This weekend, I had another epiphany of all epiphanies and it was when I came across the new diagnostic term VAST as a broader interpretation of ADHD. Under this new umbrealla term, and given what the trait (no longer “defecit disorder”) looks like in this broadest sense, could I now conceive of this being me and could this help shed some considerable light on some of my profoudnest struggles through life?
Are high sensitivity and high sensation seeking consistent with one another?
This is related to another important question tackled here in this blog before: in spite of being very highly, painfully, sensitive, am I also a high sensation seeker? Yes, in some ways (mostly mental, as in, I crave copious amounts of mental stimulation, am highly impatient and a terrible interupter or finisher of sentences unless I take rigorous steps to curb it and, for the record, time management has been a major handicap all my life) I most emphatically am. This paradox of requiring high stimulation alongside extremely high sensitivity is a recognised and well-documented factor of the highly sensitive trait. Being an HSP does not mean you necessarily hide away from sensations…at all…and, in fact, many HSPs class as high-sensations seekers, the most commonly given example being singer songwriter Alanis Morissette, who has interviewed and blogged about this side of the trait fairly copiously (and, you could say, it has fuelled her unique brand of creativity really quite a lot).
In fact, I know there is a considerable part of me that is addicted to strong sensations and that this is the inbuilt paradox; to, at once, find them so overwhelming and yet so very necessary in order to feel alive…but, of course, we each have our individualised preference on this spectrum. Check out discussions boards on the topic of ADHD (the term VAST isn’t being used so very much as yet) or about autistic sensory processing challenges and you will find long lists of people stating they are massively triggered by this, this and this sensory or experiential thing but that they can’t get enough of that, that and that one (with some fairly interesting choices, like death metal or rough surfaces, neon lights or throbbing dance floors amongst the “loves”). You’ve probably heard the term “stimming” and many of us on the spectrum do have our chosen range of “stims” that brings us a high degree of sensory pleasure and comfort, even when there may be some everyday sources of stimulation we actively avoid though, to any neurotypical person, they seem so mild as to be inconsequential.
For me, it goes a step further to where I have known, for a long time, that I can be a contradiction in terms as far as being a quiet, introverted, sensitive person who also happens to need to express bursts of high-vibe, exuberant, even a little bit crazy or off-the-wall enthusiasm for life. In fact, when I don’t get bursts of this, I really suffer for it. I can become a tightly coiled spring and that can lead into pain and more health issues. Yes, and my daily behaviour keeps it barely hidden from anyone that really knows and observes me because I go so intensely into whatever I am fixated upon or doing, often not knowing when or how to stop or slow down; and I still struggle to know how to economise my energy usage or, if I do know, there is part of me that actively wants to press the over-ride button again and again (and hang the consequences). In fact, if I don’t allow full throttle expression of this high vibe, super-rapid, overly intense part of me, I feel as though I might die from the boredom or just die, full-stop, from the inertia.
In fact, its a fundamental frequency or vibration I have to spin through my cells like everyone else has to take in oxygen to keep their muscles animated (OK, I do that too…but its as though I prioritise this unseen frequency, this high-pitched “prana”, above oxygen, as my very necessity for life). Its why the thought of life spent in deep meditation or staring at the exact same peaceful view day after day feels like abject torture to me, though I admit to spending a considerable period of time telling myself this should now be my aim in life, my hoped for nirvana (the backlash of burnout and overwhelm, to crave its opposite) but nope, I was wrong and doing myself no favours, yet again, to think I could conform to such a monastic ideal. I practice daily yoga and meditation, yes, but its not easy at all; least of all the mediation part, given the speeding train that is my mind. What I need is a bit of both…in balance!
This past year of lockdown has really flagged up for me how the peaceful parts are only made possible by the frequent punctuations of travel, explosions of colour and new experiences to wet and reinvigorate my creative and cognitive appetites. Its only because of several years of chronic health that I was starting to convince myself I didn’t need all this in my life (again, wrong) and would do better, in fact be grateful for, someting more passive, gentle, repetitious. What is far more accurate is that I prize “the quiet life”, mostly, so that I can pursue my high-intensity, convoluted, somewhat all-consuming interests and thinking pursuits to my heart’s content, uninterupted. I am also starting to wonder if I have taken the pursuit of a soothing life too far, to the point my VASTness is having to shout even louder to get my attention…
I don’t bounce on other people’s sofas
If I’m honest, this super-intense propulsion energy at my very core feels like the pivot on which all my other eratic health issues are hinged so I’ve long-danced around the term ADHD (a lot like I danced around the idea of autism for so very long, before realising it fit like a glove; and by the way, the two are often bedfellows) but a big part of me has struggled with all the common ways that ADHD is portrayed and, to quote one other adult who now accepts she has the trait, I also kept coming back to this one sticking point…”I don’t bounce on people’s sofas”.
If that made you grimace or laugh, ask yourself what you imagine when you think of ADHD because bouncing on sofas certainly springs into my mind; people also tend to assume it is something experienced by (badly brought up…) children who eat too many additives in their food (and as I say this, I grimace again at the fact I have a life-long, exaggerated, aversion to additives). Have I just found a new elephant standing in the middle of the room?
This is where the new diagnostic term VAST comes in. Coined by Dr Edward Hallowell, who was instrumental in bringing ADHD into the public awareness in the 1990s via his book “Driven to Distraction”, he explains it as follows:
“ADHD is an inaccurate — and potentially corrosive — name. The term “deficit disorder” places ADHD in the realm of pathology, or disease. Individuals with ADHD do not have a disease, nor do they have a deficit of attention; in fact, what they have is an abundance of attention. The challenge is controlling it.
Therefore, we argue that a more accurate descriptive term is “variable attention stimulus trait” (VAST), a name that allows us to “de-medicalize” ADHD and focus instead on the huge benefits of having an ADHD brain.”
However, the relief and liberality of hearing this newly-framed description isn’t the only reason I recognised and claimed VAST for myself this weekend. How it, properly, clicked into place was via recognising in myself the incorporated trait of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, also outlined by Dr Ned in the same article (ADHD needs a better name. We have one).
