Studies show that adult attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) is treated successfully with a combination of medication and behavior therapy. But not all adults diagnosed with attention deficit embrace ADHD help and seek treatment. Many see their ADD-related traits of creativity, ability to multi-task, and entrepreneurial energy as germane to who they are and their successes in life.
"People worry that ADHD treatment will change how they work and how others view them — and they're afraid of what the changes in themselves will bring," says David Fassler, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington.
As Jet Blue Airways founder and out-of-the-box thinker David Neeleman told us in our last issue, "If someone told me you could be normal or you could continue to have your adult ADD, I would take ADD."
As it was for the thousands of Americans who lived this scenario last year, an ADD diagnosis in adulthood rarely comes as a complete surprise, and often carries with it a mixed bag of emotions. Mixed, because many know that ADD isn't all about problems. Called "a wonderful condition," by expert Ned Hallowell, M.D., who has ADD himself, it has led to highly energetic, creative, original thinkers, some of whom are the great entrepreneurs of our day.
At the same time, most adults with ADD know that they have more difficulties than others with organization, focus, and productivity. "As far back as I can remember, I've always felt out of step with the rest of society," says Debra Brooks, a 48-year-old, Portland-based business consultant and mother of three, who was diagnosed in February 2004. "I just didn't know there was a name for it."
Those diagnosed often feel relief at knowing why they are the way they are, but this can be tinged with regret for past struggles, and for what might have been had they been diagnosed earlier in their lives. "I love my parents," says Thomas Snodgrass, age 33, of Forest Hill, Maryland, who was diagnosed with ADHD in 2004. "But I was angry at first that they did not see my ADHD traits as a child."
Today, he remembers school years filled with angst because of his inability to focus. "I was in the smartest classes, but I always got the lowest grades," he says. He was told again and again by his teachers that he wasn't working up to his potential.
In fact, it's a child's diagnosis that often leads a parent to be tested for and diagnosed with ADD. A parent may see her beloved son or daughter struggle at school in ways that remind her of her own school days. If her child is diagnosed with ADD, the parent will probably learn that the condition is hereditary, with a 40 percent chance that one or both parents has ADD as well. Her ongoing struggles with attention, organization, or forgetfulness might lead to a willingness to be tested, as well.
Other newly diagnosed ADD adults may be carrying heavier baggage. "Research shows that adults with ADHD are more likely than non-ADHD adults to have been left back a grade, make less money, smoke, and depend on alcohol and drugs," says Lenard Adler, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology and the director of the adult ADHD program at New York University. In fact, a diagnosis of adult ADHD sometimes occurs when a person is undergoing psychological evaluation to determine the causes of ongoing depression, a failing marriage, or problems at work.
Even if there are no major problem areas in their life, a diagnosis of ADHD can throw adults off balance, because the condition in adulthood is still little known. Experts estimate that about 80 percent of adults with the disorder — roughly 5 million — haven't been officially diagnosed, primarily because ADHD was not seen as a condition that persists into adulthood until about 20 years ago. "Doctors used to be taught that ADHD affected only children," explains Dr. Adler. "But now we know that, although hyperactivity may wane, symptoms such as inattention and impulsivity continue into adulthood."
Says Debra Brooks: "Even though my diagnosis made sense, I just couldn't or didn't want to believe it. I asked everyone — my husband, my kids, friends — whether they thought I had ADHD. They all said they did. I was shocked that everyone had suspected something but me."
This article appears in the February/March issue of ADDitude.
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To connect with adults recently diagnosed with ADHD, visit the Just Diagnosed With ADHD support group on ADDConnect.