Being an ADHD Christian can feel like a contradiction. We operate with deep faith that God wants to connect with us – a central teaching of Christianity. ADHD is the inability to regulate attention – this means that we either focus very hard or not at all, and we tend to have little control over which extreme will occur at any given moment. I take what I commit to seriously, which is likely partly caused by ADHD. This is hyperfocus, and it is among the most common, and most challenging and wonderful of ADHD symptoms, sometimes even causing us to forget to eat when we commit our minds to something, but also allowing us to focus and learn for long periods of time. As one who has taken that commitment to Christ seriously, I want to experience connection with God, but that can be difficult, for there is little in the spiritual or pastoral wisdom of my Catholic tradition that feels like it is for me. A good pastor is patient, quiet, close to their people. ADHD brain chemistry means many of us don’t have those qualities. I am impulsive, talkative, rambly, hyperactive, and awkward. To most people without ADHD, that can make it very difficult to go to us for pastoral help. Further, there aren’t enough people with ADHD to really create an “ADHD apostolate” for people who would prefer their ministers to be like this.
To give an example, my hyperfocus had me buying and then spending hours reading the Desert Fathers, Therese of Lisieux, John of the Cross, and Henri Nouwen. I took notes, highlighted my books, and then decided, “Time go to pray. I’m ready now, let’s do this.” And I realized, as a pretty good reader, that Nouwen’s central point in the end of The Wounded Healer is that in moments of silence and stillness, you will engage in a self-concentration that allows you to come to terms with the person you are and as such love those around you. I think that’s great advice, so I try.
But when I try, it feels impossible. Honestly, I find it physically painful, with the tightening muscles in my legs getting my attention more than God. But the masters are telling me to pray in silence and stillness. I want to listen to them, but the silence makes it harder to pray. Why? Because of how my brain works, I fill in the absence of sound with racing thoughts, which distract me more than quiet music would. I’m also supposed to sit still which is even worse. I want to pray, but I cannot. Not how they told me to.
My mind and my body, which I cannot escape, tell me to not do what the tradition tells me to do. There are a small number of ADHD ministers and very few saints who seem to have had ADHD. Where can I find spiritual guidance? Silence and stillness are not going to work. The spiritual tradition seems to exclude me.
And I have lived my life with ADHD, which according to some studies, means that I will have heard approximately 20,000 more negative messages than my neurotypical peers by age 10.1 I have internalized a negative self-image as a result, which is common among my ADHD peers. For example, today, I forgot to take meat out of the freezer before I went to work, which leaves me probably eating pasta for dinner. The echo of previous criticisms that I don’t take care of my body rings loudly. Or for higher stakes, I lost a job because I couldn’t keep good records. The echo of my boss saying “Why can’t you keep good records? You literally have to put it in the filing cabinet, clearly labeled, it’s not that hard” rocks my mind all the time. So I feel disorganized, unproductive, unhealthy, or like a failure. As a result, these voices of course get projected onto God, though I know the quiet voice of God is gentle, the voices with which I speak to myself are not. So it feels like God is saying “try harder” too, like everyone around me.
I want to connect with God, but silence does not help. I don’t want to pray at the volume of a rock concert, but I also don’t want to pray in what feels like a vacuum. Of course I don’t want to push myself to physical exhaustion, but I would rather pace than sit still. I am listening to soft music as I write this because if I don’t listen to music, I keep flipping over to Twitter. But because I do not want silence or stillness, I am at a crossroads, with what feels like three possibilities. And none of them seem to remind me of the quiet, loving voice of God.
The first possibility is that God doesn’t want to speak to me. God only speaks in the silence, right? But silence hurts. So God doesn’t want to speak to me. That might be true, but it hurts. While there are other Christians who correctly tell me that this isn’t true, it is hard to receive. As the tradition feels exclusive, that seems to lessen the authority of people offering such platitudes. I already believe I’m unworthy because the rest of the world is not set up for my neurodiverse brain, so it’s very easy to fall into the trap of projecting that onto God.
The second possibility is that I must try to become more neurotypical. Those masters know how the spirit works, and the spirit speaks to us in our bodies and minds. So if I crush how my brain works and sit quiet and still, maybe God will fight through the discomfort. But the discomfort hurts too. So I self-medicate, drinking too much caffeine or alcohol. So God doesn’t want to speak to me, at least not naturally. But needing drugs to pray is also bad.
The third possibility is that I find a way to make this work. Maybe I don’t have to consider silence as being about the senses so much as about my experience. The simple fact is that listening to a guided meditation or soft music is experientially closer to silence for me. So in looking for silence, I find silence in not-silence, and then I keep working there.
But then I end up in an ADHD spiral. Voices echo that I am a relativist because I have taken the clearly defined concept of silence and changed it to make it fit me. Not-silence is not silence. It’s not a doctrinal matter, but to people without ADHD I worry that I might seem obstinate.
One of the purposes of silence is to limit distraction. We pray better when we can focus on God and don’t have our attention split. For me, I experience more distraction internally than externally, so music or a guided prayer works better to help me focus. It feels great to have figured that out, but it still leaves me feeling at odds with my tradition. I have decided to make peace with this; I navigate these kinds of contradictions in my everyday social life. If my friends who truly love me don’t mind that I walk around them while I talk to them, rather than sitting 14 inches away, maybe God will not mind that I need some soft music to pray, even if it is not Christian music. However, years of ADHD conditioning leaves me still in doubt if my discernment is best.