Over sensitive to perceived rejection
“This phrase (Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria), coined by Dr. William Dodson, refers to the extreme emotional sensitivity and feelings of guilt, shame, and rejection often experienced by those living with VAST”.
“But with VAST there are always pairs; you can hyperfocus and then you can’t focus. You are distractible, but you’re also curious. So if individuals with VAST tend to succumb to perceived rejection, they can just as easily thrive with perceived recognition, an experience we call “recognition responsive euphoria.”
In the introduction of his new book, he expands on this further with the most key, and optimistic, phrase he could have offered me:
“That’s why living with it can be such a mishmash, so confusing, but also so exciting and at times groundbreaking” (Hallowell, Edward M.; Ratey, John J.. ADHD 2.0 (p. 16). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition).
In this I see myself so acutely that I drew in a very sharp intake of breath and held it there, astonished because its me to a tee, the crux of so many heartaches, crashes, misunderstandings, paranoias, abandoned jobs and broken friendships…(the list goes on) but also such euphoric highs, on the back of surprising catalysts, that I struggle to find people to share them with since most people don’t seem to know what I am aluding to. I’ve since done the Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria self-test and came out with a pretty darned resounding score to the affirmative.
Yes, I am a perfectionist and push myself well over the required amount in just about every situation you can name. I so need to feel I am being well-received, to have that pat on the back, the encouragement, the positive feedback and sense of a worthy conclusion reached (that is so often missing once you leave academia and enter the world of work, where deadlines overlap and efforts go unnoticed…) and to feel or hear positive responses or appraisal coming back at me; not out of some egoic hole the size of a football pitch that needs so desperately to be filled but to do with some most intrinsic part of my self-perception and an insecurity as to how I fit into life’s pattern (given that, in so many ways, I don’t). I express what vague sense of who I am via my various offerings (could be a piece of art, a written article, a contribution to a discussion…I can assure you, they are all equally pained over) so when I don’t get feedback, its like being ignored or deemed worthless.
For instance, I’ve spent the last few months building a new website for selling my art, taking hundreds of hours of input and creative vision and yet, when it recieves next to no engagement, as is currently the case, in spite of using social media to the best of my ability to broadcast it, where do I go from there regarding my sense of “who I am” in the world. How can I better this outcome without having to adopt all the most abhorent tactics of marketing I usually shun and which, vehemently, don’t feel like a reflection of me whereas my art is how I try to speak most authentically and directly to the world (in ways I struggle to do otherwise)? When I put that most authentic and vulnerable face out there and no one seems to be interested, how do I not take it as a slap in the face, a sign that I might as well not bother to do anything at all? Instagram and my facebook art business page, repeatedly, leave me feeling like the voice that nobody hears and, of course, its so hard not to compare with other artists who put out less quality yet get hundreds and thousands of responses compared to my ones and twos. Its a case of having to constantly remind myself that social media tactics and algorithms defeat me as much as the nuances of social conversation and I may never conquor the rules of the game!
Of course, back in the days of school or career, it was whatever I was working on and I would be poised to respond, with much over-sensitivity, to how it was received, no matter how big or small the assignment. However, back at school it felt much easier to put in the work and receive the positive feedback whereas adulthood has been an amorphous experience for me, offering so little sense of my place or value in the world outside of my immediate family, thus I have struggled to identify myself by the same means that neurotypical people use as daily currency.
Soar like a bird…or crash to the depths
Once I have the positive feedback, its as though I am capable of doing anything thereafter and am soon to be found soaring to a whole new level of achievement so that it can become an exponential flight of fancy, a direct route to success and happiness and thus I start to thrive…but, when I don’t, it can be dire, in some exaggeratedly impactful ways. First of all, that perceived criticism or negative feedback, however minor, seems to get stuck on loop like a pebble ricocheting off the inside walls of the tin can of my head. Dr Ned describes this very process as
“Real or imagined criticism gets caught in the Default Mode Network — one of the primary networks in the brain that is active when a person is not focused — and creates the negative feelings that spiral into rejection sensitive dysphoria”.
After that, it’s as though I implode into a heap of meaningless sludge and lose all traction with myself; or, at least, it used to be like that before I did a ton of self-awareness and mindfulness work to change my innermost attitudes and all the broken ways I self-appraised over the past ten years. Without having done this, the last decade and a half of “not working” in any socially acceptable fashion would have crucified my sense of self but, thankfully, I have kept myself buoyed with other means and yet I still loathe and self-despise the way I rely on social media feedback and “likes” of my blog or my artworks to measure my own self-worth. As Dr Ned points out, people with this trait need from their employers some sort of regular and positively-geared appraisal – a regular answer to their silent plea, “how am I doing?” – so that they can avoid that deep plummet into desperate assumptions. However, here I am, no one to answer to, no one to give that regular feedback to me, meaning social media and other forms of internet engagement have become “it”, my one interface with the outside world, which is a rather tragic indictment because its a fickle and, often, quite unfair, highly random, arbitor of the so-called success or positive impact of what you put out there.
This also makes me worry about a whole generation of similarly wired kids for whom this self-evaluation via social media is probably also true and I have had to, inevitably, (as per most parents these days) help guide my daughter through this tricky territory during her school years. By the way, she also struggles without regular constructive feedback, or she quickly flounders into the dark territory of lost self-worth and over-perfectionism. Thankfully, she is wise enough to take this into consideration as she choses her future career path (since not all careers provide this; self-employment can be a minefield if you crave regular yet fair appraisal and, meanwhile, big corprate can be ruthless).
For the record, this Rejection Sensitive Dyphoria thing happens to be how I imploded in my last job. I went into it guns-blazing, to compensate for how out of my turf I was at the start (I had zero experience and was with people almost half my age) and thus aced the training and became a high-flyer in my team, one of their valued performers. That is, until a client made a formal complaint about something petty (I suspect it was more an act of spite in response to my firm tone of voice when they pushed for an unrealisable settlement more than a thing I actually got wrong on their case), which led to the inevitable investigation. The sudden change of tone by my boss, the gruelling procedural interviews and in-depth post-mortem of my case-handling, the (exagerated in my head) feeling of fingers being pointed, of shame and humiliation, of integrity questioned, of trust having been withdrawn never left me, long after the investigation was dismissed and forgotten about, and so the job was utterly ruined, no going back, it was just a matter of time before I left.
