Coming face-to-face with ADHD

By: Malcolm Wilhelm

Having faced my share of challenges throughout my life, I didn’t expect the most difficult of them all to be hiding in plain sight. The consequences of this challenge extended to and influenced virtually all aspects of my life from childhood to adulthood, a detriment to both my mental and physical health, and an obstacle hindering my progress in life. When I finally was made aware of this challenge, the diagnosis and treatment brought me only shame and stigmatization.  This story is a familiar one to countless people around the world of all ages: a disorder known as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or as it is more commonly known, ADHD.

Think for a moment and try to identify other legitimate health issues that mark all the boxes mentioned above. ADHD is a complex disorder that  is often delegitimized or underestimated as a serious health condition. Experts estimate that ADHD affects 3-7 percent of all children and 2-5% of adults. That is a statistic made even more startling if you consider the number of obstacles associated with ADHD.

As a society, we don’t usually treat other health issues in this way, especially not the issues that are as widespread as ADHD.

I am like countless others who received my ADHD diagnosis much later in life. Contrary to popular belief, ADHD is not a disorder exclusive to childhood and studies indicate that up to 65 percent of ADHD cases persist later in life. This is why identifying and treating ADHD at the onset of the disorder is crucial due to the challenges untreated ADHD leads to later in life. I know this all too well — as do countless others that did not have their ADHD identified in childhood.

In hindsight, it is easy to identify all the times as a child that my as-of-yet-undiagnosed ADHD impacted me in negative ways. Over the years, I’ve learned of more stories from my childhood that illustrate a young child in need of help. My family describes my childhood as one defined by restlessness; a child brimming with energy but no way to control it. In other words, I was quite the hyperactive child — a veritable poster child for the common conception of ADHD.

If my hyperactivity was so obvious, why then was I not diagnosed as a child? It is a question I’ve wondered about many times, but I believe I slipped through the cracks for one reason: I was a standout student in elementary school. Of course, I am not suggesting that ADHD and good academic performance are mutually exclusive, but after talking to those who knew me as a child and seeing the common discourse around ADHD it is clear that this is a common misunderstanding. This is simply an untrue stereotype though, and one that I feel is important to be repeatedly mentioned to parents of young children:

ADHD has no bearing on the intelligence or academic performance of a child; some children  may excel academically in spite of the disorder while others may struggle to overcome it.

Although I found success in elementary school, there were still obvious signs of my ADHD. Hyperactivity is always the one most people gravitate to, but how that manifests is highly dependent on the individual. It is true that I was overflowing with energy as a child, but not necessarily in a physical sense. Even as a young child, I remember that it was my mind that was hyperactive. Sometimes that would manifest in physical hyperactivity but oftentimes I would jump from hobby to hobby, or voraciously consume books on a wide variety of subjects. It is not difficult for me to understand why caregivers around me may have viewed these traits as positive ones, but in fact, these traits  were simply an outward expression of a deeper underlying imbalance. 

There were negative traits as well – I had a bad habit of procrastinating and completing my schoolwork the day they were due, always cutting it extremely close for comfort. And yet I did well on my assignments so that was brushed off by my family as “boys being boys”. This is a common theme I encounter whenever I talk to other people with ADHD: their childhood symptoms having been rationalized as immature behaviour.

Of course, if someone had taken the time to ask me back then why I procrastinated I could have told them that I just couldn’t focus on anything unless I felt the pressure of time running out on me. This is a prime example of the way unaddressed childhood symptoms of ADHD can persist into adolescence and adulthood. Since I was still hitting those academic goals that were expected of me there were no problems, but that wasn’t sustainable for the rest of my life.

I remember the first time I realized I was in trouble academically. It is a vivid memory for me as it was a completely foreign experience.  At 12 years old, my academic performance began to decline dramatically and steadily. This is easy to understand in hindsight as education is designed to increase in difficulty, exponentially adding more responsibility to the student year by year. As that workload increased, so too did my chances of failing.

Gone were the days of not needing to study, daydreaming in class instead of paying attention, and cobbling together an assignment on the school bus before class and still managing to score great grades.

