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“Where Are All the ADHD Role Models?”

ADHD is embarrassing. And misunderstood. And hidden from view, for the most part. Famous people with ADHD rarely talk about it, so it’s up to us to wave our diagnosis high in the air — not as an excuse, but as a banner. Hey, we’re here. We have ADHD. And neurotypicals need to accept it already.

We know Carrie Fisher had BPD. We know Magic Johnson lives with HIV. Lady Gaga, Harrison Ford, and Jim Carrey have opened up about their mood disorders. John Mayer has revealed his panic attacks. Selena Gomez posted photos after her kidney transplant. The list of celebrities with health ailments — physical and mental — is long and esteemed.

Now, name a celebrity with ADHD, besides Michael Phelps and Adam Levine.

Blanking? Me, too. Evidently, there’s a long list of famous people just like us that includes Emma Watson and Zooey Deschanel, among others. But you don’t hear about it. They don’t talk about it. No one’s going out and campaigning for attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) causes, especially adult ADHD causes.

Society still sees adult ADHD as embarrassing. People imagine us making it up for any number of reasons — for the awesome, awesome drugs (eyeroll) or as a convenient excuse for forgetting important stuff. Or even if they believe we have it, adult ADHD often looks like irresponsible behavior. We’re late. We stare at our phones. We interrupt people; we have trouble with conversational turns and impulsivity in social situations. We space out, which makes us look like we don’t care. All this adds up to some serious social stigma.

So it’s no wonder that most celebrities don’t talk much about their ADHD. The rest of us don’t do it either. We already know not to. That’s because we read. We listen. And we see things like this in the comments section of an article about the increasing diagnosis of ADHD in young women: “It’s because children are getting instant gratification from everything, all on demand. No way can they sit and focus when they’re not used to things taking longer than five seconds.”

[“Is ADHD Real?” How to Respond to Doubters with Tact and Facts]

Or, “Past generations call ADHD bad behavior and had other solutions for its treatment. Now the monster pharmaceutical companies convience [sic] doctors to push these pills on anyone who thinks they can not focus. It is the zombie pill. No wonder so many of this generation like all the zombie crap on TV. Keep taking the meds and soon you will all be good little boys and girls under the man’s [sic] control.”

Or, from a physician: “Over-diagnosis is a real problem today.”

These are three comments. There are eight in total.

No wonder we keep our mouths shut. We’re in danger of being told we’re just Millennials/Gen Xers/Baby Boomers weaned on instant gratification; we should have just been spanked harder as kids and now we take “zombie pills” that make us stupid; or we may not have the diagnosis in the first place. It’s bad enough to read this kind of stuff on the Internet. Now imagine that coming out of the mouth of someone you know.

Or, almost worse, we know we’ll get the “have-you-tried’s.” Because we don’t really have a disorder, one that requires pharmaceutical intervention for us to function on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis, the field’s wide open for things that could, potentially, make all of our ADHD go away. “Have  you tried essential oils?” I’ve had people ask me numerous times. “You know, you could get off that medication if you just meditated,” one woman confided in me. Or just, “You should go for a run sometime.” And the dreaded, “Just focus harder.”

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I can’t. Literally. That’s how my brain is wired.

While some of these solutions may help as part of a comprehensive ADHD treatment program, they are never going to replace therapy and the supervision of medical professionals — and, for many (most) of us, medication. If we don’t want to practice the thin-lipped smile, which we couple with a “I’ll have to look into that,” it’s easier not to tell.

Worst of all, we might get the “OMG, I know what you mean! I’m so ADHD, too!” Which is wonderful if the person truly does have ADHD. Except they most often don’t. They begin to rattle off run-of-the-mill forgetfulness, say things like, “I am so spacey!” They spout the worst ADHD stereotypes, the look-a-squirrel trope, the I-forgot-my-purse-and-it’s-in-my-hand. They minimize the suffering we go through every day with things like executive function deficit and emotional dysregulation. ADHD isn’t about forgetting your damn keys. It’s a whole host of symptoms and issues that stem from a kind of brain chemistry.

It cannot be cured with your essential oils. I suggest you back away slowly after suggesting that.

