Worth the Wait
Carolyn O’Neal cried when she was diagnosed with ADD at age 53 — until the news turned out good for her family.
A diagnosis of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) can transform an entire family. Just ask Carolyn O’Neal, a retired school principal in Elgin, Illinois. Her diagnosis strengthened her marriage and helped two of her three adult children realize that they, too, had ADD. Treatment gave her the focus to earn a doctorate in education and made her more sensitive to the needs of kids who struggle with ADD at school.
Carolyn: I first heard about adult ADD in 1996. A woman in my building told me she had it, and talked about being forgetful and disorganized. I said, “If you have ADD, I do, too.” She said, “I know you do.” After a comprehensive evaluation, I received a diagnosis.
Knowing there was a name for what I had was an enormous relief, but I felt worse before I felt better. I cried a lot, thinking, “I spent 53 years suffering from ADD, and it could have been treated.” I had always been successful, but felt I was struggling more than other people — like I was pedaling a bike but getting nowhere.
I had always wondered why I couldn’t meet deadlines or keep track of appointments. The fact that no one was aware of my difficulty only added to my frustration.
Ron O’Neal [Carolyn’s husband]: Carolyn and I were childhood sweethearts, and we’ve been together all our lives. You’d think that if something was wrong, I’d be able to tell. But she never said a word, and I didn’t know.
Carolyn: Counseling helped a lot. Medication helps me stay on task, but it wouldn’t have done it alone. In counseling, I didn’t have to feel embarrassed, and I was open to what my psychologist had to say. The best advice he ever gave me was to focus on what I do well, and ask for assistance, or find an alternative, with the rest. Now I ask myself, “Does every little thing have to be perfect?”
Ron: I had a hard time believing in Carolyn’s ADD. I associated ADD with hyperactive kids who didn’t do well in school. But Carolyn graduated first in her high school class. She was forgetful, but everyone is forgetful sometimes. She’d also impulsively spend money on stuff we didn’t need, but all married couples argue about money.
My wake-up call came at a CHADD conference she talked me into attending. In a session for spouses, people talked about how stressful their marriages were because of ADD. A lot of them were divorced, and I didn’t want to be in their shoes. I figured I’d better start coming around.
Carolyn: Knowing I had ADD really helped me at work. For one thing, it allowed me to understand kids with ADD better. I could approach parents and say, “Your child is showing signs of ADD. It doesn’t mean he can’t succeed — I myself have it.”
I also began to understand how frustrating it was for Ron to live with me, and I became more sensitive to him.
Not long after my diagnosis, I began to suspect that my two older children also had ADD. All three of my kids are bright, but Ron, Jr., and Traci complained about school a lot, and we battled constantly over homework. Both were diagnosed with ADD.
Traci Ellis [the O’Neals’ elder daughter, a lawyer and mother of two]: Mom’s diagnosis was a revelation for me. It explained a lot about my childhood, like how our house never seemed organized. I was 30 when she was diagnosed, with two kids of my own, and I could see similar problems at my house.
Like my mother, I was scattered and forgetful. In college and law school, I struggled just to stay in the middle of the pack. It was frustrating that my disorganization kept me from graduating at the top of my class and getting offers from the best firms. Had my mother not been diagnosed, I would have stayed in a fog, knowing I was different but not knowing why. I’m really grateful to her.
Carolyn: Forgetfulness was my biggest problem. I often forgot what I was supposed to do and where I was supposed to be. I didn’t follow through on routine responsibilities, like paying bills. Now I keep a PDA with me at all times.
I also had trouble staying on task, which prevented me from completing things. Now I start each day by writing down what I want to accomplish. At the end of the day, I review the list, so I can plan the next day. I’ve learned to set realistic goals, so that I can actually meet them. I also enlist my husband’s help.
Ron: Carolyn was having trouble paying the bills, so I took over. She’ll ask me to remind her about meetings. I stop what I’m doing to call and say, “Don’t forget your two o’clock appointment.” That sort of thing used to bother me, but now I’m more accepting.
Carolyn: I used to have so much difficulty in the morning, but now I have Ron give me my meds when he gets up. When they take effect, 15 to 30 minutes later, I feel more alert. I use a basket to hold all grooming and personal hygiene items. I buy clothes that all match, so I can grab almost anything in my closet to make an outfit.
Traci: My mother has been full of good advice. She told me to color-code my files and use larger ones, instead of splitting things into narrow categories that I won’t be able to remember.
Lately, she’s been insistent about medication. In my ADDness, I sometimes forget to call for a refill and then run out of pills. Two or three weeks go by and I don’t feel much different, until I realize one day that I’ve been at work for six hours and have accomplished nothing.
Carolyn: ADD also affected me socially. I’d talk too much and interrupt others. In my impatience, I’d answer a question before the other person finished asking it. Now I try to interject no more than three or four times during a conversation, and I make an effort to wait my turn. I ask for cues from my husband — like a gentle knee tap — to let me know when I’m talking too much or interrupting.
In 2001, I finished my doctorate in education. I had started it 20 years earlier, taking classes and comprehensive exams — everything but the dissertation. I had to start from scratch, take courses again, write the dissertation. It took three years. My advisor urged me to pick a topic for which I had a passion, so I chose kids with undiagnosed ADD.
Ron: Self-confidence was key. Once Carolyn got treatment, she said, “I’m going to do this,” and she did. I didn’t hear the frustration I’d heard before.
Carolyn: I always had the feeling I was on earth for a reason, but I hadn’t figured out what it was. Now I want to educate families, especially African-Americans, about ADD, so I give workshops and presentations at churches that are predominantly African-American, as well as in schools and other places in the community.
Research shows that African-American families don’t avail themselves of mental health services to the same extent as Caucasians. As a former principal, I recall that the kids who came in to get their Ritalin were predominantly Caucasian. My sense was that many black and Hispanic children had similar behaviors, but they weren’t seeing doctors, and they were being put in special-ed classes.
I know what treatment has done for me. When I see others with untreated ADD, I recognize their disadvantage. If I can help them, I will.
Updated on November 21, 2019