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.
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.
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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