Stoicism and AD(H)D – from a Stoic who Actually Has AD(H)D

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: In the foreground, the rainbow-infinity symbol to represent neurodiversity. In the background, the flame representing the Logos - that is, the all-pervasive spirit of reason and logic. This image is for articles in this blog that discuss Stoicism as it relates to topics of neurodiversity.
Any illusion that AD(H)D presents a problem for Stoicism dissolves when you learn to see AD(H)D for what it really is, and stop taking for granted things that aren’t truly yours.
My entire life, I have dealt with AD(H)D – “ADD” being short for “Attention Deficit Disorder” – and “ADHD” being all that plus a frequently-associated symptom of hyperactivity. AD(H)D poses some interesting challenges to me as a Stoic. However, as with any other challenge, I find that Stoicism does have the answers – but only once you come to accept what AD(H)D is, and what it isn’t.
How my AD(H)D was Perceived when I Grew Up – as Opposed to the Reality
Growing up with AD(H)D at a time when not that many people had even heard of it, I was frequently shamed for its manifestations. When I failed to complete tasks for reasons that were not visible to onlookers, my attitude was blamed. I was frequently called “lazy”. Many times when my parents asked me to promise to do my classwork assignment in class the next day when the other kids would do it, the only thing I could promise them was “I’ll try”. Needless to say, they were not appeased by this promise. Since they didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t complete the assignment together with everyone else if I just decided to, they read “I’ll try” as being code for “No, I won’t”. This wasn’t because of them harboring any inherent lack of trust in me. Rather, it was because conventional wisdom said that the task that they were asking me to do was too simple to be something that I might try in earnest to do and still be unsuccessful. The only potential obstacle that they could see to me completing the classwork with everyone else was a lack of resolve to do so.

And just as it usually prevented me from completing my classwork assignments with everyone else, my AD(H)D also complicated other areas of my life. Ever since early childhood, keeping my living space neat and in-order was a challenge. Being late to appointments is nothing strange to me at all. Not to mention how difficult it usually is for me to remain mentally present in a conversation that I am not genuinely interested in.

One thing that furthered the illusion to others that these behavioral decisions were voluntary was the fact that occasionally, especially with certain motivations, I was indeed able to pull myself together and do something that usually I couldn’t – like clean my room on my own in order to play with a friend – like listen to a conversation that I found boring – like finish my classwork in class like everyone else. In the eyes of others, this proved that I was just as capable as anyone else of doing these things – if only I wasn’t too lazy, too undisciplined, too socially self-centered. They didn’t realize that what actually was at play was what is often referred to as “spoon theory” – a phenomenon that explains how people are sometimes able to do things beyond what they normally are able to do, but in doing so have to expend a kind of internal currency. Such people are not able to perform such feats on a consistent basis, as that would cause the currency (originally illustrated with actual spoons) to exhaust faster than it is replenished.

Due to my failure to complete tasks, to organize, and to abide by certain social graces – I was often labeled as being lazy, undisciplined, and ill-mannered. For years, I even accepted these labels as though they had been rightly applied. From my acceptance of these labels came terrible self-loathing. Despite my self-empirical evidence that these behavioral traits were not of my choosing, I accepted that they were. I accepted this because I was told so very authoritatively by adults in my life. Over and over, they assured me that I could end these destructive tendencies if only I chose to.

But in reality, AD(H)D is not laziness. It’s not lack of discipline – nor is it lack of proper social regard for one’s peers. It is a neurodivergence – a difference in how the brain works that is part of the diversity of the human spectrum, a part of neurodiversity. The behavioral manifestations of AD(H)D are largely, and often entirely, beyond one’s locus of control. To practice Stoicism as someone with AD(H)D requires one to realize this and to apply Stoic principles accordingly.

The Concepts in Stoicism Most Pertinent to AD(H)D
At the very start of his Enchiridion, Epictetus mentions how some things are securely ours while others are not. Among the things that are securely ours, he specifically names opinion, aim, desire and aversion. On the whole, he summarizes it to encompass all things that are truly a matter of our will. He then explains that things that are not a matter of our will are not securely ours. With regards to these things not securely ours, he likewise does not give a comprehensive list, but again provides a few examples. These things are the things that I tend to refer to as “externals”.

