The Quest for Aliveness

March 27, 2006

In a discussion on psychoactive drugs and children, reader Paida drew my attention to the ADHD writings of Thom Hartmann. One article in particular,“It’s Time to Empower Our Girls,” got my synapses snapping.

Hartmann looks at the two common versions of attention deficit disorder – hyperactivity in boys and spaciness in girls – as different strategies for meeting the same hunger: the need to “feel the rapture of being alive,” as Joseph Campbell put it.

In our culture, boys are encouraged to act out their need for aliveness – to build, conquer, destroy, change, form and reform everything from the physical to the social to the religious. Thus, those boys with an intensely strong need to know their own aliveness are the most visible – they’re constantly self-stimulating through interactions with the world around them. When they have functional ways to do this they’re called gifted or bright or accomplished; when they find dysfunctional ways to meet their need for aliveness, they’re called hyperactive (or worse).

While reading the story of Cinderella to his daughter, Hartmann had an epiphany: girls might try to satisfy their neurological need for aliveness in the same way (physical activity or manipulation of the physical world around them), except that they receive strong messages from our culture to meet their needs in quieter, less disruptive, more ladylike ways.

So they turn to fantasy, (just like Cinderella!) and get the stimulation they crave through engrossing daydreams rather than external stimuli. “When the teacher calls on them,” he writes, “they seem to be off in space.”

Both “quiet ADD” girls and “hyperactive ADHD” boys… usually respond well to high-stimulation classrooms and environments: when the external world is sufficiently interesting that they “know they’re alive,” the hyperactive ones no longer act out, and the space-cadet ones no longer escape into fantasy… Second, both types respond well to stimulant medication, drugs which satisfy the need for aliveness via a chemical rather than a psychological or physiological means.

Reading Hartmann’s musings on this need to feel alive reminded me of two potent memories from my elementary school days. In second grade, we were separated into smaller groups to practice reading out loud. I was a pretty good reader, and the book we were reading was very simple. So I decided to spice up my experience. When it came my turn to read, I read with dramatic flair, gesturing and camping it up. The other kids laughed, which really got me going. The teacher grabbed my chin tightly and jerked my face within an inch of hers. “You think you’re so smart!” she hissed, “But you’re not.” This was a pivotal moment for me – a hot, shameful, hate-filled fork in the road. After that, I exclusively walked the path of internal stimulation.

By fifth grade, I was fully absorbed in my fantasy life, which involved heavy doodling. Once, in class, I drew a cartoon. The teacher saw that I was not listening, and stormed down the aisle of desks to see what I was scribbling. I had drawn a scene that had taken place at home the night before, when my little sister resisted cleaning the catbox. She wailed and flung sandy cat turds into the air. It struck me as so funny, that I recreated it on paper for my own amusement. I covered the drawing with my hands, and the teacher pried them off, one finger at a time. He didn’t laugh. He balled up the paper and threw it in the trash. So now it was not enough to be quiet and not disruptive. Now I was required to just stare into space.

I managed to do well in gradeschool, and middle school after that. But by the time I reached high school, I dropped out, moved out of my parents home, and plunged into…experience (which included, but was not limited to, sex, drugs, and rock&roll). There’s a lazy tendency to lay the blame for my wild years on stock culprits: strict religious parents, wayward peers, mediocre public schools. But nothing really captures the driving force of that time like Hartmann’s premise that children are seeking the rapture of being alive. And will go to great lengths to capture that feeling.