Finding focus, listening to the right voices, and getting out of your own way with Brett Terpstra

This week on the show, software developer Brett Terpstra joins us to talk about his experience living and working with ADHD.

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Brett Terpstra is a software developer, author, and podcaster and his work has been the subject of Pete’s technology fever dreams for years now. Brett is also unusually candid about his experience living with ADHD and bipolar disorder and after years of processing in public, he’s managed to figure some things out… others, a mystery.

This week on the show, Brett joins us to talk about his experience living and working with ADHD. He shares his experience in learning how to live with his shadow, and how to forgive when the shadow takes control. This is a show about the voices that we listen to, and those that we learn to avoid as we wake up and get moving with ADHD.

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Episode Transcript

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Pete: Hello, everybody, and welcome to “Taking Control: The ADHD Podcast” on RashPixel.FM. I’m Pete Wright, and right over there is Nikki Kinzer.

Nikki: Hello, everyone. Hello, Pete.

Pete: Good morning, Nikki. Hello. How are you?

Nikki: I’m doing wonderful. How are you?

Pete: As we record this, it is a fine Labor Day, and so we should be doing that puzzle but we’re not. We’re here podcasting…

Nikki: That’s right.

Pete: …because we love it.

Nikki: But then I’m gonna do the puzzle after the podcast.

Pete: Well, it’s all about order of operations.

Nikki: Exactly.

Pete: I think we know that from basic math. That’s right. We’re gonna be talking with… I’m not gonna lie to you. I’m a pretty big fan of this guy that we’re gonna be talking to today, and so I hope I can keep my wits together. Honestly, I’ve worn his clothes. I don’t even know what to say. Before we do that, head over to takecontroladhd.com. You can get to know us a little bit better. You can listen to the show right there on the website, or subscribe to the mailing list, and we’ll you an email with the latest episode each week. And please, connect with us on Twitter or Facebook @takecontroladhd. Before we dig into our conversation today, we do have a question from a listener, and I love it because, alma mater, what? Yeah.

Nikki: Yes. And my cousin’s son goes there right now.

Pete: I know.

Nikki: We have lots of connection…

Pete: It’s like the whole world. I love it. I love it. You know where you wanna be as the sea levels rise, it’s Boulder, Colorado.

Nikki: That’s right.

Pete: We have this question from Ashton who says, “Hey, Nikki and Pete. First, I just wanna thank you for the podcast. I was diagnosed with ADHD last may, age 23, and the podcast has been an excellent resource. Been learning about my ADHD and how I can thrive as a neurodiverse individual. I just became a patron. Thank you.”

Nikki: Yay.

Pete: Fantastic. Onto the questions. “I’m currently attending law school at CU Boulder Buffs, and I have to interact with many people throughout the week in my internship school, networking events, etc. As an introvert, this is already bad enough. When socializing, there’s one question that I never have a good answer to, ‘What did you do this weekend?’ Keeping up in law school with ADHD is exhausting, and by the time the weekend comes, I need to work on my mental health, sleep, go to yoga, exercise, and prepare for the next week. I get a lot of weird looks when I tell people I just stayed home and relaxed and got my life together. I feel so boring. How can I connect with my neurotypical peers that just don’t get it?” 

Nikki: I just don’t think he’s doing anything wrong. I totally get that, you know. I mean, my gosh. First of all, attending law school, I don’t know. I mean, really, am I… Maybe I don’t have the right expectation in my mind or thought process around this, but I would think any law student is going to be really busy and maybe not wanna do much on the weekends. So, you know, I would just encourage him to keep being him. I mean, this is obviously what he needs. And I don’t know, what would be a canned answer that you could give somebody so you don’t feel boring?

Pete: Well, that’s the other strategy, right, which is, and this is what we…my kids. You know, my kids went to this Chinese school, and they were always asked when other parents came around, and they were like, “Oh, you go to this immersion school, say something in Chinese.” And my kids would, like, lock up. This was when they’re very young, and they would go into vapor lock. They wouldn’t have anything to say. And so we encouraged them to do this, to have that canned response. "Just write out a sentence and memorize it so that when somebody… they’re not gonna care. They don’t care what you say.

