ADHD in the Time of COVID

I’m having a hard time functioning in this pandemic and I hadn’t put my finger on it until I read Jamie’s enlightening post on coping with COVID anxiety.

I haven’t published anything in over a month, although I have invested time in three other posts that all felt inadequate or meaningless in light of what was coming.

Coming eventually … maybe?

I started the bottom post on the same day Italy locked down Lombardy, which made coronavirus seem like a much bigger deal than what I had remembered of SARS or swine flu. I remember being somewhat concerned about those pandemics at the time, but we didn’t see anywhere near the same extreme social distancing measures that we’ve now seen in China, then Italy, and finally everywhere.

I lost interest in that post two days later.

Clip from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1990 showing the impact area of a New Madrid earthquake that registers 6.7 on the Richter Scale. The section in the bootheel of Missouri says "Most buildings seriously damaged, houses not bolted down move off foundations, the ground cracks." The second most impacted area follows the border between Southern Illinois/Missouri and Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana, and the description reads "Drivers have difficulty steering. Towers and chimneys fall, tree branches break, some buildings partially collapse." The third section affects most of Southern Illinois and St. Louis and the description reads "Everyone feels movement. PIctures fall from walls, some windows break, plaster walls crack."

I last wrote about how my love of politics makes me unpleasant to most. That post was kind of a negative take on one of my fixations. I mean, there’s definitely an unpleasant side to being passionate about one of the two subjects people aren’t supposed to talk about in polite society.

But one of the great things about having a politics fixation is that I can hyperfocus on the news for hours. I’m kind of obsessed with knowing the state of things in the world around me. I remember listening to Emily Feng’s NPR report on Chinese police in Wuhan cracking down on people “spreading rumors” about a mysterious virus as the Lunar New Year began. This was followed by China cancelling the entire country’s New Year celebrations, which is a HUGE deal. So I couldn’t help but pay attention. In January I began searching out the latest news on coronavirus.

February was stressful, learning how the virus was slowly spreading from China to Iran and Italy and at last (from my US-centric perspective) to Washington state, where I have family and friends. It was like watching a tsunami building on the horizon, but few seemed to notice, let alone take it seriously.

On the first day of March, this amazing list of epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, and science journalists launched and I began following it obsessively. I shared the most interesting or important information with my wife, coworkers, family, friends, and anyone who would listen.

As a result, it was not difficult to convince Veronica that we needed to prepare our family of four in case we ever contracted the virus.

The news out of Washington was horrifying and I heard numerous stories of bare shelves, so I expected the store to be swamped with people preparing to hunker down*.

There weren’t.

So, there we were with our two carts of food, medicine, and toiletries (one 24-pack of Charmin Ultra Strong per family is all you need you terrible hoarding monsters!), getting weird looks from strangers in every aisle.

Fortunately, having ADHD means you get used to people looking at you like you’re a space cadet. It’s an occupational hazard, so becoming immune to odd glances makes it infinitely easier to do the right thing sooner than others who seem vulnerable to the judgmental looks of strangers**.

*Veronica informed me that “hunker down” has now become a favorite phrase of mine lately.
**So says the guy with RSD who can be rendered inconsolable by the offhand comment of an acquaintance.

People with ADHD are hard-wired for emergencies, which is odd for me personally because I am generally not a “be prepared” kind of guy, which I feel tremendously guilty to admit.

We have a few gallons of decade-old water in our basement just in case, but we don’t really have anything ready for when the New Madrid Fault Line rattles the midwest and reverses the Mississippi once again.

Woodcarving of Scene of the Great Earthquake in the West by Devens (1876).

I’ve been fortunate to have never really faced a major disaster, aside from the ’93 flood that resulted in my dad losing his job as a grain inspector on the Mississippi River. Aside from that and the occasional brush with a tornado, I haven’t experienced a true disaster.

The closest I came to seeing my family prepare for an emergency was back in 1990, when Iben Browning predicted there would be a major New Madrid earthquake that would devastate St. Louis. To prepare, my mom used puffy paints to make a bunch of t-shirts to sell that read “I SURVIVED THE 1990 EARTHQUAKE AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS STUPID SHIRT.”

Who was Iben Browning? Apparently Browning was a self-proclaimed climatologist who also claimed that the world had just ended a long warming period and predicted that we were about to enter a cooling period, so … you know … science.

