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ADHD: Disorder or Difference?


by Judie Gade, ADDult – My earliest memories, about being a bit different to other kids, were at about 3 years of age. I can remember standing on the white, picket fence at my family home asking strangers walking by, “Can you come play with me?” I wore my mother out with incessant chattering and messiness, annoyed the hell out of my older brother, who I adored, and infuriated my Dad with constant interruptions. I was a lonely, kindhearted little girl, with a very busy brain, and I could not figure out why I was having trouble making friends. I just did not know then that I wore people out, adults and kids alike, and I still do… at least now I know why!

I am an ADDult, that is, an adult who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Unlike many people, I believe AD/HD is normal, often a gift and a set of traits necessary for particular environments. The most disabling thing is society’s attitude towards people who are a bit different and perhaps eccentric. Instead of AD/HD being seen as negative, it should be revered for the gift Australia has been given by ADDers. People who have these traits have peppered Australia’s history and achievements; Australia would not be the best sporting country (per capita) or scientific nation without AD/HD in its society. They are the thinkers, the pioneers, the risk-takers and inventors; they are the problem solvers, cause exponents and the fighters of injustice. Often, they are the people who say the things you would only think about and do the things you wish you had the guts to do.

ADDers are often a different kind of smart; wherever lateral thinking is required you will find AD/HD in its midst, be it computer science, art, music, drama, medicine, law, writing or anything that requires creative thought. They have the ability to see what could be and not just what is. If they are passionate about what they do, they can excel in their chosen areas. ADDers are the ideas people, however, they need others to help them in their quest for excellence to do mundane tasks that require organised effort. People do not realise that it is the ‘doing’ of the tasks that is the problem, not the actual thinking of them.

I do not know how I survived my first three years of high school. Every day was torture, and the only thing that stopped me from attempting suicide was my family, a total belief in my self as a worthwhile person, an inner knowing that I was on this planet for a specific purpose and that I would leave behind a legacy for others. I just did not know what, back then. My life was a regular round of dodging abusers, both students and teachers, and trying to gain acceptance from my peers. Acceptance never came. So, at the end of my third year I changed schools …And my life began. My ‘difference’ was accepted at the new school, in the main part, and for the first time in my life I felt alive!

My working life is another story. I flitted from job to job on a constant search for that elusive ‘vocation’. I felt I had found it in nursing but damaged my back and had to leave. From there I became a makeup artist, digitiser, investment executive, bush cook, outback hostess, bookkeeper, advertising executive, small business owner (4 times), telemarketer, sales rep, counter manager, real estate sales… the list goes on. Often I would have a personality clash with someone I worked with (no reason other than I was me) and a way would be found to force me out or have my position terminated. In 1984 I left for Alice Springs, giving my family and friends 3 days notice; here I met my husband, a man who accepted me and who has given me enough rope to explore opportunities without hanging myself. I am an entrepreneur by nature and have an insatiable thirst for knowledge in my area of choice. If I had married anyone else, I am sure it would have ended in divorce, as I am not the easiest person to live with.

At the age of 40 I’d had enough. I was sick of all this ‘stuff’ happening to me; surely it was not just a case of bad luck? I wanted to find out why all this shit kept happening. When you have different people in different settings saying similar things about you, you’d have to be a moron not to rethink your situation, wouldn’t you? The physical and mental effect on me was cause for concern at this stage: panic attacks where I felt I was having a heart attack every night and I was having small periods of depression – not full blown episodes but two or three days. My weight was out of control and financially my credit card was maxed out and the wolves were at my door. I was screaming at my kids and losing the plot. I had to take charge somehow and find some answers. I had to be accountable for my own destiny, however painful the answers.

I was on a constant search for a ‘feeling of aliveness’, and when I’d get bored I’d start something else – it was a vicious cycle that did not create a good example for my children. Now I had access to all types of information – we’d bought a computer — a whole world of information that linked from one site to another, a spider’s web-like path not unlike my own thought patterns. I took to this like a duck to water. I barely slept and became edgy and had eyes lined with dark circles – I couldn’t stop. This newfound addiction was affecting my family with cries of, “Mum, when’s dinner?” or “Have you picked the kids up yet?” being commonplace.

