The Truth About ADULT ADHD

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Like oth­ers with ADHD, my hus­band and son have ex­treme lev­els of im­pul­siv­ity, dis­tractibil­ity and for­get­ful­ness. They have grand plans and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally start tasks, but they find it hard to fin­ish them. Where I am me­thod­i­cal, or­gan­ised and stressed by clut­ter, they soar on a higher plain, ig­nor­ing the mun­dane de­tails. Their need for con­stant stim­u­la­tion means our fam­ily life is never dull.

“Peo­ple with ADHD tend to take risks. They can be charis­matic, lat­eral thinkers and are cre­ative. They are the boys that teenage girls love to date, they are fun and ex­cit­ing, but they never grow up,” says Dr Roger Pater­son, a psy­chi­a­trist based in Perth, Aus­tralia, who spe­cialises in adult ADHD.

When Pater­son was train­ing to be a psy­chi­a­trist, he was taught chil­dren grow out of ADHD by the age of 14. We now know that not to be true. Fig­ures vary widely ac­cord­ing to what cri­te­ria are be­ing used and who is re­port­ing the symp­toms, but the con­di­tion is thought to con­tinue into adult­hood in any­thing from a third to two-thirds of peo­ple. While the hy­per­ac­tiv­ity tends to set­tle, the prob­lems with inat­ten­tion and fo­cus re­main – and can be de­bil­i­tat­ing.

“They are typ­i­cally un­der­achiev­ing their po­ten­tial. And they know it. They could be bet­ter at work and re­la­tion­ships, or they drink or use mar­i­juana to calm them­selves down. They are prone to mood prob­lems like de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety,” says Pater­son.

ADHD runs in fam­i­lies, but it may have non- ge­netic causes, as well. Most adults with the con­di­tion to­day have never been di­ag­nosed, though they’ve likely had it since child­hood.

The con­di­tion is treated in the same way in adults as in chil­dren, with stim­u­lant med­i­ca­tion and coun­selling. It’s thought as many as three to four per cent of adults world­wide have the con­di­tion, though only a frac­tion are re­ceiv­ing the treat­ment they need. In April, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, recog­nis­ing how com­mon and im­pair­ing the con­di­tion can be, re­leased a new screen­ing tool to try to pick up more un­di­ag­nosed adults (see page 54).

Dr Michele Toner, an ADHD coach and con­sul­tant, says there’s a lin­ger­ing stigma at­tached to ADHD. Peo­ple’s symp­toms are blamed on

“I hon­estly shouldn’t be alive. All my life I’ve done any­thing to get an adrenalin hit – risk-tak­ing is a stim­u­lant and the only thing that could give me peace” – Greg Martin

lazi­ness or im­ma­tu­rity rather than on a proven brain dis­or­der. But ADHD is a recog­nised men­tal health con­di­tion that, if un­treated, can cause se­ri­ous prob­lems with em­ploy­ment, re­la­tion­ships and sub­stance abuse, she says.

That’s not to say there aren’t pos­i­tives. Peo­ple with ADHD are often cre­ative, in­quis­i­tive, spon­ta­neous, high-en­ergy risk-tak­ers, all en­vi­able at­tributes if you’re an entrepreneur, in­ven­tor or en­ter­tainer. The list of high-pro­file peo­ple with the con­di­tion in­cludes singer Justin Tim­ber­lake, Olympic swim­mer Michael Phelps, co­me­dian Jim Car­rey and entrepreneur Richard Bran­son.

With the right tools, adults with ADHD can live happy, suc­cess­ful lives. Here are the sto­ries of three Aus­tralians who are do­ing just that.

GREG MARTIN

54, change man­ager I hon­estly shouldn’t be alive. All my life I’ve done any­thing to get an adrenalin hit – risk-tak­ing is a stim­u­lant, and it was the only thing that could give me peace.

I call my ADHD a beast. It’s al­ways been with me. For as long as I can re­mem­ber it cre­ated an anx­i­ety in me that was crip­pling – it was painful, gut-wrench­ing around my chest, turn­ing my heart in­side out. It would come for 20 or 30 hours a week, often when I was do­ing te­dious tasks like wash­ing the dishes. To a large de­gree it ran my life.

