MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
MARTIN: They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. And today we want to begin an occasional series on the challenge of living with certain health conditions and how they affect kids and families.
We're going to talk about allergy, seizures, obesity, that kind of thing - health conditions that you might have heard a lot about, but still might not really understand. And we're going to start today by talking about ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. What is it really? Why is it being diagnosed so often? And here's a twist. What if you, the parent, is the one with ADHD? It's hard enough trying to balance school, schedules, sports practices and dance recitals, homework without the disorder. With it - well, you can imagine.
We wanted to take a look at how ADHD affects parents and families and how they manage all of that. Women have actually become the fastest growing group of people taking prescription medication for ADHD in the U.S. To tell us more about that we have Brigid Schulte with us. She's written about this in a recent issue of The Washington Post Magazine. She's with us now. Brigid, thanks so much for joining us.
BRIGID SCHULTE: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Also with us, our two mothers who've been diagnosed with ADHD, Michelle Suppers was profiled in Brigid's piece. She's the mother of two boys, one of whom was also diagnosed with ADHD. And Jennifer Brown is also a mother of two, a boy and a girl. She and her teenage son have also been diagnosed with ADHD and they're all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. So, welcome to you, Moms. Thank you for joining us.
MICHELLE SUPPERS: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, Brigid, let me just start with you. How did you get on to this topic?
SCHULTE: Well, I was actually working on a completely different story and the woman that I was interviewing just really hit it off, really liked her a lot and she confided in me. She said, she's my age, she's in her 40s. She said, well, you know, I've just been diagnosed with ADHD. And I had heard of, obviously, ADHD. I've got family members with ADHD. But I've always associated it with kids. And it just kind of blew my mind.
And then we ended up being really interested in it for the magazine to see if we could find somebody who thought they had ADHD and follow them through their journey of getting a diagnosis and really ask the question through the piece, where does crazy, modern life end and a disorder start?
MARTIN: And just to clarify for people who are not familiar with these terms, I think a lot of people have heard the term ADD, or Attention Deficit Disorder. Is that the same as ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? Can you clear that up for us?
SCHULTE: Sure. That's a great question. The disorder itself has been called a lot of different things over the years. It was first described in medical literature, you know, hundreds of years ago. And it's been called variously, minimal brain dysfunction or a moral defect.
Through the years it had been called ADD at one point. In the 1980s, a group of psychologists, psychiatrists changed the name to ADHD. But then they allowed what they called an inattentive subtype because there are different types of ADHD.
Some people do exhibit the hyperactivity. Some people don't experience any of that hyperactivity. What they have is more inattention where what's going on in their brain is just so much more interesting than what's going on in the real world, that they really live in their own worlds.
MARTIN: And I'm going to bring the other moms in in a moment, but I did want to ask about this question which is some people think that ADHD has become this kind of catchall way for people to diagnose what's really a symptom of modern life. There's just too much going on. It's really the culture. It's not the individual.
For example, you quote a psychotherapist in California, Daniel Golden, who said in your piece, all these women being diagnosed with ADHD are just overwhelmed and anxious. It's just modern life. Is that a common view? Is there still a lot of disagreement about this within the medical profession?
SCHULTE: Well, I think that there is a lot of disagreement out there and there's a lot of controversy still. And part of the controversy is it's a very difficult thing to diagnose exactly. It's very subjective. There isn't a blood test you can take. There isn't a brain scan that you can take that will say, see, this is your ADHD. So it tends to be very subjective based on a series of factors, based on a questionnaire that you'll go through. Sometimes doctors are trained in it, sometimes they're not.
There are those who say that it is overdiagnosed here in the United States, that the medication is over-prescribed. In Europe, for instance, they don't have near the rates - nearly the rates that we do. But that is in part because of how they describe the disorder. It tends to be much more hyperactive. And what the studies have found is that the hyperactivity tends to drop off in puberty once your hormones change. But the inattentiveness never does.
MARTIN: Michelle, I want to turn to you.
MARTIN: Because in the piece, Brigid talks about the fact, you already knew that your son had been diagnosed.
SUPPERS: Yes. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask, what made you seek the diagnosis or how was he diagnosed? Then I want to get to you.
SUPPERS: For my son?
MARTIN: For your son. Yeah.
SUPPERS: We'll, he had had problems in school all - he was always a very hyper and very active child, and we kind of thought it was normal because I was like that as a child. And so I kind of figured, you know, it's fine, he'll grow out of it. But he never seemed to grow out of it, even getting into kindergarten. And that's when we actually got him diagnosed - was he was in kindergarten, he wasn't able to stay still, wasn't able to stay in his seat, and so it was after that that we ended up taking him to a psychologist and he got diagnosed with it, you know, with her questionnaire and doing a series of tests with him, so...
MARTIN: And then to you, Brigid describes in the piece that being on time is sometimes a problem for you.