They just wanna hear you say something. They just wanna hear you fill in the blank. So, just say, ‘My name is blah, blah blah, and I study Chinese.’ And that’s it. Just say that in Chinese and then your obligation is done.“ And so I think that’s the strategy here. Just come up with something, anything that allows you to fill in a blank that is a social grace. Nobody cares what it is. You could say, ”I went mountain goat hunting, and I didn’t find anything. Guess I’ll try next weekend.“ Or, you know, ”I went scuba diving in Blue Hole. It’s what I do,“ and then move on to something else. You could always say this, ”Oh, man. When I’m not in law school, I love to binge me some ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’" 

Nikki: There you go. Yeah.

Pete: Because it’s an old show, nobody cares. Just, even if you… It’s okay. It’s okay. These are the socially acceptable little white lies that keep a conversation going. Nobody cares.

Nikki: Right. And I have to say, I wonder too because you know how sometimes we care more about what other people think than really they care.

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: And I’m wondering if that’s not the situation. He feels like he’s boring, but I don’t know if that other person really thinks he’s boring. Like, it could be something that he’s feeling because he thinks it’s boring. But I think relaxing and…I mean, I think all those things are great.

Pete: I do too.

Nikki: Keep it up.

Pete: Especially because during the week, you’re doing everything you’re supposed to do. Like, it’s okay to be exhausted and say, “I did nothing, but can I tell you about Friday? Can I tell you about Thursday? I did hella incredibly hard stuff.” Just do that. Just do that. That’s okay. The last part of the question is my favorite, and this one is for you. “What are your favorite books? I’ve never been able to read a book or come close to finishing one. Now that I know I struggle with reading because of my ADHD, I started listening to audiobooks and I’ve been loving it. Open to all book recommendations.”

Nikki: I’m not the one…

Pete: What’s your favorite book?

Nikki: …to ask. You know, I don’t read a lot of books. I read probably maybe two or three a year. I am a magazine person, so I’m on, what is it, Apple news? I subscribe to Apple news every month, and I…

Pete: Okay. So, you get your magazines. That’s great.

Nikki: I get all my magazines. Any magazine that I want is on that, and that’s how I spend my time when I want to read because it’s short, and I can finish it, and I don’t I feel bad if I don’t read the whole magazine or whatever. So, I don’t know. That’s hard. I mean, I like books, and there’s been books that I’ve read that I really enjoy, but it’s hard for me to… It’s kinda like your kids being asked to speak Chinese, like, that is a fact that just freezes me. Like, I don’t know what to say.

Pete: Yeah. No. I get that. I wouldn’t know what to say if I didn’t track my books in Goodreads because that helps. I’ll forget what books I read. So, I will say, “This year, the books that I like a lot, ”Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" by Eliezer Yudkowsky is fantastic. I’ve talked about it before. It’s the alternate universe retelling of the Harry Potter story from the position of a rationalist, and it’s bonkers great. Michelle Baker wrote a series that was… It’s about the space between the fairy universe and the real world, and this wonderful protagonist, this incredible woman protagonist who’s an amputee and her experience of becoming like a guardian between.

So, if you’re into fantasy, science fiction fantasy, it’s a great trilogy. The “Imposter Syndrome” was the third book. I can’t remember the first one. Anyway, it’s great. If you’re into marriage craziness, oh, my goodness, “The Marriage Pact” by Michelle Richmond was a crazy thriller about a cult that gets a new couple to join them and then won’t let them out. And it’s great. And “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert, “Creative Living Beyond Fear.” A lot of people aren’t crazy about Elizabeth Gilbert, the person.

I don’t really have an opinion about the person beyond the fact that I adore this book. It is one of my very favorites. And so it’s my non-fiction feel good recommendation, just how to create great stuff. And, I think all of these are available on audiobook. “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,” you have to go to hpmor.com to get. So, there you go. That’s my favorite stuff for Ashton. Thank you for writing. And let’s see, do we have anything else to say about that? I think we’re good. Shall we start the conversation?

Nikki: Let’s do it.

Pete: Let’s do it. Hey, you know, before we get started, this week’s show is brought to you by Audible. And with this week’s listener question, the timing could not be more perfect. All you have to do is visit audibletrial.com/theadhdpodcast and sign up for a new account and then you get your pick of any one credit audiobook in the collection for free plus two Audible original productions. And if you don’t like the book, swap it. Not happy with the service after a month? Cancel. No questions asked. And you know what they’re throwing in?

