ADHD and other letters: The Gift of the Gab

I have always thought of myself as shy.

People who know me online don’t quite believe this. Even people who know me in person don’t believe this.

So I describe myself as a shy person who just hides it well.

I’ve even described it as social anxiety.

Really, it’s none of these things. Looking back, I’m not shy. I’ve never been shy. I’ve always been outgoing, performative, and generally gregarious. As a small child, I did hide behind my mother when strange adults came around, but I’m beginning to suspect that had more to do with weird attachment issues based on my mother’s emotional instability. With kids my own age, I was fearless – often to my detriment, because I did get mocked and bullied at both my primary schools. At my second school, I often didn’t know whether I’d have friends that day, or whether the girls who had been my friends the day before would turn around and start picking on me.

It’s not social anxiety, either. Social anxiety is a real condition based on an irrational fear. When you’re on the spectrum, the fear of making a social error and being bullied and shamed and ostracised is very rational. We miss cues. We don’t work out what’s appropriate (well, not at the same rate – we work hard at it and often get there in the end, but not before we mess it up). We’re blunt and tactless and we often try to do and say and joke the way other people do, but get the context and timing wrong…

And the worry about being shut out, the reality of never fitting in or being accepted, the horror of knowing that you can’t seem to really connect with or communicate with people? That grows, and becomes overwhelming.

Because it happens, and it will happen again.

(unless they’re extremely patient and warm and take the time, or are a bit spectrummy themselves, or just happen to like your quirks and are willing to put up with some of the tricky parts of being your friend)

People scare the shit out of me because they can hurt me. I’ve been bullied in the past and I’m a survivor of parental abuse (from a parent, by the way, who very strongly taught me that “standing out” in any way was bad: wear bland colours; be quiet; blend in; don’t draw attention; it’s bad when people look at you… Navy blue. Light blue. Brown).

So: I have abandonment issues. I will always react badly to any form of social rejection, because there are traumatic associations there.

Sometimes I get brain fog from low blood pressure, or ADHD factors, or sensory overstimulation and I can’t think, and I don’t know what to say or how to respond, and my head is full of white noise-

But that’s not social anxiety. And it’s not shyness, either. It’s just that my brain isn’t able to deal with socialising at that time and in that state.

Fact is, I’m not shy. I like to talk, and tell stories, and babble; I like being onstage, whether singing or acting (admittedly my last amateur theatre experience was a while ago, and let’s be honest: my strength is comedic). I genuinely adore giving presentations.

I have what a friend once called “the gift of the gab.”

I didn’t realise this before that point. I was in undergrad then, and for many of my subjects, we had to give tutorial class presentations. These were generally short, 10-15 minutes, maybe 1000-1500 words, and were worth maybe 5-10% of the mark. I essentially considered these a hurdle requirement.

Remember that, as an ADHDer, I leave things until the last minute, and also pull out high-scoring essays the night before deadline – so that length of reflection, for a low percentage of my mark, was not a real issue for me. And – after my first year – I had zero problems giving these presentations.

Do a bit of research. Knock out a decent response. Explain it in class the next day, using the written component (later to be given to the tutor) as a prompt. Depending on the class, manage the subsequent class discussion.

So I was quite surprised when I asked a friend if she wanted to grab coffee after class, and she declined. “I have to go and get a start on this presentation,” she said apologetically. “I’m giving it next week.”

I think I stared at her, blinking. Remember that I’m not always the most tactful person. “It’s not a big deal,” I said, in a way I probably imagined was comforting. “Just knock something out, you’ll be right.”

“It’s a presentation. I’m going to have to practice it.”

Wait, what? Practice a tutorial presentation?

That’s a thing? That’s a thing people actually do?

“Oh,” I said, again looking a bit blank. “Uh. I don’t?”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Kate, but you’ve got the gift of the gab. You just do this sort of thing.”

Over the years, I’ve given my fair share of tutorial discussions, PhD departmental presentations, my final talk, various conference presentations and a few public science talks. I really love the latter, because I get to be enthusiastic about science and there are less constraints on the formality of my behaviour. So I can speak at a layperson level and get excitable.

Fact is, I get excitable anyway. My conference presentations, for the most part, tend to run that way. I’ve only had a few where I freaked out and flubbed them.

And I… can’t practice. Not really. I can check the timing by practicing it in my head. I’ll mutter my way through it to make sure the ideas flow the way they should. But I can’t force myself to stand up, practice in front of a mirror, or the cats, in a real sense. Ugh. It’s the worst. Why am I practicing this? I know all this stuff. I can talk about it forever. I’ve got the slides to prompt me if I forget what comes next. I’ve done my obligatory muttering to check that the structure makes sense.

