Thanks to Adults with ADHD Who Sound Off!

ADHD and gratitude

This Thanksgiving finds me with much to be grateful for: friends, family, husband, health, and a book that is being generously received.

But this very day, my biggest, warmest THANKS goes to all those adults with ADHD who took the time to write their truth, so eloquently and movingly, in response to this New York Times column on ADHD (“A New Face for A.D.H.D.—and a debate”).

This New York Times column centered on the latest salvo fired in the ADHD Gifts discourse: Michael Phelps’ stunning performance at the Olympics. Did he win so many gold medals because of his ADHD or in spite of it? Everyone has an opinion.

Quite clearly, though: Such questions lie beyond anyone’s ability to answer. ADHD manifests so differently in each person, and it is just one part of personality and physiology. (Moreover, as a young acquaintance with ADHD points out, why can’t Michael’s accomplishments be accredited to hard work and discipline?)

Read through some of these adults’ comments, though, and know that a recent sea change has taken place. For one thing, no longer do parents of children with ADHD dominate the debate. It’s now the adults themselves.

Moreover, these adults are talking quite frankly about the very real challenges they’ve faced due to lifelong ADHD challenges.  Parents of children with ADHD should be listening to these adults, seeing what futures might await their children with ADHD if they do not take their symptoms seriously.

Consider these three:

  • As an adult with ADHD, it is incredibly frustrating for me to think that there are those who would pooh-pooh my condition, as if “trying harder” would magically solve everything. If that were the case, why am I not cured, after spending over twenty years of my life “trying harder”?
  • I was in a major and taking classes that I loved. I wasn’t bored, I was just unable to focus the way my peers did. I (then and now) ate a healthy diet (low sugar, low artificial flavors, no artificial colors, lots of veggies and fish…). I exercised regularly, got plenty of sleep, did meditation. None of those helped. Being treated for ADD did wonders.
  • The fact that Michael Phelps has more gold medals than a psychiatrist has sample packs does not help me when I forget to pay my bills on time again despite writing reminders on fifteen Post-Its and putting a bill-pay alarm on my phone. It does not help me when I sit in a blank haze for six hours past a midnight bedtime because I was in front of the TV trimming my nails, forgot to go to bed, and only snap out of the funk briefly when the nail clipper I was still holding in my sweaty hands falls on the floor.

Comments like these mark quite a shift from the simplistic ADHD-is-a-Gift idea popularized by the media over the last decade.

From my perspective, their comments emphasize two key points:

  • Adults with ADHD have a right to be understood and to receive competent medical care, if they so choose, without facing stigma, judgment, or admonitions to buck up, buckle down, or look on the bright side of their ADHD.
  • The “ADHD is a Gift” message isn’t always so helpful, because too often it minimizes or denies real challenges. It might even cause people with ADHD to feel unsuccessful at yet one more thing: having ADHD!

In the past, mine were often the only comments voicing such sentiments on such public forums, and the blowback hit me quite hard….for example:

  • “You, Gina Pera, just want to medicate people who don’t fit your definition of normal“.
  • “You just hate people with ADHD.”
  • “You don’t think people with ADHD have any gifts.”
  • “You want to medicate everybody!”

How could I wrap my little brain around statements like these? They were so far from my truth.

I mean, what or who is “normal?” Certainly not me, or even most of my friends. And of course I recognized the gifts of my friends with ADHD. But I would never agree that millions of people (10-30 million people in the U.S. alone estimated to have ADHD) could fit any simplistic stereotypes. Moreover, I saw how the “gifts” message played out in everyday life: as a harmful, “gaslighting” message, one that denied and minimized reality and held everyone back.

By way of background: The chief proponent of the ADHD Gifts perspective has been psychiatrist Ned Hallowell, who has ADHD himself and reportedly does not take medication.

While he acknowledges that ADHD’s gifts can be “hard to unwrap,” his view strikes many experts and people with ADHD as way too rosy — for example, in depicting people with ADHD as fun-loving, highly social and charming, and often great entrepreneurs.

For every person I know with ADHD who is a schmooze-meister or social butterfly, I know three more who are paralyzed by social anxiety.

For every ADHD celebrity businessperson we see in the headlines, thousands more are blindly pursuing their next unrealistic, get-rich-quick scheme, often funded by their long-frustrated family members. Or they are desperately trying to find work that has meaning for them, and to stay employed in that work. And the list goes on.

I wondered: How people who have ADHD along with social anxiety felt about the “gift” theory, which depicts people with ADHD as The Life of the Party. Did it make them feel that they must have something far more serious than ADHD (as if ADHD weren’t impairing enough when it comes to picking up social cues, tuning in on conversations, etc.)?