One day a programme on television pulled my attention. This was not the first time I had seen something like this: It was describing a group of men who were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. And it was as if they were talking about me. I’d read in a newspaper, years earlier, a similar thing about children, all about boys, that I showed my mother. She said I wasn’t naughty, just frustrating and I didn’t get into trouble and I definitely wasn’t aggressive, although I was known to literally crawl up walls (a neat party trick that gained attention by crawling up door jams and staying there!) and was known to drive people up the walls! So when we bought the computer, and after seeing another article that I related to, I decided to do a search: “ADHD Women”.

I came upon a website that literally changed my life and set me on this fantastic journey I’ve been on the last four years., a website dedicated to information about AD/HD in women and run by two leading authorities who are also AD/HD, was a revelation. It was me, all about me. I read the words on the site with tears streaming down my face, my body wracked with sobs, finally feeling I had an answer for the years of social, academic and professional struggle I’d endured — I had the answer to “why me?”

I rang my Mum up and read it all out, streaking tears across the page, big grey, melting, blobs mingling the words together, like the thoughts in my mind that had trouble separating at times. She said, “We didn’t know, we just didn’t know.” Being impulsive, living in the now and with no patience, I wanted answers – quickly. I wanted it all to happen immediately. I rang the TV station for more information; after 5 phone calls around Australia, someone gave the phone number for a support group called ADDVic. Lyn Vigo, now one of my closest friends, answered and gave me the name of a specialist in adult AD/HD. Many psychiatrists are ignorant of the intricacies of this difference (I rarely say disorder, it implies illness), so it was important to go to the right one.

First port of call was my GP who looked at me as if I was nuts and said in a pompous tone, “What makes you think that?” I replied by asking him if he knew anything about adult AD/HD, let alone women with AD/HD, and then proceeded to bounce off the walls a few times to educate him. He said nothing and just asked, “What was the name of the specialist?” This is often the first point of failure in achieving the correct diagnosis — an inadequately informed GP who bases his opinion on personal views rather than scientific fact. If he had only been taught the basics, he would have linked me with AD/HD – and saved both my family and me a lot of heartache. Basically I’m pretty typical of a hyperactive woman.

From the first call for an appointment to diagnosis took three months. In that time I educated myself, read all I could, joined an online support group and found a community of women just like me – over 600 of them! Although the assessment had yet to take place, I felt certain that this was the answer. The pieces of my life fit together like a perfect puzzle that drew a picture of a woman who is AD/HD. I had learnt strategies and, having a bit of a medical background, quickly absorbed information that I could recall to help others. So, ADDventurous Women was born, an online support group for Australian women. I was then invited to learn AD/HD specific coaching by Thom Hartmann.

So, what are the traits of an AD/HD person? To make things a little easier, I’ve listed traits that are applicable to an adult in university. Underneath this are conditions that often appear with AD/HD. Accommodations that Deakin may help with if you have an assessment are listed under this. There is a section with website links that will lead you to other sites.

Assessments are necessary. Not only are they legal proof, they also help the DRC (Disability Resource Centre) with accommodations, and help you to understand yourself, and the way your brain works, a little better. In an academic situation this is an essential tool for your success. For instance, I have a short-term memory problem that has trouble with recall. However, if tests are multiple-choice, I normally do really well in them, as I know the answer when I see them. Another problem is noise; I can’t handle noise off medication (and yes, I do take medication on uni days and for periods of intense concentration), which is kind of funny when you think I probably make more noise than most people around me! This is called figure-ground differentiation and is a filtering problem.

I also cannot take notes and listen at the same time and will miss huge chunks of information. Luckily, these days, most lectures are online. This was all information that was gleaned from assessment and made sense of certain struggles I have. I find it hard to sit still, my mind wanders but now I can pull myself up and kick the concentration back in. I’m prone to stress and if I don’t ‘get’ something – well, I don’t get it adding to the problem (just ask my children’s literature tutor!). Knowing my personal pitfalls helps me to choose my subjects wisely and to put strategies in place at the beginning of the semester with lecturers and tutors. Normally I give the tutors a book to read so they can understand me better.

