and Writing ADHD
By John H. Timmerman, Calvin English professor
My intention in writing Real Solutions for Living with ADHD was not to produce an authoritative textbook. It was an effort to understand an illness that I myself have, that several millions of children and adolescents have, and that dozens of my students struggle with each year. I wanted to understand what the nature of the illness is, and whether practical solutions existed to help parents, their affected children, and adults with the disorder.
I don’t know exactly how long I carried this bee in the back of my brain. I remember a childhood jumping from one activity to another, schooling where the simplest concepts lay scattered like a pile of marbles, and the schoolroom itself a horror chamber that drove claustrophobia like hot wires. I spent most of the day dreaming about how nice it would be to leap out the open window and soar, just soar. Either that or the Tigers game that I could be listening to on my small, red portable GE radio.
Somehow I got by, even though teachers brought a familiar litany to parent/teacher conferences: “He just can’t sit still.” “He has so much potential, but…”
Like so many ADHD kids, I was creative enough to make up answers that sounded like the right thing. Until I got to college. After a dismal first semester, I knew I had to do something, and, again like so many ADHD people, I devised certain coping mechanisms, in my case a combination of speed reading and self-hypnosis learned at a pair of seminars. Oh my, they worked. Except that inside this chemical mixing pot of the brain I was still the same person, like a little boy wondering why.
Not until many years later was I diagnosed with the mental disorder. It was gratifying to have a label; I wasn’t alone. Yet, as with many who have an illness, I was consumed by the need to know more about it. Two immediate lessons, and two guiding principles for Real Solutions for Living with ADHD shot to the fore. First, I have an illness, but I am not the illness I have. I am a child of God. Second, although ADHD is an illness that cannot be cured, it can be managed. It is toward the art of management that my book is directed.
The first solution for living with ADHD, however, is not some magical technique we can impose upon our children or ourselves; rather, it is understanding the illness itself. Therefore, this text opens with identification of the illness (how it works and what its effects are), means for diagnosing the illness, common medical and pharmaceutical treatments for the illness, and investigation of certain myths about the illness.
One can deal objectively with ADHD and still have a very muted and limited understanding of it. When I engaged the research phase of my writing, I felt something was missing. What a blessing to be teaching at the college level! A student working as a coach for ADHD students actually approached me with the idea: Why not interview Calvin students for the “inner-life” experience?
Dozens of students agreed to help. Their messages poured into the e-mail, far more than I could interview. Yet, they were the ideal research field, having an adult understanding of the disorder but being close enough to their childhood and adolescent years to remember them clearly. Their stories (anonymous and composite, of course) aided me and the work of the book immensely.
Thus armed, I considered key areas of the ADHD experience, and of necessity began with discipline in the home. Hard questions arise here. Do I try to treat my ADHD child differently? What kind of discipline works? Why does she behave in school all day and then comes home and rocks the walls? What other sorts of behavior might occur with ADHD? When do I call the police?
Some answers here arise from legal statutes. For example, parents sometimes feel they are knocking their heads against the door of education to get any cooperation, let alone help. (One of my students told me that her teacher and principal insisted that there really was no such illness.) In fact, two major national laws assure special consideration (extended testing periods, testing rooms) for ADHD students.
Much overlooked in clinical studies of ADHD is the manifestation of the illness in young girls and, consequently, also in adult women. People don’t just “grow out” of the illness. Rather, they almost subconsciously develop coping mechanisms. One chapter in the book is devoted exclusively to manifestations of and treatment for ADHD in women.
This raises a related issue. What practical solutions can an adult find to successfully navigate the workplace environment? Many of the same childhood symptoms of ADHD—impulsivity, aggression, anger—typify ADHD adults. The key, as in disciplining the child, is to have a plan in place before situations that stress the above symptoms arise.
Finally, persons with ADHD must discover solutions for their spiritual lives. These operate at several levels. Intrinsic to the illness is a feeling of separation, even isolation. The feeling often extends to a Job-like feeling of separation from God. One feels persecuted. Or, on the other hand, one feels that he or she is simply “not a good enough person.” Well, we’re not good enough persons; we are redeemed. Another person might say, “If only I were a strong enough Christian.” But we remind ourselves that our strength lies in God, not ourselves (Zech. 4:6). A psychological struggle, induced by the illness itself, affects one’s spiritual relationship.
Another important manifestation appears. Picture the “typical” sixth-grade ADHD student. In the classroom the teacher is explaining a math problem, but she’s studying Sally’s new hairdo, wondering how it would look on her. Her eyes wander to the window. The day is sunny, ideal for rollerblading. The bell rings; she gathers her unopened book. On to English. She may live only two blocks from school, but the route may take a half hour as she stops to consider items along the way. She might be able to tell you a lot about the caterpillars on Mr. Jones’ tree. Of course she has homework in math for that night, but she forgot to bring home her book. She complains to mom, “I just don’t get math at all. And the teacher never explains anything.” Sound familiar?
Something of that same short-circuiting of concentration occurs in the devotional life of a Christian. George pours a cup of coffee and settles in for his morning devotions. He catches himself starting Romans for the third time. Time for prayer. It starts easily. When he prays for his friend Tom, though, he thinks of Tom’s new Cadillac. Could I afford one? How’d he get the bucks? And so it goes. After awhile George wonders whether it’s even worth the effort. Most assuredly it is, simply because one’s devotional life is essential to Christian living. As in other areas, here too certain patterns can redirect and guide the devious ADHD brain, establishing a closer walk with God.
I kept telling myself certain things while writing this book. Like, you’re not a medical authority, and don’t pretend to be. Instead, I had all the medical data checked by medical sources. I also told myself, Don’t try to act like you have a sure-fire plan to happiness. I don’t think there are any, and I distrust five-step plans to happiness as much as I do television hucksters’ five steps to financial independence.
Instead, I wanted to explore my own and others’ experience with this tormenting illness to soften the blow of it and to grant some reassurance. I discovered that good practical solutions did in fact exist, and, while they were not curative of the disorder, they certainly made its management easier and individual security more steadfast.