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Order In Chaos: Improv and the Scattered Brain


Beautiful chaos of colors in art

I’ve been grappling, recently, with a self-diagnosis of adult ADHD (or ADD because… nothing hyperactive over here). Most of it began with a social media algorithm finding me and then attacking me relentlessly. My phone's microphone was likely eavesdropping as Ted Lasso was telling me to be like a goldfish because they have short attention spans. Nonetheless, I bit at the social media bait.


I took a series of online quizzes, read articles on my news feeds, took more quizzes, and started to become more convinced that I likely was dealing with ADHD and had been for most of my life. 


Bittersweet Balance


I was equal parts concerned and relieved. 


Concerned because any new diagnosis can be unsettling and the uncertainty of treatment, if any, is daunting. I called to schedule an appointment with my primary to discuss but it is 2024 so… wait time is approximately 2-4 years.


I was also relieved, though. Some clarity hadn’t existed before. Habits, behaviors, and tendencies began to make sense under the new lens of ADHD. Weirdly, I felt seen. Things I had always written off as shortcomings and laziness, now actually had an explanation. I now had a better understanding of why:


  • I continue to throw my once-worn clothes on a chair that sits immediately between both my closet and hamper

  • I start big idea projects and rarely finish them

  • I work on upwards of ten things at once

  • I leave kitchen cabinets open

  • I struggle to schedule appointments and meetings

  • I struggle to remember appointments and meetings that I do schedule

  • I have a terrible memory

  • I have a difficult time processing, connecting, and compartmentalizing my thoughts 

  • Organizing my time is nearly impossible and then I get overwhelmed because I don’t have enough time

  • I procrastinate

  • I inadvertently ghost people

  • I avoid and/or cancel too often

  • At any given point, I have upwards of 30 browser windows open


This is my Brain


I recently explained my brain to my wife this way: 


Imagine you are working in a grocery store and there’s an end-cap of cans that need to be organized so that the labels all face the same way. You begin adjusting all of the cans and they look amazing but every time you get to the end of one row, you look back and all of the labels are scrambled again. That is my brain. The can’s are ideas. I can see every ideas and I know what it is. I even know what direction it needs to go in and how it needs to connect with all of the ideas around it. The more progress I make, though, in organizing those ideas… the less and less I can see the connections. The more frustrated and hopeless I end up becoming. 


Now, at the age of 41, I feel so far behind. I got by on so many things… mostly luck. I now wonder where I could have been and what else I could have accomplished if either 1) my brain worked differently or 2) I had built up the skills to understand the unique way my brain does work. 


At the same time, I don’t dismiss the reality that most, if not all, of my life’s adventures have come as a result of my big idea focus, my lack of concern for the details, and my uninhibited willingness to explore, take chances, and a journey toward destinations that are complete unclear and unknown. 


This is my Brain on Improv


So often, when I receive feedback from students and have conversations around improv and what brought them to improv, a similar phrase comes up, “It’s therapy for me. Only cheaper.”


I feel that.


Improv continues to be a force for good in my world. It serves almost as a portal of escape while simultaneously grounding me completely in reality. It allows me windows of time to leave my insecurities behind, to step away from the neurosis and distractions. In addition, when I am improvising or teaching improv, the chaos makes sense… the cans’ labels line up. 


This is not a unique or groundbreaking insight. Improv is often described as making order of chaos and, in doing so, is seen as a reflection of life.


As improvisers train, learn, and rehearse two things that they are taught to identify are 1) patterns and 2) the game of the scene. 


In short (and at risk of completely diminishing the complexity of improv as a skill and art), the game of the scene is the unusual, foolish, strange, or even unique that presents itself as a scene develops. Patterns, on the other hand, are just that… the repetitions of phrases, choices, gestures, etc. that begin building structure and consistency to a scene. 


So, improvisers – like humans – are living in the unusual (chaos) while finding the patterns (order) that allow the scene (life) to thrive.


And Chaos Ensues


For now, I still await an appointment with my primary and a potential ADHD diagnosis from an actual medical professional. The plan of treatment will remain unknown. In the meantime, though, I happily fill my prescription of regular doses of improvisation and order amidst the chaos.



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