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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

My brain in a book: reading about ADD

One recent weekend, I read the truth about my brain.

For a few years I’d been vaguely aware that I might to some degree have attention-deficit disorder, but I had never really looked into it. You know ... I was distracted.

Then on a Saturday it surfaced in my mind that my wife Cary, who works as a counselor with children and families, had a book about ADD on her shelf. I looked, and there it was: Healing ADD, by Daniel Amen, M.D. And therein I encountered my own unusual brain.

I’ve always had trouble really focusing, or sustaining focus — especially if it is something I need to read and absorb for work. If I’m listening to a talk, or even a piece of music I really like, my mind will flutter all around. Growing up I was full of nervous energy, constantly distracted unless I was really interested in the subject; if I was, then I could read and read, learn and learn. But my report card in grade school perpetually bore the comment, “Douglas is not working up to his potential.” If I got a report card today, no doubt it would still say that.

Dr. Amen’s book describes six varying forms of ADD, most of which don’t describe my own struggles over these years, which were more intense growing up but are still with me today. But in his explanation of what he calls Classic ADD, a fundamental insight took me completely by surprise.

In general, we tend to assume that ADD means a person’s brain is perpetually stimulated, thus the tendency to attention shifting and fluttering distraction. But Dr. Amen’s book asserts that “the underlying mechanism of ADD” is actually underactivity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or pfc.

“Overall, the pfc is the part of your brain that watches, supervises, guides, directs, and focuses your behavior,” he writes. Brain imaging shows that, while the pfc lights up when non-ADD people try to really concentrate on something, those with ADD have trouble activating it.

For me, this lit the insight. Like many with ADD (so I’m learning), I’ve struggled for years with a felt need to stimulate my brain — with caffeine, for example: I always feel I’ve got to have a cup of tea before I can write anything. And if I have to read some dry report for work, my brain doesn’t want to. It either seems to shut down, or it’ll squirt out every which way.

When I was growing up, nobody diagnosed you with ADD, they just blamed you for it. I got a lot of that. But now I understand that this is a condition, or a way my brain operates, that I share with a multitude of others — and that there are ways to compensate, to help the brain heal.

“ADD is increasing in the population,” Dr. Amen asserts; and Healing ADD makes it clear that what we think of as one syndrome really encompasses a very wide variety of syndromes and behavior patterns. Many need some form of medication, to help their brains work best. But a lot of us, I learned, can help our brains in other, easily available ways.

For myself, it turns out I’ve already learned in my struggles over the years to do some of the things that experts now recommend. For example, I try to minimize caffeine, to sidestep the stimulation treadmill that can very often lead, I’ve learned, to substance dependency in people with ADD.

Also, I’ve learned to exercise. And meditate: I’ve done this for years and it helps a lot, not just by settling the brain but also by training it to sustain a single focus. For me, playing music helps too, because it’s an exercise in focus and flow that’s also fun. I’ve now learned that taking fish oil, omega 3 supplements, can feed the brain something it needs — and these definitely do seem to be helping me. And I’ve learned once again the importance of nutrition. Minimize food stimulants, such as sugars and simple carbs. Eat some protein with every meal.

An even more basic thing I’ve learned is that there’s nothing wrong with me. This is not a character or a will-power issue; my brain works, if not always smoothly. I’ve learned that there is a tendency among ADD people to be creative, to think independently. These are positives for me, and have probably always been, though in childhood I didn’t realize that, and certainly wasn’t encouraged to explore those positives. I had to discover them, over time, on my own.

What I discovered in reading Dr. Amen’s book, and in further reading I’ve done since, is that ADD is not a disease — and it’s no shame. It’s just how many of our brains work, and we can learn how to help them work better.

All this, for me, because I suddenly remembered a book that was sitting on a shelf. 

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