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Bringing the ADHD Debate Into Sharper Focus, Part 3: The Importance of Adult Diagnosis for the Whole Family

With diagnosis, 40+ years of contradictions fell into place. A smart girl who didn't cause trouble, with just enough anxiety to propel me to action, I had flown under the radar screen for four decades.
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Nearly two decades ago, in the early years of my parenting journey, I longed for the "normalcy" of the family life I had expected before having children. With childhood visions of Leave It to Beaver buried somewhere in my subconscious, I presumed that, when I became a parent, I'd have everything in control.

Instead, family life was more like a horror version of The Bad News Bears meets Friday the 13th.

Family life was chaotic, difficult. And frankly, it wasn't just our kids who were having trouble falling in line with life's expectations. I didn't really understand what was happening in my home -- or in my brain -- or why it was so difficult for my husband and me to manage it effectively. I thought I needed to figure out how to "fix" my kids -- or my husband.

It took me a while to understand that the help my family needed started with me.

Adult Diagnosis Sheds a Bright Light

Nearly a decade into this parenting adventure, after two children were diagnosed with ADHD and the third was likely, I began to guess that my husband was probably not solely responsible for all of the "neurological complexity" that made our family so... interesting. Planning my return to graduate school, it was time for me to get evaluated.

Lo and behold, a comprehensive diagnostic "psycho-educational evaluation" with a Ph.D. unveiled previously unidentified attention issues and learning challenges. Suddenly, my whole life made sense.

Slowly, I began to appreciate the extent to which ADHD (and other learning challenges) had dominated my life -- before becoming a parent and since.

With diagnosis, 40+ years of contradictions fell into place. A smart girl who didn't cause trouble, with just enough anxiety to propel me to action, I had flown under the radar screen for four decades. On the one hand, I'd been immensely successful at school; on the other, I had burned out inexplicably after a grueling four years at a prestigious university.

ADHD Was There All Along -- Who Knew?

With my own diagnosis, I began to understand why I had always...

  • Felt stupid, despite hearing how "intelligent" I was.
  • Felt like I had to work so damn hard in college.
  • Avoided certain classes in college because I couldn't trust my memory on tests.
  • Made choices that allowed me to avoid organizational overwhelm (like taking classes with papers, not tests; or choosing a major with pre-selected classes to avoid the course selection process).
  • Loved experiential learning (like a post-graduate fellowship), but couldn't muster the motivation for a formal graduate degree.
  • Felt out of step with my peers, somewhat chaotic and out of control.
  • Felt like a failure, despite all evidence to the contrary.
  • Been a painfully slow reader.
  • Self-medicated since the age of 14.
  • Felt "unfinished," like there was always something I was forgetting.
  • Been restless and couldn't sit still.
  • Loved learning and teaching but never in "traditional" classrooms.
  • Felt completely overwhelmed by all that was required of me as a mother and the manager of our household.

Sound familiar to anyone? Like the "Not Me" ghost in a Family Circus cartoon, I began to see that ADHD was everywhere, influencing everything in my life -- and in my family's life. Despite years of so-called treatment for my kids, I really had not yet begun to understand ADHD. I had not yet begun to learn how to reign in the complex brain wiring that makes ADHD so difficult to manage in the modern world.

I wish I could say that merely identifying my ADHD helped us all focus and follow through on everything we needed to do. It didn't.

But it got me started.

Understanding my challenges DID help me understand and accept all of us. It got me to take a different approach, to learn to manage myself and improve my effectiveness, and begin to teach my family to do the same.

The Gift of Adult Diagnosis: Clarity for the Whole Family

Fast forward to the present day. Now, I am the mom of an ADHD family of five. With skills gleaned from a combination of coaching and training, I have learned to either manage or mitigate the challenges of ADHD in my life -- mostly. I am well established in a new career as a writer and a parenting educator and coach, and I have started ImpactADHD, a successful, global company supporting other parents of kids with what I like to call "complex needs."

As I gained clarity around what was happening for me, it became easier to manage by the day, by the year -- and by the person. I don't mean to suggest that I've somehow "mastered" ADHD -- it doesn't work that way, really. Like diabetes or celiac disease, the challenge is to learn to live with it without letting it define you -- and some days that his easier than others.

But here's the gift of diagnosis: Now that I know what I'm dealing with, I use my understanding of my brain wiring to navigate work and family life, and determine where I can use my skills most effectively. And my kids, while still "works in progress" (aren't we all?), are on a similar path, consciously (and sometimes slowly) learning to manage the complexities of their brains with acceptance, awareness, and structures.

Now, I'm happy to report that our family life is much more like a sitcom than a horror movie. In fact, it's been said that we're the best show not on television. We try to find the humor in everything, which is a much better coping strategy than the meltdowns and tantrums of our early days.

And while I can point to many milestones along the journey, I can assure you my diagnosis was a huge turning point for my whole family.

Where childhood ADHD exists, adult ADHD may not be too far away. And when it is, attention to the needs of the parents is a critical step in addressing the problems of the whole family.