I couldn’t do any­thing that I wasn’t re­ally stim­u­lated to do. I left school at the end of Year 9 and worked in risky con­struc­tion jobs. I craved stim­u­la­tion. Caf­feine helped – by 10pm I would have knocked off two litres of cola or ten cups of cof­fee. Al­co­hol was al­ways such a temp­ta­tion and I al­ways had to keep a very watch­ful eye on my in­take. Any­thing to help me re­lax. With­out these stim­u­lants, the con­di­tion was de­bil­i­tat­ing for me. The thoughts in my head would sim­ply rat­tle day and night. There was no peace.

Last year, my son, who is in his early 20s, was see­ing a psy­chi­a­trist for his ADHD. I was on per­sonal leave for stress when he said to me, “Dad, tak­ing this med­i­ca­tion has to­tally trans­formed my life. Why don’t you go and see him, too?”

I thought ADHD was an ex­cuse for badly be­haved chil­dren so I de­cided to Google the adult con­di­tion. I Googled for three days with little sleep (that’s what can hap­pen with ADHD when you get an in­ter­est in some­thing). I was a blub­ber­ing mess. It was a mix of emo­tions but pre­dom­i­nantly an in­tense re­lief that there was ac­tu­ally a name for the con­di­tion I’d been liv­ing with for 50-plus years.

The very hour I got my cor­rect dosage of dex­am­phetamine the symp­toms dis­ap­peared and have not re­turned. My de­sire for self-med­i­ca­tion has gone. I can now just have a beer – or not – and not des­per­ately scram­ble

for another quick ten. It has been such a lib­er­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

I now work in change man­age­ment. Over the years I learned to har­ness the many gifts that come with ADHD. I am a re­ally good prob­lem solver, I can hyper-fo­cus to find a so­lu­tion, and I am very in­tu­itive to peo­ple’s body lan­guage and voices. I can sit in a meet­ing and know very quickly who else there has ADHD – they are the ones fid­get­ing and fid­dling and who can­not keep their feet still. They can’t wait for their turn, their short-term me­mory is ter­ri­ble and they bat­tle with names.

My fa­ther also suf­fered from anx­i­ety and all of the other symp­toms his whole life and has also now been di­ag­nosed and cor­rectly med­i­cated – at 84. So now three gen­er­a­tions of my fam­ily sit in our doc­tor’s wait­ing room smil­ing and talk­ing about how life-chang­ing this has been for us all.

NINA GER­MAIN

45, full-time mother My head is like a fil­ing cab­i­net over­flow­ing with pa­pers, notes and lots of stuff. I des­per­ately want to or­gan­ise it. I need to or­gan­ise it. But I don’t

know where to start. I feel stuck, over­whelmed and at times as though my head will ex­plode.

This is how I feel on a daily ba­sis. Most of the time I feel as if I’m drown­ing in my thoughts, chores, com­mit­ments and all of the ev­ery­day tasks I have to get through. De­spite my ef­forts to put things in or­der, I am never on top of any­thing, just fran­ti­cally tread­ing wa­ter and feel­ing ­ex­hausted from all the pad­dling. I have over 17,000 emails in my in­box and want to clear them out, but they just keep build­ing up day after day. I get dis­tracted eas­ily and I can’t fo­cus on any­thing that doesn’t in­ter­est me. Like Homer Simp­son, some­one can be talk­ing to me and all I hear is BLAH, BLAH, BLAH!

For years this led me to feel stupid, undis­ci­plined and lazy. I had ex­tremely low self- es­teem, which in turn re­sulted in my be­ing di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion in my 20s and then post­na­tal de­pres­sion in my 30s. Many hours and dol­lars were spent on un­pro­duc­tive ther­apy ses­sions try­ing to get to the root of my ex­tremely low self- es­teem, fo­cus­ing pri­mar­ily on re­la­tion­ships rather than the true cause, which was the dif­fi­culty I have with ev­ery­day func­tion­ing. I now know this is due to hav­ing ADHD.

I was di­ag­nosed with ADHD last year, just be­fore my 44th birth­day. By this time I was a mother of two. It was such a re­lief for me to learn that my life-long strug­gles were not my fault, that my con­di­tion was hered­i­tary. Fi­nally, I un­der­stood why ev­ery­thing had been so hard for me. I had al­ways felt that I had po­ten­tial but my in­abil­ity to fol­low through on even the sim­plest tasks made ful­fill­ing my po­ten­tial im­pos­si­ble. Ev­ery time I tried I would hit a brick wall. No won­der my self-es­teem was rock bot­tom. The con­stant feel­ing of fail­ure was soul-de­stroy­ing.

