Let me just say right off the bat that I know I am breaking many of the cardinal rules of blogging. Don’t blog angry, don’t go over 800 words, don’t blog when you have a raging case of PMS. Whatever. This is long and rambling account of a shitty experience I had yesterday. But also potentially helpful. So, read on at your own risk. (Or if you have ADHD, have someone read it to you while you’re juggling or something).
First, the Part about ADHD
Off and on for the last several years – through my therapy practice, reflections on my family life, and noting my own difficulty keeping up with life’s complexities as the years went on, I have begun to suspect that maybe-possibly-perhaps have a mild form of adult ADHD.
So, um, what was I saying?
Right. This consideration has intensified for me recently. Partly it’s been connected to recognizing that Skywalker has severe ADHD (already very clinically significant at age 5). But it’s also that additional stress and approaching 40 have made it hard for my usual coping mechanisms to be effective. More and more slips through the cracks, which means more stress, which means even less attention (and more stress eating, btw)…. So, as we’ve been seeking behavioral treatment for our son, I have also been learning about ADHD and coming to terms with my own ADHD personality, condition, diagnosis… Whatever you want to call it.
Now, I just want to pause here to say that many people have strong opinions about ADHD: whether it exists, how pervasively it exists, and what causes it. Unlike many armchair sociologists/psychologists, I actually don’t feel qualified to engage fully in that debate (even with a Master’s degree in Counseling and quite a bit of layman’s research under my belt). I haven’t read enough first-order research to feel that I can really give an opinion on what causes ADHD, whether it is over- or underdiagnosed, and/or what is the ideal treatment. From my readings, many ADHD experts feel the same – acknowledging that what we know now is the tip of the iceberg about how the ADHD brain works, and that our approach to ADHD must be both functional and customized to the individual child or adult.
Many people, however, don’t have the same research-based scruples that I do in forming and voicing their opinions. These folks get wind of the increase in ADHD diagnosis and decide psychologists or doctors or the pharmaceutical industry or parents or even teachers must be trying to get rich or “make things easier on themselves” by seeing and medicating ADHD everywhere they look. Or maybe it’s video games or television or Facebook or lack of exercise (I’ve been known to rant about lack of unstructured recess time myself, especially for boys). Any one of those theories could have some merit, and we need to do controlled research to truly understand the causal contributors to the rise in ADHD, rather than making sweeping generalizations based on our own anecdotal experiences or the recycled opinions of other “experts” (who often aren’t).
I will simply say for my part – as a trained therapist, mom and ADD-type myself – that nothing that I have read SO FAR in any of the evidence-based journals, books and articles, points to a pharmaceutical company conspiracy or an imaginary disorder. I don’t think pharm companies are angels or anything, I just haven’t seen any evidence that they have manufactured the ADHD phenomenon all on their own.
Nor do I believe that the rise in the SYMPTOMS of ADHD is imaginary. ADHD has been around for the whole of human history, including some of the people we admire most and a large percentage of those who defend our public safety. But the label of this type of personality as a clinical “disorder” is a modern phenomenon. Also, it does seem that since diagnostic tools have been around, a higher percentage of both children and adults are presenting with symptoms/characteristics significant enough to impair normal functioning in some way. Is our current society actually producing more people with ADHD, or do people with ADHD simply experience their symptoms more severely in our current society? Chicken… egg. I don’t think anyone can definitively say. (Yet).
(With the caveat that this is a personal blog and not a research article, I invite people to link to the comments with any research they have found relevant or interesting — so long as it comes from some kind of unbiased, peer-reviewed source).
Other than that, what I can say about ADHD is that I know, without doubt, that it exists. My brother has one of the most severe cases of anyone I’ve ever known. Which means I understand it. Which means it runs in our family. Which means it’s not a shock that I have some characteristics of ADHD too.
This is not, I’d like to point out, necessarily a bad thing. People with ADHD characteristics tend to be more creative, more innovative, and less risk-averse than the normative population. Without ADHD “sufferers” like Leonardo da Vinci and Ben Franklin, our society would be much the poorer. So my quest to understand my own “disordered” brain is less about trying to change or label myself, and more about doing a better job surviving and thriving in the hectic atmosphere in which I live.
