Terry Huff on his new book Living Well with ADHD

terry_huff-300x201OPI: First, let’s get a bit of background on you. Would you mind going over your own history for a moment? Where you went to school? Where you practice? How you practice?

Terry Huff: Sure. I got my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in psychology at Middle Tennessee State University, then went back to school later to get my Master’s in Social Work at the University of Tennessee, College of Social Work. In between, I worked in mental health and developmental disabilities. Before I got my Master’s, I was in California for a little while. I worked in Van Nuys at a regional center.

Boy, now thinking back, it’s such a long period of time. I worked in mental health, alcohol and drug services, and developmental disabilities until I went to work at Vanderbilt in ’88. I worked in child adolescent psychiatry at Vanderbilt in ’88 and ’89. Then I worked at a counseling agency called “Family and Children’s Service” in Nashville. Before the end of that 7-year period with the agency, I started seeing an increasing number of adults with ADHD. After that, I went into private practice with a group for 6 years, with 8 psychiatrists and one other therapist. I moved from that practice to my current office with one other therapist here. That was in 2003, when I moved to this office. Put those dates in there, and people will see how old I am.

OPI: You should wear it proudly. I was going to say it sounds like you’ve had experience with all kinds of walks of life, all different ages. What made you decide to practice the way you’re practicing now? It sounds like you have a private practice and you’re focusing on adults with ADHD? Is that correct?

Terry Huff: Yeah.

OPI: What caused that shift?

Terry Huff: The big influence was my diagnosis in ’94. I was diagnosed with ADHD, Inattentive type. When I first took medicine for ADHD, oh my God, this is the brain I want. It seemed like the lights turned on. I was able to read information once, rather than many times, and retain it. I was able to hear every word said in a lecture or presentation, which I didn’t think was possible. I thought most people heard about 60 to 70% of what was said in a meeting or lecture, and I never imagined you could actually hear everything.

OPI: Wow!

Terry Huff: That was quite a revelation. I didn’t take medicine for long because I had a medical condition that prevented me from continuing stimulant medication, which is what facilitated my interest in the non-medical aspects of living with a brain like this.

OPI: Have you been able to get back there yourself without medication, to where you’re focused? Or, do you feel like that’s not an appropriate goal for someone with ADD or ADHD?

Terry Huff: It’s not an appropriate goal for me to get back to. I don’t know that there’s a way to replicate effects of medicine, although probably the best thing that I’ve done personally to enhance my cognitive functioning is meditation.

OPI: That’s interesting. Is there a specific type of meditation?

Terry Huff: That’s a good question because I started out for about a decade practicing Zen meditation pretty much exclusively and then began to learn about Vipassana meditation. After learning how to selectively focus my attention well with the practice of Zen, I learned how to open my attention up to a broader range of awareness with other practices that I had not been familiar with.

OPI: What’s your meditation practice like now? Is it a consistent routine?

terry-bookTerry Huff: It is. For someone with ADHD, it’s pretty consistent. People talk a lot about a daily practice. There are days when I might not sit for 30 minutes in meditation, but will have multiple times during the day when I will stop and reset. I like to sit for 30 minutes when I do sit and practice meditation.

OPI: That’s interesting. I bet having a first-hand experience with ADHD obviously gave you a lot of empathy when dealing with your own patients or clients.

Terry Huff: Absolutely. I understand how difficult it is to start and sustain any routine, including a routine of meditation. Having a little greater than average difficulty managing my attention—managing states of attention, states of awareness—I improved my ability with selective attention, a focused state of awareness, through the Zen practice. I could focus my attention better from practicing Zen meditation, but I had trouble—when I got real focused on something—remaining aware of the time and other priorities. I would lose a sense of everything else. Same thing happened to me when I took medicine for ADHD.

OPI: I was just about to say that. It sounds almost like medication.

Terry Huff: Exactly. That started happening. That’s why I don’t take medicine now. I had my medical problem fixed – it was atrial fibrillation—with a couple of ablation procedures and I can take medicine now, if I wish to. It seems worse now when I take medicine. I get too focused, and I lose awareness of too much else.

OPI: Multi-tasking becomes very difficult?

Terry Huff: Yeah, if there is such a thing. Some people believe that you really don’t do more than one thing at once, but …

OPI: Right.

