It is a truth universally acknowledged that a worker in possession of a cubicle must be in want of some goddamn focus.
Work begets noise, which in turn begets distraction, if you are paid to think. The only noise that isn't distracting is the noise generated by your own work, but of course that afflicts everyone who is not you. And so, the ultimate productivity tool: the office door.
Since I am bereft of office, it's a rare day that I'm not leaning on the next best things: the Ambiance app and ambient music like the wonderful MusicForProgramming() and (oh, the joy of nerd-ass nostalgia) the Myst soundtracks.
I think a lot about noise, because I've only recently become attuned to its effect on me, even though I've been bitching about cube life for years. As often happens with those of us who enjoy having supple hands and whining about George Lucas, for me it began with a podcast.
My head used to be a hive of bees. Angry bees. Angry, armed, socially-marginalized bees who have been sprayed with methamphetamine. Breaking Bees.
Focusing on a task was sometimes like trying to walk chest-deep across a wave pool. Hence the sensitivity to noise and chaos, which only amplified that sensation.
Listening to conversations was often like catching bullets. Parties? Hour tops and the chaos is too much, I want to go home. The racket in my brain could only be quieted down by throwing books or movies or TV or video games or booze at it. Media were a sort of anaesthetic.
Coffee. Loooooooooots of coffee.
My vanity told me that this mental caterwaul and media gluttony were the symptoms of an uncommonly strong and absorbent mind. In retrospect, I see how arrogant and fucking absurd that was. Having an epileptic seizure on top of a drum kit does not make you Neal Peart.
But it was the way it was. I didn't have a baseline for normal. I didn't draw the connections because I couldn't see them from a distance. I saw myself as a man completely lacking in will. And then, last year, I listened to that podcast, Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin's Back to Work on the excellent 5by5 Network. The episode I linked there is the one that literally changed my life.
In it, Merlin describes his experience of being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. He describes his symptoms in pretty good detail. And as I listened, I found myself nodding along, thinking that's me, yep, that's me too holy crap MOST OF THIS IS ME.
I spent two days trying to convince myself that it was bullshit, that this is an overdiagnosed "disease", that my failings were those of morality and will, so I didn't talk to anyone about it. Then I had a couple of days at work when I got so mentally overloaded that I had to go into a restroom stall, close the door and breathe deeply. I do not enjoy breathing deeply in public restroom stalls.
So I brought it up with my wife and began the arduous process of making an appointment with a psychiatrist. Roughly two months later, I was finally sitting down with one. (Side note: behold, the greatest healthcare system in the world.)
He asked me questions, I answered them. I may have seen knowing smiles. I suspected there would be a concern that I was a drug seeker. I was extremely uncomfortable, and talking about why I was there made me feel agitated and frankly a little desperate.
Turns out there was no need for the worry. The doctor told me that there were very expensive tests they could run that my insurance likely wouldn't cover, but we could try medications instead and see how I respond to them. Even better news: there are non-narcotic medications that we could try first. Lo and behold, they worked, so I stuck with them.
I had my doubts, of course, as to whether it was all in my head (ignoring the obvious point that mental disorders are indeed in your head), but taking a week off of my medication several months ago mostly put them to rest. The final coffin nail came just a few weeks ago, when I went for a checkup with a new primary care doctor. He noted the ADHD diagnosis in my record and asked me about it, then said: "You know, a lot of people don't get diagnosed until after high school. They're good students who go to college and flunk out."
I graduated high school near the top of my class. It took me eight years to finish my first bachelor's degree. Gaming the system was the only way I didn't flunk out.
The pills aren't a silver bullet, of course. I still get a little overloaded in chaotic situations, which makes parenting interesting. I still have low-focus moments and, occasionally, days. I would prefer a life without daily medication, when I am otherwise in nearly perfect health.
But now the roar has died down to tolerable levels. I often find that I'd rather not dick around but instead find a quiet place and do something productive, which is new. Sometimes it's so quiet in my head that I just sit and listen to it. Every now and then, when I do that, I feel so god damned grateful that my eyes well up.
These periods of quiet and drive have been going on for less than a year, so they're still very much a novelty, and I feel like they're still gaining strength. And there's still so far to go. But so much in me has changed. I feel like I found a part of myself I hadn't known was missing.
Of course I hadn't known. I was too busy berating myself for being weak and lazy. I don't do that as much anymore. Now I am grateful not to know what a life of more of the same would be like. Now I know what it can be.
Thanks, Merlin and Dan. I owe you guys big. I love you.