On purpose

The author at twelve or so.

My mother announced in the nursing home one day over ten years ago, leaning at an angle and glaring up at me in that charming manner she had of late, “Your sister and I took one of those online tests for ADHD for you the other day. You really do have it.”

“Yeah, Mom, I know,” I said.

“We figured you were doing it all on purpose.”

Heck, yeah, it was on purpose. I interrupted conversations, digressed, lost or misplaced every possession, missed instructions, stole things, set fires, spent my days in a fevered day dream, hit people, attempted to multi-task all the time, leapt from topic to topic, hyperfocused on non-essential activities, got bad grades despite a statistically meaningless IQ, and began drinking heavily before the age of twelve. On purpose. I’m not joking. I did it on purpose. It was a way of functioning for someone with a brain that works like mine, and I chose it.*

And my mom likewise had a pronounced list like the Leaning Tower of Pisa on purpose. Her disease made her think she was falling over when she stood straight. So she tilted.**

She and I are not alone. Most of us have a little something unexpected in the way we’re wired. And we act in ways that accommodate our difference, which often don’t sync with the environment. But human beings design the environment as if the category “normal human being” actually existed.***

What brought this up? Two things.

One: I’m reading through old teaching notebooks. A child in a school where I assisted was diagnosed with a learning disability, to the frustration of everyone involved (classroom teacher, learning specialist, psychologist) just because he couldn’t learn to read with the curriculum the district had bought. And by gum they were going to shoehorn that curriculum into that kid if it killed him (and them), and the only way to get him help was to label him.

Second: I’m also currently reading a book called The Hoarder in You which offers advice for clearing clutter based on the author’s expertise in dealing with serious hoarders. I’m finding it curiously moving, not because I’m a hoarder†† but because serious pathology always offers insight into human behavior. When something goes haywire in the brain, it’s possible to see that our brains work in ways we don’t expect, even when they’re chugging along in apparent normalcy.

Third (yes, I know I said two things. But a third thing popped up and it’s actually relevant to the point): we are getting better at advocating for adapting the environment to accommodate actual human beings. But the result is that many more people are asserting disability and seeking accommodations. Because people will (and should) hack the system to suit themselves.

My points?

  • People are goal-oriented. They behave in purposeful ways.
  • People are also irrational. They behave in ways that are not strictly (or remotely) logical. Even intelligent people. Intelligence is not the same as logic.
  • General rules and standardized environments are useful ways of making the world predictable.
  • But they’re not THAT useful if you’re rigid about it.
  • It’s not right that the world doesn’t work well for someone with my cognitive style. But knowing that I have a problem doesn’t fix the problem.
  • If I know that the world doesn’t fit me, it’s essential to recognize that it probably doesn’t fit anyone else, either.
  • I can’t expect the world to change to fit me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t give up on change, either. I can work to change things, for myself and for others.

