Bored to Sleep: The Understimulated ADHD Brain

Reading Time: 6 minutes
heavily doodled notebook pages
This notebook full of doodles also contains notes about the Children’s Department meeting, which was apparently what the open notebook was supposed to be for.

My parents are an hour-and-fifteen-minutes-if-there’s-no-traffic drive away if you go through the city, an hour-and-a-half if you go the southern way to avoid the city if there is traffic, and either way you go, you hit nearly an hour of interstate driving. Easy! Straightaway! Can’t get lost! Except that inevitably, when I spend that long on the interstate, I start to fall asleep.

There’s nothing wrong with falling asleep while my husband’s driving—it’s like going into hypersleep, makes the light-years fly by. But it happens when I’m driving, too. It doesn’t matter how much sleep I had the night before, how alert I’m feeling before I set out, how much caffeine I’ve had or what the temperature is inside the car: after a while on the interstate, my eyes start to close against my will. I tried to research a solution, but nothing I read about drowsy driving or narcolepsy seemed to apply to the situation, or to me.

Just recently I stumbled upon the answer while looking up something I thought was unrelated (trying to help my kids with their mild insomnia). It turned out this—the overwhelming compulsion to sleep while driving a long, boring road—was a thing that happened to other people (see number 4 in that link), and it was caused, as so many of my lifelong quirks have turned out to be lately, by ADHD.

The reason it took so long to find the answer is probably because this “intrusive sleep,” sometimes diagnosed as “EEG negative narcolepsy” (i.e. “it may seem like narcolepsy but all our tests say it isn’t“), is a phenomenon that’s almost impossible to study clinically,* so most of what you find on it is based on anecdotal evidence and conjecture. But the theory is: an ADHD brain is constantly seeking stimulation, and if it can’t get that stimulation, it simply shuts down. Or in other words, I can literally get bored to sleep. (Or even to death, if it happens while driving).

This tickles me. I’m tired all the time because I’m BORED? And I know it’s true, because most of those times when I felt like drifting off at my computer or during a meeting or sitting at home trying to decide what to do because I had to do the dishes but didn’t feel like it, all it would take was a new and interesting task or challenge to wake me right up. (Note: dishes may be a challenge, but they are neither new nor interesting. Hence, boredom.) It wasn’t because I wasn’t getting enough sleep, or was out of shape (although that’s true on its own), or was still depressed (although that has definitely taken a toll on me at other times over my life)—I was just bored.

Maybe I need to flash back to my childhood self to explain why this amuses me so much. I used to watch Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers on Disney Afternoons, and I absolutely adored the character Gadget, the mouse engineer/inventor. She reminded me of myself if I were only less shy and leaned more STEM instead of Humanities** (characters who were like me but not shy were guaranteed to earn my adoration instantly—I didn’t really care if she was more into STEM than Humanities, that’s just a quirk). She rather clearly had ADHD when I look back on it. In the how-everyone-first-met flashback episode, when the other characters marveled at her workshop full of gizmos, she explained that she had such a super-high IQ that she got bored easily, so that’s why she invented things. Just to stave off boredom.

This stunned me a little—at least enough that I can still hear her saying it in my mind 30 years later. All the grownups in my life and most other pop culture had always implied that boredom was something smart people didn’t have: if you were bored in school it was because you didn’t like learning, and if you were bored at home it was because you weren’t creative enough to think of something fun to do. And obviously, Gadget was creative—she was creative because she was bored! I felt a little self-conscious about Gadget’s proclamation, because I knew I was smart, but I wasn’t really sure where I stood with boredom—I denied it, really. Only boring people get bored.

But I did get bored easily. I had just developed my own methods of staving it off. I didn’t invent gizmos with my hands, I invented stories in my head. Most people call that daydreaming, but hey, I could daydream like a champion. No wonder no one considered that I might have ADHD: on the outside, I looked like a child with unusual patience, who could sit and wait without complaining. But that was only because my brain was busy crafting a murder-mystery ghost story about the importance of friendship. I could spend hours lost in my own head.

