How My Burden Was Lifted

After facing college dismissal, Brian Polk was diagnosed with ADHD and began using coaching, medication and counseling to earn his degree and become a teacher.

ADD / ADHD In College ADDitude Magazine

My own ADHD helps me recognize it in some of my students — and I think that makes me a better teacher.

Brian Polk, 11th grade math teacher

Teaching in an inner city high school is a demanding job — one that might seem impossible for someone with ADHD. But 24-year-old ADDer Brian Polk is now in his second year of teaching ninth and 11th grade mathematics at a Detroit magnet school — and loving it. It took coaching, medication, psychological counseling — and lots of his own hard work — to earn his college degree and put his gifts to work where they’re so needed.

Brian: I did well in high school. Math and science came easily to me, and I was a good test-taker. I found it hard to write papers and hand in homework, but I told myself I’d be more organized in college. That didn’t happen. My freshman year was one big writer’s block. I was put on academic probation, and in May I got a letter telling me that I was dismissed. I hadn’t written a single paper.

Geri Markel, Ph.D. [an educational psychologist and ADHD coach in Ann Arbor, Michigan]: Brian’s experience is quite common. In high school, smart kids with ADHD can use their intelligence to compensate for their vulnerabilities. He had earned good grades and scored 1550 on his SAT. Then he hit a wall. He fell into a cycle of procrastination and perfectionism that made it impossible to complete his coursework.

Eileen Polk [Brian’s mother, a librarian in Detroit]: We didn’t find out about Brian’s problems until the dismissal letter came. My husband and I sat down with him for a long talk. That’s when Brian said, “I think there’s something the matter with me. I’ve thought so for a long time.” It was very upsetting for all of us.

Richard Polk [Brian’s father, a lawyer in suburban Detroit]: We’re a close family. When the kids need help, they don’t hesitate to come to us. But Brian didn’t know how to tell us about his problem. I have a friend and client who is a psychotherapist specializing in educational problems. I told her about Brian. She said it sounded like ADHD and gave us the name of a psychologist to test Brian. She also referred us to Geri Markel.

Brian: I was diagnosed with moderate ADHD, inattentive type. When I got the diagnosis, it felt like a burden had been lifted off my shoulders. I was relieved to find that there was a name for what was going on. My doctor prescribed medication and suggested that I work with a coach. The drug I took helped a bit, but it was Geri who helped me develop good study habits.

Geri: ADHD is complicated. It affects one’s motivation and willingness to try things. Brian had to make the transition from being “gifted” to being “gifted with a glitch.” He had to move from effortless use of his brain to accepting that competent people also use study tools in order to succeed. He had to learn to do things step by step.

I met with Brian once a week for about a year, and after that we kept in touch by phone. I observed how Brian approached problems. Lots of times, he would get a brilliant idea, start brainstorming, and then quickly get overwhelmed. I put a limit on how long he could brainstorm before moving on to the next step.

Brian: Because I had a diagnosable disorder, the university was required to give me another shot. I went back to Ann Arbor in the fall of 2001 and spent a semester making up incompletes. In the spring, I re-enrolled in a full schedule of coursework.

The first time I’d enrolled at the university, my advisor had suggested scheduling classes back to back, so I wouldn’t waste time on breaks. That was a mistake. I’d get overloaded when switching subjects, and that made it hard to get anything done. When I re-enrolled, there was a one-hour break between two of my classes. That wasn’t enough time to go home, so I would sit outside my next classroom and do my homework from the previous class. It worked so well that I scheduled breaks between classes for the rest of my college career.

Another thing that made a big difference was finding the right medication. I switched during Christmas break the year I went back to college, and it was like night and day. Suddenly, I was a better reader. For the first time ever, I was able to recognize all those literary devices my teachers had always talked about—things like “recurrent themes.” I could see them, because I was paying better attention to the text. I actually started looking forward to writing papers. I had a lot to say.

Things were better even in math classes, where I had never had much trouble, because now I could actually do all my homework.


This article comes from the December 2006/January 2007 issue of ADDitude.

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