So I have learned to pray on my own. Next step. We Catholics care about praying in community, and as such, we have a deep liturgical tradition. However, I am used to rejection, and ADHD is correlated with high levels of empathy and loyalty.2 This means that offending people with my liturgical preferences bothers me: I don’t want to hurt them because I don’t want to upset people when I feel their pain. I mask every day, so let me mask in liturgy. Masking refers to engaging attentively and with a lot of effort in behaviors that would hide ADHD.3 Once, I had a roommate tell me that she thought I was behaving as though I were trying to act like I was always being watched, rather than how I would act if I were being natural. At my previous office job, I had to get training in how to dress so that I would look like everybody else in the office and would show up a half hour early to accomplish basic organization tasks. In other words, I need to act like a neurotypical person in many areas of my life, social and professional, so that I fit in. That can work in my liturgical life too. In liturgy, it would look like holding my knee so my leg does not bounce while seated, or closing my eyes during a song, so that my vision does not compound the sensory input from my ears.
But that leaves me in a contradiction, and the church trying to minister to me and my compatriots in a contradiction. It leaves us to discern what is constitutive and what is accidental in the spiritual life.
The question of beauty, which so commonly seems correlated with aesthetics, gets to the heart of this question. We want our liturgy to be beautiful. Beauty raises the mind and heart to God, we Catholics believe. I love things that are beautiful, but so many things people present as beautiful are distracting or even painful to me. Incense, high-pitched music, ornate vestments, sunsets, condiments, none of that is received as beauty. It’s received as sensory excess and makes it harder for me to encounter the divine; that high-pitched and loud organ music makes me want to vomit. From what I’ve read and discussed with neurotypical friends, high aesthetics probably is good for the prayer of neurotypicals, but not for me or many other ADHDers. Something that I do experience as beautiful, like a baby’s first steps, would bring me into encounter with the divine. But there have been times in worship when I thought, “all I want out of mass right now is for us to sit in cheap, wooden chairs, music be all low-decibel, low-pitch, and vocal, no incense, and the half the lights in the building to be off.” Note I that referenced four different senses: touch, hearing, smell, and sight. Any one of them could set me off. For many people, that kind of liturgy would be disrespectful, and it would turn them off the liturgy due to perceived disrespect. I am thinking “get everything that could distract me out of the way, so that I’m not thinking of how bad that incense smells. What to other people adds to the liturgy takes away from it for me. I care about the liturgy, but aesthetics is not equal to beauty. But how can the Church help me go deeper when what would help me would send 97% of the population away?
The reason this is so hard is that much of what I experience as problematic is very helpful, perhaps even essential, for many neurotypicals. I find organ music painful. However, one of the most authoritative Catholic documents on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, states: “In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.”4 I don’t want to be seen as rejecting the authority of the Second Vatican Council, but this statement seems inconsistent with my sensory experience of noise. So how does the church provide spiritual advice to those who are neurotypical and remain consistent with the wisdom of generations, while not excluding people with brains like mine?
People with ADHD are a small portion of the population (2.8% is the WHO’s estimate)5, so often our neurological concerns aren’t that big a deal in strategic conversations. It probably is good advice, if your goal is to evangelize the most people, to help people with silence or aesthetics. We don’t often see ourselves in the pastors around us. Most people don’t want their minister to have ADHD symptoms, which include hyperactivity, talking over others, inattention. Neurotypicals tend not to want to go to that kind of person when they are grieving. And given that ministers need to be generalists, able to minister to as many people as possible, especially given the lack of money to pay lay ministers, it makes sense to not want to hire impulsive people who tell stories in a way that appears disorganized to neurotypical brains. However, it does leave those of us who have ADHD feeling excluded by our ministers. If my pastor was more like me, I could probably handle the spiritual and liturgical questions more easily.
In terms of concrete actions that the Church could offer us, I can think of a few. Some parishes have offered “sensory-sensitive masses.” Often in the late morning to early afternoon, (times when ADHDer’s are more awake than the early morning), they tend to have less music, lower lights, and take place in spaces that are physically smaller to avoid the need for a microphone. Making this a more regular thing, set up on the diocesan, rather than the parish level, would be helpful. Additionally, providing targeted spiritual training to psychologists in the field might be helpful. The Catholic Church does a great job of training social workers in also offering spiritual guidance, but that is generally done for a neurotypical population. Offering spiritual training to psychologists who know about ADHD, or ADHD training to some of the better spiritual directors, would help.
That leaves ADHD people in the church feeling contradicted. People with ADHD like me have very specific needs – such as prayer, liturgy, and the knowledge of God’s love – and there’s no tradition to go to that feels like it is for us. But since we cannot make it up ourselves, we live in a contradiction. We experience the world in a different way than the other 97% of the population does. We hope to be good followers of Christ, but we can’t stop being ADHD. As a result, I hope that the Church realizes that we have specific needs. Continue to offer things like liturgical high aesthetics and silence to your neurotypical flock. But be aware that these aspects of the Christian life may drive your ADHD flock away, and be prepared to offer us something that works with our brains, the brains God gave us.
- Michael S. Jellinek, “Don’t Let ADHD Crush Children’s Self-Esteem,” MDedge Psychiatry (ADDitude Magazine, April 16, 2018), https://www.mdedge.com/psychiatry/article/23971/pediatrics/dont-let-adhd-crush-childrens-self-esteem.
- René et al., “5 Ways ADHD Relationships Are Remarkable,” Black Girl Lost Keys, July 2, 2021, https://blackgirllostkeys.com/adhd/adhd-relationships/.
- Cuncic, A. (2021, September 20). What is ADHD masking? Verywell Mind. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-adhd-masking-5200863.
- Second Vatican Council. (n.d.). Sacrosanctum Concilium. Retrieved November 24, 2021, from https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html.
- John Fayyad et al., “The Descriptive Epidemiology of DSM-IV ADULT ADHD in the World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys,” ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders 9, no. 1 (2016): pp. 47-65, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12402-016-0208-3.