Of course, I forced myself to go out on a high, to try and erase the stuck memory, so worked doubly hard in those last weeks, pulled off a record performance, a department standing ovation for “highest costs received in a week” (it was a legal firm), the very day I departed. A coincidence this all happened right at the very point my health slipped into all the mayhem of fibromyalgia, PoTs and chronic fatigue syndrome? I don’t think so! My entire self-perception came into question that year, having plumetted from the heady heights to the lows for something so arbitrary and unfair (on top of major financial worries at home), thus I even lost sight of the meaning of life to a degree.
Thankfully, in spite of my health, I bounced back via my now-improving personal life and my art (more on that below) but it was the very end of me trusting in the kind of feedback I could ever expect from “a job” and so something clicked in me; I must never go back into that arena again (I had had previous issues in earlier job scenarios, this was just the finale). I had run out of stamina for playing that so-bewildering, neurotypically devised game of survival by chance and nuance rather than staighforward and honest effort. I had now pulled the “early retirement for health reasons” card, though I hardly realised at the time.
Here’s a summary of the up and down of VAST, from Dr Ned’s article:
“Just as a little negativity can tumble into anxiety and panic, a drop of praise can build into a tsunami of hope and motivation. Remember, key traits of VAST are resilience and an amazing ability to never give up.”
This is also the story of my first marriage, where non-stop criticism was the name of the game and, in the end, I imploded. In my current one…a completely different story and thus an arena of huge compensation for all my mostly absent career accolades or benchmarks of success. However, I have to add, it was an early bloom of recognition as a painter from one particular gallery that happend to like my style that led to a sudden launch of an art “career” shortly after I left work so that, out of nowhere, I was suddenly making a name for myself in a handful of galleries, having only just taught myself to paint the year before…so, see how us VAST types can suddenly launch ourselves, quite unexpectedly, into some brand new and previously undreamed of direction, fuelled by the eurphoria of recognition? If I hadn’t received that intial burst of high praise and encouragement at just the right moment for me to hear it, in the wake of my recent corporate flop, I sometimes wonder if it would have even happened!
So, when I receive that positive feedback, I soar like some bird on a high thermal…but when I don’t, I quickly plummet without a parachute into feelings of worthlessness, pointlessness, and yes assumed criticism or even paranoia that I’ve done something exageratedly wrong, that people don’t get me or like me, that I am being ignored or excluded. Should I ever receive actual criticism or be misunderstood as to what I meant to say (which happens quite a bit given my autistic tendency towards social faux pas), it utterly destroys me and I lose all confidence in that situation, or with that person; there is seldom any going back to mend those fences and I have become an expert at burning bridges and walking away rather than try. For instance, a longstanding friend misconstrued something I wrote about friendships in my blog last year so I received a dreadful email abruptly ending the friendship. Though the misunderstanding was “ironed out”, that gut-churning exchange has played on endless loop in my head for the past 8 or so months, popping up when I least expect it; I just can’t seem to get rid of it’s echo-effect (classic Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria at work, I now know). I would probably relax more if only she replied to my last email or popped up to say “hi”, since its as though I am now frozen in my dysphorian response, my mind working overtime to imagine the situation worse. In my maturity, and now knowing about this trait, I really hope to get much better at letting things go and allowing the recovery process to take place as I think it would have vast scope for accelerating my overal healing process.
So, in summary, this VAST trait has made blogging such a gift for me because I gain all the highs of spinning my ideas out into words, into places where people can engage with them, where I sincerely hope that they might be helpful to others like me and yet also a source of agony because of dreaded (or lack of) feedback and I have often considered giving it up as “what’s the point?”. The sheer extremity and breadth of these feelings inside of me (from such exuberant highs to crashing lows) has had me questioning my mental health and sanity many times over the years, considering all sorts of conclusions that are now so easily moved out of the way by this one simple conclusion offered by Dr Ned – I am VAST and that’s all there is to it!
More of us are VAST than we realise
So, in this one simple manoeuvre, he brought me back to reconsider ADHD again…as I had done so many times before…only, in this broader format that I can manage to swallow and which, as he says, probably extends the reach of the diagnosis from 5 to 10% of the population to a considerably higher proportion so, as it turns out, a great many of us are probably VAST!
Combined with my other traits and health foibles, which are often comorbidities with VAST (autism, high sensitivity, synesthesia, sensory processing disorder, etc), this sheds so much light on things that I am only just starting to unpack it all. What follows are just a few early realisations, straight off the cuff. Here’s one thing that occurred to me as the crux of very many of my problems.
Being VAST plus being an introvert makes for a complex, even messy, situation
For instance, that tightly coiled thing in search of stimulation is very real for me…so I desperately need my VAST outlets…but (and this is an important “but”) I expressly need to explore such outlets in a neurodiverse and introverted way, not in a neurotypical or extroverted way. For instance, pursing the kind of expansive and complex ideas and thoughts that stimulate my brain and fire me up with passion and purpose works for me far better than using things like socialising to stimulate me since, as an introvert, and also being autistic, that puts me way outside of my comfort territory and lays me open to frequent paranoias about rejection and not doing so well. Those earlier days of doing a lot of socialising, to try and “fit in” and find purpose, led to a relentless spiral of anxiety and emotional burn-out that led directly to my crashed-out health.
So, this very fine line between appropriate and inappropriate stimulation and feedback source is exactly where the expression of my VAST traits has backfired so spectacularly in the past, resulting in so much pain, regret and self-loathing…as in, I often turned to alcohol, shopping for clothes and other addictions to smooth my transition into states (such as being around lots of other people all the time) that really didn’t come easily to me and which opened me up to misinterpreting how I was perceived, using that to draw dubious conclusions about how well I was doing. Even without the inner anxiety, these activities can be quite adrenalin-making, but my VAST trait embraced them as a source of high stimulation and then took them on as necessary habits if I was to meet people and be popular, cultivating friendships and “having a life” appropriate to someone in their 20s.
