Mark Neuenschwander, a thirty-one-year-old man from Midwest America, knows what it’s like to grow up with ADHD. He also knows what it’s like to utilize his “disorder” in ways that help him create beautiful pieces of artwork, which bring joy to others and create a successful business for him.
He knows what it’s like to become confident in himself, despite (or maybe because of) his disorder.
Yes, his mustache is real.
Yes, his daughter is really that cute.
A couple months ago, I sent Mark a pile of interview questions because I found his life’s work so inspirational that I wanted to share it with the ADHD world. In true ADHD fashion, however, he got distracted and just got back to me this week… HA!
(I love that he joked about it.)
As I read through Mark’s answers, though, I ended up finding some of the most encouraging words ever written. May you all be as uplifted as I was.
What was the hardest part of growing up with ADHD?
The roughest part of having ADHD (for anyone) is always going to be lack of self control. Kids already struggle with that, no matter how “normal” or not-so-normal they are, so adding ADHD into that makes things twice as hard.
It’s hard to battle against your own body, struggling to reign in your limbs, when ADHD causes loss of motor control. It’s hard to be noticeably different than the kids around you.
And, a lot of times, they do notice.
Do you think children with ADHD get teased more so than other kids?
I think kids have little detectors inside them that set off an alarm every time someone has a mock-able abnormality. Anyone who is noticeably different is probably going to get teased, which is really unfortunate.
Kids with ADHD usually have an inability to focus, coupled with an inability to control their physical movements, which means they often move in more exaggerated ways than other kids. They’re a bit clumsier. They’re less sure of their footing.
If they trip a lot, space out more, blurt out dumb things more often, get in trouble regularly, or just aren’t good at “playing cool,” other kids will probably pick up on that and find a way to point it out.
It’s not that having trouble with accomplishing those things is particularly hard. In fact, ADHD kids probably wouldn’t even notice their weaknesses if no one pointed them out. The hard part is that their difficulties make others respond to differently, often in negative ways.
What was the coolest part of having ADHD as a kid?
I think the coolest part is that most ADHD kids are dreamers. I was. And dreamers have the best imaginations. They know how to get the most fun out of any situation.
If you got me outside into the woods as a kid… I could play endlessly, with anything, and build an entire world in my head. That’s a gift!
I think with ADHD you also have the ability to shift from one thought to another very quickly. It seems like a problem at first, but that’s something that can really become a skill if others help you hone it.
That’s why some projects actually come easier to us. We can stack our ideas up in our minds like building blocks and our towers of imagination can reach completion faster than most people could dream.
That is, as long as the project is interesting and the person feels challenged…
What does it physically feel like to have ADHD?
Normal tasks are a lot more difficult for than they are others… mostly because you’re a slave to whatever is most exciting in the room at any given time. If there’s nothing exciting in the room at all, you have a compulsion to BECOME the most interesting thing.
It’s not that you’re less capable of writing the essay or doing the math problem—in fact, it might even be a little bit easier for you—it’s just that you can’t sit still while doing it. It’s that you get distracted by anything eye-catching around you [SQUIRREL] and you forget what you’re supposed to be doing.
And when you get bored, you start thinking of obnoxious ways to entertain yourself… or entertain others.
It’s one thing to go through that as a kid, but, as an adult, people get frustrated pretty quickly when you won’t stop squirming, or talking, or paying attention to anything besides what they’re saying.
What was it like to have ADHD during your teenage years?
Being a kid with ADHD, you notice you’re a little different, that you don’t control yourself as well as other kids, or think like other kids… but as a teen, I think those thoughts turn into real anxiety.
Anything that makes you different as a teen gives you anxiety, so having more differences gives you more anxiety. You have to figure out how to either hide your differences or champion them.
That’s what I had to figure out during those years.
What advice would you have to teens who are trying to cope with ADHD right now?
Having this disorder (or any other) could lead to a pretty wide spectrum of problems, both in your education and in your social life. You need people in your corner who truly understand you and understand your disorder.