ADHD causes prob­lems with ‘ex­ec­u­tive func­tion­ing’ – things such as or­gan­i­sa­tion, time man­age­ment, short-term me­mory, fo­cus and fol­low-through. These are all vital skills in terms of learn­ing and func­tion­ing on a day-to-day ba­sis.

Ev­ery­thing takes me twice as long to do – if I re­mem­ber to do it, that is. I turned up at my chil­dren’s swim­ming les­son the other day with­out their swim bag – no tow­els, no gog­gles, no

“ADHD causes prob­lems with ‘ex­ec­u­tive func­tion­ing’ – things such as or­gan­i­sa­tion, time man­age­ment, short-term me­mory, fo­cus and fol­low-through” – Nina Ger­main

change of clothes. The next day I left my phone there and had to go back, which added an hour to my al­ready fran­tic day. This is not a one- off – credit cards, pre­scrip­tion glasses, um­brel­las, chil­dren’s scoot­ers, sun­glasses … all lost. Thank good­ness I have a pa­tient hus­band!

As an adult I am re­quired to be self-dis­ci­plined and or­gan­ised. With ADHD this is dif­fi­cult, but it’s even harder when you’re a full-time mum. At work my symp­toms weren’t as no­tice­able – most days were mapped out for me and I didn’t re­ally have to think about it. As a mum, I not only have to think about my­self but two other small peo­ple (and their busy sched­ules), a dog, a hus­band and a house full of chores.

I de­cided to take med­i­ca­tion, which has def­i­nitely helped me to fol­low through. I’m also work­ing with a fan­tas­tic coach, who at the mo­ment is teach­ing me to plan and keep a vis­ual di­ary.

Im­por­tantly, my coach has helped me un­der­stand that with ADHD come many pos­i­tive at­tributes, as well – I’m cre­ative, in­tu­itive and kind. I am also highly per­cep­tive and often see things that other peo­ple miss. I am told that in the right fo­rum my abil­ity to ‘hy­per­fo­cus’ can be a great as­set! Just not for on­line shop­ping (oh well).

My son said some­thing funny the other day. He said, “Good job, Mum, you ac­com­plished one thing – and that is be­ing fin­ished!”

He knows me too well. I had to laugh.

MARK BRANDT­MAN

61, ed­u­ca­tional con­sul­tant I was di­ag­nosed 20 years ago after my son’s di­ag­no­sis. I re­call the pae­di­a­tri­cian de­scrib­ing my son’s be­hav­iour as ADHD and I won­dered, How did he know me so well?

Whilst I found the di­ag­no­sis ­con­fronting, it was some­what com­fort­ing to have an ex­pla­na­tion for the dif­fi­cul­ties I ex­pe­ri­enced through­out my life. Be­ing med­i­cated made a huge dif­fer­ence to me and within 18 months of be­ing med­i­cated I was self-em­ployed as an ADHD coach and men­tor.

Later I be­came chair of the ADHD Global Net­work, an in­ter­na­tional body try­ing to in­crease un­der­stand­ing of the con­di­tion, and I have also been in­volved with a num­ber of other ADHD sup­port or­gan­i­sa­tions, as well.

Med­i­ca­tion is one tool, which can be used to nor­malise brain chem­istry. It re­duces in­hibitory path­ways in the brain and al­lows me to ac­cess my abil­ity. I’m less dis­tracted, I have be­come bet­ter or­gan­ised. What would oth­er­wise take me an ex­tended pe­riod of time takes me no time at all. I can com­plete tasks 75 per cent faster and 50 per cent eas­ier than be­fore.

The real tragedy is that only a tiny per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion with this con­di­tion is ever di­ag­nosed. And there is a real stigma to be­ing ADHD, which is cruel and ig­no­rant, and hin­ders a qual­ity of life that these peo­ple would oth­er­wise have ac­cess to with treat­ment.

“Med­i­ca­tion is one tool, which can be used to nor­malise brain chem­istry. It re­duces in­hibitory path­ways in the brain and al­lows me to ac­cess my abil­ity.” – Mark Brandt­man

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