Janis Joplin – Born January 19, 1943; Died October 4, 1970
As much as I’m aware that it’s impossible to posthumously diagnose for ADHD (and that I’m not qualified to make a diagnosis), it is none the less impossible not to see the traits in the late Janis Joplin.
That being said, please read this post as a cautionary tale: if a diagnosis for ADHD could have been made for Janis, I’m convinced there’s at least a chance that we might still have her with us today. Her story is a compelling argument for the importance of early diagnosis. Her life dramatizes how the difference between treated and untreated ADHD can, at the extreme end, mean the difference between life and death.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Janis onstage (on video; unfortunately, I was only ten years old and living in Canada when she made her first appearance at Woodstock Festival in 1969).
Watching her stage presence was electrifying. I instantly recognized her intensity, passion, and extreme, restless energy. After taking my first dose of medication, I described the experience as having had my hand stuck in a wall socket with a current buzzing through my body for my entire life, and suddenly pulling my hand out of the socket. I imagine Janis’s energy as much the same.
What clinched it for me was Alice Echols’ excellent biography, Scars of Sweet Paradise – the Life and Times of Janis Joplin. In it, she describes Janis after a relationship breakup as, “looking for something new to distract her from herself. It was all ‘motion, motion, motion,’ as one friend put it.”
If Echols’ reporting is accurate, and she says that her book is largely based on over 150 interviews, her biography depicts a hyperactive, charismatic, moody, highly sensitive, undiagnosed ADHDer in full swing. The ADHD, however, remained under the radar for Echols, and she and I differ in some of her interpretations of Janis’s behavior.
Need for high stimulation
Janis’s need for hyperstimulation is revealed in the quote, “no guy ever made me feel as good as an audience.” What Echols misses, is the huge sense of well-being that washes over some hyperactive ADHDers (myself included) after a performance. The experience, for some of us scattered ADHDers, is unparalleled for its ability to focus and ground us. The post-performance euphoria and an unprecedented sense of well-being, I agree with Janis, is like no other.
I’ve written before about how some undiagnosed ADHDers self-medicate. While it is true that Janis lived during the “counterculture,” and all the excesses that came with it, it’s also not a far stretch to imagine that Janis’s appetite for alcohol, heroin, sex, dope and attention, could have been, in part, to alleviate what must have been the constant buzzing of body and brain.
She might also have been treating herself for dysthymia (an on-going, low-grade depression). Often, in Scars of Sweet Paradise, Echols mentions Janis’s “chronic unhappiness.” No matter how successful she became, somehow, Janis never achieved consistent happiness. Again, an experience I relate to, at least before my diagnosis.
Ironically, we now know that legal, prescribed stimulant medications, due to their ability to mediate ADHD symptoms, can actually prevent addictions and substance abuse. Sadly, these remedies came long, long after we lost Janis.
Janis was allegedly one of the first women to go braless and without makeup. She shunned conventional female roles as stultifying; expressed her sexuality with people of both genders; and had conflicting ideas about marriage and partnerships-she yearned for the companionship of a husband, while at the same time, was loathe to give up her independence and freedom.
Echols describes Janis as, “drinking and carousing like one of the boys.”
Janis was definitely blurtatious. Echols describes an anecdote where Janis was at a bar. Janis and a rock journalist struck up a conversation, and Echols says, “Oblivious to him, Janis talked on and on about herself, her career, and her band.” Echols says the writer found her tiresome and retaliated by publishing an “especially spiteful article about her.” Janis had just finished her New York debut performance, before a highly appreciative audience. What the journalist (and Echols) didn’t recognize, was that Janis was still on a post-performance adrenaline high from the incredible audience response. Janis’s motor-mouth enthusiasm was misinterpreted for narcissism, while it is far more likely to have been her adrenaline-fuelled hyperactive enthusiasm and hyperfocus.
In another anecdote, Echols talks about Janis crashing a socialite party with a “bottle of booze under each arm,” and swearing. While Echols concludes that Janis, “delighted in shocking people,” I think she’s wrong. Echols has completely missed Janis’s full-blown ADHD, and the fact that, in all probability, Janis’s behavior was far beyond her own control. It is this kind of misjudgment of motive that leads to the vilification of undiagnosed ADHDers, in this time, and in Janis’s. Even though there was a kernel of truth in Janis’s remarks about the superficiality of the gathering, Janis’s ADHD gave her no control over how she expressed her opinions, and no choice over when and where to express them.
Judgment, ridicule, condemnation
In puberty, Janis’s problems escalated. Like so many out-of-control ADHDers, her mum exonerated her to “think before you speak,” “learn how to behave yourself,” and called her a “harlot” in response to Janis’s sexually provocative behavior. The opposite of acceptance and unconditional love, Janis’s mom implored her to “be like everybody else.” But for ADHDers, this is neither desirable nor possible, at least not in my experience. Surely Janis’s ADHD symptoms would have been exacerbated by what Echols calls her mother’s “relentless criticism,” which, according to Echols, “scarred her more deeply, solidifying her feeling that everything about her was wrong.” Can any of you relate to this feeling? I know through much of my life, I could.
Like so many other undiagnosed ADHDers, Janis’s life was rife with putdowns, misunderstandings, and abuse, not only for her unconventionality, but for such teenage sins as terrible acne, a flat chest, and bad hair. Echols chronicles Janis’s multiple betrayals, from both girlfriends and boyfriends. She also lists Janis’s many perceived failures and disappointments, and Janis’s feelings of complete devastation in the face of these. While maintaining an outwardly tough exterior, the portrait of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) also emerges in this biography.
Being artistic, creative, and intellectual (Janis was constantly reading), it ‘s easy to see why Janis became bored growing up in the small town of Port Arthur, Texas. Echols says Janis and friends found their hometown a “cultural and intellectual wasteland.” The middle-class mores of that era must have also repelled Janis, who was light years ahead of her time in terms of burgeoning feminism and racial equality, (she and her friends chummed around with and performed with black blues musicians, while segregation was still very much the norm). In this kind of environment, it’s easy to see why a hyperactive ADHDer would crave high stimulation, or at least escape, through drugs and alcohol. A recipe for disaster if there ever was one.
Things weren’t much better at college. Janis skipped classes because they were boring, preferring to hang out with her intellectual friends, drinking and talking about literature and music.
A tour de force
Janis was an under-appreciated force for social change, not only for breaking down the gender barriers in music, but in so much more. Today’s women owe her a debt of gratitude.
Through this remarkable biography, Janis’s life can be seen as emblematic of hyperactive ADHD women. It’s well worth the read for nothing else if not to encourage adults to seek diagnosis. If only Janis were able to channel her exceptional energy, talent and intellect, and to overcome the forces that culminated to bring her to overdose. What a force to be reckoned with!
Rest in peace my ADHD soul-sister.