So what's it like? I'm here to try to put the often joked about and somewhat actually really scary disorder into an understandable perspective.
What is ADD again?
ADD stands for Attention Deficit Disorder. The disorder of having less attention than is normal/desired. That much should be obvious.
When you have ADD, depending on how badly you've got it, you could either have trouble getting through a long lecture or have trouble getting through your morning greetings with your neighbors before your mind decides it's going to flip through its mental channels for something to daydream about.
I'm no neurologist, but I'll try to explain why this happens the way that it was explained to me.
You can imagine that the back part of your brain is the gas pedal in the car. It's what makes it move. It's the creativity, the inspiration, the the "GO" button.
Now, the frontal lobe is the part of the brain that steers the back half. It keeps you on the road. It gives structure to all of your go force. It allows you to press the brakes when you need to. It puts rationality into the ambitious momentum of the back part of the brain.
So, when you have ADD the frontal lobe isn't doing its job to its full potential and the back part of your brain is working in overdrive to try to stimulate the frontal lobe.
What is that like?
For me, it was terrible. But, at the same time, I didn't know that there was any other option. I thought that I just wasn't able to pay attention to things so I had to create coping strategies like chewing gum or writing incessant notes to keep myself from losing focus on what was in front of me.
Now that I take meds for my ADD, it's really clear how much of a difference there is. I had been wondering why school was so hard for me if the concepts were so easy to grasp. It turned out that I was wondering why I was losing a race before I realized that everybody else was riding a horse.
The first issue is that it's really hard to pay attention to things. Like, even things that you really enjoy. You can't just sit there and listen. Your brain is going to freak out and think it needs extra stimulation and it will just start changing the channel on you. It's not an exaggeration to say that you won't even remember where you are some of the time.
I think that probably the best representation of this that I've ever seen is in Calvin and Hobbes. There will be strips in that series where Calvin finds himself on some sort of distant planet fighting aliens as Spaceman Spiff before he is snapped out of his daydream by his teacher. It's a lot like that, but totally involuntary and oftentimes not quite as cool.
So, already that's something that's going to be disruptive to my life. Not being able to pay attention and suddenly finding myself lost in a daydream is a pretty big issue.
But wait! It gets worse!
Did you know that you have to pay attention to something fairly well to commit it to any kind of worthwhile memory? Turns out that being ADD makes you terribly forgetful too!
Your mind doesn't like to forget things, so oftentimes it will compensate with false memories, too. I had to compensate for this by constantly doubting myself. I still check if I've locked the door when I go out three times and check to make sure that I've closed my gas intake on the car is closed before I drive off roughly three to four times. I never trust my memory. It's always wrong.
Seriously, that has had the potential to put me into some dangerous situations.
As for the day dreams? Do I think of cures for cancer? The next big project? How to end pollution and speak with dogs?
Well, I have good ideas every now and then... when I can remember the daydreams.
Oh yeah. Did I forget to mention that my daydreams can't keep my concentration either and thus end up being interrupted by yet another daydream and aren't committed to memory? Oh yeah. Most of the time I can't even remember the daydream itself.
Where does this leave me?
Horribly disoriented and without sense of time. I'm serious.
My attention can be disrupted for 20 minutes at a time. Do you know how long 20 minutes is when you're in the middle of a lecture that you will be writing an essay on? Do you know how long 20 minutes is when you can't remember anything about what happened during that 20 minutes?
I know that I daydream, and I can usually at least remember fragments of what I was thinking about. But when I'm daydreaming without realizing it for 20 minutes at a time and I can't even remember the most of it then it stops being a minor issue. I'm literally losing time out of my life and I can't control it.
And that's how I thought it was for everybody, so I didn't really bring it up until I was in my 20's.
What were the consequences of having untreated ADD for so long?
Well, my grades in school suffered big time. I grasped the concepts pretty well, but I couldn't sit through homework and often forgot what the homework was. I couldn't listen to the teacher long enough to even write down the homework some of the time. I wouldn't do in-class assignments if they bored me. The only things I got any decent grades on were essays and exams: the two things that were absolutely active work.
I ended up testing out of high school in my sophomore year because my grades were so poor that I would have to repeat a year or two. I wasn't cool with that idea and decided that showing that I know everything and don't want to waste my time anymore was a better idea. It was, and I got out.