Alcohol in particular was a mistake for me. Yes, that initial wave of exuberance could feel like a perfect match for my VAST personality; suddenly, I am talking nineteen to the dozen, making people laugh, everything is getting faster, I am riding on the crest of a “high” and life is something to be celebrated…but then, wham, those depressive qualities as the chemicals hit the blood stream start to kick in, hitting me all the harder as (I now know) I am extra sensitive to them; another factor of VAST which means we often get seriously inebriated on far less drink than the average person…oh yes!
In fact, the risk of binge drinking is known to be much higher with ADHD, and boy did I binge drink in my 20s, even though the effects were already messy on far less drink than I consumed. Yet it was as though I couldn’t stop myself, once into it, and I would repeat even though track record gave me ample reasons to learn my lesson and abstain…so, of course, self-loathing joined in with the party too. During the effects, I was sometimes impulsive, mouthy, often did and said the polar opposite of what I meant or really thought, as though to set myself up for the inevitable fall the next day. Of course, I wasn’t like this all the time but, when I was, I tended to internalise the horror show and play it on endless loop and it wasn’t helped by my ex so loving to tell me I was an embarassment, had made a fool of myself, did or said the wring things, even though other people said he was making it up to be cruel.
One other point about my addictions of alcohol and consumerism; for this highly introverted, autistic girl, they were a means of masking and also of communicating. When I drank, I found it far easier to relate to what other people were talking about and to join in; otherwise, I was too much in my head, eccentric, too much of the geek, my intersts were always too niche and intense to talk about. I also felt much more reticent and guarded, having to plan and orchestrate how to take part, awkward about pacing, prone to over-analyse what I said even before I said it. When I drank, it was as though I knew which parts of my real persona to bring forth on ration, so as not to bore people, but could also be irreverently funny and more apparently engaged with normal topics of conversation of the kind that usually left me out of my depths; yes, it normalised me, and is a common Asperger strategy to drink as an aid to patchy social skills. With the obsessive clothes shopping, what I now see is that putting together what I wore became another crucial way of communicating with people in a way that they understood. By curating my outside appearance, I got to express something about myself without saying so much as a word and this became a crutch, not least when I went to work in a huge corporate company right after my divorce. My extremely well-turned out appearance was how I came to be recognised but, of course, it didn’t come cheap having to refresh my wardrobe all the time and became a precarious prop to lean into at that wobbly time in my finances. Once these precedents are set, people come to know that persona so it becomes hard to break out of; a classic challenge for autistic women who often tend mask their true selves behind such carefully constructed masking techniques, I now hear. Since I disbanded that version of myself, the friends of that era have mostly scattered away with the construct.
When I drank and got that initial high note from the alcohol kick, what inevitably followed (often that same evening, such is my acute sensitivity to the chemicals) is the intense “low” of hangover pain, regret, confusion, chronic overthinking, replaying and exaggerating of outcomes (“what did I do, who did I offend”), all spinning on loop in my highly over-active brain, torturing me for days after nearly every single drinking bout…and repeat…leading to burn-out and abject self-loathing after just a handful of years of friday nights suposedly having a good time. In fact, this ability to worry myself to a point of self-destruction is a long-running trait but alcohol and overspending on those manic shopping splurges of my 20s and the divorce era of my mid 30s, as I scrambled to pick up the pieces of my “social” self-confidence after several years at home being a parent, were really no help and almost got me into serious trouble, all because I could so easily get carried away by them.
This sensation-seeking dynamo force inside of me would feel like it was egging me on to live more and more dangerously close to the edge until I had the wherewithal to stop it all and wake myself up from the trend. Now I see where it was being fuelled from, that it was part of my neurology more so than an outright defect of personality, it’s like a sizeable lightbulb going on.
If only I had found some other outlet for my craving of such high notes, such as a passion for the thrill of research or writing, a worthy cause to get involved in, a creative career or anything positive that gave me that same “verve”, the high-stimulation, the very thrill I needed, I wouldn’t have had to turn to such dangerous addictions used to feed, yes, that other trait of also needing the approval of others so badly that to not get it felt like I was facing an inevitable crash into worthlessness and despair. Instead, I had failed to find such a purpose in my career, or even to recognise that, with such high energy in abundance, I really NEEDED that kind of fulfilment from whatever I chose to do, that a commonplace make-do kind of job doing repetitive tasks would be the death of me, then I wouldn’t have needed such a self-destructive and, yes, highly unfulfilling means of trying to fill that gap!
Conversely, the antidote isn’t to pull right into a quiet life and simply remove all such sources of pseudo-excitement (as I have done) but to admit I still really need to reach these high notes to feel alive…as part of my inherent wiring…and so look for, and encourage, other far more positive and healthy ways of achieving them!
I’m hoping Dr Ned’s new book, listed below, and other resources, will help me to find a way to do that.
Mirroring high sources of stimulation…in order to self-stimulate
This next realisation has been a big epiphany for me. Because I so-crave certain high-frequencies of stimulation, longing to partner with them, I tend to MIRROR high energy wherever it is found around me (I’ve talked about my acutely developed mirror neurones before and I wonder if, specifically, mirror touch synesthesia has a cross-over with VAST; there are certainly people asking about a link with synesthesia). I can certainly look back to see how highly-spirited behaviour is particularly contagious to me, dragging me into its frequency, and thus how I have found it so hard to be around since I became chronically fatigued. Its like being very highly impressionable; you get carried away, even when you don’t want to be, as though discernment goes out the window, so I can only grimace at how rowdy pubs and nightclubs would influence me when I was younger and also full of alcohol.
