My older sister and I are similar in a lot of ways. We’re both writers. We’re both readers. We both majored in English. We both adore good chocolate. And on and on.
We’re dissimilar in a lot of ways, but it turns out that one thing I thought was a difference actually isn’t.
As an adult, Mel was diagnosed with ADD. Based on my then (very) limited understanding of the condition, the diagnosis made much sense. She could jump topics in a conversation like hummingbird flitting from flower to flower. Only faster. I can keep up, but I assumed that it was because I grew up around her.
When I’ve mentioned to close friends that ADHD runs in the family, they always reply with, “Mel, right?”
Sure, she’s the one buzzing around, always doing and thinking. We have a nephew with significant ADHD, and I suspect the parent of that same nephew has it too.
At least two of my kids have it.
And, it turns out, so do I.
For a very long time, I had no inkling. I used to think that “real” ADHD wasn’t common, and that most drugged kids are zombies with parents who don’t know what they’re doing.
I was so, so wrong.
My son’s struggle led me down the path to discovery. In elementary school, my son (now an adult in college) did very well. Sure, he was disorganized, forgot important papers, and his backpack and bedroom were disasters. He had horrible handwriting (still does).
Elementary school wasn’t that hard for him. If he zoned off during a lesson, chances are, it didn’t matter; he probably figured it out the first time it was explained. When his grades plummeted in fourth grade, getting him glasses was enough.
Enter junior high and puberty. Suddenly we had a perfect storm. His grades tanked. He lived each day frustrated and depressed. Nothing helped. He misplaced simple things like flashcards and other small but important items, which yes, he’d done in first grade, but now the stakes had grown much higher.
I started to notice patterns: his mind often drifted during conversations, but you wouldn’t always know it, because he’d still be looking right at you, seemingly attentive. He might even say, “uh-huh,” and other things to keep up the ruse. Meanwhile, his brain was off on some other planet, designing a video game.
And he had no control over such drifting. The effort he put into homework, only to have nothing to show for it an hour later, was heartbreaking.
At one point I suspected he had hearing loss, because I could speak to him six inches away without him hearing me. I even had his hearing tested, but it came back normal. Because I’m a mom, and I refused to let my kid suffer and fail, I kept digging.
That’s when I started researching ADHD.
I learned about hyper-focusing, which is exactly what he did: his brain would find something it found intensely interesting, and it would latch onto it to the exclusion of everything else.
One day when he was making cookies, I tested my theory. While they baked, he sat engrossed with something at the computer, maybe ten feet from the oven. When the timer went off, I waited to see what would happen.
I waited. The timer kept beeping. A minute later, my son still hadn’t reacted to it.
I called his name. I called him again. And a third time.
Finally, I raised my voice a little and called again.
That time, he jumped. “What?!” he demanded. “Why are you yelling?”
I stood there staring at him expectantly. Surely he’d notice the obnoxious beep, smell the cookies, and take them out of the oven.
He just looked at me and again said, “What?!”
Hardly able to believe what I was seeing, I said, “Do you hear something?”
Only then he blink, tilt his head, and tune his attention elsewhere — to the oven.
“Oh.” He hopped off the chair and took care of the cookies.
Classic hyper-focusing. The house could have been burning down, and he wouldn’t have noticed until the monitor was obscured by smoke.
Hyper-focusing suddenly sounded awfully familiar. In eighth grade, while reading a book once, I had no earthly idea how much time had passed or that a classmate was asking me an important question (likely several times) before I was pulled from the story and back to earth.
I remembered dozens of situations like that. In high school and college, I could hyper-focus on my studies, on studying for a test, on writing a paper. As an adult, I could focus so intently on my writing that reality faded, and my fictional world came to the fore.
I was lucky; I was able to use a symptom to my advantage, though, of course, I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. Hyper-focusing became my superpower. It’s how I got stuff done.
(Sure, plenty of other stuff fell by the wayside, of course. What was that, Dad? I was supposed to clean out the kitty litter? A week ago? Wait. What kitty litter?)
There it was: The puzzle piece I’d been missing. My son and I share a specific subtype of ADHD: the inattentive but not hyperactive type.
Many people refer to inattentive ADHD as simply ADD, but diagnostically and treatment-wise, they’re the same condition, merely different manifestations of it.
