A few months ago, our oldest son, Evan, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It was really no big surprise; we'd suspected it might be true, since Evan has displayed many of the classic symptoms from a very young age. As long as he was doing well in school, we didn't worry about it too much. Things started to get tough this year (3rd grade), so we decided it was time to do something about it.
Evaluations at home, school and with our practitioner resulted in a straightforward diagnosis and we were soon on our way to figuring things out. Up until this point, I hadn't done too much research on ADHD. I figured I knew most of what there was to know. But, in an effort to make the best possible decisions for Evan, I started reading, watching and listening to everything I could find on the subject. A strange pattern began to emerge. The more I learned about ADHD, the more I began to wonder. Do I have ADHD too?
Turns out, I do. Just about one month after Evan was diagnosed, I asked his practitioner if he would evaluate me. And sure enough, as the classic saying goes, the apple did not fall far from the tree. Here are some surprising symptoms of ADHD that you may not know about. Maybe this will help some of you to recognize it in yourself or others.
1. ADHD is extremely hereditary. Many adults with ADHD are diagnosed after one of their children is diagnosed. If your child has it, it is very likely either you or your spouse has it. When I learned this, I asked my husband innocently, "so which one of us do you think might have it?" He practically guffawed, "it's definitely not me!" Oh? Huh.
2. ADHD is misnamed. It is not really a disorder, nor is it really about attention deficit. ADHD is more about the fact that it's difficult to pay attention to some things more than others. I love this article, that describes the condition as an "interest-based nervous system," meaning if you are interested in something, you can pay attention... easily. In fact, one of my "ah-ha" moments was learning about how an ADHD brain can hyper-focus, to an almost obsessive level, about certain things.
Could this explain why I am a notorious hobby-hopper and career-jumper? I mean, I guess it is kind of weird that I am a dive master in SCUBA, can play five claw-hammer songs on the banjo, can paint fairly well (when I feel like it), and can identify just about any southeastern bird by sight or sound. My degree of expertise is directly related to the length of time the hobby has held my interest. I still love scuba diving and birding. Career-wise, I have been a small town newspaper reporter, an outdoor educator, a snorkeling instructor, a tall ship hand, an aquarist, a book saleslady and now a publisher. Hmmmm.
My husband is regularly irritated by the fact that I can spend HOURS intently focused on a Macaroni Kid project, completely ignoring the entire family and whatever household chores are calling. My closest friends and relations have learned that having a conversation with me outside will result in regular interruptions of me gasping "BIRD!" mid-sentence. Remember Dug the golden retriever in the movie Up? SQUIRREL! Yeah. I'm kind of like that.... only with birds.
3. ADHD can cause drowsiness and an inability to stay awake or alert in the classroom or even while driving. This was the biggest "ah-ha" moment of all for me. All growing up, my parents constantly had to meet with certain teachers to discuss why I was always falling asleep in class, and what could be done about it. The key word here is "certain." My math and history teachers had this problem. My art and biology teachers? Nope. Once again, the interest-based nervous system explains this. When the ADHD brain isn't interested, it completely disengages, and sometimes shuts off completely. I have history notes from high school where all the periods are lines going across the page due to my struggle to stay awake until the end of the sentence. I finally had to record most of my classes and play them back later. Exhausting.
And in adulthood, driving has been the problem. OH, the driving! Put me behind the wheel of a car and I'll be lucky to make it 45 minutes before I am passing out. This happens to my dad too (hello, heritability) and his doctor thought it had something to do with blood sugar. I just assumed it was the same for me. It never occurred to me to go to the doctor, or that it might be related to my childhood classroom experiences.
Anyway, it is always scary and I dread having to drive long distances. If its just me and the kids, it is flat out dangerous. On road trips, it drives my husband bonkers. It means he either has to drive the whole time (while I happily remain awake in the passenger seat working on my laptop or playing on facebook), or we have to stop. every. forty-five. minutes. It is a miracle we're still married. This article does a really good job of explaining why this happens.
Medication for this symptom alone has been life-changing. On a recent road trip, I was able to drive 2 and a half hours without stopping. I kept waiting for my brain to start shutting down in its usual fashion. It was the weirdest feeling. We're planning a really long road trip this summer, so this is going to make a huge difference. I will be able to help drive safely!
4. But when you want to go to sleep, you can't. Having ADHD at night is like having thirty tabs open in a browser, a zillion ideas zipping around in your mind, with an equal number of worries, all competing for attention and preventing you from falling asleep. All my life, I've struggled with insomnia. I've been treated for depression and anxiety, and tried just about every trick in the book, to settle my constantly chattering mind. I finally discovered that guided meditations and audiobooks, which focus my mind on just one thing, put me right to sleep (in the same way that driving puts me to sleep).
5. ADHD isn't all bad news. People with ADHD can be curious, passionate, enthusiastic, fun to be around, driven, creative, persistent, sensitive, energetic, spontaneous, out-of-the-box thinkers, have the super power of hyperfocus, risk-taking, resilient, easy to talk to, interesting to talk to, perceptive, emotionally expressive and more. It is definitely not all bad. It may just be another way to BE, and not truly a disorder at all.
6. Doing well in school is *not* an indication of the absence of ADHD. When I told my mom I thought I might have ADHD, she said "no way!" She didn't think there was any possible way I could have made it all the way through college, doing as well as I did, and also have ADHD. But looking back, there were struggles. Besides falling asleep in boring classes, there were other things. My sister pointed out, "remember how you used to study in bed with two bright lights glaring on you from both sides and the door shut?" I had developed the typical coping mechanisms of the undiagnosed, to deal with my struggles. A planner to write down everything I had to remember. A voice recorder to record and play back lectures 800 times until the facts finally stuck with me. People who are diagnosed later in life often mourn what could have been. It could have been so much easier. I could have mastered that one thing if I hadn't moved on to the next big idea. But at the same time, who I am is why I have had the life experiences I have had. I would never want to go back and change that.
I am an adult with ADHD. This picture does a great job of illustrating what it's like to have ADHD...lots of colorful ideas bursting out of your brain constantly. You want to do all the things at once, and that can get you into trouble when there's no room, or time, left to do what needs to be done.
Every person with ADHD is different. There are so many more surprising symptoms of ADHD, but this article highlights the ones that I thought would be the most helpful and were the most surprising to me. Learning all these things has led to some serious self-reflection and understanding for me. Just knowing there's a reason why I am the way I am, and why I do the things I do, has made a world of difference in my life. For example, I no longer feel guilty about leaving behind unmastered hobbies, with unfinished projects. And I can take measures to be sure work related projects do get the attention they deserve.
I even feel like my relationship with my husband has changed for the better. Now he understands why I can't ever remember where I put the iPad. He understands why I'm constantly running late. And that just because I forget something he told me, doesn't mean I don't care. And most of all, he now knows why I get crazy-excited about a bird in the yard.
If you want to learn more, I highly recommend the following resources.
How to ADHD - YouTube Channel - short, entertaining videos for the short attention span.
30 Essential Idea Parents Need to Know About ADHD - videos of a talk by Dr. Russell Barkley, broken up into easily, digestible chunks.
ADDitude Magazine - articles, videos, podcasts and more.
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