Terry Huff: One of the last times I took Adderall, I got so focused on paperwork at the end of the day, which I normally would avoid. But having taken the medicine, I was into it. I got a call close to 6:00 PM from a parent of someone who is a college student here. She was calling from another part of the country looking for someone to see her son, who has ADHD. I was trying to give her a sense that I knew something from personal experience. I had taken my dog to the vet that morning before getting ready, because I live not far from the vet and from my office.

I went back home to shower and shave. While I was shaving, I was wondering where my dog was. She’s normally at my feet when I’m shaving. It’s, “Oh yeah, I left her at the vet’s.” The woman said, “I thought you were going to tell me that you forgot your dog.” I looked at the clock and it was like, “Oh my God! The vet closes at 5:30.” It was 6:00. I’m talking to her. I think I said something like, “Oh my God! I have to go.”

I go out to the parking lot thinking that if I rush over there, maybe someone will still be there, but my car wasn’t in my office parking lot because right across from the vet’s is a Firestone place where I get my car maintained. I had left my car at Firestone after dropping off my dog, and had walked to the office from there that morning. Guess what time Firestone closed? Six o’clock! I called my wife and I said, “I’m going to walk over and see if anyone’s still at Firestone.” They were closed, it was dark, and no one was there.

I called my wife back and said, “I’m going to walk to Local Taco, and I’m going to have a couple of margaritas and dinner. When I’m done, I’m going to call you to come and get me because our dog’s going to be spending the night at the vet’s and I misplaced my car.”

OPI: I have a follow up question. Did you end up getting that client?

Terry Huff: No. I never heard from her again. Would you entrust your son to someone who…

OPI: No, I think it was an obvious answer. That’s pretty funny. That’s a good lead into the book. You said that’s a story you actually wrote in the book, the woman calling and you forgetting your dog and your car?

Terry Huff: Yeah. I can’t remember how much I put in there about it but, yeah, that’s in the book.

OPI: Very nice. What’s the name of the book, first and foremost?

Terry Huff: Living Well with ADHD.

OPI: Great. This isn’t the first book, obviously, on ADD or ADHD. Why don’t you talk about your approach and what makes this book so different.

Terry Huff: A lot of times, people writing about ADHD give the impression that you can make your brain like the brain of someone who doesn’t have ADHD. Daniel Amen, for example, has a useful book called “Healing ADD.” That’s what he calls it. There’s an implication that you can—to me it implies—that you can be like someone who doesn’t have ADHD. If you do all of the things suggested in his books, take your medicine, exercise, get enough sleep, eat right…I don’t subscribe to that.

I do believe that all of those things are good for the brain. You can make a good brain better. As I think Daniel Amen rightfully suggests in his work, any brain can be made better by good habits. I think the bottom line is, most of us with ADHD are going to be living with an unreliable working memory, for example, and I think the best way to live with that is not to rely on it and to rely on something else besides something that’s unreliable—like a poor working memory.

I think that it’s pretty clear that people with ADHD have a harder time activating, starting something that’s not necessarily stimulating, urgent, or novel. Understanding that activation is a brain problem and not laziness is helpful. And people who understand and accept that are more likely to develop strategies that will work than people who call it procrastination and just say, “I need to stop procrastinating.” They feel lazy, feel bad about themselves.

I talk in the book about procrastination as not being a useful term anyway because it implies being unable to start. When you say, “I need to stop procrastinating,” you’re basically saying, “I need to stop not starting.” It doesn’t point in a direction as does “I need to figure out a strategy to activate, to be able to start.” This book is mostly about a way to think about it.

I have clients who are so much more resourceful than I’ve been, in some ways, to come up with clever strategies. They are more likely to do that if they understand ADHD and how it affects them, if they accept and embrace it and stop trying to be like the other 95% of the population. That’s what I tell my clients who have ADHD: “Act like you know it.” It’s much more useful than trying to be like the other 95%.

OPI: There’s a level of acceptance you have to embrace.

