ADHD: My journey through it. Struggles, Triumph and why pills are not the answer!

On a beautiful sunny Southern California summer afternoon while roaming around at University of Southern California (USC) campus I first learned about ADHD. A new semester was starting and the student organizations had setup booths for the involvement fair. I was exploring to see if I can find something interesting to join as last couple of semesters had been really stressful and I was finally feeling settled in. I reached this booth where two students were particularly boisterous about their organization which was about building mental strength. It’s here where I first learned about ADHD. Though I was like whatever at that point of time and moved on to check out other booths. A week later the word stuck in again in my mind and that’s when I researched what it was about. As I read more, the more I realized I had most of the symptoms for ADHD at some point in my life and I still had majority of them. The feeling at that moment wasn’t great. Moreover my last semesters had been bad. I had earned 2.9 and 3.15 GPA respectively. Just enough to make sure I don’t go into probation. As an International student I was required to maintain a 3.0 GPA or higher for two semesters in a row. Mustering some courage I decided to see a doctor and get diagnosed. The clinic gave me a questionnaire to fill. Which I decided not to return and I never took an appointment to get a proper diagnosis. But by that time I already knew I had ADHD from all the online research I had done. Last thing I wanted was pills for the same which is what likely I would have been prescribed. Instead my thinking at that time was that I was already at one of the world’s best Universities and so yeah screw ADHD. If I had survived it till now then I will survive it in future. Instead I proceeded to make a list of goals and deadlines for life that day. Which I will share at the end of this story! I do feel though that had I grown up here in the states then I might have been taking pills for ADHD since childhood. But I guess I got lucky as the place where I grew up had hardly any awareness about ADHD and still lacks it for good or for bad. I think for good!

I like living a very private life (though working on changing it hence this post!) and have till date kept hidden (from most) that I suffer from ADHD. But if you have interacted with me especially in written form than you already know that my grammar sucks. It’s not that I don’t know grammar but while writing my brain is very easily distracted. Yet I always tell people I’m really bad at grammar! At least, at work now I have made a habit of reading an email 3–4 times before sending, phew! Some other prominent things I Suffer from:

It’s easier for me to run a full marathon than to read a complete book. I have completed reading precisely zero book(s) in past 4 years. Started reading more than 20. Audible has been a savior! These days I complete 1 book a month on Audible. Reading is a big struggle past 10 mins.

I work as a software engineer. A lot of times my code has following statements:

if(a = b) {

// do something

} else if (a = c) {

// do something

} /* for non coders, it should be == instead of =*/

I at least spend 1 hour a day, day dreaming! Yup, don’t ask what I dream about!

I get super restless everyday in office. But I have adapted to this by taking fruit/walk/yogurt breaks every hour or so! Yet its still a struggle, a big struggle.

My brain is like a tireless motor which keeps on running. Sometimes its really hard to go to sleep. I have on multiple occasions gone more than 30 hours without sleeping.

This will suffice for now but I’ll come back to this.


The Initial Struggles:

Growing up, I used to suck at languages. In my secondary and high school I used to precisely get passing marks and used to make it to next grade. Except one time I failed and I made sure to sign the report card myself instead of showing it to parents (sorry mom & dad!). It was a real struggle. What made it terrifying was that the education system in India was not flexible. i.e. if you can’t get enough marks (Yup no grades) in your 10th grade to get into science/math class for your 11th grade then you are screwed for life. Yup no more math/science for you! I wanted to get into engineering school so it was important that I made it to science division in high school. The rigidness of the system is so pronounced that even if you liked math and wanted to focus on it, you still had to study biology! So basically math was clubbed with biology, physics & chemistry. But somehow I got enough marks and made it to a decent university for my undergrad. But that didn’t take away the fact that most of my childhood I suffered from a very low level of confidence and even after making to a decent university that confidence was rock bottom. This constant fear of failing had a lot of impact in my childhood and my teen years, but I feel like it made me stronger as a person. I still suffer from this fear of failing but much less now. I feel this struggle was more prominent due to rigidness of the Indian higher secondary schooling where options are limited. When I compare it to the schooling in States I feel like I would have easily migrated towards arts in my early childhood and perhaps would have thrived at it! But then there is also greater chance that I would have been put on medicines in my early childhood had I grown up in States. More on it later and how ADHD has actually helped me on my creative endeavours. Anyways, back to where I was.