I was never diagnosed with ADHD as a kid. Maybe I had fewer symptoms then, maybe I had better coping mechanisms, or fewer stressors. Everyone has their limits of functioning. It turns out that my limits of healthy, focused functioning fall somewhere in the middle of juggling a house, a marriage, two jobs (neither of which pays much), two challenging and stubborn young boys who are supposed to grow up to be loving responsible adults, my weight, my friends, a dog, a cat, and — by the way – some semblance of a social life.
Not an unusual set of circumstances to be sure, but I will credit our family for having weathered more than our fair share of pain and drama and loss in the past few years, and I will claim – hopefully without whining – that we have minimal day-to-day support. To be very clear, we have amazing friends and my social support network is a blessing beyond anything I deserve. If an emergency happened, and I needed them, I can’t count on six hands the number of people who would gladly come to our house in the middle of the night, care for our children, let us cry on their shoulders, clean the toilets, etc. etc. etc. When I need support on anything, I know I can reach out on Facebook and my community will come running. That said, we don’t have a lot of family or close friends nearby, especially not family who are available to help out with everyday stressors and activities. For the ordinary chaos, it’s all me and hubs.
I’m not complaining about my life. I love it. I wouldn’t trade a second of it for anything. But in terms of putting stress on an already unfocused mind, the amount of juggling required to keep our kids afloat and successful and our family balanced, has been a little hard on me. I guess you could say it’s highlighted some of my weak spots. Like focus, memory, and impulsivity. You have no idea how hard it is to help two little people learn how to structure their lives and remember to go to the bathroom before leaving the house, when you yourself spend 20 minutes looking for your own phone and keys. So I have wanted to understand more about ADHD, not just to help Skywalker, but to help his mother too.
The Part about Health
When it comes to health and wellness, I’ve always been one to try to learn as much as I can before making a decision. I respect and value holistic and preventative medicine, as well as the unfathomable achievements of Western/modern medicine. I try not to listen to any one piece of advice or theory unquestioningly, preferring to learn what I can from several sources and synthesize an answer that makes the most sense for me.
So over the last year, when I developed some seemingly unrelated (but maybe not) health problems: like a sprained ankle that won’t heal, reflux so bad that it feels like a heart attack, etc. I have made the rounds between both traditional and alternative healthcare providers to seek out a solution that seemed to address immediate risks, but also something I could sustain for a healthier me over the long run. I don’t ever want to be on medication every day unless it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t want to have to give up things I love because my body is giving out on me. But most of all, I don’t want my kids to have to raise my grandkids without my help and involvement. Period. Whatever it takes.
The most recent member of my holistic health team is my chiropractor (who also does Applied Kinesiology and other holistic health work). Let’s call him Dr. Ferdinand.* I’ve been working with Dr. Ferdinand for several months on the ankle that won’t heal as well as the standard stress-related back and neck and shoulder adjustments. I find chiropractic immensely helpful for those things. Being a holistic practitioner, Dr. Ferdinand has also made some suggestions about supplements and diet, like cutting down on sugar, theorizing that the ankle that won’t heal is related to blood sugar/adrenal issues.
Seems feasible enough. I trust him, and I’m willing to try. Besides, no one can make the argument that sugar is good for you, so the idea that I need to cut back or try to eliminate it is neither new nor revolutionary. Some of you may remember the ten-day sugar detox I did last year. That was one of a long string of dietary experiments over the years: cut back on sugar, bread, all grains, all carbs, Weight Watchers, Skinny Bitch, etc. etc. etc.
But then and now, no matter what I’ve tried or how successful the temporary results have been, I have always bounced back into binge eating, emotional eating, and ESPECIALLY eating in a distracted or bored state. So every time I’ve gone back in and Dr. Ferdinand has asked me how it’s going, I’ve had to hang my head and mumble something about “trying” or “I might be making some progress.”
