ADHD Voices: Patrick

Photo courtesy of Patrick Cornelius

My name is Patrick Cornelius. I’m 41 years old. I’m a professional saxophonist, composer, and music teacher. ADHD behaviors are baked into every facet of my personality, from the way I speak to the way I work and the way I live and the way I love. I used to consider many of my ADHD-influenced personality quirks and idiosyncrasies to be shortcomings or moral failings. I know I don’t have to tell most of you about the feelings of guilt and shame that often follow typical ADHD behavior patterns.

I was diagnosed as a child

I don’t recall ever learning precisely when I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. I think it must have been pretty early, like in Kindergarten or 1st grade. I’ve had conversations with my mother in which she relates being asked to withdraw me from several different preschools in San Antonio, TX due to my inability to conform to school behavioral expectations. 

Yes, behavioral expectations. IN PRESCHOOL. 

Anyway, I can remember having to remember to take my twice daily doses of Ritalin as early as 1st grade and as late as 7th grade. What I remember most about having to take medicine is actually not remembering to take it, and the resulting panic I would feel when my mom discovered several untaken pills rattling around my backpack at the end of the week.

In my family, my older brother was the gold standard for academic excellence, and frankly I was never going to truly be able to measure up to his accomplishments with my hopelessly ADHD-addled brain. But I didn’t know that, thankfully. I resolved to work hard and do better. BE better. I was convinced that I could WILL myself to excellence. But believing that meant that I couldn’t take Ritalin anymore, because taking it meant accepting that I needed help, and I didn’t want help.

I had a pretty successful high school career. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA near the top of my class, won a National Merit Scholarship and several awards for music and academics. I even managed to have a few girlfriends (this would have truly shocked Middle School me more than ANYTHING else). Looking back, it’s pretty amazing that I was able to pull off so many academic successes, because frankly my ADHD symptoms never really went away, and nearly derailed many papers, research assignments, and tests. 

I used to think procrastination was just something that everybody did. Sure I knew that there were highly motivated and organized people out there who got all of their assignments done ahead of time and somehow still found the time to be fabulous at everything else in life, but I really thought that the kind of procrastination that I ended up committing (and STILL DO, dammit!) all the time was common. 

But wait, there’s music!

Let’s back up a little. How did I manage to excel at music throughout high school with such reckless productivity habits? Doesn’t improving at playing an instrument require consistency and patient persistence? Why, yes. Yes it does. That’s where the famous ADHD superpower comes in. I know it needs no introduction.

I started taking piano lessons at 4 years old. I was more interested in playing with my piano teacher’s cat and infant son than in my lessons most of the time, but eventually I learned to make at least some effort to pay attention and practice regularly at home. By the time I was 11 or 12 years old, I had attained some technical facility.

At 14, moving to a new middle school to begin 8th grade in a new town (and country) left me with a choice: take gym class or take band. Tough choice, right? Haha, no. I caught on quickly due to my previous knowledge of music reading, theory, and fundamentals. And the saxophone, an instrument designed as an amalgam of sorts with an eye towards ease of learning, provided me the perfect platform to be a quick study.

I lost interest in the piano. As is so often the case, quick successes lead to increasing enthusiasm, and playing the saxophone became my hyperfocus obsession. This continued throughout high school and college and still persists to this day. I have always been able to shut out everything else when it’s time to practice and devote all of my mental energy into practicing and composing. 

College

My college experience was different from my high school experience. It was worse…but that’s a little misleading. I still ended up graduating Magna cum Laude from Berklee College of Music and Summa cum Laude from Manhattan School of Music. But my productivity and behavioral patterns never improved.

In fact, the freedom associated with having complete personal decision making authority brought even more psychological headwinds. I always had time for my hyperfocus “crush:” practicing, perhaps even more time than I was honestly able to spare. Meanwhile assignments that I was less than enthused about from classes not devoted to playing my instruments fell by the wayside until (almost always) the night before.

I remember writing an entire 17 piece big band arrangement in the 24 hours before it was due. This was before the widespread use of music notation software, so I had to write out every single part and recopy the score in ink. By hand. Ugh. Somehow, I was always able to be successful. And every single time, I told myself I would never let this happen again. And yet, it always did.

Managing ADHD in middle age

This struggle has remained the same over the years. Every writing commission, arrangement for a performance, collection of new tunes for a recording session, job application, grant application, etc. has been finished no sooner than a day or two before the due date. In fact, I’m finishing up this blog post days after I promised to send it to Jamie (insert even bigger facepalm than the one up above). HA.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have gone outside and downstairs to the basement to put the laundry in the drier, then realized in horror (thanks to the stink of mildew) the next morning that I never pressed “start” on the machine. That I would go to the store and come home with everything EXCEPT the one item that I needed to get in the first place. That my wife would give me three simple tasks to do and I would have to come back to her two minutes later and ask what the first two were.

I used to think of these episodes as moral and personal failings. I allowed those thoughts to define how I felt about myself. The very pursuit of excellence in any endeavor, particularly an artistic one where you yourself are the product, inevitably leads to some measure of self-criticism. That’s why recognition and success or failure can often seem so damn personal.

If a concert I’ve given or an album I’ve released gets a bad review, it’s literally ME that’s getting the bad review. At least, it feels that way most of the time. I always try to remind myself “We are more than what we create,” but honestly keeping that in mind when the chips are down is aspirational at best. Stack decades of self-doubt caused by behaviors beyond my control on top of all that, and there’s a sure-fire recipe for depression. And I was often depressed.

But anyway, things are different now.

It has been 9 months since I stumbled upon adult ADHD support communities and podcasts on the internet. Connecting with and learning from all of you has completely changed the way I see myself. Yes, I have ADHD. I have always had it. Other members of my biological family have it. My daughter has it. It’s a big part of who I am, and I’m not ashamed anymore. Being able to speak about this freely and publicly (sometimes VERY publicly) has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life. It’s also helped me become more productive, more honest, a better father, and a better husband.

