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Attention and Passion

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

By Nadia Webb.

My husband tells me that I am the biggest threat to my own possessions. I put things away where they will be safe and forget where I put them. I also have a knack for allowing things to slip under the car seat unobserved. These days it is one of the first places I look when I’ve misplaced something, even when I swear I left it in the kitchen. Now, because of this, I try to look for things for at least a week before I mention them to my husband. He doesn’t really make fun of me, but finds it amusing that his wife with the three advanced degrees can lose her sunglasses without even getting out of the car. Perhaps we haven’t been married long enough for him to find it really annoying.

Despite both us being trained in mental health, we have resisted the temptation to apply a diagnosis. Besides the fact that it wouldn’t be helpful to our marriage, it also wouldn’t help clarify the problem. Although the sketch fits many descriptions of ADD, that label doesn’t address the context. I have probably been this way all of my life, with fluctuations in the degree. No one has ever suggested that it was a disorder, probably because alternative explanations have been obvious.

My car is full of CD’s, maps, books, granola bars for my two step-daughters, a clicker and dog treat bag (for the “gifted dog’s” agility class), kid craft projects, a Red Cross Disaster Worker bin with my gear, gym bag, purse, laptop, tote-bag of clinical reports, different tote bag of lecture material and speeches, a folio of poetry in progress, a collection of fiction and non-fiction books, and clothes to go to the cleaners. I lose things when I am spread particularly thin and haven’t had time to do my weekly editing of the tote bags. An increasing accumulation becomes a sign that my incredibly rich, lush daily life is in need of maintenance. Over the years, I have learned that my life needs a rhythm of expansion and contraction, fluctuating between taking on new things and withdrawing to rebuild and unwind. Yet, what would I give up in order to always know where my sunglasses are? What am I willing to renounce to free up time for that?

Attention, or the lack of it, is the canary in the coalmine for a wide range of cognitive and emotional functions. Failing to attend to the important elements of life can signal depression, anxiety, too much stress, learning disabilities, sleep deprivation, boredom, lack of judgment, over-commitment, head injury, preoccupation with other things, broader developmental delays, being in love, hearing impairment, lack of curiosity, or a neurologically based Attention Deficit Disorder. Most of these are not responsive to Ritalin.

As a neuropsychologist, I have seen medication change the lives of children for the better. For some, it has bought them the split second to make better decisions in class and in with friendships. For others, it saved them from grinding depressions or restored more of their lives after a brain injury. However, Ritalin (and the like) often stops the process of inquiry. The reasons behind lack of focus seldom come up for scrutiny, nor do other factors that may be contributing to inattention.

My hope for gifted children is that they find a way to balance their many passions, which inevitably implies an unsteady equilibrium between enthusiasms and finite resources. For some gifted children, this will mean coming to grips with a formal attention deficit; for others it will mean coming to grips with other personal challenges. Even when medication helps, it doesn’t address the underlying limits that come with mortality. We are tossed into our existence to make the best lives that we can, to express our talents and possibilities as deeply as we can, and to be kind to one another. Freud’s definition of psychological health was the ability to love and to work. My car, like my life, is full of both love and work. Ritalin is not likely to help me find my sunglasses, nor is it likely to correct for the reality that I will inevitably tend to fill my days until they are on the verge of spilling over. A diagnosis would add no clarity. Besides, my husband had a better idea; we now post a “Missing in Action” list on the refrigerator door so he and the kids can discretely keep an eye out for my waif and strays.

For further reading about living with characteristics of giftedness, peruse these articles from SENG’s online library: Before referring a gifted child for ADD/ADHD evaluation

Nadia Webb is a practicing neuropsychologist, college professor and step-mom. She began serving on the SENG Board this month.

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