There need to be people in your life who understand what you’re going through—not so they can defend you every time the opportunity arises—but so they can help you learn how to function in a better way. You also need these people so that there’s in your life who can remind you that you’re not identified by the name of your disorder.
You need people who separate you from your disorder.
If you’re using your disorder to be lazy, someone needs to be there to tell you not to use it as an excuse. If you’re trying to ignore it, and, as a result, keep running into metaphorical walls, someone has to remind you that you do have an issue and that’s ok.
If you have trouble focusing in class, or if you’re not coordinated and sports are an exercise in failure, or if you feel like you’re always talking and yet are the slowest person in the room to process things, or if you find yourself getting in trouble a lot because your problems are FRUSTRATING … you need those adult figures who can let you know that you are NOT your disorder.
You need someone who will reassure you that you are capable of self-discipline, but who will be understanding of your limits. Someone who will help you overcome, but who will also remind you that disorders can be a positive thing if you channel them in the right ways.
Do you have any advice for adults dealing with ADHD right now?
There are positives and negatives to be found within each individual mind. We’re all unique (on purpose!) and that’s a great thing.
It’s like anything else you own. Take my car, for example. It’s a minivan with doors that don’t close as automatically as they should and panels that are falling apart on the inside.
It’s a minivan, and sometimes I’m embarrassed because next to that sports car over there, it looks kind of lame.
But the truth is … my minivan has a lot of strengths. That’s why I chose it. I can haul anything from a couch to six children (maybe both at once), and the ride is super comfortable. It actually has a really good stereo. It’s practical for my family.
So, yeah. That Mustang may go faster, but it’s doesn’t do as much for me as my van. [Affectionately named “The Cougar.”]
I like to think this is how God sees us. He chose each of us to be something different, to be created with our own sets of strengths and weaknesses. We were never designed for those weaknesses to override our strengths.
In fact, one of God’s favorite things to do is turn our weaknesses into strengths… if we’ll just let Him.
How was the school setting different for you than for most adolescents?
School was different for me in a pretty major way. I never made it past kindergarten in the public school system because the small-town school I attended felt authorized to tell my parents I should be medicated.
They didn’t present it as a suggestion, but stated it as a fact. They were going to put me on Ritalin in first grade.
I understand their frustrations. I mean, I was an incredibly hyperactive kid. I got bored easily and caused trouble, landing me in the principal’s office nearly every day. I think I was just too much for my exhausted teacher who already had one foot out the door into retirement.
But the reality is that it’s never okay for a school system to force medication. Medication isn’t bad–I know it’s invaluable for some–but that’s a decision parents should make.
So my parents basically responded with a resounding “Nope!” and pulled me out of public school.
Homeschooling had its ups and downs, of course. The worst downside being I was incredibly social, and I missed being around people all the time. My personality has just always needed that.
And yes, I did become a little extra socially awkward after not being around my peers daily. But we had a homeschooling group I met with semi-regularly, and that was a community that helped both my mom and me a lot.
The good side of homeschooling was that it offered extremely personalized education. If something didn’t hold my attention well, or if I got bored quickly, or if I needed a different rewards system, or if I was ready to move on at a faster rate, there was no “rest of the class” to get in the way of making a change. It also helped teach me how to educate myself, rather than relying on a system that’s engineered to work corporately.
I was homeschooled all the way to the end, and, by that point, I was pretty much teaching myself. I’d built up enough trust with my parents that they could tell me what I needed to learn and I’d learn it.
At seventeen, I made the decision to graduate a year early and take the GED so I could go straight to college.
As an adult, does ADHD help or hinder you? How have you learned to live with it?
It both helps and hinders. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, but I like to focus on how it helps because most people don’t think of that side.
I’m sure that, at least on some subconscious level, ADHD influenced the way I chose a profession. I’m a freelance photographer. (Or a “cryptographer” as my daughter tells people.)