Exclusive audio-guided wellness programs that’ll help you meditate, get you started in a new yoga practice and get fit. I have just downloaded the program “Motivational Runs” now, and it’s terrific. Again, sign up for a new account at audibletrial.com/theadhdpodcast to get your free audiobook today. And thank you to Audible for sponsoring “The ADHD Podcast.”

If you’d visit his blog, and I’ll spell this for you. B-R-E-T-T-T-E-R-P-S-T-R-A.com, you might find it a touch impenetrable if you’re not already a fan of Brett Terpstra, one of the more technically oriented among us.

His specialties beyond being an exceptional writer, of course, lie in software development, Markdown, and generally helping people become more efficient on their max through scripting, and time tracking, and automation. But if you dig in just a bit, you will meet an extraordinarily approachable guy, a guy who is as open about his mental health as he is his podcasts, his yoga practice, his upcoming software releases. I have been a fan of his podcast, “Systematic,” for years. I have long found his voice one of a powerful role model for technologists who are struggling to find a way to feel safe in their own vulnerability. Brett Terpstra, welcome to “The ADHD Podcast.”

Brett: That was a heck of an intro. It’s nice to be here.

Nikki: I’m happy to meet you. This is a great intro. You gotta tell me more about you. Fantastic.

Pete: Well, and that is, to be fair, I sprung this on Nikki. I just got so excited and worked up. I thought, “Why haven’t we ever had Brett on the show?” And I just said, “Nikki, trust me, just trust me. He’s awesome. You’re gonna love it.” I even had…so I wore his clothes. I had one of the original lab shirts that use… I use the whole of…every part of the Buffalo for the shirt. I wore it proudly. It was my original lab logo t-shirt and then it started to wear out. So, it became an exercise t-shirt, and then it started ripping giant holes in it and became a rag. Like, the thing literally disintegrated over the years.

Brett: That’s amazing.

Pete: It’s fantastic.

Pete: I wanna start with a little bit of reading just to set the stage. I wanna read a passage from your blog, from something that you wrote earlier this year, and hopefully that kind of sets the stage for us for our conversation today. You write, "I’ve been dealing with mental health issues more than usual lately, mostly surrounding my ADHD. The meds don’t seem to be working for me anymore, but I’m not convinced my focus issue isn’t more related to depression than ADHD.

To top that off, I just found out that my psychiatrist is moving on, leaving me with the terrifying options of going back to the clinic that originally stripped me of all my stimulant meds or joining a waiting list at a different hospital with no guarantees I won’t get the same treatment. I’m trying to convince myself that even if I lose my meds, they haven’t been effective lately anyway. But I know very well from all two recent experiences that they’re far better than nothing. So, whatever is going on right now, be it ADHD symptoms or depression, med related or a lifestyle, I’m finding it impossible to tackle more than one thing at once."

I wanted to read that because, well, for two reasons. First, I think sharing that sort of experience on the same website where you sell your primary products that make up a significant source of your livelihood is terrifying to a lot of our listeners. I wanna know what it was like making the transition between the day job at AOL Tech to doing your own thing with ADHD in your proverbial sidecar and living with this urge to communicate it as you do.

Brett: So, for the last, I don’t know, 20 years of my career, I was more recently diagnosed with ADHD. I didn’t know why I had so much trouble with the things I had trouble with, but I had begun changing my career to work with the way that I work. And I became a remote worker early on for AgileBits and then AOL, and that afforded me the ability to start doing what I was able to when I was able to. I didn’t have a nine-to-five schedule. I didn’t have to take my breaks at a specific time.

If I couldn’t focus on the task at hand, I could forgive myself and go for a walk and hope that when I got back, I would be able to focus. It was still a lot of trials and tribulations. I did really well at AOL. I found a groove there until there was a shakeup, and I no longer got along with my boss and that was the prompt to go indie. I was making twice as much money as I thought I needed, and so half of that was coming from the freelance stuff I was already doing, the projects I was already selling.

