Is the ruler broken?
A short essay on viewing ADHD through a different lens
In 1930s London, a seven year old girl named Gillian Lynne was flagged in class for being troublesome.
The school wrote a letter to her mother complaining that she was throwing things at other students, not sitting still, and rarely doing her work. The school believed something was wrong with her and she needed to see a specialist.
So Gillian’s mother took her to a psychologist.
At the psychologists office, Gillian was asked to sit on the sofa while her Mother answered his questions.
After 20 minutes, the psychologist gets up says to Gillian “your Mother and me are going to chat in another room, will you stay here on your own?” She says yes and the psychologist and her Mother leave the room.
The psychologist turns on the radio as he leaves.
Once they’re in the corridor, the psychologist says to Gillian’s Mother “just stand here for a moment and watch what she does.”
There was a window into the room and they could see everything Gillian was doing.
Immediately, Gillian was on her feet moving around the room to the music. There was intense pleasure on her face.
Then the psychologist turns to her Mother and says: “You know, Mrs. Lynne. Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”
So she did.
Gillian said “I walked into this room, and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.”
So what happens next?
Gillian becomes a world famous dancer. Forms The Gillian Lynne Dance Academy. Meets Andrew Lloyd Webber and co-creates musicals including Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and many other Broadway shows.
What would have happened if she’d been taken to a different doctor and declared sick, forced to sit still, be quiet, do as she was told?
Today, Gillian would have been diagnosed with ADHD.
But nobody knew what that was back then.
The point is this: we, the people with ADHD, don’t fit into the category of “normal” - whatever normal means - but that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with us. It means we’re different. And Gillian’s psychologist recognised this.
Everything I aim to do with helping people manage their ADHD is to recognise that this, when managed right, can be a strength.
I’m not interested in cures for ADHD. I’m not interested in taking anything away as such. I’m interested in augmenting our natural abilities. Managing the negatives. And focusing on what makes us unique.
So while I’m not completely against medication. It can and does work well for some people. My entire way of thinking about ADHD is to find natural ways to augment this condition so it works for us, not against us.
The entire medical treatment for ADHD seems to ignore that some of us are just different.
But this problem is nothing new.
It dates back thousands of years.
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The Bed of Procrustes
Procrustes, in Greek mythology, was the cruel owner of a small estate between Athens and Eleusis
Procrustes abducted travellers, provided them dinner, then invited them to spend the night in a rather special bed.
He wanted the bed to fit the traveller to perfection.
Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched.
Thus the Procrustean Bed was born.
To quote Nassim Taleb, from whom I first learned of The Bed of Procrustes: “we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged ideas, which, on occasion, has explosive consequences. Most of us seem unaware of this backward fitting. For instance, few realise we are changing the brains of schoolchildren through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum, rather than the reverse.”
We just don’t think this way.
ADHD is perhaps an example in which the illness label serves the interests of the powerful at the expense of the powerless.
It is far easier to control rambunctious and inattentive children using medication than it is to restructure the school environment to accommodate normal variation in development.
And what if we really are thinking about ADHD wrong?
This peer-reviewed paper shows that ADHD could be an evolutionary mismatch to the modern learning environment we have constructed.
In other words, humans created schools that forced obedience. Sit still, be quiet, do your work, do as the teacher says and under no circumstances are you allowed to use the toilet. This is not natural. As Nassim Taleb said, the education system is the victim of modernity and modernity is fragile.
If this is true, then people with ADHD have nothing wrong with them. But we are forced to believe we do because we don’t fit into the neat little box of “normal society”.
We’re not compliant cogs.
How many Gillian Lynne’s are out there that never discovered their natural talents?