ADHD: Real or Fake?

Obviously I think it’s real.

It’s been nagging at me, this stigma against ADHD, this anger and backlash against it, and against medication.  Google “ADHD scam” or “ADHD fraud” and and fun with those results.  I’m feeling disorganized today, so here are my loosely connected thoughts about stigma, backlash, and aggression.

Everyone experiences some degree of the things that make up ADHD from time to time.  But no one gets to live in anyone else’s head.  I did not realize how much I had been compensating for some real deficits (visual processing and working memory) until I had testing done.  Rigorous testing.  I like the term “neurodiversity.”

People with ADHD can be generally annoying to those without, and the disorder gives them an “excuse.”  When I am at my worst, here are the things I do:

  • Promise to do something and break the promise.
  • Work brilliantly one day and be a mess the next day.
  • Miss appointments, ignore emails, avoid phone calls.
  • Overlook important details.
  • Act indignant and petulant when you point all this out to me.

People hate in others what they fear in themselves. People with ADHD often seem irresponsible, impulsive, loud, and obnoxious.  Responsible people work hard to repress that.

Some people have undiagnosed ADHD and have had to struggle against it and don’t think it’s fair that others have accommodations.

The good old days that never were.

From the land of conspiracy theory—conspiracies are paradoxically comforting because they create a narrative about the world having clear cause and effect.  An epidemic of ADHD due to some unknown cause is disturbing.  A fake disorder pushed by the evil empire of big pharma is not.  Conspiracy theories are also comforting because they polarize the world into good and evil and get rid of all that messy gray area in between.  Also, because conspiracy theories rest on the premise of hidden, well-organized actors (conspirators), if you argue against the theory you are part of it or duped by it.

In my specific line of work (teaching at a university) some people suffer from Professor Expert Syndrome.  It goes like this: after you’ve been a professor for two or three decades, you get used to being the expert most of the time.  Some professors start to think they are the expert on everything, even things they don’t actually know anything about.  I suspect that television pundits suffer from a similar disorder.

Food affects mood.  Diet affects your health and your mental health.  But it’s not the only thing that affects health.

Some people arguing against the existence of ADHD are selling books or vitamins.

If I had to describe my learned definition of a normal life, my most knee-jerk, automatic associations of what a “normal” forty year old man is, here is what comes to mind:  Normal Man is married, has two children and two cars: a sedan and a minivan.  Normal Man owns a house, has a mortgage, and a retirement account.  He has a career and has steadily advanced through the ranks.  He works 9 to 5 and wears a suit except on casual Fridays.  On weekends, he mows the lawn and takes the kids to the park.  He has two weeks of vacation a year during which he takes his family somewhere interesting and fun.  He pays his bills on time, he lives within his means, he had the adequate amount of insurance, and he changes his furnace filters on schedule.  He enjoys watching football, baseball, and basketball and also enjoys hanging around with other men who do.  He works out regularly and sees his dentist every six months.

How many assumptions about normal are here?  How many of those things are undermined by problems with executive function?  How many people believe this definition of “normal” is actually “ideal”?  (Normal Man seems like Interminably Boring Man to me, but I admire his ability to stay organized.)

Why is it okay to say “I’m not good at math,” but not “I’m not good at focusing?”  You wouldn’t say to a nearsighted person, “You don’t need glasses, just try harder!”

Also in my line of work, there is often backlash against someone “getting away” with something.  Most ADHDer’s I’ve met really do want to do good work.

The backlash nags at me because I hate being criticized, especially unfairly criticized by ignorant people.  Even though that shouldn’t matter.

The big narratives in the anti-ADHD arguments: children are over-medicated, people are faking ADHD to get special treatment in college or to get access to drugs, the medication can be abused.  None of those things make ADHD any less real.

Okay, I do want to be excused for a few things.  I think it’s okay to say I’m not good at remembering names, even though I remember people. If I want to remember certain things, I have to use notes. I don’t think it’s okay for me not to follow through on things or not pay bills on time.

In fact, I’ve always wanted two things out of life: to fit in, and to be successful.  Sometimes obsessively so.  And I’ve never wanted these things just to be handed to me.  I’ve wanted to be able to focus and direct myself.

23 thoughts on “ADHD: Real or Fake?

  1. I think it’s real! I have most of the symptoms and I’ve had over 30 jobs as an adult before I started my own business as a computer repair technician/ handyman. My garage is a mess, my office is mess, even the virtual space of my computer desktop is a mess. The best thing about being an ADDer is the versatility and the worse part is never feeling you are accomplishing enough. I am, of course as sensitive to criticism as you are, but your posts are too long for an ADDer! My mind was drifting by the time I got to the 8th paragraph.

    • Thanks for your comment, Richard!

      I trend toward the mess but I don’t embrace the mess. I have colleagues who genuinely don’t mind a messy office, for example, but I do.

      Take care!

      • I don’t embrace it either, but with 28 responsibilities and a thousand interests, remembering the do-it-now-or-write-it-down anti-procrastination measure is difficult. I have made the most progress since the diagnosis as I now know my enemy. You need a strategy to drive a brain that is like a Ferrari motor with no brakes.

  2. Pingback: ADD or ADHD, Or Just An Excuse? — ADD Tip o the day 345 | ADDadultstrategies

  3. Hi
    No, it is not real, it is not. It is a few words, carelessly assembled, an idea, a vague attempt to gain some glory.

    What is real is the state of your individual mind.

    Try this:

    cognitive stress = importance x uncertainty

    ok; you can influence importance and uncertainty to control cognitive stress.

    How ? Read carefully: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of everything”
    Focus on your fear of the ALLMIGHTY and everything WILL fall into place for you.

    I guarantee for that and I stand in for that with personal testimony.