I figured, “Okay, worst comes to worst. I make half as much money, and I’m still fine.” I ended up making about a quarter of the money. It was very difficult for an ADHD person to pull together a business. I watched some of the other people in my industry, and they handle it with aplomb. And, the amount of effort they’re able to put into their own marketing and keeping up all of their various channels, that was beyond me. So, I just started doing what I could and surviving, I guess, but it’s continued to pan out.

I’m a very open person about my…as you mentioned, I’m very open about my disabilities. That’s never been scary to me. It’s scarier for me to hold that stuff in and try to hide it than it is to put it out there. You said, on the same blog where I sell my products, but I feel like most of the people who follow me, who buy my stuff, they’re there because I am vulnerable. They’re there because they appreciate that.

Pete: I’m glad you said that. My question around that directly was, how much of your success as a software developer do you feel like is attributed to your candor with the world around you?

Brett: Was that the question or I just went off on a whole history thing?

Pete: It was… No. And I think they’ll relate. It was the question that was in here in my head that never actually specifically came out of my mouth.

Brett: I mean, I make some interesting stuff. I make stuff that solves problems for people. But the following that I’ve developed that makes it possible for me to take chances on new things I think very much relates to myself as a person and the ability that I’ve had to share difficulties, to share successes, to really be open about that stuff.

Pete: Let’s talk a little bit about your background. You mentioned that you were only recently officially diagnosed with ADHD. What was that experience like?

Brett: It was a relief. So, I was first told I might have ADHD by a doctor who was happy to prescribe stimulants. That kind of doctor doesn’t exist anymore. But without any official testing or anything, I began taking stimulants, and it changed everything for me. So, I worked on the assumption that, “Sure, I have ADHD.” I wasn’t tested and officially diagnosed until a few years ago, but that was after about five years of already taking medication for it.

After the testing and after it became kind of a reality for me, it was enlightening to be able to look back at my time in school and the difficulties I had, the problems that I had in my relationships, the problems that I had in life in general and finally being able to say it’s not me as a person that’s at fault, that there’s something in me, that there’s something that explains all of this. And I could stop letting it be my shame and start letting it be something that I could work with.

Nikki: I have to say I love that because that is something, as a coach, that I strive for all of my clients to get to. It is that point of acceptance and being able to work with it. I’m just curious if you can expand a little bit more on how you got there. Like, how did you get to that real…it sounds to me, a real peaceful, content place?

Brett: It’s not permanently peaceful and content.

Nikki: Right. Yeah.

Brett: I’m also diagnosed as bipolar, which is a diagnosis I often question. Like, what are ADHD symptoms, and what are bipolar symptoms?

Pete: I’m super interested in that Venn diagram, like, how that manifests for you.

Brett: Right. Well, and a lot of times, bipolar is misdiagnosed when it is actually ADHD. And I had the bipolar diagnosis long before I had the ADHD diagnosis, so it’s just kind of stuck with me. And in those days when I am depressed, I don’t have peace. Like, I go down a shame spiral very quickly. The process that I went through really involved forgiving myself and having to constantly forgive myself.

I would metaphorically stub my toe and had these moments where I felt like I should be able to do this and I can’t and being able to do what I talked about, go take a walk instead and let it go to forgive myself. And, that’s a very conscious effort. I can’t make myself focus. No amount of willpower is going to make me able to do something that in the moment I can’t do, but I can forgive myself for that. And, that’s what I’ve focused on, that’s what I’ve learned, I’ve gotten pretty adept at.

Pete: Well, and that’s how beautiful it is that that often, and I’ll speak only for myself here, but just the act of learning how to forgive yourself for not being able to focus is often the gateway to being able to focus again.

Brett: Exactly. Absolutely.

Pete: I love the way you’re talking about this. For me, I look at it as like the ADHD cycle of grief, you know, that, “It starts with focus and productivity, and I know I’m gonna have a great day, right? Power to the people,” and then it leads to that self-judgment. “I wonder if I’m gonna have a great day. It’s 10, and I’ve watched three episodes of ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer“ back-to-back. Hmm.” Then it goes to self-doubt. “Nope. It’s noon now, and I really don’t believe I am capable of having a great day anymore.” And then by about 2:00, “I hate myself,” right? That’s self-loathing.

