Who knew that wearing my new t-shirt to the farmer’s market would cause such a fuss? Instead of my usual sharing of brief assessments about sugar-snap peas or shitake mushrooms with other shoppers, I was drawn into a “debate” about ADHD.
Sure, I’m accustomed to ranting ADHD-denyers on the rough-and-tumble Internet, but not while strolling amid the produce vendors on a sunny Saturday morning. Still, it was good to know that my verbal “gaslight-proof” skills match my written ones.
First, what does “gaslight” mean? It harkens to the 1944 film Gaslight, wherein Charles Boyer’s character cravenly manipulates Ingrid Bergman’s character to believe that she is insane. In psychological terms, “gaslighters” say and do things to make their victims question their perceptions, their knowledge, and their beliefs – all in an attempt to fulfill the gaslighter’s egocentric needs (financial gain, need to control others or to force others to conform to the gaslighter’s beliefs and perceptions, etc.).
Second, this wasn’t just any t-shirt. It was a strikingly good-looking t-shirt created for a Stride for ADHD Pride. My friend Natalie Knochenhauer, founder of the Philadelphia non-profit ADHD Aware, does all such things with style and substance.
Third, the guy who stopped me in my tracks wasn’t a fellow shopper; he was soliciting signatures for a political petition.
At first I thought the interest in ADHD from this middle-aged, softspoken man was genuine and friendly. So, I congenially fielded the usual misinformed opinions (vastly summarized here):
Him: “Well, you might not be aware of this, but ADHD is an American phenomenon. It’s caused by the culture.”
Me: “Yes, I can see why you’d have that perception. Surprisingly, though, epiemiological studies show that ADHD’s prevalence is consistent worldwide. It’s true that the U.S. might offer more cultural distractions (technological gadgetry, etc.), but it’s often the people with ADHD who have the most trouble resisting the distractions. So you can see how that’s sort of a chicken-and-egg issue. I’d agree with you, though, that all humans are vulnerable to these distractions. That’s why ADHD is considered a spectrum condition, sort of the extreme end of the human condition. Keeping our focus despite all the distractions is a challenge for everyone, but especially for people with ADHD.”
Him, using icily threatening tone: “I hope you don’t push medications on people. I practice meditation, and meditation is the only solution.”
Me: “I don’t push anything on people. I try to share informed information about the choices. Meditation might be very helpful for some people with ADHD. But others don’t find that its benefits carry over substantially into the tasks of their workaday lives, and many can’t even focus well enough or sit still long enough to meditate. Sometimes medication helps them, though, to pursue a meditation practice.”
Him: ”Medication is poison! You want to poison people. We know that medications don’t solve the problem – they just cover it up — and they create horrible, life-threatening side effects.”
Me, not being distracted, or gaslighted by his personal attack: ”No, actually, we don’t know that. We know quite the opposite, that untreated ADHD carries with it higher risks of accidents, including brain injury, suicide, and other life stressors. But you’re right that medications aren’t for everyone. And you’re right that they do suffer a bad reputation because they’re often poorly prescribed and the rest of the physical body ignored (allergies, metabolic issues, nutrition, etc.). It’s regrettable that some reckless or lazy physicians have helped to create more justified fear about the medications. It’s definitely a problem; that’s why I try to share information that helps avoid bad side effects and poor outcomes.”
Him, showing little capacity for complex thoughts or nuance: “No, all medication is bad. These people with so-called ADHD must stop making excuses and start meditating.”
This is the part where I sensed history repeating itself.
A few months ago, I met Sarina Grosswald, of the David Lynch Foundation, at a CHADD ADHD Conference exhibit hall. After reading through their prominently displayed album of badly reported stories about ADHD, I asked her why she couldn’t simply share the bountiful benefits of meditation for children and adults with ADHD without peddling scare stories and misinformed news reports about medications. Does she have no compassion for the people who do choose to take medication and benefit, including children?
