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The Skinny on Attention-Deficit Disorder
I haven’t given up on my eBaY store. I have ambitious plans and a storage room full of merchandise for it. What I don’t have is money to pay my past-due balance.
People ask me questions: Why can’t I pay my eBaY bill? Why do I routinely lose my car keys? Why did I pay more than three thousand dollars in overdraft charges in 2005? Why do I interrupt people mid-sentence to compliment them on their fragrance?
I usually tell them it’s “an A.D.D. thing.”
My friend Elaine says, “Have you always been like this?”
I say, “Yes, I’ve always been like this.”
My mother was “like this.” My sons are “like this.”
People say, “Well, I’m easily distracted, and I’m always losing my keys, but I don’t have A.D.D” … as if I’m making it up, or exaggerating, or looking for a legal way to get stimulant drugs.
“Okay,” I say, “but I always leave my car keys in the ignition because otherwise I’ll lose them, and I always leave the door to my house unlocked because I never know if I’ll be able to find the house key, and as a result my car has been stolen and my house has been robbed, and I seldom have any idea how much money is in my bank account, so I just write checks until the overdraft notices appear in the mailbox, and there is a person in my life whose sole responsibility is to keep me ‘on task.’”
My middle child, a boy, was seeing a clinical psychologist for several months during his eighth-grade year. When the psychologist testified on my son’s behalf in court, he told the judge that my son had “the most profound case of ADHD” he (the psychologist) had ever seen.
What broke my heart, aside from the chaos that so often reigned at our house, was that my son never had a moment’s serenity. Late one Saturday afternoon, when he arrived home from church camp after a six-hour bus ride during which he consumed only doughnuts and Pepsi, he flew into a rage and hurled every piece of antique china we owned against the wall. Then he sat down on the floor and cried. I sat down next to him and he put his head in my lap and sobbed, “Why did I do that, Mom? I don’t know why I did that.”
I know now, as I knew then, that excessive sugar ingestion does not “cause” ADHD, but I will go to my grave believing that sugar and other dietary factors aggravate ADHD symptoms.
People would say (none of these people lived at my house, you understand), “All he needs is consistent discipline” or “…a good, hard spanking” …as if my husband and I hadn’t tried every legal form of discipline and a few others that were iffy. The usual disciplinary tools don’t work for a lot of A.D.D. kids because the kids often don’t remember precisely what they’re being disciplined for.
I read, in a book about attention-deficit disorder, that the most effective way to discipline a child with A.D.D., legalities aside, would be to implant some sort of electronic zapper in the child so that when he or she began to do something unacceptable (when my son was 3 or 4 years old, for example, he liked to pee into the lawnmower’s gas tank), a parent or teacher or other responsible adult who’d been entrusted with the zapper control could just push a little button and deliver a jolt of electricity — high enough to be effective without being fatal — to the misbehaving kid. For ADHD kids, feedback — positive or negative — is best delivered dramatically and immediately.
(Don’t sue me. I’m just making a point. I am not recommending harsh and inhumane punishment for naughty ADHD kids. I’m recommending that they all be placed on a large tropical island and supervised by trained gorillas.)
Self-medicating and the case for medication
I can say with confidence that Bob and I were great parents. In addition to the antique-china-thrower, we were raising two other children, both of whom were happy and well behaved. (Our younger son had A.D.D. minus the hyperactivity. When he started taking Adderall, as a junior in high school, his grade-point average skyrocketed from 0.7 the first semester to 4.0 the second semester. Just last week, he graduated cum laude from Arizona State University.)
I will tell you that, when my older son was about 12, his pediatrician reluctantly wrote out a prescription for Ritalin, as had been recommended by two highly respected clinical psychologists.
“I don’t even believe in this diagnosis,” the pediatrician said, through clenched teeth… whereupon I complimented him on his Big Bird necktie. He gave me an odd look and said, “I really don’t believe in attention-deficit disorder, but if anybody has it, you do.”
The Ritalin worked well, when my son took it. Unfortunately, by this time he was already “self-medicating” — drinking and smoking pot — and he was worried about an adverse reaction, so he only pretended to take his Ritalin most of the time. I could always tell when he had taken it. You could have a sensible conversation with him, and his handwriting improved.
This boy is 30 years old now, and he is my hero. He’s still paying for years and years of untreated ADHD, and he struggles (more than the average person does) through each day, but he has a girlfriend and two beautiful children who keep him focused, and he is good to his mom.
There was a theory about ADHD that I think has long since been discarded, but I like it because it offers a vivid illustration of ADHD behavior. The theory was that ADHD kids had excessively low blood pressure and they “acted out” to stir things up, get a little excitement going, thereby raising their blood pressure to a healthy level.
As I said in my April 9 post to this blog, “Blind Alleys and Dead Ends,” ”Attention-deficit-disordered persons spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between where they are now and where they want to be.” It seems clear that one’s self-esteem depends a great deal on one’s ability to bridge that gap — to plan something and carry it out, to have a goal and achieve it, to imagine something and actualize it.
The first time I was pregnant, when I was 19 years old, I confided in my mom that I was worried about losing the baby — though the baby and I were manifestly robust — because if I actually carried the baby to term and gave birth, it would be the first thing I’d ever started that I actually completed.
Attention-deficit disorder is real
Yes, too many kids are on ADHD drugs when all they need is structure.
Yes, A.D.D. is overdiagnosed and overmedicated.
And it’s a shame, because A.D.D. and ADHD are genuine disorders that can throw families into chaos.
If you have a child who exhibits ADHD symptoms, look carefully at your household, your parenting, your child’s diet… and trust your gut. If your family is not wildly dysfunctional but you have a kid who is out of control, get help. Find a doctor who works with ADHD kids. Have your child evaluated. If my son’s diagnosis had been given when he was 5 or 6 instead of 12, our lives would have been very different.
I have no regrets. I don’t believe in mistakes. I let go of guilt a long time ago. But I can still wish that there had been someone back in the early 1980s who was bold enough to diagnose and treat my son’s ADHD. I can still wish that I had fought harder.
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