Hello, my name is Michelle and I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Diagnosed, labelled, and forever branded. In 1978, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, the psychiatrists and doctors pronounced that I had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. That was long before ADHD/ADD was fashionable even in North America. My diagnosis involved my being hospitalized for several months in the childrens’ ward of the University of Alberta hospital while doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists tried to figure out what was “wrong” with me. They arrived at a diagnosis of ADHD only after eliminating everything else they could think of, including schizophrenia. At the time, ADHD, while known in Canada, was not often diagnosed, and it was very uncommon for it to be diagnosed in females.
What was I like before being diagnosed? Let me take you on a flashback vignette tour.
Vivid memory #1: Home, 1973
My parents have banished me to my bedroom.
My mother, exhausted at trying to keep up with me, has left me alone
for a bit without anything interesting around. I decide it is time to fingerpaint
on the walls—with faeces.
Vivid memory #2: Back wall of classroom, 1977
I am against the back classroom wall, banging my head rhythmically, hard
against the wall, and repeating “banana” ad infinitum. There is no time
but the now. There is no thought but the one. I am calm. I am one.
Vivid memory #3: Classroom, 1978
The other students are learning how to print, tracing over letters in a workbook. Somehow I cannot do this. I cannot hold the pencil correctly. It hurts my hands. My straight lines look as if they suffer from Parkinson’s. I feel immsensely frustrated because I cannot get a grip. The teacher tries to help. I lose it. The workbook goes flying across the room, pages torn and ripped. The contents of the desk are unceremoniously dumped on the floor. They return everything to its place. I start the destructive cycle over. This is repeated until finally nobody bothers to put the things back. They banish me to the hall. The hall wall and I are friends. I am one with my head-banging banana mantra.
I was a child with no sense of boundaries. I said whatever came into my head and did whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. My parents were forever lamenting that I lacked common sense or did not think before I did anything. It was not that I did not think before talking or doing, it was that I had no cognitive processes to assess the effect of my actions and judge them as appropriate or inappropriate. The world was an endless changing kaleidoscope of sensations, leaving me bewildered about what was important or relevant, and what was not.
My parents, poorly informed and confused about me, did not know how to cope. I was bouncy, too energetic, talkative, assertive, and rapid. My mother had a nervous breakdown shortly after my initial diganosis, and she was hospitalized for several months; she blamed me.
Most of my childhood I spent shunned, alone and friendless. Confusion, fear, and intolerance surrounded me. The children in the schools I went to shunned me because I was so different, so weird. My parents did not adequately understand my problems and had some problems of their own, so I probably did not get the support I needed there. It was a very lonely and sad life, and I feel that I did not have a proper childhood.
Life on Ritalin
What was life like after diagnosis and Ritalin? I find it difficult to describe the differences as I failed to recognize them. To me, I was the same—me. However, the outside world told me there were changes. I managed to spend more time in the classroom, although I still spent probably up to almost 75% of my time outside the classroom until 1983. My academics picked up, and I could learn things in the school. By 1982, I was an honours student, and I stayed that way until I graduated from high school. Throughout the entire period, I was not a spaced-out walking automaton; I was bright, energetic, ambitious, and bouncy—known for singing during classes and other odd, endured behaviours.
Throughout my school years, other students ostracised me for being “different,” for being weird. My parents tried changing school systems but the overgrown hamlet I lived in just was not that large. The kids in the Catholic school system knew the kids in the public school system. I was always an outsider and a loner and that, combined with other oddities in my home life, left me profoundly marked for life.
Life after Ritalin
I stopped taking Ritalin in 1985/86, some seven or eight years after I first started. The doctors believed that children outgrew ADHD in adolescence and there were concerns that the Ritalin was interfering with the onset of puberty. I believe the latter to be true in my case as I went from having no secondary sexual characteristics to bursting out with them in relatively short order after that.
Not too long after I stopped taking Ritalin, I moved out of home and continued my studies via distance education, night classes, and summer courses. It took me three years to finish off my last year of high school after I left home, and then I returned to traditional “class-based” education by entering university.
