Welcome to today’s session of What Life Looks (Or Sounds) Like Through The Eyes (Or Ears) Of Someone With ADHD. Thanks for your attention! (See what I did there?)
Listening is a challenge for me. No, not just because talking takes precedence over listening (although there’s some of that, sure; it’s definitely something I’m working on, that whole You Don’t Need To Think Of An Immediate Response – Just Listen! thing). And no, not just because I’m easily distracted because of my ADHD – well, okay, that IS it, but probably not in the way you might think.
It’s not that I don’t hear things; it’s more that I hear everything. Television at normal volume often feels like it’s screaming at me. If Langston comes in after a particularly exhausting session of ball-fetching and is panting like a maniac, I hear his frantic breaths more loudly than everything else in the room. Last weekend, we went out to The Melting Pot to celebrate the girls’ – and my students’ – successful piano recital. The empty fondue pot was warming up, waiting for the mouthwatering cheese to be placed into it by our server, and the heat from the burner was causing the pot to rattle ever so slightly. Once I noticed it, it was essentially all I could hear; I absolutely could not block it out, even though I tried (I mean that literally – I held my hand coyly up to my ear to attempt to muffle the sound). It took superhuman effort to focus on the conversation we were trying to have, and only once the pot was finally full – and, mercifully, quiet – did I turn my complete attention to Nick and the girls.
I don’t want to be hearing these random noises so loudly – I just don’t really have any choice. It’s part of my wiring, a portion of the ADHD code that is who I am. A lot of times, it’s actually a good thing. I can make out someone’s voice from around a corner before anyone else even knows they’re coming and I’ll be the first to realize that the faucet is dripping, thereby saving our house from devastating flooding (go, me!). Others, it’s a real nuisance because it’s not such fun when you can’t read a sentence in your book (or on your Kindle, although I don’t have a Kindle, but whatever) because you can hear the ticking of the watch so loudly – the one being worn by the person three seats over – that it’s making you develop an eye twitch.
There are ways that I help myself tune out those extra sounds. Let’s just say that we don’t have any wall clocks in our house and Nick knows to hold any potential wristwatches-as-gifts up to his ear to ascertain whether or not I’ll be hiding them in the bathroom closet ten seconds after opening the box. (True story: our bathroom closet really does hold, like, three clocks.) I also sleep with an extra pillow so that I can put it over my head in case some random noise is keeping me awake, and I am super fun on family vacations.
I would really like to drown out the extemporaneous nonsense; I simply can’t.
It may seem like a contradiction, then, that I really prefer to do work – or make dinner, or clean, or mow the lawn – with music on, what with the music-being-a-distraction and all. But if I have the right kind of music, it actually works to cover up other potential distractions (the “right” kind is almost impossible to pin down; my Pandora list is really varied, although Nick just was scrolling through my iPhone and announced with genuine disparagement that a “shockingly high percentage of these songs are Christmas songs”). When the girls are playing and giggling and shrieking at one another – even happily – it can make me lose focus almost immediately if I have a task at hand… so I just crank up that play list and, suddenly, I’m able to refocus. Until someone’s bleeding. Or hanging off my back like a monkey. That’s harder to ignore.
These funny little “tricks” have been hard-earned over the years – trial and error, success and failure, melded into one. But one of the favorite tools in my ADHD box is the very purposeful act of not looking at someone when they’re talking… so that I can hear them better. On some level, this makes no sense, I know; why would you look away from someone who’s talking? If you’re really paying attention, shouldn’t you be taking visual cues, looking for facial expressions and body language?
Well, yes and no. Obviously, those things are really important and can contribute tremendously to understanding what someone is trying to say. But also? They’re really distracting. When someone is waving their hands to emphasize a point, my eyes are drawn to their fingers – but unlike most people without ADHD, I don’t just take a quick glance and then look toward their face again.
No, suddenly I’m noticing that her fingernails are painted a really neat shade of plum – and don’t I have one like that in the cupboard? If not, maybe I should swing by Target on the way home… Which reminds me, oh crap! I never got that birthday present! Wait, is the big day this Friday or next Friday? STOP, EMILY. FOCUS. Right, right. What was he saying again? Oh, yes. Field Day is coming up, the girls need to bring sunscreen… Speaking of which, now that I’m looking at his face, maybe he could use a higher SPF himself. Is that a mole or a freckle? Who was that actor again in the Austin Powers movie with the “molé molé molé” thing? Kevin Savage? Wasn’t he in The Wonder Years?
And then I’ve completely lost the thread of the conversation and instead of remembering what she was telling me about her son’s recent softball game, all I remember is that Ms. Starbucks Barista has really lovely eyebrows.
Hence, when something is really important – when I really want to hear what someone is saying, or the film dialogue in a crowded movie theater, or whether or not the woodwinds or the brass are responsible for the eighth notes in this section of the symphony – I look away. Not just anywhere, though, because there are myriad other distractions lurking everywhere, just waiting to grab my (already fleeting) attention — the blinking EXIT sign, the way the kid in line to the left is picking his nose, how the poster on the wall is missing a pushpin. Bueller? Bueller?
Thus, in order to really listen, I’ll look down at my own hands (which is also part of why I rarely wear nail polish – because the chipping and uneven color distracts me even when I’m trying not to be distracted, for crying out loud!). Or, if I’m not actually holding a conversation with someone, I’ll close my eyes. Yeah, I may miss the lead actor’s facial expressions, but at least I’ll hear what he had to say.
I have no idea if other folks with ADHD do the same thing, but I’m a fan. Concentration and focus, FTW!
So. If we’re having a chat, you and I, and I suddenly look down – or you see me working fervently to give make appropriately polite eye contact while also, oddly, glancing at my own fingers from time to time – don’t take it personally. Actually, do take it personally, because it means that I care enough about what you’re saying to really listen, and this is the best way I know how to do it. And if you’re a teacher and that highly distractible kid is looking out the window instead of staring at you? Sure, maybe she’s not listening. But, then again, maybe she is. Maybe give her another chance.
Also? You might want to check a mirror when we’re through, just in case the thing I was finding the most distracting was the salad stuck between your front teeth. You’re welcome.