Think Different—Differently—About ADHD and Being “Special”

Think different about ADHD

The theme of this post? Think differently about thinking different—when it comes to ADHD and being “special.”

The best part of having a blog is sharing thoughtful essays from friends and readers. My friend Lew Mills, PhD, MFT is a San Diego-based psychotherapist with remarkably thoughtful perspectives on ADHD.

Having been diagnosed himself and having children with ADHD, Lew knows of what he speaks. I’m pleased to share this one—about why being “special” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

think differently

Think Different Differently

by Lew Mills, PhD, MFT

What is the most universal appeal in commercial advertising?

OK, yes, sex. Sure, I’d like to believe that the model in the beer ad is really flirting specifically with me. But really, our culture’s most beckoning appeal is to be “different.” The Apple Computer campaign, advocating that you “think different”, exploits it directly.

In the now-famous 1984 ad, Apple positioned itself as the colorfully creative athlete against a sea of gray lethargy, the warrior of the people who prevails against the machine.

You can also see the ad on the Apple website. Yet, in a perverse Orwellian desecration, Apple revised the historic ad in 2004 by painting in an iPod on the colorful woman runner.

In the original, with the contrast of color against the gray, the Apple ad reflects the imagery of the Wizard of Oz.

You remember that all the pretensions of Oz are a smokescreen designed to hide from you the fact that you have had a brain, a heart, and courage all along. Once the pretense of the Wizard is broken, Dorothy finds her way to who she really has been all along. Even wicked witch-like bullies are powerless to coerce her now. She has succeeded in being different and finding her true place in the world.

An Uncommonly Common Desire

Of course, in the commercials exploiting this theme, the levels of irony are confounding. The appeal to individuality is quintessentially universal. There is hardly a more common desire than to be uncommon.

Wrapped in an advertising campaign, the notion that you can be different goes out through the air waves to millions of people at the same time. Did you think they made that $1.6M ad solely for you? And a corollary to the notion that you are different is that you have choices.

But did you notice that it was all part of a plan to coerce your purchasing decisions?

This issue of being different subsumes the issues about the attractive model in the beer ad. Do you know why she is flirting with just me, and not the millions of other viewers of the ad? Because I am different, special. If I recognize that she is simultaneously flirting with millions of other people, her appeal to me dissipates instantly. But no, I am easily convinced of what I want to hear: I am special.

So what’s so special about being special?

Does Having ADHD Make One “Special”?

Recently, I was surprised to see how this plays out in the realm of ADHD. A journalist was doing a story on the advertising of ADHD treatments to parents. In one ad, the key idea was that treatment could bring the child’s and the parent’s lives back to “normal.” As an adult with ADHD and a parent to children with ADHD, that made perfect sense to me.

A normalizing treatment suggests that it remediates a difficult condition, such as ADHD. But perhaps only someone who is different can appreciate the value of being normal.

Normal is appealing in the way that being “regular” is appealing when you watch a laxative commercial. Ask someone who is irregular how that works for them.

The journalist was incredulous that “normal” is a good thing to be. To this journalist, whose profession is paid for by those commercial messages about being different and special, the idea of promoting “normal” seemed very stifling. Why would someone want to be normal? Shouldn’t the parent be thrilled that their child might be special?

“Special” As A Euphemism for “Stigmatized”

But the word “special” has some funny twists to it. Few kids in Special Education will tell you that there is anything special about it. Most yearn to return to the “normal” classroom. “Special” might as well be a euphemism for stigmatized.

So how is it that we have these two opposing views on the merits of being different and special?

Another Apple ad drives the point home. The voice-over says, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They are not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo.”

As images of Einstein, Gandhi and John Lennon pass by, the ad goes on to equate their craziness with genius and human progress. It is truly moving. Incidentally, it sounds like something of a symptom list for ADHD.

A frivolous parody of the ad brings home the real message. By using the same voice-over and displaying images of infamous sociopaths, it pulls back the curtain on our real attitudes about deviance.

Do you know how many people with ADHD, untreated, live in our jails?

