How an ADHD diagnosis changed our lives…
I will never forget that time I was a complete asshole to a fellow mom.
We were walking to our cars outside our kid’s school, I was irritable and frustrated after a parent-teacher conference and that’s when I said it. “There is no way I will EVER medicate my child! I really think this whole ADHD thing is rubbish.” It had slipped my mind just then, that this mom-friend of mine had told me some time back that her daughter had been diagnosed with ADHD and that Ritalin was a part of her treatment plan.
She never corrected me. Instead, she looked at me, stricken and guilty, the blood drained from her face as if I had just punched her in the gut. Today, when I think about what I said, I let the shame wash over me for a while and then, after I remember how ignorant and misinformed I was at the time, I allow a little forgiveness to creep in. I wish she had said something. I wish she had stopped, looked me in the eye and said, “Hey, I can understand your frustration but you need to learn a LOT more about something like ADHD and then walk a mile in the shoes of someone who has it, or has a child with that diagnosis before you say stuff like that.” If she ever reads this, I hope she knows how sorry I am.
Obviously, I wish I could take it all back but I can’t. Instead, I’m going to tell you my story.
My son Ethan is incredibly smart and I’m not even being that mom (you know, the ones who think their spawn is perfect and ‘special’ in every way), no, if he was dumb as a potato I would still love him. He’s definitely not perfect, he runs like Goofy on LSD and his swimming looks more like ‘interpretive drowning’.
Despite his bright and highly active mind, right from the beginning of his schooling career, there were signs that he wasn’t performing as well as he could. He could spend hours (no seriously, HOURS) talking about obscure exotic animals and interesting science stuff but when it came to putting it down on paper, no one could get him to sit in a chair long enough to get any work done. He lost things, broke things, walked into things — all because he was too busy thinking or doing something else.
It didn’t take long for teachers to start asking uncomfortable questions my husband and I weren’t prepared for. “Ethan is restless and unfocused. He can’t seem to maintain his attention for more than a few minutes, have you considered having him tested?”
Tested? Tested for what? That’s just the way kids are isn’t it? I realise now I was in denial. I wasn’t able to see what they clearly did because all I could think was, there is nothing wrong with Ethan, he’s just like his mother, an accident-prone, scatter brain who thinks too much. I was right of course, there was nothing ‘wrong’ with him and YES, he was exactly like his mom.
Fish oils, Omega supplements, Biostrath, Mentat, cutting back on sugar — over the first two years of junior primary we tried it all. Nothing seemed to work. The arguments got worse at home (Ethan, why is your room such a mess? You lost another lunch box? Where’s your jersey? Why don’t you listen! ) and the frustrated frowns and pointed questions became more and more prevalent at school.
Finally, when his 3rd grade teacher (whom I really admired and respected) sat us down and told us exactly the same thing we had been hearing for years — I knew I had to face the truth.
Even then, after the testing, after the diagnosis, despite all the evidence and school reports to the contrary, I STILL wasn’t ready to accept the fact that my son had ADHD. In South Africa there is such a stigma and SHAME attached to this issue. It means there is something not “quite right” with your kid, it means you are a “bad parent” because, “all that child needs is more discipline”. I sat in the doctor’s office as he reviewed all the info and I told him exactly how I felt. What I said was, I really didn’t think Ethan had Attention Deficit Disorder, that he was just ‘quirky’ and ‘absent-minded’ like his mom. I went on to describe all our mutual ‘quirks’ in great detail. When I was done, the doctor stared at me over his glasses silently and then putting Ethan’s file down on the desk he said, “Mrs Pearson all those traits you have in common with your son don’t prove that he doesn’t have ADHD, in fact they strongly suggest that you might have ADHD too.”
A bolt of lightning, a car crash, a flash bomb, a white-hot searing of the senses, that’s what it felt like to hear those words. Somehow, I instantly knew it was true.
