Listening to Trickster
toward ADHD meaning-making
Today we carve pumpkins in remembrance of Stingy Jack, a man who fooled the Devil himself to get out of dying. It’s an old Irish folktale, a Christianized version of a story type that scholars classify as “The Smith and the Devil (or Death),” and it can be traced all the way back to Sisyphus, the guy doomed to push a boulder up a hill forever as punishment for tricking the gods.1
Stingy Jack was a drunk who loved his sycamore tree and didn’t want anyone else to sit in his favorite chair. When the Devil came to take him to hell, Jack invited him for a drink instead. The Devil, impressed by Jack’s history of trickery, obliged, but when the tab came, Jack asked him to pay. The Devil didn’t have any cash on him, so Jack told him to shapeshift into a coin so they could trick the bartender. The Devil thought this was a great idea, but of course, when he turned himself into a coin, Jack put the coin in his pocket next to a crucifix, and kept the Devil prisoner.
Long story short,2 because of his trickery, Jack isn’t allowed into Heaven and the Devil definitely doesn’t want him in Hell, so he ends up roaming the earth for eternity with only his little turnip lantern to light the dark.
I know we’re not supposed to like Jack in this story — he’s a Christian cautionary tale — but there is something about him that I can’t help but feel for, this ghost of the gray area. As a teenager, I was given two labels. ADHD, from the neurologist, but the other, a superlative from my classmates: Most Mischievous. There’s a picture of me in my senior yearbook sitting on top of a covered walkway at school, legs dangling over the side, laughing.
This was the aughts — long before ADHD became ubiquitous on the internet, even before social media really existed — so beyond taking the stimulants I didn’t really like, I mostly ignored the medical label as I formed my identity in adulthood. Most Mischievous, though, I wore as a badge of honor. I have never liked rules, because so many of them can be easily picked apart with a few Very Good Questions (the kind that, as Nora Bateson says, don’t have answers).
Through a strictly medical lens, it’s seen as offensive to conflate ADHD with bad behavior, but viewing myself as a mischief-making art clown helped me make sense of the ways I was different — how I couldn’t stay in one job for very long, why my feelings were so intense and why I seemed to fuck up so much. While my life remains a textbook example of the diagnostic category and I have found a lot of clarity in neurodivergent community, I still feel a sense of rebellion against the clinical label itself, the way it attempts to define and constrain me, how it fails to capture the depth of my personality.
It’s this spirit that drives my criticism of popular ideas about ADHD, which usually push us to mold ourselves around the altar of productivity. Inadequate as it may be, ADHD is still describing something about who we are, and I wrote last year that to reclaim ADHD from the medical model, we need to do some ideating about what it means apart from its clinical criteria.
What is being described here, in pathology terms, and how could we describe it differently? A recent post bycalling for more poetry, less Ferrari Brain got me thinking. She writes:
“I’m looking for the language I spoke and wrote and dreamed in before I learned to translate myself for the world.”
Many ADHDers talk of their bodies as paradoxes, oscillating between constant distraction and intense, unbreakable fixation. A mind that moves too fast in a body that gets stuck. Medicine doesn’t know what to do with a body that contradicts — defined categories are necessary to make us legible to insurance companies and treatment protocols, but even the category itself is contradictory.
In medical terms, it’s referred to as highly heterogeneous, which just means, everyone labelled ADHD is very different from each other.3 Some are too loud and too fast, others are too quiet and too slow, but what we all share is some form of disruption to social order and chrononormative standards of time.
Disruption, mischief, paradox — this is the territory of the Trickster, a rule-breaker who appears in the myths of cultures across the world. There are many in the Greek pantheon: Hermes, Sisyphus, Prometheus. In Native American stories, there’s Raven and Coyote. The Yoruba trickster is called Eshu. And there’s our friend Stingy Jack, of course. Tricksters are “lords of the in-between,” as Lewis Hyde writes in his book Trickster Makes This World:
“A trickster does not live near the hearth; he does not live in the halls of justice, the soldier’s tent, the shaman’s hut, the monastery. He passes through each of these when there is a moment of silence, and he enlivens each with mischief, but he is not their guiding spirit. He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town (the one where a little market springs up). He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither.”
