The Daydreamer: AD/HD & Me

So, you’re probably wondering what qualifies me to write about my experiences with therapy and mental health, right?

Well, as for therapy, I’ve been in some form of “it” for the past twenty years, starting from the age of three, so I can safely say that I know quite a bit about it, at least from the patient’s perspective, and my aim here is to de-mystify and de-stigmatize the process of working with a therapist.

As for mental health – after years of misdiagnoses and a lot of different medications, roughly two years ago I was finally diagnosed with Adult AD/HD without hyperactivity – Inattentive Type, which means that I can’t focus or retain most information the way that “normal” brains do. My diagnosis is classified as “Adult” because typically AD/HD is diagnosed and resolved while the patient is still a child (it is very common to grow out of it), however I was diagnosed as an adult – although I undoubtedly suffered from this disorder while I was a child, too. Because of this, my AD/HD has become ingrained in my mind in a way that makes “unlearning” it that much more difficult.

Now – you may be thinking “AD/HD? That’s not really that big of a deal. Practically every kid in my elementary school had that,” … and you’d be right – about the “not a big deal” part.

AD/HD on its own is a very common and relatively straightforward mental disorder that is treatable, but not curable. What makes my situation (as well as the millions of other adults and teens with AD/HD) a tad more difficult is the fact that this disorder was discovered far too late to treat it using traditional methods. Because I went un-diagnosed and therefore untreated at an early (and malleable) age I developed Major Depressive disorder with bi-polar tendencies, as well as Generalized Anxiety disorder. The anxiety stemmed from my frustrations and fears as I watched myself falling steadily behind my classmates on not only the grade scale, but with basic comprehension skills. The depression developed because I began to believe that I was genuinely unintelligent and therefore worthless.

While my physicians realized that I was in fact suffering from a neurological chemical imbalance, at the time they never thought to test me for AD/HD because I did not exhibit any of the hallmark symptoms. Many doctors at the time did not realize that AD/HD could afflict a child without also making them hyperactive. I was a quiet, bookish kid – a far cry from the stereotypical “bouncing off the walls, won’t-stop-talking” AD/HD poster child. Instead, my AD/HD remained hidden under extreme anxiety and an inability to retain a solid 75% of what I was being taught in class.

Symptoms of AD/HD in adolescent girls. Photo courtesy of addrc.org

When I was around nine or ten, my grades really began to suffer and I started to exhibit symptoms of AD/HD. I was a chronic daydreamer – easily distracted and extremely disorganized. Even though my parents were diligent in helping me to keep track of my school work and due dates for assignments, I simply couldn’t keep up. I was also chronically late to school, not because I didn’t want to go, but because the concept of “wake up by 6:00am, be in the car by 7:00am to arrive at school by 7:30am” was completely lost on me. I’d wake up on time but then waste away the next 45 minutes because I’d get distracted by an old photo album on my bookshelf.

When my parents would ask me the age-old question, “So, what did you learn at school today?” my answer of “I don’t know,” wasn’t meant to be sarcastic – I genuinely couldn’t recall what had been taught in class that day. When I was having particularly bad bouts of anxiety, I would experience complete lapses in memory. I would forget where my classrooms were, what street my house was on when I’d walk home from school, or I’d have moments where it was like I “woke up” and would have no recollection of arriving at a destination, despite being driven there! These lapses in memory would then cause me to become wildly anxious, leading to panic attacks and bouts of extreme depression.

Me circa 2005-2006

When my parents took me to see a pediatric psychologist, he diagnosed me with anxiety and depression, prescribed some Prozac, and sent me on my way. I accepted this diagnosis for the next seven or so years because I was anxious and depressed all the time. I had no reason to question it. Prozac did help me – my symptoms had abated slightly. My appetite returned, my grades sort-of stabilized and I was more willing to socialize like a regular teenager.

I was brought up to be an academic overachiever – always striving to be at the top of my class – so getting ‘B’ and ‘C’ grades really bothered me. I knew I was capable of doing more but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. While I was no longer crying constantly or hiding away in my room, I wasn’t “better”. I was apathetic, numb and generally lacking in any sort of willpower. To be honest, I thought the way I felt was normal. I attributed my nonexistent moods to simply being dealt a “bad hand” or confirmation that I really was just plain stupid. I lived an anti-social half-life and missed out on many essential teenage experiences because of it.

