I need this shirt SO BAD.
“That’s not normal, you know,” the doctor said, tapping the chart lightly with her pen. She was looking at some preliminary test results for one of my sons who I had brought in to talk about his problems at school. (Ironically it’s not the son the school was telling me to test for ADHD – I still think he’s just high energy – but in the course of testing him I began to see the pattern emerging… in his brother.)
“It looks normal to me. That’s how I do it,” I snapped.
She raised an eyebrow at me. “No, it’s really not normal. And I’m using that in the clinical sense of the word. If you and your son both do these behaviors then you’re both outside the range of normal.”
Nothing like watching your kids unravel to put your own issues in a new light.
“I don’t believe you,” I answered in my most calm voice. ( Which actually came out like “I don belief you!” because sometimes my calm voice gets a Spanish accent because apparently I channel Skippyjon Jones when I’m trying to act like a grown-up. Chihuahuas, cheese and crackers, I might want to rethink that.)
What happened next is that me and my big mouth got plopped down in front of a computer right there in her office to take “the computer ADHD test*”, officially known as the T.O.V.A. or Test of Variables of Attention. It’s a computer “game” – and I put “game” in quotes because it is the opposite of fun and quite possibly the most boring, monotonous thing I’ve ever done. You sit in front of the computer for about 25 minutes while you see and hear simplistic directions that require you to press a key whenever you see or hear a certain letter or number. Still, I tried my best. First, because I always try my best. Just the word “test” kicks my hyperachievement gene into overdrive. Second, because I was trying to prove a point: that I am normal.
I am not normal. To the tune of two standard deviations outside the mean.
For those of you who aren’t science geeks or can’t remember your stats class, that means that on a normal distribution 95.45% of people my age and gender who take the test do better than I did. The TOVA analyzes how long it takes you to respond to the verbal and visual directions and then compares you to a like group. They gave me a 15-page printout of my results which the doctor very kindly explained to me. “Not only do you have adult ADHD but you’re one of the most severe cases I’ve seen in a long time,” she started.
Immediately my hackles went up. I may be seven kinds of crazy (okay, maybe now eight) but in the grand scheme of things I’m pretty darn functional. I hold down a job. I parent four kids and mostly do okay. I mean, yeah, I forget everything not written on my hands and I’m very disorganized and I procrastinate like it’s my job and I get lost in a paper bag and I lose things as if my address is 111 Bermuda Triangle but still – my house gets cleaned, meals get cooked, laundry gets done, license plates get renewed and all that other adult stuff. What does ADHD even mean in that context? And is “normal” even relevant when we’re talking about brains anyhow??
She must have seen the look on my face because she continued, “Your results are interesting. On one hand, your ability to maintain attention and respond appropriately is severely limited but you scored off the charts – on the high end this time – for tenacity and ingenuity. You keep trying and you never give up.” I cheered up a little bit at that. She added, “Look, you probably don’t even realize how handicapped you’ve been by this because you’ve been this way your whole life, since you were born! But you’re very smart and you’ve found ways to structure your life to accommodate your unique brain. I don’t think it’s any coincidence you found your calling in fitness!”
Heh. Good point. I’ve always been drawn to jobs that allow for a lot of physical movement and freedom to indulge all my rapid-fire thinking. Waitressing, lecturing, teaching – I adored them all and was pretty successful. In another interesting sidenote, there was one other aspect where I scored very, very well and that was in a fast-paced visual environment. Apparently once the visual cues started really flying I was able to pay attention. (You know how I always complain about how I hate listening to audio books and even people verbally telling stories because people talk so much slower than I think/read and it drives me nuts? Well maybe this explains that. Actually it probably explains quite a few of my annoying tics.)
She also pointed out that she doesn’t think it’s any coincidence either that the only anti-depressant I’ve ever responded to is Wellbutrin – an atypical drug that is often used off-label to treat… ADHD. (Sidenote: When I went off my anti-depressant a year ago, I described my “depression” as feeling like I was standing in one of those money-grabbing booths and while I could see all my thoughts swirling around me like paper, I couldn’t grab any of them. In hindsight that does seem more like ADHD than depression.) “See? You even managed to find the right medication for yourself!” she added. “You’re doing great!” Then she said that in another society my ability to split my attention quickly, my highly attuned senses and craving for movement would be seen as survival skills – so basically I should have been born an Amazon woman.
