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Sometimes ADHD only makes sense in hindsight — like when you find out who the killer is in a murder mystery. During the pandemic, actor Scott Watson’s trouble with focus hit a tipping point and made him wonder if he had ADHD. Once he got diagnosed — and after stumbling across a handy acronym — he could see how ADHD had impacted him his whole life.
Host Laura Key talks with Scott about his executive function skills, ADHD medication, and the pros and cons of hyperfocus.
Scott: I had my "aha" moment in 2020, when I was sitting at home trying to work remotely. And I just couldn't do it. It was something that wasn't hard. Something I've done before should not be a challenge. The idea of doing the task was just so monumentally daunting that I would just sit in front of my computer and avoid it for hours. And it was like, "Why can't I focus?" No matter how much coffee I drank or how many jumping jacks I do. So, yeah, I think the pandemic was really the moment where I was like, I need to do something.
Laura: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "ADHD Aha," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they or someone they know has ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I'm the editorial director here at Understood. And as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment, I'll be your host.
I'm here today with Scott Watson. Scott is an actor who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and he has ADHD. Welcome, Scott.
Scott: Hey, how's it going?
Laura: Great. I'm so happy that you're here with me today. Let's jump right in. Tell me about your "aha" moment. When did you realize that you had ADHD, and how did you realize that?
Scott: Like a flashbulb moment. It's hard, cause it's kind of like a movie where you find out who the killer is at the end, and then you go back through the whole movie and you're like, "Ah, of course it was that guy — look at all the clues." And that's our lives. When we find out we have ADHD, it's "Oh yeah, that makes total sense."
But, yeah, I think the pandemic really was a big key. And for me, I was recently formally diagnosed this year. And I had been working from home and I just could not focus on getting the work done that needed to be done. And that just started to bring up a lot of things my entire life, where I was struggling to do things like this, that I've done a million times, that are not challenging, but I just have no interest or ability to do them.
And I started doing some research, and then I came across this acronym on the internet that was incredibly helpful to me and was eye-opening, which was ICNU, which is interest, challenge, novelty, and urgency. And if a task does not fall into this category, for people with ADHD, those are the tasks that our brain struggles with the absolute most to complete.
It was just such a light bulb moment of that acronym, because it was like, "That a thousand percent defines every test that I struggled with in my life." A lot of things started to break through with that realization.
Laura: I really relate to that, especially what you say about looking back. It's like you struggled for so long and then finally it clicks and you look back and you're like, "Oh, I get it now."
I think you said that you're from Michigan, is that right?
Scott: I am, yeah.
Laura: I'm from Ohio. So, from the same area. I know we're supposed to be enemies.
Scott: Bitter rivals!
Laura: But when you look back at growing up, as a kid in Michigan, can you pinpoint times when you were struggling and you're like, "Oh yeah, that was the ADHD that whole time."
Scott: All the time.
Laura: Tell me about them.
Scott: ADHD can kick in at any time, but just being a kid, it's a lot easier to kind of ignore because kids are kids. They're impulsive, they're creative, they're full of energy, things like that. But I just remember around third or fourth grade, stuff that was so easy for me stopped being easy.
And I went from breezing through A's and my grades to suddenly just not doing my homework. Coming home, being like, "OK, I need to do this — I need to do this math homework," setting it aside, and then, before I knew it, it was 10 p.m. and the homework was not done. That inability to focus on getting that done just continued to snowball through middle school and high school.
And I think like a lot of people with ADHD, I'm no Mensa member, but I'm not dumb! But it was so frustrating to know that I had the capability to get this stuff done but I just wasn't. And that leads to all sorts of self-loathing, depression, all sorts of things. But, yeah, with the diagnosis, just looking back, especially in college, too, even though I got a theater degree — so, I was on my feet pretending to be a bird, so that was a lot easier for my ADHD brain — but just, like, the gen-ed subjects, it was the same thing. I just couldn't write a paper about cultural anthropology. It just didn't happen.
Laura: It's not interesting enough for you.
