It was December 31, 2013, and I was spending New Year's Eve getting a second opinion from a pediatric neurologist. Though my then-2-year-old son and then-3-year-old daughter had very different symptoms, both received the same diagnoses that day: Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) and ADHD.
The diagnoses didn't come as a complete surprise. In fact, PDD-NOS made sense; they both had been having global delays for over a year. I also understood the ADHD diagnosis for my son; he had lots of trouble paying attention and was really hyperactive. However, I didn't think it made sense for my daughter. This highly regarded neurologist answered all of my questions, but I still wasn't entirely convinced. I knew I needed to understand the condition better, and so I set off to learn all I could about ADHD.
The Eye-Opening "A-Ha" Moment
In my search for information, I stumbled upon Dr. Gabor Mate's book, Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It. I couldn't put it down. I was shocked to find it was like reading my own life story - the workaholism, perfectionism, disconnection from relationships, emotional sensitivity and occasional numbing with food and/or alcohol.
I nodded my head as he described the "hectic lifestyles, unresolved personal problems, and tensions — conscious or unconscious" found in the environment of someone with ADHD. Dr. Mate's nuanced descriptions helped me understand that there was so much more to ADHD than just hyperactivity and difficulty paying attention. It also prompted me to think I might have it, too.
Tears began to fall as I read one passage in particular: "ADD has much to do with pain, present in every one of the adults and children who have come to me for assessment. The deep emotional hurt they carry is telegraphed by the downcast, averted eyes, the rapid, discontinuous flow of speech, the tense body postures, the tapping feet and fidgety hands and by the nervous, self-deprecating humor." It was as if he knew me personally. Like many of you reading this, I had experienced a great deal of pain in my life. My pain came in various forms – most notably, my parents’ divorce when I was 8, the deaths of close grandparents soon afterward, and painful insecurities, coupled with strict parenting — that led to relationship issues and isolation. I was certain I had dealt with all of these issues by my late 20s, but I had really only suppressed them. And, so, here I was in my 30s realizing that I was ill-equipped to truly deal with my own emotions.
At that time, I was a Type A poster child. I was a competitive, driven, and controlling person. I was the classic overachiever and beyond stressed in all aspects of my life. All the repressed emotions and mismanaged stress in my life were literally making me sick. I had chronic pain and I got respiratory infections, usually pneumonia or bronchitis, every year for five years. I was always in a hurry and had very little patience. I sighed at the most minor of inconveniences. I was a people-pleaser who had spent most of my life seeking approval and doing what I "should."
I didn't realize that all of the doing, achieving, and controlling was just compensating for low self-esteem and unhappiness.
It was a relief to finally have a name put to my experiences. But what could be done about it? When I read Dr. Mate's description of ADHD as an impairment — not a medical illness — I was hopeful. He likened ADHD to poor eyesight — an impaired condition without an underlying disease. He explained that, while there may be a genetic predisposition, ADHD is far from predetermined or irreversible. Both genes and environment are needed to cause the impairment.
I was beyond excited about this information. I had always said I didn't care what my kids' conditions were called; I just wanted to get them the help they needed. This meant that I could do something to help my children and myself. I certainly could not control the gene portion of the equation, but I could, without a doubt, work on the environment.