MARTIN: Kind of finishing tasks was sometimes a problem for you. And then your husband found an online ADHD screening quiz...
MARTIN: ...and had you take it. And the piece says based on your score, you're advised to seek out a trained mental health professional immediately.
SUPPERS: Yeah, it's very dramatic.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SUPPERS: So it kind of pretty much became a joke in our house. So in this, we actually took the test after we had talked with Brigid and I talked to her and, you know, I believed it more, the diagnosis, just because I had problems as a child with this, but I never really thought anything of it. They thought it was just my personality, that's the way it was. But I always had problems in school. And in, like in the piece, I would, you know, be the one wrestling with boys and I wouldn't stay still. And my mom had actually asked my doctor about it as a child but he just kind of said, you know, would you rather her be lazy? You know, there wasn't a lot known back then, I guess, you know, at least this doctor didn't know very much. So when I actually found out that I officially had it, it - there was kind of no doubt in my mind. I kind of always knew that I did and I would joke about it growing up. You know, being in my 20s, just kind of making jokes about it, not really, you know, taking it very seriously.
MARTIN: Does it bother you? It doesn't seem to, but does it?
MARTIN: Or are you just putting on a good face?
SUPPERS: No. It doesn't really bother me too much. But I get my moments where I'm completely overwhelmed. And I think it's like if I have - and for some reason I stopped working in May and I think ever since then it's become a little bit more noticeable to me. Because I think when I was working I had to structure myself. I had my to do list every day. I knew what I had to do. And when I'm at home I don't do that as much. I was like, you know, I'll take care of it when I take care of it. So it doesn't bother me too much but I do get my moments of where I feel completely overwhelmed. You know.
MARTIN: Hmm. Jennifer, what about you? How did your journey on this path start? Did it start with a diagnosis with your son?
BROWN: I had started seeing a therapist because my father was terminally ill. And one of the things that we were discussing was the children and coping and I was working from home and how to manage it all, and my son's teachers recommend, well, you might want to have your son tested for ADHD. And so my therapist at the time recommended that I read this book 'Driven to Distraction." And in it it had a list of 10 questions - 100 questions that you would be asked in the diagnosis. So I was reading it for my son and I got to about question 10 and I realized that I had said yes to all of them for me, and so proceeded to go through all 100 questions and I think I said yes to about 93 or 94.
MARTIN: Give me an example of some of the questions.
BROWN: When you read, do you find that you often reread a paragraph or an entire page because you're daydreaming? Do you have trouble getting started on things? Were you considered an underachiever in school? Do you tune out and space out a lot? And so because I was already then seeing a psychiatrist, she gave me a prescription for ADHD medication and I went home, got the prescription filled. I took it with water at the CVS. And I got in my car and by the time I got to the corner of my house - it was about 20 minutes - and all of a sudden I realized that it was completely quiet, which is something I didn't know until then I had never heard. Because in my own head I would have about 10 or 11 conversations going: one was about what was for dinner, one was about work, one was about mowing the lawn, and they all stopped and the only thing I was thinking of was the red light, and it was wonderful and almost a little odd.
MARTIN: How do you feel about it? Is it hard to talk about?
BROWN: Not at all, actually. I'm very open about it. My staff at work knew that I took the medication. And, in fact, if I was late on my afternoon meds, a CSO would look at me and say have you taken your medication yet? It's very open in the house. I do not want my son to feel the stigma that some people do feel. And frankly, for as many things as ADA affects negatively in my life, it also affects them very positively, and I wouldn't have those positive sides without the negative, which is true of many (unintelligible)...
MARTIN: So in a way the diagnosis is a relief because it gives a name to something that you were experiencing anyway - gives you a strategy for dealing with it. Is there anything about it that you don't like?
BROWN: Time is a huge issue. I am constantly late, and many people take my being late as a personal issue with them - a lack of respect. And it's not that at all. It is my complete inability to manage time even with a lot of effort.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit with the Moms. This is the first in our occasional series about health conditions that many people may have heard of, may not know a lot about. And today we're talking about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.
And with us are Michelle Suppers and Jennifer Brown. Both are moms who've been diagnosed with ADHD, and at least one of their children has also. Also with us is Brigid Schulte, a reporter with The Washington Post, who recently wrote a Washington Post magazine cover story about living with ADHD, particularly moms who have ADHD.
So Brigid, why is it that boys initially tended to be diagnosed with ADHD, but now it seems to have - according to your piece - it's equalized quite a bit and now many more women are as well. Why do you think that is?
