Today, January 28th, has been designated by Bell Canada as “Let’s Talk” Day, an event designed to raise awareness about mental health issues and help end the stigma that those who have a mental health issue face everyday. This day has personal significance for me because I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), along with several co-existing or “co-morbid” effects.
ADHD is characterized by an inability to concentrate on or complete a task, hyperactivity, impulse control problems, as well as social and behavioural issues. What makes ADHD so rough, for me at least, isn’t the actual ADHD itself. While the effects of ADHD are controllable, the co-morbid effects are what cause me the most trouble. For example, I have dyslexia, which is not a good thing to have if you work as a writer and do a lot of public speaking, which I do.
I also have impulse control and aggression issues. The impulse control issues makes me prone to addictive behavior and as such I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. I do, however, have addiction issues with video games and surfing the interweb. The aggression issues make it so that if I get angry, I can have a very hard time controlling that rage. If I don’t find a way to cool down I turn into a skinny, olive-skinned Hulk and proceed to break things, things that afterwards I realize work better when not shattered into several pieces.
ADHD also makes everyday relationships a bit of a challenge for me. That hyperactivity and impulsive behavior can lead to me being inappropriate, no matter how hard I try not to be. I also have a difficult time with boundaries and personal space. I know they exist but I can get so caught up in the moment I don’t know I’ve crossed a line until I’m well past it.
I’ve never been on medication such as Ritalin or Adderall, and I’ve been lucky that I’ve found non-medication based ways to cope. Being involved in writing and filmmaking and giving public talks is a big help to me because it gives me an outlet for all that energy. I can pour all those ideas and images and thoughts racing through my head into a story or a film idea. I do most of my writing at night since there are fewer distractions. I don’t have errands to run, I don’t have people coming over or phone calls to answer. The darkness of night means I have less to see out my windows and there’s less city noise to draw my attention away from my task at hand.
It’s difficult to describe what having ADHD is like to someone who doesn’t have it. Everyone who has ADHD suffers from it differently. For me, it’s like everything is constantly turned up to the max. Whether I want to or not, I take in everything around me. Every sound, every colour, every movement. All of that constantly competes for my attention and when I’m having a difficult time controlling my ADHD, everything feels like it’s simultaneously slowed down and moving at high speed.
Even on a good day, for me this sensory overload is very difficult and stressful to process. Most of the time I can handle it, and I can find ways to focus on the task at hand. Unfortunately, if I’m tired, or in a stressful situation, those ways of filtering and focusing tend to break down and even the simplest tasks, like doing the dishes, can be a stressful time.
Because of that constant sensory overload, things like family reunions and large group outings are not the most fun for me. That social awkwardness I mentioned earlier kicks in full force. I’m fine with one on one moments, even small groups aren’t too bad but the more people that get added to an event the harder it is for me to control all that sensory input racing at me. Either I end up getting mentally worn out by the end of the day or I become so hyper that I can’t control how spinny I get.
While it can be a lot of fun for those around me if they just “go with the flow”, for those who aren’t sure how to react to that excess energy I have, it can lead to strained relationships. More than once someone has said to my wife “can’t you do something to control him”, leaving her in the unfortunate position of having to defend my ADHD issues while simultaneously trying to bring me down a notch or two. Or six.
That excess energy made grade school and university very difficult for me. I found the classes too slow and would then get in trouble for not paying attention or acting up in class. It’s not that I was a bad kid, or that I went to school with the express desire to raise hell. The classroom environment was too structured for me and often I would act up out of frustration and boredom. I did have a few teachers who understood that I had special needs and by being patient with me they helped me make school a little easier to get through.
I know that the aggression issues that can come out if the combination of too much energy and too much stress is present and the impulsiveness I can display are what make people around me uneasy. It’s the “what if” nature of ADHD, that “what happens if he can’t control it while I’m around” thought that makes people keep me at a distance.
ADHD has affected my social life, my academic career and those co-morbid effects can make every day a challenge for me. The final, and worse, co-morbid effect that I deal with is one that so many people suffer from: depression.
I fall into a depressive episode when either I’ve had a prolonged period of high stress or when I’m unable to take any “me” time to slow my mind down. Every 5-6 months, almost like clockwork, I have a bout of depression. I can feel those bouts coming on but I can’t stop them. Sometimes they last for a couple days, others a couple weeks. One day I can feel on top of the world and the next day I don’t want to be a part of it anymore.
The longer the bouts last the worse they are and during the really bad bouts I think about harming myself. There’s an internal struggle that goes on: on the one side I feel completely apathetic; nothing matters, not even my own well-being. On the other side, I keep telling myself “don’t do anything stupid… ride it out and in a few days you can be yourself again”. Riding it out is far easier said than done.
