Mental Health Awareness Week: ADHD

ADD, ADHD, Special Needs, Parenting, Education

Pardon me…do you have any shiny things?

Note: I wrote this on Saturday, October 5th. I had not had my medication, because I had forgotten to take it, and I wrote this as mental exercise to highlight how flighty my brain is when I do not have the medicine that helps it to operate in a more linear fashion. It was written as I thought, no filtering. I was going to edit this post for continuity and nuance, but since it’s Mental Health Awareness Week and ADHD Awareness Month, I thought that maybe a look inside the brain of a person with ADHD would help shed some light on it, raise awareness outside the AD/HD communities that attention-related disorders (ARDs) go far beyond just an inability to pay attention.

I’m trying to write a post. Sounds easy-peezy, right?

Maybe for you. Did you take your meds today? That’s great…I forgot. And if I take it now, I’ll be up all night.

Trying to write a post is suddenly exponentially difficult. Maybe it still sounds easy to you. Maybe you’re wondering why I asked you if you took your meds, because darn it, you don’t have to take medication, and writing a post still seems so simple to you.

But maybe you’re like me, and you have ADHD, or ADD. Maybe the line “I forgot” made you nod sympathetically and think “You want to write a blog post? On the Internet? Good luck, girl. Have you read that place lately?” There is a reason why the only vendors I really paid any heed to at the PA Renaissance Faire last year were the two women screaming out “Shiny things!!! Get yer shiny things, we’ve got them here!!!” Shiny things? You had me at ‘shiny’, ladies. You have my attention…for now.

I was diagnosed with ADHD a year ago this month. (Hold on, there’s this awesome article on Buzzfeed right now…) I absolutely can’t look at sites with lists. Lists are short, sweet, and they link up with other interesting lists. So…I was diagnosed a year ago. My diagnosis was rather shocking, as I was brought up in a world where attention related disorders (I’m going to call them ARDs for the rest of this post), were an excuse for overwhelmed mothers to medicate their bouncing-off-the-walls boys. Girls didn’t have ARDs. But science and medicine have both proved that girls are more likely to struggle with an undiagnosed ARD than their male peers. In males, the symptoms, no, signs. I’m sick of the word symptom, like there’s something wrong with me. There’s nothing wrong with me. My brain just processes things differently than someone without an ARD.

So the signs in males are inattentiveness, physical hyperactivity, impulsivity, distractibility, excessive energy (as in, way more than the norm…when I was a kid, lots of boys my age were being medicated, and while I think some of them may well have needed it, I think that some parents did medicate their children unnecessarily, and I can’t/won’t name names, because you know what? I don’t know the whole story, who am I to judge? But a lot of children *did* get medicated unnecessarily, and because of that, many people even today still have the mindset “You’re just medicating because you can’t deal”)…most signs in boys are easily visible. They’re manifest outside the folds of their brains.

In females, it is a different story. Symptoms in girls are: forgetfulness, distractibility (a visible sign, but by itself nothing major), easily losing or misplacing things, an inability to organize, poor follow-through with assignments or tasks, poor concentration, and poor attention to detail…and the kicker?

Academic underachievement. Hoo boy. All my life, my report cards said things like “Poor attention in class”, “Needs to complete assigned tasks”, “Needs to complete homework on time”. My grandparents frequently heard “Tabitha could be a straight A student if she turned in her assignments. Tabitha aces her tests and quizzes but can’t be bothered to hand in her assignments. Tabitha is not performing up to her potential.”

See, when I was 5, I went to live with my grandparents, and after completing Kindergarten, they had me tested by the school district. Those tests came back that I had an IQ resting on the upper end of the “genius” classification. Those tests placed me into a gifted and talented learning program that I went to once a week. Those tests also hinted at a marked inability to focus on something that did not pique my interest.

For example, when asked to read (to myself) a paragraph on something I’d never learned about, I read that paragraph over and over until I felt I’d absorbed the information it offered. When given a paragraph on something I already learned, I skimmed over it and immediately stared off into space. When asked to write a sentence on the ‘new’ material, I immediately did so. When asked to write one on the ‘old’ material, I balked and sat there, staring off into space, the old material long pushed to the back of my mind, my brain daydreaming.

But the inability to focus was written off as typical childhood traits combined with the effects of monumental and ofttimes traumatic happenings in my life before moving in with my grandparents.

As I got older, it got worse. I hit puberty. I started getting bullied. I refused to do homework assignments unless the subject matter was either new or interesting. My report cards reflected my interests. History, Art, Music…all As and Bs. English was iffy. If we were reading a book, I got good grades. If we were learning grammar, I tuned out.

Math was always a wash. I always nearly failed. Even though I consistently demonstrated a more than proficient level of comprehension, I refused to do the homework, and on tests and quizzes, all the numbers swam together until I just couldn’t tell one problem set from the next. I did wonderful in Geometry though. Perhaps because there were shapes to keep the numbers from swimming together. Even when I did get an answer right, I rarely received credit for it because I was never able to show my work. Not because I didn’t want to…I simply couldn’t. I could not explain why I got 1,240 when multiplying 62 by 20. I just did.

Many math teachers would search me for a calculator, insisting that I had to have one somewhere. My freshman year, my Algebra teacher (Mr. O’Donnell), kept me after school to finish a test because he was certain I was somehow cheating. I remember bursting into tears, worrying that I’d be late for drama rehearsal, trying to figure out how to show on that freaking stupid blank piece of paper how my brain had successfully balanced an algebraic equation, found the ‘a’ and ‘b’ variable values, and used them to figure out the unknown ‘c’ variable.