What about those who aspired to the successful entrepreneurship touted as their ADHD birthright…yet were into their third bankruptcy? These are just two examples.

As for medication, no, it’s not for everybody. Sometimes, knowledge of one’s own particular “brain wiring” is enough. But I will validate pharmacotherapy’s potential benefits from the rooftops, because I’ve seen how it has helped vast numbers of people (after trying every “alternative”).

Frankly, I’ve had it with the scare-mongering and self-righteous judgment on this topic—not to mention sloppy prescribing that only adds to these medications’ negative reputation. You have ADHD and don’t want to take medication? It’s a free country! But please don’t assume that everyone else with ADHD can get by with coping strategies, too.

The main problem is, unlike some who took potshots at my and others’ comments along these lines, I’ve never seen ADHD as a black and white issue. The “both and” (gifts and deficits) were clearly apparent in my friends with ADHD, along with the rest of the population. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Too often, though, the “bushel basket” of ADHD symptoms has obscured my friends’ “lights”—sometimes to the point of almost extinguishing them.

Moreover, no number of “positive” rah-rah spin buoyed these people’s self-esteem, not for more than a few minutes anyway. Only facts, solid strategies, and validating support provided sustaining solutions and solid confidence in their abilities. Yes, and often medication.

I’ll close this ramble by saying to adults with ADHD who share their experiences on the web, at support meetings, with their physicians or therapists, and to anyone who will listen:

You are the only ones who can convince the public that ADHD is real.

There is power in numbers, and this day is long overdue, when armies of you gather strength and join the advocates, researchers, clinicians, and, yes, sometimes even the scientists at pharmaceutical companies in speaking out and educating the public.

On with the revolution! And Happy Thanksgiving!

Gina

9 thoughts on “Thanks to Adults with ADHD Who Sound Off!”

  1. It is so hurtful to experience judgment from others about the choice to take ADHD medication.

    Reading through your excellent post, I kept flashing back to my interactions with a former fiancé who flitted into my life and caught my son and me up in a dreamscape of building a family with him, only for him to panic at the knowledge that we take medicine and eventually drop us like a hot potato after convincing me to attempt a summer without medicating my son.

    I recently heard from an acquaintance that his side of the story was that I had changed. Yes, as a matter of fact! Him coming in and flooding me with NY Times articles about how ADHD isn’t real and we are speed freaks and all it takes is salmon for dinner and hard-nosed discipline …

    That didn’t work, and I kinda crumbled from the stress. He beat feet and ran, only to meet and marry another woman within the matter of a couple of months. (My therapist at the time suspected that HE was the one with ADHD but he was running from that truth in all directions.)

    It’s neither here nor there, but the point is just that I still feel wounded for the ways he judged us, and the last thing that struggling boys need are “father figures” who think they’ll be able to control a situation that, in fact, they don’t understand at all. Since then, my son and I have thrived. He’s been on the honor roll every single semester; he’s a starter on his football team and this fall he’s beginning high school in an extremely competitive highly gifted program.

    Most of all, though, he is kind and thoughtful and loving and a true joy to be around. He’s building skills and habits in hopes that one day he won’t need the medicine anymore, and we are constantly working so that his life will be better than mine has been after struggling without a diagnosis for decades. Screw anyone who judges us. If you’ve found a routine that works for you, it’s nobody’s business but your own. I need to drop the shame I still feel over these issues, because the proof is in the pudding: For me, diagnosed/medicated is LIGHT YEARS better than the alternative.

    1. Dear Tara,

      Wow, you are to be congratulated!

      I remember a conversation I had almost 20 years ago with the wonderful Patricia Quinn, MD, a leading ADHD expert and an early advocate for women with ADHD.

      I had been leading a support group for the partners of ADHD, where many were dealing with abusive behavior. Whether intentional or not, it still feels like abuse. And the abuse came from women and men, in straight and gay couples.

      And then Dr. Quinn talked about the many women with (undiagnosed, poorly managed) ADHD who also fell into abusive relationships. They missed the cues. They knew they needed a “strong” person to be in charge of some things, etc. They fell for a predator’s big promises. And so they joined up with some very abusive partners.

      We know that children with ADHD are more likely to be bullied, but they are also more likely to bully. Different subsets.

      And the same is true for the adults. Some abuse; some are abused. Nothing is monolithic about ADHD. And there’s the rest of personality to consider.

      At any rate, please thank that therapist profusely because I suspect he or she is SPOT ON.

      In my long observation, few people deny ADHD with such fervor and vehemence as those who have it themselves. Massive denial, plus a personality disorder or two.

