Chaos follows my husband, Peter, wherever he goes. In the morning, he can spend half an hour returning to the house to collect forgotten wallets and keys. His desk is overflowing with papers that need attention, and if he’s been using the computer, 30 browser windows are open. He’s been vowing to mend the bathroom door for six months now. Our son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) a few years ago. I was reading about the condition in bed that same night and turned to Pete. “Who does this sound like?” Sure enough, it turned out he’d had the condition all his life, and had never known it.
Like others with ADHD, my husband and son have extreme levels of impulsivity, distractibility and forgetfulness. They have grand plans and enthusiastically start tasks, but they find it hard to finish them. Where I am methodical, organised and stressed by clutter, they soar on a higher plain, ignoring the mundane details. Their need for constant stimulation means our family life is never dull.
“People with ADHD tend to take risks. They can be charismatic, lateral thinkers and are creative. They are the boys that teenage girls love to date, they are fun and exciting, but they never grow up,” says Dr Roger Paterson, a psychiatrist based in Perth, Australia, who specialises in adult ADHD.
When Paterson was training to be a psychiatrist, he was taught children grow out of ADHD by the age of 14. We now know that not to be true. Figures vary widely according to what criteria are being used and who is reporting the symptoms, but the condition is thought to continue into adulthood in anything from a third to two-thirds of people. While the hyperactivity tends to settle, the problems with inattention and focus remain – and can be debilitating.
“They are typically underachieving their potential. And they know it. They could be better at work and relationships, or they drink or use marijuana to calm themselves down. They are prone to mood problems like depression and anxiety,” says Paterson.
ADHD runs in families, but it may have non-genetic causes, as well. Most adults with the condition today have never been diagnosed, though they’ve likely had it since childhood.
The condition is treated in the same way in adults as in children, with stimulant medication and counselling. It’s thought as many as three to four per cent of adults worldwide have the condition, though only a fraction are receiving the treatment they need. In April, the World Health Organization, recognising how common and impairing the condition can be, released a new screening tool to try to pick up more undiagnosed adults.
Dr Michele Toner, an ADHD coach and consultant, says there’s a lingering stigma attached to ADHD. People’s symptoms are blamed on laziness or immaturity rather than on a proven brain disorder. But ADHD is a recognised mental health condition that, if untreated, can cause serious problems with employment, relationships and substance abuse, she says.
That’s not to say there aren’t positives. People with ADHD are often creative, inquisitive, spontaneous, high-energy risk-takers, all enviable attributes if you’re an entrepreneur, inventor or entertainer. The list of high-profile people with the condition includes singer Justin Timberlake, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, comedian Jim Carrey and entrepreneur Richard Branson.
With the right tools, adults with ADHD can live happy, successful lives. Here are the stories of three Australians who are doing just that.
Greg Martin, 54, change manager
I honestly shouldn’t be alive. All my life I’ve done anything to get an adrenalin hit – risk-taking is a stimulant, and it was the only thing that could give me peace.
I call my ADHD a beast. It’s always been with me. For as long as I can remember it created an anxiety in me that was crippling – it was painful, gut-wrenching around my chest, turning my heart inside out. It would come for 20 or 30 hours a week, often when I was doing tedious tasks like washing the dishes. To a large degree it ran my life.
I couldn’t do anything that I wasn’t really stimulated to do. I left school at the end of Year 9 and worked in risky construction jobs. I craved stimulation. Caffeine helped – by 10pm I would have knocked off two litres of cola or ten cups of coffee. Alcohol was always such a temptation and I always had to keep a very watchful eye on my intake. Anything to help me relax. Without these stimulants, the condition was debilitating for me. The thoughts in my head would simply rattle day and night. There was no peace.
Last year, my son, who is in his early 20s, was seeing a psychiatrist for his ADHD. I was on personal leave for stress when he said to me, “Dad, taking this medication has totally transformed my life. Why don’t you go and see him, too?”
I thought ADHD was an excuse for badly behaved children so I decided to Google the adult condition. I Googled for three days with little sleep (that’s what can happen with ADHD when you get an interest in something). I was a blubbering mess. It was a mix of emotions but predominantly an intense relief that there was actually a name for the condition I’d been living with for 50-plus years.
The very hour I got my correct dosage of dexamphetamine the symptoms disappeared and have not returned. My desire for self-medication has gone. I can now just have a beer – or not – and not desperately scramble for another quick ten. It has been such a liberating experience.
I now work in change management. Over the years I learned to harness the many gifts that come with ADHD. I am a really good problem solver, I can hyper-focus to find a solution, and I am very intuitive to people’s body language and voices. I can sit in a meeting and know very quickly who else there has ADHD – they are the ones fidgeting and fiddling and who cannot keep their feet still. They can’t wait for their turn, their short-term memory is terrible and they battle with names.
My father also suffered from anxiety and all of the other symptoms his whole life and has also now been diagnosed and correctly medicated – at 84. So now three generations of my family sit in our doctor’s waiting room smiling and talking about how life-changing this has been for us all.
Nina Germain, 45, full-time mother
My head is like a filing cabinet overflowing with papers, notes and lots of stuff. I desperately want to organise it. I need to organise it. But I don’t know where to start. I feel stuck, overwhelmed and at times as though my head will explode.