Things got better in undergrad. Software Programming was the name of the game and I started loving it. For a change the rules weren’t strict and the bounds were endless (well almost!). Good grammar was still needed but there was a compiler to tell me when the grammar was wrong. I loved it. For once I didn’t had to worry about poor grammar. There hadn’t been such a freedom in doing things like this ever before. Of course there were other non programming courses which I had to take and there the struggles still continued. Years passed, I managed to graduate in fact with very good marks (Sorry still no grades!)! The life was getting happier and I reached the point where I had an option of either going to grad school or join the workforce. I choose grad school and ended up in beautiful Southern California. I didn’t realized at that point of time but looking back it was a big achievement for someone like me with poor writing skills to make it to grad school! I think math was the savior as I aced the Math portion of the GRE!

Artistic Side:

It is well know that people with ADHD do well creatively (see here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), although Jury is still out on it. In India, or should I say Indian parents are so much focused on making their kids Doctor or Engineers that little emphasis is given on creative things. At least in my case there were no expectation of me becoming a doctor, phew! When I got my first cellphone, it came with a camera (A rarity in those days!). About around the same time I also started secretly learning (keeping parents uninformed) how to play guitar. Photography and Music both brought an unimaginable amount of peace to my mind. There was unbelievable amount of focus when I was doing either of it. It also helped a bit with my engineering studies. But I had discovered my drug to keep me happy.

I feel like usually people with ADHD do well where rules don’t apply or where they can make their own rules. There are countless examples of successful people with ADHD and many of the most successful ones have bended rules at their own will. But more research is warranted or perhaps more stories like mine to be in public domain.

Triumph:

In my first semester of Grad school I had saved enough money from a on campus job to get my first real camera, a low end DSLR. This started a journey of learning things about photography by self experiment. No rules, no bounds, I do whatever I like. But best part about photography has been the fact that I get to be alone. I like taking pictures of nature, which usually comes with alone time. This alone time is what really relaxes me and also gives my brain to dream about things which won’t necessarily be real (well not on earth!). Sometimes this alone time brings pictures like below created out of pure imagination or should I say day dreaming! BTW this picture is much more realistic! You can actually see northern lights at Stokksness!

Stokksness, Iceland! A blend of day to night scenes!

I currently work as a software engineer. A Job I like because of the fact that I like software programming and the job is flexible enough to allow me to do a lot of different things. Despite the struggles I had in Grad School I was lucky to get a job at one of the most innovative company in the world. That was definitely a confidence booster! That confidence has flown into my photography as well. As years have gone by I have improved a lot and I was recently honored to have one of my photos featured as photo of the day on National Geographic. This was part of one of my earlier goals which I had slated to achieve before I turned 35 years old. More on that later but onto the main topic now!

Sunrise at Jokulsarlon, Iceland!

Growth of ADHD Medication Industry:

My main motivation to tell this story is my niece who turned 7 this month. She unfortunately (or fortunately) is showing many symptoms of ADHD. At this point I can be certain there a good chance that my children will suffer from ADHD as there sufficient and mounting evidence on the genetic nature of the ADHD. That brings me to the growth of medication or better put the greed of pharma companies to find every child even with minor symptoms of ADHD to be put on medication. The consumption of ADHD medicine has seen an unbelievable amount of growth in last decade in United States, it doubled from 2007 levels and it is projected to increase three folds from those levels. It grew even more spectacularly if you see the graph from 2002 levels.