Tricksters traverse boundaries. The Trickster doesn’t sit still (you might call him hyperactive). He appears in myths to show us what we might be missing, and to teach new ways of looking at things by breaking established rules. Sometimes he is a warning.
I’ve always liked Thomas Armstrong’s idea that the increase of ADHD diagnoses might be seen as a kind of “biocultural feedback” — a group of people whose very bodies are expressing that something about our culture is very, very wrong, that it’s going to catch up with everyone, eventually, but that the message surfaces in the most sensitive among us first.
The philosopher Bayo Akomolafe might call this a crack, one of those places where the facade of order that modernity is built upon starts to show. Cracks “force us to reconsider the terrain,” he says. Akomolafe tells a story he learned from Estonia about a trickster called Vanapagan, who tells the Creator that the flat world he’s just made isn’t yet finished:
“What the trickster introduced was the creases and the bumps and the grooves, basically running to one end of the entire structure and pushing in, and that’s how mountains and rivers and life actually came to be. It’s the trickster that makes the world, not the creator, in this sense, right? The trickster gave the opportunity for life to flourish, but also introduced hurt and pain and suffering in the very moment you're introducing life.”
Trickster is not right or wrong, he is both and he is neither — he embodies contradiction. It’s difficult for those of us who grew up in a monotheistic worldview to see trickster this way, because the Christian trickster is Satan, a figure that flattens all of trickster’s complexity into a binary war between good and evil. But trickster is often described as “amoral” — he is not about judgement, but about reconciling the both/ands of life that we can’t avoid.
Creativity always comes with anxiety. The flipside of hyperactivity is fatigue. The biggest, strongest flowers in my garden are growing out of a compost pile full of dog shit. Trying to make order is always going to mean we also make disorder, what Mary Douglas refers to as simply, dirt: “all the rejected elements of ordered systems.” But tidying up doesn’t make dirt disappear — we still have to reckon with chaos somehow, and Trickster tales give cultures a way to compost paradox.
For Hyde, trickster represents an inescapable contradiction of societies:
“..the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.”
The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss referred to Trickster as a “mediator” between contradicting forces like life and death, order and chaos. Perhaps we could see the DSM as a rational, modern attempt at mediating order and disorder. Disruption is a catalyst for change — it’s how we know something isn’t working. But clinics and schools, the sites where ADHD is identified, often respond to disruption not with curiosity or care, but with a dustpan and a broom. We try to clean it up, sort it out, and box it into our existing structures instead of questioning the structures themselves.
For this, we need Trickster. Questioning is his domain. “You need new kinds of gods when you come to the edge,” Akomolafe says, but he is careful to remind us that trickster, by nature, escapes definition, shaking up our categories and the notion of stable identity altogether.
So hold these words lightly; set them on fire tonight and dance around them a bit. This is not about replacing one identification with another, or unironically pretending that everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, but finding a new way to look at those parts of us assigned shame.
P.S. I have managed to loosely organize all my writings on ADHD under a hashtag — you can find a link in the navigation bar of this newsletter, or click here.
the philosopher Albert Camus (who is very much experiencing a comeback amongst the youths rn) read the Sisyphus story as an illustration of the absurdity of life. It’s a meme now.
This is just one version of the story, there are a few! This article tracing the evolution of the myth is fascinating — especially the iteration right before Stingy Jack, a German story about Hansel being a gambler whose soul somehow gets split up into a million pieces that go into the bodies of gamblers everywhere.
This is also true for almost every psychiatric diagnosis, by the way. You can definitely apply the ideas here to other things! Metaphor is your playground!