North to Alaska – ADHD Capital of the World?

ADHD in Alaska
Sunny Aldrich at the Fur Rendezvous’ Running of the Reindeer:” “it’s kind of like the Running of the Bulls… except with a lot more carrots.”

Is there ADHD in Alaska? Of course. In fact, we might call Alaska an ADHD magnet.

This guest post from Sunny Aldrich comes to you thanks to a random exchange on Facebook. It went like this:

Gina: Here in San Francisco, we are looking forward to hosting this year’s CHADD conference! I hope out-of-towners can add a few days to their stay for enjoying the area.

Sunny: I can’t wait! Anywhere warm sounds good right now. 🙂 It was -4 in Wasilla, AK today.

Gina: You’re in Wasilla?? You’ll be a big celebrity in SF!

Sunny: No doubt! Alaskans are more like visitors from another planet. The rest of our countrymen are used to foreigners. But not the kind who hunt moose, ski in bikinis, bicycle in -40 weather and eat whale blubber or dried fish. Next year’s conference should be here. I’m convinced this is the ADHD capitol of the world.

Gina: I just read Levi Johnston’s book (Deer in the Headlights), and I’m convinced of that, too! 🙂

Sunny: Well it makes perfect sense!

ADD’ers are “mavericks” who seek adventure, want to take the road less traveled, like to try new and different things and want to march to their own drum. Adrenaline junkies? Alaska’s the place.

Extreme sports? Doesn’t get more extreme than here. Can’t sit at a desk and want an outside job? Alaska’s got those to spare. Just watch Deadliest Catch and Flying Wild Alaska and all those shows…

And since ADHD is hereditary, I think there’s a reason Alaska has the highest paid teachers in the U.S.! They should get hazard pay, as far as I’m concerned. My son’s kindergarten teacher had six boys with ADHD in her mixed grade class (K-2nd) out of 21 kids. Including my kid I could pick out at least 3 others just in that grade level with moderate to severe ADHD. Mine was the only one medicated… poor lady!!

Gina: Sunny, would you write a piece about this for the ADHD Roller Coaster blog?

Sunny said yes, and here it is:

By Sunny Aldrich

When I was first diagnosed with ADHD and began to learn more about it, I started seeing it all around me.  My best friend, her husband, her brother-in-law and even co-workers seemed to have so many of the tell-tale signs and quirky personality traits that are so distinctive to ADHD.

I told myself I was being ridiculous and clearly had some form of ADHD paranoia. It was a bit reminiscent of my first moose-hunting trip here in Alaska with my family, when every tree stump or brownish, moss-covered boulder looked like a moose.

Then the strangest thing happened: My best friend was diagnosed with ADHD–and so was her husband. The brother-in-law who couldn’t let me finish a sentence without interrupting? I found out he’d been diagnosed as “severely” ADHD in childhood and his Adult ADHD habits were destroying his marriage.

Oh, and the co-worker?  When I happened to comment about my ADHD medication wearing off before the end of my shift, she confided that her Adderall was long gone as well.

It was at that point that I realized that I wasn’t paranoid; there were a lot of people around me with ADHD!  In fact, that may be the very thing that drew them to Alaska in the first place.

ADHD has a long list of symptoms and the name “disorder” itself points to the negative stigma it has earned. But what if ADHD is actually a highly evolved set of characteristics that in past centuries would been seen as assets?

Author Thom Hartmann has pointed out how common it is for adults with ADHD to be restless, have difficulty tolerating boring or repetitive jobs and actively seek out change, excitement and adventure.  Hartmann proposes that the inheritable traits characteristic of ADHD are actually a unique set of biological advantages that evolved to make us good “hunters.”  They are only viewed negatively at this point in history because we currently live in a “farmer’s” society.   This perspective set the wheels of thought into perpetual motion for me and I haven’t looked at ADHD the same way since.

What would we have thought of these self-same “symptoms” a hundred years ago, or even a thousand years ago?  Living in Alaska gives me the opportunity to look at ADHD behaviors from a different perspective than someone who lives in another part of our country.