Scott: Yeah, it just didn't check the boxes. And that was the other thing. Occasionally, there would be assignments in school, like, in fourth grade I drew every single United States president, because I realized that I didn't know the names of all the presidents. So I did an incredible amount of research into who they were. I drew a portrait of every single one of them. This was not for an assignment. This was just me going down something that caught my hyperfocus. And I spent weeks and weeks and weeks on that while my homework just built up slowly beside me, and my parents were like, "This is great, so happy you're so excited about this, but, you know, your math homework is not done."
Laura: Yeah. And I'm not surprised to hear you say that around third and fourth grade was a really telling moment for you. That's around the time in school when assignments start to get trickier, you have more to manage, and that's where that executive functioning difficulty comes in that you're referencing.
A lot of people get confused about hyperfocus. They think, "OK, you have ADHD. So how are you able to hyperfocus on things that are so interesting to you, but you can't focus on other things." And what a lot of people don't understand is that ADHD can make it hard for you to shift your attention to something. It can also make it really hard for you to shift your attention away from something. And that's where the hyperfocus comes in. Do you use hyperfocus to your advantage right now in your life? Or is it a detriment ever? Talk to me about that.
Scott: Yeah, it seemed to be, back in the day. It was many years before I realized that that's what happened.
I've always liked to write. That was always something that I was passionate about. And that hyperfocus would click in when I was writing sometimes. And I knew after a while that I had to sit at my computer and chain myself to my chair and just kind of wait for that to happen. And sometimes it didn't, and it was so frustrating.
It was like being Superman and only shooting lasers out of your eyes every fifth time. You just never know when it was going to click in. But when I saw that acronym — interest, challenge, novelty, and urgency — all of a sudden, a lot of things started to make more sense.
It was like, OK, what helps me write? A deadline. And what do I like to write about? Things that I don't necessarily know about. So then there's the interest, drawing in, doing all this research; challenge, trying to do something I've never done before; and novelty of just writing something new. And that's what I've always really loved. I loved the first draft, getting it all out there.
The second and third draft, no, not really. So, there's like 36 stories that are unfinished on my Google Drive.
Laura: What you say about needing to basically chain yourself to a chair in order to get something done, it really reminds me of something that I heard from one of our experts. His name is Tom Brown, and I heard him say something like this before I got diagnosed, and it really stuck with me. And I'm paraphrasing here, but he said something along the lines of, you know, in order for someone with ADHD to really focus on something that they don't care about that much, that they're not interested in, it's almost like you have to have a gun to their head. Which I know is a very dark way of putting it, but it feels so true. And it reminds me, oh, this is so real, right? This is legit. This difficulty.
Scott: Absolutely. Urgency — with chores, with all these things, it would just reach a certain point where I would look around at my car or my room or the shattered remains of my life. And I would just be like, "Enough." And then I would clean for hours. Hours and hours and hours.
So it was like, build up, build up, build up, build up, build up, until it was urgent. And then the hyperfocus would click in, and then I would clean obsessively. And then, you know, rather than just, like, maintaining that cleaning schedule, I would go back to the "OK, I'll just throw my stuff on the ground" until another month had passed and things had built up. It's so frustrating. Because you're like, "Why am I like this? I know what I need to do so that this doesn't happen, but I just don't do it."
Laura: It's the way your brain is wired. Let's talk a little bit about — boredom isn't a symptom of ADHD, but it can be the result of ADHD and that need for stimulation. Did you experience a lot of boredom growing up? Did you ever get in trouble for seeming bored or daydreamy?
Scott: Yeah, especially as I started to get older through middle school and high school, I would just cover my notebook in doodles and sketches and things like that. I remember sitting in geometry class in my sophomore year of high school, and every day it would be the choice of "I can try to listen and be here in class," and just like excruciating torture of that. "Or I can just escape into my head and draw pictures of, like, Homer Simpson riding a rocket."
Laura: Based on what you're telling me, it sounds like hyperactivity wasn't the symptom that you struggled with, or at least not the most. Is that accurate?
Scott: That's pretty accurate. That's hard to look at from my own personal perspective; I was definitely a very active kid, like, my brother and I would go outside and he would come back sparkling clean and I would come back just like Pigpen from Peanuts, just, like, covered head to toe in dirt somehow.