I’ll spare you the gory details, but as I calmly countered her scare tactics and misinterpretation of the research point by point, she grew increasingly angry. (What is it with these angry anti-ADHD meditators? They’re surely not great advertisements for their cause.) For a sample of Grosswald’s misinnformed scaremongering on ADHD medications, scan to 2:30 on this video. By the way, I was concerned that maybe I’d been rude so I asked the person manning the next booth. “Well,” he said diplomatically, “you were very clear.”
Anyway, back to the farmer’s market. Finally, the ladies nearby, promoting a different political petition, were drawn to the discussion. They asked me how I became interested in ADHD. I explained and mentioned that I’d written a book on the topic. “I was a school psycohlogist for 35 years,” said one, “and I love your t-shirt. It’s wonderful that you are stating the facts about ADHD. Misinformation hurts everyone.”
Him, facial muscles stiffening: “Facts! Those aren’t facts! That’s Big Pharma propaganda. Who do you think you are? Anybody can write a stupid book. In fact, I am writing my own book! ”
(Notice the continued attempt to discredit me, to put me in an extreme position that I do not hold. I avoid the natural instinct to defend myself. This isn’t about me, it’s about the facts, and it’s about standing up for my friends with ADHD. Mostly, it’s about his attempts to manipulate me. By remembering all this, I avoid the incapacitating glare of the gaslight.)
Me: ”I’m no one in particular, just a journalist who has worked hard to research and understand scientific facts as well as the reality of how ADHD affects real people.”
Me, making an appeal to his sense of empathy, just in case he really isn’t the narcissistic twit he seems to be: “Hey, I understand that you probably feel you are being genuinely kind and compassionate in trying to save children and adults with ADHD from what you perceive as a horrible medical alternative and giving them a more enlightened one. We all want treatments that offer the most benefit with the least harm. But could you consider for a moment that your black-and-white militancy might actually be creating more problems for these people- in the form of stigma, fear, and confusion. Many of them have been told all their lives that their problems are of their own making, and if they’d just do fill-in-the-blank, their problems would be solved. But many people with late-diagnosis ADHD tried for years to help themselves by doing things such as meditating–to little avail. In essence, you’re telling them that if they can’t meditate, they’re just not trying hard enough. You’re just adding to their pain, not alleviating it.”
Him, getting a scary-mean look in his eyes: “Words! Those are just words! How can my words hurt anyone? That is an illusion, and if these people meditated, they would know that words don’t matter. You should meditate, too, because you are caught up in the same illusions. Look at you. Your philosophy is causing you problems. Look at how you persist!”
(Note this gaslighter’s increasing focus on making my “philosophy,” credibility, and illusions the problem. But I remain undistracted by his manipulations. Why? I am grounded in the facts, and my facts have been validated by both ADHD professional experts and those other experts: the people who have ADHD. I realize how people who are more tenuous in their facts or confidence might find him intimidating; he’s tall, good-looking, and imperiously confident—a very effective psychological bully. And that makes me even more steadfast to the point. Please understand: He doesn’t even pretend to be “reasonable” on the issue, to see any gray area. People who have less concern about the stakes here might have mistaken his resolve for conviction. But I saw something darker and more disturbing.)
Me, understanding there was nothing more to discuss: “Okay, well, it’s nice to meet you. But I need to finish my shopping.”
Him, loudly and angrily, the imperious manner growing more resolute: “See, she’s running away! She can’t stand to hear the truth. She’s hurt by words and can’t take the fact that she’s wrong.”
Me (laughing): ”I’m not running away. I’m walking away to Contreras Farm’s booth before they run out of eggs. I came here to shop and enjoy myself, not to be provoked into an argument so you can self-medicate with anger and opposition. Have a nice day!”
Him, practically apoplectic, to the ladies at the next booth: “Did you hear that? I never got a word in edgewise. She talked the entire time!”
Ladies, laughing: ”No, she didn’t. YOU did.”