My Experience with ADD

I was diagnosed as being hyperactive long before it became popular. The year was 1968, and I was in the third grade. My parents knew something wasn't quite right, I was reading books several grade levels ahead, and could solve puzzles and complex fractions in my head but my lack of focus held me back socially and also in my ability to effectively express my knowledge.

As I remember my childhood at the time, I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge of the world. I was reading everything I could get my hands on, or taking apart almost everything else, which often drove Mom and Dad crazy when I broke a perfectly good small appliance, tool, or radio to see "how it worked", or if I could "improve" it. It was said that I tried to take my crib apart before I could walk. They didn't really mind my inate intelligence, and in fact I really think it was a source of pride to them, but with 4 kids to raise and educate, they didn't have a whole lot of money to spare for unlimited mechanical misadventures for myself and my equally curious slightly younger brother. I was also more restless than my other siblings, often riding my bike much farther afield than they would even think about going, and developing a taste for loud rock and roll.

Initial Diagnosis

Broken toasters aside, my ADD had a darker side of course, and my lack of focus on the mundane and subtle details of handwriting, grammar, controlling the level of my voice, and concentrating on my assignments held me back socially and portended ominous problems with my academic future. My family valued discipline and academic acheivement, so my plight was taken as seriously as a major illness. I did my best to stay out of serious trouble, but by third grade my difficulties were seen to be serious enough to seek professional help. It started with an unusual number of visits to the guidance counselor, which consisted of play sessions with a variety of toys while the counselor watched. I felt uneasy why I suddenly was able to get out of class to play with toys, while my classmates were busy practicing penmanship and learning the difference between verb tenses. Still, trips to the guidance counselor were not too unusual for other students as well.

9 Years Old and Experimenting with Drugs

Later that year I learned what all the trips to the guidance counselor were about. I went for a visit to my family doctor, and even though I wasn't sick, I was put on a prescription for Dexedrine. I guess Dexedrine didn't work very well because I was taken off of it within a couple of months, and I was referred to a Neurologist. The neurologist gave me some tests to take such as more puzzle-solving, word questions, and so on, along with some motor skills tests. The Neurologist talked with my parents in private for a long time, and on the trip home Mom and Dad explained the best they could what the doctor thought was wrong, and so on. I was scheduled for an EEG, which measures the electrical activity of the brain, and boy, it was active! I had to stay up all night so I could sleep during the day while I wore a bunch of electrodes pasted to my head. In my active 9 year old brain this was all very strange, in a way exciting, and troubling. It goes without saying I couldn't sleep despite staying up all night, so they gave me a sleeping pill. I still don't remember drifting off. When I awoke I wanted to know all about what all the lines on the graph paper were, of course.

Over the next couple of months I was put on Dilantin, Benadryl, and another drug I forget what the name was in rapid succession. The only thing I know for sure was that my grades went from a B- average to solid C's in fourth grade. For not getting a badly done assignment signed by my parents, I also had to copy some dictionary pages during recess, which was the standard punishment for a variety of infractions at the time. I felt bad about the way I was doing, but I felt like something alien was making me space out. I wasn't really compliant, and the drugs supressed my normally active mind. It was horrible!

Going on Ritalin

After another EEG, I was put on a fairly new drug at the time known as Ritalin. Almost immediately, things got better for me, my grades got better, my handwriting, though still bad could be legible with some effort, and I was doing better in Phys Ed and even Art. Ritalin helped me harness my intelligence, and after adjusting my dosage I was almost a straight A student in Fifth Grade.

I stayed on Ritalin through high school. I got pretty good grades and stayed out of serious trouble, though I developed a reputation as a nerd. Luckily I had my share of nerd friends who thought Model Rocketry, Unsanctioned Chemistry Experiments, and EPROMs were a lot cooler than Prom Queens. In the post Columbine world, I am sure I would have been targeted for special attention. I went on to college to study Engineering, but I found that my brain wasn't quite wired to do multivariable calculus very well, despite an excellent Math score on the SAT. I changed my major to Economics and found I had a talent for statistics, but mostly I found it boring and unchallenging, once I learned the basics. One graph looked like another but I stuck with it to get my degree.

I stayed on Ritalin throughout college, but my doctor was nearing retirement age, and the current thinking at the time was that adults should be weaned off of Ritalin, if not by the end of high school, certainly by the time they graduate college. My dosage had tapered from 60 mg/day in high school to about 20 mg/day by the time I got my Bachelor's degree in 1981. A degree in Economics might be a good springboard for graduate school, but by my senior year I was tired of sitting in a classroom all day listening to yet another rehash of supply and demand curves. After graduation, I took off in my car for a couple of months and camped my way across the United States. It was the greatest thing I have done before that time or since.

Once I entered the real world, I found it very difficult to concentrate on the frustrating work of finding a decent job. I settled for a blue-collar service job, and found it a constant struggle to stay productive doing boring repetitive work, but through sheer will I managed to hold on and even get promoted. Still, the entire company I worked for was a dead end, and I was looking to escape.

Quitting Ritalin

I was convinced to quit Ritalin entirely about 2 years out of college. I was often looked at suspiciously when I got my prescriptions filled as the permissive attitudes toward drugs during the 1970's gave way to the anti-drug paranoia of the 1980's. In the next two years I wrecked my car 3 times, and paid outrageous insurance premiums for years to come. By the time I realized that Ritalin was a critical part of my persona, my doctor had retired and the anti-drug propaganda had reached a fever pitch. I coped by drinking large amounts of caffenated beverages. I also went back to college, this time to get a degree in Electrical Engineering Technology, a pursuit more in line with my interests and skills. College helped keep my mind from atrophying, but I needed the caffeine to just stay awake. I still had trouble vocationally, but eventually I landed the job I still hold today as an Electronics Technician, servicing some specialized and very complex computer driven machinery. Servicing this equipment requires a broad base of knowledge to program and repair it effectively. Something different happens every day, and I often have to think on my feet under very intense pressure.

Returning to Ritalin

While having a job fairly well suited to my personality helped my quality of life considerably, I tended to have difficulty with some of the more mundane aspects of the job. I could troubleshoot difficult problems, but my parts cabinet was usually a mess, for instance. I was also prone to bouts of depression, and just had trouble "getting going" to do mundane and boring tasks, especially at home. I brought this up with my family doctor, and I figured I would probably get a prescription for Prozac. I told him of my history with ADD as a child and teenager, and after asking a few more questions, he asked me if I thought I would benefit by going back on Ritalin. I did not hesitate very long before saying yes. He said I probably should have probably never have gone off of it. I was a little nervous when I opened the bottle when I got home from the pharmacy, but almost as soon as the familiar bitter taste of the pill filled my mouth before washing it down, I started thinking clearer than I had in years.

While Ritalin and its time-released version Concerta are helpful, I can say after several years back on it that it is not perfect. I have sort of built up a tolerance to it. I sometimes seem more troubled by its absence than helped by its presence, but I realize that upping the dose could lead to a vicious cycle of increasing dosage and tolerance, which could lead me to same end as many famous and dead rock musicians. I have seen what drugs like alcohol and cocaine have done to friends of mine firsthand, and I want to avoid that fate. Still it is the best thing available, and it is worth the side effects. I still have many of the classic symptoms of ADD.

I still like my music loud, my food spicy, and occasionally like to drive much faster than I should. As middle age has taken hold and I have taken on many of the responsibilities that come with, I have developed strategies of self-discipline, and am less tolerant of substandard work than I used to be, both in myself and in others. In fact, I often revisit old writeups with a critical eye to eliminating or reducing spelling, grammar, or formatting mistakes.