Positive Parenting

‘I Almost Didn’t Make It Through High School’

Help arrived in the form of a ADHD coach. But was Rob really ready to make life changes?

ADHD Teens and Substance Abuse
ADHD Teens and Substance Abuse

Rob Surratt, age 21, has struggled with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) for most of his school career. When help arrived a little more than three years ago, in the form of a life coach, Rob was a willing candidate. But was he really ready to make major life changes? In this personal and revealing discussion, Rob, his parents, and coach Jodi Sleeper-Triplett talk about his 16-year-long battle with ADHD, and about the challenges he’s met along the way.

Walt, Rob’s dad: Rob was officially diagnosed with ADHD as an eighth-grade student in Fairfax, Virginia. As early as preschool, Rob showed some of the classic signs of ADHD. He had difficulty staying still or paying attention for an extended period of time. This behavior prompted his kindergarten teacher to recommend delaying first grade by a year. He did pretty well in elementary school, but in junior high things started to slip. A constant stream of phone calls from the school began. They’d say: “Rob’s been disruptive.” “He won’t stop talking.” “He’s so easily distracted.” “He can’t focus.” We tried Ritalin and Concerta at different times. They seemed to help, but he often refused to take medication because he didn’t like the way it made him feel. We also took him to counselors in junior high school, but they didn’t help much.

Sharon, Rob’s mom: Because Rob wasn’t classified as severe, he was never assigned a teaching aid. During his sophomore year in high school, he started to get discouraged. He was having so much trouble getting organized. He’d forget about homework assignments or study for a test but not do well. I hated being the nagger. I would try to be like a coach and approach things more positively. That worked when he was younger, but it didn’t work when he became a teenager. He began to resent me. Sometimes he’d just walk away while I was talking. Other times, he’d stand there with his arms crossed, with a look on his face that said he was merely tolerating me. When I was finished talking, he’d leave without saying anything.

He began to spend a lot of time away from home — he worked part-time for an auto-body shop, he’d go to friends’ houses. It was then that he started to make a lot of bad decisions, choosing to self-medicate with marijuana and alcohol. The stress was too much for him. He was close to failing in school, and things got harder each year. We couldn’t imagine him going to college. We didn’t think he’d even make it out of high school. At the time, I was managing an office for a local psychiatrist, who gave me the name of a life coach. I’d never even heard of such coaches, but we were intrigued because it was a different approach. We figured, why not use a third party?

Rob: Since I first started school, sitting in a classroom has always been a challenge. Instead of listening to the teacher, I’d be banging on my desk, kicking my legs, constantly asking to go to the bathroom. I needed to get up and move.

I was bad about taking my ADHD medicine. It wasn’t time-released and I hated the way it made me feel all jacked-up. In high school, things got worse. I was expected to sit at my desk for two hours, take a 10-minute break, and go back to another two-hour class. By the end of my sophomore year, I was smoking pot every day after school to calm me down. I was drinking, too. As a kid with ADHD, you just feel different from everyone else. Drinking can be a common ground with other kids.

By junior year, with a grade-point average hovering around D+, I started lashing out at my teachers when they singled me out for misconduct or inattentiveness. I hated that the other kids were looking at me. I was angry with my parents all the time. When you’re a teenager, you already feel like you’re alone — having ADHD made me feel more alone.

I went to an outpatient drug rehab for four months during my junior year. Two days after I got out, I started smoking again. In senior year, I began dealing drugs. Around this time I remember my dad saying to me, “Rob, you have so much potential. You’re such a bright kid and you’re just throwing it all away.” That resonated with me. I thought, “What are you doing? You’re snuffing your life out.”

And then, at the end of my senior year, my best friend’s little sister died in a boating accident. The guy who killed her was drunk. I had totaled my own truck two months before. I walked away with a broken nose — I wasn’t wearing a seat belt — but no one else was injured. I felt like I’d been given a second life and that God wanted me to do something with it.

Jodi Sleeper-Triplett (a master certified coach in Herndon, Virginia): I was originally hired in early 2001 to help with Rob’s academics. It was the usual stuff for kids with ADHD. He wasn’t into school. Wasn’t taking his medication regularly. Socially, he was fine. He had a lot of friends. Part of my role is to coach Rob with making choices, like when to go a party, when to do homework, how to keep medication on track. Initially, we spent a half-hour on the phone each week. In the beginning, I’d occasionally talk to his parents. But they let him do his own thing with the coaching.

A lot of our focus was on trying to improve his organizational skills and time management. So when it came to long-term projects, we’d talk about ways he was going to break things down to get the work done in time. It’s professional nagging, but done in a way that is a partnership. The child benefits because he feels he has to be accountable to a third party, and the parents no longer have to be the naggers, so the relationships improve.

When Rob finally disclosed his drug and alcohol problem, we had been working together for six months. He apologized for keeping it from me. I simply said, “Thanks for sharing and are you ready to continue?”

Sometimes I can tell when someone is using, but with Rob I couldn’t. Although, once I found out, it made a lot of sense, since we had really struggled to get on track for six months. When he stopped using drugs and alcohol, there was a significant shift in the effectiveness of the sessions, and his schoolwork improved too. He was already in a program for his drug use, so I could continue to focus on school issues.

What a coach does is to put structure in place for someone whose brain doesn’t do it naturally. Being accountable to someone else is the key to the client’s success. Great, supportive parents are also important. A coach must never be judgmental. You might be questioned, but the client never sees you as a threat. It’s a true partnership — I’m not a parental figure, not a therapist, not a teacher.

Rob: Jodi showed me little ways to cope. She recommended I listen to classical music and Gregorian chants when I study. All of my friends are like, dude, you’re weird, you listen to Bach to do your homework? But I know it stimulates something in my mind that puts me into school mode.

Jodi also taught me how to use ADHD as an advantage. She encouraged me to use spontaneity — an ADHD trait — to find things I’m passionate about. I’m creative, but I always got C’s and D’s in English. For me, writing was hard until my senior year, when I wrote a paper about my grandfather. He was running a gun on a destroyer, and the gun got jammed and killed his friend. I wrote about what the experience must have been like from his point of view. I got an A. I wasn’t smoking anymore and I was taking my medicine. I was able to write the paper in an hour. It was unbelievable that I could focus so well.

Writing that paper helped things click for me. By eleventh grade, I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how. By twelfth grade, thanks to Jodi, I had the tools to know how to change. I feel so blessed to have all these people who care about me — people who I had turned my back on in anger. I became a Christian and I’m active in church now. I work with inner-city kids as part of a church program. I tell them where it’s at and that there’s a lot more to life than dealing or doing drugs.

For kids out there like me, there are so many ways to take that first step. A coach definitely helps, and so do supportive parents. But the question you have to ask is ‘Do you want to change?’ Just because you have ADHD doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed. People with ADHD are people who take risks.

After three-and-a-half years of coaching, Rob no longer self-medicates with marijuana, and he’s closer than ever with his parents. He’s gained 40 pounds in muscle, thanks to daily weight-training workouts, and believes that regular exercise is a must for anyone with ADHD. Rob also improved his grades in his senior year, and maintained a B average at a community college he attended for two years. Always ready for a challenge, he applied to the University of Hawaii — and was accepted. He’ll begin this fall as a second-semester sophomore studying marketing. He says that the next time you’re in Hawaii, look him up… if he’s not in class, he’ll probably be surfing. The tide has definitely turned for Rob.

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