This is how I feel on a daily basis. Most of the time I feel as if I’m drowning in my thoughts, chores, commitments and all of the everyday tasks I have to get through. Despite my efforts to put things in order, I am never on top of anything, just frantically treading water and feeling exhausted from all the paddling. I have over 17,000 emails in my inbox and want to clear them out, but they just keep building up day after day. I get distracted easily and I can’t focus on anything that doesn’t interest me. Like Homer Simpson, someone can be talking to me and all I hear is BLAH, BLAH, BLAH!
For years this led me to feel stupid, undisciplined and lazy. I had extremely low self-esteem, which in turn resulted in my being diagnosed with depression in my 20s and then postnatal depression in my 30s. Many hours and dollars were spent on unproductive therapy sessions trying to get to the root of my extremely low self-esteem, focusing primarily on relationships rather than the true cause, which was the difficulty I have with everyday functioning. I now know this is due to having ADHD.
I was diagnosed with ADHD last year, just before my 44th birthday. By this time I was a mother of two. It was such a relief for me to learn that my life-long struggles were not my fault, that my condition was hereditary. Finally, I understood why everything had been so hard for me. I had always felt that I had potential but my inability to follow through on even the simplest tasks made fulfilling my potential impossible. Every time I tried I would hit a brick wall. No wonder my self-esteem was rock bottom. The constant feeling of failure was soul-destroying.
ADHD causes problems with ‘executive functioning’ – things such as organisation, time management, short-term memory, focus and follow-through. These are all vital skills in terms of learning and functioning on a day-to-day basis.
Everything takes me twice as long to do – if I remember to do it, that is. I turned up at my children’s swimming lesson the other day without their swim bag – no towels, no goggles, no change of clothes. The next day I left my phone there and had to go back, which added an hour to my already frantic day. This is not a one-off – credit cards, prescription glasses, umbrellas, children’s scooters, sunglasses … all lost. Thank goodness I have a patient husband!
As an adult I am required to be self-disciplined and organised. With ADHD this is difficult, but it’s even harder when you’re a full-time mum. At work my symptoms weren’t as noticeable – most days were mapped out for me and I didn’t really have to think about it. As a mum, I not only have to think about myself but two other small people (and their busy schedules), a dog, a husband and a house full of chores.
I decided to take medication, which has definitely helped me to follow through. I’m also working with a fantastic coach, who at the moment is teaching me to plan and keep a visual diary.
Importantly, my coach has helped me understand that with ADHD come many positive attributes, as well – I’m creative, intuitive and kind. I am also highly perceptive and often see things that other people miss. I am told that in the right forum my ability to ‘hyper-focus’ can be a great asset! Just not for online shopping (oh well).
My son said something funny the other day. He said, “Good job, Mum, you accomplished one thing – and that is being finished!”
He knows me too well. I had to laugh.
Mark Brandtman, 61, educational consultant
I was diagnosed 20 years ago after my son’s diagnosis. I recall the paediatrician describing my son’s behaviour as ADHD and I wondered, How did he know me so well?
Whilst I found the diagnosis confronting, it was somewhat comforting to have an explanation for the difficulties I experienced throughout my life. Being medicated made a huge difference to me and within 18 months of being medicated I was self-employed as an ADHD coach and mentor.
Later I became chair of the ADHD Global Network, an international body trying to increase understanding of the condition, and I have also been involved with a number of other ADHD support organisations, as well.
Medication is one tool, which can be used to normalise brain chemistry. It reduces inhibitory pathways in the brain and allows me to access my ability. I’m less distracted, I have become better organised. What would otherwise take me an extended period of time takes me no time at all. I can complete tasks 75 per cent faster and 50 per cent easier than before.
The real tragedy is that only a tiny percentage of the population with this condition is ever diagnosed. And there is a real stigma to being ADHD, which is cruel and ignorant, and hinders a quality of life that these people would otherwise have access to with treatment.
Could you have adult ADHD?
- According to the World Health Organization, adults with ADHD often or very often:
- Have difficulty concentrating on what people say to them, even when they are speaking to them directly
- Leave their seat in meetings or other situations in which they are expected to remain seated
- Have difficulty unwinding and relaxing when they have time to themselves
- Finish the sentence of the people they are talking to before they can finish it themselves
- Put things off until the last minute
- Depend on others to keep their life in order and attend to details.
Cognitive behavioural therapy can help people with ADHD put procedures in place that are tailored to their day-to-day lives. One individual might need strategies to limit impulse buying, while a different person could require help to keep track of her keys.
Drugs such as Dexedrine and Ritalin can settle racing thoughts by stimulating the activity of chemicals called dopamine and noradrenaline in the pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain that plays a part in controlling attention, decision-making and impulse control. A calmer state often makes it easier to learn how to manage the condition.
Coping strategies such as meditation, regular breaks and planning around obstacles in advance can also help, while support groups can be invaluable.
For more support, contact these groups in your own country: Australia: ADHD Australia (adhdaustralia.org.au); New Zealand: ADHD Association (adhd.org.nz); Singapore: SingHealth (https://tinyurl.com/ycve2umg).