That annoying habit my kids have of getting distracted by any little noise or activity in a room looks lot different when we’re hiking through the woods. They are attuned to every detail of their surroundings, noticing each chirping bird fluttering softly in the brush and each animal track on the ground. Given the high probability of us running across a bear during our excursions, I find their hyper-awareness to be quite a relief. In a school setting it gets them in trouble; in a wilderness setting it could save their lives.

ADHD in Alaska
Alaskan kids have to be on their toes! Sunny snapped this shot one Alaskan summer day, of signs cautioning drivers to watch for bears AND kids at the playground.

Researchers have discovered that ADHD comes with issues around the brain chemical dopamine, part of our brain’s motivation and “reward” system. Interestingly, dopamine is one of the building blocks of adrenaline and after we’ve done an activity that produces it, such as strenuous exercise, the adrenaline in our bodies breaks down again leaving us with more dopamine than we had before.

Many of us are familiar with the term “runner’s high” in regards to exercise, but you may not be aware that stressful, exciting or even frightening activities can produce a similar chemical “reward.”  It’s easy to understand why those of us with naturally low levels of dopamine crave a good adventure on a regular basis.

Armed with this information I took a deeper look into my family history and what brought them to Alaska in the first place.

It turns out I come from a long line of immigrants and homesteaders; my maternal grandfather set out for Alaska in 1960 in a Nash Rambler station wagon with 9 children in tow.  If that doesn’t produce a boat load of adrenaline, nothing will!

My paternal great-grandfather emigrated from the Bohemian forest of Austro-Hungary in 1909 at only 19 years old without knowing a lick of English. He brought not a single family member with him. What would motivate someone to make such a daunting life-change? Historians tend to assume that it was desperation or oppression that motivated our ancestors to endure weeks of sea sickness required to get to the “new world” across the ocean.  Personally, I think at least a few of them were just bored.

ADHD in Alaska
Sunny’s son is a high flyer at this Eskimo blanket toss.

Great-grandfather braved the untamed wilderness to provide a new, civilized life for his children in Wisconsin. Why would his own son leave behind the creature comforts he created and trot off to Alaska, the very antithesis of domestication?  The answer is simple: he’s his father’s son and he needed some dopamine.

When my Papa explained that he moved to Alaska in 1953 because North-central Wisconsin was becoming too “civilized” for his taste, I understood exactly what he meant!

It’s quite possible that without ADHD in our gene pool we might still be huddled together in a dank cave somewhere. I had to remind myself of this when my son climbed out the window of Papa’s Jeep and onto the roof while they were driving the back roads of an Anchorage neighborhood looking for moose, clearly having acted without considering the consequences.

After recovering from near heart failure, I contemplated what life might have looked like our ancestors had carefully weighed all the potential disastrous outcomes before acting.  It’s unlikely they would have hunted that Saber Toothed tiger or led their tribe to migrate across the land bridge. Christopher Columbus might have sat comfortably at home in front of the fire instead of sailing to the new world and it’s quite probable all of the bunks on the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria would have been glaringly vacant decades later.

I’ve gotten used to the fact that most of my friends, family and co-workers here in Alaska have ADHD.  It’s kind of nice to be surrounded by so many people who “get” me, and it often feels like we have our own unique little club here in the Last Frontier. In many ways we do, braving the long, cold dark winters together and sharing stories of errant wildlife, such as the moose who like to lick the salty residue of your car just after you wash it.  By far, my favorite club is the “hunter” club, although the “driving-around-with-frozen-moose-slobber-adorning-my-vehicle” club runs a close second!

Sunny Aldrich is an ADHD Coach, life-long Alaskan and mother of three children with AD/HD. Diagnosed at age 33, she has first-hand knowledge of the struggles that adults with AD/HD face, particularly the unique situations that challenge moms. She writes a blog at ADHDPower.

12 thoughts on “North to Alaska – ADHD Capital of the World?”