    Best regards


  4. I think the problem with thinking ADHD as real came from the fact that so many kids who don’t need to be are put on ADHD meds. Well, just because these meds are over prescribed doesn’t make the disease any less real. Add to that, most older people with ADHD aren’t diagnosed. They just find ways to cope. I recall (when I had my kidney issues) being off my ADHD meds and it was awful. Before I had taken them, I would have never known how hugely this affected my life. However, once you’ve seen the other side going back is no doable. Just some random ADHD thoughts really.

    • Thanks for your comments. I did not get diagnosed until age 40, even though I had been seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist since my early 30s. Sometimes I still have to convince myself I’m not just being lazy, even though I know better.

  5. ADHD can be frustrating for everyone however there are so many pluses to it too like an incredible imagination and passion for life. I only discovered that I have all the signs of ADHD whilst looking into it for my son. It all made sense! What frustrates me is that my son is labelled ‘naughty’ and professionals keep asking me ‘when did his behaviour start’ or ‘what do you think set it off?’ He was born and that’s when it started! Until you live it or live with it it’s very easy to judge isn’t it? Take care and great blog!!!!

  6. Not sure how you pulled this off, Jonathan, but you got into my blog before it got released. Still, I welcome your “like” and laugh out loud at the well-written truths you plug into your material. This may be your greatest truth: “The big narratives in the anti-ADHD arguments: children are over-medicated, people are faking ADHD to get special treatment in college or to get access to drugs, the medication can be abused. None of those things make ADHD any less real.”

  7. This is up there, in my list of one of the best articles I have ever read.

    ADHD is very, very real and as the mother of one (possibly two) ADHD child(ren) I can’t tell you how angry I am that there’s even an ADHD real or not debate.

    My son is diagnosed as having: severe ADHD with autistic and OCD traits. It could also be that his medication hides the fact that he also has Tourettes. (Without medication he tics constantly – they’re not sure if that’s down to the ADHD or if the ADHD medication also works against Tourettes, which research shows can happen).

    It took us years (and even more years) to get him diagnosed. The reason? He was polite, friendly and did his best to behave himself for the ten or so minutes he sat in front of a doctor.

    Finally he was diagnosed, at first with just ADHD and we followed doctors orders and tried fish oils and no TV and no sugar. We tried homeopathic medicine (as suggested by our doctor and many other ideas). Nothing helped. Not the slightest bit. Actually, what happened was that the problems got worse.

    Then we tried Ritalin. It worked. For a short time. His dose was increased and increased but after a short time it always stopped working. Not completely, it did help a little but when he was on the maximum dosis he could only concentrate long enough to write the four letters of his name. He was so impulsive he needed 24 hour supervision because without his life was at risk (climbing out of windows/starting fires the list goes on and on). He was obsessed with unscrewing things (so doors would fall down on being pushed, loo seats would slip with you on them to the floor, furniture would collapse). He took the rubbish out of the bin and put it in his cupboard. He ran out of school whenever he felt like it (causing one search party after another. He was extremly aggressive – to himself and to others. He stabbed a classmate with a pencil and attempted to strangle another with a rope. He wanted to take his own life on several occasions. At one point I remember by husband pinning him to the floor because he was fixated on a dive in the river. We were scared to go to sleep because he got up in the middle of the night he got up and did things. His tics were terrible – his shoulder smacked him in the face, his head slammed itself against walls and tables and he could barely sit through a meal without bouncing from his seat. (Remeber all that was on medication).

    Finally we got him into a special research clinic. He was there for four months and they started him on a relatively new medication from America. It wasn’t available here yet and the hospital had to prepare it for him themselves.

    The doctor explained it to me like this: that there’s a chemical that isn’t produced in his brain. That chemical can be given in the artificial form – Ritalin. The Ritalin then acts like the chemical and goes around the brain, there’s a kind of recycling centre that the reships the Ritalin around (as would normally happen with the chemical). Our son not only didn’t produce the chemical but he didn’t recycle it either. The new medicine produces and recycles. (I know it’s not a very biological explanation, but it worked well for me :-))

    My son will always have problems. But he now goes to school and has mostly great grades. He does his homework without a fuss. But above all he is much, much less impulsive. We still have issues when the medicine starts to run out (if for some reason he’s still awake late at night).

    I suspect without medication he’d no longer be with us, he’d either be in an institution or worse.

    Nowadays I get a chance to see more of his quiet illness – his autistic side – he gets nervous in crowds and stressed by many seeminly normal situations.

    The seeming professionals spouting this crap put fear into parents and doctors (I think that was the reason our doctor got us to try other therapies first) and don’t think about what people with ADHD actually go through.
    Like you said, you would tell a near sighted person to try harder.

    I think ideal man is boring too by the way. 😉

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to rant. 😉

    • Thanks for the comment, Sarsm! I have two special needs sons, both diagnosed with autism, my younger less severe and having more ADHD traits. Lots of difficult things in your comment, but I did have a good laugh about the unscrewing compulsion. I can only imagine stumbling to the bathroom in the morning and having both the door and toilet seat fall off! Our latest challenge: our oldest is pulling his hair out, one strand at a time. He looks like he’s going bald.

      There was a good news segment on national TV in the U.S. last night about ADHD. The reporter asked these sort of real-or-not questions (in a good way). The best answer from a doctor had to do with impairment. Everyone feel distracted and unfocused, but ADHD brains are different so that it gets impossible to function. Sort of like the difference between sadness and depression.

      Thanks for reading and for the long comment. It helps me keep writing (and coping).

  8. Hi. I know I’m very late to this party, but I still wanted to drop you a line here saying i enjoyed this post. there is so much of my son in this. i like seeing him through your eyes … so to speak. thanks

  9. Pingback: ADHD Thoughts About ADHD | TheRationalDeficit

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