      Look at the people behind the Netflix “documentary”—it seemed to me like a massive effort to not only deny ADHD in themselves but to collectively pull the public into their angry denial.

      At any rate, I’m glad you dodged that particular bullet. And look at you, thriving and raising a lovely son.

      You win, hon. That guy’s the loser.

      “Salmon and hard-nosed discipline,” my arse. haha.

      Thanks for writing.
      g

  2. This is a very smart article! Yes that combination of Attention Deficit Disorder and Social Anxiety can be very challenging, it can be a real vicious cycle.

    I have both ADD and Social Anxiety and it can really make you question yourself. Very daunting. But ADD gives you strengths as well as weaknesses. For example creativity (imagination) can be used to actually help social anxiety, there is something called “Dream work” that is used to overcome social anxiety.

    The Nonprofit organization “Social Anxiety Anonymous”, uses it (it’s a way of using imagination to help social anxiety), here is an article they did about that, you can Google it, it’s called “Social Anxiety and Dream Work” (which if you think about it is like using ADD to actually help your social anxiety!)

    1. HI Silvia,
      Thanks for stopping in — and suggesting the Dream Work. Sounds like a worthwhile idea.

  3. betsy davenport, phd

    Gina, you are singing my song. Many NY Times blog pages have received my comments about ADD and the people who consider it and its treatment open to public debate.

    I was reading the comments — the first page of them — with my daughter who is 16. At age 10, she pronounced ADD “the scourge,” and volunteered her opinion at age 11 that Ned Hallowell is nuts.

    As we read, she said “Hurrah!” at all the right times, especially when someone remarked that Michael Phelps’ success did nothing for HIM, after all. My daughter suggested further that while Phelps’ mother did introduce the subject of ADD in reference to her son, it rather diminishes Phelps’ accomplishments to imply any connection between the two.

    Probably, she said, he succeeded the way he did irrespective of ADD. She says she is inspired by him, but probably would be if he didn’t have ADD, or if she didn’t.

  4. I don’t know that I could identify the ‘gifts’ of ADHD for my wife except that she does have a focus that lets her have a purity of enjoyment that I truly envy. When she is in the moment, she is there in a way that I can only dream of.

    And…falling in love with her was probably more intense and more wonderful than a whole boring lifetime with an average person. These are more gifts for me though and are little consolation for her when she’s frustrated with the world, herself, or me.

    It does seem that we’re on the verge of a societal epiphany about ADHD and we must keep up the effort to inform ourselves and those around us. Keep up the good work.

  5. Holly Seerley, MFT & Parent

    Yes, Gina! Too many times I have heard from clients about the painful years spent in previous therapies trying to work on why their lives weren’t moving forward in the manner their intelligence predicted. Too many lost years with no one questioning or recognizing that a neurobiological condition might be the culprit. Too many years living with an invisible but sometimes severely impairing condition that, since no one else could “see” it the way a wheel chair or a cane can be seen, confused and frustrated parents, teachers and family members as much as themselves. All resulting in the greasy build-up of shame, blame, anxiety and depression.

    Twice last week adults with AD/HD cried bitter tears of grief as they realized that they were getting help for their children with AD/HD that might make a difference, help that they never got as a child. Years lost. Self-esteem lost. Self-understanding lost. “Potential” lost.

    While it is indeed better to get diagnosed and receive effective treatment at 40 or 50 or 60 than never at all, the developmental losses are profound. The outspoken, intimate sharing of stories by these adults not helped as children will indeed make the world a better place for those coming along after them. E.g., parents of children and teens with AD/HD and other learning differences so appreciate hearing from teens and adults who are now receiving treatment for these brain and learning differences. These adults and teens are often willing to honestly articulate their struggles, the realities of living with this condition, the significance of having a name to put to the challenges that have caused them such confusion and pain, the approaches that have made a difference and the importance of compassion and understanding.

    Please continue to “Sound Off!”

    Holly Seerley, MFT
    Mill Valley, CA
    415-383-6656

  6. The Masked ADDer

    As an adult ADHD sufferer, I was pretty POed at being burdened with this condition, yet never did I believe that it somehow conferred me a materially significant advantage. Yeah, I might get more/different ideas than most people, yet I would quickly forget everything once I saw the next shiny object.

    What medication and behavioral changes have done for me is enable me to KEEP MY IDEAS by making it possible to act on them in a rational, orderly way. Have I lost anything? Not that I can discern. It took a lot of effort from both my wife and I (mostly my wife…) to get me started on the meds and to find the right regimen. My only regret is that I didn’t start them as a teenager. Doing so would have dramatically altered the course of my life, most likely for the better…

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