All joking aside: A personal story of Attention Deficit Disorder

Published: February 28, 2013, 2:48 am ET

The following argument was going on behind me at the library last night for about 10 minutes. Nobody won, but both participants succeeded at preventing each other from getting anything done.

“I’m, like, so ADD.” “No, I am. I haven’t even started reading.”

Their conversation made me think about how often I hear “ADD” used as an adjective. My friends say it, I’ve said it and I have even heard professors say it. We are all saying it, but is anyone really talking about it?

Although Richmond students have few qualms about debating politics, gun policy and Ring Dance, the mental illness conversation is nearly nonexistent on this campus. That is, unless we are joking about it.

My family and friends used to joke constantly about my younger brother, Jack, being “kinda ADD.” Looking back, I cannot remember Jack sitting still for more than 30 seconds at a time. He lost his glasses 14 times between the ages of 4 and 12.

At the dinner table, he often became fixated on random sounds. In the middle of a conversation, Jack would suddenly start staring at our Labradoodle’s wagging tail.

Yet somehow, he always had the amazing ability to completely tune-out any commands from his mom, teachers or annoying older sister.

These quirks often made my family laugh. To us this was just a part of Jack’s personality. He was laid-back and just a bit spacey, but he’d always been this way. It was nothing worth worrying about.
When Jack started high school, things changed. No matter how many hours my parents spent begging and pleading; he would never complete his homework. Grades were a constant issue. Football coaches and teachers were in continual dialogue with my parents about Jack’s “laziness.”

He was in and out of the principal’s office on a weekly basis. At first, the offenses were things like sleeping in class or copying a friend’s vocabulary homework. Soon, they became far more serious.

Jack was caught skipping school three times in a five-day span. One morning, after seeing their son off to football practice, my parents received a phone call from the police.

Jack had been arrested for drug possession. He was kicked off the football team. He was arrested twice more within the next year.

Two months ago, my brother was admitted to a rehabilitation and counseling center for youth. While there, he was diagnosed with severe ADD. My immediate reaction was guilt.

The signs had been obvious, so why hadn’t we seen them? I was so frustrated. Why hadn’t Jack’s teachers and coaches helped him, rather than constantly punished him? Why had we all assumed that his inability to focus was his fault?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, ADD affects between 9 and 10 percent of American children. Recent evidence shows that almost 1.2 million children suffering from ADD are either undiagnosed or untreated, according to the CDC’s website.

I imagine that in many of these cases, children are showing the same symptoms that Jack had shown his entire life. I imagine many families, like my family, wait until it is too late to take the signs seriously.

This disorder, as with many mental illnesses, has a popular stigma attached to it. It is a stigma that many of us have contributed to. Jokes involving the term ADD are part of a much larger problem. The truth is we don’t know how to talk about mental illness.

Attention Deficit Disorder affects students, faculty and employees within our campus community. They could all tell us that suffering from ADD means more than creatively avoiding an assigned reading or watching a succession of Harlem Shake videos on YouTube when you have an essay due at midnight.

It is a chronic and sometimes debilitating illness that leads to many moments of anxiety and frustration. When left undiagnosed, it can lead to drastic drops in self-esteem, sometimes resulting in depression and addiction.

I saw these destructive consequences firsthand. Many suffer in silence because they realize that the majority of the community around them has an inaccurate perception of what it means to be diagnosed with ADD.

My brother recently graduated from his treatment program. He will be transferred to a transitional boarding school that is 30 hours from my family’s home in Nashville, Tenn.

Last week I was able to talk to Jack for the first time in months. I asked him how things have changed since he was officially diagnosed. “I understand what’s wrong now,” he said, “and it gives me hope that I can get better.”

We have to acknowledge an issue in order to fix it. It is time to stop joking and start asking questions.

I am not saying it is wrong to have a sense of humor about upsetting issues. Recently, humor has helped my family get through some very painful struggles. The issue arises when we start using humor to disguise our own discomfort.

Avoiding problems doesn’t solve them; it makes them bigger. The UR community has shown enormous strength in addressing a variety of sensitive issues, but we have a long way to go.

The first step is simple: let’s start talking. All jokes aside.

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  • LindaE

    Thanks for this excellent article Molly. I’m sure it was difficult for you, but the more that individuals and families speak out about mental illness, the more the public is educated about symptoms and treatments. That will lead to less stigma and fewer jokes.

  • MollyR

    Thank you Linda, that is exactly what I hoped this story would accomplish. You are right-it was very difficult to write this piece, and even more difficult to release it. One article cannot solve the problem but it can start a discussion. With this goal in mind, it means a lot to receive so many positive responses from Collegian readers. Thank you for you thoughtful comment!

  • Loreebee

    People do and say the same thing about OCD. Using it as a descriptive adjective, I mean. It is about time that people understand the REAL deal, and stop referring to themselves as ADD or OCD. It detracts from the important fact that these things ARE real disorders that people have to deal with daily.

  • Tiffany Bunce

    This is a wonderful article that brought tears to my eyes from the truth of it. If you think you have ADD,at least go get checked out. It deems to be a very difficult life to live everyday undiagnosed, or untreated, or both….trust me,I know.