Terry Huff: Yeah. Anyone who did any great thing was not like everybody else anyway. Think about it. Albert Einstein would arrive on a trip someplace without his luggage, and still, he had some successes in his life. Many great people appear, through their biographies, to have had brains wired like this. Think of people like Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, and then there are actors and entertainers who have ADHD, some of whom have acknowledged it, like Dustin Hoffman. I heard him say it in an interview once, I think it was CNN, years ago. He was being asked why he was still working after all of his successes. He said, “My wife tells me that I have this thing called ‘ADHD’, and I’ve been proving my worth all my life.” Anyway, people who are doing exceptional things, whether with ADHD or not, they have exceptional brains.

OPI: In the book, do you go over these strategies, or is it more about the concepts of how to approach ADHD?

Terry Huff: Both.

OPI: Both.

Terry Huff: Yeah, both. My first chapter is, “Who You Are and Who You’re Not,” which is dispelling some notions that people may have about themselves. In the second chapter, I get right into strategy for activating attention and sustaining effort. That chapter’s called, “Wash One Dish.” That’s the main title; the sub-title to that chapter is “How to Activate Attention and Sustain Effort.”

OPI: If the titles are any clue, it sounds like you have a very conversational tone in the book.

Terry Huff: Yeah, my editor made me do that.

OPI: I appreciate it as a non-clinician, for sure.

Terry Huff: After writing the first draft of my early chapters, my editor got back with me and said something like, “You’ve got a serious problem here. You sound like you’re standing at a lectern, lecturing a group of professionals.” He said, “You have to get closer to your readers.”

OPI: Let’s talk about that. Who exactly did you write this book for? What age group? It sounds like you wrote it for people, obviously, with ADD or ADHD.

Terry Huff: I did. I’ve had people, professionals who have read it, who have told me, “This book would be really good for parents of people with ADHD, even if they’re not yet adults, because they can see what it looks like in the adult stage and also get a sense of what it is and what makes a difference.” One of my chapters is called “Attentive Listening and Mindful Speaking.” We can learn, through practice, to listen more attentively and be more conscious of listeners when we speak.

For example, the listener might have something to say. We might need to pause and let the other person speak. Or, we might get caught up in what I call our “narcissistic bubble,” where we’re trying so hard to convey our thoughts clearly that we’re too much in our heads and losing awareness of the listener. That happens a lot to people with ADHD. There’s a chapter on that, a chapter on relationships, and a chapter called “Unplugging.” That’s about managing the shifting between an open awareness state and selective attention.

Lidia Zylowska wrote a book about that: “The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD.” She read my book and wrote a nice endorsement. I really like her work. I encourage people to get her book. She is in Los Gatos. She once worked at UCLA with Daniel Siegel and was co-founder of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.

Melissa Orlov wrote a couple of great books. Her first was called “The ADHD Effect on Marriage.” She co-wrote her second book with Nancie Kohlenberger, who is a therapist in Orange County, California (Melissa is in Boston). They wrote “The Couples Guide to Thriving with ADHD”.

OPI: Did you find those books helpful for yourself or your clients?

Terry Huff: Absolutely. In fact, I had outlined a book to write for couples. That was the book I was going to write. I do a workshop here in Nashville for couples living with ADHD. I was getting ready to do one when Melissa’s book came out. I said, “Oh my God! I can’t write my book because this is what I would want to write and probably not as well as she wrote it.” She wrote the foreword for mine.

OPI: It’s interesting. I’ve never thought about how it could impact a marriage and, having three young children myself, I feel like I sometimes have ADD or ADHD just because I …

Terry Huff: Well, having three kids will make you feel like that.

OPI: Yeah. Right.

Terry Huff: My opinion is, if you have ADHD in a marriage, it’s going to affect the marriage. Just like turning up the lights on your own ADHD—and not trying to be like everybody else—helps you deal skillfully with your life, turning the lights up on how ADHD affects a marriage helps you be more skillful in relating to your partner. With unawareness of the ADHD effect, as Melissa calls it, the non-ADHD partner almost always has some incorrect ideas about why the partner with ADHD is doing what they’re doing. The non-ADHD partner concludes that the ADHD partner doesn’t care as much about them as they do their own activities, their own interests, because they forgot something important, or didn’t stop something they were doing to give attention to what their partner was needing.

OPI: I would assume that that carries over not just in a marriage, but in work relationships and social relationships as well.