Life at university was very difficult for me. I spent hours and hours trying to do the assignments. I could not pay attention at lectures, often falling asleep. It was an endless, unrewarding struggle to read. I would find myself reading the same paragraph over and over again and realize that nothing had sunk in. I immersed myself in my courses all the time. I did not have any free time. My common-law husband spent hours trying to help me. I taped material. I wrote up my own summaries of material. I typed up all my notes after writing them. Studying for exams was my own personal Hell. Despite all my efforts, I was just barely passing most of my courses. It was incredibly frustrating to put all that effort in and not seem to reap any benefits.
After two and a half years like this, I was on the verge of academic probation because my grades were so low. Something had to change, and several things did: I changed my major from pre-med to computer science, and I started a part-time job as the editorial assistant for an international peer-reviewed journal. I had been actively using computers since 1981, including doing BASIC programming and helping to teach courses. I wanted to be a neurosurgeon or a psychiatrist, not a computer scientist. However, my math, chemistry and physics courses were so unrewarding and stressful for me, I thought a change to something I liked better would help.
After a semester of that, my boss (and my job) moved from one university to another university. I elected to follow my boss and my job and continued my education elsewhere. The first benefit of that was that I was now at a university more flexible in their requirements for your degree. The second was I happened to stumble across a book in the bookstore on attention deficit disorder in children, adolescents, and adults. This revelation astounded me. The doctors previously told me, and I believed them, that children grew out of their attention deficit disorder. I bought the book and devoured it. It was immediately obvious to me that my own attention deficit disorder had not just “gone away” at 16, but it had been there still all along! My unorthodox last year of high school—lasting three years— had helped to mask it so that obvious problems did not appear until many years later when I started university.
Life Again on Ritalin
I made an informed choice to start taking Ritalin again. At this point, I was doing adequately well in my computer science courses, and it was substantially less effort for me than all my hard science courses, but I was still only doing about a C+ and, if I had stayed at my previous university, my cumulative average would have still been closer to a C-. I was a lot wiser than I was as a child. I realized that I had picked up some coping strategies over the years, and it was unnecessary to take drugs continually. Instead, I stopped attending most lectures since I did not learn from the anyway. I continued making my own notes, reading the textbook, and chatting with the instructors on points that were unclear, and I took my Ritalin when I needed to prepare for exams, complete assignments, or knew I would be stressed. This combination proved remarkably effective. I went from the verge of academic probation in fall of 1992 to graduating with high honours in an honours degree in 1995, and I was awarded a prestigious federal NSERC (National Science & Engineering Research Council) post-graduate scholarship.
Life Today on Ritalin
I hate taking pills. I abhor taking medication. Hence, while I should still be taking Ritalin to help me with my graduate work, I do not take it when I know I probably should. My supervisor is aware of my problems; he trusts me to manage things on my own and puts up with my missed deadlines. I would like to be better about managing the medication effectively in my life but that possibly requires more structure than I currently have.
Following up on the above paragraph, which I wrote in December of last year (2000), I have again started trying to take my Ritalin, as needed. I have recognized that I cannot, through sheer stubborness, manage the tasks that I cannot hyperfocus on without resorting to drugs. That includes: writing up my research papers, marking essays for the courses I teach, and working on statistics and doing large amounts of heavy, structured reading. I probably rather should say that I cannot do these things in a timely fashion. It is not acceptable to take three weeks to mark ten 1500-word essays if you are not doing anything else during those three weeks. It is not acceptable to spend two years working on your thesis proposal, even if it is fifty words. I have to compromise between my hatred of medication and my need to do things—to do things well and to do them in the allotted time.