And why were people in St. Louis listening to his predictions? I still have no idea, but they did and shit got weird.

But when coronavirus started? I felt something closer to the heavy dread following 9/11, a feeling which now seems to have blanketed the world. There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty, and you have to separate the truth from the misinformation out there, which can be challenging in the best of times.

Like most people, I was ready for coronavirus to be nothing more than an overhyped head cold. But the more I read about it, the more I realized that this had the potential to be a major disaster, despite everyone else seeming to carry on with life as usual.

In hindsight, I realize this is because my hyperfocus allowed me to read about coronavirus for long stretches of time without getting bored or overwhelmed. I became a sponge of coronavirus information, which brought with it a growing consciousness about the risks everywhere.

Along with not being a “be prepared” kind of guy, I’m also not a germaphobe. I take a shower every morning, wash my hands after using the restroom, and let my immune system handle the rest.

Now? I’m scrubbing up like a surgeon every time I realized that I’ve maybe touched something that could have coronavirus on it.

Now? I’m singing Happy Birthday out loud twice to myself in the bathroom. Because you know what happens when someone with ADHD tries to count to 20? Their mind finds more interesting things to do.

This newly heightened risk awareness also resulted in increased stress over … well ..,. everything.

At work, I became a vocal proponent for closing sooner rather than later, when management was still focused primarily on a message of sanitation. As days dragged on, I became wracked with guilt (as I often am) that our organization might become a vector for the pandemic.

I also became painfully aware that my constant coronavirus updates to management might make me a nuisance (although my immediate boss seemed to take my warnings to heart, which was reassuring). I began to feel like I was pleading with the mayor in Jaws to close the beaches.

My frustration mounted as I laid out scenario after scenario that came to fruition, like a corporate Cassandra.

Painting of Cassandra watching the city burn in horror.

Finally, we started closing locations last Monday and I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. After that, my hyperfocus turned even more on my own behavior. At what point are we putting our family at risk going to Sunday dinner at Grandma’s? Can my kids still hang out with friends if they stay six feet apart outside? Oh shit, did I just touch my nose?!?

It’s incredibly stressful to be this hypervigilant all the time. Usually, my hypervigilance kicks in for short bursts, like when I’m watching my kids at City Museum or driving in the rain. But I feel like I’ve been on high alert for weeks now and I’d really love for things to get back to normal already.

But I do feel like my ADHD has served me well in this pandemic. Despite my lackadaisical attitude toward general disaster preparedness, in the face of an actual disaster it feels like I have been ahead of the curve in terms of anticipating what might come.

Like many behaviors I observe, I immediately wonder if this is an artifact of my neurodiversity and yesterday I was giddy to find that Save the Neurotypicals was struggling with similar feelings (among others).

Those of us who were raising the red flag early about coronavirus aren’t bragging or boasting or “flexing.” It’s not like we had secret or special knowledge nobody else did. We just paid attention to the experts with great intensity. And when we tried to share what we learned with others, we were dismissed or shrugged off or laughed at.

So, yeah, it’s natural to want to share how frustrating that experience was, how difficult it was to know the tsunami coming, to warn everyone we know and love of the danger, and to despair as the rest of the world kept playing Beach Blanket Bingo.

The point isn’t to rub it in other people’s faces; it’s to remind everyone that you might have a neurodiverse person in your life whose passion is knowing what the hell is happening in the world and to maybe listen to them when they’re waving a red flag instead of dismissing them.

It’s no fun to get a reality check when the world seems hunky dorey, but sometimes we may have information that might just help you prepare for the future.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Ingrid Wonders and commented:
    As a fellow #neurodiverse person (#actuallyautistic), I connected with this article. We notice details, we notice patterns, and others often think we are strange. And yet, here we are, many of us saw the severity long before the majority of the population. Thanks for this great article, “ADHD in the Time of COVID.”


  2. I think disaster can be comforting for some ADHD folks because finally life matches the intensity of our internal weather.

    I also think City Museum is awesome.


    1. It really does feel like we were built for these times, to be inundated with information and be able to sort through it quickly and efficiently. While everyone else seems to be panicking, I feel prepared for what happens next.

      And, yeah, City Museum is the greatest thing St. Louis has offered the world since Miles Davis.


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