“I’m a Better Father Now, a Better Person.”
A marital crisis caused one man to pursue an ADHD diagnosis at 37 years old. Learn how medication, exercise, and an ADHD coach helped him reclaim his life and relationships.
It’s been said that every crisis is also an opportunity. Jeff Hamilton certainly thinks so. A marital crisis gave the 40-year-old Vancouver, B.C., salesman and now-divorced father of two the opportunity to address the communication problems and chronic lack of focus that harmed his personal relationships and turned his work into an obstacle course. The crisis put him on a path that has made him, by his own account, a better and happier man.
Jeff Hamilton: My ex-wife and her mother were the ones who first suggested I get tested for ADHD. That was three years ago, as my marriage was coming apart.
My ex-mother-in-law had been a school principal, and she knew the symptoms of ADHD. A couples counselor agreed that my getting tested was a good idea. So I went to see Gabor Maté, M.D., the author of Scattered Minds: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It. He gave me a comprehensive test, and then the diagnosis became official. I have ADD.
Medication made a huge difference. After 37 years, my brain was finally working the way it was supposed to. It was like coming out of a fog. I could concentrate. I could listen to what people were saying and absorb new facts and ideas. I also became a little better at facing challenges. But I knew that taking pills wasn’t enough. I had to learn some basic life skills, like controlling my reactions and staying organized, especially when things went wrong.
Around the time I went on meds, I started looking for an ADHD coach. With Gabor’s help, I found Pete Quily, who also lives in Vancouver. Pete and I have been working together for more than two years now – a 45-minute phone call three times a month.
Pete Quily, Jeff’s ADHD coach: A lot of people with ADHD say they want to change, but they don’t really want to step out of their comfort zone. Not Jeff. He’s committed to getting better. He’s been willing to do the hard work, to do whatever it takes to overcome his problems.
Coaching is a big part of Jeff’s journey, but it’s not the only part. He read books about ADHD, got counseling, and joined a support group. Rather than merely take medication, Jeff has taken a multimodal approach. I think that’s why he’s made so much progress.
Jeff: I was never a good student. I would get two or three pages into something, and then have to go back and read it again. I couldn’t sustain my focus.
In college, I majored in business marketing, but I left before graduating. Out in the world, I couldn’t find anything I wanted to do. I gravitated to sales, which turned out to be a good fit for me. You’re not pinned to your desk, and you keep yourself busy with lots of different things, like traveling and giving presentations.
Working in sales allowed me to use my creative side. I started earning good money at an early age. Unfortunately, I was impatient, and I had a short fuse. I had a hard time listening to my boss telling me what to do. I’d get upset, we’d butt heads, and then it was “my way or the highway.” So I’d have to find another job.
An even bigger problem was my inability to be empathetic. I knew what empathy was, at least in theory. If I was speaking with a friend whose father had just died, I’d say what you were supposed to say, but I didn’t feel it deep down inside, where it counts, where you really relate to someone. I didn’t feel empathetic. That made it hard to understand people.
Medication helped with that problem. I’d been taking it for only two days when I started remembering all sorts of difficult incidents and situations from my life, and, for the first time, I felt emotions in a way that I imagine people who don’t have ADHD feel them.
I remembered when my kids were learning to walk, how they’d trip and fall. Now, all of a sudden, I could really feel how scared and upset they must have been. I also thought about my Mum, who went through a lot when she and Dad divorced. I finally understood how she must have felt.
Pete: Empathy is a problem for a lot of people with ADHD. That’s especially true for men with ADHD, because empathy isn’t a highly valued male trait in our culture. It’s something Jeff and I worked on – taking a step back and trying to see things from the other person’s perspective, actively putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. You have to do that over and over to make it second nature.
Jeff: “Take a step back” is a phrase that has come up repeatedly in my sessions with Pete. Before going on medication and starting with coaching, I could turn any disagreement into a toe-to-toe shouting match. I got into nasty arguments – at work, with my ex-wife during our divorce and custody battle, and with my sister, every time she said something that made me mad. It was all so unnecessary.
Now, when something bothers me, I might say, “I need to think about this,” or leave my desk for 10 minutes. I’ve learned to wait instead of firing back an answer to every e-mail that makes me sore.
