No laugh­ing mat­ter

Co­me­dian John Shee­han learn­ing to live with at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der


A teenage boy gets back a math test, and his grade is lower than he ex­pected.

He be­gins to get frus­trated, but tries to shake it off. He can’t.

In fact, he has no­ticed his fo­cus hasn’t been as sharp as in pre­vi­ous school years, which has led to lower grades. But he tells him­self he’ll try harder. But he can’t.

Some teach­ers be­gin to rec­og­nize the change, telling him he isn’t try­ing hard enough, while oth­ers call him “lazy.”

It be­comes his per­sona — the “stupid” kid — un­til two decades later when he learns he’s been strug­gling through life with an un­di­ag­nosed med­i­cal dis­or­der called At­ten­tion Deficit/Hy­per­ac­tiv­ity Dis­or­der (ADHD).

Lengthy strug­gle

At 39 years old, John Shee­han looks back on his life be­fore get­ting di­ag­nosed with ADHD four years ear­lier.

“One of the most dif­fi­cult things is go­ing through life feel­ing stupid,” John tells The Com­pass Jan. 26. “When you’re in­ter­ested in some­thing and it catches your at­ten­tion, you tend to hy­per fo­cus on it. The dan­ger there is you can hy­per fo­cus on it too much, which can be a detri­ment to ev­ery­thing else around you.”

John’s hy­per fo­cus has been the New York Yan­kees. The team and its his­tory are his pas­sion.

“(In the past) I re­ally didn’t know any fam­ily his­tory, but I could tell you who played third base for the yanks in 1998,” he ex­plains.

John’s ver­sion of ADHD is clas­si­fied as “inat­ten­tive,” or At­ten­tion Deficit Dis­or­der (ADD), be­cause he does not ex­pe­ri­ence the hy­per­ac­tiv­ity as­so­ci­ated with some ver­sions of it.

His lack of fo­cus of­ten led to dis­trac­tion watch­ing tele­vi­sion, repet­i­tively flick­ing through chan­nels. While he was flick­ing through the chan­nels, he would also be us­ing a lap­top and have a DVD play­ing.

“It has to be very frus­trat­ing for any­one who had to sit down next to me,” he says.

Get­ting di­ag­nosed

Ac­cord­ing to kid­, childhood ADHD has be­come a more ap­par­ent dis­or­der in re­cent years, af­fect­ing be­tween eight and 10 per cent of school-age chil­dren. It is of­ten pre­sented by an over­ac­tive child with so­cial, aca­demic and fo­cus is­sues.

But adult­hood ADHD is more rare, ac­cord­ing to the Mayo Clinic web­site. It reads those with adult­hood ADHD have had it since childhood, just likely un­di­ag­nosed.

John did not present with many of the stan­dard symp­toms in childhood, which pre­vented even his par­ents from rec­og­niz­ing the signs.

“My par­ents al­ways tell me they wish they could have done more,” John ex­plains.

When John was 35, he was in a deep state of de­pres­sion, and could no longer func­tion with­out help.

“Be­cause of those feel­ings of in­se­cu­rity and feel­ings of stu­pid­ity, there’s a real dan­ger of de­pres­sion,” he says. “And then, when you fi­nally get di­ag­nosed, you’re not only get­ting treated for your ADD, but also for the de­pres­sion the years of not be­ing di­ag­nosed have brought on.

“I think, for me, I just hit rock bot­tom.”

The un­di­ag­nosed dis­or­der was key to a down­ward spi­ral that John was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing emo­tion­ally and men­tally, which led him to seek help.

“I went to my fam­ily doc­tor,” he says. “He saw me as pretty much an emo­tional wreck at the time. He’s the one who sug­gested it could be ADD.

“When you tell peo­ple that (di­ag­no­sis), they kind of shrug it off. It’s only now that adult ADD and ADHD are be­com­ing ac­knowl­edged by a lot more peo­ple.”

His psy­chi­a­trist ex­plained to him he likely had the dis­or­der since 13 or 14 years old.

Clas­si­fy­ing him­self as “lucky,” John says he has never been in­flu­enced by drugs or al­co­hol, which he says has been proven to be a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem to those with ADHD, of­ten caus­ing de­pen­dency.

Af­ter liv­ing with the bur­den of de­pres­sion and be­ing un­di­ag­nosed, John says af­ter sev­eral at­tempts at dif­fer­ent med­i­ca­tion, he is now a lot more bal­anced men­tally and emo­tion­ally, and can fo­cus on be­ing a vol­un­teer fire­fighter and on his ca­reer.

Pro­fes­sional strug­gles

As a pro­fes­sional co­me­dian and ac­tor, John ad­mits it was dif­fi­cult for him to learn lines on his own, and just as dif­fi­cult to write any­thing be­yond sketch com­edy and standup.

When he was di­ag­nosed, he was afraid what the med­i­ca­tion would do, pro­fes­sion­ally.

“I was afraid of turn­ing into a zom­bie,” John ex­plains. “I was ter­ri­fied that it would sti­fle me cre­atively and that I’d lose some of the ma­nia that makes me a comic, and gets the cre­ative thought process go­ing. Be­ing eased on the med­i­ca­tion, the ex­act op­po­site hap­pened.

“The anal­ogy is of a road — the ADD mind has pot­holes, the med­i­ca­tion fills the pot­holes.”

The med­i­ca­tion as­sisted him in fo­cus­ing on his com­edy, and he was mo­ti­vated to go be­yond his nor­mal com­edy writ­ing. He wrote his first sit­com pi­lot episode while on med­i­ca­tion.

“I have never writ­ten any­thing like that be­fore,” John ex­plains. “In a day, I wrote a pi­lot, and it is now in the early stages with a pro­duc­tion com­pany in Toronto.”

Al­though John has strug­gled with ADD for much of his life, he is happy at how far he has come and wouldn’t change any­thing he has ex­pe­ri­enced.

“Once you un­der­stand ADD and ADHD, you start to dis­agree with it be­ing called a dis­or­der,” John con­cludes.

Photo by Melissa Jenk­ins/The Com­pass

Co­me­dian John Shee­han is one of a ris­ing num­ber of adults be­ing di­ag­nosed with at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der.

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