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"Karthik Uncle": 4 days with children
I spent four days last week with nearly a dozen children, only one of whom was my own. Some random observations from the experience
“I pity the teachers”, my wife declared two days before I set off on my expedition to Kochi last week with my daughter and her school friends to see the Biennale (I’ve blogged extensively about). “They don’t know what they are getting. They would have assumed that they are getting an adult to help. Little do they know they’re getting another big kid they’ve to take care of”.
I went anyway. Except for an annoying cold I picked up in the latter part of the trip, I largely had fun. Upon coming back, though, I felt like I needed a LOT of “me time”. I found my brain unable to function at times. My bimonthly session with my psychiatrist also happened in the days immediately after I returned. “Don’t stress about this too much”, she said. “From what you’ve described, I expect you to take at least a week to recover from this and then you’ll be fine”.
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You might wonder how I did it. How did I, who occasionally struggles handling just one kid (my own), manage to survive four days with a gang of eleven kids in a strange location? Thinking back, I think I managed because I got into a “zone”.
The way I deal with potentially unpleasant or challenging situations is to get myself into a “zone”. It is all about convincing myself that the following few minutes (or hours or days) I’ll be in a special zone, where special rules apply and I’m supposed to act a certain way. It is like a new persona I wilfully adopt for that period, or in computing terms, like a “virtual machine”.
I stay in this zone for as long as it is required (or as long as I can last), and then come back to normal life. And this way, as I put myself into a zone, I can do things I don’t normally do.
I’ve spoken before about how when you have ADHD, you have the ability to “hyperfocus” on something for extended periods of time. Putting yourself in a zone is broadly similar to that. You force yourself to act in a certain way and hyperfocus on things.
While on my way to the airport on Tuesday early morning, I turned off notifications for my work email and chat. “I need to be present with the children”, I told myself. “I’ll be constantly distracted and be able to deal with it without losing my head. Also I need to make sure I don’t do or say anything weird”. I was becoming “Karthik Uncle” (the name I was largely called by for the next four days).
I think I did a good enough job of getting into the zone that I was seldom irritated by the kids (except for a bit on the last day - I’ll come to that in a bit). The strangest thing about getting into this zone was that “normal life” seemed abnormal.
An old friend pinged me on WhatsApp for some general chat. And I found this “disturbing” - it wasn’t part of the plan (and he wasn’t part of this “zone universe”), and I closed the conversation as soon as I could. I had planned to reply intermittently to office messages and emails, but again I was so much in the zone that I kept my replies to a minimum.
I realised what kind of a zone I was in on the last morning - I was completely involved hanging out with the school and seeing the art, and using my phone only to take pictures. And then I wanted to check some school email and opened my email to see a flurry of mails from work. Again I found that rather “disturbing” - it wasn’t part of my virtual machine. In any case I logged out of my persona soon after.
I don’t like roleplays at all. I find them to be too much of an effort. The zone for the school trip I was able to get into because I knew it was for long enough that the effort to get into the zone was worth it. Standard role plays, though, seem like an inordinate amount of effort for a small benefit.
And when I do them occasionally, I find this difficulty in switching off. It is like most neurotypical brains are able to exist in both worlds (“normal” and “role play”) at the same time (like a computer that runs both on Linux and Windows). Mine can’t. I’m either in the zone or fully out of it. There are no half measures.
I still remember this incident from my “computer organisation” class in early 2002. I was in deep thought - what about, I don’t know. Then the guy next to me slapped me on my hand and said, “arrey, think about this problem”. I got so thrown off I never liked him again. My wonderful flow of thought (what it was about doesn’t matter) had been ruined, and he wanted me to think about his problem. I was absolutely angry.
This is a common occurrence, though I don’t know why I remember this specific episode. I constantly go into zones when I’m hyperfocussing on some things, and then when some external stimulus (telephone ring or doorbell or someone tapping me) snaps me out of the zone, I get all disoriented. Sometimes I squeal (literally). Sometimes I get angry. A lot of times, work completely stops. It is as if Vyasa suddenly stopped dictating the Mahabharata to Ganesha.
Sampling and interpolation
One model in which you can describe the ADHD brain is that it does a lot more of “sampling and interpolation” (using digital signal processing terms here) compared to the neurotypical brain. I lack attention to detail. If a lot of information is fed to me in a short period of time, I’m unable to ingest all of it. Instead, I sample (take in the key areas) and interpolate (fill in the empty spaces in my samples using the best possible approximations based on the data I’ve sampled).
This can manifest itself in many ways. While reading something I might just be explicitly reading the keywords and filling in the rest for myself. When the thing has been written well, this is a breeze - most of my filling in is correct. When it has been badly written (either too high or too low a bit rate), my interpolation goes all awry. And I’m unable to make sense of the text. What my brain is interpolating conflicts what is already there. So I’m usually much worse than most people at reading badly written text (that said, when I write something in several sittings, the piece is usually badly written - like this one. Each sitting I fill in differently).
