Let me start by first apologizing for the length of this. I wanted to tell my story so others know where I’m coming from. Perhaps, this story might sound somewhat familiar to those of you who have been diagnosed with ADHD. Maybe this might motivate some to go see a doctor if they have been sitting on the fence. Regardless, I wanted to communicate not only what happened, but how I felt along the way. Thank you for indulging me
In 2006, after numerous trips to the doctor, a referral to a psychologist, and a full battery of tests and evaluations, I was diagnosed with ADHD – Inattentive subtype. As is the case with many people that experience the Inattentive subtype of ADHD, I was never suspected of having ADHD because I lacked the stereotypical Hyperactive component that the general public typically associates with the diagnosis. However, in 2006, I was struggling to understand why, as a 4th year undergraduate student, I was on the verge of failing out of school instead of getting ready to graduate. I couldn’t figure out why the distinct fear of failing out of school that I was experiencing wasn’t motivating me to improve my grades. Was I lazy? Even worse, was I not smart enough to finish my college degree I started four years prior? I understand that college is not for everyone, and there is no shame in not having a college degree – I am a first-generation college student after all. But throughout my grade school, middle school, and high school years, I heard nothing from my family and teachers other than college is where I’m supposed to be – with the exception of maybe my math teachers. I was never a straight-A student, but I was regularly on the honor roll and I graduated in the top quarter of my high school’s graduating class. How could so many important people in my life be so wrong? More importantly, how could I have been so wrong about who I thought I was? The experience shook me at the core of my self-concept – my inner identity. It was this experience, along with the advice and support of my friends and mentors that finally prompted me to seek answers from my healthcare provider.
Luckily, after I was diagnosed and spent 3-4 months trying to figure out which medication and dosage worked best for me, I was able to slowly but surely turn my grades around. I was able to go from a 0.40 GPA (out of 4.0) the semester before I was diagnosed and treated to a 3.0 GPA the semester after. The following semester I was able to raise my GPA to a 3.5. The final two semesters of my undergraduate education, I was able to maintain a 4.0 GPA. In addition to my undergraduate degree, I was able to finish a Master’s degree and I’m currently completing the final stages of my PhD. Many might look at my story and think, “well, at least there’s a happy ending, right?”
While I’m grateful for all that I’ve been able to accomplish, both in spite of and as a result of ADHD, I know that this type of story doesn’t have a similar ending for everyone. There are many who simply wait too long to act – as I almost did. There are more who are inundated with negative and misguided perceptions of ADHD and/or the act of seeking help for mental health issues.
I wondered if I had ADHD tendencies back around 2000-2001 when I was a junior in high school. However, I was raised in a fairly rural, Midwestern area. While everyone was relatively polite about mental health issues, there was always this underlying sense of pity. It was as if those that were “normal” talked about those that “weren’t” with a slight wink, nod, or gentle nudge that signaled a mutual, unstated understanding: those that “weren’t,” were weak.
In some cases, variations of this belief were held by healthcare professionals. I recall asking one of my healthcare providers about my problems when I was in high school. His solution? “Take some ginko biloba, and you’ll be fine,” he said. I also worked for quite a while as a pharmacy technician. You would think that pharmacists, who, in a way, make money off of dispensing pills, would at minimum be ambivalent about ADHD medication. However, I encountered more than one pharmacist that rolled her or his eyes when an Adderall or Ritalin prescription would come in. While I never saw a pharmacist refuse to fill an ADHD prescription for illegitimate reasons, I heard many make comments to themselves and other pharmacy staff like “maybe her/his parents should try parenting before putting their kids on meds,” on the one hand, and on the other, “this is one messed up kid.” Unfortunately, I now admit, I began to adopt some of those perspectives myself.
Six years! A combination of the cultural influences of my upbringing and the process of socialization at work cost me a six-year delay in actively seeking guidance for the difficulties I was experiencing.
Even after I was diagnosed and received medication for ADHD, I struggled with my new identity. At first, I didn’t want to be one of those “weak” people that thought they needed to take a pill in order to get by. After about six months of struggling with this, and after I started to see marked improvement in my studies, I started to change the way I thought about my medication. Rather than think of the medicine as “controlling” me, I began to see it like a tool that let me take control when I wanted to. Since I eventually found that Adderall IR worked best for me, I was able to choose when I NEEDED to take it. If I wanted to let my ADHD “freak flag” fly, I could. Or, if I wanted/needed to settle down and focus, I could do that too.
