ADHD-It’s for real, even for adults. My story, from childhood until now

Yes, I grew up in the 90s when ADHD was starting to be talked about like crazy and it was probably being over-diagnosed like crazy. The medications more commonly given have changed some over the years, but the conversation about ADHD among most teachers, parents, and other adults goes about like this:
“ADHD is just an excuse for kids who aren’t taught how to behave.”
“ADHD can be cured with giving out spankings.”
“ADHD is just a fancy term for kids are watching too much TV and having way too much screentime overall.”

I am not saying that I totally disagree with some of those popular statements, but I am saying that the over-diagnosis of kids with ADHD does not mean that we need to ignore the fact that it is a REAL thing. It is not just a childhood problem, either.

ADHD is a set of symptoms and it is based on what a psychiatrist or therapist/social worker finds when evaluating a child-by discussion with parents and child, sometimes also the teacher or other adult stakeholders. Often some sort of questionnaire is used as well. So real criteria is generally used but it is important to rule out some of the same characteristics that could be explained by life stressors or other mental health issues. So now that I may or may not have convinced you there is something to ADHD, here is my story from childhood until now and how the symptoms affect me as well as how I have managed them without medicine. (I am by no means saying that is the more “noble” thing to do or something. In fact there have been times I have considered I might need to seek out medication for symptoms.)

I grew up in a family of four with both parents in a happy marriage, so my symptoms surfaced in an otherwise calm time without moves or any major social stressors. I excelled and was considered advanced and highly creative by my elementary teachers. Entrance into gifted and talented programs, however, were based on standardized test scores as well and due to what we found was my ADHD-I didn’t do as well as I could on those tests. I have never been one to think tests are everything though, so I will share that my focus and classroom behavior were also affected. I remember getting in trouble in kindergarten to the point my teacher had tell the substitute teacher I was sorry and I cried because I honestly didn’t know what I did wrong. (Guarantee you I kept my mouth running chatting to my friends during instruction time and didn’t notice the sub’s corrections.) In first grade, my desk got moved quite often and finally I was sat by all boys, but they were great fun to chat with as well. Even though I was in advanced reading groups in Kindergarten and 1st grade, I still got Bs along with my As in 1st grade. I will add though, this was the year we all discovered that I was near-sighted and acquired glasses. The teacher had to adjust the blinds to help me see the board and I still couldn’t see it well enough, so that made me get behind sometimes.

In the 2nd grade, we got tested to be in gifted and talented and to my recollection and later discussion-I did well, but my standardized test scores ( that all students took) were not quite as high as the other kids considered “gifted.” As the workload grew with age, I started coming home with loads of homework and my parents discovered that other kids were not going home with that much. I was simply behind from “daydreaming” and also talking to other students or being distracted by every little thing. I cried because I was overwhelmed with all the school work at home, so after discussions with my teacher, my parents decided to take me to a psychiatrist to get “tested” for ADD/ADHD (back then they just said I had “ADD” since it was not related to hyperactivity, but the current DSM calls it all ADHD then there are inattentive or inattentive and hyperactivity subtypes. I was a child therapist and met lots of kiddos with ADHD along the way, by the way. And yes, I came across a few in my job who had previous labels and I attributed their “ADHD” to other things that overlapped with ADHD.)

I went to the psych office and did the computer test where an orange box flashed over and over and if it jumped to the top portion of the screen, I was told to press a button with my thumb (a handheld button). I found it intensely boring and would press it very quickly and clumsily and probably 3-4 times instead of once as instructed because it startled me so much. “box …box…box…ugh this is dumb, OH! oh hurry, press the button, it’s on the top part of the screen!!” Afterward the psych talked to me and gave me some Bit-O-Honey candy, which I thought was gross but took it anyway because I was being polite and I was really weirded out by being in a psych office. (Little did I know where I would be hanging out all day as my career, right?)

I was put on Ritalin in the 3rd grade (and possibly something else as I remember taking white as well as yellow pills at night but I was a kid so I am not sure what it was! If I did some research or asked my parents I could probably find out.)