This approach has made a big difference in the way I interact with my children, five-year-old Jackson and four-year-old Valerie. Like when I wanted to watch TV the other night, and Jackson and Valerie kept getting out of bed. Pete helped me accept the fact that this sort of thing happens, and that getting angry doesn’t help. Instead of yelling at my kids, I just got up and walked them back to bed.
“Take a step back” has also helped me adapt to changing situations. That’s something I always had trouble with. If the nanny called in sick, or the boss asked me to get something ready that I thought wasn’t due for a week, I couldn’t shift gears. Now when I feel overwhelmed and the walls are closing in, I grab a notepad, get up from my desk, and spend a few minutes coming up with a new plan.
Pete and I worked on developing my ability to listen. I’d look at my planner and pick out four meetings that were coming up. For each one, I’d plan to practice a few specific things that would improve my listening skills: Don’t talk until the other person has completed his sentence. Recap with them, to make sure you understood what they said. I wrote reminders to do these things at the top of my notepad.
Pete: Like many people with ADHD, Jeff had wildly unrealistic expectations for himself – of what he should be able to get done. He was always overcommitted, always ready to add something to his to-do list without taking anything away. It’s like assuming that God will grant you a few extra hours. At one point Jeff’s list contained 50 items. I got him to keep it down to 20.
I also helped Jeff accept the fact that life seldom unfolds on schedule or according to plan, and that it’s easier to stay on track if he builds “buffer times” – when nothing is scheduled – into his day. If something comes up, I tell him, you have to look at what you have left to do that day. Say you have 10 things, and there’s time for only five. Which do you want to do? You’ve lost X hours, and you have Y hours left. How do you want to use them?
Jeff: I’ve been working from home for nearly four years now. As a single father, I find that it makes life easier. I get to see more of my kids, and I don’t waste time driving to and from work or hanging out at the water cooler. I’m so productive that I get more done by noon than I used to get done in an entire day. I tell myself that, if I can’t make it working from home, I’ll end up in a cubicle with someone constantly breathing down my neck. It’s great motivation.
Pete: Unless they know how to slow down, people with ADHD can go till they drop. Especially if you work at home, it’s vital to set a time when the workday is over. Otherwise, you’re always working – and often burned out.
I persuaded Jeff to take frequent pit stops. Several times a day, he gets up from his desk and spends five to10 minutes walking around his office or around the block. The breaks help him relax, and relaxation helps him communicate better and be more patient.
Jeff: One thing I never leave out of my schedule is exercise. Around the time of my divorce, I had one of those moments when you wake up and look at yourself honestly. I was 40 pounds overweight, and my energy was shot. I still played hockey and went mountain biking, but I got winded easily and was prone to injuries. Now I eat right, work out in the gym, and run 10 kilometers three times a week.
Getting into shape has given me more energy and increased my ability to concentrate. Now I find that if I skip exercise for a day or two, I start to feel agitated. I know that I have to hit the gym.
Exercise was especially helpful a little over a year ago, when I went off medication. After taking a stimulant for about two years, I felt the benefits had maxed out. It wasn’t helping me do new things, and it was starting to make me feel over-stimulated. Whenever I skipped a dose, I felt better. I talked about this with Pete and my doctor, and they agreed it was time to try stopping meds.
I weaned myself off of them slowly. For six weeks, I took the pills every other day. Then every third day, then I was off. I’ve been off medication for 11 months now.
Pete: I urged Jeff to talk to his doctor about stopping medication, and I warned him about becoming too attached to the idea. Otherwise, if he went off meds and things didn’t go well, he would be incredibly frustrated.
Jeff: I have to say that I was worried about going off medication, because I had made such progress on it. Would it all fall by the wayside? As it turned out, I felt better right away. My new skills and ways of thinking had become part of me.
Realizing how much I have learned and the ways in which I have grown – that was a big turning point in my life. I’m a better father now, a better person. I have been dating, and I’m enjoying the experience of being single again. Being in tune with my communicative and emotional sides has definitely helped.
Coming to grips with ADD hasn’t been easy. But it’s been the best experience of my life.