When we told my son’s teachers that he had ADD, no one believed us. He was well behaved, they said. He paid attention in class. Sure, they thought he was paying attention. He looked like it. He wasn’t climbing the walls with hyperactive behavior. He was even sitting still and looking right at the teacher.
That right there is a big part of the problem in understanding and treating ADHD: What society tends to think of as ADHD is only one type — and the type that mostly commonly affects boys.
The inattentive type is most common in girls, who are far less likely to be diagnosed. It’s a sad fact, but it makes sense: those with inattentive ADHD (more often girls) sit quietly, while classic ADHD shows up more often in boys who disrupt class, home life, and more. They get noticed.
My son didn’t get noticed by his teachers. I didn’t get noticed by mine, either.
My son’s case was far more severe, and I knew we needed to do something. I’d previously been anti-medication, but I’d since learned how wrong I was. My research had taught me that ADHD is very real, and it has a biological component. My son was suffering, and he needed help.
So I buried my pride and went to our family doctor. He listened to my son’s symptoms (which consisted of a lot more than what I’ve discussed here) and agreed that my son was a likely candidate.
We’d know within a couple of days if the medication was helping the symptoms. I left hopeful but doubtful, but barely more than 24 hours later, i knew without any doubt that the medication was exactly what he needed.
My son was back.
Some people think that medication is about zoning kids out, as if it’s Valium or something. That’s not what the stimulant medication does. (It’s a stimulant, remember?)
And it’s not a bad thing to be trying to stimulate the brain of a hyperactive (classic) ADHD brain either; the stimulant helps the brain calm down and focus by giving it the chemicals it lacks naturally. In the same way, caffeine often calms ADHD brains down instead of keeping them awake or getting them hyper.
When I hit 40 and my hyper-focusing super power had faded with age, I decided it was time to talk to my doctor.
The first day I took meds, I walked from my home office into the kitchen to do something. I don’t recall what my task was, but I do remember walking into the kitchen, doing it easily, without any thought, and then bursting into tears, sitting at the dining table, and wondering
Is this what it’s like to be normal?
Meds do so much more than help me and my son (and now, one of my daughters) to focus. That’s true, but it’s also too simplistic; meds do far more than that.
For my diagnosed children, medication has been a huge boon in helping their self-confidence, easing depression, and calming anxiety because they can try to do something and actually accomplish it. Medication helps them be their best selves.
After a week or so on medication, my son couldn’t tell a difference, but his dad and I absolutely could. I had my carefree, happy son back. The daily hair-pulling frustrations had fallen, leaving his awesomeness to shine. We could have long conversations, which he was fully present for.
When he forgot to take his medicine one day, he came home from school with his eyes opened. He sat down, looking as if he’d just run a marathon.
“I had no idea what my meds were doing, but now I do. Today, school was so hard.”
He took his medication faithfully after that, although, on his doctor’s recommendation, he often spent weekends and school breaks off it. A couple of years later, he said it wasn’t working as well as it used to. I thought he was building a tolerance to it, or maybe he was imagining something.
But when we saw the doctor next, he agreed. “He’s grown three inches really fast. He definitely needs a higher dose. He’s a bigger kid now.”
Of course, I’ve done more than give him medication to manage his condition. I studied a lot and implemented coping skills and techniques, and he’s done the same, wanting to understand himself and how to best succeed. In his high school psychology class, he researched ADHD and wrote a paper about his theories on why certain coping methods, ones he’d figured out on his own, helped his symptoms.
The same goes for my next child with ADHD. She knows that if she’s rushing out the door in the morning, she’ll forget important papers or items at home, so she made a habit of packing her backpack the night before to be sure she doesn’t forget stuff. She makes detailed lists to keep herself on track. She color codes her to-do lists. And, like her brother, she uses timers as well as other tools.
As for me, I’ve come to see how ADHD has affected my writing in both positive and negative ways. I’m constantly trying new coping techniques, taking new nutritional supplements, relying on my accountability partner, and so on.
ADHD rears its head in every aspect of my life. It causes problems with housekeeping, grocery shopping, errands, and with so many other very basic things that people with normal brains take for granted.
My children deserve a mother who functions as well as she possibly can so she can be there for them. That’s a big reason I went on medication.
Yet meds are not a silver bullet solution, and sometimes my symptoms take control of my day.
At times, I have to remind myself that I’m not lazy, crazy, or stupid.
I’m just ADHD.