Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder: Fact or Fiction?
“Somewhere, I’m not Scatterbrained.”
Too often people pass off Attention Deficit Disorder as some kind of “joke” or as a creation of impatient parents, appeasing Doctors, lazy Teachers and Greedy drug companies. And although there is some legitimacy to these claims, the fact is many in the Mental Health Field believe ADD is actually under-diagnosed, especially among adults, and I concur.
As an adult with ADD, I promise you it’s no joke. Like any other Axis I diagnosis, ADD is debilitating and it’s effects are felt throughout the lives of those who suffer with it. (Often quietly).
I once heard a psychologist compare a person with ADD to a man holding hundreds of keys in his hands trying to figure out which one opened his front door. After a while he either gets upset and kicks down the door or he says f-it and leaves.
I think that’s a great way to put it. I was telling a friend recently that over the past ten years I’ve written five books, three plays, and even a ballet, and only one of them is actually on paper. The others are still stuck in my head because I can’t figure out how to open the door and get them out. ADD is a motivation killer.
People often think that those with ADD are “Lazy” but this isn’t true, at least not for most. It’s hard to finish a task when you can’t decide on which one to do or when you’re half way through and you get distracted by something else. And when I say “distracted” I mean, I go into my kitchen to get a drink and end up washing part of the dishes, making two phone calls, sweeping the floor, getting out my vacuum, taking out the garbage, smoking a cigarette, making another phone call and then when I finally make it back to my computer I have no drink.
What makes it even harder is that ADD makes you very tired, I mean constantly tired no matter how much you sleep. But this is just one of the misconceptions about people with ADD. There is a great deal of confusion and misinformation when it comes to ADD.
For example, many people, including myself for a long time, believe you “grow out” of ADD. Wrong. Do people grow out of Diabetes? There are cases where 70 year old men have been diagnosed with ADD. Maybe the symptoms get better because as people age they learn to compensate, but it doesn’t “go away”. It is considered a chronic and incurable disorder.
So what causes ADD? Well, there is still some debate about that; is it allergies, a protein deficiency, a glucose metabolizing problem in the brain, environmental, is it nonsense?
The most likely culprit, and where most of the science points, is Dopamine.
Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain and is associated with the “pleasure center”. There seems to be a connection between “positive” results and levels of Dopamine in the brain. The theory is that Dopamine acts as kind of a Motivator for a person to learn from their experiences. “That was good, that was bad. I like this, I don’t like that” etc.
Anyone who’s ever dealt with a person who has ADD knows they/we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes or if we do it takes forever. Part of the reason is people with ADD don’t respond to stimulus the same way “Normal” people do because we have lower levels of Dopamine in our brains. (As an example, I am hard to startle because I don’t respond to stimulus as quickly as others, I think about it first. I know that may sound strange, but it’s almost as though my mind slows things down or more accurately my brain is in fact slowed down. Another theory suggests that Dopamine has something to do with the prioritization of stimuli and people with ADD are unsure on what and where they should focus their attention. This explains why I have a hard time in large groups or wide open spaces).
Dopamine also has a great deal to do with the function of the frontal lobes and acts as an information “Regulator” between the frontal lobes and other parts of the brain. When Dopamine levels are low people have a hard time processing information, paying attention and remembering what they’ve processed, ADD. When the levels are too high people show signs of Schizophrenia; auditory and visual hallucinations etc. (There’s a good article in Wiki if you want to learn more about Dopamine and it’s many functions. Dopamine)
This leads to a second misconception about ADD. People with ADD do not have “hyperactive brains”, well we do, but not because of ADD. Our brains are on overdrive because they’re trying to compensate for the fact that we are actually under-stimulated. The constant motion, talking, thinking (obsessively), impulsivity, dangerous behavior etc is a way to try and “speed” up or stimulate the brain.
This is why many people with ADD use stimulants; cigarettes, coffee, even cocaine in some cases, and this is also why stimulants are used to treat ADD. Drugs like Concerta, Strattera, Ritalin and Adderall are prescribed to people with ADD because Amphetamines are similar in structure to Dopamine and force the Dopamine transporters to essentially work backward. Instead of storing Dopamine they release it or “remove” it.
(A recent study however, suggests that the problem may not be with the transporters, but with the actual amount of Dopamine in a person’s brain. That possibly people with ADD simply don’t have enough of it).
Whatever the reason, ADD affects millions of people and it’s impact can be devastating. People with ADD have difficulty in school, and most importantly staying in school. (This despite the fact that many test in the higher ranges on I.Q. tests). It’s estimated only 5% of people with ADD go on to graduate from college as compared to 27% for the general population. (I guess, in at least that respect, I did alright).
But it affects more than education, it also affects relationships and our employment. (Around 35% of ADD sufferers end up self-employed by the time they reach their 30’s) People with ADD can be hard to deal with and it takes patience and a lot of understanding. We tend to be impulsive. I can’t count how many times I’ve thought, “Did I just say that?” It’s as though the words originate not in your brain but in your mouth and emerge without permission. And we’re not very good listeners. I see people’s mouths moving, and I hear sound, but if they don’t hurry up it becomes white noise and I’ve already moved on to another conversation or two down the road. (Be concise when speaking with a person that you know has ADD. We don’t respond well to long drawn out lectures).
We also tend to be scatterbrained, disorganized, haphazard and forgetful. (I can’t remember other people’s birthdays without looking at a calendar, or where my car keys are or that I was supposed to be at your house two hours ago, but I can remember what someone said on March 5, 2004 at 9:30 pm).
But it’s not all bad. People with ADD can also “hyperfocus” as long as what they are doing is challenging and interesting to them. This blog is a great example. Some days I jack around with it for hours on end. There’s a lot going on and it keeps my focus.
We also can be intuitive. For some reason many people with ADD can read or see things that others cannot. We pick up on subtle cues in a person’s mannerisms, facial expressions or in the inflection of their voices. Anyone who’s ever witnessed a child with ADD in an argument knows what I’m talking about. It’s as though they can reach inside a person’s heart, find their weakness, and then beat them over the head with it. (I realize that’s not really a “positive” per se, but that skill can be used for good as well. Counseling for example).
ADDers are also good “idea” people. If you ever need an idea just drop a note in our comment box. I’ve had about 15 since I started writing this paragraph. But you’ll have to get someone else to help with the follow through.
In conclusion, let me say I’m by no means an “Expert” on ADD. I’m still learning about it as I go. But I promise it is very real, and the propaganda out there that casts aspersions helps no one. As I said at the beginning, many people go through life suffering quietly with ADD because they are either unaware they have it, although they know something “ain’t right”, or because they’re embarassed.
The medications for treating ADD are getting better and better, as is the science behind its causes. There are also some natural treatments you can try. (Omega 3,6, and 9)
So, if you know someone, or if you are the someone, get out there, research it, talk to people, try the medications or supplements and make up your own mind. One thing you’ll find is that you’re not a mutant. There are millions of people who understand when you say, “I’m not exactly sure why I did that, but I don’t think I could have stopped myself even if I could go back in time.”
*If anyone wants more information here are two great resources; CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder), and the Brain Place, which is run by Dr. Daniel Amen who wrote a book that helped me diagnose myself.*