Was ADD absolutely crushing to my ability to learn though? Nah, I could learn things if I spent the proper amount of time teaching it to myself at a pace that made sense in my jaggedly cut mind. I learnt how to read and write fairly well (though I will always have the issue of being long in the tooth), I taught myself how to draw the wrong way, and I managed to teach myself programming in the fourth grade. Yeah, programming. And I was failing every math assignment handed to me.
If I could go back and change it...
Probably wouldn't. Maybe the meds would have messed with my head if I took them while my brain was still developing. Who knows.
Still, though. It would have been really nice to know what I was going through and not just assume that I was falling behind because I was inherently worse than everybody in some way. I thought that everybody had the same difficulties paying attention and that I was just really bad at it. Maybe I wasn't trying hard enough. Maybe I was just too lazy. If the hardest I can try isn't as good as the kids who don't seem to be trying at all, maybe I am just lazy by nature.
Those are all thoughts that ended up molding my personality, probably for the worse. I had a long time of having to redevelop my self esteem (don't cry for me, I look back at my old self and call him a wuss) and I am still lazy by my own design. But hey, I get things done.
How did medication get introduced?
So I kind of went through a self-medication phase. Apparently a lot of people with undiagnosed disorders do that and my phase was pretty tame compared to theirs.
I did a lot of drinking, a lot of smoking. I still drink, but smoking is a habit I kicked years ago now. I'm really embarrassed now by the lot of it.
Turns out the two of those combined are the worst things somebody with ADD can do. They're both downers that make you waaay more forgetful and waaay more spacey. Things were not going well during that time.
It was around then that a guy that I knew was selling his ADD pills. By this point I had high suspicions that I might have ADD so I asked him if I could try just half of one of his pills. He said it would make people get really hyperactive and stuff if they didn't have ADD and would only last a few hours.
Note: Do not take pills from strangers, ever. This guy was a somewhat trusted source, and I would still never take a pill from him again. This was something I did out of desperation and is not a wise move for anybody to take.
Anyway, after I popped the pill something really weird happened.
I was focused.
If you've ever gone a long time without wearing glasses and then you suddenly get prescribed a pair, you know what this is like. Instead of everything being blurry and undefined, you can see every little detail and ruminate on it.
It was like an out of body experience, only it was an into body experience.
Everything was the same but everything was different. I could hear sounds and look around and focus on what the spines of books said all at the same time. And for the duration of the pill's effects I had unbroken control over my mind. There was no other effect. I was not hyper, I was not drowsy, I was not thinking any differently- I was just in control.
You have no idea what this meant to me. I didn't know that this was possible. I could pay attention to things that I wanted to pay attention to. I wouldn't slip into daydreams. I wouldn't lose 20 minutes in a thought I couldn't remember. I was normal.
I was normal.
Admittedly, that night I cried a little thinking about all that I had missed.
The next morning I went to my parents and I told them that I needed medication. I told them that I had ADD and that my college studies were suffering without it. My mother is in the psych field, so she found a good psychiatrist for me and off I went.
The good doctor told me that the smoking and drinking were the worst things I could be doing. I suspected that he might just be anti-substance or something, but I was alleviated of that when he came back with, "Now, if you were to snort cocaine or something, that'd probably level you out." We laughed and I knew that he was speaking straight from a medical perspective.
I had previously been afraid of taking meds, as people I had known had become addicted to their ADD medications. The doctor was suspicious of this, as he said that if the patients are taking the correct meds then there should be no risk of addiction and no mental side effects. It's entirely possible that they had been misdiagnosed with ADD altogether.
I got started on a regimen of four Ritalin a day and things have been clear ever since.
What are the dangers of these meds?
For me? Nothing. Seriously, I don't really have any dangers. I've been taking them a year now and have had no negative side effects. I get thirsty more often I guess.
For some people they lose their appetite, but that certainly hasn't happened to me (I'm a fat man and I'm proud of it).
Some people need some different meds for their specific disorder and it messes with their minds. The only effect I've suffered is greater ability to focus and not lose attention. Oh, and I have to pay about 10 dollars copay every month to pick them up as well as get a repeated prescription filled out every month.
If you get hyperactive from the meds (they are uppers to most people) then that means that you're either taking too high of a dose or you're not ADD. ADD and ADHD people get mellowed out by the uppers that they take because it stimulates their frontal lobe, kicking it into high gear to get the back half of the brain under check.
If you have any other side effects of the medications, then you need to report it to your psychiatrist immediately. They can get you moved onto a new med and you can start trying to get that to work. Don't be discouraged either. It may take a couple tries.
But it will all be worth it once you have true control.