So, along came modern technology and I was in. So fascinating to me is that I am currently going through old camcorder videos and came across Christmas morning 1999, taped in its entirety because it was my daughter’s first Christmas. In that footage, I have just given to my ex-husband a highly desirable, hard to come by, Nokia phone which was the first to be able to connect to “the world wide web” as we still called it. In the clip, I spew out to him what sounds like the entire contents of the handbook, verbatim, explaining every nuance of how every single part of this more-complicated than either of us had ever seen before phone, like I have swallowed the manual whole. In fact, I talk for over an hour about its features, capabilities, how to navigate back and forth, things it can do including connect to other phones without wires (unheard of at the time); I should add, my baby daughter slept through it all. Meanwhile, he seems to take very little of it in and, at one point, I say outloud (in my usual blunt way) ”I don’t know why I am giving this phone to you, I would make so much better use of it than you ever will, its right up my street…”
So, the information technology revolution happened and I embraced it fully, BECOMING the technology… just as I seem to suck in the solar wind (it feels like I become the wind) as part of my sensitivity to geomagnetic variables, plus the way I draw in all the exuberance of springtime when it happens, becoming more than a little bit manic with over-energised physical responses to all that seasonal freshness pulsing inside my body (and thus, these days, burned out by it, hence my Feb into March crash every year); a sort of seasonal maladjustment disorder. Its the same with EMFs; I long suspect, my body sucks them in, somehow welcoming them as kindred spirit.
These days, I would struggle to motivate at all without my computer, for all I love nature and especially birds…they just aren’t enough without this add-on through which I constantly push my own frequency to new heights, almost as though I am a bird soaring to a higher altitude every day; as in, I pose questions, spin ideas and the tech enables me to run with that as far as I can possibly go…at least for now…but always extending exponentially as the collective human consciousness pools what it knows into this one super-brain that I have attached myself onto with such gusto.
In other words, its not some outside force invading me like a polution in my environment, in these cases, so much as me striving to become it, to dialogue with it, to match and internalise it through mirroring the high frequency, within.
Of course this mirroring process is how they anticipate the line between humans and their tech blurring over the next few decades but some of us are far more susceptible and, while the tech we use isn’t necessarily compatible with human biology as yet, this presents a problem and my health tells that story in the form of my electro-hypersensitivity disorder (an ever more common health issue, not least affecting certain school-age kids who may, or may not, be said to present with ADHD-like “symptoms” when it happens, read-up and draw your own conclusions). If the idea of humans and technolgy merging sounds a little too “sci-fi” you probably have some catching up to do with where things are heading; most people are already “inseparable” from their gizmos and the integration is already happening. If I used to feel really turned off about such an idea, I have more lately had to reconcile my initial repulsion with the fact I am someone who would, now, not want to live without my computer since it, often, feels like part of me and quite essential if any of my aspirations to achieve the next “thing” in my mental production line are to be realised, not to mention how the “need to know” whatever I happen to ask my next rally of questions about, instantly they occur to me (speed being of the essence to my quick-fire mind), is a genie that simply can’t be put back in its bottle. Quite a paradox really, given I am so acutely electrosensitive I can only manage access at all through an ethernet wire and by isolating my bedroom from all EMFs so I get a good night’s sleep!
Electro-hypersensitiy disorder and VAST – is there a link?
I know I’m not the only person who began their issues with EMF sensitivity by being more enthusiastic about it than the average person. Writer and Journalist Alison Main, in her article about her own electro-hypersensitivity “Electrosensitivity: When the Modern World Hurts” admits this about the period from loving her childhood Atari right up until she got sick: “As a creative director in Manhattan, my iMessages were never far from my fingertips. I was the gal who’d respond to any text in five seconds flat (if I didn’t, my friends assumed I’d been abducted). I bopped around Manhattan with my iPhone in my back pocket, rocking out to Pandora as I multi-tasked grocery shopping at Whole Foods and responding to my clients’ emails. I’d chill with my MTV friends in hipster Tribeca bars, out until 3am, music blasting from one shindig to the next”. I hear such anecdotes from a lot of us folk in EMF sensitive circles. We were the ones who took to it like a duck to water, who relished acquiring and learning new apps, who slept with it by our heads (as I remember doing with my first iPhone; we had no concept of the dangers back then), I was excited by it all…and, to a point, still am.
So do mobile phones make kids who are prone more ADHD? Sure as heck they do but there’s more to it than just phone pollution; I suspect they are sensing a rapidity of processing in that small device that is highly familiar to them, like a kinship, perhaps more relatable to them than the seeming slowness of the mental “processing” of most of the slower talking adults they are probably acquainted with (not meant as an insult but you have to appreciate that a VAST brain goes much faster and wider and more expansively than almost anything you can imagine; and don’t judge performance by output as this speed of handing can often come out scrambled or directionless because there is just too much data to handle to make it neat and orderly). So whilst we can relate to tech and integrate with it, we need time off from it, and to catch up on ourselves, too. I have to enforce certain hours or days when I just step away and watch the birds, read a book, listen to music and it can be painful like a cold-turkey feeling but my body now intervenes if I don’t, flooring me so I can’t argue!
Added to which, I just find the “everywhere in the air” factor of wifi too intrusive, it feels just like the energy of hordes of other people, charging through my living room and I find I can’t process my own thoughts when its around; somewhat like feeling muddled and drowned out by too many people talking at once in an overcrowded room. When its switched on near me, for even a short while (as it is when, say, I download books to my kindle or if I go into a cafe or other public space) I find myself getting hot and bothered, irritable and even a little bit aggressive, progressively, until I am out of its range again, hence a hard-wired connection at home has been a must for the past few years. So, I have to add, the hyper-sensory kind of sensitivity that often comes with autism seems to play a part here; because not everyone else feels wi-fi being on or off as I seem able to do (and I am not the only one, by far).
Can VAST come on later in life or are you born with it?
Apparently, yes it is now broadly accepted that ADHD (thus VAST) can come on later in life, often triggered by breakdown or some other overwhelming factor. So, for sure, I feel mine came on much stronger once my health took a nose dive in my 30s. It was there in my 20s (as described with the social aspect) and I also notice, now that I am plunging all the home video footage of when my daughter was small, that it was a trait that made me much more suited to being the parent of a toddler than I would have anticipated (that was the era when I pretty much joined her in her natural exuberance and became one of the most hyperactive, impulsive and fun parents I knew, having the perfect excuse to let it out at last). I know it was so very hard to rein that in again to go back into an office job after 4 years.