I was compelled to tell this story because when I look back had I been put on medication in my early childhood, I just can’t imagine what it would have done to my already low confidence. I don’t know anyone who as a kid liked taking medicine. So I can’t imagine what or how terrible it is taking medicines on a regular basis. But perhaps the biggest issue with taking the medication is the side effects. The potential side effects listed by the FDA for the popular ADHD drug Ritalin are nervousness, agitation, anxiety, sleep problems (insomnia), stomach pain, loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, palpitations, headache, vision problems, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, skin rash, psychosis, and numbness, tingling, or cold feeling in your hands or feet. Yet these days without even a proper diagnosis of ADHD we are putting children on medicines. I think there is compelling case for only treating ADHD with medication if the symptoms are severely impairing a child i.e. making day to day living very hard. Those cases perhaps make it less than 1% of current diagnosis. Despite all my difficulties I’m doing pretty well in my life and I think if we take a survey of people my age who grew up in a country where ADHD awareness is minimal (e.g. India) then cases like mine would be very common especially given that 5–8% of children in United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. In fact if you are reading this and have a similar story then I would encourage you to write about it. The more stories like this come out, the more there will be mounting evidence that ADHD is not a hindrance to success. There is also mounting evidence on the side effects especially on brain function/development from ADHD medications in very young children. Perhaps a bigger issue is that the medicines often reduces in effectiveness as time goes by which requires increase in dosage.

Some alternatives have been suggested on medium itself, especially of using technology. In particular gaming. I myself have embraced technology to get better with two of my biggest issues: Reading & Sleeping. Audible and FitBit have been life savior in past couple of years. In today’s day and age when technology is being considered as another distraction, it can be embraced especially to help children & Adults with ADHD. I have been able to read (Well hear! )so many books thanks to Audible. My credit card due dates are marked twice in my calendar on my smartphone so I can never forget about paying on time. And yes FitBit sleep tracking feature has allowed me to figure out when I usually become restless in sleep and the minor distractions which were really affecting my sleep. This has allowed me to sleep better. Over time the occurrences of going sleepless for long time has reduced. But yes they still happen but at this point of time I have accepted it as a feature of my life!

Goals and incentive are very important for completing a task. The only other thing is a timeline. In my case I have found that having a long timeline and a broad goal has helped me get things done. Hence this is something I would definitely recommend to the parents whose children are suffering from ADHD. I’m sure if little effort is taken by parents then their children can still thrive with ADHD and without any medications. I’m not saying it would be easy but it would require letting go of making your kids perfect. And yes that means that your highly talented child will likely not make it on Forbes 30 under 30 list but chances of achieving later life success will be really high. I would also recommend you allow your children to indulge in artistic things. It may not be true for every child but the science is clear on this. Children suffering with ADHD do well creatively.

Last but not the least, never stop dreaming big. It’s hard as a child with low self confidence to do well in the school. Hence it becomes critically important that long term goals remain intact. These long term goals can be one of the biggest motivation for the child. Of course the rigid schooling system is biggest hindrance but with struggles comes great strength.

When I first learned that I had ADHD, I wrote on a piece of paper some long term goals. This was 6 years ago! They were as follows:

  1. Spend a day in the Space before I turn 50 years old. (Back in 2010 that was a crazy thinking but I feel like this one will be an easy goal to achieve with all the great work being done with rocket technology (Yay SpaceX and Blue Origin)!
  2. Get a photo featured on National Geographic before I turn 35 years old. (Already done, Yay!)
  3. Learn how to solo skydive to get rid of fear of heights. (No timeline)
  4. Make a significant contribution in the field of Computer Science. (This perhaps is the hardest goal).
  5. Travel all the countries in the world before I turn 60 years old.

There are two more but they were really personal so they have not been included here. I have little doubt that I will be able to achieve these goals.

I really wish more people like me will come forward (especially developing world!) and write about their struggles and journey through ADHD especially the folks who have survived and thrived without taking medicines. I look forward to reading them!