"Sometimes, I just go off to Planet Alex."
The family table roared with laughter when they heard the proclamation I made above. The word "roared" is not an exaggeration. It was a crowded table. When my mom's family gathered for holiday celebrations, my grandmother insisted we all sit around the same table. I am not sure how all nine of Grandma Marge's children, all of their spouses, all 17 of her grandchildren (a number which grew by two following her death), and her sister managed to squeeze around a single table, but somehow she managed to have all of her family around a common table on every Christmas and Easter. This was the massive crowd to whom I announced that I go to "Planet Alex."
Like you, I have many questions about this incident: How old was I when this happened? From what movie/TV show did I get the idea of "Planet Alex?" How did no one think this was a sign of ADHD?
The question of how old I was can only be answered qualitatively: Quite young. I do not remember the incident. I only know the story because my mom has told it on numerous occasions. If I had to take a guess, I would say preschool-or-kindergarten-age.
I do not know where I got Planet Alex. My best guess is that some 90s TV show my sibling and I watched depicted a similar concept.
No one thought about the predominately inattentive type of ADHD (or ADDas it was then called) for two reasons:
- It was too random and funny for anyone to think about ADHD at the time. When people laugh at a funny comment, hardly anyone thinks about what conditions of which such a statement might be symptomatic.
- Ignorance. This was the late-90s. Mental health conditions were not discussed with the frequency they are today. When they were, they were almost always used to make jokes.
Retrospectively, of course, this incident was an early indicator that I have ADHD. It was the first in a long line of missed clues that I have ADHD. I am now going to see how many I can remember:
- My mom used to tell me how squirmy and wiggly I was when she would try to hold me.
- My handwriting has always been atrocious.
- My third-grade teacher wrote on one of my report cards that I had the potential to excel in school, but that I needed to try harder.
- My mom yelled at me a lot because my grades were too low. One time, she took away TV for a week because my grades were so bad. Eventually, I began pre-reviewing the papers that were sent home from school and hiding the ones that had gotten bad grades.
- In late-elementary school/early junior high, I asked my mom if it was possible that I had ADHD.
- In junior high, I made a deal with myself. I accepted the fact that it was nearly impossible to focus during the priest's homily on Sundays and Wednesdays when my Catholic school offered Mass, so I told myself, if I could pay attention to at least part of it and maybe catch one little nugget that would be beneficial, that would be okay. This strategy seemed to be working until a priest that was visiting my school preached for less than a minute before sitting down. That day, I caught none of it.
- Almost every teacher I have ever had (especially my math teachers) have said that my grades could have and should have been higher than they were.
- When my faith became important to me, I still could not focus while praying.
After two decades of signs being missed, I found myself praying in a chapel one day in college. By this point in my life, my faith life was a huge priority for me. As I was praying, I found it impossible to concentrate. This had been happening to me a lot, and it was starting to damage my mental state. I found myself wondering if I was actually as dedicated to my relationship with God as I thought I was. If my spiritual life was truly the most important thing to me, why was I unable to focus while praying? I left the chapel that day feeling awful about myself and wondering, What the heck is wrong with me? That day, I made a decision. I would not sit idly by while this kept happening. If enough of those of prayer experiences happened, irreparable damage would be done to my mental state. Something needed to be done.
Around this same time, I discovered a weird thing on one of my toes. When you have a weird thing on any of your body parts, your immediate reaction is to assume it is cancer, so it behooves you to go to your doctor. After showing the weird thing on my toe to my doctor and being assured it would go away on its own (which it did, thank goodness), I asked for a referral for an ADHD evaluation.
The doctor to whom I was sent spoke did not speak English well, only asked me questions, and did no tests. The only thing she offered to do was to see me again if the one suggestion she gave me for paying attention did not work. Her suggestion was to set a timer during class for five minutes and, when the timer went off, check to see if I was paying attention. This was a most ridiculous suggestion because you cannot have a timer go off every five minutes in class (or church for that matter). At the end of my meeting with this doctor, she just stopped talking. She did not tell me we were done or say goodbye. She just sat there and waited for me to leave.
A couple of months go by, and I discovered that this doctor was not in my insurance network, meaning I would have to pay a couple of hundred dollars for a doctor who did not actually test or treat me. Meanwhile, my attention issues did not improve. My mom, who saw the bill, asked about the appointment, informing that I should have gone to see an in-network provider. Moreover, when I complained about having to pay a doctor who did not do anything, she was shocked that no tests were run and encouraged me to go to an in-network provider and have them run tests. This I did. My appointments (yes, multiple appointments) included a couple of psychological profile questionnaires, some tests, and an interview with the psychologist. After that long and frustrating process, the psychologist tried to diagnose me with dysthymic disorder, a milder but more long-term form of depression. This was surprising because I was not depressed. However, when a trained healthcare professional says you are depressed, you start to believe it. A few miserable weeks followed as I tried to wrap my head around what the psychologist had told me. While this was going on, I had to try to get in to see a psychiatrist (there was a weeks-long wait to get in), so I could be prescribed medication. In discussing the results of my tests with that doctor, I found that the test results actually indicated that it was unclear if the symptoms of dysthymic disorder were causing symptoms of ADHD or vice versa. My doctor and I agreed that we should treat the ADHD because that is what my initial complaint was and, if I did not feel depressed, I probably was not depressed. To this day, I am not entirely sure why the psychological profiles I took indicated dysthymic disorder. Perhaps, years of undiagnosed ADHD, being told I was not reaching my full potential, and feeling different led to some negative self-talk that had a lasting effect on my psychological health, but I do not think it reached a level of depression. What I do know is that my quality of life has improved since my diagnosis.
Do I hate my family and teachers because they missed all of these signs? No. I understand that a lot of people do not know the warning signs of ADHD. I did not know them well enough to advocate for myself. This is one of the reasons I founded Reset ADHD. I want people with ADHD and people who do not have ADHD to know the symptoms and signs of ADHD, so we can work together to improve the lives of those with ADHD. That does not mean it is not frustrating that I was not diagnosed sooner. Sometimes, I wonder about what I could have achieved academically or otherwise if I had been diagnosed sooner, but that often puts me in a bad mood. So, I try to not do that.
The main takeaway from my story is: Life gets better after a diagnosis. All of the negative and demoralizing things that happen before a diagnosis can make life difficult. However, a diagnosis can bring light to a dreary world. Yes, the diagnosis process is difficult, but the benefits outweigh the struggles. In fact, if you have someone who knows what the diagnosis process is like supporting you, the mental strains of getting a diagnosis can be lessened. Because of my own experiences, I know life with undiagnosed ADHD is painful. I know the diagnosis process is difficult. I know that, even after a diagnosis, life with ADHD is hard, and that is why I founded Reset ADHD. I want to help those with ADHD live the most fulfilling life possible.