Special is good if you prevail. But if you fail, it is just “weird” and wrong. If you don’t manage to pull out some act of genius, push the human race forward and change the world, (as the ad says), you get a different response.

To Be a Dorothy—or an Ariel?

So what is a Dorothy to do? I think she is a much stronger character than, say, Ariel, the Little Mermaid.

Ariel rebelled out of a vain desire for unattainable human trinkets, an improved standard of living and a handsome sailor. Hans Christian Andersen originally wrote a much more grim end for her. As a just punishment for her vanity, she was reduced to sea foam.

Disney rescued her from that fate, to go on and sell millions of Ariel trinkets to children infatuated with the same idealized mythology of being a little rebel.

Dorothy took a very different route about being different. Though she was clearly an unusually high-spirited Kansas farm-girl, she did not strive simply to be different. She set out to find herself. When she found out who she really was, the other answers came much more easily. And what she cherished most was to be back home.

So what is Dorothy’s message? Though our culture romanticizes being different, “different” is not really the point. Although the folks in the ads are certainly very unique sorts of people, that is surely not what they set out to be. What sets them apart is the courage they had to be the people that they already were.

Rebellion for Rebellion’s Sake Misses the Point

We do them and ourselves a disservice in romanticizing the “different” in them. Should we happen to fall for the push to rebel for the sake of rebellion ourselves, we would have gotten their lesson exactly wrong.

If you are different, there are a lot of role models of how you can come to terms with it, accept it, and make the best of it. It may even put you in that unique league of world-changers.

If you are not so different, there is much to celebrate. Idealizing those who struggle with being different is not particularly attractive, and it is likely to distract you from what you are truly able to contribute. You too can join that elite group who change the world, though your approach may be on a different path.

If you think your life can be enriched by the people who are “different”, try choosing some that are not yet recognized. Einstein was just a typical genius. Find a different genius in someone who doesn’t know it yet. Without building it into an idealized fantasy, help that person see who they really are. That would be different.

Nobody should waste their energies on tragic dreams of marrying princes, studying to become a genius or otherwise romanticizing “different.” Remember Dorothy, there is no place like home. Everyone is waiting for you back there.


5 thoughts on “Think Different—Differently—About ADHD and Being “Special””

  1. I think the “shame” of ADD is in knowing that you are somehow wired completely “differently” then others, proven by the sad fact that you can’t succeed at things that “normal” people take for granted. While I get things done that I need to, I require so many life rules to do it, that I feel enslaved and often overwhelmed. How many “normal” people have to set rules for themselves just to clean their house? In order to succeed, I have to follow a hard & fast rule that I bring all cleaning items to only one room at a time, and never leave it the room for ANYTHING once I have started, or it will never get done. Once that room is clean, I go to the next, and the next…always following the same rule. It is what I HAVE to do to stay focused.

    I have to make lists and check them off if I want to accomplish something, anything, on my day off. I don’t dare turn on the tv…or the day is gone when I glance up. I don’t seem to be able to stop hyper-focusing behavior without the aid of ADD medications. It is a difficult life, and don’t let anyone say it is not, but if you need ideas for a project, I am the lady for the job. Millions of ideas are streaming through my consciousness at any given time, along with a song, and other thoughts I try to ignore.

    Yes, I have ADD, and it has been no picnic to dust myself off and start all over again…again & again. I am a helpless viewer now, watching as my son goes through this same effort in his life, trying & failing, again and again, always hoping that THIS time it will be different. It is heartbreaking.

    I would so LOVE to crawl into the brain of a normal person, to see the quietness of a normal brain. I want to experience how the normal brain works so much differently than mine. I am certain the “normals” must not suffer the constant noise of conflicting thoughts that interrupt what you are trying to do, nor the anxiety that claws constantly, with the ever-present fear that you will be found out to really BE as stupid as you sometimes feel you are. Although I have been”gifted”, with a genius I.Q., the fact that I have an ADD mind makes me just another smart person who is almost powerless to succeed beyond a certain point. Being “smart” makes me feel that I should be able to think my way out of this mess, but I cannot make enough rules and take enough meds to change much. The absolute shame & dissatisfaction of being unusual seems to be a curse that all us with ADD feel…we long to just be “normal” like everyone else.