So, like, from optimism to self-judgment, to self-doubt, to self-loathing, and then it’s just like, “Oh, I better figure out how to start again tomorrow.” I feel like after years of doing this, that’s kind of how I relate to ADHD. And having those sorts of trigger points, like, being able to gate and stage it, it helps me catch it, hopefully, before I get to those last two stages so that I can put some of my accommodations in place. And sometimes it’s as simple as, like, “I just need to eat a popsicle and remind myself that I’m an okay person and forgive myself for going down this road.”

I remember reading a post on your site some time ago, and I only just found it again this morning. I couldn’t have told you what the topic was about, but there was a line that stuck with me. And, you were talking about, as it turns out now, your cooking. What you said what stuck with me is that a benefit of not being on the meds was that, “My ADHD wouldn’t let me sit at the computer for extended periods.” And I was really struck by that anthropomorphism, that there’s a permission that comes with ADHD that I’m seeking from my ADHD like, “Please, let me do this a little bit longer, please. Please don’t screw this up for me right now, right? I’m begging.” How do you relate to that idea? I mean, when I watch you talking about it, when I read, you know, how you write about it, it strikes me that that might relate to you in some way.

Brett: I guess I’ve always seen mental illness as something outside of me. I’ve dealt with a lot of addiction in my life, and I’ve always pictured my inner addict like a shadow behind me that’s catching up with me all the time. And I guess I’ve always seen ADHD in the same way as something, apart from me, that I have to struggle with it, I have to ask for permission, I have to accept its effect on me, but not as an integral part of me, I guess. I had never really thought about it the way that you’re presenting my words to me, but it makes sense. I guess it’s such a natural distinction for me to draw, but I hadn’t considered it.

Pete: Well, you’re welcome. You know, it’s this question of voices, right? And I think, you know, for me, those accommodations come in terms of voices, like, how do you work to figure out which voice is the right voice to listen to?

Brett: I guess it’s pretty apparent to me which one is making me feel the worst. When I’m depressed, it’s really hard to dig out of that, listening to the bad voice. The bad voice becomes very loud.

Pete: Well, and I think that’s the trick. I mean, you just said something really interesting, that it’s apparent to you which voice is making you feel bad. I don’t think that’s universal. I think that’s one of the things that a lot of people struggle with, that, in fact, they become immune to being able to tell the difference between the good voices and the bad voices because of where they exist in their ADHD.

Brett: I’m told I have a very high emotional IQ. Like, I have a very strong understanding of my emotions and my thought patterns. I guess that’s been honed over time because of exactly what we’re talking about here, having to find that and having to be able to discern those things. And I think it was honestly honed a lot by going through 12-step programs and learning to approach my addictions, learning what those behaviors were, being able to recognize those thought patterns, really learning about myself in a way that, up until then, I hadn’t had to consider. So, I guess the suggestion is, go get hooked on heroin, find your way off it, you’ll be fine.

Nikki: You’ll figure it out.

Brett: I’m super open about my drug addictions too, which I’ve been warned against many times, but it’s not directly hurt me in the past. But then again, I’ve also fashioned my career around pursuits that allow me to be that open.

Pete: Yeah. Right. Well, you know, you have become in circles, I will say. In some wonderful and impactful circles, you become, I don’t know, is celebrity the right word? Internet personality? What is the… are you an influencer?

Brett: I think D-list celebrity.

Pete: Okay. A D-list celebrity. We’ll go with that. You know, how have you seen this candor beyond just…as you’ve talked about, you know, it’s been a positive thing in building your personality online and to those who follow your work. Have you seen any perceptible downsides to this?

Brett: I have not, I guess. I’ve never felt judged or panelized for it. I get Thank You notes two to three times a week and have, for years now, just a consistent stream of people saying, “You talking about this stuff makes it okay for me to feel it.” Even if they’re not brave enough to talk about it themselves, hearing someone else and knowing they’re not alone gives them the courage to go to work and deal with their own very similar issues.

Pete: You’re an avatar for others, you know, grief.

Brett: I guess it’s come out that way. And that level of appreciation and the difference that I see my openness making only encourages me to continue being open. But like I said, it’s a natural instinct for me. I am not good at not talking about things.