I couldn’t keep up with the increasing demand of academic life and it only got worse as I reached high school. My family couldn’t understand what had changed and neither could I.  “You used to be such a smart boy” my mother would say. “If only you would apply yourself and not be so lazy”. I would hear similar sentiments from teachers in high school and guidance counsellors; those kinds of comments were really detrimental at an age where I should have been developing self-confidence. Instead, I believed that it wasn’t that I didn’t try hard enough; “I’m just not smart enough” is what I would tell myself. I felt like a failure, but more importantly, I felt like an imposter.

It seemed like I was a child everyone used to praise, but it turned out my best quality was nothing but a farce.

These are the sorts of thoughts many adolescents with undiagnosed ADHD take into adulthood. I don’t need to expand on why this sort of self-talk is so damaging when you’re trying to find a career path, or making relationships as an adult. However, that is the situation I found myself in. I decided school wasn’t for me and dropped out. I worked countless odd jobs and those same struggles I had experienced as a child began to rear their ugly head. Tasks were being left to the last minute, I was perpetually running into work late, and there was a lack of motivation to do the things I truly wanted to do.

It was at that point that a friend of mine who had ADHD asked me if I had ever been diagnosed. In speaking with my family I learned that many school counsellors had suggested I should be evaluated for ADHD. Unfortunately, my family did not believe ADHD was a genuine medical condition and considered an evaluation a waste of time. It was disheartening to hear that my family chose not to even look into the topic considering how much I was struggling at that time. Their apparent lack of motivation encouraged me to seek out proper medical care and evaluation, and after a long three years I finally found a doctor who was knowledgeable about ADHD. Unfortunately, the general ignorance of ADHD is shared even by some physicians and psychiatrists. But finding the right doctor changed my life forever.

The doctor didn’t hesitate to diagnose me with ADHD and mentioned how obvious it was to him based solely on my life story and first impressions he got from me. He prescribed me two very important things that day. One being medication to help treat the disorder, but just as importantly, he tasked me with a reading list. This helped me understand more about my disorder and all the ways it affects my life.

In the ADHD community there is a common clichéd reaction to adults using their medication for the first time. You’ll hear them say it’s life-changing and liberating; a common analogy is that of a person wearing prescribed glasses for the first time and marvelling at what eyesight truly is. I believe this perfectly encapsulates being properly treated for the first time. For me it was exactly that. I felt a stillness in my mind I didn’t know was possible. An ability to guide my attention to whatever I chose and not be distracted by external stimuli. My sleep improved dramatically; my motivation was through the roof. And yet, I also felt sadness.

Sadness that I had gone my whole life until my mid 20s thinking that I was defective or less than others when in reality I had an easily treatable medical condition.

I thought of all the time I lost, the opportunities that I may have missed and poor decisions I made in my past. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and the important thing was that I finally had some understanding about my struggles. 

I also quickly learned that society has a very warped view of ADHD. I learned that lesson first-hand from my family who laughed and dismissed my diagnosis, accusing me of seeking prescribed medication for recreational use under the guise of a genuine medical condition. And while I have tried to educate them about the disorder over the years, I can still see the disdain behind their eyes. The familiar, “you just need to try harder” still escapes their lips. That’s okay though.

I understand now that the problem doesn’t lie in those who raised me; rather, it lies with society’s uninformed view of what ADHD is.

The cure for ignorance has always been education. Shining a light is always the best way to dispel darkness and that is why I strive to educate people about the disorder in the best way I can. That is why I chose not to write about the intricacies of the disorder, or the neurological explanation of why stimulant medication helps those with ADHD. I could have written about the different subtypes of ADHD and how it manifests in impulsivity, hyperactivity, inattentiveness, or all of the above. I could have written about the shocking life expectancy rates of those with untreated ADHD or how it increases one’s risk of serious accidents and substance use disorder. But I believe the best way to reach a large group of people is through sharing experiences, allowing others to step into my shoes and begin to empathize. It is my hope that in sharing my journey with ADHD that parents, adolescents, and adults can understand the challenges those with ADHD have faced and will face.