I believe that ADHD exists.
Whoops, so much for a cliffhanger ending.
But, wait, there’s more! While I believe in ADHD, I also think it has existed under many names for hundreds of years. ADHD is just the modern label. For example, in 1798, Sir Alexander Crichton tried to explain what he viewed as “mental restlessness.” Many modern researchers believe this may be one of the earliest examples to identify ADHD.
Many creative people have shown varying degrees of mental restlessness. But should they all be treated with medication? Recently, many famous people have revealed their personal struggles with ADD/ADHD, such as Will Smith, Richard Branson, Michael Phelps, and Michelle Rodriguez. Neil Peterson, a leading advocate for the disabled and the founder and Chairman do the Edge Foundation, has done interesting research in this area. He hypothesizes, based on the biographies of Handel, Mozart and Schumann, that they could have been diagnosed with ADHD. I shudder to think of a what the world would have lost had these men and many others been “treated.” Could they have been such prolific composers, had their minds been calmed?
Looking back on my own childhood, I am sure I would have been diagnosed with ADHD. I acted out and could be very difficult. But I was also very creative, and that made me who I am today. Even now, it’s possible I could be diagnosed with some form of ADHD. As a kid, would it have made some things easier? Absolutely. However, I can only imagine what opportunities I would have missed out on had my brain not wandered to a vast jungle of interests.
I know that a restless brain can be a struggle, not only for the individual experiencing it, but also for those around them. As the father of a daughter diagnosed with ADHD, I fought the suggestion of medication. Instead, my wife and I, along with our daughter, chose to participate in an ADD/ADHD research program at the University of Denver (UCD). It started with multiple assessments to understand us as individuals and how we interacted as family. We then attended meetings over several months: Group meetings, one-on-ones, my wife and daughter alone, myself and my daughter alone, and so on. They collected hours of video tape and followed up with more meetings and evaluations. In the end, we were given a comprehensive evaluation of our entire family and how it related to our daughter.
The program was followed up with a plan and appointments with professional psychiatrists. Even after the program repeated her diagnosis with ADHD, I was still not convinced that medication was the answer. Prior to starting this program with our daughter I had spent time watching the boys in our neighborhood. Many of them, between the ages of 4 and 9, were prescribed various forms of ADD/ADHD medication. It turned many of them into zombies. Was I happy that they were no longer sneaking into my yard and destroying my personal property? Yes, of course. But, at what price to them? I wondered, could their behavior have been better handled with parental oversight? At the time, I definitely thought so. It felt like the medication was a cop-out. Of course, it’s always easier to throw stones from other side of the fence.
Through the program at UCD, we learned how boys and girls respond differently to ADHD symptoms and treatments. Boys often act out and get physically aggressive while girls can internalize feelings and get verbally aggressive. It can be difficult to tell what is behavioral and what is a brain imbalance. I am so grateful that we could take part in the UCD Study. It required a massive time commitment, but it helped to ensure that we had really dug deep before relying on a magic pill.
After careful consideration, my wife and I agreed to authorize the prescription of a mild does of ADHD medication for my daughter. We needed complete clarity on our reasons why: That it was for our daughter, not for our own selfish frustrations and feelings of parental inadequacy. We were assured that the medication would not make her a zombie, and at the first sign of a loss of interest or creativity, we could reevaluate the dosage or even stop. Almost immediately we saw a change for the better. I was shocked to see, how well a small dose of medication helped her better handle stress, fatigue and decision making. Her creativity was not curtailed.
Most great art has edges. We saw the medication give her edges without talking away what made her unique. I was even relieved to see that many of her difficult behaviors still existed. She still had a temper, a strong opinion and jubilant outbursts. It was obvious that there was still room for parenting and the natural effect of growing up. The medicine definitely helped her to engage in conversations and problem solving, but she still had a personal will without being a zombie.
In the end, what sold me was how, at 12, she could express how much better she felt on the medication. She also learned to recognize when it was wearing off. When this happened, she began to adopt more holistic approaches to handle her stress and fatigue, techniques that we had learned at UCD: Quiet time, breathing exercises, or delays in non-urgent problem solving. This gave her time to get her thoughts under control. As she gets older, she should be able to rely less and less on medication to help her.
Is there such a thing as ADHD? I believe, yes. But you already know this, since I gave away the ending up front. It is the latest label for a real challenge. A restless mind requires thorough and individual evaluation to ensure that an individual is not robbed of achieving their full potential. It should not be a problem solved simply through medication prescribed out of convenience.
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