Every time I get up to deliver my un-practiced talk (pseudo-practiced?), I have a moment where I stare out at the lecture theatre, and think, “What the fuck am I doing? Why are these people even listening to me?”

Then I look at the first slide, and I say hello, and introduce the concepts-

“Oh,” I think. “That’s right. I know this shit. I just have to talk about it. And tell the story.”

Turns out I’m good at talking. I’m good at telling the story. I’m good at sharing the excitement of discovery.

And I always think about what my friend said, a little frustrated, and very patient with my cluelessness about the fact that everyone has difficulty with different things – because I do have it. I have the Gift of the Gab.

I recently gave a one hour presentation for my dive club. I stayed up most of the night before getting the slides together, really excited about the ideas I wanted to communicate, the stories I wanted to tell, and the underlying theme. There were things I really wanted people to think about, and I knew how to make that happen.

I even scripted parts of it, although I barely stuck to the script.

When I got up, and started giving this talk, I was exhausted. I was a bit anxious.

The moment clicked in, and suddenly I was on. And the whole thing was a performance, and I just kept going.

This is the gift of the gab, the enthusiasm that punches out without warning and somehow compensates for my usual awkwardness, the creativity, the high speed brain spinning the whole time, and the ability to rely on that. You know that the words will be there when you need them, they’ll be there to catch you when you take the leap.

It’s like singing, when you know the melody and the words and your throat is soft and responsive and the air responds to every little nudge in your lungs and palate to shape the note and the tone-

It’s like acting, when you’ve learned the lines by heart, and you just throw yourself into the scene, bouncing off the energy of your fellow performers, reacting to the audience-

After the talk, I was high. I was wired. I was bouncing off the walls as Husband drove us home.

I was thinking that this was one of the good things about ADHD – because the Gift of the Gab is very much an ADHD quality (although obviously not confined to ADHD, and obviously not all ADHDers have it). It’s one potential consequence of a brain that spins without stopping. A good number of us – even those of us who are socially awkward the rest of the time – are performers. As I get older, it’s easier to appreciate and enjoy that aspect of my personality, especially because I’m less scared of rejection by new people. I have a solid foundation of friends in my world, I have Husband, I have a safety net that can catch me if I fall.

I’m still socially awkward, but mostly this is because I still get overstimulated and my sensory processing is borked, or because my blood pressure has tanked and my brain is enveloped in fog. It’s harder for me to overcome that in a social situation, because social interaction requires more effort and thought for me than it does for most people. Those phrases and responses that are instinctive for others just aren’t there for me. When I need to switch off, there’s no social reflex to catch me.

This is very similar to one of the problems I face with hypermobility syndrome. My stabilising impulses kick in late, if they kick in at all; which means I end up (1) with overloaded muscle groups, (2) with inflammation (3) with poor balance and – occasionally – (4) just plain falling on my arse.

Then again, I’ve landed on my backside so frequently throughout my life (both literally and metaphorically) that it really doesn’t scare me anymore.

Without my ADHD diagnosis, I wouldn’t have been able to figure out my apparent “shyness”, or how it interacts with my desire to perform.

And I might not have been able to see the positives of ADHD – because there are real advantages.

ADHD brains spin at a higher RPM than most brains. Thoughts bloom and race at a higher speed and intensity. There’s a volume control, but it’s not very responsive. The car has brakes, but they kick into late if they work at all. That spin churns out ideas and thoughts and solutions so quickly that it’s sometimes hard to grab onto them before they race out of reach – and disappear forever.

But we do get those ideas spinning out, and that’s no small advantage. Studies have shown that ADHD brains are better at coming up with creative solutions. When we get the appropriate amount of positive feedback (which starts up a nice dopamine cycle), ADHD kids often outperform their neurotypical classmates. There’s a real chemical component to encouragement.

We see and respond to the world differently – that world is mostly built for people who don’t work the way we do, and that can be really difficult. The world wants us to sit still and not fidget (fidgeting helps us focus); to spend a lot of time on repetitive, tedious tasks (like paperwork); to tolerate interruptions, to swap between tasks, to remember a laundry list of small things, to be on time always

And we’re not good at those things, as a rule.

But we’re also powerhouses in our own areas of strength, and when we can harness that, we can do great things.



ADHD and other letters: Adjusting and Unlearning

The first response to an ADHD diagnosis is often relief, excitement, even delight. Having answers, feeling that you might not actually be “lazy, crazy or stupid”, finding out that medication might give you the ability to restructure your life – all that is wonderful. This is especially true for people like me, who are born problem-solvers. We like answers and explanations and solutions.

