My Broken Brain
We don’t know exactly when it happened, or even what happened, but I have a pretty good idea of why it happened.
The when: Sometime around August 2013, I broke my brain (more than it was broken before, but more on that later). While on vacation with my family in Florida I developed a headache. I initially thought it was caffeine withdrawal because of my reduced coffee consumption while on vacation. However, upon returning back to Canada and resuming consumption to my usual obscene level, the headache remained. And has never left.
The what: It was diagnosed as “New Daily Persistent Headache,” which is basically medical jargon for “your head hurts you and we do not know why.” It’s typically triggered by a stressful event. On that family vacation, I had to work almost every evening to help an off-track project to get back on track. Our company’s accounts receivable was very healthy, but we were struggling with cash flow, and looking at ways to capitalize our company by leveraging a few working capital loans (having a profitable business does not always mean good cash flow!).
The why: My family only gets 2 weeks of my time per year where I can be dedicated to building relationships with them. I was not able to give it to them that year. I will say that they were very understanding and supportive during the time, but all of us were disappointed in the reality of my having to work during that time.
I’m fairly certain that the stress of the conflict between the (necessary) behaviour and my personal values in this situation, combined with the other stresses, caused something to “shake loose” in my brain. In one fairly short span of time I went from “overall pretty healthy” to “chronic pain patient.” People sometimes say “well, at least you still have your health,” and I used to dismiss this as insincere. I have since changed my tune and appreciate that having your health is a gift.
I ignored the problem for several years, but because the pain experienced is not extreme and the methods of treating it do not work for me, are medically invasive, or require me to take prescription drugs that I’m not comfortable taking. In general, the biggest challenges, beyond constant mild discomfort, are the inability to concentrate for long periods of time and increased mental fatigue.
The problem that I initially missed in my coping strategy is that I have another complicating factor in my brain: ADHD. As time wore on, I found the headache compounded the inability to concentrate and focus that comes with ADHD. Having ADHD comes with its advantages and disadvantages. It means my brain operates differently… and that’s not always a bad thing.
However, I became increasingly aware of my inability to focus and pay attention to things that mattered to me. The most critical issue is that I had issues focusing on one-on-one conversations with people who are important to me: family, friends, clients, and team members. I would catch myself tuning out of conversations, which I found incredibly disrespectful to whomever I was engaging with; at the same time, I was unable to will myself to focus.
It is an incredibly humbling experience to be unable to exert your will on your own consciousness. I fought with a few different stages of denial. I have always felt I should be strong enough to overcome the obstacles that are set in front of me… it’s very rare for me to feel like I can’t solve a problem using my own skills.
I can’t remember where I saw it — probably somewhere on Twitter — but someone posted that sometimes it takes strength to acknowledge when you need help. I realized I needed help, or else I was going to continue to put relationships that I care about at risk… and that I wasn’t able to fix it on my own.
I was able to try a prescription drug, Concerta, which is a slow release form of Ritalin. I noticed the improvement almost immediately. Previously, working on a computer or talking to a person, I would experience an immediate and visceral need to get a hit of some other stimulus, checking Facebook, email, Twitter, LinkedIn, CNN, or whatever would briefly distract me from my current area of focus.
Once I had a quick “hit” of stimulus I would be able to go back to focusing on the task at hand, but every 5 minutes there would be another interruption needed. In day-to-day work, this was OK. Keeping tabs on social media and other activities isn’t always bad thing when you work in a digital agency, but the distraction would creep up in live conversations as well, and it was disrespectful.
Before getting the diagnosis, I had to fill out a diagnostic tool on adult ADHD at my Doctor’s office. I can proudly say I don’t think I have aced a test with any more authority than I passed that diagnostic test. I have always said that I probably have ADHD, but seeing the results in a diagnostic tool was sobering. Quickly my relationship with ADHD changed from a half-hearted joke amongst friends to an actual diagnosis.
Of my own experience, the best way I can explain the difference between having Concerta and not having it is that it’s similar to the difference between being sober and inebriated, without the reduction in intellectual capacity. With the ADHD medication, everything happens so much slower and more deliberately. It’s has been a surreal experience to feel how “normal people” function. On one hand it’s amazing to be able to focus on the task at hand; on the other hand, it’s not atypical for me to be working on 6 things at once mentally without the medication… and, at first, that could feel like I was doing less.
The core issue with juggling all 6 is that 5 of the 6 are likely not important or relevant right now, and focusing on what’s important in the moment has helped me increase my ability to do meaningful work vs. just work.
I decided to share this update for 3 key reasons:
If you’re running a business, or involved in stressful senior leadership decisions, please be careful putting yourself into a situation where you’re stressing yourself out in a way that will cause long-term harm. I have witnessed people literally killing themselves from stress in the work environment, and it usually boils down to a value or purpose conflict. Some stress in pursuit of something that’s in alignment of your values and purpose can be a very positive thing to propel you and your organization forward, but when it’s putting you into an internal conflict, you can cause damage.
Reinforce messaging that it’s OK to ask for help if you’re struggling with something, but don’t want to admit you’re not strong enough to solve it yourself. I believe it’s had a positive impact on me so far and I regret not doing it sooner. Had my own ego been less in the way, I probably would have sought help sooner.
Acknowledge that ADHD is a real disability. It sometimes gets played down as a childhood-only disease, or one that people should be able to overcome on their own once they are an adult.
If you’re an adult with ADHD, there are some resources available from the Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada (http://caddac.ca/adhd/understanding-adhd/in-adulthood/).
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