How ADD science helps me learn to live with my brain

     Don Henry's attention deficit disorder went undiagnosed for more about 40 years of his life. (Image courtesy of Don Henry)

    Don Henry's attention deficit disorder went undiagnosed for more about 40 years of his life. (Image courtesy of Don Henry)

    People like me often get told we lack will power. As it turns out, a lot of my problem boils down to a kick-ass case of attention deficit disorder, which wasn’t diagnosed until I was around 40.

    People like me often get told we lack will power. For most of my life I got that on two fronts.

    First was my inherent inability ever to come in for a landing. Despite appearing to be of above-average intelligence by official measures, I often careened through my days like a pinball in a machine. Things that seemed easy for others often proved impossible for me: remembering to go to work, maintaining the thread of a conversation, picking my kids up after preschool. I could, and did, lose anything: checks for large sums of money, family heirlooms, passports, my car.

    All along, I, and some people around me, seemed to think if I just “tried harder” or showed more determination I could conquer these inadequacies.

    That never worked. As it turned out, a lot of my problem boiled down to a kick-ass case of attention deficit disorder, which wasn’t diagnosed until I was around 40, about 10 years ago. (I’m not great with dates, either.)

    Second, I have never been able to control my weight. Since college, I’ve worked out a lot and ridden a bike thousands of miles. I’ve been doing Bikram Yoga for three years. The needle on the scale still refuses to cooperate. I am, officially, obese. I hate being obese, mainly because it’s such an ugly word. I’d much rather be really fat. Or, perhaps, corpulent.

    Anyway, I know my size gets interpreted by many as a lack of self-control.

    In my constellation of ADD symptoms, impulse-control represents my greatest struggle.

    So when I heard about a big study that concludes folks with ADD are often really fat, I felt a heady mixture of “D’oh!” and “Whew!”

    A watershed moment

    To expand on the “whew,” it felt a lot like when my neurologist looked at my ADD assessment and concluded: “I guess you pretty much wrote the book on it.”

    That diagnosis, in fact, divided my life in two unequal parts. Part One was the 40 years of beating myself up for lacking the “grit” to fix my many attentional “flaws.” In those years, I remember just waiting for the next time I would disappoint someone important to me. Again and again that time came.

    Part Two started with my diagnosis and is still in its infancy. At its heart has been learning to finally show myself some compassion for “failing” at many tasks that normally wired brains seem optimized for.

    For me, this new study fits into a larger effort of learning to pay attention to what really makes me tick.

    Soon after my diagnosis, I got great results from ADD drugs. My life suddenly got so much easier. And, for my long-suffering wife, Cindy, I finally became someone who could really be trusted to remember important stuff, like when to pick up the kids if she was working.

    I also lost about 35 pounds.

    But the longer I took the medication, the more uncomfortable I became with my reliance on the pills, which are powerful stimulants. It got to the point where I lived in fear of running out of my Adderrall. I certainly am not recommending this for others, but, for me, the right decision turned out to be weaning myself off the drugs and pursuing a mindfulness practice.

    Treating my brain right

    Simply put, I’ve learned that my brain needs a lot of maintenance, which starts with adequate sleep and requires lots of physical stimulation and daily meditation. If I do those things, I get much the same results as I got on the drugs. The more I know about ADD, the easier that maintenance becomes.

    Each new bit of science helps to dispel stereotypes and banish finger-waggers who see ADD as a convenient crutch for people with weak characters.

    Hopefully, it also will help other adults like me be honest about having ADD. With a few notable exceptions, when I’ve been forthright about my condition, folks have shown amazing compassion.

    Although I’m not nearly as spacey as I once was, colleagues at work now know I want to be reminded of things. Not being secretive about my ADD also means my coworkers understand that if I forget a meeting it means nothing about the importance I put on the meeting or people in attendance.

    No, I’m not the right guy to work as an air traffic controller at Philly International, but I’m good at my job. And I haven’t lost my wallet in years.

    So I’ll be watching for the next bit of science, and hoping it finds that corpulent guys with A.D.D. tend to be terribly underpaid.

    Don Henry is the director of online news at NewsWorks.

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