SCHULTE: Yeah. It's because it was easier to see. It's a whole lot easier to see a little boy jumping up and down and not being able to sit in his seat. It's really interesting. There's one ADHD researcher who said you'll find ADHD in any country where there is compulsory education. Because, you know, if you're working out on the fields or, you know, if you have a very different kind of society, it's not so much an issue. But what happens is little girls don't tend to have the same hyperactivity. They don't experience typically the same hyperactivity. Michelle, you know, when she talks about her childhood, she did, although that tends to be rare. So girls were missed back when people thought that ADHD was really all about just being hyper and not being able to sit still. As they began to study it more, as they began to learn more about it, they saw these other elements to it - the inattentiveness, the inability to track time, the inability to get motivated, to get started on things, to finish things, to be organized. Then what happened is the parents would go in and they would take these quizzes, sort of like these moms did, and the statistics are amazing. Something like 40 percent of the parents that go in with their kids wind up with a diagnosis themselves.
MARTIN: Michelle, what do you think about the diagnosis? Is it a relief in a way that there's a name for what you're experiencing? Or does it kind of irritate you because you think, well, you just function differently. You know, so what if you don't do things in a linear fashion.
SUPPERS: It definitely was... You know, maybe you should have been an artist.
It absolutely, definitely was a relief, both for when my son got diagnosed and when I got diagnosed. You know, with my son, it's kind of a relief of where you didn't mess him up, you know, it's just the way his brain functions, it's the way he is. And for me it was more thank goodness I got the relief where I'd feel nuts, you know, like I was just going crazy. So for me it definitely was a relief, I have to say it was. And I don't feel irritated at all with it, at all, so.
MARTIN: Brigid, I just want to push one more time on this whole question of, on the one hand I hear Jennifer telling us that medications really helped open things up for her. I've heard Michelle say that the, you know, diagnosis and giving some a name to this phenomenon has been helpful in some ways. But I still want to ask about, you know, why does everybody have to learn in the same way? Are we medicalizing something that's really about the convenience of institutions? Does anybody say, well, maybe, maybe really, it's really the institutions are molding people to their convenience as opposed to that there's really a syndrome that needs to be, you know, treated?
SCHULTE: Or is it a little bit of both? You know, is it out there and then the way modern life is, you know, it's just sort of making all of us more and more, you know, having to juggle more and more and keeping more stuff in our brains and the 24/7 news cycle and, you know, all of this information overload that's out there. You know, that's a great question and I think that that's still, it's an unresolved question. We don't know kind of what the answer is. You know, what they'll say for the diagnosis is that it's not just that you have these symptoms, but that it affects your life in several different ways in a very negative way. So, you know, if you've got hyperactivity and you're jumping up and down and you can't win your seat but you get straight A's, well, you don't have the disorder.
You know, if you can't keep track of time but, you know, you picked the right job where you're really passionate about it, you know, you don't have the disorder. You're doing well. So the disorder comes when all of those, that sort of spectrum of behaviors cluster enough that they actually affect your life in a really devastating way.
MARTIN: In a negative way. Michelle, what are some of the techniques that you have come up with that have helped you cope?
SUPPERS: The number one technique that helps me is lists. If I write down what I need to remember, what I need to do, this has to happen, that above anything I believe has helped me more than anything else. That and also the right support. My husband is wonderful and will - he knows where I slack and where I lag and he picks up on that part of it. So I think having the right support helps a ton. But number one, the list. I have to write down everything, because if I don't write it down and it doesn't interest me, I'm not going to remember it at all.
MARTIN: Where's your list? Were we on your list?
SUPPERS: Well, I actually don't have it at my - it's in my purse so...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Were we on your list?
SUPPERS: Yes, of course.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Just making sure. I would've been bummed if (unintelligible) Jennifer, what about you? What's helped you?
BROWN: Well, I would say professionally, I've been very successful professionally, and in part it's because I figured out very early on what I needed and I made sure I had it. And I always have someone who works directly for me that's very smart and senior and is very good with time schedules, appointments and has a sense of humor and appreciation for what I bring to the table, and that's key. And then I agree, I agree about lists. I think technology has made it much easier for folks like me. When I - there was a time when I had three different calendars. But I make sure that everything goes on my Outlook calendar, everything goes on my task list, and that it's also portable - that it moves to my handheld. And that's the other thing I - when I try to get organized, I try to find the perfect spot for something and I realize the spot that's going to work is the spot that you put it now. So I didn't hang my key hook in the kitchen, I hung my key hook by the door because that's where I always put my keys. And being willing to acknowledge that you have ADHD is the first step. It's like anything else - if you try to pretend like these things aren't happening in your life, you're certainly not going to be able to address them.
MARTIN: Jennifer Brown is a consultant and mom of two teenagers. Michelle Suppers is a mom of two young sons. Brigid Schulte is a staff writer for The Washington Post. She recently wrote about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. If you want to read her piece in its entirety, we hope you will, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. And all of our moms were here in our Washington, D.C. studio with us. Thank you all so much for joining us.
SUPPERS: Thank you.
SCHULTE: Thanks so much.
SUPPERS: Thank you.
BROWN: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.