However, consistent with what I just shared above, I think my otherwise largely hidden trait showed itself by becoming MUCH more pronounced once I had access to a smart phone and installed wifi (for the first handful of years) in my house and, of course, a tipping point was going into a corporate working environment where I was surrounded by hundreds of other phone-carrying people in an open plan office plus an EMF smog bathing my body for 8 hours a day. So, its hard for me to pull the strand of VAST out of the health crash I subsequently had. As before, I also see how fuelled by VASTness some of the behaviours of my earlier adulthood, such as the high-sensation seeking of alcohol and shopping etc, were.
However, I really don’t see much evidence of it in my childhood or youth, apart from being a chronic over thinker and having a fast, over convoluted, brain at times. I must have been keeping it under very careful control if it was there because I was, externally, a pretty calm and collected child leading a quiet ife. I can easily imagine how my social awkwardness and desire to keep well under the radar encouraged me to hide it well away if there was such a trait and I poured my undeniable intensity into books and extremely focussed hobbies. However…when you take the attention off “hyperactivity” as per the new VAST approach, suddenly there is a better fit with how I was as that child who was prone to hyper-focus, rather than being hyper-active; as in, I could lose myself in the same task for hours at a time, forgetting where I was or how long I had been there as I single-mindedly engaged with a degree of fixation that is now being considered a potential manifestation of the trait (it is already a well-recognised trait of autism).
It was when I first hit the heavy alcohol consumption of university (and those chemical additives) that I first noticed excesses of behaviour that seemed inconsistent with the highly over-conscientious girl I had always been, and so it unfurled over the next two decades of becoming increasingly overwhelmed by life, caught in a spiral of ups and downs and so many gnawing worries about how I was perceived until the point when I crashed.
Important to note is thar Dr Hallowell himself refers to VAST as ADHD’s “environmentally induced cousin” in his new book (see below) so I guess there is a strong likihood this is what happened with me.
By the way, all of this high energy can’t just be directed at doing more work or acquiring great executive function skills (the way some people think kids with ADHD simply need more discipline and direction and to be encouraged to try harder). There is a fundamental problem of translation between too many ideas and actual execution, and so the classic issue of where VASTness meets executive function (as discussed by Dr Ned) helps explain those very issues, as already discussed by me as part of my autism topic; and yes, these two traits are related. It feels to me as though my VASTness causes the exec function meltdowns and that its at times like these, when I become so disorganised and overwhelmed that I struggle the most with social expectations or am forced to withdraw, that I seem more autistic, both to myself and to other people. That very need to STOP even trying to function executively and to become extremely single-minded and insular is what makes autism a sort of buffer that I pull around me, like a grey snuggle-blanket pulled over my head for a while so I can recover myself and start again.
Would my autism even show up if I didn’t have this add on of (potentially environment and trauma triggered) VAST? Well, lets just say I wasn’t aware of it in my earlier life; partly due to an overlay of conditioned behaviours, coping mechanisms and masking but I am forced to ask if I am now “more autistic” due to hard to control, often negatively perceived, VAST traits firing off, triggered by my ever-more pronounced environmental and sensory sensitivities. Part of the journey to transforming this situation is to focus on the positives of the trait, according to Dr Ned in his book “ADHD 2.0”.
Stimulants are used as a therapy for executive function shortfalls with ADHD, which is interesting to me. Whilst I am not wanting to pursue pharmacological versions with their side-effects, it was telling to discover that some of the very help-mates I have discovered to be so helpful to me are those proposed as a natural means for helping with the executive shorfalls of ADHD, including GABA (I drink GABA oolong) and liquorice tea (a long-standing remedy of mine for times when I am feeling over-stimulated). For an interesting article on the proposed benefits of liquorice for ADHD, see here. What I would say is, there is an amount that I find helpful but too much can have the opposite effect so get to know yourself and how you are responding.
If this sounds odd, as in, to stimulate more in order to overcome over-stimulation then, I can tell you, from the inside out it feels like it makes perfect sense as it somehow straightens out my wires. Its another reason I have tended to get on with a little bit of caffeine every day, in spite of just soooo many of the health protocols I’ve followed, including the Gupta Program I am currently on and all the standard advice fo MCAS and chronic fatigue etc., urging me to give caffeine up entirely. The best source of this in perfect balance, no surprise, is found in good quality green tea where it is held in natural equlibrium with l-theanine, a precursor to GABA (I drink matcha most days which has an ideal ratio of both) and also in that GABA oolong I mentioned, which a new study has shown to help with some of the more adverse traits of autism (it helps me wind down into a calmer productivity). I never drink caffeine after lunch, a rule of thumb that has served me well enough for years, so I can generally wind down enough to sleep at night. Lemon balm is also held in high regard for ADHA, as are l-theanine supplements, both of which are already key players in my arsenal of daily approaches (also chamomile, which I only occassionally use).
By the way, having a healthy evening protocol, for instance dim lights, a computer screen filter that changes the quality of light omitting from the screen (I’ve never yet managed to break my technology habit in the evenings for more than a couple of days…so let’s be realistic here) and sticking to calm routines, earlier meals, gentle trigger-free topics of conversation, etc., is essential to calm my VAST mind enough for sleep and I have been following this routine for years.
Being all over the place, all at once
Though I managed it much better when I was younger (and even had jobs that replied on it), these days, I can’t seem to get organised, I struggle to stay on task, my mind leaps all over the place, in fact it flip around like a wet fish on the deck of a boat…constantly. Yes, I’m as high as a kite half the time, pursuing multiple threads of thought or a particular, often a-typical, line of research that lights me up like a Christmas tree, but I fall flat in the delivery of something most people would relate to or which has some definite and useful purpose so that even I tend to hit the bottom of “what was the point of all that” in the end, at least until I find the next engaging thing to hook onto. I also get so easily distracted and taken off on a tangent…sometimes, many tangents at once; its always a ride of sheer chaos or strange, disorganised genius in my head but so very hard to do anything constructive with it. The phrase “having a brain like ferrari with bicycle brakes” is one I keep hearing and to which I can relate. There is no overarching scheme to what I engage in so much as a preparedness to see where I am led and trust that there are nuggets of gold in at least some of it.