Nikki: You know, I see it as such an inspiration too because it’s bringing transparency to your work and it’s your authentic self, and it’s so much harder to hide that and pretend like that’s not you when this is a part of your life. This is part of who you are, and I think that there are so many listeners out there that are in that hole of just hiding it from people. They don’t want people to know, or they’re ashamed of it, or whatever.

And so, to me, it’s an inspiration for people to hear that you’re open with it and that you haven’t had that backlash. And you know what? I will also say to people that when you do feel judged, and that could happen, right? I mean, somebody could be in a situation where this happens, but you’re strong enough, and you can deal with that because you’re still who you are. You’re still authentic to yourself. And I love that part of…all of your story, I love.

Brett: I have had the good fortune of finding a partner who has…she’s helped me learn about it. She not only accepts that I have it, she has changed the way we communicate, the way that she understands me to accommodate. And, well, I guess, as soon as she found out that I had ADHD, she started researching, and she learned more about ADHD than I’ve ever known. And it turns out that habit of just blurting out what I think and what I feel is a symptom of ADHD.

Even when I write, I don’t often edit the things that just pour out. So, she calls it the blurts. I get the blurts. And when it’s inconvenient, when I am in the middle of a yoga class and say something that isn’t really yoga class worthy, she will just say, “Do you have the blurts?” And that’s my cue to, like, “Okay. Refocus. Maybe don’t say what I’m thinking right now.”

Pete: Do you ever ask for that from her, that kind of support? 

Brett: No. I asked for understanding. When I saw the effect that my ADHD could have on any relationship, I wanted to let her know that it was there and what kind of effect it would have. And it was entirely of her own volition that she not only understood it but sort to work with it. And I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have that.

Pete: I wanna step back, you know, before we get to wrapping up, and I wanna talk more about physical health and ADHD. And I don’t know if starting with drug addiction is the right way to do it, but I wonder if you’ve had any thoughts post-diagnosis to the connection to your, let’s say, vulnerability to drug addiction and the potential relationship with your ADHD.

Brett: Yeah. In retrospect, untreated ADHD and addiction go hand-in-hand. While I’m medicated, while I have stimulant medication, I don’t have urges to abuse anything. It gives enough power to my frontal lobes to have the ability to look and say, “Well, I could go do that, but I would feel better and be more productive if I didn’t.” And in those periods of my life, it’s obvious. That’s an easy distinction to make. Untreated though, I do find myself very prone to doing whatever I think is gonna feel good at the time. And that was the way I had always lived up until I started treatment for ADHD, and it had gone very poorly for me. So, there’s a definite connection, and treating ADHD was definitely part of me being able to kick a lot of habits.

Pete: So, let’s look at the other side then now that you have gone through that part of the journey, the never-ending journey to health. Where are you now with your relationship to physical health and your ADHD wellbeing?

Brett: So, for the first few years that I was treated, I began focusing very heavily on work. And, I was working my full-time job, and creating projects, and blogging at night, and it was hell on my body. I gained a lot of weight. I got very out of shape. I could hurt myself sitting in a chair. Then my medication was cut off. My psychiatrist left. They brought in a PA to fill his place, and he immediately said, “You’ve had addiction problems in the past, you can’t be on any schedule to drugs at all,” and cut everything off. So, basically I was left with Lamictal for my bipolar. After I got… I mean, that caused some serious depression.

Just, suddenly, I was unable to continue working, but I did find that going for a walk raised enough endorphins in me that I could get… If I walked for half an hour, I could get a half-hour of work out of it. And if I walk for two hours, I could get…no, actually not two hours out of that, but in the process, I started physically feeling better. And so I started walking daily, eventually started doing yoga. I have since then lost 85 pounds. I’m capable of running, and jumping, and feeling great all of the time. And, I’ve been doing yoga for about three years now, and I’ve progressed to, I guess, I could be considered advanced. I can go to the advanced yoga classes, and that is something I never would have thought my body would be able to do.

Pete: That is a stunning thing. And I have to say, and I had missed this post, but there is a post you wrote about the challenges of men doing yoga. And once again…

Brett: I forgot I wrote that post.

Pete: …your candor is very, very welcome. It actually opened the door to me to figure some things out.

Brett: When new males show up in our yoga class, I will usually take them aside at the end, and I will let them know…

Pete: They’re gonna ask you to do this one thing.

