Taking the Tunnel

My friend Keely invited me to co-lead a workshop focused on personal growth and process work that ended with each participant “anchoring” the gains they had made by descending into an underground cave.   


My job during the cave trip was to be present in the main cavern near the entrance to a twenty minute “crawl” through a tunnel-like section of the cave in case some participants turned back. I would be there to escort them to the main entrance of the cave. 

By Dr. Jon L. Thomas, LPC 

It seemed easy enough, but I am claustrophobic due to a childhood experience I don't want to think about. 

We had a stalwart group and all members began the crawl. As I looked into the depths of the now-empty tunnel from my post near the entrance, something came over me.  I was actually considering doing the unthinkable, (known as “impulsivity” in the world of ADHD) and taking the tunnel.  Before thinking too much, I entered the tunnel's beckoning maw and began the crawl. 

I had earlier given up my helmet to a crawler so I went bareheaded. I soon became lost and disoriented. I banged my head on a rock, began bleeding, and approached panic as I realized I was pretty much lost.  Fortunately, Keely came to my rescue and offered me a choice - going forward or going back out the entrance of the tunnel.  Once again, I chose the way forward. 

From that moment on, I moved through a brutal rendition of my worst nightmares, squeezing through spaces little more than two feet in diameter. As I arrived at the most difficult point, I had to twist and turn while moving up through the tiny enclosure.  I looked up to see Keely holding her hands above my head, trying to prevent me from hitting my head a second time.  In retrospect, it seemed like her hands were placed as though delivering an infant during birth.  And the choked tunnel seemed much like a birth canal. Would I be successfully delivered through this transition into the outside world? 

My determination not to give up and leave the tunnel brought to mind a similarly stressful transitional epoch in life: young adulthood. Choosing a path, deciding on a career, and a college major – are all part and parcel of defining ourselves during this era, so that we have a solid and positive answer when someone asks us, “What do you do?” or  “What is your major?” or “Who are you?” 

During this challenging life stage, underlying psychological issues, stresses, old psychic wounds, and even psychoses can emerge.  The stress of this transition is brutal.  Like my journey through the tunnel, this young adulthood transition arouses our deepest fears and showcases our greatest weaknesses. 

For my part, I struggled with undiagnosed ADHD and depression.  Starting, failing, changing paths, and starting again, all came in recursive fits and starts on my journey to adulthood. 

Symptoms such as difficulty with sustained attention, distractibility, and disorganization were first explained as lack of ambition or motivation. An enlightened college counselor later diagnosed my symptoms as “minimal brain dysfunction," an early forerunner of the ADHD diagnosis.  The early stimulant medications left me anxious and jumpy. Ultimately, I relied on shear determination and a set of regimented behaviors to bring me the marginal grades which enabled me to graduate.  And so began another set of decisions as I sought a career path. 

The initial choice of a path and then pursuing it are difficult enough. But think of the regret and self-recrimination you might feel if you were to spend so much energy pursuing your chosen path - only to realize when you are far along that it was the wrong choice, or that you can't complete it.  Imagine how difficult it is to turn around in the middle of challenging programs like med school, engineering, or information technology, and begin again.   

Yet that is far better than continuing down a path that is not the right one.  Consider how much worse it would feel to look back near the end of a career and realize you pushed yourself through a tunnel that led to a place of little opportunity for happiness or fulfillment - and that having made the commitment, you now have little option but to continue the journey. 

Over the years, I've encountered many young people who are aware that their parent's unhappiness resulted from their premature commitments and those young people are in no hurry to do the same.  They are the millennials who trend toward taking far longer to decide on careers, relationships, and parenthood. 

And what of those who never enter the tunnel?  They stand at the entrance and wonder about the consequences, the work, the effects of wrong choice, and for a long time they do little or nothing. What can help this “failure to launch” (FTL) group? How can we empower these immobilized young adults to take a series of first intentional and productive steps? 

There is no magic bullet, since  FTL can result from many different and combined factors.   However, effective intervention requires discovering the genesis of each individual's chronic failure - a craft that requires the ability to effectively create a trusting dialogue and successfully pose relevant questions. 

Has this person grown “too big to fail” by having insufficient opportunities to try and fail in earlier years?  Does he now fear stepping out and risking failure with one of the most significant choices of his life?  Does this person struggle with fear of failure or rejection – a syndrome William Dodson terms “Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria”? 

Or perhaps she has experienced too much unprocessed failure in life resulting in a belief system and self-concept that tell her, “I am a failure – there's no need to try further.” 

Some people may lack models for developing visions, sequencing and executing plans to accomplish their goals, as well as critical thinking skills to refine and redefine the path along their journey. 

Learning the role of helping in the tunnel has to be difficult.  Keely spoke encouraging words, advising me when I was going off course, about to bang my head again, and she simply said, “You will need to struggle through parts of this tunnel – and you can do it.” It was totally up to me to decide and motivate myself to continue crawling. 

At times it seems impossible to get through to a person compressed at the squeeze points of a difficult journey . Sometimes all that we can do to help a transitioning young adult is to empathize with the difficulty of the journey, offer models and tools, and as Mark Twain said, “shout on encouraging words,” as they take the more crucial steps along an uncharted, personal trail.   

When I ultimately emerged on the other side, I joyously splashed through a freezing underground stream.  Nothing was as hard as deciding to take the tunnel, except passing through the tunnel itself.  But everything beyond seemed simple by comparison.  As crazy as it sounds, I would do this all again. And I would wish for everyone who faces challenge, adversity, and possibility that they experience the singularly wondrous feeling that comes from persevering and coming out on the good side of it all. 