How I ever held down a job now defeats me but it would be nigh on impossible these days. I am far too used to following the whim as it calls, to whatever conclusion or end point it happens to lead to (which means my fixations can last for a year or more, or just a minute). Its not that I refuse to even try to be more structured than this; I’m really not sure I can and I find directed tasks so limiting, so prison-like these days, resenting even so much as an appointment in my diary for getting in the way of my flow.
Unpredictability is a big part of this trait (and isn’t very socially acceptable)
I can be completely different on two different days, making it very hard to plan or be consistent, to commit, and to not let people down. These days, my health mirrors this effect with its constant ups and downs but the extreme variability has always been there not far under the surface, my mind as changeable as the weather.
I know this has been instrumental in me pulling away from having so many friends and responsibilities, things I engage in “routinely”, because the “letting down” part gets to be too much. There was a time in fairly recent history when I felt somewhat better in my health and started to engage again, agreeing to take part in exhibitions or meet up with people but then, when I had to cancel things, one after another, I felt worse for attempting the experiment than if I had kept to my quieter life. After that, it was as though I could never really summon the energy to try again…so I now rarely make plans with friends and I have to be sure its a friend who really “gets me” and accepts this changeability trait (the last time was almost 2 years ago, not helped by lockdown), in a large part due to this fear of messing them around. When I do make arrangements, I work soooo diligently not to mess people around with my chaotic, amorphous, time management but no one suspects the gigantian effort this takes; how it can render me almost too exhausted to chin-wag before I even step off the train.
It’s not that I want to be inconsistent but, when something flips inside of me, I can’t even pretend to be sociable any more if I’m really not feeling it that day (worse if I am fatigued, in brain fog or in pain). I let my sister down on a long distance mini-break that meant the world to her, just over a year ago, because the part of me that planned it simply didn’t feel like they could show up; my health crashed and I got into such a panic in the days beforehand that I didn’t know which had come first, the mindset or the pretty-severe health issues that sabotaged the trip. I get on somewhat better with group plans such as when I joined a walking group because, if I can’t show up, I don’t have to feel as though the whole party is ruined because of me, but then I really don’t enjoy seeing people in group-formats, tending to draw inwards and say very little and much preferring one-to-ones so I can focus my attention on one conversation, so its always me that loses out in such cases. In the light of VASTness, I now see just how influential this single trait has been upon my ever more pronounced withdrawal from having a social life.
Also, I sense some friends have not known what to make of me, nor me what to make of myself, when I have shown off my extremes (I have accused myself of seeming “fickle” and inconsistent, even untrustworthy and then been extremely hard on myself for all that). As a result, I have often felt I had to work painfully hard to remain consistent with particular groups of friends so that they know what they are getting. Added to the perceived need to hide my autistic traits, this has been exhausting and, over time, became yet another reason why it felt easier to stop having many friends. For instance, I have forged good, strong friendships with quiet, introverted people only to suddenly have one of my almost manic phases crop up (I’m talking about when I was much younger), leading to binge drinking, silliness, nightclubbing and seeming suddenly more extrovert, and then I can tell they have not known what to make of this sudden party animal taking risks in their midst; who is she, which persona is real (the answer was, both…to an extent…although the quieter me was always much more real than anything fuelled by alcohol). Of course, with increased maturity, I have worked extremely hard at not being unpredictable or unreliable to friends but it takes effort, now, because of my highly unpredictable health. To me, these days, it no longer feels like my parts are so conflicting (just an inevitable part of my neurodiverse charm) and thus less of a liability in a friendship scenario, just so long as people accept me with both my high and low energies as part of a complete package, in which case I can relax around them and just concentrate on being my authentic self.
Conversely, I had a lengthy spate of befriending people in pubs in my mid 20s and they all came to know me as this high-vibe, talkative, drink-guzzling extrovert but at times I needed to be quiet, introvert, pulled back and interested in much more gentle, thoughtful, philosophical things and, had they seen me on those days, they wouldn’t have known me, how to relate to me or would feel they had to make fun of me, cajoling me back to how they thought they knew me to be. The result was that, rather than have to keep changing tempo, I ended up with a handful of years of being so-called extrovert and sociable most of the time, as this seemed the only way to keep my current friends (all my more thoughtful university-made friends had moved away…). However, it took alcohol and faking it and so, of course, I burned out and had to stop that whole lifestyle altogether when, really, a more harmonious state of balance, and full acceptance of my extremities (by them, but also by me) would have been more sustainable for my health.
To this day, the only people who really know, understand and accept me to be both high-wire as well as quiet, needing both the ups and the downs, the high stimulation but also the exaggerated stimulation avoidance at times, are my husband and daughter and, in her case, because she is also made this way and we support each other through the constant paradoxes and challenges, the grey-areas of self-identity and fitting in, that it presents in our lives.
Dancing as an outlet
I see now why dance was so essential for my healing; why it helped me back then in my 20s and now in my 50s. When I start my day this way and then, mostly, finish it this way too, I process out of me some of that high-vibe energy that is screaming for expression, so I can then settle down to the day ahead, into my relaxation and sleep time as well. Honestly, I don’t know now how I ever managed without it but the energy that was surplus has tended to become inverse, as in, to feed back into my circuitry and blow my fuse board…repeatedly.
For all these years of chronic health, including wipe-the-floor fatigue, I have told myself that I needed absolute quiet and rest, calming herbs and supplements, to meditate and slow down…and yes, all correct to a point.
However, I was also missing the elephant in the room, being this high vibe part of me looking, ceaselessly, for something else (something operating at its frequency!) to engage with. So, of course, as a result, I am the manic over-thinker that overdoes it completely when it comes to research and ideas spinning, pushing myself as hard at my activities as though I was doing a pressurised job, telling myself I enjoy having my foot flat on the pedal like this (and, to a point, I do) but not owning that I was also, repeatedly, burning myself out because, unlike in my youth, all that high energy was being pushed through at such a cerebral level.