Eating my ADHD
It wasn’t until I started working with a new psychologist recently, with specific focus on my potential ADHD that I learned there can be, for some people, a huge connection between inattention, distractibility, impulsivity and eating problems. Did you know that? I sure as hell didn’t.
So, what has happened since has been an ongoing conversation between my therapist and me that’s evolving from exploratory work to formalized testing, to him mentioning the possibility of medication as a potential solution or at least a trial for me. [In case you are curious: We are not, at this time, considering medication for our son, who is working with a totally different therapist. He’s too little, his brain has not finished cooking, and his problems are nowhere near severe enough to warrant interfering with his physiology.] But me…
Well let’s be honest, I’m self-medicating already. With coffee, sugar, and by putting myself into stimulating situations just to stay awake and alert. Like procrastinating on deadlines to create the crisis that allows my brain to attend.
This worked fine in college when I could pull all-nighters and be no worse for wear. Once the kids came along, though… not so much. Guess who doesn’t give a rat’s ass how much sleep you got the night before? That’s right. Your offspring. And by the way, they have to take something in for class today that you both forgot until right now.
So when my therapist suggested yesterday that perhaps an ADHD treatment could help with my disordered eating, it’s hard to describe the relief I felt. I think I understand now what my therapy clients were always saying about how validating it is to just hear their painful symptoms – the things no one around them understood – pulled together under a clinical term that was not unique to them. Just feeling less alone, and knowing that what you’re suffering has a name, is incredibly meaningful. The idea that maybe your problems are not 100% your fault is so liberating; paradoxically, it gives you more power to take charge of them.
For me, the idea that even some of my falling off the Weight Watchers wagon, raiding the chocolate stash, secretly going through the drive-through for ice cream before picking up the kids… that these things (while obviously under my control as a human being with free will) might actually have their roots in the way that my brain is wired…it’s potentially life-changing. To imagine, even briefly, the possibility that addressing my ADHD might not only improve my career and address organizational problems in our home, but also help me lose weight and become healthier was beyond exhilarating.
For the first time in a long time I drove away from that therapy office on my way to the chiropractor feeling… Hopeful.
In retrospect, it was probably a mistake on my part to tell Dr. Ferdinand about my possible desire to take a pharmaceutical medication. Just the fact that I am considering it has given me hope and validation, which is huge for me. I should have realized that, and been more protective of that hope. But I am an extrovert to the last, and my hope and joy are never fully felt until they are shared. So when I walked into Dr. Ferdinand’s office and he asked “what’s going on?” of course I opened my big mouth about the ADD meds. Huge. Mistake.
I should’ve predicted this, as many of you probably already are, but Dr. Ferdinand is not pro-medication for any reason. Obviously this fits with his career choice as a chiropractor. That said, I was not prepared for the intense, shaming lecture that commenced. “ADHD is overdiagnosed, it’s a scam of the pharmaceutical companies…It’s really just sugar addiction and your problems are with blood sugar.” This part didn’t surprise me, since I’ve heard that before, some of it from him.
But then he said, “If you could just take your diet seriously for three weeks, all your symptoms would go away. But, I mean sure, popping a pill is easy, if you want to take the easy way out…” Wait a minute. The easy way out? Excuse me, but nothing about this has been easy for me, ever. I tried to explain that I’ve been trying the diets he’s suggested (not to mention having tried holistic/dietary solutions for years before I began seeing him) and I’m still really struggling. I told him I hoped that treating the ADHD will give me the strength to handle the rest.
He said, with a shrug, “Well, I think it’s the other way around. But then, it’s all about your commitment.” He said that more than once, actually. “It’s all about your commitment.”
Yeah. That’s been the problem. My commitment. Because I love being 200 pounds and unable to go to Jazzercise class because of my gimpy ankle. I really enjoy when my child says, “you don’t want me to eat that because if I do I’ll get fat like you,” and I can’t correct him because it’s absolutely true. And when I watched my dad kill himself slowly with his cigarette addiction, I thought: “wow, I sure hope I can replicate that experience, but with donuts.”
