STOP THE ROUNDABOUT, I WANT TO GET OFF
A roundabout (aka traffic circle, road circle, rotary, rotunda or island) is a good metaphor for an ADHD life. When you approach a roundabout you need to note the entire traffic pattern in one glance. You must pay attention to all sides of the circle, watch for cars already in the circle and those which haven’t yet entered the circle. You also must make sure that you’re in the correct lane to exit the circle.
In life, as in a roundabout, events, objects, and people come at you randomly from all different directions at the same time and you must decide which ones to notice…which ones to pay attention to…which ones to listen to…and which ones to act upon. If you can’t navigate entering the roundabout of life, or can’t figure out how to get off, your stress level will rise, your ability to function decreases, and you get stuck. That’s life in the ADHD world.
As an example, let’s look at a discussion I had with my insurance company a few years ago about ADHD medications.
ADHD is considered a childhood disorder. This is changing slowly, but when this particular conversation took place most insurance providers balked at covering treatment for adults with ADHD. Therapy had to be described as treatment for depression or anxiety and medication was difficult to get since stimulants were rarely prescribed for any other medical problems. The latter issue was the basis of the problems with my insurance company.
My doctor had prescribed an ADHD medication for me and my insurance company required that he inform them of my diagnosis every six months in order to continue the medication. At one point, I tried to refill my prescription only to be told that it wasn’t covered. I called my insurance company.
ME: I tried to refill my prescription for [ADHD medication] and was told it wasn’t covered. I don’t understand. It was covered last month.
INSURANCE INDUSTRY: You must remember to have your doctor send us an update every six months to keep your prescription current.
ME: If I could remember that, I wouldn’t need the [ADHD medication]!
Similarly, many children and adults with ADHD have difficulty remembering to take their medication (assuming they can get it). This difficulty is a common symptom of ADHD…and would be alleviated if they took their medication…
Round and round and round…
FAILURE ➔ SHAME ➔ LOW SELF-ESTEEM ➔ FAILURE…
Academics is an area where the impact of ADHD is often felt the strongest.
The trigger for this post was the following story. It is representative of the experiences of many, if not most, children and adults with ADHD.
In 3rd grade, my mother was once again called to the school to speak with my teacher who told her “Buddy should be removed from normal class and maybe put into special education. He’s quite stupid and I don’t think he has the mental capacity to learn.”
That did it!
Needless to say, my mother lost her temper with the teacher. A school psychologist was called in and I was rigorously tested for the next 3 months.
I was given reading tests, writing tests, interest assessments, personality tests, IQ testing, and weekly visits for counseling.
When it was all said and done, the psychologist called a meeting with me, my teacher, and my mother.
Not only …
He told them “You’re right that Buddy should be pulled from your class, but not because he can’t learn. Your class probably bores him.”
Then he informed them that I was reading at a high school level, I was registering 136 on his IQ testing (which apparently meant something), and that I was a visual/active learner that would always have issues with memorizing things that I didn’t find interesting.
In typical fashion, my teacher’s commentary changed at that point from “He’s stupid” to “He is just not applying himself”. I was given the opportunity to participate in some advanced activities, but I was still required to learn the things that I was struggling with at the start. No one at that time ever mentioned ADD or ADHD and there was no talk of medication.
After reading this story, especially the final paragraph, I thought about two of my teachers…
Mrs H, my eighth grade math teacher who frequently and publicly shamed me for my failure to pay attention and achieve. When I started my own teaching career I vowed never to be anything like her. I met with mixed success on that…much to my own disappointment.
Mrs. G, my high school English teacher who recognized that I had, at least some ability, but kept harping on the fact that I didn’t try hard enough. I’ve often wanted to find her and talk to her…to tell her, “See, I was successful and it had nothing to do with not trying hard enough.” Sadly, I waited too long and she passed away last year.
NEGATIVE VOICES…FAILURE TO LIVE UP TO EXTERNAL EXPECTATIONS
Throughout their years of growing up, children with ADHD are fed constant negative messages: sit still, pay attention, you’re just not applying yourself, you just don’t give a damn.
Those negative messages are reinforced throughout our lives and feed a pattern of failure and shame in a vicious circle – a roundabout – of frustration.
…this negative chatter, the inner critic, that voice inside our head that creates doubts and worries, saying things like “you’ll never be able to complete this”, “this isn’t good enough”, “you aren’t smart enough”. However, the inner critic may be stronger in people with ADHD due to childhood struggles.
If you grew up with ADHD you probably grew up with negative messages like these…
You’re not good enough or smart enough.
You can’t do anything right.
You also probably grew up with many hardships, including a poor academic record, parental disapproval and frequent punishments
I heard them all…and others like…
What were you thinking?
You’d lose your head if it wasn’t screwed on!
You could do better if only you would try harder.
The advice to “try harder” is understandable. If you don’t have trouble with ADHD symptoms, then it seems like it’s only a matter of effort to keep you focused, keep you awake when you’re supposed to be studying, and keep you sitting still when you’re in class.
But it takes more than just effort, and the constant negativity, the constant feelings of failure, the constant inability to measure up, takes its emotional toll. As a result, ADHD is often accompanied by other mental health issues like depression or anxiety disorders. The difficulty of overcoming the emotional and social deficits caused by ADHD and it’s accompanying problems makes the suggestion to “try harder” seem silly at best…insensitive and cruel at worst.
A child with ADHD might sit down to do homework and find themselves distracted by various visual or auditory stimuli or they might fall asleep while working only to awake hours later with the work undone.
A child with ADHD might enter their classroom promising themselves to pay attention and then find their mind wandering to the sound of the teacher’s voice, the light from the sun reflecting off of passing cars outside the classroom, the noise of shuffling feet, or the hum of the fluorescent lights above their head.
Trying harder isn’t the problem. Saying “pay attention” won’t help. Shaming the child for “drifting away” only adds to the roundabout of failure.
OVERCOMING THE NEGATIVE VOICES
For some children – and adults – the only way to learn to navigate entrance and exit from the roundabout is with treatment, either with therapy, medication, or both.
ADHD is like any other condition, but because it is unseen and hard to diagnose…because it’s a neurological disorder, there’s a tendency to feel embarrassment and to deny that it exists.
But denying that ADHD is a real disorder can be as damaging as it would be to deny that a vision or hearing impairment exists…as damaging as ignoring a diagnosis of diabetes or kidney failure.
Parents of ADHD children should get treatment for their children.
Teachers of ADHD children should educate themselves about the disorder, practice patience and understanding, and treat children with ADHD the same as they would any child with a condition affecting their learning.
Adults with ADHD need to get treatment and learn how to overcome the voices of criticism and shame.
Most of all, anyone who is, or works with a person with ADHD, would do well to heed the advice of Terry Matlen, a psychotherapist specializing in ADHD.
“Surround yourself with people who celebrate who you are, and let go of toxic relationships,” Matlen said. Initially, you might’ve picked people who tear you down, because that’s what you thought you deserved, she said. Again, remember ADHD is not a deep-seated flaw, but a real neurobiological disorder. “[F]ind a team of professionals, a group of loving, caring individuals who want to see you succeed.”
Once people with ADHD get the support they need from medical and mental-health professionals, family, and friends, they can learn to navigate the ins and outs of life’s roundabout.