A Life Without Rules? ADHD and Escapism

ADHD life without rules


Is it true? Is ADHD  a diagnosis only because “society” imposes conformist and impossible rules upon people with ADHD? Without society’s superficial restraints, would folks with ADHD be free to live happily and in harmony with nature or in some idyllic village? In a place that has no rules?

Recently, a friend with late-diagnosis ADHD reflected upon this topic.  We’ll call him Governor Pappy. He posted on his blog this essay, which he has allowed me to share with you.

By Governor Pappy

There’s a school of thought that sees ADHD as (more or less) a natural fit or neurological adaption for our ancestral hunter-gatherer ways.

I’d heard of it before, but it never really made waves in my mind. Without detailing here about why I’m disinclined to see ADHD as beneficial*, I want to share where my mind went the last time I read of this theory. Because, I don’t know, blind nuts sometimes find squirrels.

“Kiss My Wrinkly Old Donkey”

There’s something in me that fairly regularly wants to blow everything up and disappear to the wild. I want to be that inspirational meme stock-photo guy looking on with a thousand-mile gaze from the top of some high mountain peak, maybe living in a mountain-top cabin. I’ve told “the Man” to kiss my wrinkly old donkey. No company phone rests easy as unexploded ordinance by my side. All ties to Society are cut.

Freedom – no more rules, expectations, social cues, being needed at 10 PM by some customer.

But I never do blow everything up. Probably never will. Not that my soul doesn’t crave and need solitude, natural beauty, and quiet to change pace with the sort of career I have. But there’s something a bit problematic–naive–about that urge as a guide to life, as if there really is a place where I can live free without rules and I’ve been going about life all wrong.

And that’s where ADHD comes in. I have to learn to differentiate between the very real need for humans to rest and recharge from stress, and that other urge – the one which believes one can cast off from responsibility and rules and find some vague idea of “being free”.

ADHD escapism

Can We Escape Rules?

For the well-to-do folks on the planet, like many of us in America, we’ve traded one set of rules for another. For example, I probably don’t have to worry about freezing my ass off at night while I try to sleep, keeping one eye open for the bear, sticking near a supply of fresh water, or where my next meal is coming from. My points of stress have been redirected a bit to things like highway traffic patterns and health care costs.

But Nature is a harsh mistress they say—it damn sure has a set of rules.

The more I see it as recreation, the more privileged I show myself to be. Folks who truly live off the land, living and dying with the seasons, rain and drought – you think they get by without paying attention to the rules?

You think Mama Nature and Daddy Time don’t have deadlines (what the hell do you think we call em deadlines for anyway)?

You think attention lapses ain’t gonna be fatal while hunting—or haphazard planning won’t screw you out of your year’s crops and threaten your very survival?

ADHD escapism

I mean, if we want to look at unsubstantiated but totally plausible theories about ADHD from an evolutionary standpoint, it might be worth considering this: We’re only seeing such high percentages of ADHD diagnoses over here because we’re privileged enough to have circumvented some of the, err, more strict evolutionary checks and balances on self-destructive behavior in a species.

I like to think I’d make it if I had to learn how to survive. The human race is pretty darn resilient, and I’m a pretty resourceful sumb*tch. But if I’m honest with myself in those afore-mentioned urges, I’m not talking about trading in one set of responsibilities for another, I’m talking about escapism.

ADHD life without rules

Can You  Run, Honestly?

If it ain’t just simple naivety, it’s some kinda cultural appropriation—as if folks in poorer parts of the world live “simply” because it’s fun and they have a choice, and choose to live daily under threat of “natural” death.

Buried inside that thought process, I’m counting on the fact that I know I can “come home” somewhere. I can find gainful employment. Somewhere there’s a damn grocery store every half mile. I can shrug off freezing my ass off by hitting a few buttons on my thermostat. I can flip the bird to some crazy-ass mosquito-borne virus just by keeping my windows closed at night (individual results may vary).

When I find myself sick or injured, there’s probably an urgent care center close enough to take me in. And unless it all goes to hell, there’s probably something worth binging on Netflix.

So basically I’m saying I can’t run like this and still live honestly. Yep, I can still run off somewhere. But I’ll be doing just that: running, escaping, quitting. I’ll be leeching on someone or society in general somehow. Someone is picking up my slack while I figure out my shit. Someone’ll be paying for my escapism, and I don’t want to live with that.