    Yes, the world has been blessed by Einstein and the like, but knowing about them and not being able to emulate their actions just makes it all the more unbearable for the “gifted” with ADD .

    1. Hi Elaine,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

      Although I don’t know many “normal” people, I know what you mean about wanting fewer “rules” for accomplishing what are commonly known as “routine” tasks.

      When some expert or another is waxing on in a lecture about using timers, planners, etc., I always flinch a bit. Yes, I use these tools as much as possible, especially now when I am juggling much (a new book, lots of intensive volunteer work, and some health setbacks). But the idea of facing all those calendars and timers with a slavish devotion dims my spirit…flattens me; I feel for you if that’s the only way you can do what needs doing.

      I would encourage you, if you haven’t already tried medication, to try it. And focus on other physical strategies, too. If you are of a certain age, maybe you can talk to a knowledgeable MD about bioidentical hormones. Also optimizing sleep, diet, and exercise. Those things can help — though, I know many people with ADHD find those routines hard to master without effective medication on board.

      Whatever else, I’ve learned never to compare myself to other people, including Einstein. Honestly, he didn’t have a good reputation in interpersonal relationships and in some other areas. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. 🙂


  2. betsy davenport, phd

    Lew, your writing is dense with metaphors while it hews closely to the path of truth. You have drawn the pictures clearly and, so drawn, they are somehow palatable.

    The many errors made in the world by people with AD/HD, the people who love them, the people who cannot love them, and the professionals who “treat” them — or don’t — are tragic and painful to acknowledge. As an ardent truth-teller, I have been disheartened so much by the ways in which real possibility for the different-in-a-not-so-glamorous-way is compromised by some admixture of disbelief, denial, mismanagement, false hope and fantasy.

    The best thing for anyone — special, different or normal — is to begin with the truth. I liken it to entering a large mall (God forbid) and, wishing to find one small shop, studying the directory and locating the “You Are Here” arrow before setting out.

    Truth may hurt, but it surely does not harm. And if it gets a person on the road to greater effectiveness and a greater sense of well being, then please, let us have clear, undistorted mirrors into which we can look. The mirrors, of course, have to be the one-way kind, with the only way being toward our center.

    To piggyback on Dr. Parker’s comment, I have also found that people feel like impostors when hiding their difficulties from the world and, not accidentally, from themselves. Yet, when they attain some success, the impostor is turned inside out as they try to reconcile the “no-account” with the “somebody” — both of which occupy the same person’s confused brain.

  3. Gina & Lew,
    Many thanks, Gina, for sharing Lew’s insights with us out here – well written, thoughtful considerations on the process of self/other evolution – so useful to clarify fundamental recovery, balance, objectives.

    So much of recovery/management from ADHD ‘issues’ is finding a balance in the context of different real-life events. Those troubled by ADD spectrum disorders [not sufficiently appreciated by public and professionals], often chase dreams because reality itself is often clouded by layers of thinking.

    Since all human relationship issues are, at their foundation, boundary disputes, ADD folks present with a special set of reality problems. Too much/too little thinking means boundaries can become cloudy, and since ADD is actually a contextual disorder [to be addressed in my new book] boundaries can change in the context of the reality at the moment.

    With ADD, to follow Lew’s metaphor, the real challenge, often for years, is finding the home boundaries, the self – the normal, consistent reality of ‘the self/who.’ So many ADHD folks in my office feel like impostors, hiding the fact that they are clouded, and really don’t want any ‘special’ attention directed to their confusing internal dialog. – Right on, Lew.

    Lew’s thoughtful remarks remind us that we can find ourselves by facing that inevitably changing reality, and creating an operational grid, a home we can carry everyday, where ever we go.

    Thanks guys,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Stay in Touch!
Ride the ADHD Roller Coaster
Without Getting Whiplash!
Receive Gina Pera's award-winning blog posts and news of webinars and workshops.
P.S. Your time and privacy—Respected.
No e-mail bombardment—Promised.
No Thanks!