Both the realm of the will and the realm of externals, of course, can be sub-stratified. However, in Stoicism, it is the distinction between these two realms as a whole that is most essential – a distinction referred to as the Dichotomy of Control.

Much, of course, has been written on the sub-stratification of the realm of externals – how they range from things that you have a good deal of indirect influence over to things that you really have no influence over whatsoever. Not as much is written about what is more relevant to this article – the sub-stratification of the realm of our will. However, that, too, can be sub-stratified in what I like to refer to as the “Onion Will Model”. This model illustrates the things that we think of as being securely ours as being embedded in different layers of an onion. At the core of the onion are the things that truly are part of our will – no illusion involved.

The other layers contain things that are technically externals. Things in these layers are not truly ours securely. However, our level of indirect influence over these things tends to be so strong, and it’s manner so predictable, that we often tend to think of them as being in our locus of control.

The skin, which is the outermost layer, consists of things that it is out of sheer folly when we think of those things as being truly ours. The intermediate layers, however, consist of many things that are technically externals, but which for the sake of brevity we can excuse thinking of them as being in our locus of control – provided that we do not lose sight of the fact that seeing them as such is technically a mere simplification. And while we may usually think of those things as being in our locus of control, there are times when we are called upon to be more cognizant of how they in fact are not.

For starters, when one of these things in the intermediate layers of the onion does not go as it should, we must pause and examine whether the mishap truly originated from the core, from that which is truly our will – or whether this was one of the cases in which this external’s true nature of not being securely ours was asserted. Even when no such mishap occurs, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally, while practicing Premeditatio Malorum (the Stoic exercise of negative visualization) to consider possible situations in which these things, which technically are externals, fail to respond to our will in the usual, expected manner. In short – it is okay to think of these things as being in our locus of control for the sake of brevity, provided that we not lose sight of the fact that these things are still not truly among the things that are securely ours – that they are not truly part of the will.

For example – if I am calling an elevator to come and pick me up, the actual motion of the elevator is an example of something that is in the skin of the onion. We usually think of the elevator as responding to the press of a button – but it’s foolish to think that it is truly ours for the elevator to come when called. Our act of pressing the button to call the elevator, however, is an example of something that is in the intermediate layers of the onion. Generally, speaking, if the button is sitting there ready to be pressed, I can lift my hand and finger and press it if I so choose. If I fail to press the button, it is generally a safe assumption that it is because I failed to make the actual decision to do so. However, there are conceivable situations in which I make the decision to press the button, but my arm and finger do not comply. This can be anything from a nerve in the body being severed to my arm being caught in my clothes. It would be exhausting to consider these hindering factors at every moment – but when they do crop up, we shouldn’t blame ourselves as though we had willfully failed to press the button.

So in short – the core of the onion is where the things that are truly matters of the will reside. The intermediate layers of the onion contain the things that are technically externals, but which for the sake of brevity we can be excused for thinking of them at times as being in our locus of control, provided that we do not lose sight of the fact that they, technically, are externals. The skin of the onion consists of things that, due to their usual predictability, we are especially tempted to think of as being in our locus of our control, but which we really should avoid thinking of as such. And what lies beyond the skin of the onion? That is the realm of things which anyone with any power of observation should be able to know are not truly ours to control. Of course, many people refuse to accept even their lack of control over many things beyond the onion skin – but that’s a subject for another article.

Basics of Applying the Stoic Dichotomy of Control to AD(H)D
Now, this Onion Will Model of one’s locus of control illustrates the area where we need to adjust our understanding in order to apply Stoicism to the life of someone with AD(H)D. Specifically, this is to say that certain things that are well within the flesh of the onion for most people can often go beyond the peel of the onion for someone with AD(H)D. Anyone can make the decision to focus on a task that isn’t all that interesting because the task is, for some practical reason, necessary. However, having made that resolve, someone with AD(H)D is more likely than a neurotypical person to find their mind wandering away despite that resolve. This is so whether this task is finishing a classwork assignment together with one’s fellow students, or cleaning one’s room, or staying tuned into a conversation that one doesn’t find particularly stimulating, or anything else for that matter.

Understanding this, it all starts to become clear how the Stoic principle of Dichotomy of Control applies to a condition like AD(H)D. Faced with a task that I am charged with completing, or have other interest in completing, I do what must be done with any complex situation faced by a Stoic. I sort out the factors that are in my locus of control from the factors that are not.