The effects of ADHD can be difficult to deal with for those around me. Because mental health issues like ADHD are very complex in their roots and causes, understanding them as an outsider can often be difficult. I am well aware that my ADHD has caused strained relationships with family and friends. My wife has been asked “why is he like that” and “can’t he stop being that way”.
The worst thing about having something different about you is that once people find out you struggle with something that falls under “mental health issues”, a stigma often quickly gets attached to you. It doesn’t matter the issue you’re dealing with or the severity of it. As soon as those three words enter into the conversation you get labelled and people start defining you by that label. I’ve experienced this myself with trying to discuss ADHD and it’s effects with others.
It doesn’t help that far too often if someone does go and do something violent, there is very quickly media speculation about whether or not that person did have mental health issues. Even if that speculation turns out to have no basis, the damage is already done as it reinforces that unfortunate stereotype that any mental health issue means the person dealing with it is a time bomb waiting to go off.
That uneasiness that people feel when they’re with someone who has a mental health issue only makes dealing with it and finding positive ways to move forward that much more difficult. I attribute this to a lack of awareness and education. It’s hard to be patient with something you don’t understand and it’s that sense of unpredictability that makes any mental health issue so uncomfortable to deal with.
That stigma of having a mental health issue extends beyond just the person who has the issue. That person’s family often has the stigma extended to them, with questions then raised about their own lives. “What if they’re the same way” and “How could they let this happen to their own family” are two of the ones I’ve heard most asked. Neither of those questions are fair.
I didn’t wake up one morning and choose to have ADHD. I think it’s safe to say that very few people have ever decided “you know what, today I’m going to start having a mental health issue, just to mix things up a bit”. I was born with ADHD and I will have to deal with it for the rest of my life. And yes, I have other family members who have it and there’s a high probability that any children I have will have at least some ADHD-type behaviors.
It’s far too easy to put up boundaries when we’re around those with mental health issues. Like politics and religion, we treat mental health issues as something best left not talked about. I’ve had it several times that when someone, even someone who knows me quite well, finds out that I have ADHD and suffer from depression cycles, they’ve said to me “Really? I never would have guessed that. You hide it so well”.
That’s it though, isn’t it? I hide it. I hide because I, like anyone dealing with a mental health issue, don’t want to be defined by it. I don’t want to be stigmatized by that label that not everything is quite perfect with me. I don’t want to be labelled as “broken” because our society is so unforgiving of broken things.
For those reading this, I didn’t write this because I want you to read it and say “poor guy, that’s a rough thing to deal with”. Quite the opposite, actually: I don’t want pity but rather I seek understanding. My hope is that you will come to understand that those of us who have a mental health issue, we’re just like anyone else.
I’m lucky, in some respect, in having ADHD: I’ve been able to learn to control it, for the most part. Yes, I have bad days but for the most part, I can function relatively normally. I might take a few more breaks than normal and wander around the house when working on something, or I usually make sure I have a snack with me during periods where I have to stay sitting for a long time. While these coping strategies do work more often that not, that doesn’t mean it’s completely under control.
I do have my bad days, my Jekyll and Hyde moments. When those ADHD symptoms are too much to keep in check, or when that bout of depression hits full-force, it can be unpleasant for those around me because it is sometimes far too easy to lash out at those I’m closest to. I think it’s safe to say that we hurt those we love most because we believe they’ll be the ones most likely to forgive and forget. After all, that’s what family and friends do, right?
I have cancelled events, taken time off work and blown off friends because of the depression. I guess I could say I took a “mental health day”. Sometimes I just need a day to re-center and re-focus myself, a day to shut out the world and try to right myself. When those days happen, I feel that battle inside myself, the pull to be that productive member of society I know I am, and the pull to give into the pure emotion raging through me and say “to hell!” with everything and everyone. I know during those times that I can be an absolute jerk to those around me. Trust me, I don’t want to be.
Like so many others who have a mental health issue, I don’t want to be defined by it. To do so is miss who I really am. ADHD and all its co-morbid issues are just a part of me, albeit an unwelcome one. But those issues don’t show you everything that I am or everything that I am capable of. Like so many others struggling with mental health issues I’m trying to work through these issues as best I can. And sometimes they will get the better of me. So please, be there for me in my dark days, and above all, be patient with me.
Mental health issues aren’t something to be feared. Bell’s “Let’s Talk” day gives us a chance to have a safe, constructive discussion about issues many of us silently deal with every single day. Let’s remove that stigma attached to mental health. Let’s talk.