  1. “Our physicians, Judith Bowman MD and Albert Mensah MD are co-founders of Mensah Medical, an international biomedical clinic for patients diagnosed with autism, ADD, ADHD, OCD, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Drs. Mensah and Bowman treat both pediatric and adult patients with targeted Advanced Nutrient Therapy, an effective and natural alternative to prescription medication.
    Answering the need for specialists with backgrounds in both traditional and natural medicine, Drs. Mensah and Bowman co-founded Mensah Medical after serving as primary physicians at the original Pfeiffer Treatment Center (now closed) near Chicago. While at Pfeiffer, both physicians received full, extensive training by William J. Walsh, PhD, founder and former director of research.”
    http://www.mensahmedical.com

    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      I’m familiar with Bowman and Mensah, though from a distance.

      Can you share a bit about how you have been helped by their care?

      Thanks,
      Gina

  2. Thanks for the compliments everyone! I’ve been doing my family genealogy recently and tracked ancestors all the way back to the Mayflower on one side, so I guess I wasn’t too far off with thinking it’s a product of the “adventurer” gene. Those folks sure had it rough… I experience pangs of guilt every time I use my microwave!

    1. Long ago I read an article about “Diabetes: The Thrifty Gene” that proposed what we see as a disease was actually an asset when food sources are inconsistent and unpredictable. Other observations have led me to the same conclusion as you, that characteristics seen as a “disability” or “disease” in the modern world are often an asset in a different context. So our job is not to focus on curing the “disease”, but on finding the right context where it is an advantage.

  3. Hi Sunny!
    I just loved this post!
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂 Much of my family history includes some of the first citizens in the US and my ancestors have had a tendency to move to places more wild and exciting. I think that I need to move to Alaska!
    Your post has provided me much food for thought and I thank you for that!!!
    Best,
    Christine

  4. Your remark about hiking in the woods with your sons struck a chord with me. I don’t often feel like my ADHD is any kind of advantage — I know too many smart, creative people who don’t have ADD and therefore are able to, you know, actually *finish* their creative projects.

    However, the one time when I do feel that ADHD is an advantage is when I’m outdoors. I notice so much more wildlife than the people around me, simply because it distracts me. I’ve seen whales and eagles and bears and moose that everyone else misses out on.

  5. Nice writing Sunny! Galen’s internist M.D. will no longer prescribe Adderal or any other ADD meds for him. His insurance plan doesn’t have a preferred provider in our town so Galen had to drive 2 hours to Seattle, only to meet with a psych. that won’t give him the meds until he completes a 2 month evaluation process. The idiot told Galen that kids outgrow ADD and adults don’t have it. The jerk won’t prescribe bi-polar meds either. Not until the evaluation is complete. And my kid suffers and can’t cope with life in general without his meds. When you add work and full-time school? Not a happy scene. Aargh! The idiots in the world!

  6. Love this! Sounds like my family would fit in perfectly in AK…but honestly, I’d probably get bored and want to do something else/live somewhere else or…make it a better/different place to be.

  7. As we were driving home last night from Anchorage to Wasilla, my husband and I were listening to Gina’s book via audiobook (until I met her on Facebook I thought her book was just for partners of ADD’ers). We were both tuned quietly into listening to the opening chapter when he pointed out that there was a freight train lumbering along beside the highway in the same direction we were driving. There’s only one railroad in Alaska and trains are few and far between, so it’s always kind of cool to see one. What we *didn’t* see was the moose who had been quietly browsing on brush in the dark until the train spooked it into bolting accross the road in front of our SUV!

    Brakes were locked up, hearts were pumped full of adrenalin and fate smiled on us as the moose cleared the highway with no further incident. However, all hope of paying attention to Gina’s sage advice and words of profound wisdom disappeared into the frosty Alaskan night with about 800 pounds of moose burger and polish sausage! It was as if the universe needed to add a sidenote to this blog about the unique attention challeneges faced by those of us drawn to this land of adventure and stark beauty.

    The audiobook is paused; patiently waiting to be rewound to that pre-alcid point where we left off. We’ll continue our journey of self-discovery again soon… in the daylight hours… perhaps curled up safely on the couch at home!!

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