The Gift of an ADHD Diagnosis — No, Really
This is the story of how one parent discovered, hidden in her children’s ADHD diagnoses, the gift of a more authentic and relaxed life. No, seriously, it’s a true story. About me.
It was December 31, 2013, and I was spending New Year’s Eve getting a second opinion from a pediatric neurologist. Though my then-2-year-old son and then-3-year-old daughter had very different symptoms, both received the same diagnoses that day: Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) and ADHD.
The diagnoses didn’t come as a complete surprise. In fact, PDD-NOS made sense; they both had been having global delays for over a year. I also understood the ADHD diagnosis for my son; he had lots of trouble paying attention and was really hyperactive. However, I didn’t think it made sense for my daughter. This highly regarded neurologist answered all of my questions, but I still wasn’t entirely convinced. I knew I needed to understand the condition better, and so I set off to learn all I could about ADHD.
The Eye-Opening “A-Ha” Moment
In my search for information, I stumbled upon Dr. Gabor Mate’s book, Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It. I couldn’t put it down. I was shocked to find it was like reading my own life story — the work-a-holism, perfectionism, disconnection from relationships, emotional sensitivity and occasional numbing with food and/or alcohol.
I nodded my head as he described the “hectic lifestyles, unresolved personal problems, and tensions — conscious or unconscious” found in the environment of someone with ADHD. Dr. Mate’s nuanced descriptions helped me understand that there was so much more to ADHD than just hyperactivity and difficulty paying attention. It also prompted me to think I might have it, too.
Tears began to fall as I read one passage in particular:
“ADD has much to do with pain, present in every one of the adults and children who have come to me for assessment. The deep emotional hurt they carry is telegraphed by the downcast, averted eyes, the rapid, discontinuous flow of speech, the tense body postures, the tapping feet and fidgety hands and by the nervous, self-deprecating humor.”
It was as if he knew me personally. Like many of you reading this, I had experienced a great deal of pain in my life. My pain came in various forms — most notably, my parents’ divorce when I was 8, the deaths of close grandparents soon afterward, and painful insecurities, coupled with strict parenting — that led to relationship issues and isolation. I was certain I had dealt with all of these issues by my late 20s, but I had really only suppressed them. And, so, here I was in my 30s realizing that I was ill-equipped to truly deal with my own emotions.
At that time, I was a Type A poster child. I was a competitive, driven, and controlling person. I was the classic overachiever and beyond stressed in all aspects of my life. All the repressed emotions and mismanaged stress in my life were literally making me sick. I had chronic pain and I got respiratory infections, usually pneumonia or bronchitis, every year for five years. I was always in a hurry and had very little patience. I sighed at the most minor of inconveniences. I was a people-pleaser who had spent most of my life seeking approval and doing what I “should.”
I didn’t realize that all of the doing, achieving, and controlling was just compensating for low self-esteem and unhappiness.
It was a relief to finally have a name put to my experiences. But what could be done about it? When I read Dr. Mate’s description of ADHD as an impairment — not a medical illness — I was hopeful. He likened ADHD to poor eyesight — an impaired condition without an underlying disease. He explained that, while there may be a genetic predisposition, ADHD is far from predetermined or irreversible. Both genes and environment are needed to cause the impairment.
I was beyond excited about this information. I had always said I didn’t care what my kids’ conditions were called; I just wanted to get them the help they needed. This meant that I could do something to help my children and myself. I certainly could not control the gene portion of the equation, but I could, without a doubt, work on the environment.
Wanting to make a change and actually making changes were two totally different things. What finally compelled me to make changes was Dr. Mate’s comments on the multi-generational nature of suffering — how the effects of suffering are passed down from one generation to the next. I knew this to be true — at least anecdotally. The environments my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had experienced in their lives were far from idyllic and in many ways much worse than any pain I had ever had. Each generation did the best it could (and, in many ways, each successive environment was better than the one that preceded it). Still, our family was subconsciously repeating many of the same patterns.
I wanted to make a conscious effort to reverse the tide. It took me some time to summon the courage, but I eventually took an honest look at my life, my actions, and my decisions. And let me tell you: It wasn’t pretty. There was more than a little crying as the anger, regret, and unprocessed emotions rose to the surface. As hard as it was, I found this self-examination process to be cathartic and liberating.
I started the process by reading a ton (something I have loved to do since I was a child). Each book peeled back a different layer for me. I learned valuable lessons about true forgiveness, self-worth, vulnerability, authenticity, and shame. Beyond the books, I used therapy and other alternative healing practices like Reiki, learning about the chakras, and meditation.
The old me would have said, “I don’t have time for this kind of stuff,” and it’s not as if more hours magically appeared in my day. My schedule was still very chaotic. Though I had left the corporate world shortly after my daughter was born, I was on the clock 24/7 for two very demanding (little) bosses.
On top of the craziness of caring for two toddlers, I was at the mercy of their very time-consuming therapy schedules and their unpredictable meltdowns. Nannies or sitters weren’t an option due to finances, my control issues, and my genuine concern for their safety. (I didn’t feel comfortable letting anyone else try to anticipate and stave off their meltdowns and impulsive actions for any significant amount of time.)
How pray tell did I manage to make changes? For starters, the Kindle app on my phone became my best friend. I read in any spare time; I mean a handful of minutes here and there. In small doses, I managed to watch some pretty incredible TEDx Talks (like both of Brené Brown’s talks) and movies on Amazon Prime Video and Netflix (Marlee Matlin’s “What the Bleep Do We Know?” and Wayne Dyer’s “The Shift” are two examples). When my kids finally started preschool for a couple of hours a day, I went to therapy during the very small window between dropping them off and picking them up.
The old me would have also skeptically doubted any solution, but I had finally reached the point where I was willing to try anything. Even though the results were not immediate, I stuck with it and I am continuing to make changes to our environment. Thankfully, I can definitely say it is working.
This article in itself is proof that I have become a less fearful and more authentic person. I had stopped keeping journals years ago because I never wanted anyone to know my inner most thoughts. I was always afraid of what others would think and that they would use my feelings against me. Now, here I am sharing very personal information with complete strangers in the hope that it will inspire you to examine your own environment and make any necessary changes.
I know I’m engaged in an on-going process and that it would be easier to fall back into old habits, but I also know the results are worth the effort. These days I am calmer and not so quick to anger. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no saint. I still get angry with my kids, but I refrain from yelling almost all of the time. I can usually stop before it starts, as one of my kids usually reminds me to take deep breaths (I’m glad they are listening to me; I taught them this trick to manage their own emotions).
Others have noticed and commented on how I seem more relaxed and less stressed. I am grateful for these compliments, but I’m happier with the impact on my kids. My kids’ doctors now expect them to “grow out of” their conditions — both the delays and the ADHD. And in addition to the usual comments I get about how much energy my kids have, I also get comments on how happy they are. To me, there is no greater gift.