But I can learn to stick with things I’m committed to through those urges to quit. And I  can see that often powerful impulse to run with a more cautious eye. I can figure out if there are things about my life that actively and unnecessarily suck me dry. Then I can make reasonable changes. I can find medication that works. If I need a real break, I’ll have earned it and paid for it.

ADHD life without rules

Find a Better Path

Lord knows there are aspects of our affluent society that just ain’t working for our good. But my periodic compulsion to simply escape it is largely irresponsible in a number of ways.

There may indeed be things about our ancestors’ existence beneficial for us to keep in mind today as we navigate technological advancement, population booms, PTSD, and other things. But there’s no good in sugar-coating what our past existence involved. It’s no good deflecting your inability to find success and fulfillment in the here and now as “society doesn’t accept me”.

It’s here. Find a better path through it by all means. But you can’t escape paying your dues by running to the past.

* For that, you can read Depression and the “Gift” of ADHD 

16 thoughts on “A Life Without Rules? ADHD and Escapism”

  1. Agree on all points here. Community may have its requirements, but with it come many benefits (see earlier comment re: watch out for the baby near your cave fire). If you would prefer to live and die by your own might, then so be it.

    The challenge I see is when it becomes easier to take the benefits of community but without giving to the community what is needed to make the system run. Who among the community could possibly be happy with that equation?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tracie.

      Excellent question … I’d say that ants weren’t happy about it with the grasshopper! 🙂


  2. First off, what Gina said is pretty much the root of the matter: that you do feel more at home in such environs doesn’t really prove or disprove anything I said – it’s just how you are. Having a job outdoors is *not* escapism. Having trouble adapting after that kind of life experience to start with is not surprising at all. Nor does it really have anything to do with why I said what I said.

    What I was more interested in highlighting is this escapism aspect, an attitude all too common with folks with ADHD. It doesn’t always manifest as a primitive fantasy, obviously, but that’s what I wanted to talk about here. I’m not just projecting *my* fantasy onto this – this is also what I’ve seen others say on the subject. This is the attitude which can’t stick with anything, “the grass is always greener…”, that periodically uproots everything and moves because circumstances require a dedication we won’t give to the situation…. Maybe individuals like this could be more at home on their own, with hundreds of miles of uninhabited country to roam, and, as you said, taking their survival cues from their own bodies, seasons, etc. But our ancestors were communal. We’ve always taken survival as a group effort. And communities almost by nature have rules, hierarchies, roles, responsibilities,etc. Not the exact same challenges we tend to face today, but, again, pretending that there was this stage of human life on earth where we were free from this is naive. Sure, an individual with ADHD can survive on their own, but communities need trust, reliability, stability, and empathy to thrive – all things ADHD absolutely does not deliver as a rule.

    I fail to see then how anything you’ve said really invalidates my post. There’s a comparison to be made with other mental health issues, like depression (which I also have): I’m not going to shame myself for who I am, but neither am I going to celebrate it either. As with ADHD, if I’m going to exist in community of some kind, I need to learn to manage myself.

    As far as my experience of the outdoors or living primitively, I grew up off the grid, in a religious group which idolized the old times (1600’s ish, for reference). I’ve worked with other more country people with ADHD, as an adult. Also, as I said, I know there are aspects of our current society at large which frankly kinda suck and negatively contribute to mental health issues. But the root of ADHD is an *impairment to executive function*: there are no circumstances of our human existence both present or past which benefit from this. It is useless and naive to dream that this was an asset in some fantasy past. I know escapism when I see it.

  3. I disagree with this author, “Governor Pappy.” He really oversimplifies the argument regarding the hypothetically adaptive aspects of ADHD in natural/pre-industrial settings. It sounds like he’s never really lived outside of a modern industrial/technological culture and his only idea of what that would be like is his romantic imagination. His fantasy is that this would be “a world without rules” and assumes that people who see ADHD as potentially adaptive in a pre-industrial society are naively assuming the same. I have ADHD and I worked in wilderness environments for the first decade of my adulthood because it was the only environment in which I could function well. I was a wilderness guide, forestry worker, alpinist and worked on a fishing boat in Alaska. Guess what, I had a blast and did a great job. Now that I have a “real job” and live in the so called “real world” it’s a lot harder to stay on top of my shit. There are a billion reasons why people with ADHD may function better in such environments. And it’s not because there are no rules to follow. It’s because there are constant cues from the environment that help you focus your attention on what’s most important. It’s hard to lose track of time when the sun and the air temperature keep reminding you what time it is. It’s hard to forget to eat when you are moving all day and need to replenish your energy constantly. It’s hard to stay up all night on the internet (like I’m doing now) when it’s dark and cold and there’s no electricity. There’s constant immediate feedback and reminders and this helps you stay on track. There are pretty immediate natural consequences if you get off task, so that helps too. Also, the things you are focused on are naturally fascinating and compelling (see attention restoration theory and fascination) and so it doesn’t take as much energy to stay focused. I guess Governor Pappy has never experienced this kind of lifestyle, which is sad, because it sounds like he might enjoy it. I suggest he try an Outward Bound or NOLS course. It’s never too late.