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If you’d like to connect with Patrick,
he can be found on Twitter and Instagram
or through his website, http://www.patrickcornelius.com/

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ADHD Voices is a series dedicated to sharing the stories of folks like you and me who have ADHD. Posts in the series are written by guest authors, sharing windows into their lives and struggles, written by them, for you and me. If you’d like to share your story, please contact me on social media or through my email, ADHDsurprise @ gmail.com

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Video: How to know if you have ADHD

In this video I try to answer my most frequently asked question. How do you know if you have ADHD? In it, I walk you through the same questions I was given as I met with a psychiatrist to get my diagnosis.

If you liked this video, please click to subscribe to the ADHDsurprise YouTube channel and share the video with others!

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Check out all of Jamie’s platforms:

Being Neurodiverse in a Neurotypical World

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

A few years ago I watched a television series called “Dexter.” The show features a man named Dexter who is a sociopathic serial killer who specializes in vigilante justice–as he only targets other serial killers who the legal system fails to catch. Because of the intense and gory nature of the show I certainly can’t endorse it for everyone, but I was riveted for all eight seasons. Why? Because I felt such a strong connection with the main character, Dexter.

“We all think like that”

One feature of the format of the show is that you get to hear Dexter’s thoughts–a lot. So you hear how he processes what is going on around him and how he carefully selects how he will respond to the people and environment around him. Dexter knows that he is a sociopath and that he does not feel what those around him do. So he mimics their responses and often will think through various options, finally settling on the one he perceives would be the most “normal” for that situation.

When I noticed this I was overwhelmed. I recognized my own patterns of interacting with people around me. Similar to Dexter, I find that as I walk through the halls at work or when I am at the grocery store, I am less present in the moment and more of an observer in my own head who is calculating and choosing the most valid responses from a menu of options.

Because of this connection I soon convinced myself that I was a sociopath like Dexter. I was so distraught that I confided about this to my best friend. He understood what I was getting at, but encouraged me to not worry about it because he had seen me feeling genuine emotions, and as he said, “we all think like that.”

The thing about my friend is, he has ADHD. I knew that at the time. What neither of us knew then is that I also have ADHD.

It was about 2 years later that I found that out. And as I learned what it meant to have ADHD and what it meant to be neurodivergent, my heart broke for myself and also for my friend, and for the rest of us neurodiverse folks out there. Because we often do think like that.

The minefields in our path

The unwritten rules and expectations of society are spread across our paths as a minefield. We don’t know when we’re going to cross one of these and end up facing a major life consequence. When we do happen upon one it can be devastating as we are embarrassed personally and/or professionally. Sometimes it’s just a minor slip-up but we’re confronted with it and don’t have a good answer for breaking the rule we weren’t aware of.

I can’t count how many interviews I’ve had that seemed to go well but then I wasn’t hired. One job in particular I remember being very worried about as it would have been a major promotion. I bought a suit. I practiced my responses to commonly asked questions. It was an interview with me and about a dozen people on the committee. It went amazingly well but I didn’t get the job. I was told I was “too polished.”

WHAT?! I thought the whole point of interviews was to BE polished?? To be the professional with the right answers, who shares their sound decision-making as they work through your practical scenarios. How is “too polished” a negative?

But I’d stumbled onto a hidden mine–broken an unwritten rule. They could see the careful preparation and selection of answers and interpreted it like I’d gotten access to a key and cheated on a test.

I found another mine when I was let go from a job some time ago. They threw a lot of reasons out for letting me go. One of them is another good example of this. See, I struggle in long meetings. And as part of this job I was expected to attend long meetings…a lot. Once a week we met as a leadership team first thing in the morning. This is a really tough time of day for me to be sitting still for so long. To help me focus I developed a habit where I always take notes. It forces me to pay attention and also gives me a written record to look back to, as my short-term memory is terrible.

The day in question was just like this. Morning meeting. Two hours or more in length. I can’t remember exactly but I know I took many pages of notes that day. I was later confronted about appearing aloof, uninterested, and not paying attention to what was said in the meeting. Showing my notes from the meeting in question made no difference. I had broken another unwritten rule, stepped on another mine, and was soon looking for another job.

These are two simple examples but they represent a lifetime of struggle. I could fill a lengthy memoir with stories of stepping on mines like these from my childhood to the present day–as I’m sure many of you could too.

So what do I want my neurotypical peers to take away from this?

My brain works differently than yours. I don’t necessarily perceive or interpret what you do even when we’re in the same place at the same time. I don’t get to take anything for granted. There isn’t a single interaction with another human being that I don’t have to stop, however briefly, to consider the appropriate response to. It. Is. Overwhelming.

If I am approximating a social expectation and still not meeting it, that may be me stretching myself to my absolute limit, and I need some grace.

Others have exploited the difference in how I think and act my entire life. Sometimes for personal gain. Sometimes to poke fun at my expense. Sometimes to intentionally hurt me socially, emotionally, and even physically.

So you’ll have to forgive me if my default is to hide my true feelings behind a mask of indifference or a wall of jaded humor–or if I take additional time to respond to the routine question or greeting you’ve just made.

Your world is not safe for me. There are mines all over my path and I’ve been wounded enough to know to be wary so I proceed with caution. Though at times that caution combines with anxiety to freeze me in my tracks completely.

When I felt connected with the fictional Dexter I thought it was because I was also a sociopath. In reality, I simply recognized the immense amount of unseen effort that it takes for a neurodivergent person to navigate through a world designed for neurotypicals. I recognized much of my own struggle, which I would not fully come to understand until I learned that I had ADHD.

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