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Wednesday 20 September 2006

My struggle with ADHD

By: Evening Star News

LIVING with a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a long, hard struggle for many families, and cases of the condition appear to be on the increase.

Here, a Suffolk mother and son tell of their experiences with ADHD in their own words and prove that there can be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Simon Saunders, 25, suffered with ADHD throughout his school years. He is now working as a sub-editor for The Evening Star.

“To an outsider, my formative years would actually look very cosy. I lived in the countryside with a wood and a paddock and parents who still link arms walking down the street after nearly 30 years of happy marriage. Not a bad start really.

“I can't even say I was mercilessly bullied at school. I was ginger, short and weedy without a comedic bone in my body, but the worst that tended to happen was not being invited to parties. Bullying was never really the issue.

“As people dealing with them can testify, children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) are terrible things. They can be drowsy and irritable, loud and angry, or wilfully disobedient and very angry. They constantly pick fights and almost never listen to what anyone is saying. They are, in short, basket-cases.

“My first memory of how ADHD was affecting me is burned into my brain. I can remember the smell of sweat and wood as I sat on a bench in the school changing rooms, listening to the one person I really talked to at primary school.

I don't remember how it came up, I just remember him telling me that no-one liked me. I didn't like being unpopular of course, but it was the way he spoke about it. I've never felt as alone as I did there with words like 'too weird' and 'why can't you be normal?' ringing in my ears.

“After that I tried to change my attitude. I tried to listen in class, I tried not to lose my rag. I tried to fit in. It didn't work of course, that's the worst thing about it. ADHD works directly on your brain by chemically unbalancing it.

“It's like being slightly drunk all the time, and not the singing happy drunk but the angry kind. The condition allows you almost no control over your emotions and nearly as little over your actions.

“The thing is, the older you get the more aware you become of what a freak you are.

“At the age of three you can throw a tantrum and people pass it off as a phase. At the age of five you are getting worried looks from your teachers and being taken to a doctor. By the age of seven other children are learning to avoid you and teachers are making you stand outside for entire lessons. Around age eleven the only people willing to talk to you are the big kids who want a bit of a laugh. “And it really isn't funny when you hit puberty.

“I have no idea how I managed to pass the secondary school exam. It's a tribute to the patience and sheer bloody-minded refusal of the teachers at Ipswich School to give up on me that I managed any sort of education.

“It's not that I was unable to grasp what people said - my reports were littered with "very bright" and "shows huge potential" - it's that I couldn't concentrate long enough to take it all in.

“In maths for example, I'd work for the first half of the lesson, then lose it and do something idiotic like wandering off, oblivious to my teacher shouting at me to sit down.

“Afterwards I'd hate myself for behaving like that, but I'd do it again the next week. No matter how hard I tried it was always the same. Teachers screaming at me. Sniggers. Endless laughing.

“There is a drug that's supposed to help. Ritalin is designed to act as a suppressant for the worst excesses of ADHD, but as with many 'wonder' drugs there is a side effect. Some children perform a complete about turn in behaviour and become sluggish, still unable to concentrate but this time because they are being tranquilized by the prescription. It happened to me and I'm not sure which was worse, being off the drugs or on them.

“Instead of thinking one thing and doing another, I didn't think at all, and the other children still didn't accept me; instead of being a basket case I was now a druggie basket case. I was off them again within a couple of months.

“By the time I started growing out of it I was in my final year of GCSE's. I did okay, I got to take my A-levels and I made it to University. But the psychological aspect of it, the terrible feeling of being all alone, excluded, I still get that a lot. I'm a quiet and largely self-contained person thanks to long years straining not to say or do anything stupid - a social dyslexic.

“I'll probably remain so for the rest of my life, though it has become less of a problem over time. One thing I'll never be is bitter though. I've heard of children with the same problem from less loving homes, whose lives are infinitely worse than mine could ever be.

“Having ADHD in some ways was even the making of me. The alienation I experienced as a 'different' child has made sure I am accepting of people regardless of their culture, colour, orientation or origin. Fighting my condition taught self-reliance, resilience and self-control.

“And the skewed way in which I experienced the formative years of my life has given me a different take on life which I wouldn't change for the world.”

Kate Saunders, Simon's mum, lives in Baylham and is an author.

“When Simon was eight I was asked to provide a brief assessment of him for a class project.

“'Simon has red hair, freckles and skinny white legs,' I wrote. 'He's stubborn, self-opinionated and unpredictable. He's also affectionate, honest, generous, concerned about animals and the environment, and very good at saying, and meaning, 'sorry' when he has done something wrong.'

“In short, like most mothers I found my son frustrating and endearing, unlikeable and lovable, all at the same time. If I'd had to sum him up in one word though, most of the time that word would have been, 'infuriating.'

“The archetypal ADHD kid is red-haired, blue-eyed, and atopic (prey to multiple allergies). Asthmatic, prone to recurrent ear infections and skin problems, with an intolerance to penicillin and extreme sensitivity to artificial flavours and colourings - Sunset Yellow, used in sweets, cakes and biscuits, rendered him instantly manic, whilst Aspartame, a sweetener common in fizzy drinks, sent him spiralling in to depression - Simon was a text-book example, relatively calm and rational at home, where his diet was strictly controlled, and a pain-in-the-neck everywhere else.

“There was never any doubt that he was bright - an early verbal reading test suggested an IQ of nearly 130 - but as his problems escalated his school reports: '...not the easiest of pupils...' 'Simon's behaviour... [is] absolutely unacceptable...' 'Simon is being disruptive...' '...If we do not see an improvement he is liable to be suspended or expelled...' told not only of his teachers' entirely justifiable frustration at his inability to abide by the rules, but of the negative effect he was having upon his classmates.

“Children like to fit in, to be part of the herd. Stammerers; Tourette's sufferers; kids with glasses or freckles; tall kids, short kids, fat kids; kids who won't (or can't) conform, all suffer because they are 'different'; they make their peers feel uncomfortable.

“Simon has articulated far more succinctly than I could the problems he encountered at school, but as he says, he did make it through. He got his A-levels, and his degree, and he is holding down a responsible job.

“Whilst his take on life may a little 'skewed' (personally, I prefer the word 'unusual'), he has grown into a hard-working, well-balanced young man with an acute social conscience. He has, as his brother puts it, 'found his tribe,' with a handful of good friends, and we are immensely proud of the distance he has traveled.

“He didn't do it alone of course. We had invaluable help from his teachers, from the Hyperactive Child Support Group, and from dietary experts. But for those families struggling to cope with the stresses inherent in living with an ADHD sufferer it may be comforting to know that there is hope.

“Indeed, for those children who manage to emerge intact from what Dr John Blatchly, Simon's first headmaster, used to call, 'the dark tunnel of adolescence,' the experience might even prove to be life-enhancing...”

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