    1. HI RS,

      I think you make some good points and those sound like fascinating jobs you’ve had. I love the outdoors. But they are good points…..for YOU.

      I know people with ADHD who would be bored out of their minds having to rough it in “nature” all the time. :-0

      It’s important to remember that ADHD is a complex syndrome, with variable aspects that affect individuals.

      It’s only a part of personality. There are many other factors that make us the individuals that we are.

      I’ll let Gov. Pappy speak for himself. I have a feeling he is no stranger to the outdoors.

      And he might point out that you were working a job and perhaps availing yourself of modern amenities, not “living on your own in the wilderness.”

      Thanks for your comment.

    2. Great! Now do that and watch a baby and make sure you have food and shelter for the winter completely carved out of the land with your hands. While you’re at it, make your own medicines, give yourself medical care, sew your own wounds, and make sure your baby doesn’t crawl in the fire or wander off and get eaten by a wolf. Happy Trails!

  4. HI Gena,

    Re “the unending assault of criticisms, failures, misperceptions, etc. that plague people with ADHD from childhood on.” –

    I’ve often thought that ADHD’ers who suffered a breaking point re these criticisms – on top of their often co-morbid lack of empathy – may have often turned to narcissism to make it stop.

    By stopping their own caring, they thought they would stop hurting – but of course it just ends up complicating their lives further – and hurting others.

    And then of course the self-medicating on top of that – since the pain never stopped.

    Also – re the escapism –
    My ex attempted this by trying to get others to take on life’s responsibilities, so he wouldn’t have to. He’d hide behind “but I’m a musician” as his excuse for being “unable” to run his own life, follow rules, respect others, etc. And of course it was heaven if – or when – he’d get lucky enough to go on the road (as part of someone else’s band) and have the star’s managers take care of everything.

    Of course that all went away with the self-medication run amok – surprise!

    1. Hi Julie,

      Yes, that would be a perfect setup, eh? Being on the road, doing one thing, and having everything taken care of for you.

      As for turning to narcissism, who can say with any certainty how behaviors and attributes develop in a person.

      I’m not one, however, to overly attribute adult behaviors to childhood (or even young adult) experiences. I find that means many people with ADHD+ go without an accurate diagnosis and instead spend years in therapy, if they can afford it, and with little positive outcome.

      In my experience, narcissism is a brain-based behavior. A person doesn’t “turn to narcissism.” They might “turn” to avoiding people or having a poor opinion of people or to feeling very unlucky, but I don’t think narcissism is a conscious choice.


  5. Slack-Picker-Upper

    This quote in particular was resonant: “Someone is picking up my slack while I figure out my shit.”

    I’m on the slack-picking up side, a non-ADHD with a partner w/ ADHD, and I have begun to realize that I’ve been getting bruised for it along the way. Nice to see the writer acknowledge that someone else may have been singing for his own supper along the way…

    1. Yes indeed. Fortunately, the writer’s diagnosis came from a mutual friend who has ADHD and is married to a man with ADHD.

      She knows the topic from all angles. 🙂

  6. I have a severe case of ADHD, and , par for the course” I couldn’t finish reading that long blathering piece of trash op-ed. Here is my take.

