Sunday, March 29, 2015

Just use more willpower! (I know it's in there somewhere!)

Something I was reading today got me off on a tangent of mental health stigmata, specifically ADHD stigmata. Sometimes with issues that can be talked about in polarized way, it's fun to google a statement about it that is very plainly on one side of the polarity...I usually do this with the side I don't agree with.

Today I googled "ADHD is bullshit" which got me all sorts of interesting stuff. Some of it was totally ignorant and offensive. Some of it was well-intentioned but still contained some ignorance. Some of it was insensed people who have been diagnosed saying "I have this and it's frustrating and debilitating daily!" This is a sentiment I agree with. That being said...it is not (because nothing is) a binary issue. It is not that either ADHD is an immense disability affecting anyone who struggles to be attentive and organized...it is not a made up condition to explain problem children or get a hold of
stimulants.

What I really wanted to talk about in this post is my own experience with learning how this condition differs from a very general/normal difficulty to accomplish tasks associated with my education, career and interests.

One complaint about this and many other psychological diagnoses is that the diagnostic criteria from the DSM can often sound like personality traits that anyone/everyone could have.





Easy to see how most of the population would quickly identify anecdotal situations where they felt some of these behaviors at play. 

However, the diagnostic criteria are tighter than just observing these things. They require a persistent pattern, they require negative effects to be consistently interfering with functioning or development, and they require that other developmental or environmental factors can be ruled out. The commonly quoted anecdote of a girl being diagnosed when it actually turned out she needed glasses and couldn't discern her lessons from the blackboard is an example of a diagnosis that failed to rule out environmental factors. A child going through a growth spurt or hormonal change is another temporary developmental situation that might bring out these behaviors. I try too hard to be eloquent and organized when I explain things...so here is a great response from one of the forum topics I browsed from my "adhd is bullshit" google search. 


So that puts it concisely. Getting finally around to my post title...I find that many things that are a struggle or nuisance to me are things that I cannot apply willpower to changing. Depression and anxiety are very similar. It's easy to look at someone struggling with depression and suggest they just lighten up, have a more positive outlook...but when you are in the grips of your brain chemistry taking you down an unhelpful road, whether that unhelpfulness is negativity, distraction, confusion, anxiety, paranoia, etc...you cannot apply willpower very effectively. If you were physically hurt, the best you could hope to do with willpower is ignore the pain, you would not change the physiological truths of the injury. 




It's not a perfect corollary, processes like Cognitive Behavior Therapy can help you learn to manage your mental processes in a way that avoids some of the traps and pitfalls that lead to acute negative psychological symptoms. But like healing from a physical wound...it takes time and consistent treatment. Medication can often regulate the brain chemicals that create conditions for the negative symptoms. The best approach is both...with a more regulated brain chemistry, it's easier to apply the mental training consistently, and thus have more control over a mentally healthy lifestyle. 

Back to ADHD specifically, and me specifically...willpower is extremely hard to apply in the first place. There are a lot of negative feedbacks of being distracted and confused much of the time, self-esteem and optimism are the top of that list. With self-loathing and self-pessimism on full blast...it's really hard to push myself to do that thing I know will help me be organized...or work on that project with whose completion I've associated self-worth. On top of that crap pile, (or maybe at its foundation?) a meandering mind and inconsistent memory skills make it really hard to put strategies I come up with into practice. Making a to-do list or keeping a detailed calendar might help me get more done and be less overwhelmed by all of the things that life requires me to keep track of (in fact it does!)...but that is all for naught if I can't remember to do it or can't do it consistently enough to make a difference. 

I'm getting pretty rambly and feel like I'll soon wander into topics that deserve their own posts, so I'll wrap up. 

When your brain chemistry, for whatever reason (environment, genetics, evolution...all) takes away from your ability to DO or FEEL the way most people do, or the way that's required to accomplish things, mere willpower is not by itself effective, and is not the whole solution. It is here that mental health is a very real thing. 

Personally I believe that in that situation willpower IS necessary to force yourself to admit you have a problem, seek out the solutions (medication, therapy, or whatever is right for you), and to keep self-judgement at bay. Willpower needs to be the one thing that will always lead you back to whatever tools you've found consistently manage your condition and lead to personal success. 


I have NOT YET found a completely effective solution to my own symptoms, or found a way to consistently apply solutions that I know work...but more on that later. 


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