Dr. Jon L. Thomas, LPC is the founding director of The ADHD College Success Guidance Program (www.adhdcollegesuccess.com) headquartered in Fairfax, VA.

This article was published in the recent edition of Attention Magazine, a publication instituted by CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/hyperactivity Disorder), a nationally-recognized non-profit organization that provides education, advocacy, and support with individuals with ADHD.

ADHD in the Zombie Apocalypse - Part 1

By Dr. Jon L. Thomas, LPC

“When the zombie Apocalypse comes…” 

If you spend much time around millennials, I’m sure you’ve heard about the “Zombie Apocalypse.”  Adequate preparations, proper weapons, ways to evade and eliminate zombies, are all prevalent in the vernacular of these folks. 

But seriously, do they actually believe in the possibility of zombies? Highly doubtful.  Have they been watching too many zombie movies? Certainly.  Might it be more than a cultural fad? Very likely.  If so, how can we better understand this social phenomenon? 

First, note that the “zombie apocalypse” exists in a broader and growing context of dystoptian themes in the culture of books, movies, and TV shows. Examples include Divergence, The Walking Dead, Hunger Games, World War Z, Maze Runner, and Enders Game.  Next, consider how popular culture often provides for expression of underlying or collective unconscious thought and emotion—for example, the way war themes became popular in books and movies at the onset of the first Gulf War, or nuclear holocaust during the cold war.  Considered in this fashion, the Zombie Apocalypse may be a tag for some actual and reality-based fears. 

A brief look into our future points to the possibility of some significantly disturbing challenges coming at us. Trending population growth and globalization, as well as global climate change, threaten to create dire consequences. These emerging conditions will give rise to new diseases and the spreading of disease, shortages of healthy sustainable food, water, and energy, and numerous other crises we haven't even considered.   

These new crises will test our old ways of problem-solving and require us to redefine the strained and failing systems that are basic to civilization.  In an article "Learning By Doing", in the November 2014 edition of WIRED magazine, Harvard Professor David Edwards suggests these crises will lead us to redefine law, engineering, architectural methods, medicine, and other fields, and will require minds more adept at learning from failure and discovery. 

Might the Zombie Apocalypse be a metaphorical manifestation for the very reasonable fears associated with these upcoming crises? 

If you can accept that the “Zombie Apocalypse” metaphorically stems from the fear associated with the upcoming crises, what might these aforementioned dystopian movies and books suggest about solutions to the problems?  Here's a clue. Note what the heroes, the problem-solvers, and mainstays of these story lines have in common.  They are the creative, high energy, out-of-the-box thinkers, who impulsively act on intuition. They are the uneasy-in-the-harness challengers of the status quo who tend to spring into action in response to the high stimulation and novelty of crisis.   

Sounds like what Edwards’ calls “...minds more adept at learning from failure and discovery.” 

Sounds like ADHD to me. 

So shouldn’t we be encouraging the unique problem-solving abilities of people whose approach to life has heretofore been labeled a disorder?  They have a valuable skill set that will help address society’s ever accelerating challenges when they learn to harness this restless energy. 

If this line of logic sounds less-than-preposterous, shouldn’t we be paying attention to how well we are tending the minds of these potential problem-solvers? 

As the title of Edwards’ article implies "American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn't Exist", maybe we’re not doing so well.  He further states, “Failing to create a new way of learning adapted to contemporary circumstances might be a national disaster.” 

And specific to the Zombie Apocalypse ADHD hero metaphor, we're not doing so well here either.   When we consider data that suggests as many as 40% of college students who have ADHD fail in their first semester, and that the majority of those 40% never complete college, it's easy to appreciate the magnitude of this missed opportunity. 

However, there is a positive aspect of this problem according to Edwards’ article.  “The good news is, some people are working on it. Against this arresting background, an exciting new kind of learning is taking place in America.” 

Our hope lies in innovations that are on the horizon, providing new approaches to learning. In part two of this article we will take a closer look at some of these approaches. 

Our future portends inevitable, looming crises. We need to begin now to better support and prepare minds that are especially suited to solving the new paradigms of these challenges.  Or better said in the genre of millennials,

“When the Zombie Apocalypse comes,

 want the ADHD faction watching my back.” 

Dr. Jon L. Thomas, LPC is the founding director of The ADHD College Success Guidance Program (www.adhdcollegesuccess.com) headquartered in Fairfax, VA. 

Is A College Degree Really Worth it ... Again?

College Graduates and the Time-Honored Bargain

For many years college students risked, struggled, and took on debt based upon a tacit bargain offered up by the world of work. Do the hard work and pay the high price of getting a bachelors degree and you will find an easier path of entry to a somewhat readily available, higher paying, and much more rewarding career than if you never went to college. In short, college was worth the effort.

Somewhere around 2008 the economy began to change and the old tacit deal was off the table. Suddenly, college graduates found themselves in a vast sea of degreed job seekers, who like themselves, were struggling to find work. Many considered themselves fortunate to take jobs that required only a high school diploma. Others found themselves drifting in a long span of unemployment or underemployment.

A Message For Students

First Day of College! …  Ready?

So, you’ve negotiated the hardships (and maybe embraced the “gifts”) of ADHD and look to graduate high school in the near future. It’s pretty common about now to get lulled into thinking success in high school predicts success in college; it doesn’t.  But if college is your next step, you have plenty of time to ready yourself for success, especially if you start now.

Even though you may be eagerly anticipating that great on-your-own adventure known as “college,” at some level, you might have a tiny voice pushing a few questions into your conscious thoughts, such as, “Am I ready? Will I do well? What do I need to focus on to be successful? What kind of help might need? From whom? What might go wrong?”

Continue reading:  A Message For Students




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