The Talent Show, at The 2018 International Conference on ADHD in St. Louis, Missouri
By Dean Solden
“What is it about the Talent Show, ” I ask myself as I pack up the electric keyboard into its hardened, unbreakable case, smelling the wine in the air, viewing the remnants of half-eaten food on the white tablecloths, seeing an empty hall with tables and chairs strewn about after another unforgettable evening. As I look out over the sea of emptiness, I can hear the crackle of laughter of the hundreds of people as Patti D. joked about how we did acid in the seventies, and now we need antacid; I can hear the sounds of the dozen or so musicians and speakers, amateurs and pros alike, who took a chance and pushed their personal safety zones, bravely singing and shouting from their gut about love and pain and desperation and redemption as the supportive crowd cried and cheered and saw a bit of themselves in each performer and performance. I can still feel the quietness in the room and the inner being of the audience as they became one with the beautiful Vidya. As she meditatively moved her body in a classical Indian dance, we were entranced.
“This was a good show,” I say to myself as I gather my many papers of set lists and phone numbers and descriptions of the performers, so perfectly organized before the show and now strewn all over the table and floor, as they became disorganized heaps of paper. I laugh to myself and think, “What a perfect ending to an ADHD performance,” – as I bow to the messy papers, a symbolic gesture of gratitude representing the chaotic but beautiful ADHD mind.
“Now I remember what just happened here,” as my mind reaches back to years of other Talent Shows we’ve had at ADHD Conferences over the last two decades, mostly with ADDA, but now these last two years with CHADDACO as I call it, the combined efforts of ADDA, CHADD, and this year ACO, the ADHD Coaches Organization. I remember how nervous and anxious I was in those early years, getting sick before each show, not knowing if my opening act would be any good, or if my opening monologue would be funny. Now I remember why we keep having this show, and why it seems so special, year after year, as I cram down a chicken sandwich, the first thing I’ve eaten in about eight hours – a habit from the old days when eating before a gig wasn’t such a good idea.
The performers are good – sometimes really good, but it is much more than that. There is something about the totality of the humanity of all of these performers, who remind us what having ADHD is really about, and ultimately, what life is really about. The Talent Show brings each person out in a special way, and cumulatively, brings out our ADHD tribe in a special way.
In the neurotypical world we live in our little silos – and depending on our region of the country, or religion, sexuality or political affiliation – lead our lives as best we can with invisible walls that separate us from most people. If we are lucky we have a few people, maybe a loving mate and family, or a couple of friends who know us and understand us, while we work and play and raise our kids and try make a bit of a difference and eke out a little fun. If we are really lucky we may have a larger group of people, maybe a big family or a church community or a group of friends, who really get us, and with them we can peel off a layer or two of our armor of anxiety, depression or insecurity, or whatever “it” is – everybody’s got something.
However, us neuro-atypicals, us ADHDer’s, we have a few additional layers of emotional and neurological walls which the neurotypicals may see as being either just a little bit different, or too full-blown quirky, depending on our brain chemistry. We can shed some of the normal skin, but it’s very hard to shed the ADHD walls because, for the most part, THEY JUST DON’T GET IT. And unless they really choose to try and get it – because they are married to us or they have kids with ADHD, they probably won’t get it – and so we go on having our friendly but not that intimate relationship with the rest of the world.
Until we come to the International Conference on ADHD, and, finally, The Talent Show. We walk into a room about to hear what we think are going to be some readings, some dance, and lots of songs. First timers don’t know they are going to a revival meeting.
We watch as Patti B., to the music of Billy Joel’s, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, does a sign language dance while prowling the stage like a boxer in the ring. She is full of joy, and we drink in that joy watching her. She just told us that doing a similar routine last year was literally life changing.
(Paraphrasing) “I took a chance last year, and looked my fear of performing in the face, and said, ‘What the hell’, and I did it, thinking I may make a complete fool out of myself. And when I didn’t, when I got through it, and it was good, like I thought it could be, and the audience loved it, I realized I didn’t have to let my fear control me. So, at age 50, I changed my life. I’m still afraid, but I’m now brave enough to act. And here I am again.”
And she pushed her safety zone even further, and the audience loved her even more.
“That’s what it’s about,” I said to myself, wiping a tear while being a part of her standing ovation. The audience got it and loved her because without going through their left-brain analytical mind, they were actually experiencing what successfully living with ADHD was, through the experience of the performances.
My wife, Sari Solden, an ADHD professional, tells us we have to “be ourselves, be unique, and celebrate our ADHD. The more unique we are the better we are.” Watching Patti and Terri, a long time Talent Show performer who had her own breakthrough years ago, and other performers, like Mike and Sean on guitar and Eric on piano and Chana perform a reading, we saw, live, in action, people actually being unique. We all felt, through the songs and music, each person’s talent, each person’s uniqueness, knowing at the same time, that at that moment, they were actually overcoming their own inner fear.
Each performance was not just an artistic performance; it was, in real time, the actualization of the process of overcoming the stigma and shame of ADHD, while breaking through their personal shackles of fear and anxiety which hold most of us back, AND simultaneously, celebrating that uniqueness, showing the world that their uniqueness really is good and can be good, and can be shared with others.
As each person followed one another, like another Patty’s puppet show and Sharon’s parody song, we saw one brave human after another expose their skin and their soul. And not only did we enjoy it, down deep, we realized that in some way, somewhere, we can do it, too. The more the show went on, the better we all felt about ourselves, our ADHD and our ADHD community. The experts are right; and through therapy and meds and coaching we can lead successful lives, and each session at this International conference confirmed that in our heads and sometimes in our hearts.
But at The Talent Show, each person and each performance was an actual human testimony that we have a right to live a life as full as the neurotypicals, and that we understood – in our souls. And with each new song and performance we became more and more a Tribe, and by the end of the night, after Alex’s and Natalie’s poignant readings which exposed the depth of their humanity, and Lisa singing to us about the beauty of family, and Catherine belting out a Streisand’s, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” person after person unveiling themselves, act after act of naked truth, culminating with Roger’s deep, majestic Broadway voice, exaltingly proclaiming, “To Dream the Impossible Dream,” we all felt it was no longer impossible to dream our own very real dreams.
As I walked out of the concert space, opening the heavy door to the real world, I felt all of this in an instant. I remembered, “This is why The Talent Show seems so special.” One last time, I looked back over my shoulder at the empty room and grinned, because this was a damn good show, and after twenty years, I put it together without the dread and anxiety that had haunted me for decades; I had overcome my demons. And now with another ADHD Talent show under my belt, watching another group of people literally break through their glass walls of fears and dare to show the world who they really were, and seeing the hundreds in the audience get it, enjoy it, and be inspired to live out their dreams, I smiled once more to myself, because my dream had just come true, again.
Dean Solden is an entrepreneur, jazz pianist, singer-songwriter and writer. He is the founder and has been the organizer of the ADHD Talent Show for the past two decades. And yes, (couldn’t you guess) he has a bit of ADHD as well. Reach him at email@example.com.