A few years after achieving my Master of Divinity degree at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), I finally had the chance to do something I’d wanted to do for years, I took up art.
My drawing instructor taught art as an exercise in organized scribbling. Drawing began with wide, scribbled gestures to approximate what our work was to become. Erasers weren’t permitted, so every scribble, intentional or in error, had to be worked into our final picture. My scribbling continued throughout my art studies (drawing, painting, ceramics, and sculpture). Each scribble or errant chisel mark contributed to a final piece of artwork.
This approach to art serves as an apt paradigm for my journey with adult Attention Deficit Disorder
(ADD). Since diagnosed 40 years ago, I’ve crafted a successful and beautiful “picture” from the challenging scribbles of my life.
While some folks seem to breeze through life, many of us with ADD or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) live 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year (multiplied by more than 70 years for me!) with the struggle of who we are and what others think of us. It wasn’t until my last two years of college (1970-1972) that I heard of learning disabilities and ADD. I remember pages of my medical books stained with tears because I wasn’t just reading about others with difficulties. Academic struggles, volatility and impulse control difficulties - I was reading about myself.
While close friends and family generally accept and understand my ADD, to others my life appears little more than messy and childish scribbling. To avert their own discomfort, some folks avoid me. It begins to feel like they wish I would just stay away.
I could easily succumb to the stigma and stereotypes others make of me because of my ADD. I’ve learned however, that no matter what others’ opinions may be, I alone get to choose how I incorporate their scribbles of me into a piece of art. I alone choose whether to be defined as a victor or as a victim. A victor moves beyond others’ stigma while a victim buys into and accepts them. We don’t have to be ruled by stigma imposed upon us. If we want, we can turn other people’s scribbles into a far more beautiful picture of ourselves.
Chaos to Order by Jack Mace
A few years ago I wrote a poem about my own on-going self-stigma.
He’s Still There
He’s still there;
That frightened little kid with history
good times and bad
success and failure
hard times and triumph.
He’s still there,
who he is because of who he was;
proud he has overcome;
glad in who he is;
glad in what he’s done.
Yes, he’s still there;
in isolation and in crowds
in isolation IN those crowds
with friends – or without
in confidence – or fear.
Yes, he’s still there;
that little, frightened kid
fearing accusations in absence of wrong
oft feeling guilt in absence of error
oft isolating himself in fear.
That frightened little kid;
yes, he’s still HERE.
(March 24, 2011)
“That frightened, little kid” has been prominent on my life's canvas.
After college my first attempt at seminary ended in a de-facto ejection from further study. During a 12-year interlude I simultaneously ran two businesses while teaching drafting and math classes at a local prison. Imagine a math teacher who almost couldn’t pass arithmetic in grade school! It wasn’t that I couldn’t do math. I implicitly understood operations and mathematical manipulations. Due to ADD, my difficulty came in handling actual numbers. Sometimes they just didn’t register in my brain. Even today, it’s not unheard of for me to fail solving a Sudoku puzzle by placing a digit side-by-side with another exact same digit and never seeing it.
After my 12-year break from seminary, I returned to study with renewed efforts, successfully achieving a Master of Divinity degree with a pastoral counseling emphasis. I intended to begin working in hospital chaplaincy, but got channeled into dysfunction and emotional blackmail by people in my training group who did not understand ADD, and determining for themselves that I had a mental illness that required treatment. In the 1990’s, many denied that ADD existed in adults and that it was a disability that impacts daily life.
Eventually I resigned from that position, tired of negative attention and stigma. It seemed I was the only one who learned from our experience together. The others, including my supervisor, already knew all they cared to know about me. Their faulty scribbled pictures of me were drawn, and they would consider no other possible picture.
This career interruption and wrongful scribbles on my canvas fortunately resulted in a new opportunity to learn carpentry and eventually lead a community effort to establish a home repair non-profit called Interfaith Housing Services (IHS), Inc. IHS sought to serve the poor, elderly, and people with disabilities. I take great pride in having been the first IHS President. IHS is still thriving 26 years later, and has expanded across Southwestern Kansas.
During the the retirement speech of our second IHS President, I was introduced by the retiree as “the most amazing man he’d ever met.” Wow! This praise took me by surprise! It saw more clearly how my scribbles had been transformed into a beautiful picture. I’ve survived job loss and impossible job searches. I’ve survived doing both college and seminary through the challenges of my disability. Still, as hard as it has been for me, I look over my life and consider myself a victor rather than victim.
Follow the link to read Part 2 of Jack's reflections on over-coming self-stigma.