Laura: Sounds fun.
Scott: Yeah. It's fun. And I loved to run when I was a kid. So there was definitely, like, an excess of energy that I was siphoning off. But I do have fidgets with my legs and things like that, where I'll be sitting in one place and my leg will start going up and down or shaking and things like that. It's all totally unconscious. But as I've gotten older and, I think this is relatively common, the whole hyperactivity thing has faded away a bit.
Laura: Right. Of the symptoms of ADHD, it's one of the ones that can subside maybe more than others do.
Scott: Yeah. And I would say that one, if it was ever there, subsided pretty quickly, which added to the confusion, because that's the one that the ADHD diagnosis seems to be first and foremost for a lot of people or an easy indicator when you're young that this person might have ADHD is that they are just, like, bouncing off the walls.
Laura: Exactly. While you may have had some excess energy and were a bit fidgety, it sounds like that wasn't your primary symptom, hyperactivity. We typically associate boys with ADHD as being hyperactive. So, it's interesting to me that that's not the thing that really came to the forefront for you. And also makes me wonder if the fact that hyperactivity wasn't your big symptom, do you feel like that's potentially why you flew under the radar for many years?
Scott: Yeah, absolutely. And, also, you know, I was growing up in the '90s in a very small, small town. So, the kind of things where students can maybe get a little bit more of an individual focus or they're surrounded by other, like, neuro-atypical students. So they can be like, "Well, this person clearly kind of is a part of this group that we've seen before." I think the fact that I was able to maintain a certain level of grades, that I wasn't crashing until certain parts of high school, did allow me to fly under the radar.
Laura: Does your family know now that you have ADHD?
Scott: No. I haven't talked to my parents much about it, honestly. Not that they would be opposed to that diagnosis. But I think a lot of times with parents, there can be a certain amount of guilt that something could have been troubling their child as they were growing up and they missed it or didn't know. And that's not necessarily fair, because we know so much more about ADHD now than we did even 10 years ago.
Laura: I really feel everything you're saying. I grew up in the Midwest in a relatively small town and, you're right, I mean, we have to be fair. There's a lot more information about it now. And I feel you — sometimes I don't want to talk about it with my family because I don't want them to feel bad about anything, that, like, they did anything wrong.
But I do wonder sometimes, you know, maybe it would be helpful if I were more open about it with my family, because sometimes I notice them struggling with some of these symptoms too. And I don't think they're as aware of it as I am.
Scott: Being diagnosed as an adult, you have built up strategies on your own without even realizing it to cope with ADHD if you're not specifically getting therapy for it or using medication. And for some people it's a completely debilitating thing, and they cannot function. And for other people it's more insidious or confusing, but, you know, you work up strategies to get stuff done. And it can be kind of hard, for example, if you see the symptoms of that in your parents and they're in their 70s, to be, like, "You know, would a diagnosis at that point be helpful, because you've lived your whole life with this?" And being diagnosed at 35, I would say it is helpful. Like how useful to have an answer for a lot of questions that you didn't even know that you necessarily had.
Laura: What treatments or treatment or strategies do you use to manage your ADHD?
Scott: The thing that I was most hesitant to do was to take medication. And I think that's why I put off getting a formal diagnosis for so long, was because the idea of taking medication to be normal was not a great thought for me. Because I thought, well, if I take medication every day to get to baseline, where does that leave me? But that was a bad way to look at that. That was just my own neuroses. So eventually I was like, well, what do I have to lose? I should try medication to see if it helped. And I did try a couple of different things. And then eventually I got on to a stimulant medication, a relatively lower dosage that was extended release.
It was just a game changer. And it's hard to describe the difference between your brain before and your brain after. But I think it can kind of be described as like somebody who puts on those colorblind glasses for the first time and they don't even know what they're not seeing. And then all of a sudden they're like, "Red! Holy crap, that's red, and that's green!"
