A Life-Threatening Case of ADHD
Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.—Ralph Waldo Emerson
A child-like man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention.—Aldous Huxley
Seemingly overnight, Ritalin gained a permanent place in the classroom, becoming as common as book bags and sack lunches. My pediatrician informed my parents that I had “the worst case of ADHD he had ever seen.” In a time when Asperger’s syndrome was not yet widely recognized, I was truly a puzzling little terror. However, without a proper label, my eccentricities remained natural and unspoiled, unique personal characteristics rather than symptoms. As ADHD diagnosis rates rose at an alarming pace, that particular label began to lose credibility among teachers and parents. There were no special services available for “another kid with ADHD,” even if I was a shockingly severe case.
I struggled socially and academically. Though undeniably precocious, I couldn’t seem to manage even my elementary school workload. I was universally regarded as a defiant troublemaker, a class clown with the bright, anarchic energy of Groucho Marx. Matters were not improved by the fact that I was typically smarter than my own teachers. A hyperactive, pint-sized encyclopedia constantly disrupting the classroom, correcting adults, and failing to turn in homework, I was not a welcome sight filing into school on Monday morning.
This pattern continued well into my adolescence. However, my teenage years proved especially difficult, as I was suddenly faced with pressures and expectations that far surpassed any previous challenges. Peer interaction received a hormone injection. It was time to learn to drive. I was expected to balance multiple classes and teachers, keep track of my schedule, books, and due dates, and avoid the scorn taunting of my peers whenever possible. My natural surplus of energy, constant anxiety, impulsiveness, and obsessive focus combined with these more typical teenage issues to make life virtually unbearable. I have never considered myself to be disabled, but I will say without the slightest hesitation that I am certainly developmentally delayed.
Lacking the Asperger’s diagnosis, I frequently used a creative, if medically shaky excuse for my eccentricity and developmental failure: “Sorry, I have a life-threatening case of ADHD…”
Now that I’ve been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I often struggle to separate the ADHD from the autism. I find the genetic and diagnostic overlap to be both confusing and intriguing. My mother, father, and sister have all been diagnosed with ADHD. We share many symptoms, though the untrained eye would likely fail to find similarities. My sister struggles with anxiety, inattentiveness, and mild sensory issues. Before psychotropic medication, my mother had as many fidgety little stims as I do, shaking her leg so forcefully whenever seated that strangers nearby suspected a low-intensity earthquake. My father shares my longwinded single-mindedness. When these “ADHD traits” combine within me, I am told that they are symptoms of autism. But where do we draw the line?
According to Andy Shih, Vice-President of Scientific Affairs at Autism Speaks, “… genetic changes seen in children with ADHD often involve the same genes that are associated with autism. This finding helps explain why children with autism often have ADHD symptoms. In other words, if these disorders share a genetic risk factor, it’s logical that they often occur in the same individuals. Genetic insights, in turn, can help scientists understand underlying causes and, so, may improve how we diagnose and treat these issues.”
I’ve learned that labels are only useful if they facilitate access to special services. Regardless of the label applied to the wonderful, neurological freeway pileup that is my brain, it is the symptoms which must be treated. When I finally learned to target my symptoms and apply the correct pharmaceutical and behavioral interventions, I suddenly found myself enjoying tremendous success. Rarely is any neurological condition entirely positive or negative. The idea is to identify both the beneficial and detrimental elements, and emphasize the positive while reducing the negative.
Whether I have autism, Asperger’s, ADHD or mad cow disease, I’m still me. I’ve been misjudged and misunderstood—that’s okay, because now I know myself. I embrace my strengths, and unashamedly admit my weaknesses. Closed mouths don’t get fed. I may struggle greatly to perform many seemingly simple tasks, but with minimal effort, I can also accomplish things others would never dream of. I can’t drive or remember my own address, yet despite being chronically forgetful, I’m somehow capable of memorizing enormous quantities of facts and statistics without breaking a mental sweat. Detailed trivia pours out of my mouth whenever it is open … yet I often get lost in the grocery store.
I take daily doses of stimulants (mixed amphetamine salts, dextroamphetamine, or methamphetamine) and while I’m reluctant to credit all my success to drugs, I do know that my life has been utterly transformed since the addition of these medications. I’ve found the motivation, confidence, and executive functioning necessary to fulfill my potential. I still struggle, but my efforts are finally rewarded with personal and professional growth. Working tirelessly only to disappoint yourself and all those around you is no way to live.
ADHD once threatened my life. Now I’m not even certain that I have ADHD. Furthermore, I don’t care. I am who I am. A rose by any other name … would be just as brilliant, bizarre, and hyperactive!