It’s less clear after that. I’ve read that some experts liken it to a grief process (although I’m not sure where bargaining comes in).

What I did find was that, after the initial excitement and euphoria wore off, I was intensely frustrated and disappointed. Continue Reading

Declarations and Commitments

Hello from the distant ends of when-the-fuck-do-I-update-this-thing:

As it says in the “About” section (which I really should update), my brain is churning out a lot of narrative and monologue and opinion and reaction, more or less constantly (turns out: that might be an ADHD thing). I have a lot of opinions and plans and thoughts, and I think I explain things well (regardless, people have told me I do, and even if that sounds like “MY MUMMY SAYS…” from Matilda the Musical*, let’s roll with it).

I sometimes feel that the reason I explain things well is that I take the time to come up with context, and angles, and metaphors, and what that means is that my posts get very long. Settle in with a cuppa when I update this marvellous platform for sarcasm, swears and communication.

Continue Reading

Fresh Air and Open Windows

I’m a very open person. I’ve tried being private, honestly, and it just doesn’t work. Things slip out – sometimes little snippets that I think are interesting, or funny, but mostly, things I feel an urge to talk about. I don’t always examine that drive; it’s just there.

I’m writing about it now because there are some interesting consequences to being open online, and I’ve only recently run into them. Continue Reading

Morning Coffee Feminism: Risk Assessment and Dying in the Park

Content Note: assault, sexual assault, rape, trauma, abuse, violence, rage

I had to calm down before I could write this post. It’s taken about a week and a half since I cracked, crying, unable to stop, unable to believe what so many people seem to think.

I mention this not to demonstrate my emotional fragility (I’m actually in pretty good shape), but to emphasise a point before we go any further: this is personal. I don’t just mean for me – I mean for women in general, or for people socialised as women. It’s personal, and it has a deep, heavy weight to it, one that I didn’t even realise until I finally caved under the onslaught.

But for people not affected by it, it seems to be a thought experiment. A mild sense of discomfort, a desire to play “Devil’s Advocate”, to run the numbers, to make a wry face and look offended. They dive eagerly into the discussion, tossing aside heart-wrenching personal experiences, ripping apart horrifying statistics of abuse and suffering, insisting that they and they alone are the logical ones, the sensible ones, and they demand attention right now.

This makes the discussion inherently unbalanced, right from the start. Continue Reading

“A Normal Body” And Other Fairy Tales

When I go and see my personal trainer (also an exercise physiologist), or my physiotherapist, or my podiatrist, I inevitably end up apologising for and explaining my body, and how it’s put together.

These people have been treating me for a while, and it’s also literally their job to observe how I move. They know how my body is put together. Their job is to help me move more efficiently, with less pain.

I really don’t have to awkwardly, anxiously explain that my single-leg squat is super wobbly because my right leg has quite noticeable internal rotation and the leg is permanently twisted because years of bad motor habits mean that the bone and muscle have just grown that way. It isn’t possible to correct it – merely compensate for it.

So many exercises look awful when I do them, because my leg rotates inwards. I wobble. My back arches and hyperextends unless I’m looking in a mirror (or having a really good proprioception day. I do have those. They’re amazing, and everything feels easy).

I don’t have to feel awkward and anxious, but I often do.

I keep falling into this trap.

If I do these exercises, my body will move properly.

If I keep working at it, it will work as it is supposed to.

Everything will come together as it should.

I only recently caught myself doing this, and realised how incredibly misguided this thought pattern is. I can’t blame this on my support team – they never speak to me like this or imply that they’re trying to change my body. At some point or other, every one of them has made it clear that the goal is to try and get to the point where my body can do what I need it to do, in the most efficient and least painful way that it can, given that it has a few quirks.

I’ve been unconsciously thinking (up until recently) that there’s one perfect way for my body to move and function, some ideal system that I can get closer and closer to, like the Platonic bone structure and muscle activity that will mean I’m effectively not hypermobile anymore.

Not only will that never happen, but it doesn’t even make sense to think that way.

I have multiple chronic illnesses, and treating them results in conflict between the affected systems.

Core muscle activation is an excellent example.

Strengthening core muscles is a crucial part of managing Ehlers-Danlos / Hypermobility Syndrome. This is the area where most people are a bit weak, leading to back problems and other joint overcompensations – and for bendy people, it’s much, much worse. The collagen connecting our vertebrae is just as stretchy and unstable as the rest of the collagen in our bodies and we are terribly prone to our spines moving in ways that they just aren’t supposed to (not in terms of a Platonic ideal, but in terms of load bearing function).