This is about a lot of things, but my commitment isn’t one of them.
Hurt and angry, but aware of the proximity of other people in the office, I tried to redirect the conversation to the task of mommyhood. I said I just wanted to make myself better so I can help Skywalker learn to manage his ADHD better. Dr. Ferdinand said, “What’s his diet like?”
It would have been rude to say, “none of your fucking business.” So I said instead, “well, we try very hard to have him eat healthy, but you know, he’s a normal kid. He’d rather have bread than not bread, he’d eat sugar all day if we’d let him. Which, obviously, we don’t.” In reality, I am the mom who never lets my kids get french fries, tries to limit the number of sandwiches or bread items I pack each week for lunch, and am constantly battling with the schools about sugary sweets and the proliferation of processed carbs. But when your kids go to an average of three birthday parties a month and you throw in an occasional treat and convenience foods like cereal and snacks… plus all the eating they do that you can’t control, it’s hard to keep their sugar intake down.
“That’s not normal!” Dr. Ferdinand said, triumphant. “It’s normal in America but not other places. If you look at the symptoms of ADHD they’re the same as sugar addiction.” The unstated implication of this is, of course: your child would not have ADHD if you did a better job monitoring his diet.
[Even if we assume that heavy-handed statement is at least partially true: Guess what makes it NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE to maintain control over your family’s diet and serve only carefully planned meals and lunches without relying on easy foods like bread and other refined carbs? Right. ADHD.]
That was where Dr. Ferdinand crushed me. How could anyone think, anyone who knows me, that I am less than 100% committed to caring for my children? To being the best mom & person I can be, to being healthy and available for my kids – knowing the pain I have suffered with the absence of both my own parents?
I almost didn’t notice in my humiliation that other people were listening to the conversation at this point. The chiropractic office is wide open and other patients and doctors share the common room. So here I was vulnerable, ashamed, and trying desperately not to cry in front of either Dr. Ferdinand or the intern, not to mention the other doctors and patients on nearby tables who had all stopped talking to listen.
I had no idea what to say. It was incredible how quickly that tiny sprig of hope, which had come up for me in the previous hour with my psychologist, was all but stamped out. I felt like Dr. Ferdinand was telling me that my symptoms are my own fault because of my weak will and poor eating habits. That none of the symptoms I experience are as painful and difficult as I imagine; and if I would just try harder, I could conquer them without meds. It was very hard for me not to just stand up and run out right then.
Does this sound familiar to anyone? Any parents of ADHD kids hearing this from teachers and others who truly do not understand? Telling someone with ADHD to try harder to focus, resist their impulses, finish their homework, stay away from the cookie aisle… it’s like telling a short person to try harder to be tall. We can stand on our toes for a bit, we can create the illusion of tallness and sometimes even train our feet to remain en pointe for extended periods. But without some kind of help, we can’t be taller. This help might be medication or behavioral intervention or in some cases, dietary changes (removing dyes and preservatives and sugar helps some kids, for example, but not all). If I got nothing else from this experience, I hope I will understand my own kid better when he just can’t do what seems so simple.
Anyway, I pulled myself together temporarily and allowed Dr. Ferdinand to adjust my back and neck while feebly trying to counter some of the sweeping generalizations he made about ADHD. I re-explained in my own defense that I have actually been very health-conscious for a long time, if imperfectly executed. To be fair, I do think he realized at that point that he’d been a dick, because he began backpedaling and saying that he wasn’t perfect either [What??] and that he would support whatever choice I made. I think he meant that, or wanted to mean it, but I already felt so undermined and misunderstood at that point that I was just trying to get out of there without falling apart or ripping his face off.
I paid my bill, and barely made it to the car before I did fall apart. I sat crying in a nearby parking lot for twenty minutes, thinking that I must be pretty weak and pathetic if everyone else seems to be able to master their eating habits when I can’t. And now, here I am, ruining my kid’s life, too, expecting some miracle pill to save me and magically make me a better mother. I drove home and called Hubs, crying to him for his entire lunch break (poor Hubs), before I was calm and rational again.