Mr. O’Donnell came and stood over me as I struggled with the numbers and letters, which made me even more frustrated. I finally cried “I can’t freaking do it! I can’t show you how I took this and that and came up with that, because I don’t know!!! My brain just does it, I can’t explain how!” He gave me a fresh problem, and watched as I solved it. I had no calculator, and other than writing each side as I consolidated it, there were no other markings on my paper. From then on, in his class, I never had to show my work. He understood that I simply couldn’t. Every so often, he’d ask me to try, or even ask me to talk out loud as I worked through it, but nothing ever made any sense that either of us could translate to ‘showing’ work on paper.

“You have the capacity to be performing so much better, Tabitha. You aren’t living up to your potential” became the mantra of my academic career. Everyone knew it. I had the potential and the capacity to be a straight A student. I probably could have graduated at the top of my class “had you just applied yourself, Tabitha”. I couldn’t explain to anyone that I just couldn’t. I wanted to, but I simply could not work around my brain…my own mind was fighting against me.

Even in early adulthood, there were signs. I’d start a project and not finish it. I’d start a novel, and never complete it. I pursued my hobbies and interests with passion…until I stopped. They were still hobbies, but my passion would die and I’d pursue it half-heartedly. My junior year, I was in the running to be chosen to go to the Governor’s School, a summer academic program for various academic disciplines that would have had me in Erie for the summer, learning to hone my writing. I wrote a story in my Creative Writing class that got me to the final selection round, where I had to write a story for them. I didn’t want to write a story, in fact, a poem had been bouncing in my head that day. But I tried, though my heart was only half in it. It was good enough to place me seventh out of 150 applicants…one away from being one of the six selected to attend.

My kids need dinner, and this is getting long, but there is still more to tell. I really could write a book about this stuff. Don’t tell me I should. It’ll get half-written and never finished.

I have problems with noise. If I am talking to someone and I haven’t taken my medicine that day, something as small as a hiccup will snap my head in the direction of the sound. My brain doesn’t properly place background noise into the background of my brain. Instead, that background noise is on the same level as whatever conversation I am struggling to focus on. I host a dinner every year, and having so many people in the house unnerves me, because the sheer volume of all the noises being on the same wavelength as conversations, happenings, children noises…it’s simply jarring. I love hosting this dinner, I love having everyone enjoy my food…but when everyone has left and the dishwasher is loaded, I like to sit down with a glass of wine and take a deep breath in, and enjoy the silence.

This noise came up last October when discussing a possible raise in my antidepressant that I was on for Postpartum Depression, along with other things the doctor and I were talking about. I was talking quickly, as I tend to do when I want to get a point out before I forget it. He asked why I was speaking so rapidly, and I explained why, and then we were talking about the noise.

“I think you might have ADHD”, he says.
“I think you might be full of crap (that was not the word I used)”, I replied. “ADHD? I’m not hyperactive, doctor, I am freaking exhausted.
“Well sure, you’re physically exhausted, but you’ve been telling me about some things, so tell me this: does your brain ever slow down, even for a little?”

Nope. It never does. It’s hard for me to fall asleep because there are too many thoughts, ideas, concepts, etc., in my head and I cannot get my brain to shut up. I have learned to fall asleep with a light on, or a tv on, simply because I’ve had to. But my ideal conditions for falling asleep were a dark room with maybe one small, soft light on, no tv, and a radio playing wordless music. Believe it or not, the Pure Moods CD and a stereo I’d worked hard to save for became my best friends at bedtime. The music distracted my brain long enough that all subconscious chatter ceased, and I could fall asleep quicker.

You’d think that with a brain that seems to be stuck on ‘liquefy’ when maybe it should just scale back a notch to ‘chop’, that I’d have a bunch of awesome things accomplished by now. No way. While your brain just makes an awesome pico de gallo with your thoughts, my brain, stuck on the fastest speed possible, ends up with a tomato, onion, and cilantro smoothie. Not so yummy. Truth is, I can barely hold on to an idea long enough to keep it…and it’s very unlikely that I’ll get it back.

So my doctor put me on Adderall because he made a good point. I had nothing to lose. I would try the Adderall for a month, if it worked, awesome, if not, well, it was worth a shot.

Wouldn’t you know…I can think a little more linearly now. I can organize my thoughts and ideas a little better. It is still not a very efficient brain, but between the medication and different methods I have learned to help me keep things a little less chaotic in my head, I have learned how to live with it somewhat comfortably. ADHD is not something that you grow into or out of. I have learned that my signs became much worse when I was extremely sleep deprived after the birth of BabyBoy. ADHD does not mean you’re worthless, disabled, or handicapped. It just means you’re different, that your brain processes things in a different way than our neurotypical peers. I hate the words ‘disorder’ and ‘symptom’. So my brain is a chaotic mess. So it doesn’t hold on to, process, or feed back information the same way that people without ADHD do. So it doesn’t know how to relegate background sounds to the subconscious and keep conversations at the front of the conscious. So what? I’m learning to maximize my mind’s strengths and leap over my mental pitfalls and weaknesses.

Like browsing Buzzfeed when I’m supposed to be writing.

(End note: Thanks for sticking with me, I know it was really long. If you, or someone you love think you/they may have an ARD like ADD and ADHD, here are some resources I found supportive, informative, and comforting. Because once I was diagnosed, and I began researching, so many things made sense, and I was really bummed out for a while because of an overwhelming sense of ‘lost time’, a portion of my life that was not experienced to its potential. I admit I have wondered at times how things would have been different if I’d been diagnosed earlier in life.)

AD/HD Resources:

Additude Magazine
CHADD
Attention Deficit Disorder Association
ADD/ADHD Forums