I recently sat down to talk with ADDA Board member and ADHD coach, Erik “Doc” Anderson. We spoke about his June 3 webinar and workshop about an aspect of selfcare many people with ADHD struggle with. How do you advocate for yourself and ask for what you need?
DUANE: Okay, before we get started, I have to ask, why do they call you Doc?
DOC: (laughs) Sure. It’s a nickname I sort of grew into.
I grew up in southern Iowa. It’s a very rural area where bullying was a form of affection. I was different from the other kids so I got singled out a lot. I walked funny, I have Cerebral Palsy, and I tended to use a lot of what everybody liked to call “two-dollar” words. So, I got called things like “Doc” and “Professor” a lot. At one point, a few of the other kids thought saying “what’s up Doc?” whenever they saw me was hilarious. So, it’s kind of stuck. Years later, I owned and toured a traveling medicine show around to fairs and festivals as “Doc Anderson.” That pretty much sealed my fate.
DUANE: It seems like you have a lot of experience with bullies. Is that why you went into advocacy?
DOC: I guess so. I grew up with people always telling me what they thought I could or couldn’t do because of the way I walked. Later, I saw that happening to other people because they were a different color or because of their gender or because they chose to see their world differently. It made me mad.
DUANE: That makes a lot of people mad, but you actually did something with it. You worked professionally in advocacy. Tell me about that.
DOC: I got involved with organizations like Easter Seals, Variety Club, Very Special Arts and March of Dimes. Later I became an advocate for systems change. I served on state boards and commissions. I was the Affirmative Action, Americans with Disabilities Act and Diversity Coordinator for the State of Iowa. I was also a Family Support Specialist under I.D.E.A. working to get services and accommodations for children with disabilities in schools. That’s where I learned the power of direct one-on-one advocacy to create meaningful change.
DUANE: When did you find out you had ADHD?
DOC: Long story short, I learned about my ADHD when I was 37. I was presenting at a disability law conference and went to see a keynote a friend was doing about growing up with ADHD. I sat there stunned as he told his story because he was reading from the diary I never wrote. It changed everything I thought I knew about myself. Up to that point, the world had always tried to define me by my Cerebral Palsy; the disability it could see. But this was different. My ADHD was invisible. So many things started to make sense. It changed my life. Ultimately that’s why I became an ADHD coach.
DUANE: You’re doing a an eight-week webinar and workshop series for ADDA on self-advocacy in June and July. How does ADHD impact our ability to advocate for ourselves?
DOC: ADHD impacts our ability to advocate for ourselves in SO many ways. One of the biggest things is that ADHDers tend to downplay their accomplishments and their needs. There’s also the ADHD tendency toward negative stories. We do that a lot. Then there’s the emotional dysregulation that is common with ADHD.
It’s hard to ask for what you need when you feel your needs don’t matter, you convince yourself there’s no point or you get hijacked by your emotions in the middle of the negotiation process.
On top of that, advocacy and negotiation often involve a lot of unknowns. When faced with things we don’t know, ADHDers will very often go to great lengths to fill in the blanks. And because of our negativity bias, we tend to catastrophize, or immediately jump to the worst-case-scenario. The good news is we can keep that kind of thing from hijacking us by paying attention to the stories we’re telling ourselves. Getting clarity around the process is also REALLY important. That’s part of what we’ll talk about in the workshop.
DUANE: Who is this workshop series for?
DOC: The short answer is, this workshop is for people want to learn how to advocate for themselves.
Many people are filled with dread at the very thought of asking for what they need, whether it’s for themselves or someone they care about. Other people tell themselves the story that there’s no point even asking because if they do, they’ll be humiliated when it all goes horribly wrong and spins out of control. And a lot of people simply don’t feel like they have the confidence or the right words to even know how to ask.
Asking for what we need is scary because it means we have to take a risk. I want to demystify the process and give ADHDers some simple things they can DO to make it easier and a LOT less scary.
Advocacy isn’t something we’re born knowing how to do. It’s a skill that can be learned. It has to be practiced to be used effectively.
DUANE: How did you develop this workshop?
DOC: I originally developed this program when I worked under I.D.E.A. As an agency what we continually heard from the parents we served was how they couldn’t get the services their children needed because nobody seemed to care. The idea was to teach them how to use their story to humanize their struggle when interacting with teachers, administrators, health professionals and service providers. It was incredibly empowering, and so popular we had repeat it several times.
It was developed for parents, but I quickly realized self-advocacy is something many people struggle with.
DUANE: What happens when you don’t, or can’t, advocate for yourself?
DOC: For starters, we don’t get what we need. That makes it a lot harder for us to thrive and succeed. On top of that, it reinforces the negative stories we tell ourselves. So, we repeat our cycle of failure. That just gives us more ammunition to beat ourselves up with, adding insult to injury. It can also lead to learned helplessness. That feeds on itself. Once you’re on that treadmill, it can be difficult to get off. The first step is to learn how to advocate FOR yourself WITH yourself.
DUANE: You keep talking about stories. Why are our stories important? DOC: Because the stories we’re told and the stories we tell ourselves define us. Whenever something happens, we create a story about it that informs how we react and what we choose to do.
ADHDers tend toward negative stories and strong emotional reactions. This affects the stories we tell ourselves, and that influences our actions.
So, for instance, if I send you a text and you don’t get back to me right away, my ADHD brain might create this story to fill in the blanks. “Duane hasn’t replied to my text. He must be mad at me. Did I say something to offend him? What do I do? Do I send another text? Will that look too needy? Oh my God, he probably hates me!”
More likely you’re just in a meeting or busy and didn’t see my text. But I don’t know that, and I start filling in the blanks with worst-case scenarios. That’s the catastrophizing. But then I can’t let go of it. That’s rumination. Both are very common with ADHD. It starts with “Duane didn’t return my text,” and ends with the zombie apocalypse. When you say it like that it sounds pretty silly, but we do that kind of thing to ourselves all the time. That’s why the stories we tell ourselves are vitally important.
DUANE: What do you want people to come away with by the end of your workshop? DOC: I want to make the process of advocating for what you need less scary. I want people to see that advocacy doesn’t have to be about confrontation. Advocacy is most effective when it’s about communication and collaboration.
Like any skill, advocacy takes time and practice. I don’t expect anyone to become an expert in just a few weeks. But I want to give people tools they can start using to build the kinds of relationships with themselves and others that will help them get the things they need to thrive and succeed.
DUANE: Doc, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. If someone wants to find out more about you and what you do, how can they do that? DOC: They can go to my website or email me. And thank you to ADDA for making this workshop available to its members.
Erik “Doc” Anderson is an ADHD coach who specializes in helping people become the hero of their own story. Erik is an ADHDer and also has Cerebral Palsy. He learned early how limiting stories can be damaging, both to ourselves and to others as even well-meaning people expressed what they thought he could or couldn’t do. He realized he could either listen to those stories and live in a very small world, or rewrite them and live in a much larger one. As a result, he’s done impossible things; the kinds of things many other people only dream of and shows others they can do impossible things too. Reach Erik through his website, CoachingforCreativeBrains.com