One of the things that I have consistently found most fascinating since discovering my ADD and the science of ADHD in general, is the concept of coping mechanisms.
All human beings, whether they have attention deficit disorder or not, develop over the course of their lifetime, a set of skills (for lack of a better term) that allows them to get by in life. These skills range from the most basic, like tying your shoe, to much more complicated ones, like initiating and developing a romantic relationship with another person. Coping mechanisms are a specific subset of these life skills. A coping mechanism is a skill or habit that develops in order to compensate for something, whether it is a some sort of shortcoming, some form of emotional discomfort, or simply to take the edge off of life’s many potential disappointments. One common coping mechanism is emotional eating, where a person eats either certain foods, or large amounts of food, in an effort to make themselves feel better.
Common ADD Coping Mechanisms
For adults with ADHD, recognizing and understanding coping mechanisms is an important component of non-medication attention deficit hyperactivity disorder treatment. True coping mechanisms are mental or behavioral in nature, as opposed to functional. In other words, the constant adjustments and refinements we make everyday are not coping mechanism. The habits, skills, and emotional responses we develop over long periods of time are coping mechanisms.
For example, always placing your keys in the same place is a method of doing something, not necessarily a coping mechanism. That is simply an attempt at perfecting the flow of your current lifestyle. However, being someone who is always compulsive about keeping everything in its assigned location, is a coping mechanism.
Like everyone, people with ADHD have good coping mechanisms, and bad coping mechanisms. Recognizing the good ones provides a starting point for developing new coping techniques or expanding upon already useful coping methods. Recognizing the negative coping mechanisms provides a starting point for lifestyle adjustments that hopefully, lead to the eventual disappearance of said habit. Detecting and adjusting the mental attitude that often accompanies negative coping responses is also a good place to start when it comes to therapy or ADHD coaching.
Blaming Yourself For ADHD or Blame Others?
One of the most intriguing things about common ADHD coping mechanisms is how they may or may not apply to any one person. Even more interesting is how the same mechanism can be flipped upside in some people that have ADHD.
One of the very common coping mechanisms for adults with ADHD is to blame supposed character or personality flaws for certain things. For example, a woman with ADD who can’t seem to do any job beyond answering phones because she is never organized enough for anything more advanced, may eventually take the edge off of such disappointments by laughingly noting that she is, “just a space cadet sometimes.” Unfortunately, this all too common side effect of ADHD, is not only surprisingly effective at blunting the hurt of disappointment, but also at making one resigned to never striving for anything else.
Reading about this coping method, or its variations, in book after book left me skipping chapters and writing off certain advice, because it never really seemed to apply to me. I’ve always been very confident in my abilities, often getting jobs, projects, and responsibilities beyond my current skill level. Fortunately, I’m also quick to learn when either the interest or immediately looming threat of disaster is strong enough. But, I thought, I’ve never really blamed myself.
Ironically, it turns out that I use the blame coping mechanism just as much (or more) than most people with ADHD, the only difference is that I blame other people.
Many ADHD books, including the oft mentioned, Hallowell books, Driven To Distraction and Delivered From Distraction are written by successful individuals who claim to have ADD themselves. In one of the books, Hallowell, who is a successful doctor, describes his thriving medical practice and his extensive work with ADD patients before saying that he, himself, also suffers from ADHD.
As I read that passage soon after being diagnosed with adult ADHD, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Hallowell, I figured, was lying in order to boost his credibility in the area of ADD. After all, I thought, he went to medical school, graduated, became a doctor and developed a successful medical practice, just how bad could his ADHD be? Oh, my gosh! Did he have to use sticky notes to keep track of assignments? Oh, the horror!
The truth is, that I despised Hallowell and his success as a doctor and subsequently an author. The reason is that instead of blaming myself, I blame others. When Hallowell, and his “I barely have ADD” colleagues go out and build these big, successful careers, fat bank accounts, and speaking tours, I reasoned, it hurts those of us who REALLY have ADHD.
I’ve thought that way my whole life.
“I’m the smart one. The only reason he is doing better in school is because he studies EVERY NIGHT.”
“I could have started up an Internet business, but I didn’t want to spend every single day working in my basement.”
The tragedy is that until recognizing what I was doing, I took much of it as a badge of honor.
I graduated from High School near the top of my class. I got all A’s except in English where I got B’s. I could have gotten A’s in English, but I never did homework. Literally, NEVER. I did my schoolwork during the class before the class it was due in. So, I did my Algebra homework for second period during my History class at first period. The one thing I couldn’t quite get done like that were long essays. So, every time an English paper was due, I would start it during the class before it was due, but I wouldn’t finish it. I’d have to wrap it up the next day. It was still an A paper, but with the one letter grade penalty for being late, it became a B.
I was proud of that as I left high school. You see, grades or no grades, I was faster, smarter, and better than everyone else. Those kids who left with a 4.0 where the chumps, not me. They were the ones who wasted their free time actually doing homework.
Unfortunately, not recognizing the truth cost me a lot in college where I not only continued the same pattern, but actually expanded it. In high school, attendance was required. Between parents, teachers, and administrators, the path of least resistance was going to class. Coming up with an excuse, sneaking out the door, and then trying to keep my parents from getting a phone call or note about my absence was way more work than just going to classes, so I went.
At college, that was no longer the case. In college, no one called my parents, most professors didn’t know whether you were there or not. The path of least resistance became not going to classes, and I didn’t go. My new pattern became:
- Go to class one or two times and get syllabus.
- Use syllabus to find exam dates and due dates of essays or projects.
- Stop going to class.
- Go to the class the day before the exam to get review sheets and any changes about what would be covered.
- Hurriedly read through the textbook chapters that would be on the exam.
- Take test.
- Surf the curve to a B or C.
- Start any essay or project the night before it was due. Work on it until it was “good enough.” Surf curve to C.
During my Junior year, I literally attended my Geography class 5 times the entire semester. I got an A.
The only exceptions were the classes where the professor actually took attendance and docked your grade if you missed classes. In every one of those classes, I got an A, because I actually went. Ironically, I seldom paid much attention while I was in the class. I read the student newspaper, worked on other classes’ homework, or just daydreamed. But, looking up at the board and hearing a paragraph here and there was enough to let some of the information sink in. More importantly, it was enough to give me an idea of what the professor felt was important.
For years after graduating, I proudly told anyone who asked that I graduated with a 2.14 GPA, but, I added, I never really went to class or did any of homework. I don’t know if anyone was ever impressed by that. Not that it matters.
The true tragedy is that I didn’t do anything else. There would be some redeeming value in how I spent my 4 years on campus if I had gotten in a 100 day ski season, or spent sunny days hiking, biking, or doing ANYTHING. Instead, I mostly slept in, napped, and messed around on my computer. The only good to come out of it was that in those days, the Internet was a text based Unix system. There were no web browsers, just FTP, vi editor, GREP, UUENCODE, and so on. In the end, I knew a lot about how to use computers, which meant I didn’t have to figure out how to get a job in Chemistry with no professor recommendation (none of them would have recognized me), no summer lab work, and no internships. Instead, I got a job as a computer administrator and quickly became certified in numerous technologies just as the technology bubble started ramping up.
Of course, the blaming cope strategy didn’t go away. I always felt that I should be the project manager or the startup millionaire or whatever, but I never was. The reason was simple, I could have been, but they just worked harder, tried harder, or refused to give up. Not me. Those suckers.
These days, I try not to blame others for their success, nor assume that I would be twice as successful under the “slightly different” circumstances of me actually busting my butt to make something happen. But, like most attitudes developed over decades, it can be hard to keep up, and even harder to see when it is happening.