I am a psychologist married to a psychologist.
We are intelligent, experienced, and well-trained in our profession. I am a huge advocate for mental health -- as we all should be -- and use my various podcasts and platforms to discuss the importance of acknowledging and attending to the needs of others and ourselves.
But, often it is difficult to see in ourselves that which is so easy to see in others.
My Child Was Easy to Diagnose
It should not be the job of the parent to clinically diagnose their own child. However...when you find your six-year-old wearing two shoes, one sock, a shirt, and no pants, playing with their toys after you have reminded them seven times that it was almost time for school...let's just say you start to wonder.
I asked the school psychologist his opinion in an attempt to figure out what in the bejeezus was going on -- but really, in an effort to confirm my own suspicions.
"I'm not allowed to actually diagnose your child," he informed me, shifting his weight to the front and back of his feet in discomfort.
"That sounds...not super useful," I said, choosing my words carefully so as not to offend, while my brain was pinging all over the place.
"Yeah...well, let's just say your child is extremely intelligent and very easily distracted," he informed me with a wink.
(He didn't actually wink, but it felt like some sort of back-alley Groucho Marx situation that was equal parts amusing and absurd.)
I Was a Weird Kid
Being in a classroom felt torturous. I would put Elmer's Glue all over my hands just so that I could wait for it to dry and peel it off. I once tried to sharpen my finger in a manual pencil sharpener.
I failed one semester of fourth-grade math that involved long division, and I came very close to failing statistics in college, which would have prevented me from becoming a psychologist.
My child and I have always had a closer connection, in large part because we are so very similar.
But, I didn't realize how similar until I had to fill out paperwork for a psychological evaluation to confirm the diagnosis of ADHD.
Mental Health is Determined by Social Norms
In the 90s, ADHD was the big buzzword in psychology -- especially for boys who were hyperactive in school, couldn't sit still, couldn't concentrate on their homework, and whose working and/or divorced parents had run out of solutions.
Fortunately, in 1997 students with ADHD were now able to qualify for special accommodations in school. ADHD was a children's disease from day one, and boys were significantly more likely to get diagnosed than girls because girls tend to present as more inattentive than hyperactive/impulsive.
This Is Going To Sound Crazy...
Shortly before my forty-first birthday and six months after my child started medication for his own ADHD, I decided to visit a neurologist because my anxiety had been acting up and I wanted to review my medication.
"So, this is going to sound crazy," I told him sheepishly, "I mean, I'm a psychologist and a writer and I guess...well, my kid was recently diagnosed with ADHD and while I was filling out the paperwork it got me thinking about my own behavior..."
I just kinda stared at him, waiting for some sort of magic trick to occur.
"It's not that crazy," he said with a shrug. "When you were in school did you procrastinate a lot?"
"Not at all?" he asked, slightly surprised.
"Did you put off studying for tests or pull all-nighters in order to finish a paper at the last minute --"
"I can't do that, see, I can only concentrate on something for so long, so I had to start studying and stuff a long time in advance -- oh."
I'm pretty sure there was an actual light bulb that appeared over my head. And I'm pretty sure my neurologist saw it as well.
I spent forty-one years being told that I wasn't working up to my full potential. I spent forty-one years accepting that my brain wasn't made for math. I spent forty-one years making to-do lists because I couldn't count on my brain to remember -- hell, I couldn't even get directions because my brain shuts off halfway through the second sentence.
Even my parents once commented, when they thought I was out of earshot, that my brother was smarter, but I worked harder.
I was overlooked because I was born too late and lacked a penis.
The problem is that ADHD does not act alone.
Anxiety, Depression, Cognitive Distortions and ADHD
I have struggled with undiagnosed anxiety for the better part of my life, and yet I thought everyone's brain worked the way mine did. I assumed my "nervousness" was normal.
The first time my son went on a school bus he was in a car seat. And as the bus started driving away I literally yelled "Don't forget, if there is a fire, you have to take him out of the car seat!"
My best friend turned to me and said "Nope. Not normal."
A 2017 study found that one-fifth to one-half of adults with ADHD have major depression or dysthymia. Fifty percent of adults with ADHD have an anxiety disorder. Fifty percent of adults with ADHD have also been diagnosed with a personality disorder.
On top of this, there is a solid relationship between substance abuse disorder and ADHD (25 to 40%).
The biggest problem is that ADHD is still being severely underdiagnosed in adults because the criteria of diagnosis were developed for children and adults with ADHD are so likely to have other issues as well that the ADHD may be masked by something else.
What If I Think I Have Adult ADHD?
- Take notice of your behaviors, your habits, your daily routine. I encourage you to be curious about why you do what you do.
- Although the internet is no substitute for an actual doctor, there are several empirically validated measures of ADHD that can be found online. I personally recommend the Jasper Goldberg assessment, because that was the measure my neurologist gave to me.
- Make an appointment to meet with a doctor. I prefer neurologists to psychiatrists on this issue in part because I have a fantastic neurologist and in part because many psychiatrists don't take insurance and are very expensive.
Katzman, M. A., Bilkey, T. S., Chokka, P. R., Fallu, A., & Klassen, L. J. (2017). Adult ADHD and comorbid disorders: clinical implications of a dimensional approach. BMC psychiatry, 17(1), 302.
Zulauf, C. A., Sprich, S. E., Safren, S. A., & Wilens, T. E. (2014). The complicated relationship between attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and substance use disorders. Current psychiatry reports, 16(3), 436.