Brett: Yeah. Well, here are the things that I could not figure out when I first got here, here are the solutions. And I’ve found that’s generally appreciated because most people won’t talk about what happens to your bits when you’re ground into the floor.

Pete: That’s right. It’s a puzzle. It’s a total mystery. 

Nikki: I’m not gonna say anything.

Pete: Well, we try not to have gendered discussions on this show, but there are some areas that are really impossible.

Brett: Well, and all of my instructors were female, and I would ask them as what to do, specific questions about that, and they wouldn’t know the answers. They would have to go consult with their male yogi friends and then get back to me. So, I try to be a resource in that area.

Nikki: I just have a question because I know at the beginning, you did that expert from the blog post about the medication and the psychiatrist leaving and then you just mentioned it again. And I’m curious, Brett, did that get resolved? I mean, did you find somebody that was willing to work with you? And, I’m just curious, like, what happened. What was the outcome?

Brett: So, at the point that they cut my meds, I had not had the official testing. To get the testing cost me $800, and it was something that I wasn’t able to do. After they cut my meds, after about a year of not being treated, I pulled together the money and got the testing, got the ADHD and attentive diagnosis, no problem. And with that, I was able to go to a new network and find a psychiatrist there who was very happy to work with me and very happy to treat me in a way that had previously proven successful. And so I was without medication for about two years.

And, in that time, everything did go to hell. My work suffered, my income went to zero, my marriage fell apart. Like, it was a rough time. But eventually, I did get back on to the medication because I found a new and wonderful woman who was a pleasure to work with. And, now she’s gone, and I’m back with a PA, but he hasn’t cut my meds, and I just got through the waiting list to get back into the place where the psychiatrist that I loved to get back in with her replacement, which is a telepresence doctor that I haven’t tried it yet, but I have my first appointment this month. We’ll see how that goes.

Pete: What gives you anxiety about that? And I’m assuming anxiety just because I’m looking at your face.

Brett: Anytime I switched doctors after that one experience where… And when that doctor or PA initially cut my meds, he put a mark on my chart that said, “Do not prescribe,” and nobody would touch me after that. And every time I switched doctors to try to get a new opinion, that was marked down as “Drug-seeking behavior,” and just added to that problem. So, for me, switching doctors is a nerve-wracking situation.

Pete: Since you’re here, I have to talk or I’ll let you talk about the stuff that I’m such a direct and immediate fan of first and foremost, which is your tech work. Can you talk a little bit about…how do you characterize the work that you do right now, primarily?

Brett: I solve problems that I have. A lot of my work is…it’s actually a built around ADHD, and I was doing that before I even realized what I was doing. But I have trouble, anything that causes friction when I get to work is going to be completely distracting. If you take me off my train of thought, I won’t get back. I also have a very common tendency to tweet. I would find myself, I’d run into a problem that would derail me, and it would derail me in part because I had to solve that problem.

And I would put hours into finding the solution, and the only way to justify that amount of time was to share it with other people and make something that other people could take and run with and let that…initially just for peace of mind, but eventually, it became a source of income. And, everything I do is basically things that derail me that I can fix, and then I justify the amount of time in the fix by sharing.

Pete: All right. Now, specifically, I’ve been singing the praises of Markdown for ages and ages. You live Markdown down so hard that you write software and publish tools to help people unleash the power of it. How did you land in this space in particular?

Brett: I was a web developer before I ever discovered Markdown. So, I was writing my blog posts in HTML, and this is before like WYSIWYG editors were worth anything. And it was Allan Odgaard, the creator of TextMate, we were on a mailing list discussion, and he said, “Why don’t you use Markdown?” And so I gave it a shot. It changed my blogging completely, and, over time, it just became rote for me.

I began using it for everything and then started wanting to use it for things it wasn’t necessarily meant for. I had to write software to make it fit into other areas. Like, generating full PDF documents was the beginning, and then being able to write Word documents in Markdown, being able to use Markdown on blogs and systems that weren’t designed to handle it. And I just began kind of fixing those problems and, yeah, eventually, it absolutely became kind of the core of my tool stack.

Pete: Do you remember how long it took you for Markdown to affect your life? Just in minutes, maybe even seconds.