Continuing to follow up, it is now January 2003. I am still experiencing difficulties in working well on my Ph.D. Last year, before I took a three-month leave of absence from all of my responsibilities I could inveigle my way out of and retroactively intermitted for the entire year, I visited an office on campus mandated to help students with various disabilities that can impact their ability to complete their programs successfully. They apparently knew of a few ADHD people on campus, but I was the most articulate person about the disorder they had met, in that I am much more aware of the impact it has on me, which is often hard to assess when you are the one being impacted. When I go back this term to start working on my Ph.D. again, they are going to try to offer me support in the form of mentoring (someone non-critical and not directly associated with my Ph.D.) and general group support. Doing a Ph.D. is isolating at my university in England. Doing a part-time Ph.D. is even more isolating. Doing a part-time Ph.D. with ADHD makes you an island, even in a country famed for its tolerance and encouragement of eccentrics, so group support might be beneficial to help combat that.
In addition to making arrangements for support, I also took it upon myself to take a time management course (twice) and a project management course, so that I could learn about setting goals and how to better plan and allocate resources. I am hopeful that, in combination with the mentor, I will be able to make realistic goals and then be supported in meeting them, without the need to get any negative feedback from my supervisor about my lack of progress. It will also give me another, non-critical sounding board for discussions about the state of my progress; one which is wise in the ways in the university and of doing degrees, but is completely in my court and has more time to devote to supporting me than a supervisor might. I forsee that I will be forced back onto Ritalin at least on a daily basis. A set schedule will definitely help.
There are a few great ironies associated with my attention deficit disorder. The first is that I do can concentrate intently on some things. Luckily, one of those things is programming and almost any type of technical-related problem. I can concentrate on those for hours on end, often concentrating myself into a migraine, because I am focussed so intently that I do not realize that a migraine is imminent. I can focus so intently that I am oblivious to the world around me, which means I am startled easily by sounds or movement. I spend a lot of time being startled.
The other great irony is that I need to take medication but, between the intent concentration and instant distractability, it is difficult for me to remember to take the medication I need in order to remember to take the medication. If you cannot quite follow that, it means that with such a poor sense of time and an ability to be distracted easily, it is difficult to adhere to a set medication schedule, particularly with the way my life is currently structured. As I do not have to work at set hours or go to anywhere at a set time, I sleep when I get tired and then get up and start over. Taking the drugs means remembering to take them either at the same time every day or at set intervals. I remember that I used to set my watch to beep at the set intervals. I was often so intent on what I was doing, though, that I would hear the alarm go, promise myself I would take care of it immediately after I finished my current involved task, and then it would be three hours later.
That was last year’s theory. It is now 2004 and I still feel remarkably unfocused, especially in the duller winter months. I have acquired some additional tools, like Life Balance, to help me better balance, but there is still much left to explore.
My Thoughts on ADD/ADHD
- I fervently believe I never would have gone from the verge of academic probation to graduating with high honours in an honours bachelor of science degree without controlled usage of Ritalin.
- ADHD/ADD is over-diagnosed in North America. I would have to agree with others that parents/schools are far too eager to put children on Ritalin (or other drugs) without accurately and adequately assessing these children for other disorders/problems first.
- Everybody, even me, wants a “magic bullet” to solve their problems. The truth is that most things in life are too complicated for that. For some problems behavioural interventions seem to be sufficient. For others, dietary (I have never bought into this one, but…) changes can make a difference. Other people may require a change of lifestyle. Some might need drugs. In all cases, though, design the treatment specifically for the individual so that it contains all the components the individual needs to improve their quality of life. Their quality of life should be the prime consideration, not necessarily the “ease” or “comfort” of the people around them. If we are drugging our children to make the life of teachers in school or parents at home easier, there is something fundamentally wrong in our society. We should address those underlying issues, not dope out the symptoms.
- I could have used some additional help in terms of counselling and knowledge when I was a child, as could have my parents. There was not such a vast wealth of accessible information at the time, and I have suffered because of that. Now I need EinRepair and there is a shortage of accredited EinTherapists. Better-informed teachers, doctors, psychologists, and parents are better individuals.
Hello, my name is Michelle. I am the Ein, a unique experience in the world.