As a quick aside before I continue, I wanted to explain my position on ADHD medications. I don’t necessarily advocate the use of ADHD medications – I’m particularly unsure about advocating for the use of medication for children since I was diagnosed as an adult. However, I also don’t oppose the use of medications. I think it should be one of many treatment options that you discuss with your healthcare provider. While I’m sure there are pill-pushing physicians and psychiatrists out there, my experience has been that ultimately you, the patient, have the power to decide what works best for you. With my experience in the pharmacy, the stigma surrounding drugs like Ritalin and Adderall was a strong deterrent from getting diagnosed. I have heard similar sentiments from others as well. One of the goals of telling my story and of this blog in general is to challenge that stigma so that others do not face the same dilemma. The treatment options should not stop people from letting a doctor diagnose the symptoms. I digress…
The next significant milestone in my story occurred in 2010 when I began doing more in-depth research about ADHD for a close friend. After spending quite a bit of time with this friend, and seeing her struggle with depression even with medication, I started to wonder if there wasn’t more going on. There were certain behaviors and feelings that seemed to resonate with my own experiences. My mad Google searching finally led me to A Splintered Mind blog written by Douglas Cootey.
What struck me about Cootey’s blog, besides his wit and seemingly similar sense of humor, was the way he talked about ADHD as both a blessing and a curse. For the first time ever, I started to see the benefits of my ADHD that, rather than holding me back, actually helped me achieve many things in the past. Over time, as I read through Cootey’s posts, I began to undergo a gradual re-framing of both ADHD and my identity. Instead of seeing myself as someone that has made it as far as I had in spite of ADHD, I became someone who had done it thanks to ADHD. That is not to say that living with ADHD in the world we live in is without its challenges. However, I began to think of ADHD and my relationship to it as a balancing act: working to adapt and accommodate certain aspects that can be frustrating, while learning to work with my ADHD to maximize its productive potential. It was another moment where I slowly stopped thinking about ADHD as a deficiency and started seeing it as a potential, although sometimes unruly, ally.
Cootey’s blog posts made such a profound impression on me that I was inspired to write a paper for a class about some of the more interesting and prominent rhetorical features found embedded in the way he talks about ADHD. I never intended for that paper to become much of anything. However, I received such positive feedback from my professor that I ended up submitting it for consideration as a presentation at our national academic conference. I was fortunate to have been selected as one of the top papers at that conference.
A short time later, I was beginning to think about my dissertation project. For those that are unfamiliar with the process of getting a PhD, the dissertation is essentially a book that you have to write and then defend in front of a panel of professors in order to receive the degree. My original ideas had nothing to do with ADHD because to my knowledge no one wrote about it or similar subjects in my field. However, once I started talking with my advisor, the topic of my paper came up and I realized I was getting excited at the potential to work on such a project. Luckily, my advisor did too. The rest is history. I’ve spent the last three years writing as much and as frequently as possible about ADHD advocacy. So much so that it is becoming my career in a way.
If there is one thing that I’ve learned through this adventure, it’s that the influence of positive, supportive discussions about ADHD, like those found on Cootey’s blog and hopefully mine, can be a powerful resource for those diagnosed with ADHD. It allowed me to begin reframing and renegotiating my identity as someone who happens to have ADHD instead of being an ADHD patient. Our identities and what makes up our self-concept is not set in stone, even if some of those influences are ingrained in our DNA. Even more importantly, public perceptions of ADHD are also not set in stone. While the fight to change the course of public discussions is an uphill battle, sometimes we have to start the process at home. Since being diagnosed and renegotiating my identity, I have worked hard to change the perceptions and opinions of as many people around me that will listen. This is the first step.
Ultimately, what my experience with this story has shown me – and hopefully I have shown you as well – is that there are many forces that work against those with ADHD. However, the power of communication, persuasion, and rhetoric are strong, essential allies in challenging those forces. This is why I do what I do. This is what I hope to help you do too!