Brett: Half an hour. Because…

Pete: Half an hour? Oh, man. That’s long. The first time I wrote asterisk, asterisk, bold, asterisk, asterisk, that was done.

Brett: The first time I wrote out the link syntax. It was clearly better than writing A-tags. I immediately got into that, but it took me a while for it to become rote. And the first thing that I did was work with the existing Markdown package for TextMate to make that even simpler, and I had it just being able to paste the link from my clipboard into Markdown syntax. And as soon as I realized how easy that was, then I was sold.

Pete: I’ve got an awful lot of Brett Terpstra stuff on my own system, proud to say, and you have another thing coming up. I just wanna give you a chance to talk about it if you want, the successor to the fantastic note tool, nvALT. Do you wanna talk about nvALT for our audience that is particularly technically minded?

Brett: We are very close to release. So, yes. I had originally I had fought Notational Velocity, which is an excellent note-taking app, and I’d added Markdown capabilities to it, a bunch of Markdown editing tools, live preview, stuff like that, and that got really popular, users in upwards of 500,000. And, I couldn’t make any money on that because it was built off someone else’s software.

Even if there weren’t a restrictive license for it, I would not have felt okay charging money for what amounted to me adding duct tape to someone else’s app. So, I wanted to rewrite it. I started on a new project right around the time they cut my meds, and that never came to fruition. And then I was talking to Fletcher Penney, the guy who created MultiMarkdown, and he had already started on his own kind of version of the same concept, and I said, “Can I join you? Can we make this a joint effort?” And he was all for it.

And so what we’ve got coming out, we’re calling nvUltra, which is a play on nvALT because it does everything nvALT did, just better, and it has the full Markdown editing power of MultiMarkdown Composer, so auto-completion of link titles. If you have a link in your clipboard and you select Text then hit Command+V, it’s gonna paste it as a link, full autocomplete dictionaries that actually pick up texts you’ve already written in your document and will autocomplete future uses of longer words for you.

Pete: Oh, for crying out loud.

Brett: Yeah. It’s intensely powerful, but all with that kind of invisible power that you’re used to from nvALT. There’s no toolbar. You don’t have to memorize a bunch of keys. These things are all just intuitive part of your writing, non-alive preview, and amazingly fast search through thousands of notes with just a couple of words, and I’m very much looking forward to getting it out there.

Pete: Well, Nikki, I know that autocomplete dictionaries really lights you up.

Nikki: I have completely zoned out for the last… So, I’ll be honest, like, you might as well have been speaking a different language, and that’s okay.

Brett: Yeah. It’s called Markdown.

Pete: It’s called Markdown. We’re very excited about it. You know, but in all seriousness, Nikki, you see why I want this guy on the show?

Nikki: Of course, I do. Of course.

Pete: It’s just every circle. Just been a big fan. So, Brett, tell people again, where can they find you? Where can they learn more about your work?

Brett: As you said, brettterpstra.com with the three T’s in the middle, then there’s ttscoff on all of the social media networks. If you go to my projects page, brettterpstra.com/projects, you can find a lot of the stuff we’ve talked about. nvUltra is at nvultra.com. Yeah. I think that’s about it.

Pete: All right. I will put links to all of those things in the show notes. Everybody, just swipe over in your podcast app and start tapping. I’m also gonna put links to his merch page because the, “I want to be sedated or anarchy,” Sex Pistols Ramon t-shirt is there.

Nikki: That I understand.

Pete: Did you notice the “I” has a shadow black flag symbol in it?

Brett: Oh, my goodness. Of course. I feel like I just saw one of those lenticular posters and the dinosaur just came out. That’s fantastic.

Pete: Thank you so much, Brett Terpstra for your time today.

Brett: Thank you for having me. This was great.

Pete: And thank you, everybody, for downloading and listening to this show. We sure appreciate your time and attention as ever. On behalf of Nikki Kinzer and Brett Terpstra, I’m Pete Wright. And we’ll catch you next time right here on “Taking Control: The ADHD Podcast.”

Through Taking Control: The ADHD Podcast, Nikki Kinzer and Pete Wright strive to help listeners with support, life management strategies, and time and technology tips, dedicated to anyone looking to take control of their lives in the face ADHD.