am I pathologising something completely ordinary to excuse my pathetic self-pitying fuckwittery?

  • Footnotes

[1] No doubt, if you challenged the script team, they’d tell you, wisely, that humans are inconsistent, to which you could reply, “Yes, but fiction is supposed to rescue us from that, you bastards! Fiction gives reassuring meaning and structure to the world!”