ADHD is not pretty. It’s not the manic pixie dream girl floating through life on a cloud of distractibility and sudden whimsy. ADHD is hard. ADHD can be isolating, lonely, and frustrating. It can end up making lots of people angry, like when you swear you’ll do your wedding thank-you notes, and you write them beautifully, and you stick them in the closet, and you never ever mail them and people think you’re an ungrateful brat. (Ask some of my wedding guests, especially the very generous ones, how they feel about my gratitude levels, and you’re likely to get an earful.)

This is what ADHD looks like. This is why no one campaigns for us, no celebrity comes out and talks about his or her hardest struggles. No one gets up on a platform and tells the truth. Because the truth is messy. The truth is not what the public wants to think it is. It’s why most of us ADHDers take our pills and keep our silence. There are millions of us in America. But you’d never know it. We’re too ashamed to speak out. The public’s made it that way. That shame has kept so many from getting the help they need.

As much as it sucks, as scary as it is, as much as you’ll want to hit the hippie who tells you about essential oils, speak up and speak out. Tell your friends, your co-workers, your colleagues. Wave your diagnosis like a flag: not as an excuse, but as a banner. We’re here. We have ADHD.

And damn it, you neuros need to get used to it.

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9 Comments & Reviews

  1. This article is so true. My daughter has been diagnosed with ADHD/ODD and mental health disorders. I have been very vocal sharing our struggles. We live in Toronto and Maya is 11. We have switched schools three times, have switched medication many times. There is very little support other than this magazine. What about groups for kids with these issues so they can meet kids that are similar. People do not talk about ADHD/ODD. I have left my very high paying job to advocate for my brilliant creative daughter. I would love to see more awareness. Maya has been taught to accept her challenges but not easy for others to accept her. Week-ends go by and never a playdate, never a birthday party but she loves her animals and adults. Together we could provide so much more support.
    Love this blog. Great work

  2. I agree with almost everything you said. I have been diagnosed with adult ADHD and my 14 yo son has also been diagnosed with ADD – mixed type since he was 7. Treatment is a 3 prong approach – medicine, therapy, and educational/work plans. However, we do use essential oils to help with some of the focus and anxiety issues that come with these diagnoses. No one whom I have spoken to about this will ever say it will cure our ADHD, but they do help and we have been able to cut back on our meds. Calling those of us who seek alternate treatments hippies is just as demeaning as those who don’t understand what we all go through every day. If you don’t know about something, you shouldn’t comment so critically.

  3. I have a 6 year old son with ADHD. The role model I provide for him is me. I am not diagnosed as ADHD but as I study to try to find ways to help him I realize how well I fit the bill. It is a relief to know that all these years it wasn’t that I was slow lazy stupid or incompetent, because that is how I felt. Over time I have met people who believed in me and could see something more. They encouraged me to keep trying and aim for the stars. I have learned my own strategies for coping and am finding success. My son doesn’t need to look up to some celebrity to find a role model. I share my strggle and his very openly. Yes, every once in awhile I get that crazy look from someone, but I dont care. The more we talk about it the more normal it makes it and if I find someone with similar struggles I hope I have just helped them to feel they can talk more openly about it as well so we don’t feel as isolated and alone. I also hope that my contiual conversations will open doors for my son giving others insight into how real and constant his struggle is. It is hard and yes some will judge but the people who don’t will be a little more open to how we operate. And by sharing my struggle with my son he knows he is not alone. I share with him the strategies I have found that work for me and I admit to him my mistakes when I find it getting the best of me which happens more then I’d like to admit. We might not be celebrities but we are in this together he and I. ADHD is not only our superpower but it is sometimes our weakness as well.

  4. Leonardo Da Vinci probably had it. His father had to punish him for cutting school, and he was notorious for not completing commissions because he was absorbed by other interests. It is just as well. if he had stuck to painting , he would have been just another Renaissance artist, and in my opinion, “La Gioconda (Mona Lisa)” has always been highly overrated.