But I am not an Amazon woman. And neither is my son, whose results mirrored mine so closely that you’d think we were related or something (ahem). So what do I do with this new information?
When I talked to my sister about it she was excited. “This kind of explains everything, really. It sort of ties up all the loose ends that your other mental-health diagnoses couldn’t! You might have found your THING!” She then spent five minutes ticking off all the things from our childhood – we did share a room for many years – that could be explained by me being undiagnosed ADHD. “Plus, have you read your own writing? All those parantheticals! You even write ADD!” The more she talked, the more I realized that if I am ADHD then I’ve definitely been this way my entire life.
It’s true – I’ve spent a lot of years trying to figure out what makes my brain tick differently than most other people I know. And perhaps my sister is right, maybe I’ve finally found my own Unified Theory of Crazy. But I’m more concerned about the practical aspects. What do I do now? I actually took this test about three weeks ago and have since read through my report several times. It does describe my strengths and weaknesses pretty accurately. But other than just added insight into myself, I’m not sure how it helps.
I talked to my doc about treatment options and we both agreed very quickly that with my history of eating disorders and addiction that any amphetamines (like Ritalin or Adderall) are out of the question. Plus, a recent long-term study of ADHD kids, covered in The Atlantic, found that while the children’s ability to adhere to classroom rules increased, their actual grades did not. And isn’t that the end goal? In addition, another study found that using cognitive brain training (either via computer or through special ADHD help centers) is just as effective as medication. So for now I’m staying on my Wellbutrin at the current dosage. And I’m looking into renewing my membership to Lumosity (a brain-training website).
But I still have so many questions: How does my ADHD and being an HSP (highly sensitive person) work together (or against each other)? Does this mean my initial depression diagnosis is wrong? What about the anxiety component? Can I “fix” ADHD? Is it an excuse or just an explanation? And, most of all, what does this all mean for my son??
My son’s teacher texted me this picture the other day. He had to move to the floor to do his homework because his desk was so messy and unorganized.
The one major upside I can see to my diagnosis is that it helps me understand what my son is going through so much better. I’ve always said that of all my kids, he’s the one who inherited my temperament so at least now I can help him deal with the curse/blessing I gave him.
I remember the first time I watched the movie Frozen in the theaters, I cried. But not during the scene where the girls’ parents die (Disney princesses are always having their parents offed) nor during the scene where the sisters realize how much they love each other. Nope, I cried during this scene, specifically Idina Menzel/Elsa singing:
Oh I’m such a fool, I can’t break free/No escape from the storm inside of me
I can’t control the curse!/Anna please, you’ll only make it worse.
There’s so much fear!/You’re not safe here
I guess I really related to Elsa’s struggle to figure out what was “wrong” with her and how to explain that to someone who loved her.
But as anyone who’s seen the movie knows (spoiler alert!), Elsa does learn to control her icy powers in the end and makes peace with her “curse”, using it instead to bless her kingdom (and keep the snowman alive for comic relief). And that’s what I’m trying to do too – change my curse to a blessing (albeit with way less cool hair). This probably resonates so much because Jelly Bean is obsessed with this show, constantly singing the music and acting out the scenes with the Frozen dolls she got for Christmas so I have a lot of occasion to think about it.
So the other day when I asked Jelly Bean who her favorite Frozen character is, I expected her to say Anna, because she’s the heroine. (I would have picked her just because of her awesome red hair – seriously I’ve never had CGI hair envy so bad!) Instead my little 4-year-old daughter looked into my eyes and said, “I love Elsa.” When I asked her why she answered, “Because I can feel her heart.” And she touched her fist to her chest, just like Elsa does in the movie.
Do any of you have experience with adult ADHD? Any advice for me about meds or brain training or supplements or anything? If you’ve seen Frozen, who did you love more – Anna or Elsa? (I think it’s rather interesting that while I related so much more to Elsa, I like Anna more. Although I also liked Hans and still refuse to believe he’s really a bad guy. Would it be so awful to make a movie with no bad guys??)
*The validity of these types of computer tests for ADHD is apparently a subject of much debate. I’ve also had an interview with a psychologist who specializes in adult ADHD and she agreed with the computer’s diagnosis but I’m still not sure what to think of this at all.