Now I Understand

My son’s ADD diagnosis inspired me to examine my own fears and preconceptions, seek a diagnosis and form a family treatment team.

I had always considered David a bright kid. He seemed interested in everything and capable of grasping complex topics. True, he made careless mistakes in school. But I was sure that, as he got older – and with a little extra help from me and my wife – he would be more careful on tests and
assignments

At the beginning of his third-grade year, the school invited parents to a presentation on attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD). I decided to attend, but only to assure myself that David did not have the condition. Sure enough, as I viewed the film that accompanied the talk, it seemed obvious that I was right. The kids in the film were in non-stop motion, unable to sit still and constantly bothering their classmates. They were clearly hyperactive. David didn’t seem that way to me, and his teacher agreed. She told us that his “lively personality” wasn’t a serious problem. As third grade progressed, though, I became more concerned about David’s academic difficulties.

Not college material?

In Germany, where we live, good marks in the third and fourth grades are necessary for admission to the Gymnasium, the academic program that is a prerequisite to college. My wife began to think that David might not be suited for the Gymnasium. I couldn’t accept that.

Did a few spelling errors really mean David wasn’t college material? I’m a terrible speller, and I went to college. I’ve had a successful career as a system and network administrator, and I have written several books and dozens of articles. Misspelling a few words does not mean you can’t be successful. My wife suggested that I wanted David to go to college for my sake, not his.

The root of my fears

I grew up in San Jose, California, where my mother was a school psychologist. I still remember the stories she told about how kids who were hard to handle were often “branded” hyperactive. They were placed in special-education classes or put on “drugs” – making them easier to manage in the regular classroom.

My initial aversion to considering the possibility that David had ADD stemmed, in part, from my fear that he would likewise be labeled with a “mental disorder.” The possibility that my “imperfect” son might be unable to achieve the things I had hoped for him troubled me. Then, of course, there was the issue of “drugs.” I didn’t want to medicate David just for the sake of his teachers.

At the end of third grade, the school psychologist tested David and concluded that he had above-average intelligence and wasn’t hyperactive, but that he had trouble focusing. The doctor to whom we were referred had a two-month waiting list. I was glad for the wait, as it gave us time to try David on various nutritional and training methods. We saw little change, other than the bad breath from the fish oil capsules.

The wait also gave me a chance to read up on ADD. It was a relief to learn that – far from being a mental disorder – ADD is simply a difference in the way the brain works. Some kids David’s age need glasses because their eyes are “different.” David’s situation was comparable.

One book I read indicated that ADD is hereditary – usually passing from father to child. Suddenly, things became clearer. Aside from being a poor speller, I’ve always taken things too personally. I tend to overreact – or argue things to death. Over the years, I had all sorts of nasty episodes – including some with co-workers – that almost got me into serious trouble. At one point, things got so bad that I began seeing a psychologist. She called my behavior a “defense mechanism.” Now I know that she missed the diagnosis by a mile.

Giving meds a try

When the doctor finally saw David, he suggested medication as one option, though he was careful to warn us about possible side effects. My wife tends to believe that “doctors know best,” so she was in favor of medication from the start. I wanted David to have the best chances of success-but I didn’t want to “drug” him.

Eventually, we agreed to start David on a small dosage to see how he did, then increase it, as needed, until we found the right level. David also started attending group therapy. I attended a few sessions as an observer. The idea was to become familiar with the techniques being used, so that we could practice the same things at home.

Joining forces

By this time, I was pretty sure that I, too, had ADD. I asked David’s therapist to recommend someone who treated adults. I promptly made an appointment. At the first visit, the therapist gave me a symptoms questionnaire. I filled it out and asked my boss to fill out a copy about me. (I had told him that I suspected I had the disorder, and he had been supportive.) Both of our responses suggested that I did, in fact, have ADD. I was not exactly happy to learn that, but at least I had a condition with a name, something I could deal with.

After undergoing tests to make sure I was healthy enough to handle the medication, I started on a program similar to the one that has been so helpful to David. Although he continues to make spelling mistakes, he is holding his own at the Gynmasium. In fact, his mid-year grades were better than we had expected.

It’s been almost a year, and I feel calmer and happier than ever before. I’m not angry that my son and I were created like this, nor disappointed that neither of us is perfect. And it’s been great for David to know that he is not alone. Now, when I see David getting frustrated for losing his concentration or making mistakes, I can talk with him as someone who knows. I can share my own experiences and problems.

Each morning, as he gets ready for school and I get ready for work, we remind each other to take our pills. For us, ADD is a shared condition, and we have joined forces to overcome it.

James Mohr is a computer system administrator who lives in Untersiemau, Germany, with his wife and their two sons, David and 18-year-old Daniel.

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