Terry Huff: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Relating to anyone. That chapter is “Bonds and Binds: ADHD in relationships.” I’ve got a chapter called “Unplugging” that’s about managing the attention, and then “Creating,” which was a fun chapter to write. There is increasing evidence that brains wired like this are really wired for creative expression. You know what’s interesting, though? So many people with ADHD are telling me, “There’s not a creative bone in my body.” I ask them, “How do you know?” Usually, they’ve not had any sustained practice with something, with a craft, or some form of art.

I suggest in the book that they should just pretend that they believe, for one month, that they’re creative and see what happens. There’s information in that chapter about songwriters that I quoted from a fascinating book by Paul Zolo, “Songwriters on Songwriting.” It’s really interesting that the creative people seem like us, in lots of ways.

Then, I’ve got a “Success Stories” chapter, about people that I’ve known personally. A lot of times, books with ADHD talk about people like Einstein and Edison and other people in history who might have had ADHD. I decided to write my “Success Stories” chapter about people I know, some of them in my support group.

OPI: That’s nice. That’s a fresh perspective. Sure.

Terry Huff: Yeah. Like a CEO in Atlanta, who’s retired, but he was a CEO of the largest brick-making company in America. Here’s a strange thing, Jon. He was coming to Nashville. He went to college with a friend of mine who’s a life coach here. My life coach friend, Jim, said, “Dennis Brown’s coming here. You might want to have him come and speak to your groups so people can get to see someone who is highly successful who has ADHD.” I asked, “Did he ever work at Firestone?” because I had a little job at a Firestone plant, after I graduated from college, for about six months. There was a guy named Dennis Brown who was involved in hiring me. Jim had gone to college with Dennis and he said, “I don’t think so.” I walked into the room that night and sure enough, it was him. Same guy. This was like forty-something years later.

OPI: Wow!

Terry Huff: He’s sitting in my support group telling his story.

OPI: That’s amazing.

Terry Huff: There’s a restaurant owner, here in Nashville, who comes to the support group. Everybody knows him. Chuck gave me permission to use his name. He said to me, “I’m psychologically unemployable, just like much of my family, they’re Italians from upstate New York, restaurant owners.” Chuck has a couple of very successful restaurants here in Nashville. Members of his family were entrepreneurs because they were like him. Those were his words, “I’m psychologically unemployable.”

The last couple of chapters are “The Color of Life: Living Skillfully with Your Emotions” and “A Labor of Love: Using the Tools in Your Toolbox.”

OPI: If you could only impart one thing to people who don’t have ADD or ADHD, in terms of understanding someone who does, what would it be?

Terry Huff: Acceptance. If I put it in one word, it’s “Acceptance.” Understanding and acceptance. Therapists often make people with ADHD feel bad about themselves, with the best of intentions, because they may jump in too quickly with some tips for organizing themselves better, or in some ways, suggesting that it’s not hard. “Just do this…anyone can do this.” Or, they may say, “Everybody is a little bit like this,” or even, “I’m inattentive myself.” Or, “I may have it.” It is actually offensive to people in my support group when someone says, “I think most people have ADHD,” or, “Everybody’s like that.” They feel dismissed.

Even though it’s true that most people have some of those features some of the time, to suggest that at the outset, with someone with ADHD, feels dismissive. Listening with an understanding of it, I think people who don’t have it need to study it and talk to people who have it so that they understand what can be either offensive or dismissive, so they don’t start out making them feel bad.

I had someone come to me once, referred by a therapist who doesn’t specialize. To her credit, she said, “I don’t know anything about this, but I want you to see her a couple of times and tell me if you think she has ADHD.” The client told me, “Jenny (her therapist) thinks I’m sabotaging myself, but I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s it.” She said, “I’m very motivated. I’m just disorganized.” It turned out she was very high probability for ADHD. When I saw her, I used a little screening instrument, met with her a couple of times, and gave some recommendations to the therapist.

That idea of you’re sabotaging yourself points in the wrong direction. It’s not far from things they’ve been told all of their lives. You’re not trying hard enough. Something negative. I wanted to write something that isn’t focusing so much on the problem as on possibilities. I think that’s part of the problem with traditional therapy.

OPI: One of the things I was going to ask, you mention you talk about strategies. Can you share one to give an example of the way you approach it?

