Friday, November 18, 2011

Building Hedges: What the Rabbis Taught Me About Managing ADHD

The [Great Assembly] originated three maxims: "Be not hasty in judgment; Bring up many disciples; and, build a hedge for the Torah."
-Pirkei Avot 1:1

End-of-year report, first grade:

“Rebecca has the ability to be an outstanding student. She has a tremendous amount of knowledge and is eager to learn. Although she has wonderful ideas, she has produced very little work that would give evidence of this. Her inability to attend to the task at hand and to complete her work has caused her great frustration this year.”

By fourth grade, I have learned to perform reasonably well in school. But my work is disorganized, and I’ve picked up the nickname “Hurricane Rebecca,” reflecting the disaster area that is my desk. 

By the time I’ve reached high school, I’ve learned to game the system. Despite my disorganization and last-minute work habits, the work is easy enough for me that I build up an eminently respectable academic record, and manage to graduate in three years.

I enter college with designs on a biology major, but first-year bio and chem classes prove my undoing; the pass-fail option is my salvation. Religious studies is interesting enough to me that I put serious work into it. But I still start papers at 3 am the day they’re due. I worry that someone will discover that I’m not working hard enough, and as I get more seriously into the subject, the stakes get higher. Somehow, I graduate with high honors. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time until I get caught.

In my second year of grad school—last fall—I meet with my advisor for my independent reading. He tells me to shut the door. “This is not graduate-level writing,” he says. “You’re in graduate school, and you need to get serious.” He pauses. “How many hours a day do you work?”

The jig is up. 

I tell him that I’ve suspected for a while that something’s wrong with me, but that I can’t afford to see a therapist regularly right now. 

“Then sell your books and see one. Your brain is your most important tool. If you were a dancer you wouldn’t make excuses about not taking care of your feet.” He continues, “I wouldn’t be telling you this if I didn’t think you were smart enough to do this. It’s clear that you are. But you’ve got to decide to undertake the discipline necessary. What we do in the academy is a discipline. It’s unnatural. You have to train yourself to do it.”

That February, after spending two months not writing the thesis I need to have a draft of by April first, I finally get my butt to a therapist. I get an official diagnosis of inattentive-type ADHD, and begin a course of Adderall.

The first night I take it, I read and annotate two books in three hours. What’s more, I haven’t wasted energy stalling, so I actually enjoy it. By the end of March, I have a complete draft of my thesis. This semester, ten months later, I haven’t pulled a single all-nighter, because my work gets done on schedule. And for the first time, I’m completing work that isn’t required for my classes.

For the vast majority of this improvement, I have to credit drugs and therapy. However, learning Rabbinic texts (a practice I began regularly this summer) has helped me understand the way my brain works-- and the ways to manage that--much better.
After my first academic taste of Talmud [1] as an undergrad, I seem to recall joking about it being “religion with ADHD.” The way the sages seemed to leap from one topic to another, seemingly unrelated one, was comical, albeit uncomfortably familiar to me. Consider Bava Batra 73a, which begins as a commentary on a mishnah concerned with the proper protocol for selling a ship. By the next page, 73b, we have gotten here:

"Rabbah bar Hanah further stated: I saw a frog the size of the fort of Hagronia. (What is the size of the fort of Hagronia? Sixty houses.)"

Yet, if Talmud was religion with ADHD, it was also religion for the clinically anal-retentive, built upon series of rules and practices that were so obscure and finicky as to be absurd—Mishnah Berakhot 7:3, for instance, prescribes a lengthy and specific blessing for a meal with ten thousand guests. But, if ten thousand and one are present, the prescribed blessing is short and generic. The documents themselves are separated into categories within categories—first, general orders, or sedarim, then tractates within the orders, chapters within the tractates, verses within the chapters. And the methods for commenting on texts within the Rabbinic genre are themselves subject to very particular rules.

What seemed a ridiculous contradiction at the time made much more sense to me once I started learning about ADHD. In their 1994 book, Driven to Distraction, psychiatrists Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey write, “Structure makes possible the expression of talent. Without structure, no matter how much talent there may be, there is only chaos…The ADD mind is like spilled mercury, running and beading. Structure is the vessel needed to contain the mercury of the ADD mind, to keep it from being here and there and everywhere all at once.” (Hallowell and Ratey, 1994, 221)

Talmud, and Rabbinic texts in general, might be understood to work the same way. When one interprets a text, whether a mishnah or a verse of Bible, the order of the day is atomization: each verse is a complete unit in and of itself, and any other verse from the canon is fair game to use as an intertext—that is, a text to throw against it, to react with it, and to generate an interpretation—as long as the interpreter can make it work. Which feels a lot like free-associating, and seems like it could easily disintegrate into interpretive chaos.

But. There are rules in place, structures to contain the madness. There is an end that must be achieved, an interpretive problem that must be resolved. Often, the impetus for the interpretive chaos in the first place is some problem or irritant in the original text, something that doesn’t fit with another text or with a larger principle. In Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, Christine Hayes writes, “[a given mishnah may be] ambiguous in the sense that it contains a gap of information. The gemaras must work to fill that gap.” (Hayes, 1997, 57)

The initial stimulus—a problem to be solved—structures the whole interpretive section, reeling it back in at the end to the original text. The discussion may go far afield, but it always has to bring itself back to the text at hand. Eventually, it must come up with some sort of resolution to the task it has set itself.

The quotation at the top of the page, from Pirkei Avot (“Chapters of the Fathers,” a collection of ethical maxims found in Tractate Avot of the Mishnah)—specifically the line about building a hedge around the Torah— is one that has bedeviled me ever since I was introduced to it.

The traditional interpretation is that one must guard the commandments of the Torah from transgression by strengthening them (so, if the Torah says, “don’t go to thus and such place,” I should not even go within, say, a mile of it) I always read it as an expression par excellence of stiffness, hideboundness, of religious or doctrinal inflexibility.

Now, I see an alternate meaning. Building hedges—building limitations around one’s behavior—is a way of structuring one’s day-to-day life. In setting myself a schedule for the day, in insisting I accomplish a certain number of tasks before I can goof off, in creating small rituals (my cup of tea, my morning crossword, the sweatpants I wear to work) around which I structure those tasks—I am building hedges. By limiting my initial options, I increase the number and variety of things I can accomplish.

ADHD forced me to see the need for that lesson. The Rabbis taught it to me.

[1] “Talmud” refers to the collection of Rabbinic legal texts, or “Oral Torah”, which has two parts, Mishnah and Gemara. The Mishnah is a collection of legal traditions from the Tannaitic period (70-200 CE); the Gemara is a collection of commentaries on the Mishnah from the Amoraic period (200-500 CE). There are two Gemaras, the Palestinian Talmud (closed c.a. 400 CE), and the Babylonian Talmud (closed c.a. 500 CE).

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