Not only did Ethan have ADHD, so did I.
Of course, if I look back over the rainbow-hued glorious mess my life has been, it makes so much sense in retrospect. Officially diagnosed at 39, I then dived head first into the information ocean, determined to find out everything I could. The first thing I discovered was why I had acted like such an ignorant jackass at the mere mention of those four dreaded letters. Half-truths, misinformation and absolute rubbish is what you will find when you first Google ADHD or ADHD medication. Of course anything involving our children is going to be a hot button, contentious issue but I was just devastated at some of the hare-brained conspiracy theories that were being served up as gospel even in respected corners of the internet. Health-24 I am giving you serious side-eye right now.
The most prevalent myth is — ADHD does not exist. Which is factually just not true. It’s largely genetic, experts have identified many of the genes that contribute to this disorder and scientist have also recently proven that there are visible differences in the structure and the behaviour of ADHD brains.
Another myth is that ADHD is about hyperactive little boys jumping off the walls. In fact, this was one of the reasons I personally refused to believe it about my own son because I kept insisting, Ethan’s not hyperactive so it can’t be ADHD. I’ll give you this, the name is pretty stupid. Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder is a misleading and inaccurate descriptor, it bugs me and I think someone should come up with a better catchall term – I’m thinking ATEATDTD – Attention To Everything All The Damn Time Disorder. But ADHD is the name we currently have and it refers to at least three identified sub-types: Type 1. Inattentive Type 2. Hyperactive and Type 3. Combination Type. Symptoms differ from person to person and your ADHD may look very different to mine. Common issues generally revolve around an inability to regulate information coming in and going out of the brain which can lead to issues with focus, inattention, restlessness, time-keeping and impulse control.
ADHD is a genetic brain difference/disorder that is inherited and can occur in males and females. It also effects both children and adults because although you may learn to cope better and minimise your symptoms over time, you never truly outgrow it. Great thing about early diagnosis and intervention is that you reduce the risk for unhealthy behaviour and coping mechanism down the line. Medication is not the devil. In fact for most people with ADHD, it’s one of the most effective ways to control some of the more debilitating symptoms that interfere with leading a normal life. Just like weak eyes needs glasses, sometimes the overwhelmed and confused brain needs medicine so it can regulate itself properly. ADHD medicine is not the holy grail however and it doesn’t work for everybody. Also, this only forms one part of an effective treatment plan, exercise, nutrition, cognitive training, coaching…there is so much you can do to help. With an accurate diagnosis and a knowledgeable medical professional you can find a treatment plan that works for your child, or for you.
The shitty thing about being diagnosed at my age? Processing and working through a lifetime of regret, wondering what your life ‘could have’ looked like if you had received help earlier.
I often used to make a joke at my own expense and say, “Oh you know me, I never finish anything, not even a cup tea!” After I was diagnosed, I stopped and thought about what that really meant. It meant that I never finished my tertiary education no matter how many times I tried. It means I adore books but I only get through a quarter of the ones I start. I paint but I can count on two hands how many paintings I’ve actually completed. I struggle to socialise because people think I’m a selfish flake who never remembers birthdays, meetups or names. I have started dozens and dozens of projects, groups, websites, blogs and dropped them all again like a trail of bread crumbs strewn behind me. Being impulsive, and lacking the ability to sustain attention, focus and motivation isn’t always cute or fun, in fact it can be quite devastating when ALL you want to do is follow-through on something or reach a personal goal. It can affect your social life, your work life, your love life, your bank account, your health and your sanity. I ended up with chronic depression and anxiety for decades because I KNEW there was something ‘wrong’ with me but I could never quite figure out what. Although ADHD isn’t exactly a blessing, my diagnosis most certainly was. At least I have the answer to ‘why’ even if it’s still a struggle and even if I haven’t figured it all out just yet.
So we haven’t exactly met yet, even if you know me. Hi I’m Helga…but I’m also ADHD.