If the university wants to help me succeed, and I have to have a ‘label’ to get the help, then I would be a fool to let pride get in the way of success. I need the help to succeed and I’d be a total idiot not to accept the offer by DRC. Unlike some universities and most secondary schools, Deakin will help if you have the documentation. Tertiary life is very different from secondary school. Don’t be embarrassed, ask for the help, make your life easier and have your university experience be less stressful.

If AD/HD is to be termed a disability, then probably one of the most disabling things of all is the common inability to ask for help. ADDers (our term for ourselves) are less likely to ask for help than other people. We can be defiantly oppositional, in itself not always a bad thing (think about people with a strong belief in themselves that go against convention), but to think you are right about something that is really a self-esteem issue can be crippling.

Low self-esteem can often be confused with pride; we really hate being wrong and are liable to argue the point to the nth degree, incapable of asking for help. Learning to ask for help, and to delegate work are strategies that often miss the attention of ADDers. Often they feel no one else can do the job as well as they could do; and that leads to another problem – Burnout. It is the ‘could’ that is relevant here. In an ADDer’s mind one sees oneself doing what is required, but actually doing it is another matter. If it is boring, one’s brain will be distracted by something else more interesting. A series of other traits can come into play here, such as obsessive behaviour, procrastination, disorganisation and no sense of time; then the work one has promised does not get done.

I am now 44 and a first year at Deakin and doing a BA with a psychology major, although I am drifting towards health promotion. I could not have done this without caring, supportive lecturers and tutors who I discussed my problem areas with at the beginning of semester. Being candid, open and totally honest in how you handle situations is essential to gaining the help.

The DRC has helped me no end and I intend to repay Deakin tenfold. The first of these “payments” is the Deakin Hunters, a support and education based club open to all students and faculty wishing to learn about AD/HD and other learning differences and neurological disorders. First I need to get a committee together, which is no mean feat!

Over the past few years I have written about AD/HD and attention problems and have been published, cited, received an award in the USA and had articles published by the Primary and Secondary School Principals’ Associations around Australia – all without a degree. My education website (dealing with spectrum disorders for teachers, parents and professionals) has had over 24,000 page hits in 12 months. The education department also asks me to send articles to help their teachers in the system. The next two semesters I am doing journalism units to hone my raw skills; the first two semesters I’ve been doing Children’s Literature with the intent of writing children’s books, to help children accept difference in others and also to educate them in life skills. The other subjects are psychology-based units.

For the first time in my life I have found total purpose. It is a journey on a weaving path, its end goal encompassing the education and mental health sectors in our community, not just as separate areas but also as a common ground for health and education equity. My ideas – once laughed at for being unrealistic, and impossible — have been vindicated as not only plausible but necessary in the real world. Walking into my first Health Promotion lecture was a revelation; in the person of Bernie Murphy – thank you — was a someone who understood what I’ve been saying for years, who thought like I did and could see the big picture. I found an area that could make good use of my lateral, creative thought processes that others found difficult to understand. Already I’m putting to use my newfound skills in this area. I was a pain in the arse in tutorials at times, as when I get on a subject I know a bit about I find it hard to keep quiet, but on the whole I think the other students were not too perturbed.

At present I’m putting together a working party of academics, government officials, educators and people from the private sector with a view to celebrating ‘difference’ and highlighting the talents of those who have learning disabilities and neurological differences. This will be done through fundraising, education programmes and exhibitions.

AD/HD does not go away; rather we learn coping strategies as we get older or create environments suitable to our traits and needs. AD/HD is only a problem if there is a problem. However, it must be realised that it not only affects the person with the diagnosis, it affects those close by, too, such as family, partners, work or classmates. AD/HD is a gift, a difference of extremes; there is nothing ordinary about being an ADDer, rather it is extraordinary. I, for one, would not want to be any other way.


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