When that cerebral part failed, the high vibe part of me would seek engagement elsewhere, and so it would start to notice matching frequencies in the environment, in the weather, in any the strong winds that come in, in anything at all…and then mirror that effect, on the inside. Perhaps the phase over which this has become most intense, from 2016 onwards, has been a clue that my body is wanting to recover now and, thus, to get more into balance with its VAST capabilities, but I still wasn’t letting it do that because I was still protecting myself from “overdoing it” physically.
THAT was why I needed to bring in some sort of physical movement and it had to be other than just walking, it couldn’t be running (my joints won’t sustain) and it had to be fast. Dance was the obvious answer and it continues to be so; that is, a monumental breakthrough in my health, being both vigorous but fluid, non weight-bearing, none pressuring on any single group of joints and, of course, completely adaptable to how I am feeling that day as there are no rules or learned movements in what I do. I am all too aware that there are days that I would seem disingenuous to anyone watching, claiming to be so fatigued and in pain that I can hardly move from the sofa, and its true, and yet somehow I can dance, as though some other part of me gets to come out of its stronghold and have free-time to express all those years of pent up potential. Its as though I borrow a completely different body for those windows of time and then, on some days, hobble away from the scene!
Expansive, boundless child of the universe
I suspect that, the more this part of me gets let out, and the more I accept this VASTness as a gift, the better I will learn how to not burn myself out yet to allow the high peaks to occur, both mentally and physically, in balance with times of recovery , deepest peace and absolute slowness and when I do so, well, I suspect that will be me realising my most whole, most accomplished, certainly most authentic and VASTly expressing version yet.
What I really like about the new VAST acronym, by the way, apart from the unspoken associations we draw from that word “vast” (such as expansive, boundless, tremendous, limitless; a very far cry from the clanging “deficit disorder” part of ADHD) is that Dr Ned is turning the focus towards the many gifts and huge potentials of recognising the trait once it is better understood and managed, given it is a mix of both assets and liabilities, like most things taken in balance. As I have done since my autism diagnosis, I intend to deep-dive all the gifts of VAST and am starting by reading Dr Ned’s book “ADHD 2.0”, published early this year (see below), though I wanted to bash out this initial post before I got too swept along by anyone else’s take on what it feels like on the inside. From what I glean so far, you first look to all those pairs of see-saw traits that come with VAST and you veer towards, encourage and focus upon the positive, not unlike how I am already working on my recovery from chronic health conditions with The Gupta Program. That program is built around techniques for breaking out of loops in the brain and, in a way, this is yet another one of those so its methods are entirely consistent.
One key recognition to come out of this for me is the ownership of how much of my pain actually derives from a feeling of stuck energy. Rather than try and dampen that down, to soothe and rock it into submission or chase the energy away (energy is a great thing; I will value having that hugely in the decades to come), I suspect I would do better by remembering to do whatever I can to move that energy around more; shift any blockages. Dancing works, laughter too, breaking my train by going out into the garden to watch the birds, sometimes energising music is what I need, and writing most certainly (though I still have to be careful when that fire-hose energy comes in…however intense the inspiration, I still need regular breaks from my writing, to move the body and regain perspective; unlike, I admit, today which has been a prolongued period of hyper-focus as I write this, doing my body no favours at all). What I notice is how, whenever I have an idea or reach a coherence point in my thinking, a flush of intense heat fills my body; that’s my energy, you could call it electricity, and as I heard Dr Ned say in a podcast last night, all you need to do is build yourself a hydro-electric plant to harness it better…which will probably take the rest of your life but just imagine having so much energy on tap, in such a way that it doesn’t fuse all your wires together anymore!
A short burst of movement can act like a miniscule shot of caffeine in my matcha or a single cup of liquorice tea, as in, a little stimulant to iron out my wires and regain executive clarity; enough to step in and call for perspective on whatever high-intensity thing has taken me over. Yes, I’m sometimes overstimulated by the seasonal cycles, the circadian cycles, the moon cycle, the solar cycle (these are times when I might have to play with soothing the nervous system rather than stimulating; actually, both work in important ways, as I’ve learned from trial and error) but I can start to work with that from a more informed perspective, now I know about VAST and can plunge all the more reliable information (the internet is littered with unrelaible sources on ADHD) about it, starting with Dr Ned.
Meanwhile, I just happened upon another highly acclaimed book, written by Jenara Nerenberg: “Divergent Mind: Thriving in a world that wasn’t built for you”, which is now on my list , described as “A paradigm-shifting study of neurodivergent women—those with ADHD, autism, synesthesia, high sensitivity, and sensory processing disorder—exploring why these traits are overlooked in women and how society benefits from allowing their unique strengths to flourish”. It has rave reviews from some of the people whose work has already helped me beyond measure, such as Elaine Aron (author of “The Highly Sensitive Person”), Susan Cain (”Quiet”) and Steve Silberman (“NeuroTribes”) and sounds like it was also written for me.
The future of ADHD is VAST – short podcast from Dr Hallowell
ADHD 2.0: New science and essential strategies for thriving with distraction, from childhood through adulthood – Dr Edward Hallowell, Feb 2021.
“We want to build a VAST community based on our strength-based approach to this fascinating condition.” Dr Hallowell urges people to read his book and get in touch.
This blog, it’s content and any material linked to it are presented for autobiographical, anecdotal purposes only. They are not meant as advice. They are not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or prescribing. The material and opinions shared are anecdotal and should not be considered to be medical advice or diagnosis. This article does not constitute a recommendation for the treatment or choices described and the effects related are my own anecdotes, not a prediction of how anyone else might respond. I do not advocate taking any of the supplements referred to or following any of the choices or steps outlined and suggest that you conduct your own enquiries with medical advisors. Please consult with a licensed healthcare professional if you have or suspect you might have a health condition that requires medical attention or before embarking on a new treatment plan.