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Living with ADHD

Margaret V. Austin, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Living with ADHD: A Healing Journey Across Life

Johnny was a boy who loved his family. He also cared about his friends, and went out of his way to be kind to animals. He loved to draw pictures, write poetry, and build creative art. He was full of energy and had trouble sitting still. Although Johnny was loving and kind, he did not get along easily with other children. He seemed quite unable to consider their needs or feelings.

At home, his room was a mess even though he preferred a neat and tidy room. Whenever his mother told him to clean it up, he started out with the best intentions. Inevitably, he became distracted and started playing with his toys. He lacked focus to complete boring tasks such as picking up his room.

Johnny had trouble focusing in school. As a result, his reading skills were slow to develop. Although he wanted to do well, he lacked the patience needed to sit still and practice reading. Math was a similar challenge. The effort required to memorize math facts seemed beyond him. His parents tried to help Johnny learn more easily. They allowed him to jump on the trampoline while reciting his math facts. They created a rewarding series of flips that he was permitted to perform once he learned a certain amount of material. However, it didn't resolve the problem. Although Johnny could recite the math facts on the trampoline, he couldn't remember them during a test.

His parents became frustrated and discouraged. They began to lose hope that Johnny could ever succeed in school. They tried various strategies to help him organize his time and apply himself; seemingly to no avail. Sadly, Johnny became frustrated as well, and began to lose confidence in himself. When asked to do his homework or a chore, Johnny often responded with anger and rebellion, and resisted his parents' efforts to help him.

On the positive side, Johnny continued to enjoy physical activity, but did not excel at team sports. Although physically capable, Johnny's mental processing speed was not quick enough to keep up with fast-paced games such as basketball. These sports required an in-the-moment, intense focus that Johnny could not sustain. Instead, he excelled at individual sports without the distraction of other players. While individual sports like track and swimming include other teammates, they do not require the same intense focus, rapid pace, and constantly shifting variables that are common to team sports.

As he grew older, Johnny continued to prefer physical activity to academic work. He also maintained an interest in creative pursuits. During these quiet activities, he could sustain his focus for an extended period of time. However, this ability did not generalize to activities that were uninteresting to him. Unfortunately, this lack of interest included much of his school work.

Although Johnny was bright, his grades varied widely among different subjects. He did well in classes that interested him, but poorly in all the rest. Johnny did try to get his work done. The trouble was he just could not seem to get started. He would go into his room to do his homework, but 45 minutes later he hadn't even started. Moreover, when he did manage to start working, he could not sustain his effort because he became easily bored and distracted.

Eventually, Johnny graduated from high school and went to a college close to home. He lived with his parents during the first year. Then, during his second year, he moved into a house he shared with other boys. His college success was limited. He performed reasonably well during his first year (passing with a couple of C's each semester); but, his grades took a nose dive the second year.

Socially, he struggled as well. Johnny was outgoing and met new people easily. However, the friendships often faded quickly as the other students became disappointed with his lateness, distractibility, and frequently inconsiderate behavior. Johnny did manage to form some lasting friendships with his roommates. These young men were fun-loving and friendly, but they were also more interested in partying than grades. To keep up with these friends, Johnny began drinking and experimenting with drugs. He had several automobile accidents, and was even hospitalized once for a couple of days with a head injury. These events had a disastrous effect on his grades and Johnny dropped out of college at the end of his second year.

After Johnny dropped out of college, he got a job at a local art store. Initially he enjoyed his work and did well. However, as he got into a routine, the work became less interesting and Johnny started a pattern of coming in late and not finishing projects. Eventually, he was fired from that job. He subsequently got another job at a local marina. He enjoyed working at the lake during the summer. He even met a couple of girls whom he dated for a brief while. Neither relationship worked out primarily because Johnny had been dishonest with both women. He often confused who he was meeting, and where. Johnny had trouble modifying his approach to relationships, even though both young women gave him the opportunity. Once summer ended, the job was less interesting and Johnny became restless and dissatisfied. He began making a lot of mistakes and was fired again. Not feeling very good about himself, Johnny moved back home with his parents. He took solace in computer games, playing late into the night, then sleeping much of the day. He became increasingly depressed and his drug use increased.

Johnny's parents became concerned about his lack of motivation. They tried to encourage him to refocus his attention on art, sports, and returning to college. This encouragement was unsuccessful and his depression deepened. Finally, his parents insisted that Johnny see a psychologist as a necessary condition for him to remain in their home. Although he was angry about their demands, he was too depressed to fight about it. So, he reluctantly agreed.

Johnny immediately liked his psychologist. As Johnny reviewed his life, he admitted that things were not going as well as he would like. The psychologist asked Johnny's permission to talk with his parents. Because he got to decide this for himself, Johnny was less defensive when he realized that perhaps his parents could be helpful. Therefore, he gave permission. The psychologist met with Johnny and his parents, both separately and together. They all completed behavioral checklists about Johnny's childhood and his current life. The psychologist took a complete social history and administered the Test of Variable Attention (TOVA). Once the paperwork was in, and interviews and testing completed, she diagnosed Johnny with ADHD. As the psychologist described the disorder to them, their attitudes switched from disbelief to recognition and relief.

The psychologist worked with Johnny on social skills, self-management, and decision-making. She referred him to a psychiatrist who prescribed medication. Johnny's life and outlook began to improve. He started sleeping at night. He began reconnecting with friends and exercising regularly. He got along better with his parents and his siblings and there was far less stress in their home. The next summer, he started dating again. He utilized the feedback he received from former girlfriends, and avoided making the same mistakes. In the fall, he registered for college and began to make wise decisions about his future. Johnny was now able to plan and direct his own life, instead of being pulled in different, random directions dictated by daily events. Johnny and his parents often wondered what his life would have been like if had he been diagnosed as a child. However, everyone was greatly relieved that Johnny was finally on a path that was bringing him success, and life satisfaction.


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