I will go ahead and get the downsides I remember out of the way-I did not like that it made me less interested in eating as I was somewhat a skinny kid, anyway. This was moreso when I was older (maybe I had a medication change?), but I remember feeling somewhat robotic like “I must get this done…must get this done.” When I think about my social interactions my third and fourth grade years, though, I was still a kid who liked to make others laugh, I loved to dance, I loved my dog and family, etc. I wanted to read through the Bible in a year in the 4th grade and did it in less than a year, alongside the adults at church. That was me, not the meds. I was always very driven to read and brought books to restaurants. So do meds have side effects? Sure. In my case anyway, it may have made me obsessed with finishing schoolwork asap (in the drive to the babysitters house after school), but I was productive and had more time for carefree fun at home. I did not lose weight, ,at least not noticeably or my parents would have mentioned that. Another downside is some adults at school treated me differently because I was “on medicine.” Some of them probably assume that included hyperactivity and defiant behaviors even though I had never exhibited those at all. Some teachers in older grades met me as being an “ADHD kid” and if there were trials of medication being removed, one teacher even told me “I have been informed you have been taken off your medication. You need to watch how you act, I’m watching you.” or something to that effect. It was very unnerving and humiliating (even though she said it one-on-one). I had just said something sassy to one of my best friends in the hallway because she had made fun of my shirt the week before in a note then wore the exact same shirt that day so I repeated her words “Honey, those stripes just aren’t your style.” She laughed, but the teacher apparently thought that made me some budding sociopath. I was actually one of her teachers pets generally, but give a kid a label and medication listing? They see you differently. I also simply forgot to stop by the office to take my Ritalin and after recess was confronted by a school employee like I had intentionally skipped my meds or something. Please don’t treat kids this way if you work at a school.

The PLUS sides of the meds were great-I was not as stressed because I got things done in a timely manner, I didn’t talk out of turn in class as often (I was still a kid and got notes taken up and read to the class though.) My standardized test scores went up into the 90-something percentile and I was asked to be in the gifted and talented program at school, which I did participate in for the last 2 years of elementary school. I still had my creativity-I remember writing stories about a dog after school sometimes.

In the 6th grade over Christmas break, my parents didn’t give me meds and decided to see how I did without them coming back in January. I did really well, so that is the last time I have ever taken a medication for my ADHD. Did it go away? Or never really have it in the first place? Goodness, no. My husband would tell you that in a heartbeat. So here is what I have done to manage my symptoms and what I have reflected on in having ADHD my entire life:

I do think being on medicine helped me see what it was like to study, focus, keep my mouth shut during class (man that’s hard), etc. I think the skills I gained when getting help from a medicine to control those wandering thoughts and behaviors to physically wander as well have all helped me cope. First of all, here are some things I have noticed still are present that fall under ADHD: (from my recollection, I’m not necessarily looking up the DSM right now, but these are some things I have struggled with, followed by things that have helped me cope:
-losing train of thought
-not completing tasks
-disliking tasks that require lots of detail
-multitasking is hard
-losing items
-distracted during conversations and doesn’t appear to listen even when there is no obvious distraction
-go from one thing to another/difficulty sequencing or managing things
-for me, I don’t plan out some things well as far as handmade things-measuring, it being sloppy because I am rushing, etc. That isn’t to say I have never completed things well or made things look nice-I have! It can be hard with my ADHD, though.

I came up with those things that I have noticed in myself as a struggle for years and double-checked an online psych source for criteria for ADHD (I remembered most of them anyway because social work and therapy background, remember?)