Even now I acknowledge that some of what Dr. Ferdinand said may be right. I’m not pro-sugar. I have no doubt that eliminating sugar, refined carbs, processed foods, grains, gluten, dairy, soy, pleasurable feelings, reality TV and everything else supposedly nasty for you would help not just my ADHD symptoms but everything else. His method of imparting wisdom was judgmental (and unintentionally cruel), but I don’t disagree with his approach, per se.
I just. Can’t. Fucking. Do it.
Do you know what I mean? It’s like there’s a mountain in front of you and you start climbing and climbing and climbing and soon you’re out of breath and sweaty and you think you’ve made progress but then you look up and you haven’t covered any ground at all. That’s what almost every day feels like for me. With my weight, my attention, and my organizational, career and personal goals.
Often my sweet Hubs and others have to remind me of the things I have accomplished (three novels, three post-graduate degrees, extensive and deep friendships, two amazing children) because they become blurry in my vision when I find myself staring at the bottom of the mountain one more time. And yesterday Dr. Ferdinand made me feel as though not only had I fallen down the mountain, but was pushed by someone who was supposed to help me climb it. Pushed, under the guise of “friendly advice.”
Whatever our beliefs about health, eating, child rearing, school, education… I think the most important thing for all of us to understand is that no one solution or truth is perfect for everyone. Any theory that has some face validity may be worth trying, as long as it isn’t overtly dangerous, and as long as we move toward gathering actual evidence to support the theory before we start telling people they are wrong for not believing or following it.
What works for my life, my family, my child, may not work for yours. And that’s okay. It doesn’t make either of us less than. If you believe in curing everything through a Paleo diet and cross-country nerf-herding, good for you! I am excited for you and I wish you well. I may try your methods to see if they work for me, but please don’t preach them at me unless I ask. If you cut out television or carbs or meat or everything except meat, and it saved your life or your marriage or your splendid, splendid ass — that’s excellent.
I mean that. The world needs your splendid ass.
But before you judge me, know that even though I watch TV and eat fast food sometimes and occasionally yell at my kids, maybe I’m doing something else right that you haven’t been able to do. Maybe I’ve endured something you can’t even fathom in your own life. Maybe my contribution to the universe isn’t meant to look just like yours. Who knows?
I wish we could all try to remember that we don’t start from the same place on the mountain. We don’t have the same climbing equipment or bodily makeup. Some of us have guides to help us and others don’t. And we might have different reasons for climbing altogether. Hell, some of us forgot where the mountain was and started deep-sea diving instead. Let’s honor individuality and meet each other where we are. Save the advice for when it’s requested, and leave the judgment behind.
If any health care providers, holistic or otherwise, are reading this (including Dr. Ferdinand himself) — I hope this will serve as a reminder that to treat someone’s health means treating the WHOLE person, regardless of your specialty or worldview. That includes being mindful of their mental and emotional well-being in the moment, as well as respecting a person’s autonomy. No health care provider should ever talk at a patient or client, or steamroll the patient’s beliefs and life experiences in favor of soapbox dogma. And certainly, if you are going to be critical of someone’s lifestyle in any way: be gentle, be understanding, and for Master Yoda’s sake, be private.
[And in case you need further illustration of how ADHD impacts health issues, I sat down to do a couple of quick edits on this blog before posting, and totally missed my yoga class. I had the sports bra on already and everything.]
*Names have been changed to protect the somewhat obnoxious.
I’m M.J. (Manda) Pullen, an author and mom in the Atlanta, Georgia area. I blog about writing, publishing, motherhood, food, psychology and whatever else strikes me in the moment. And let’s be honest, that could be anything.
My books include The Marriage Pact series, a trilogy of funny, semi-realistic Contemporary Romance/Women’s Fiction novels coming Fall 2015 from Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press in association with Macmillan Entertainment. If you enjoyed this entry, you can follow the blog or click here to join my email list and receive my free short story, BODY ENGLISH. It’s a “love at first head injury” kind of story.
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