There can be an issue with interpersonal dynamics as well. Again, lacking attention to detail, I make assumptions on how the person I’m interacting with will proceed. And I plan my next steps as a function of these assumptions. And when these assumptions don’t hold (the person moves in a way that you wouldn’t have expected based on your prediction), I can snap. There was a tiny incident of this earlier today when my wife and I were moving some furniture, and I kept going the wrong way.
More importantly, in the context of this post, this is what makes it hard to deal with children - they are less predictable than the average adult. And so your interpolated worlds keep clashing with the real worlds that they create. This means you find it less easy to function. You are constantly disturbed and thrown off. So you need to get yourself into a special zone when you know you need to deal with lots of them for an extended period of time.
Back to Kochi
Having got myself into the zone (thinking back, this was involuntary), the four days weren’t bad at all. The zone included “not sampling and interpolating”. So I kept myself open to things not going per plan. Of course it helped that I was with adults who were vastly more experienced at handling children - they did the “main job”, I was only there for some support. So, largely it was a breeze - I enjoyed the art and hanging out with the children.
It was the aftermath that was more challenging.
By the afternoon of the fourth day, I was “gone”. I desperately needed some alone time, and excused myself from the group for the afternoon. One of the teachers helpfully directed me to “Pepper House”, a rather nice coffee shop that was also a venue for the Biennale.
Having had my first proper coffee of the trip (there was no kettle in the room we stayed in, which meant I had to subsist on “cold brew aeropress”), I decided to forego my afternoon’s dose of Methylphenidate that day. It was as if I had zoned too hard until then - I wanted to “let myself as free as possible”, which meant thinking in my ground style (I’ve done this in the past as well - not taken my ADHD medication when trying to relax).
I relaxed with my coffee (and replied to all the office mail). Bought a ticket and saw the art in this venue. Then went to the main Biennale venue to re-sample the art there (and spend more time on pieces I had seen in a hurry). And then reconvened with the group for an early dinner and heading back.
There is this scene from dinner that day - we had just finished eating, and I was sitting at my table surrounded by 6-8 children, who were all randomly cracking jokes and asking me riddles. It was a strictly one-to-many conversation as they were all talking to me. That scene tells me that (until then at least), I had done well on the trip.
This deserves its own newsletter edition, but since it’s relevant to the context I’ll write about it briefly here. When you have ADHD, there are only two modes you can operate in for most tasks - full throttle or “no enthu da”. When you are tired, the latter is more likely for most tasks. So the only way to get things done is to will yourself into “impulses” - short period of time when you go full throttle to finish the job at hand.
From high school physics class, you might recall that an impulse is a strong force exerted for a short period of time. So you summon all your wits and decide to push through on a task ASAP. As long as you are doing it alone, you are fine. When dependent on others, it can cause frustration.
While I had mentally checked out of my “zone”, there were a few things I had to still help out with. Get us all into the airport, for example (I held everyone’s boarding cards on my phone). Or get us through security check. Or board the plane and take our seats. By this time I was “gone”, and for each of these tasks, I was drawing on impulses. This meant, every time someone did something that would make the process longer, I would feel irritated, since that meant my “peak power” was being expended for longer (mixing metaphors, it was like driving a car in first gear for a long distance, at speed).
Since I was tired by then, it also meant I expressed my frustration, maybe for the first time with the children on the trip.
“I had asked all of you to keep your IDs out. Why haven’t you kept yours out yet?”
”OK it’s your turn to walk and wait there now. What are you waiting for?”
”Why did you have to pack such a heavy suitcase for a four day trip?” (while helping load bags on to the security check belt)
”Why did you have to bring a suitcase so large you can’t handle it by yourself?” (while walking across the airport)
By the time we boarded, I needed some “self care”.
You might be the foxiest fox, but when you are incredibly exhausted, you abandon all your fox skills and turn into a hedgehog, and roll up into a ball. When you are exhausted, you go into self-preservation mode, abandoning all feelings of altruism and focussing on looking after yourself.
For the flight, I loosely interpreted a teacher’s direction that “everyone should just sit in their assigned seats” to put my daughter into a window seat and myself next to her. This served multiple purposes - I didn’t have to spend any effort to keep a tab on my daughter, had a familiar person next to me, and (most importantly) had something to cuddle at the time of take off.
When it was time for the (prepaid) meals, the self-preservation continued. I made sure we got served first, followed by the rest of our row. I didn’t offer the “mixed nuts” to anyone apart from my daughter and the other girl next to me, and ate it (almost) all by myself. Prior to that, when the group decided they didn’t want the fruits our tour company had arranged for us for the day, I had picked out an apple from the basket and carried it into the airport and eaten it all by myself.
The trip was completed successfully, as we landed in Bangalore late that night. Most of the other children were reunited with their parents who were waiting for them. I was happy, that I had navigated these four days without much incident.
What I had not bargained for was the amount of “willpower debt” I had taken to keep myself in that zone for four days. The weekend went in a daze. I’m glad I had a good work week this week, but the evenings were incredibly busy, despite not having that much to do.
On Saturday, as I was in the process of recovering from the trip, my wife quipped, “only someone with ADHD could have volunteered to go on a trip like this for four days”.
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