There are many approaches for dealing with the differences among the way human beings think, but the core of those approaches is respect. Be respectful of yourself and of other people. And when someone pushes on a door that has a PULL side on it, consider that something’s wrong with the way the door was designed, not with the person pushing.‡‡
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*I don’t steal any more, and I don’t drink, and haven’t for 44 years.  I earned straight As in college and grad school. I only hit people in the context of my sport, which is fencing. Everything else still applies. Why do you think I like footnotes so much? IT’S ALL IMPORTANT. Digression is my meat and potatoes. And my spinach, and my fondness for in-season fruit. I spend way too much on fruit.
**I have pictures of her eating dinner with her right cheek nearly in her plate, and others of her leaning sideways in her wheelchair as if she was going to rocket right out of it and zoom into orbit. She also asserted that her ex-husband lived in the next room and that she could vote in the city elections even though she lived in the suburbs. We argued about it some. A brilliant woman, my mother, with a Ph.D. in microbiology, who became an ordained minister later on, and she didn’t get as far as she did by letting people bully her into believing what she knew wasn’t true.
***Or as if designers weren’t illogical too, or as if the things we design actually made sense.
I have managed to get myself down to three currently-reading books. But they’re different books, so it doesn’t count, right? The second is an anthology of Walt Kelly’s Pogo strips, and the third is a book on how to draw birds. There’s probably a fourth. I forget what it is. It was here just a minute ago.
††I have collections, darn it. Of fountain pens, office supplies, craft tools, and smooth pebbles. And if I have given away scores of bags of clothes, books, household items and electronic devices because I keep buying stuff I don’t need, I’m just being a good consumer and decluttering. And if you find a cute embroidered T-shirt for $15 that you really like, you should buy two because you never know. No, I’m not a hoarder. Labeling myself with a psychiatric diagnosis like that would be ableism because it’s disrespectful of serious disability. The point is that pathology sheds light on normal human functioning.
No, it’s acceptance. No, it’s a sense of humor. ‡‡‡ On further consideration, maybe it’s avoidance of polarization. Or open-mindedness. It’s CORE, whatever it is. CORE.
‡‡ The word “affordances” describes the things in an object or environment that mean it can only be used one way. The perfect example is that door with a pull bar which is actually meant to be pushed, to the frustration and comic behavior of endless streams of people who want to get through. If you see a big sign on a door that says PUSH DOOR TO GET IN, it’s not that the visitors are dumb; it’s that it was designed wrong and people would rather put up a hand-lettered sign and make fun of visitors than install a push plate.
‡‡‡ You can still laugh at people. It’s okay. I have told my daughter that when I go off my head in old age, she has my permission to mock me as long as she shows up and hangs out with me sometimes.§
§My mother once said to me, as I was driving her somewhere, “You’ve become so much more patient, Delia.” I was immediately transfixed with rage. “No, I haven’t, Mother,” I told her, then closed my mouth and kept driving, taking deep breaths so I could regain my sense of humor. I wasn’t any less impatient. I was just better at dealing with it and not inflicting it on her even though she moved like an intoxicated Galapagos tortoise and argued with me about reality.

3 thoughts on “On purpose

  1. Carmen Carter says:

    In my current office — where I work in a corner cubicle with my computer monitor facing a back wall — I have the privacy and freedom to employ my coping strategies. There are some intellectually challenging tasks that I have to approach obliquely; facing them head-on leads to paralysis and then panic. Over the years I’ve learned that manic browsing and reading of completely unrelated material is a necessary prelude. I distract my mind with trivia: articles on pop culture, advice to the love-lorn, movie reviews. I’ll take a minute to set up my writing document, carefully fill in the name, fiddle with the headers and footers, which exhausts me. I switch to read an absorbing account of British Royal Family dysfunctionality. I return to my writing assignment in quick dashes, nibbling at the edges, then darting away again. This continues until the moment when my fragments fall together and I steam-roll my way through the document at a furious pace.

    In about six months my company is moving to a new office space where our desks will be jammed side by side and everything on my screen will be exposed to everyone in the room. My coping strategies will look like unproductive goldbricking. Instead of lulls and explosive bursts of activity, I’ll be expected to work at a consistent pace throughout the day, an assembly line of thoughts extruded through the steady click of my keyboard.

    This is not going to end well.

  2. DMT says:

    Oh, dear, no it won’t. What is wrong with these people? No matter what the time-and-motion people in the 1920s thought, work needs to be interrupted by moments of preparing to do work. Especially since any work worth doing involves a certain amount of terror. I’m glad I’m not the only person who sidles up to certain tasks by doing something else entirely until I can face what I have to do.
    Tangentially, I occasionally got flak from a supervisor-observer because the first five minutes of my classes, when the kids were arriving and getting things out, were characterized by noise, mess, people dashing in and out to get things, silly play, and lots of conversation. As far as I was concerned, that was a necessary time. I used that time to get stuff handed out and to have one-to-one conversations with kids who needed it, and they used that time to live their lives.

  3. Barbara Kriebel says:

    I love your posts and can relate to them! My best preparation before beginning a feared and sometimes procrastinated task associated with teaching is thinking about it during my 40 to 50 min. commute. My parents also have their disabilities in their years of aging wisdom! Thank you for sharing these delightful passages!

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