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Prompted By Attention Span

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Two different levels of attention

I have always been able to pay attention for long periods of time, though checking my phone does cause something of a distraction these days. I do think devices have given my husband a much shorter attention span. He can’t just sit and wait. He must always be occupied. He plays games on his phone constantly, or will start some awful TV program if I can’t come into the den IMMEDIATELY! I find his behavior unnerving.

But living with a person (no longer a child) who truly has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder is quite another issue. As she will often say to me, “You don’t understand how my brain works”. She is correct. I cannot be inside her mind, nor truly understand the plusses and deficits caused by the chemical imbalances in her brain. When she is truly intrigued by something, there is no tearing her away from the activity (where it was a video game, as a child, or programming something she’s working on – usually for pleasure – right now). But if the pursuit is NOT interesting to her, she cannot force herself to “JUST DO IT”. She is not a spokesperson for Nike. And that can cause friction around job functions. I used to think she was procrastinating, but she claims she can’t force herself to pay attention. I truly do not understand how that feels and often wonder how much she can fight against that feeling, versus give into it.

She was first diagnosed at the age of four, and began on Ritalin in kindergarten. Mercifully, she was never the kind of kid who was in motion, running around like a demon all the time, but her brain is very active, so sleep was difficult and she is very sensitive to noise. If I came and checked on her in her crib and cracked my knuckles, or the floorboards creaked, it would wake her up. So unlike David. We could vacuum under his crib and he’d sleep through the noise. This was a whole new world for me.

We found that Ritalin stopped the constant leg-kicking, but didn’t actually help her pay attention, and so severely depressed her appetite and ability to sleep, that by 5th grade, we took her off it altogether. Before then, I couldn’t give it to her in the afternoon as it didn’t leave her system by the time she needed to eat dinner and go to bed, so I’d sit with her while she did her homework. I called myself “virtual Ritalin” and kept directing her back to her homework, as her attention wandered.

We tried every other form of medication used for ADHD. Nothing worked. In 5th grade, she was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (now “autism spectrum disorder”, which is a much-less useful descriptor, and in 7th grade, with a mood disorder, which got her out of the public school system into a special education school, 18 miles away from Newton, but Newton paid and provided a van for the several students who attended). By this point, she was a walking medical experiment; we tried so many different medications throughout the years. Nothing really seemed to address the attention issues.

She want off to Brown University in 2007. She had some special-need requests granted. She could take her tests untimed, take a smaller course load. We hired someone that first year to work with her and keep her on-track. We found her a good therapist within walking distance of campus. She did well at Brown, had good summer internships at tech companies in Silicon Valley every summer and went to work for Apple out of college. She has lived alone in California (sometimes with roommates, sometimes without) ever since.

But the lockdown was brutal for her. Is she getting her work done now? Is it not clear to me that she is. One must be self-motivated and she no longer enjoys the work she is doing. That is a real conundrum for her. She is being paid by the company to produce work. She is very bright, but how does one motivate someone who cannot pay attention? I do not have the answer.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Thank you for reminding us that this prompt can have a very serious side to it. We may joke about having a short attention spans, but your daughter’s ADHD is truly a problem — indeed, a “disorder.” As it is now classified.

    Sadly, she asks just the right, if rhetorical, question about understanding how her mind works. It is very difficult for others to do so, and I am no exception; I can hardly comprehend such a condition. I feel so sorry both for her having it and for you having to deal with it as a loving, caring mother.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. I’m not sure she always understands that I try to do what I think is in her best interests. I wonder whether the “I’ve got ADHD” had become a crutch rather than a fact that she tries to overcome. And the notion that she CAN’T do work she isn’t interested in is just horrifying to me. How will she truly function in this world, when we all have to just get through menial tasks from time to time? We can’t always have exciting assignments. That just isn’t reality. But I have not been able to make that case to her in a way that she understands me.

  2. Betsy, you and Dan have been so wonderfully supportive of Vicki over the years. It’s been a difficult situation for all the family, especially for Vicki of course, and I realize that Covid has increased her isolation. I hope things get easier for all.

    Vicki knows how much she is loved.

  3. Marian says:

    This is a very sober reminder, Betsy, about how differently our brains can work. It is very difficult for those of us who process “normally” to figure out what the folks with ADHD are thinking. You are to be praised for all you have done for Vicki, and I hope at some level she appreciates it. I know people with what I would call “true” ADHD (one tragically as a result of a head injury), and have also encountered younger people who took Adderal to “focus” and I am not sure it wasn’t just to be more competitive in the software field. It’s a puzzlement.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    What a perfect description of living with a child who cannot pay attention or focus due to brain chemistry. My granddaughter off Ritalin is unfocused and pretty goofy (sometimes in a fun way). The hyper-focusing on what interests someone with ADHD or ADD is generally combined with a struggle to pay attention to most other things. I hope your child comes through the pandemic ok. It has been especially hard on people with atypical brain chemistry and a tendency toward anxiety as a result.

  5. Suzy says:

    Betsy, thank you for this story about what it means to be truly unable to pay attention because of brain chemistry. You have had to learn so much in order to support Vicki, and you have done a great job. You’re right that we all have to do things that do not excite us, and if she can’t make herself do that, life will be difficult for her. I also have a child who says “you don’t understand how my brain works,” and it’s hard to know how to deal with that. We just have to hope for the best!

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    ADHD was the first thing that occurred to me with this prompt. You describe it well. Many people with ADHD are nonetheless very charismatic and creative. I have found it useful to understand (at least in theory) what it entails, so I am better able to recognize it, and realize that people are not necessarily being thoughtless when they don’t finish tasks, can’t find things, or are easily distracted. Coming up with compensatory systems seems to be critical, often in the form of having a more focussed friend, colleague, or partner willing to pick up the organizational tasks.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes indeed, Khati. My daughter can be just as you describe; charismatic and very creative. I was going to include a list of poems she wrote in elementary school (she’s now 32) to illustrate how closely she observed the world around her, but by the time this prompt came up (Suzy was nice enough to give me the prompts before I left Newton for the season, with the warning that they may not come up in the order originally planned and this one was delayed), I forgot that I had intended to do so. I’m not sure how much they’d add at this point, but her vocabulary and method of observation, even at a young age, was note-worthy. The key is to have someone around her to keep her on track. She is terribly isolated now, living alone during COVID. It has caused havoc for her.

      I can feel, through your writing and comments, that you are a caring and helpful doctor and presence in your community.

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