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ADHD in Adults: Quirky, or Something More?

Published on: December 30, 2013

Me and Tyler as children

It felt like that moment when all the parts of a complicated math equation click, and you find the answer. Except, I didn't even realize I was looking for an answer until my brother said it.

I have ADD. Mom has it, too. It runs in families.”

Attention Deficit Disorder? What little I knew about ADD didn't seem to fit. My brother Tyler had always been good at focusing. In fact, sometimes, he would be so overly-focused on something that he would barely acknowledge the people around him.

As a teenager, he could play video games for hours. He’d always been smart and done well in school. I had stood in his shadow when it came to academics. In elementary school, he tested into the gifted program and was sent off to the school for all the “smarty-pants” kids. He could draw all of the Looney Tunes characters to perfection (as I felt the dejection of hanging my sloppy crayon scribbles next to his masterpieces).

He had two bachelor’s degrees and worked as an electrical engineer. Wouldn't he have struggled more academically if he had ADD?

But, in other ways, it made sense. I’ll never forget when my husband and I went crabbing with my brother. We needed his help as we pulled up the crab traps from beneath the water. “Ty . . . Tyler? Ty! Tyler? Can you hear me?” For more than half a minute, he couldn't hear us screaming his name from two feet away.  He just sat there in an oblivious daze as we yelled his name repeatedly.

After that, my husband and I coined a new term for when we were lost in our own thoughts — we’d say “Sorry, I was in Ty-land.”

In phone calls, he struggled to maintain a normal conversation. I’d ask him a question only to be greeted with silence. Then, he’d realize his mistake and hastily ask a question or begin a new sentence. He’d forget things at my house when he came to visit, constantly lose his keys or his cell phone.

My mom had similar eccentricities — her house full of scattered papers, every kitchen drawer a strange mish-mash of unrelated objects, her inability to be on time.

“She’ll be late to her own funeral,” we’d joke. I just assumed that I came from a quirky family.

But Tyler’s phone call prompted me to do some research.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health ADD/ADHD has three subtypes: Predominantly Inattentive, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive and combined hyperactive, impulsive and inattentive. My brother’s symptoms fit mostly into the Predominantly Inattentive category.brain

ADD/HD manifests differently for each individual, which can make diagnosis difficult. Parentmap’s recent article on ADHD highlights some of the controversy surrounding the diagnosis, treatment, and the escalating abuse of amphetamine drugs commonly used to treat the condition.

I quickly learned that my brother’s bouts of marathon video-gaming and other obsessive hobbies stemmed from a coping mechanism called “hyperfocus.” Many people with ADHD may alternate between periods of hyperfocus and distractibility, depending on how rewarding they find the activity they are doing. In my brother’s case, he could spend many hours putting together a new computer, but easily forget half of the items on his grocery list while at the store.

To diagnose ADHD in children, doctors use DSM-IV criteria, defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Often these symptoms manifest differently in adulthood, so this test may not be an accurate measure for adults.

The World Health Organization has developed a short questionnaire to use as a starting point for an adult diagnosis. There is also the Wender Utah Rating Scale, which asks questions about symptom manifestations in childhood. If you suspect you have ADD/HD, you can use either of these tests as a tool for speaking with your doctor about your own symptoms. These tests should only be used in conjunction with a doctor’s assessment.

Many ADHD symptoms mirror the symptoms of living a stressful life. According to WebMD, these symptoms may include poor memory and poor time-management, being disorganized and easily distracted, emotional outbursts, excessive talking and becoming easily frustrated. Drug abuse, gambling and difficulty with jobs and relationships may also be more prevalent among adults with ADD/HD. Adults with undiagnosed ADD/HD may also struggle with low self-esteem.

I recently confided to a friend that I was worried that I might have ADD, to which she laughed and said, “You don’t have ADD, you have three young children!” Her observation was comforting, but in some ways added to my uncertainty. I know that I am easily distracted, forgetful, disorganized and often short-tempered — but I also know that most parents have these same challenges.

In my brother’s case, just knowing that there was a legitimate reason behind his symptoms was comforting. He now has the tools and information he needs to make informed decisions about treating his ADD. It has also made our family more aware of symptoms that may manifest in our own children, since research suggests it has a strong genetic basis. For more information on ADD/HD, please visit the list of resources at the bottom of our recent feature story on ADHD.

How has ADHD affected your life or family?

Rory is a slightly neurotic mom to three young children and Parentmap's Social Media Coordinator. She recently taught herself to play the accordion through Youtube videos and can often be found hiding from her kids in the closet while eating chocolate chips (which she aspires to bake something with but never does). Her perfect day would include a trip to a local beach with her children, taco truck tacos for dinner, and roasting marshmallows around a campfire with friends. You can see more of her musings about parenting at ParanoidStayAtHomeMom.

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