Item #1 is the resolution to keep my mind on the task at hand. It turns out that the resolution itself is within my locus of control. However, actually following through and keeping my mind on task – that’s a separate item #2 which isn’t quite in my locus of control. Of course, in the case of a neurotypical person, item #1, which is of the will, has such a strong influence on item #2, which is actually an external, that they will rarely be forced to come to grips with the fact that the two are not the same item. Not so if you have AD(H)D – especially if the task at hand isn’t all that interesting.

But if my mind wanders and I catch it doing so, that takes me to item #3 – the option whether or not to direct my mind back to the task at hand. For this item, the answer is that yes, it is in my locus of control. However, that does not guarantee that the mind will stay on the task at-hand very long – or even absolutely guarantee that it will co-operate at all when directed back. That is a separate item #4 – an external, whose nature as an external is more upfront to one with AD(H)D than to a neurotypical person.

More on AD(H)D and the Stoic Dichotomy of Control
So, one does not directly control how well their mind stays on a task once they have resolved for it to do so, or how well the mind returns to a task upon being directed back to it. That said, if you have AD(H)D, there are often things within your locus of control that you can do to affect the probability of your mind cooperating. It is your responsibility to take such things into account and make all your decisions appropriately.

I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should take medication for AD(H)D. This is because I am a philosophy blogger, not a doctor – and it is with a doctor that you should determine whether or not medication is appropriate in your case. As a matter of fact, if you haven’t had such a consultation with a doctor, I’m not even going to tell you whether or not seeking one is appropriate, because even that the Attention Deficit Disorder Association is probably more qualified to tell you than I am, and they have a page on their site dedicated to that question. However, if the proper means of discernment so indicate, it becomes your duty seek such a consultation with a doctor. And upon being examined by the doctor, you are likewise duty-bound follow whatever course of treatment is deemed appropriate for you.

There are many people, of course, who as a matter of principle object to the medical treatment of AD(H)D on the basis that, in most individual cases, someone with AD(H)D in their natural state would be able to thrive in unique ways were it not for the manner in which society is geared against neurodivergences. However, while this concern is definitely understandable, it must be emphasized that Stoic teachings make it clear that our obligation is to conduct ourselves in a manner appropriate to the world that we are in, not necessarily the world that we would prefer to be in. If you determine that it is your duty to promote reform in this world that might reduce such hostility to neurodivergences such as AD(H)D then there are no doubt plenty of things you can do to that end. That said, of all things that you can do to promote such reform, pretending in your decision-making process that you are already in such a world isn’t one of them.

Another thing that you can do to increase the probability of your attention remaining on the task that you are called to focus on is to sleep well at night so that you do not compound your AD(H)D with exhaustion. If you have a sleep disorder preventing you from doing so, then follow whatever procedure is appropriate for dealing with that – even if it includes seeing a proper health-care professional about that too. And if you feel that you must at times go without sleep as part of an ascetic exercise on Stoic resilience, do it at such a time that it will not cause you to be exhausted for tasks that require your attention.

There may also be other little things here and there that you can do that, while not guaranteeing that you will stay on task when required to, might increase the probability that you succeed in doing so. Whatever these little things be, follow the appropriate procedures for determining exactly what these practices are. And once it is determined what you should do, follow such courses of action faithfully.

In Conclusion …
While at first it may seem as though AD(H)D presents a problem in the practice of Stoic philosophy, that illusion is as a result of profound misunderstanding of the nature of AD(H)D, as well as a general un-Stoic tendency to take for granted certain things that are not really securely ours. Neuronormative observers often blame AD(H)D for failure to command certain externals that neuronormative people are at special risk of taking for granted. Furthermore, those with AD(H)D often internalize the harsh judgments that neuronormative people make of them by accepting as dogma the false impression that certain externals are not really externals but matters of the will.

However, (aside from what in-general goes into learning Stoicism) learning how to apply Stoicism to AD(H)D is really nothing more than a matter of clearing away those misconceptions of AD(H)D, learning to see certain externals for what they really are, and focusing instead on the corresponding matters that truly are part of the will. Once the misconceptions are cleared away and reality takes it’s place, it becomes clear that AD(H)D really is a non-issue for a true practitioner of Stoicism.

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