Terry Huff: Absolutely. Yeah. I like the idea of Wash One Dish. If you look at your kitchen after you’ve hosted or had a social event at your house, and you see a mess that you have to start cleaning up, whether you have ADHD or not, you feel a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of what you have to do. It’s a little difficult for anyone to start. The first thing that often happens is we awfulize in our minds about this God-awful task that’s going to take forever. And it’s so bad we need to distract ourselves with some good music or something else to make it not so bad. We start off defining it as something nearly impossible or very difficult. It’s like painting the room black and complaining that it’s dark.

If you pick up one dish with the intention of stopping the negative self-talk and just wash that dish, without undue attention to getting to the finish line, then you can pick up another dish and start washing that one. If you do that with the notion that this could be a mindfulness exercise, you can throw yourself into it…if you want to get out of it, get into it. If I throw myself fully into it, doing one thing at a time, without concern about the end or how long it takes, then the action stops the chatter. We’re distracted enough. We don’t need the extra chatter of what I call “awfulizing” about a task.

That came to me at a Zen retreat, actually, after sitting on my butt all day, wrestling with my demons. I got the opportunity to stand up and wash dishes. It was actually very pleasant. Why is it a pleasure here and such a drudgery at home? All it was, in my opinion, was how I defined it and how I was thinking about it. In the Zen retreat, all I was doing was picking up one dish at a time and going through this motion, washing one dish without having to worry about solving anyone’s problems or paying bills or all these other things that might be more difficult.

OPI: I think that’s excellent advice for people with or without ADHD. I know I’m going to take that to heart myself, as well. Where can people find your book, now that it’s out?

Terry Huff: Wherever books are sold. It’s available now on my website (terrymhuff.com) and at ADDwarehouse.com, Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, and Books-A-Million.

OPI: Great. Living Well With ADHD by Terry Huff.

Terry Huff: Yeah. It’s funny, Jon. The title went through the evolutionary process. The original title was “Wash One Dish”. The subtitle was, “How to Live Well With ADHD”. The original book cover would have offended everybody—Buddhists, Christians, Atheists, every religious group, because I had a teaching Buddha on the front, photoshopped. Rather than holding up his fingers, like the teaching Buddha does that you see in little images of the Buddha. We’d photoshopped the Buddha to be holding up one finger…a little statue of the Buddha in front of one dish.

When I decided to change the title and change the cover, the guy who designed the cover said, “I’m really glad you’re changing that. I didn’t want to say anything before.”

OPI: It sounds like you avoided a bit of a crisis there. That’s good.

Terry Huff: Crisis without even doing anything but designing a cover. What was real important to me in writing this that’s different, I wanted to write a perspective book in this way: What would it look like if you were practicing mindfulness, and living mindfully, in the context of having ADHD? How would you think about yourself? How would you think about relating to other people? “Attentive Listening and Mindful Speaking,” is my third chapter—think of these things as skills you can develop through mindfulness practice. What do you do when you’re listening to someone? When talking? What could you do when you’re talking that helps you be more aware or what’s going on—not just what’s in your head?

A mindfulness perspective on getting started, on relating to other people, on doing something with your creative brain, managing your emotions, pulling your attention out of hyper-focus when it’s locked into some stimulating activity, being aware of—As Lidia Zylowska calls it—attention to attention. Being aware of awareness. Being aware of where your attention’s going. You know when you point your vision in some direction, you’re directing your visual attention. When I’m on my back porch and I hear a cardinal, I direct my auditory attention there, to the exclusion of the lawn mower on the other side of my property.

How can we direct our attention…be aware of where our attention’s going and redirect it? I think that’s possible. My book is about, “What would it look like if you were approaching your life mindfully with a brain that is inattentive?” To mindfulness from mindlessness, I guess I’d say.

OPI: Sure. Yeah. Very interesting. Very interesting. I look forward to reading it. I wish you the best of luck with it.

Terry Huff: Thanks, I appreciate that. I made it intentionally short. It’s not a long read.

OPI: How many pages is it?

Terry Huff: Counting the index and everything, it’s about 140 pages.

OPI: It is a very quick read, for sure.

Terry Huff: Very readable, because a lot of people with ADHD are like me. I’ll read part of the way through a book, bookmark it, then I’ll start another book, and bookmark that. I don’t always finish them.

OPI: Well, thank you again for your time. It’s been great talking to you and we look forward to hearing more from you in the future, Terry.

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