This pattern continued on for another year or so until I began seeing a new adolescent psychologist. I was 17 going on 18 and I was beginning to think that something really was “off” in my brain. I was less accepting of the way that I constantly felt – like a life like this wasn’t worth living, but not necessarily in the suicidal sense. More like, “I paid a lot of money for this product, and this is all I’m getting out of it? Nah, I’m gonna exchange it for a new one.” The psychologist decided to have me complete a multitude of different exams, both written and vocal/visual exams, that tested for various learning disorders and personality quirks. I came away from those tests with a new, albeit preliminary, diagnosis. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder with AD/HD tendencies.”

This new diagnosis made more sense to me than the others before it, but only because the doctor told me that my depression was a symptom of my anxiety, rather than having coexisting behavioral disorders. I wasn’t as sure about the AD/HD “tendencies” though. At that time, I also thought AD/HD was reserved for little boys who had too much energy. I was quite literally the exact opposite, so I sort of forgot about it for a few years.

I remained in treatment for my anxiety symptoms for the next four years. During this time I wasn’t any better, but I wasn’t any worse. It was only once I started my current job as an office assistant that my AD/HD symptoms came back full force. My lapses in memory became more frequent and because I wasn’t learning my new job as quickly as I wanted, I lived in constant fear that I was about to be fired.

Luckily, my boss was incredibly kind and sympathetic to my situation. She essentially offered to give me a “do-over” once I gained better control of my symptoms.

So I decided to see a completely new psychiatrist. I got the appointment, and I marched into her office armed with detailed notes, symptoms, facts and figures and proceeded to deliver a half-crazed monologue in which I asserted that something else was wrong with me – it wasn’t just anxiety! If I had been in treatment for anxiety for so long, why didn’t I feel any better? The life I was living was not one that I wanted to continue. Something had to change.

MRI scan of activity levels in frontal lobe of adults

Mercifully, my doctor let me rant and rave and obsess over every minuscule detail of my thought patterns and memory loss. She was silent as I paced across her office in tears, trying to convey the depths of my anguish over the simple fact that it seemed like my brain just didn’t work anymore. When I was finished, she made a few notes in her notebook, wrote a prescription and handed it over to me. It was for Adderall, the most commonly prescribed medication for AD/HD. She said, “Katelyn, I’ve never had a patient so precisely describe the symptoms of AD/HD to me before. I want you to try Adderall for one month and see how you feel.” She explained and confirmed what the adolescent psychologist had been unsure of before – I did have anxiety and depression, but they were symptoms of my AD/HD. This double-diagnosis is commonly referred to as “comorbidity“(MentalHelp.net). The medications I had been on before had only been palliatives. “Prozac is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor”(Rxlist.com). Serotonin is the “feel good” neurotransmitter, which people suffering from depression are typically lacking in.

But I wasn’t.

ADHD was the first disorder found to be the result of a deficiency of a specific neurotransmitter… norepinephrine — and the first disorder found to respond to medications to correct this underlying deficiency.” (ADDitude.com)

A simple way to think of this is like having an infected cut on your hand – you can put a Band-Aid on it to keep it from collecting anymore bacteria, but the Band-Aid won’t treat the existing infection.

Fast forward to today, February 12th, 2019. I’ve been officially diagnosed with AD/HD Inattentive Type for over a year now, and I can safely say that this diagnosis has not only changed my life, but saved it as well.

Driven to Distraction by Hallowell & Ratey was by far the best AD/HD management book I read

I still deal with my symptoms every single day but the difference now is that I know what’s happening up in that whacked out cranium of mine. I’ve developed habits and tricks to overcome situations and complete tasks that would have previously reduced me to an anxiety-wrecked puddle. I’m able to help myself work through the chaos in my brain.

Diagnoses and labels may seem arbitrary in the grand scheme of life, but they’re really not. When my doctor explained Attention Deficit Disorder to me, I’d never felt more validated or vindicated in my life. I wasn’t a lost cause, I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t unintelligent. I had AD/HD. The diagnosis was the first step, the first flashing road sign in a long journey of cognitive therapy and self-discovery accompanied by a closely monitored regimen of prescription medications. I was also given books about managing Adult AD/HD that included stories from other people like myself which made me feel less isolated and gave me the confidence that this was a challenge that I could overcome.

I had finally found the tools that I could use to help myself, and my life finally got back on track.

——————————————————————————

An invaluable resource I’ve discovered is ADDitude Magazine, which is both in print and online. Check it out for more information on adult and childhood AD/HD.

Cover image courtesy of NIH Human Connectome Project

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