And that was me going through my email inbox, just being like, "I can organize this. I didn't even read this email. We're putting labels on stuff. This is great." Or just, like, looking at the dishes and being like, "I'm going to do those right now." Or arriving early for an appointment — that was great.
Laura: What's that about?
Scott: I don't know. It's like, "I'm not an hour early or an hour late to this."
Laura: Good on you. I know that there's this myth, it's really pernicious, that's out there that, like, using medication is a crutch. I think it takes a lot of bravery to use medication as a tool.
Scott: Absolutely. And it is so unfair to say that medication is a crutch. I challenge anybody who wears glasses, who wears braces, who drives a car — because, by the way, we can't go 80 miles an hour with our legs. There are things that we do every day in our life that make our lives a little simpler.
Laura: Scott, are you ever impulsive?
Scott: Yes. Extremely.
Laura: Are you comfortable giving me some examples of that?
Scott: Oh, sure. I won't give you all the examples. What are, like, the two halves that it kind of falls on? There's impulsivity, and then there's hyperactivity.
Laura: Impulsivity and hyperactivity often go hand in hand, yeah. But impulse control is an executive function.
Scott: Right? Which I lack. Yeah. I mean, I was always, like — especially during college and high school — I was bad with money. I was bad with money. My first paycheck from my fast-food Subway job, I was like, "I'm getting a PlayStation 2; I'm getting a game." It was, like, any money that was in my account was there to be spent on the first thing that kind of caught my fancy.
I would start collecting things, like I would get all into that. Like, I started just collecting old Nintendo games during college, out of nowhere. And then pretty soon I had 300, and then I lost all interest in it.
Laura: Oh, man. That sounds really fun, though.
Scott: It was very fun until the thrill went away, and then I just had 300 Nintendo video games.
Laura: You could probably get a lot of money for those these days.
Scott: Yeah, absolutely.
Laura: If you have Bubble Bobble or Bubble Boggle or whatever, I would buy that for me. I love that game.
Scott: Oh, yes, Bubble Bobble. That game is amazing.
Laura: You're an actor. I know, from what I've read about you, you do a lot of physical acting. Is that right? You use your body a lot in your acting.
Scott: Yeah, I've got training in theater, focus in Shakespeare. And what I love to do was always like, zany, crazy clown, or play like 36 different roles. Like this one has a limp, this one has an eyepatch. Or some commedia dell'arte clowning stuff. The physical part of it was always really so helpful because when I would reach for that energy that I needed for the performance, it was there. And being an actor kind of checks off that acronym again, especially the urgency and the novelty. If you're in a play, if you're in a commercial, TV show, film, every day is different, and it's always urgent because if you forget your lines or screw up a take, yeah, there's pressure.
There's pressure whether there's, like, a Broadway house of 1,500 people looking at you or if there's 35 guys in cargo shorts just like "Get the take so we can go to lunch" kind of thing.
Laura: Scott, tell me what you love most about your ADHD brain.
Scott: I love how creative it can make me. And I love that feeling when I get excited about something and I'm in the zone. It's kind of like an out-of-body experience where I'm so focused.
This especially happens when I'm writing, because I write plays and screenplays and stuff. But when I'm just, like, writing dialogue and two characters are talking to each other, it's like I'm there just watching them talk. And that ability to really zone in and kind of lose myself in the details, it's just an incredible experience.
Laura: Well, thank you so much for being here with me today, Scott. I am so grateful for your candor, for your insights, and I just really relate to you on so many levels. Thank you so much for being a champion for people with ADHD.
Scott: This was such a great experience. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about it. And this is wonderful.
Laura: You've been listening to "ADHD Aha," from the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "ADHD Aha" on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about the show. We rely on listeners like you to reach and support more people. And if you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDAha@understood.org. I'd love to hear from you. You can go to u.org/ADHDAha to find details on each episode and related resources. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash ADHD Aha.
Understood is a nonprofit and social impact organization. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "ADHD Aha" is produced by Jessamine Molli. Say hi, Jessamine.
Jessamine: Hi, everyone.
Laura: Justin D. Wright created our music. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. And I'm your host, Laura Key, editorial director at Understood. Thanks so much for listening.
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