Distracted, Impatient, Disorganized
Though common, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can go undiagnosed in children—and adults—for years. And its effects can be serious.
A few winters ago, just before her 38th birthday, Sue Murray* set out to answer a question that had troubled her since childhood. Murray, a jewellery designer, former media communications executive, and a mother of two, saw something familiar in her six-year-old son’s behaviour. Peter,* now age nine, fidgeted in class and fell off the kitchen stool just about every day; it was “the wigglies,” he said. Murray wondered: Did they have this in common?
She booked an appointment with a prominent Toronto psychiatrist and researcher, Dr. Atilla Turgay. After an hour-long interview, he asked, “Can you tell me what we were talking about?” She couldn’t. “So,” he said, “how long have you known you have ADHD?”
That’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Turgay is a leading international expert on the topic. He also is the director of the Toronto ADHD Clinic. The disorder—manifested in children as a physical need to jump around and an inability to block out distractions—can last a lifetime. Three to seven percent or more of people maintain some of the core symptoms of ADHD into adulthood.
Knowing What’s Wrong
Those with undiagnosed—and untreated—ADHD can have a hard time paying attention at meetings. They procrastinate and manage their time poorly, and they are disorganized. They have a low tolerance for frustration. They’re impatient and often interrupt people. Frequently, they drive too fast, and they are two to three times more likely than the general population to be involved in traffic accidents. Many of us display some of these symptoms, but those with ADHD experience them so intensely that their performance at home, school or work may be significantly affected.
After her diagnosis, Murray was giddy with excitement—it all finally made sense. When Murray was a child, her highly organized mother used to give her a little test: Go to the top drawer, she’d say, and look in the third box on the left-hand side to get a pair of cufflinks. Murray would start off, then start thinking about something else. When she’d return empty-handed, her parents would joke that her mind was like an elevator that sometimes did not reach the top floor. But now Murray knew that was a sign of ADHD. “I wasn’t stupid,” she says, “I just didn’t pay attention when I wasn’t interested.”
She had always found a way to cope with her inability to focus. To get through school exams, she had a study partner and kept a colour-coded study schedule to help her stay on track. Later, as communications director of a major media company, she had an assistant who was a “detail person.” There were advantages to her short attention span—she could cut to the core of an issue quickly and take action.
When Peter was diagnosed with ADHD in May 2006, then prescribed Ritalin as he began Grade 3 the following year, Murray went to her GP to get the same prescription for herself. “I want to understand what this does for my son—the good, the bad, the ugly,” she told the doctor.
She kept a journal to track her experiences: “It feels like I have had a cup of coffee and I have not,” she wrote of the first time she took a pill. “I feel a bit jittery, more alert—and my head feels crystal clear despite the wine I had last night. I am not sure I like the feeling.”
When she walked her dog in the park, she noticed her mind wasn’t zipping all over the place as usual. “All I’m doing is walking, in the moment,” she noted. She went shopping for a ski suit and, instead of grabbing the first one, checked prices in several stores. “Not my nature!” she wrote.
On Ritalin, Murray found that she was more productive, more focused. But, she observed, “It isn’t who I am. I’m a jumpy, energetic person. I’ve learned to deal with it and be productive.”
Now, she takes Ritalin only on days when she needs to get things done—such as the bookkeeping days for her business. That’s okay, says Turgay, adding that drugs are only part of the answer—it’s more important to monitor your symptoms and adapt your life to make things work, as Murray has done. What’s more, Ritalin is effective even if you take it only once in a while, unlike other drugs for psychiatric disorders that are effective only if taken daily.
Murray likes the way her ADHD mind works on most days. “Unlike my son, I’m not in school,” she says. “I don’t have to fit into a mould.”
ADHD Symptoms in Children & Adults
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can significantly interfere with functioning in one’s personal, social, academic and/or work life.
If you or your child experience six or more of the following symptoms, you may have ADHD: Consult your family physician.
• Squirming, fidgeting
• Inability to stay seated
• Inability to wait one’s turn
• Excessive running/climbing
• Inability to play/work quietly
• Being “on the go”
• Excessive talking
• Intruding upon/interrupting others
• Blurting out answers
• Inefficiency at work
• Inability to sit through meetings
• Inability to wait in line
• Overly fast driving
• Selection of very active jobs
• Can’t handle frustration
• Excessive talking
• Interrupting others
• Making inappropriate comments
* Name changed to protect privacy.