I chose a career that didn’t force me into a routine. One that didn’t put me in a cubicle with a rigid set of standards from a boss. I wouldn’t be able to handle that. I chose a job that gives me freedom to assign my own schedule, to move from task to task in the way that works best for me, and to constantly be tackling something new and different.
I get bored easily so, in a way, you could say my “disability” contributes hugely to my creativity. When you get bored in a creative profession, the only way out of the rut is to try something different. When you try something different, it makes you more creative. When you get more creative, you get more innovative, which makes your art better and therefore causes your business to stand out.
I’ve turned something that starts out as boredom and restlessness into being known by my community as someone creative who thinks outside the box. That’s extremely valuable if you know how to market it well.
Ah, but the other side. Marketing yourself means you’re running a business. Business does not always go naturally with ADHD. Things like budgeting, planning, invoicing, long meetings, researching, and even editing my own work quickly become tedious to me.
Do you struggle with social media distraction during your work days?
Social media can become so counterproductive if you let it. But you find ways around those obstacles if you really want to. If you’re serious about being a “professional” and you want to keep the freedom of working for yourself, you have to find ways to deal with your weaknesses because no one else is going to do it for you.
That boss you boast about not having… well he’s also not there to take the blame when things go wrong. There’s only you.
The best $10 I ever spent from my business budget was on an app called “Anti-social.”
You type in whatever websites you want blocked from your browser, and it will prevent you from logging into those for a set amount of time. If I’m feeling particularly distractible during my workday, I’ll turn on the app on my computer, and BOOM… I’ve blocked myself from Twitter and Facebook for a two-hour chunk.
Then the temptation is gone and I get to work. It’s great.
You’re a father and husband. How does ADHD affect your family life?
ADHD is, admittedly, tough on families. You have no idea how many bad habits you have until you get married. That’s true for most people, I think, but especially so for people who have ADHD.
I’ve been with my (very patient) wife for 11 years now, and to this day, I still find habits I wasn’t aware I had. Or maybe I knew about them, but didn’t realize they weren’t normal.
That can be tough on a marriage because you can come across as lazy, uncaring, or flaky, when you really just aren’t always aware of what’s going on. Sometimes you have to be more intentional about things that are harder for you, or things you wouldn’t usually think about.
I still can’t stay stationary very well, often earning the “Will you pleeeeeease stop drumming your fingers!” plea. I leave different pieces of clothing in every room of the house because I set things down wherever I am and don’t even notice. I lose things constantly because I have trouble focusing on more than one thing at a time.
My wife jokes around about how she’s cracked the code of finding something I’ve misplaced. All she has to do is imagine the most unlikely location for that object to be, and boom… there it is.
Remembering things (like names, dates, times, or chores I’ve promised to do around the house) takes a lot of extra effort. And planning things out causes extra anxiety. Like I said, my wife is an incredibly patient and understanding woman.
Anything you’d like to add on the subject of ADHD awareness?
Hope for people to learn about your disorder and become more aware of how your brain works… but don’t use ADHD as a crutch.
If you need to stop and explain what led you to act in a way that others don’t understand, do it. Especially when your disorder is severe.
But if you’re capable of figuring out how overcome the things that slow you down, do that, too. You could probably find a few things you’re good at and learn how to use those to make yourself stronger.
For example, if I leave clothing lying around, I can’t use “I have ADHD” as a lifelong excuse. I have to find a method for remembering to put things up because, with 2 kids, my wife has enough picking up to do. Same with losing the keys… I have to discipline myself into a pattern that gets me to set the keys in the same place very time.
I can’t let myself become so distractible that I don’t get work done. I can’t tell a bride (and hope to live), “Oh, I’m so sorry your wedding photos aren’t done, yet. You know… CAT VIDEOS…”
Nope. I have to find a way to block myself from my own weaknesses (a.k.a. “the internet”). The list goes on, but you know what I’m saying.
As I get older, it becomes more and more enjoyable to find ways to challenge myself. I love learning how to enhance the strengths my brain has given me.
I hope you find a passion for doing that, too.
To reach Mark’s professional photography page, go HERE!