I take Adderall
I take Adderal.
I didn’t used to. I’m writing an essay about it — the working title is Understanding My Stupid.
The thing about writing an essay is that you have to tease out the sense in things that are loosely connected in your head. Sometimes the essay peters out because the things that you thought were connected really weren’t, or you discover as you putter along that you’re getting bored, and if you’re bored by what you’re writing, why bother to write it?
Other times, the thing that you’re writing about gets so big and inter-related, it turns into a Theory of Everything, that you have to put it aside to season a little. What you don’t know is if you’ll ever go back to it or if it will lose its urgency.
Last week, we had a family gathering to mark the oldest boy’s graduation from High School and the youngest boy’s graduation from Kindergarten.
Of the seven of us in the family — me, T. and five children from three marriages — three of us have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder: me, B., my 21-year old daughter and R., T.’s 13-year old son. Ironically, the diagnoses came in reverse chronological order. We had R. tested when he ran into trouble in third grade. We learned enough about the disorder to send B. to a clinical psychologist when she racked up a 1.7 GPA in her first semester of college. And, when I came in for a consultation with the doctor after her first appointment, B. announced that she’d caught ADD from me.
The thing is, she was right.
During the graduation celebration, B., R. and I were off to the side having a conversation about how hard it was to work through a focusing disorder. This is new information to me. Until the past three years, I’ve thought that the disorder was a fabrication and that the inability to focus and sustain discipline was a moral failing, a matter of willpower, bad habits and eroded faith.
My mother caught a little of the conversation. After she went home she sent me an e-mail. She felt responsible that she hadn’t caught this when I was young. She was being my Mom, and that meant feeling bad about herself because she hadn’t done everything for me that she imagined she should have, not matter how good her intent was.
I wrote her a note back. When I finished it, I realized that I’d sorted through some of the things I was trying to get at in the essay I was working on. I’ll share the letter here. Whether I ever finish the essay is an open question.
I’m sorry I haven’t been able to respond sooner, but I’ve had a lot on my plate at work and didn’t want to dash off a glib response.
Thank you very much for the information about your conversation with Dr. Arnone. I wasn’t aware of that and it is helpful to know.
There are a lot of different issues raised in your note and I can come at it from a lot of different directions. Let’s settle on two: first, which prism should you look through to consider your role in my development — never mind the entire family, because the relationship between each child and each parent is a mysterious trinity; and second, what to conclude from the knowledge I have today about the physical and neurological factors that influence my behavior.
The first: We have information today about me as a child that we didn’t have when I was a child, and we can’t look back and take responsibility for failing to know some of these things. I had hearing problems that bordered on deafness; I had severe allergies; I had weak vision; I was bright and imaginative; I had a malfunctioning kidney; and I had a focusing problem which today is called Attention Deficit Disorder and then was called hyperactivity and who knows what else.
I developed into an adult who had a disorderly and cheerful disposition, who was social and curious, who got a good education and translated it into a successful career, who demonstrated the ability to be a good father, who had misadventures and miscalculations in affairs of the heart, who showed the ability to lead groups, take chances and commit to a life of continuous learning.
Those are all positive outcomes and they were not self-generated. They were brought out in me because of the kind of nurture that I received that accentuated my natural talents and gave me strategies to overcome the impediments that were in my way. I was shown how to be independent, how to be resilient and how to create ways to focus so that I could get the things that I wanted. I was given the path to not make excuses.
When you look back on your life raising your children there is isolation and loneliness. I understand that. I also know that I was a strong boy who looked to his mother for models of strength. Somehow I found the tools that I needed, as clumsy and self-reliant as I was, and I’ve had the strength to continue to look at myself and try to learn how to become better and more of who I can be. That’s how life works and you can feel good about the role that you played.
It was the desire to keep learning more about life, the way we experience it and how we can infuse it with meaning, that brought me to Dr. G., the behavioralist who I’ve worked with the past four years. I went to her with a specific desire: How could I use my time more efficiently and get more of what I wanted to do done?
We spent two years working through behavioral patterns and modifications before we realized that I had ADD. Even that wasn’t a clean diagnosis. It was a process of connecting similar patterns and attributes from R. to B. and then to me. Dr. G. suggested that I do an experiment and try Adderall. If I had ADD, the drug would work. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t.
I took it and it did. I experienced the same transformation of experience and perception that I did when I put on my hearing aids for the first time or I put on glasses for the first time. I was in a different world.
Since then I’ve had to learn how to understand and manage the condition. I’ve had to integrate it into my understanding of my personal experience. It helps to explain some things and is utterly irrelevant to others. It’s like finding out new facts about your heritage after you’re set up in life. The facts had influence in your development even though you didn’t know them.
Witnessing B. and R.’s personal development has a different meaning for me now. On one hand, I am observing patterns that I know I manifested and understanding them more clearly. R.’s lack of self-control as an adolescent; B.’s diffidence and inability to evaluate her talents clearly. On the other hand, I can show them other ways to think about what they are experiencing, open up other paths to understanding that they can adopt or not. It’s fascinating and fulfilling.
One topic that Dr. G and I have revisited a few times is why we didn’t sort this out earlier, why no one had figured out that I had ADD, why she didn’t make a diagnosis. I’ve also asked Dr. R., who administers the drugs.
Both point to my intelligence and will-power. Dr. R. said once that someone with the kind of ADD that I had would likely have ended up stacking groceries and being in and out of prison. Dr. G. says that the deafness was a mask, and that I’d managed my way through many of the challenges of the ADD so that it wasn’t readily apparent.
When I talk with B. and R. about how hard it is to live with this and what a challenge it is to manage it, it’s not because I’m rueing the past or am filled with self-pity. I want them to stay aware of the condition, to understand that the medication is just one part of managing it, and to respect the strength they have in themselves that lets them be strong, successful and interesting people. I don’t want them to think about medication or modification or any other way they handle it as a way to compromise their personality, fit in or reduce themselves.
There’s only one thing that I regret and that’s taking so much time away from writing. I did that because I was hurt and frightened. I had to deal with those feelings to start writing again. It’s a shame that it took so long.
I hope this helps you with some perspective. I guess all I can say is that if you are going to own the bad parts of my childhood, you need to own the good ones as well, and you can’t deny what I’ve turned out to be.