ADD, ADHD: Real World Superpowers
A friend of mine came to me a few days ago, in tears. She had just gotten out of a parent-teacher conference with their son’s teacher who had recommended they have him tested for ADD/ADHD. Having grown up my entire life with ADHD, I had a hard time understanding why she was so upset. She explained that while she loved her child, no parent ever wants to hear that their child has a permanent disease. Appalled by the notion that I had a disease, I immediately went on the defensive.
Days later the situation started to settle in on my mind. It had been years since I had looked in on the ADHD community and I was curious as to what new research was being conducted into the field. Sadly, I almost couldn’t read the research papers due to the terminology being used in them. Terms like “disease, treatment, condition, psychiatric illness” were strewn throughout every piece of literature I could find. It made me sick to think that this gift that I was born with was always being portrayed in such a negative light.
In our modern society, the biggest movie releases come from Marvel and DC with plot lines based around extraordinary individuals, gifted with traits not possessed by the multitudes, which allow them to accomplish amazing and impossible feats. But they don’t always start out saving the world, do they? In the movie, Captain America, the first scene where Steven Rogers discovers his new abilities, he smashes through a city, causing destruction as he chases down a killer. In Iron Man, Tony Stark’s suit goes through much R&D testing before he finally gets enough practice to make it work. So, my biggest question is: why, in a culture where we can idolize super powers, is it so hard to see the actual super powers we are blessed with?
I was “diagnosed” with ADHD in the third grade. I can remember what school was like before Ritalin and LD English classes. It was a constant struggle of trying to focus on anything and not being able to. I was always in trouble. Even though I knew the material I was being taught, I was getting bad grades. My teachers would say things like, “He’s smart, he just has a difficult time focusing.” A trick I learned to play on them was to sit at my table and stare out the window. Inevitably, the teacher would catch me “not paying attention” and would try to call me out by asking me what she had just been talking about. I got in so much trouble when I would recite her last few sentences word for word. While I may have not been looking directly at the teacher, I was still listening.
Describing what it’s like to have ADHD is hard. It’s like the feeling you get when you drink too much coffee. It’s like hearing the news that your dog died while you are in the middle of the most important meeting of your life. How hard would it be to focus on that meeting? Imagine trying to learn off-shore investment banking while preforming open heart surgery. Or maybe driving, eating and arguing all at the same time. That’s how hard it is for a person with ADHD to do anything.
I was blessed with some very important people who helped to shape my view of ADHD into something outside of the normal standards of medical perception. My mother is an intellectual. So, when she found out that her only child had this newly discovered disease, I imagine her initial reaction was comparable to my friend’s. After she settled down, she handled the diagnosis as an intellectual. She read up on every study she could get her hands on and learned a lot. There are two things that my mother imparted on me through the course of her learning that I consider to be pivotal building blocks in my viewpoint. First, I was never allowed to use my ADHD as an excuse or reason for anything. If homework was hard, it wasn’t allowed to be hard because I had ADHD. If I had a hard time paying attention or I was too fidgety, I wasn’t allowed to blame ADHD. It’s hard to explain because my ADHD caused these things, but I was never allowed to use it as an excuse. The other point that my mother gave me was an explanation of how an ADHD brain worked. She told me to think of a normal brain as an empty room. Thoughts pass from one side to the other as they are learned without any problem. But when a normal brain is filled with a marching band hit by a bus (my analogy, not hers), the chaos makes it hard for the thought to get through. A brain with ADHD always has a marching band getting hit by a bus in the room all the time, so any extra chaos is considered normal and the thoughts are used to getting through the mess. What that means is that in situations where normal people get overwhelmed by outside factors, a person with ADHD is granted the ability to focus and continue with what they are doing. ADHD people are much more capable of handling stressful situations than normal people.
The next individual who helped me become the person I am today was my LD English teacher, Ann Johnson. She understood us. When I say us, our English class had 6 kids in it. We were all pretty much the same when it came to learning and Mrs. Johnson knew how to teach us. We still covered the same material as the normal English class was covering, but instead of writing a book report, Mrs. Johnson would bring in cardboard boxes and utility knives *gasp* and we would build scenes from the book as our reports. Learning became hands-on, always, in everything. I remember a time in fifth grade when one of the “normal kids” came up to me and asked what I had done to be able to go to “cool English.” Later I would grow up to be told that I should avoid putting my kids in LD classes at all cost because of a future stigma that it would place on them.
The next two individuals I would like to thank have been taking a lot of heat as of late. Ritalin and Adderall probably saved my life. Yeah, I know that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but they made my life so much easier. I was put on Ritalin in the third grade, 1993-1994 time frame. I stayed on it until Adderall came out when I was in the 8th grade and then switched. I will say that both drugs have side effects. I stopped eating lunch, but compensated with larger breakfasts and dinners. Still, both drugs removed the internal chaos and allowed me to focus on whatever task I was doing. Over the years, I noticed how the medications were changing me. I learned to be able to control my focus during most activities and function like a normal person. I stopped taking Adderall halfway through my Junior year and have functioned without them ever since. Without them, I don’t think I would have made it through high school.
I would like to point out a few things before I close. I hope you noticed while you were reading this that I never referred to ADHD as a disease or disorder. In fact, I purposefully have never called it Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder nor did I call LD classes Learning Disabled classes. Both acronyms carry negative connotations. LD should be changed to Learns Differently classes and ADHD should be changed to ACHA or Advanced Cognitive Hyperactive Ability. What I have learned to develop over the course of my 33 years is, what I believe to be, a modern day super power. I made it through two years living in the two most dangerous places in the world. I can react to any situation which I am faced with clarity. The amount of creative ideas that flow into my head daily are staggering. I still make mistakes, but I am also still human. Why would anybody see these traits as negative?
What if when a child got branded into an LD class, the act looked less like receiving a prison sentence and more like getting accepted into Hogwarts? How much would society change if our children were taught to celebrate differences rather than to loath being separated from the norm? I think back to the days of “cool English” and I remember feeling special. Not because I had a learning disability, but because I was in a space where learning became fun instead of the nightmare it had been. I remember English class being my favorite part of the school day. I remember the brilliant teachers I was blessed with that understood that our differences made us special, not weak. I remember feeling privileged to be excepted into an elite group rather than disappointed by the segregation from my “normal” friends. My kids are missing that feeling and that is a problem.
I hope that through the course of reading this paper, your eyes have been opened to a different way of looking at ADD/ADHD. Just because we are different doesn’t mean we are inferior. We do not have a disability. We have an ability that many kids do not know how to use yet. We need to understand that properly teaching these kids to use this ability is not something to be afraid of or looked down on and that ADHD should be viewed as a positive credential to be put on future resumes. We, as a society need to break down the stigma that has surrounded LD classes so that we can teach our kids using the most effective methods, even if those methods aren’t traditional. We need to stand up and change ADD and ADHD from a learning disability into a tool that our super hero kids can use to do amazing and impossible things.
Ian Hill is a student at Virginia Western Community College, and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan