FARGO — The first time I heard about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was in the early '90s. After numerous news outlets did numerous stories on this new attention/hyperactivity disorder, an editor dispatched me to do a story.
Ironically, one of the experts I interviewed on the topic turned out to be my old fifth grade teacher. We talked about the common symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention, and what experts believed at the time — that it was primarily a condition of children, especially boys.
We also politely skirted the issue that I'd almost certainly been an ADHD poster child in her fifth-grade classroom. I remembered her chastising me for standing on desks, telling me to "stop dilly-dallying all day, Lady Jane" and reprimanding me for refusing to read books from her meticulously curated children's library.
But then again, that was my whole childhood. On the one hand, I was giving impromptu art lessons to kids on the school bus, writing plays for my friends to perform and creating Halloween costumes based on obscure historical figures. On the other, my entire childhood was paved with directives to stop daydreaming/clean out your desk/comb your hair/stop procrastinating/get your math homework done/stop spending money foolishly/start acting NORMAL.
I would grow up to make the dean's list in college, balance three jobs with a full course load and be named the outstanding journalism graduate in my class. Sure, I continued to struggle with organization, planning and time awareness, but, by then, I had formed a cast-iron defensiveness against all those years of negative feedback. "Hey, I'm just a maverick," I'd shrug. Or: "I'm creative!"
Oddly enough, I didn't get officially diagnosed with ADHD until several years ago. By then, the hyperactivity was gone. If anything, I was exhausted by trying to operate like everyone else. For most of my life, I'd been able to snap back from some of my more troublesome ADHD characteristics, such as distractibility or procrastination.
But as my brain aged, I found my mind wandering more and remembering less. I panicked. Was I developing dementia? It wasn't until a visit to an ADHD coach that I learned the roles estrogen and progesterone play in supporting memory. As those hormones dropped, so did my ability to concentrate and recall every detail. I'd likely had ADHD throughout adulthood, but aging had made it worse.
I grappled with the best way to handle this new knowledge. Sure, it was comforting to know there was a neurobiological reason why I’d spent a lifetime struggling with things that others seemed to do with ease. But now I had this label to contend with.
Did I dare tell anyone, lest they start speaking more slowly to me or pitying me? Should I explain it to people so they know why I sometimes mess up? Would admitting it in a column mean I will never be hired again? Will I be seen as flawed, broken, less-than?
Yet, more and more these days, I run into others — often adult women — who report symptoms much like mine. Like me, they are baffled by a condition once affiliated mostly with grade-school boys.
So here it is: With the help of my excellent speech-language pathologist/ADHD coach, Janet Grove from Progressive Therapy Associates, I've been able to develop responses to some of the common misunderstandings out there about ADHD:
"It's some made-up disorder.” Extensive testing has found people with ADHD possess lower levels of the neurotransmitter and hormone norepinephrine, which plays a role in your mood, sleep-wake cycle, ability to focus and memory storage. ADHD brains also seem to have impaired neurotransmitter receptors in areas such as the frontal cortex (which controls attention, organization and executive function), the limbic system (which controls emotion and attention) and the basal ganglia (which can cause inter-brain communication and information to “short circuit”).
- “You can't have ADHD. You're successful!" ADHD has nothing to do with intelligence. In fact, many with this neurodifference are bright and creative. Their ability to laser in on a topic, job or any high-interest area is extraordinary. Their mental flexibility and out-of-the-box view makes them natural entrepreneurs. They just need encouragement from people who understand ADHD and the type of work environment that helps them succeed.
- “Relax! You’re too sensitive!” We live in a world that values punctuality, driving ambition, planning, organization and strategy, and tends to shame those who struggle with it. Consequently, some of us grow up with lots of guilt, shame and defensiveness.
- “You just need to try harder.” Living with ADHD is exhausting. We expend enormous effort trying to play by the established rules. Most people with ADHD have been trying their best for a long time, and have frequently been reminded they’ve fallen short or disappointed someone.
It's not a matter of effort. It's a matter of brain chemistry.
Readers can reach Forum News Service columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.