I also have Crohn’s Disease, and visceral hyperalgesia stemming from that Crohn’s. Hyperalgesia means “too much pain” – basically, my intestines think they’re in pain all the time, even when there’s not necessarily a proximal cause. They’ve become sensitised to pain signals because of the long term effect of the Crohn’s.

My intestines are either inflamed most of the time, or they think they’re inflamed and behave accordingly (massive oversimplification, but work with me here).

It is not recommended that you compress your core if you have Crohn’s Disease, because it will hurt like a motherfucker, and also if you have visceral hyperalgesia, that will feed the sensitisation occurring in that region.

Whenever you tighten your abdominal muscles, particularly the deeper set that wraps around your spine, you are compressing your core.

So. Whenever I try to prevent back pain, I facilitate stomach pain. Whenever I slack off on core compression to ease the pressure on my stomach, I move so awkwardly and the angle of force on my joints is such that I get back pain, hip pain and so on, and simply moving is very tiring because the whole system is just incredibly inefficient in a mechanical sense.

(I’m aware that I’m implying here that I’m fainting away from constant agony. That’s absolutely not the case! My abdominal pain is very well managed these days, and I get plenty of low-level warnings from my joints before it gets unmanageable, so I have time to get my backside into gear and start working out properly – or take a break, if that’s what is needed. It’s really not that bad. I’m just trying to highlight the conflict between the two systems)

This also happens regarding my low blood pressure. I’m supposed to wear compression garments to help with the fact that the large blood vessels in my abdomen are just a bit crap (again, due to those gosh darned stretchy proteins). Compression helps blood move back up my body from my legs, up to my heart and brain when otherwise I’d just end up with exhaustion, light-headedness and brain fog.

Mind you – and you’ve probably figured out the catch – as stated above, deliberately compressing your abdomen when you have inflammatory bowel disease can be uncomfortable. It can also hurt like a motherfucker.

So. I pace myself with the compression garments.

The human body (actually, any complex multicellular organism) is a marvel of interconnected systems and patterns. We marvel at it all the time, in awe of how the hip bone connects to the thigh bone and the thigh bone connects to the shin bone, and it’s led to a bit of a hippy-dippy idea that all these systems will strive to work in harmony with one another, if only we can find that one perfect piece of health advice.

Unfortunately, that’s bullshit.

Body parts do what body parts do, physically, in response to chemical changes and application of force. It’s physics. My spine doesn’t give a crap about my intestinal tract, and my small bowel has no sodding interest in the pain in my hips.

What is right and appropriate for one system is a stupid idea and maybe actively harmful for another.

I could feel defeated by this. I could feel that I’m just fucked coming and going. I could use it as a cover to give up, to say “Well, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, so I don’t even care anymore.” And to be honest, I don’t know that I’d judge anyone else for that response. It’s fair, and it’s human.

Instead, I had this realisation, and I found it empowering.

Because, if that’s true – if there isn’t an answer that will untwist my leg and support my spine and heal my small intestine – then here’s no perfectly healthy, functional body. There’s no perfect ideal in which every part of me will work without rubbing up against the world in some difficult way. There’s no one secret plan to make all the systems work together. You just do the best you can, and work with the systems you can. Your body will do what it can in response to stimulus that it gets from the outside world, or from internal systems; and a lot of that’s not up to you.

What you can do is try to make some of it a little smoother, a little more manageable, a little less painful and awkward.

And suddenly: that little bit that I can do feels even more significant. It’s not one small step on the road to perfection: it’s me exerting some level of control over a difficult situation and experiencing victories that are, relative to what is possible, pretty damn magnificent.

You know what, it takes the fucking pressure off.

I can stop trying – however unconsciously – to make my body normal and just make it work.


ADHD Coping Mechanisms and “Masking” Behaviour

Getting a diagnosis of ADHD at age 36 with a PhD and two degrees under my belt has thrown me for a loop, and no mistake. Of course, I increased the intensity of my reading, trying to understand what my brain is doing, why it makes life hard, and how the hell I got this far before I fell apart (i.e.: the past three years have been a disaster from an ADHD perspective).

It turns out that there are a lot of ways that people with ADHD can cope with their problems, mask the symptoms (and I’m still ashamed and embarrassed by a bunch of them, which I need to work through), and generally delay diagnosis. Even qualified psychiatrists can be fooled by these coping mechanisms, thinking that a person is coping a lot better than they are. Continue Reading