  5. Your article tells me that you’ve been told that your struggling brain will never change. I’m not sure who has been in your circle to leave you with such a dismissal picture but there is much hope for the ADHD brain to resolve its undeveloped functional disconnections and get rid of many of your limiting symptoms. No rational educated parent wants their child to go through life with an undeveloped brain. Dr. Melillo was one such parent and he developed an exercise, activity, and food plan to increase development in the ADHD brain. Read Disconnected Kids and start helping your brain work better and more efficiently without meds and the need for accommodations.
    Brain Balance has had over 44,000 kiddos through their program. It works at home or at a center. I urge you to do something different than what you’ve been told is the only option. Meds and behavioral therapy are not get to the root cause option… they are only accommodations. Read Harvard’s Dr. Martin Teichers research on neuromotor programs to strengthen the ADHD brain to resolve the root cause. Best of healing to you

  6. I appreciate this post tremendously. As I read your essay, I clearly saw people from my life who fit into each category. The experiences that frustrate the most are from individuals who should know better. Specifically, docs who are not psychiatrists.

    I was diagnosed as an adult about 20 years ago. Since then, most the strategies I’ve learned have come from my own trial and error (and error, and error, etc.). For me, proper medication has been critical.

    You discuss push-back in your essay by alluding to individuals who dismiss the diagnosis, claim that meds are toxic, and/or suggest alternative treatments.

    Given this, I was surprised to read comments that re-affirmed our collective frustration.

    Folks, there are many approaches that can contribute to effective treatment for ADHD. Often, medication may not be the best choice. Often there is no single treatment that works but a mixture of approaches. I don’t think the author was saying that essential oils can’t work. Rather, I think the point was that many of us are frustrated when our condition(s) are trivialized or we are told that THIS is the best treatment or THAT will be a cure.

    While a “cure” might exist, I do not know of one. I’m buoyed by the notion that I – and others – may find an effective management system that is adaptable and can last for the rest of our lives.

    To find such a system, I choose to consider most ideas as long as they don’t preclude evidence based treatment. So bring on the essential oil. Bring on the exercise, rigorous sleep hygiene, thoughtful diet, and odd but effective organizational systems.

    To those who dismiss ADHD and its frequent comorbidities as “fake”, or tell me the medication that saved my life is “toxic” … f*#k ‘em.

  7. I’ve had this ADD crap since age 6. I was diagnosed just last year at age 60. ADD is nothing to boast or brag about. For me nothing good has ever resulted from it. It has caused me too many embarrassing social faux pas. It has ruined numerous friendships and almost got me fired once. I know that there is no cure for this. I just want to be able to recognize and suppress its terrible effects and disguise its outward signs.

    I struggled to get through engineering school. It took me 4 1/2 years to do what normal people do in 4. By sheer determination I have a good reputation at work. People think I’m a little eccentric but revealing the actual name of this disease will send my bosses and peers to the internet. That will be a disaster that will start a whispering campaign and ruin all I’ve worked for.

    You want to emulate celebrity role models who have outed themselves for ADD or ADHD? Just remember that these people are multimillionaires. Do you have $1M in the bank? Do you have a mortgage? How about a car payment? Kids in college? Don’t let your own mouth be your own worst enemy! I know what I’m talking about. I have worked only at for-profit companies and they do NOT tolerate incompetence, mistakes, missed deadlines or any kind of mealy-mouthed excuses of mental illness.

    If you need help, get help. Read ADDitude for valuable counsel and advice. And above all, do not reveal this ugly, embarrassing secret unless you want to sign the death warrant on your career.

  8. I have to repeat what I said immediately above. What the article doesn’t say is that Hollywood celebrities live on entirely higher plane than the rest of us. They can retire to Malibu or Coral Gables and tell the rest of the world to go **** themselves.

    We ordinary mortals cannot. In my humble opinion it is highly irresponsible to counsel ordinary people to reveal their ADD or ADHD brain quality control defect to the world, ESPECIALLY to their boss. For those who JUST DON’T GET IT, due to the pandemic some 30 MILLION Americans are out of work and facing eviction. For the hiring companies it’s a buyer’s market and they have thousands of good candidates to take your place.

    If your HR director ever finds out, you will end up on his secret list of layoff candidates. You will eventually get whacked and never find out the truth why. There is nothing to be gained by revealing this terrible secret, so why let you own mouth be your own worst enemy? You wouldn’t tell the world if you have gonorrhea, so why would you announce that you have ADD or ADHD? It’s none of anyone else’s damn business.

    So if you need help, get help. And read ADDitude for guidance and support.

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