    I’ve paid my dues at every place that dues are collected throughout this long and difficult journey across a barren desolation of Law designed ways and measurements, checks and balances. My nose has been on the grindstone since I could understand the statement, and when regarding my elementary school years through High School, I’d say, There wasn’t 1 single day during the entire process that awarded me an iota of self respect or dignity, not even 1. I had notes attached to my clothing with pins that, on occasion, would get into my tender flesh adding that much more oomph to the draconian terror of my entire existence. I am near 50 years old now and have been afforded a break in this shitty life from my parents. Prior to this short piece of my history I had lived everyday on DEF-CON 5 and failed regardless of my pure heart and deep seeded wish to please ANYONE who could reach out to touch my head for that age-old expression of praise, a pat on the head. No it came in the form of pink slips and meetings with upper management, i was ridiculed and made an example of time and time again. I swear that I needed a break or I might die. I SUDDENLY REALIZED this was an adult system with adult consequences and although I tried with ALL MY MIGHT & I only knew something was ALWAYS brewing, not because I knew when I had made a mistake, no, i was sure because failure is and was a constant in my life. Failure is like the the cycle of the moon. I wasn’t making the grade, praise meant vapor, vapor isn’t tangible and disappears before it is understood, eventually I had given up on Americas reward system, It had COMPLETELY failed me. Guess what worked like a charm? I’ll tell you later.

    I am disheartened by these cleverly titled pieces that suck me in for another tongue lashing that blames my ability to do something on my part. At this point I’m actually looking for a place that might offer a bit of solace to me and my kind. Articles so titled, ought to- in my opinion, contain such addresses to these places, but NOT more of this conformist bullshit about trying harder to find a place to fit in when< this governor clown hasn't much compassion to this situation and the long term effects of this disorder. One needs not look so far to find volumes of information on the topic. Personality disorders often accompany later years with ADHD, how about prison sentences are likely to occur on the plate of an untreated ADHD sufferer, how much grinding on the stone do you think he gets while in prison? After doing 3 terms in CDC California's Department of Corrections "almost forgot" & Rehabilitation<<<< which is laughable terminology when you look at it objectively. 88% recidivism and fueled by the prosecution of ADHD offenders who are self medicating with Amphetamines found on the street as opposed to, the lucky few who maintained a prescription during the transition into adulthood. I recall trying to establish a connection through medical means via state insurance for the indigent and I was told that Ritalin wasn't given to adults with ADHD anymore, not on this insurance, instead I was given Pamelor that made me lose my mind in a violent rage and turn yellow. No life has been very difficult and to hear just one more ASSHOLE tell me to try harder, i would've expected a blog developer to & ABOUT ADHD to have sifted this type of offensive crap out of my way, i honestly don't have time for this rhetoric anymore. I vote for better editing in the future.


    1. Hi D.,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I cannot imagine, truly, having lived your life. Most people fail to understand the unending assault of criticisms, failures, misperceptions, etc. that plague people with ADHD from childhood on.

      I am sorry that you experienced such problems getting the treatment you deserve. That is truly beyond the pale. I have worked for many years to help people around the globe find competent care providers — or even to recognize ADHD at all. It’s a truly deplorable situation, and one I have fought to change for 20 years.

      But I am afraid that your calling this essay a “blathering piece of trash op-ed” doesn’t make sense.

      What this essay is combating is the public perception that ADHD is no big deal, that it’s just a “different way of thinking.” It’s that kind of nonsense that makes ADHD under-recognized and under-treated.

      By glorifying ADHD and attempting to blame problems on “society,” it misses the point: People with poorly managed ADHD will have difficulty even in a primitive culture — or on their own little desert island. Because, like it or not, there are rules. And it’s called Natural Laws. If we cannot follow them, we’re dead. If we cannot figure out how to feed ourselves, protect ourselves from wild animals, shelter ourselves from the elements, etc. we are dead.

      And yes, I have also worked to create awareness that at least half (maybe more) of the incarcerated population suffers from undiagnosed/untreated ADHD+, bipolar, etc. I edited on a pro bono basis a book that explained to police officers, judges, parole officers, etc. the nature of ADHD and how to recognize it rather than seeing the problematic behaviors as intentional. I wrote this article not too long ago:


      I understand your frustration. I truly do. I’ve heard the stories of late-diagnosis adults for many years and felt a bit of their anguish and anger.

      So I just want to make clear that this piece and I are on your side. No need to resort to name-calling.

      The fact that you aren’t taking medication can be affecting your reading comprehension. I imagine it’s hard to keep reading w

      And I for one don’t appreciate your calling me an ASSHOLE when I am providing a free and valuable service—one that is actually on your side, if you could emotionally de-escalate and read with less misperception.


  7. Great points, very thought-provoking. Puts things in perspective, and I appreciate the reminder that when we slack, someone else has to carry the load for us. Thank you for another helpful article!

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