If I couldn’t focus on stories, because I was supposed to be paying attention to something else at the time, I did have to find other sources of stimulation. Music (I just spent ten minutes staring at that last sentence, so I put some music on, and now I am typing again. I’ve written before about how I use music to fix my brain), eating, fidgeting. In fact, some people theorize, as noted in some of the links above, that some Inattentive-types might appear hyperactive just because they need to move to keep from falling asleep.

The idea of needing to find just the right amount of stimulation to make your brain work properly has been strategized and even monetized in recent years. Companies catering to people with various neurodivergencies make fidget toys, weighted blankets, teething rings for people who have all their teeth. I kind of blinked when I first heard of each of these things. I didn’t understand. How would they work? How would they help? Maybe I just don’t understand because I don’t have whatever issues the people using these things have? (That was pre-diagnosis.)

And then I look back and see how I’d made my own versions of these same things. I chewed every one of my pencils to absolute bits in school—it was truly gross, as anyone did tell me, but I wasn’t doing it consciously. I couldn’t help it— if I was taking notes or doing homework, any time I had to stop writing and think, whatever I’d been writing with would just end up in my mouth. I never had an eraser on my pencils—that was always the first thing to be gnawed off. Probably the only reason I don’t do this anymore is I’m just not holding pencils as long or as often. It may be how I developed a bad habit of eating while at the computer, instead. I just needed to chew something. Now I’ve got gum, which is the healthiest option all around. Cleaner than a teething ring.

Without a fidget spinner to help me listen in class, I doodled. I am an extensive doodler. In twelfth grade Spanish class I filled entire pages with tiny daisies. In meetings today, I cover agenda pages with Zentangles. “Stop doodling and pay attention!” my boss tells me when we meet one-on-one. “I can’t!” I insist. “Doodling is how I pay attention!” Luckily I could prove it, not only with articles backing up my claims, but by productively contributing to the meetings while doodling.

A few weeks ago I found the same note from the teacher on one of my daughter’s equally well-doodled school papers. “You should not be drawing. You should be focusing on your work.” I don’t know—it’s possible she was drawing instead of working, but seeing as the work was complete, I doubt it. She needs to doodle to think, too. She is, like I was, too well-behaved and smart for her teachers to even consider an IEP or 504 plan. But maybe she needs one just to convince her teachers that doodling is necessary for her.

This morning, ready for school ten minutes early, she kept pacing aimlessly around the room, groaning and throwing herself down in a chair, and, after a pause, groaning again and jumping back up to pace. “I don’t WANT to pace!” she cried as the cycle repeated. “But whenever I sit down, I fall asleep instead!” Before I could even respond, she added, “It happens in school, too. When we’re doing review games. I have to get up and walk or I fall asleep!”

I tried not to laugh at the timing of this issue. “Really? I’m writing an article about this right now.”

“About me? Why?”

“Not you. Specifically. It’s about having to be busy or you fall asleep. It’s ADHD, and it’s because you’re bored! You just need to find something else to do for ten minutes now. And at school…” I pondered this. She really did need an IEP. “…Too bad they banned fidget spinners.” The school banned those two years ago because fidget spinners were, of course, a distraction.

“Yeah, I used to keep a fidget spinner in my desk and spin it,” she replied wistfully.

“Well, fidget… something else, I guess. Doodle.”

“I always doodle. But sometimes I can’t.”

“I know. I can’t doodle when I drive, for instance.” That made her laugh.

But don’t worry about me and driving the interstate, by the way. Now that I understand what’s going on, I know what I can do to stop it. Instead of pulling over to take a nap, I should pull over and do jumping-jacks.

And nobody’d better complain about my so-called “bad habit” of flipping between radio stations in the car every time whatever’s on bores me. That’s a survival skill.


*I did find three papers online that touch on or explore the topic: On brainwaves (it seems to be a theta wave issue), on possible links between ADHD and sleep disorders, and on the incidences of ADHD in children diagnosed with narcolepsy. They are very serious and scientific, but if you do not have ADHD, or you do but you actually like to hyperfocus on technical writing, you may find them interesting.

**I just realized this is also an exact description of Kaylee Frye, who is also on the list of characters I adore for being me but not shy. Kaylee is the Gadget of the live-action space western world. Or Gadget was the Kaylee of the anthropomorphic cartoon rodent world. They really have a lot more in common with each other than they even do with me.

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