“My Call of the Void: What Intrusive Thoughts Taught Me About ADHD”

On an episode of an ADHD-related podcast I recently heard, the guest shared a familiar backstory — one of lifelong frustration and sweet relief after receiving an ADHD diagnosis in adulthood. Diagnosed with ADHD in my early 30s, I knew this story all too well.

Then, almost nonchalantly, the guest recalled a time when he had an intrusive thought about spitting in a friend’s face. He recalled how bothered he was by this thought that appeared from nowhere, and how hard it was to tame.

My god. His anecdote transported me back to the time I had to stop myself from doing the exact same thing. So troubling and unexpected was the urge, I had to leave the room for a mental reset. Why the hell would I want to spit in someone’s face, let alone my friend’s?

And why the hell did I have the same experience as the podcast guest? Did it suggest that our shared intrusive, bizarre thought was tied to ADHD?

L’appel du Vide: Exploring the Call of the Void

Like a cold case flung open by a new piece of evidence, the bothersome experience compelled me to begin some fresh digging. My first bit of research led me to l’appel du vide — “the call of the void.” It’s a term that describes the sudden thought or urge to jump from a high place. Like many others, I’ve encountered the call of the void atop certain tall buildings, quickly suppressing an unwanted urge to vault myself over the edge.

[Read: ADHD and Obsessive Thoughts — How to Stop the Endless Analysis]

But the call of the void isn’t limited to the feeling of jumping from great heights. It has evolved into a term that captures other sudden, worrisome thoughts like: “What would happen if I twisted the steering wheel and plowed into oncoming traffic?”

These intrusive, out-of-character thoughts have long troubled us humans. (See Edgar Allan Poe’s The Imp of the Perverse, for one.) But these urges, I learned, are actually a universal feeling, and they’re not tied to a desire to harm ourselves or to die. In a 2012 study, Hames et al. gave the phenomenon a new moniker — high place phenomenon — and suggested that, far from being a desire to die, the call might actually be an affirmation of the urge to live.

OK, so I learned a whole lot about the call of the void, but I wasn’t sure if the spitting urge fell squarely under this phenomenon. I also couldn’t find anything that directly links the call of the void to ADHD.

Intrusive Thoughts and ADHD

However, I did find another eye-opening study during my investigation. It involved college students with ADHD (and a control group) who took questionnaires that measured levels of anxiety and worrisome thoughts.

[Read: “Why Do I Assume the Worst-Case Scenario?” How to Stop the ADHD Mind from Worrying]

In comparison to the control group, those with ADHD experienced higher ratings on all intrusive-thought scales. “Our results suggest that worrisome, intrusive thoughts are an important phenotypical expression of adults with ADHD,” the researchers wrote.

There it was. I put together a prosaic explanation for an incident that had bugged me for years: I’m more likely to have intrusive thoughts, and Spitgate, I presume, seemed to be a warped version of a phenomenon lots of people experience. It’s what happens, I suppose, when the call of the void meets ADHD.

Spitting Mad

Phew. This was comforting (and, in retrospect, not surprising). Maybe I’m not a terrible person after all! Maybe the urge to spit in my friend’s face came from a desire to maintain my friendship, which might suffer a bit of a hiccup were I to follow through on the urge. Aren’t brains weird?

Anyway, I don’t feel the call or other strange urges much these days. I attribute that change to medication, which dims my head chatter and keeps it at tolerable levels. Add in a regimen of anxiety-busting exercise, and the call almost vanishes. That said, you’re unlikely to find me striding atop the Eiffel Tower anytime soon.

Intrusive Thoughts: Next Steps

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