Reviewing: A Thousand Ways to Pay Attention by Rebecca Schiller

I started reading this book on a Wednesday, at the tail end of several weeks without giving myself a day off. I read the first few pages at least seven times, wandering around my basement apartment with my mind bouncing from what to capture for this review, to how I make book notes in general, to the question of where I might find resources on improving the quality of a non-fiction book review. It took me an hour of noticing the disjointed state of my own thoughts, at approximately five-minute intervals, to actually make it to the pill case, and once the meds kicked in I found myself focusing not on the book in my hand but rather on a text conversation. And thus I felt right at home when I finally settled into these pages, a beautiful ADHD memoir speaking to such internal experiences in a way that feels not polished and sanitized for an outside perspective but rather reflective of our own chaotic and beautiful brains. As a lover of dichotomy, this book was exactly what I needed.

Rebecca Schiller drops us into her memoir with a jarring opening set just after the year that the bulk of the book chronicles (2019). In recounting her experience of a diagnostic test Schiller captures the feeling of being inside an ADHD brain but also the meta-layer of impostor syndrome, the observational tendency to notice how others are noticing you. “There’s no one to hide behind here, no last-minute miracle I can pull out of the bag, no way to fake it, no brilliant distraction, no covering humor, no meticulous preparation, no costume, no series of reminders and lists, no lie or excuse, no way to cancel at the last minute, no opt- out, no get-out, no convincing apology, no way to go back in time.”

Oof. I’m pulled back into a similar feeling, sitting in a kind psychiatric nurse’s armchair where I’m both tempted to answer his questions in the manner that would be most reflective of the DSM-V criteria for ADHD and at the same time trying not to do so, for fear that despite my honest I might somehow be subconsciously lying. And I’m also relieved in retrospect that my own country doesn’t use the test Schiller describes, as it was her very description meant to invoke the maddening monotony of it that sent my mind wandering: red circle, blue circle, click.

Schiller’s prose has a beautiful immediacy to it. Though we can gather from the test and the book’s title that she’s writing about ADHD, this memoir comes at the diagnosis from a different angle, the term not actually appearing until we reach December in her yearlong narrative. Though the final quarter of the book does return to the diagnosis, considering Schiller’s experience in the greater context of adult women who experience these symptoms, throughout her month-by-month account of the prior year we’re fully immersed in her perspective—that terrifying experience of knowing that something is wrong, but not exactly what.

This immersion takes place on a smallholding (homestead) in southern England, where Schiller learns to tend to the land and balances work with mothering two small children in the midst of an unraveling that threatens to undo her. The looming spectre of climate change and an uncertainty around what right she has to steward the land parallel her experience of cognitive overwhelm, but amidst the intense vulnerability of her internal experience we also get to know a natural world that can be in turns whimsical, brutal, and soothing.

I personally appreciate that nature and beauty and even mindfulness are presented here as possible to access without a stereotypically calm approach. I’m sure I’m not the only intuitive with ADHD who struggles to embody the calm, soothing tones of a typical person in my field! Schiller’s intimacy with the land helps the reader to appreciate how viewing ADHD as “disordered” is really a product of modern culture. Gardening and other tasks become daunting when planning ahead, but when Schiller is fully immersed some of the pressure slips away and she begins to develop relationship as part of a rich ecosystem.

Dichotomy—holding two contradicting things to be simultaneously true—winds through Schiller’s storytelling. There is even a dichotomy formed by how the meandering, specific prose somehow generates clear themes without an obvious destination. Schiller is honest about the simultaneous beauty and torment of the ADHD brain. On the one hand, we can weave things together in creative ways, but that ability also makes it very challenging to stay within a single context when novel associations beckon. Good for innovation, bad for focus.

That weaving is illustrated through a layering of levels of reality, time, and context in the narrative. I found this quite natural and intriguing, but neurotypical readers may struggle! Schiller demonstrates how her mind can hold large and small scope, past and present context, as she jumps between research about 17th century English tenants, for example, and the minutae of a gardening task, interspersed with sort-of dream sequences that are never quite defined—delusion? Intuitive journey? Just a storyteller’s embellishment? The reader is left to decide.

One fascinating perspective treats ADHD as an open third eye that doesn’t help much in the “real world,” but has its own magic. Coping mechanisms like notifications and planners can allow you to manage well enough to safely keep this third eye open, but unfamiliar environments without these tools available can result in a rush.

I expect many readers will relate, like me, to Schiller’s experience of ADHD being a kind of strength as a student but a burden as an adult. I found myself inside her narrative again as I remembered my delight when junior-year courses all neatly lined up so that I was studying U.S. history, civics, and literature simultaneously—meaning that my ability to connect each layer was an asset rather than a distraction. I tired of linear, shallow stories and wanted to dig deep in an interdisciplinary fashion. Even in her adult experience we find a contrast between Schiller’s research achievements (available when she follows the safe route of pursuing curiosity towards sprawling high-level subjects) and the mistake-filled emotional roller coaster of her day-to-day life.

In 2020 I wrote in my journal “ADHD is the constant desire to escape.” Schiller’s experience echoes this reflection, as she both becomes more rooted to the land and wonders if she should flee it. There’s even an interesting connection between ADHD and nomadic life, and to spiral time. I’ll let you read the book for the details, but I particularly appreciate how rather than framing ADHD as a “modern illness,” Schiller concludes that these traits of ours have existed for a long time—it is only the way capitalism forces us into a neurotypical prison that makes ADHD a weakness rather than a strength.

Readers should be aware that the theme of escape does include some intense descriptions of self-harm and desire to self-harm, including intrusive thoughts of suicide. Despite that, Schiller goes through the familiar experience of not being unwell enough at the specific moment she’s screened to get support, figuring into her critique of the health care system. Her persistence in arriving at the right diagnosis is inspiring, but it’s not an easy path. She beautifully captures the frustration of having so much to say about your context that would help a professional understand your internal experience, but then needing to get it across quickly in “bullet point” format to fit in the time allotted.

I think I was most struck by the relational pieces of the book. The stereotype of the spacey, “head in the clouds” ADHD person doesn’t really capture our hyperawareness at different levels, including of people’s reactions (which may manifest as Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria.) The contrast between rigid personal rules that keep things together and having to lie multiple times about why you forgot a meeting was deeply familiar. Professional female and non-binary readers may especially relate to the way Schiller talks about those learned behaviors as what can keep us from being “the kind of person” who forgets things.

Ultimately, between a space of magical possibility and a site of insanity, Schiller locates the ADHD brain closer to the experience of intuition. From the viewpoint of this book the intuitive path is the hard one, but its beauty is in how it uncovers the layers of modern life to guide you to what you already know. For a story surrounded by so-called apocalypse, from the Greek “uncover” or “reveal,” this seems highly à propos.

I would highly recommend to anyone, especially, who is both neurodivergent and passionate about the intersection of healing and justice, including practitioners of earth-based spirituality and those with metaphysical interests. While I can’t know what the experience of reading it would be like for a neurotypical person, I can also see it being a great way to get a sense of the internal experience of someone with ADHD.

ARC provided by Edelweiss.