Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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ADHD and faith

It’s a challenge for me to write so personally. I’m worried that people will judge me and change their perception of me. But if I am to be authentic as a child of God, then I want to share my story to help others. So, here goes…

There is so much misinformation and prejudice about ADHD, from dismissal (there’s no such thing) to assuming it is a ‘naughty boy syndrome that people grow out of’.

So what if I tell you I am a 53 year old woman, recently diagnosed with ADHD?  

First, I would have to cope with your look of disbelief.  Then watch the cogs of your brain whirr around to find a suitable response.  I’d much rather hear “that’s interesting, what does that mean?” than “but you seem so normal” or “but isn’t that just a child thing.” 

In churches I have been part of over the years, I’ve often been pretending to be what I thought was normal and respectable.  I’d volunteer, share kindnesses with anyone and sit quietly through the sermons. Some churches have been places where I was able to open up and be more of myself and I am so grateful to them because that is how I started to heal and learn about myself.  It’s been a long journey to get to where I am now. Other churches have made me feel I don’t fit in.  I honestly don’t think they do this on purpose but teaching that implies ‘this is how to be a good Christian’ (and then Bible Study, quiet times, serving in the church, how to be a good parent, wife, woman… etc, are all ‘expected’) just crushed me.  I am not able to fit in that mould, I fight with the feelings of never being good enough.  I thank God that it has given me a deeper understanding of his grace.  I have learned that is the most important and only measure I need – am I enough for his grace. Always. 

SO, I have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) but I don’t argue with you all the time, I don’t visible fidget or climb the walls (oh, but if you really looked you’d see how much effort I need to employ to try and keep still) and I seem to be able to pay attention.  I don’t make impulsive decisions (do I not?) and people may think I am quite sociable.  I am. I am terrible at organisation, time keeping and am on the verge of chaos all the time.  However, when you first look, I seem organised, reliable and tidy.  (I am exhausted and have so many strategies to keep my life from collapsing into chaos, you could not imagine).  I am a people pleaser because I have such acute rejection sensitivity that any hint of criticism or rebuff, sends me into a spiral of depression and dread for weeks.   

In church I feel that I talk too much, take over with too much enthusiasm, struggle once the interest wains and can’t sit still for a whole sermon.  I often ‘need the loo’ in the middle or I manage to sit still and am squirming so much inside I can’t remember a word of what they said.  The best place for me was the Good News Group where we did things in small chunks, actively and practically.  I learned so much about my faith and belonging when I was part of that church. 

The thing is, we have got it wrong.   Attention Deficit is actually too much attention.  Everything catches my eye and when I go into a room, I scan and read every picture on the wall, every pattern in the wallpaper, the stains on the carpet and the drape of the curtains.  I have clocked all your family photos and the dust on your TV (sorry).  But I don’t judge. My brain just finds it interesting.  Then I scan the people.  I work out who is who, who they know and read their body language.  I notice what they are wearing, if they ironed their T-shirt and what their shoes are like.  I watch the interaction between the guests and work out quickly who is with who, who likes who and who feels awkward.   I can tell you who is feeling tired and who is excited to be there.  I love people and will soon start talking to anyone of them.  In the first two minutes I could know more about them than my husband would find out in 2 years. I might find it hard to stop talking but I’ve trained myself to ask questions and listen to the answers so I can make that person feel important and that I am interested in them.  Because did I tell you I love people?  I am curious and interested in their lives, what they do and why they are there.  I want to hear about their lives and their stories.  But yes, I also might be the one who gets stuck with your uncle Frank and his many tales.  I am not good at listening to something I’ve already heard.  As a Christian I fare better in quiet, unbusy places and environments.  I have grown in my faith and relationship with God through seeking these out.  I love places like Scargill House in Yorkshire and Whalley Abbey in Lancashire.  I pray best when I am in the countryside and walking on a quiet beach in the winter.  

Attention needs interest, so it’s a good job I am so fascinated by people and their stories.  But attention can be distracted and inanely bored if the interest fades.  And I have the boredom threshold of a gnat.  This is not attention DEFICIT.  This is attention overload.  That’s why people think people with ADHD don’t pay attention.  They only see it from the outside.  Not from the inside when there is so much going on in my brain all at once.  But faith stories and testimonies light up my life.  I love hearing how God works in people’s lives and love supporting and sharing those stories with others. 

Hyperactivity Disorder is not a disorder.  This is the need to move, the inability to sit still for long periods of time (are you sure humans were made to do that for 6-8 hours a day every day???) and to stimulate the brain through the sensory systems.  People think I can sit still, but it’s something I’ve been trained to do so all my life.  I also have what’s called rejection sensitivity.  This is related to my interoception sensory system (internal body signals and emotions).  I feel emotions hugely.  So criticism triggers a physical dread sensation in my body that used to last for more than two weeks, and if I felt really rejected, for years. That physical feeling I’d have to try and squash into my subconscious so I could function and manage day to day.  But this affected my behaviour.  I would override my need to move and mask my fidgeting to ‘be good’.    I find solace in my imagination.  Sometimes a Bible reading or something the preacher says sparks that imagination and I soar on wings like eagles! I can go off on a wonderful journey in my imagination where I am following the person who encountered Jesus back to their village, or imagining how I could put that in practice in my work and life.  I do go off on my own thought-journey during sermons (and it may look as if I’ve zoned out) so often, but for me that has been a gift from the preacher to help me go deeper in my faith. 

Impulsivity is another thing associated with ADHD.  It’s a curious one when you have rejection sensitivity.  You can’t upset anyone, so your impulsivity turns inwards.  You might do secret shopping on an impulse or turn to eating, special interests or hobbies – it doesn’t always have to be negative! Some people might get into drugs or addictions for this reason. I am creative and have probably tried nearly every craft going.  But you don’t just go for a starter kit – impulsivity leads you to buy the professional kit straight away.  But then, I am multi-talented and can produce a bit of craft for any occasion… but only if I am interested in that at the time!  But in church I might say yes to too many things and end up over stretched and over committed.  Please look after me and tell me to think rather than expect a quick answer.  I am so often exhausted by over-commitment, I’d like to rest a while sometimes.  It can lead to mental burnout and depression and in the past I have suffered with those. When Jesus is described as the Wonderful Counsellor – I have certainly found this to be a core aspect of my relationship with him, over many, many years of healing and restoration.

Self-esteem is a huge issue.  Imagine spending the whole of your life thinking you are broken. Wondering what is wrong with you and why things are so difficult that others seem to be able to manage naturally.   

Knowing Jesus has helped me walk through this life with a different perspective on everything.  I came to faith with a huge load on my back.  Over the years the Holy Spirit has gently and kindly led me through a journey of discovery and healing.  I have unlearned many self-destructive strategies I thought were helpful to me but actually hurt me and the ones I loved. I was trying to protect my fragile heart whilst pretending to be competent and I thought I knew best.   The best for me was to learn to surrender to the gentle, humble, powerful and kind love of God my Father.  In His grace I stand.  And having ADHD is who he made me to be. His power is made perfect in my weaknesses, his power works through my strengths. I am who he is making me to be because we are never finished.  I love Jesus with all my heart and am totally accepted, saved and made new in his death and resurrection.  I am not made wrong, but made differently (as Kat Mills sang) and that is God’s sovereignty over my life.  Hallelujah! 

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