Here is what has helped me in all my years of no medication and still managing to hold down complex jobs, getting good grades in my undergraduate and postgraduate work, writing a blog :D, and raising kids and running a household:

-lists, lists, and more lists. Even some of the most basic things make the to-do lists. Google calendars was amazing when I was working and managing all my own appointments for therapy (They were ALL over the place because it was family and school-based. Not office visits only. The schedule could have been an adult with ADHD’s worst nightmare, but I handled it!)
-Labeled alarms-For those who know me, I recently shared a screenshot of my recent labeled alarms that included really basic stuff like “Ask about (son’s) poop!”, “Turn crockpot on”, and “medicine.” Some of you are like “woah, how does this lady function?” probably and wanting to lead me to a dementia unit BUT it’s very possible I would remember those things-but as an adult with ADHD, I can’t really afford to not write out everything and use labeled alarms because all those things I just mentioned for alarms that day mattered.
-Double and triple-checking items before locking up or leaving. It isn’t OCD-its ADHD. I know everyone seems to know checking can fall under OCD, but this is a coping mechanism for someone who is so likely to forget an important item. So I always use the keypad to lock the car because it ensures keys are in hand, and as a result I have only locked my keys in my car twice, ever if I remember correctly.
-I try to ask myself in social situations “Have I been asking this person questions about himself or herself? Or have I been rattling on about myself or my family this entire time?” Sometimes I don’t think about it until later and am embarrassed or nervous that I may have been too one-sided. Which brings me to my next point…

Everyone may not have this effect, but I have seen it in myself as well as kids I have worked with. Because ADHD is misunderstood and it is just something people with typical brains do not have to juggle, it can cause some anxiety or even sad mood or self-esteem issues. (Self-esteem is also real, by the way haha I see you and your judgements…lol) Just like I mentioned at the end of the last section, my ADHD way of having rabbit trails or talking on and on about what is on my mind and sometimes not assessing the entire situation causes me to feel embarrassed about my social engagement, even with best friends! Having friends who are good listeners and some even therpists (ha) makes it probably less noticable that I talked on about myself. Another thing that can cause some emotional distress as a direct result of ADHD is that you know you are different and then others’ frustrated responses which can sometimes be quite insensitive make it worse. I remember a kid with ADHD who was intelligent but veyr much classic ADHD, combined inattentive and hyperactive type, being told by his mother “don’t do it that way-that is a stupid way” When he was trying to do some math problems. That made him dislike math and feel inadequate. This was actually a very nurturing sweet mother, by the way. Well meaning parents just don’t get how to handle their kid with ADHD and the ways they struggle. Even though I was in advanced math classes all the way through school, numbers have this phenomenon of disappearing in my mind when I am trying to do mental math. I am not trying to be funny-it truly happens. So then I start over. IT is an attention thing, not a lack of competency, and it does make one feel “dumb.” If my kid has ADHD I need to research some ways that are commonly effective for math and I am almost certain it would involve all visuals.

In my own experience, I have found that my entire life had included insomnia. Not from anxiety usually and although the “time of the month” factor has held true for many women to lose some sleep the week before, this was a big part of my life way before I started. Like I said, I was given yellow pills at night and I think part of the purpose was to help me sleep. IT seemed to help, anyway. This is how me trying to sleep goes in my mind..(some event as a kid. not an anxiety provoking one, just random. Current event. “I wonder why this is this way?..” Trying really hard to sleep by doing focused breathing and imagining colors…”ice skating! so cool! I hate my ADHD! Awe man I should do a blog post abou ADHD.” haha that’s right, I first thought of this when trying to fall asleep on a kid-free mini vacation weekend with my husband.

I remember going to a psychopharmacology workshop when I was a therapist (currently a stay at home mom) and being shown an MRI or diagram (can’t recall) of a brain of someone with ADHD vs without and the wiring is so different. That actually made me feel more validated that yes, by golly its real and I can’t help it and it doesn’t mean I am slow or dumb-just different (No one has even ever though of me as slow or dumb, by the way, quite the opposite. I was called smartie or whatever. Yet with ADHD or other differences, we find ourselves having those feelings. Something to keep in mind to be sensitive and patient with those having these ADHD characteristics.)

I hope you enjoyed this or learned something! Let me know if you have some handy adult ADHD coping skills and you are welcome to share if meds have helped you as an adult.