Today’s Caveman: ADHD, Recovery, & The Brain
by Coach Mike Liss, Esq.
An ADHDer’s Journey to Fulfillment
I love to charm a jury, it’s fun.
It took 54 friggin’ years to me figure out.
When they were taking me home from the hospital, the nurse asked my folks if they really wanted to take me home-I hadn’t slept yet.
When I was 5, my dad bet my $5 I couldn’t be quiet for 5 minutes. I lost the bet.
In school I was “super-bright-but-doesn’t-apply-himself” and a conduct problem. I blended in with humor and a big mouth, but my grades were failures. No studying or homework. I remained in honors classes throughout due to standardized testing. I got into college for free due to my SAT scores, but in college, mostly Cs and Ds. I only got into a law school because I whizzed the LSAT. I only became a lawyer because I found the multiple-choice section of the bar exam easy.
I wanted to be a mailman, but my mom said, “Jewish boys don’t deliver the mail” and so my life as a caveman in the courtroom and a legal career was destined.
Well of course I have ADHD, but NOBODY TOLD ME and I didn’t know until 54. When I was growing up in Queens during the 70’s, there was no such thing. I have been told by my psych that I am the most hyperactive person he’s treated. It took 54 years of glimpses of greatness and suffering in dysfunction, and the isolation of a pandemic, to help me figure it out – I have tried way too hard for far too long to be a round peg in a square hole. Here’s about me and where I’m headed.
Ups and Downs
My early legal career saw me winning cases other lawyers wouldn’t touch and money I couldn’t imagine, but I burned through 4 firms in 10 years, leaving chaos behind. It also ended in an impulsive move with a young family to another state, which let me be closer to family but ended the fun chapter of career. After moving to Florida, I “had to get a real job” and began a 19-year journey of chasing the magic of the first 10 years of my career.
In that time, I got a DUI and a divorce and ventured in and out of culinary school and kitchens, while managing to survive as a single father. My law practice survived and never thrived, except for those occasional fascinating cases, like the ones involving deaths or celebrities or that case about cigars which led to a deposition in Nicaragua. I got into “business litigation”-where clients mostly suffer while they expend their time and money. I should have held out for fun work.
But I did a lot of great things. A lot of really happy clients. Friendships new and from childhood. Awesome kids. Remarried to a wonderful person. I’ve also passionately pursued a life of physical fitness and outdoor adventure, from daily swimming, to hiking and always fishing.
I crashed not far into COVID-I was the mental health emergency they warned about. I got really dark and I got paralyzed-I just couldn’t process my legal work. When the courts and other fun parts of my career went to Zoom, I fell apart. I didn’t understand it, but I was determined to push through.
Addiction and ADHD
While hiking I figured something out from listening to a podcast. I have ADHD-not regular old anxiety, which was why I had taken Xanax, daily, for 15 years-since the start of my divorce.
It meant I had to detox and found a therapist and addiction doctor who were both in recovery. They helped me to understand what I was really dealing with-like 25-50% of ADHDers-I am an addict. I have used behaviors and substances compulsively to deal with my ADHD and anxiety with negative consequences my whole life.
It’s not that simple. I have come to believe that this is misdirected ADHD. ADHDers who do well in life follow their passions or create lives which harness and handicap ADHD. They do this naturally because they are not trauma survivors and early on learned to “self-sooth”-they think things will turn out ok. They live a life of purpose-not pleasure. They vibe with the world.
Trauma survivors like me don’t trust the world. We bring gloom and fear to every situation and we act accordingly. Is it a surprise that my life’s theme was “why don’t we get drunk and screw?” I believe than many, especially hyperactive ADHDers, are born unable to be calmed and so early learn to use outside sources to feel ok.
Step 4 inventorying my life I came to see that I was an addict as a kid. I remember the fear I had sitting down at the movies with friends when we’d all have candy. I knew that when I ate the first Twizzler I’d have to scarf them all immediately-sometimes all balled into one, leaving me with none left in a minute while everyone else’s lasted the whole movie. I was compulsive in my thinking and behavior from the start. I had a really difficult childhood and didn’t see it until I stepped off my wheel of compulsive living. I was out of control and didn’t understand why I acted and felt the way I acted and felt. This went on until 54 in many different ways.
My recovery time was spent away from the law and work. I looked at life and for the first time ever thought about what I really like and don’t like and what I want the precious remaining years of my life to be about.
Finding a New Purpose
I learned about the Hunter-Farmer theory-that the ADHD brain is a descendant of the hunter-gatherers, a brain which was great for stalking animals and looking out for danger, but not good at planning and consistency, which are farmer traits. I believe that I am a caveman stuck in modern society. I really am. And it’s not a natural fit. I’m finally figuring it out. For me to thrive moving forward, I have to employ every ADHD coaching tool I’ve learned and more. I have to remember that I am smart and sensitive and curious, but I am not neurotypical and can’t live another day like I am.
I have to live a life of inspiration. I can’t logic or shame myself into neurotypicality, that’s a chump’s game.
What I really like to do is play outside, learn, enjoy conversations with people and see them smile.
The law does not make people smile. Clients suffer with little chance of upside. The substances and behaviors worked to make it all tolerable until they didn’t work any longer. I can’t do it on Zoom. Unless a case is fascinating or has giant stakes, I can’t handle it. I now know that only those cases provide dopamine. I literally shouldn’t handle most stuff that most lawyers handle-no reward pathway for me. Ahh, the neurotypical. I can only handle what requires enormous courage.
What to do for a livelihood and satisfaction?
I like learning and sharing and conversing and smiling.
I started to live an ADHD friendly lifestyle which supports my mental health recovery. I trained to be a recovery coach and have started with online sessions.
It’s hard-but satisfying and authentic. I see people smile from my efforts every day and I feel fulfilled. Immediate gratification-yay! The coaching really makes a difference for clients and for me every time. I also have a sponsor at AA and I sponsor at AA. I practice mindfulness and mindful breathing throughout the day and I am finally around people in community and profession who understand me. I can finally just be me.
I love meeting ADHDers and good folks in recovery and I would love to hear from you! Where are you in your recovery journey?
Coach Mike Liss, Esq. has practiced law for 28 years and has coached people part-time for the past 6. He now focuses his coaching practice on ADHDers who are in recovery, like himself.
Mike’s life has certainly not been linear. He grew up in Queens an underachiever who scored well on standardized tests, who managed to get into law school by LSAT alone. “Super-bright but doesn’t apply himself” is what they said. A brilliant trial lawyer from the start, Mike has won enormous verdicts and helped a lot of clients. But, Mike has always wondered what else is out there, and what his life was about.
He raised his kids as a single parent from when they were little. He side-tracked into culinary school and professional kitchens for a while. He did a lot of personal growth work and coached for years, but still felt like he didn’t fit in with most adults, most lawyers and the world in general.
The pandemic’s initial isolation put Mike in a bad mindset, feeling pretty disempowered and anxious. One day, while hiking and listening to a podcast about reducing anxiety, he figured something out—he has ADHD (which he knew nothing about) and that also meant he was addicted to a medicine that was making all of his problems a lot worse. He detoxed and entered the world of recovery.
Mike is committed to coaching much more than he lawyers. He wants to work with people in recovery who have ADHD. It’s what he loves and what makes him at home with himself.
Mike is a believer and student of both the evolutionary theory of ADHD and of developmental-trauma theories of chronic anxiety. He lives in Boca Raton, Florida and is happy to meet in person with South Florida clients. He loves working with clients outdoors, even if they do so over devices. He’s a life-long outdoorsman, who hikes, fishes and wanders with and within animals regularly.
He is married and his two children are now adults.