No Such Thing as ADHD: Dismantling Distraction


I Don’t Believe in ADHD

There it is. I said it. It feels agnostically exhilarating to say I don’t believe something I’m supposed to believe. I may get into trouble with some great psychology board sitting around a huge table with their agendas and ballpoint pens. I may get excommunicated, shunned, or sent to the gazing stock where rotten tomatoes fly at me from all directions.

But I have to say it: I don’t believe in ADHD.

I have yet to meet one person with this diagnosis, child or adult, who did not have reason to vanish now and then.

My son and I made a list of our favorite words that we visit from time to time so we can enjoy a deep belly laugh. Bastard, Weiner, Bohunkus, Fatuous . . . Words we don’t often use. Today, I officially add the word Vanish, an underutilized word, associated with household cleaners and witch fairies.

But the term works well to denote mental leave-taking.

Sometimes at the end of the day, my husband, Joe, talks to me about his adventures on campus and I sit staring at him. I catch only periodic bits. Dean . . . Matrices . . . Committee . . . Five-Year-Plan . . . Governance. I no more track the details of his story than I can cut my own hair. Inside, I’m somewhere else. I review my own workday, think of my clients, plan my evening exercise. I ponder boredom, examine the row of apples on the counter behind Joe’s head.

I vanish.

Back in junior high algebra, at my private Christian School, I sit quietly with my friends, on the girl side of the room.

“Woman, she is folly.” Our teacher holds his leather Bible out in front of him. In brown double knit pants, his legs bend backward at the knee and his face twitches. He reads this before the algebra lesson. “She maketh the righteous man stumble.” I hold my breath. Women gossip, we lead good boys into adultery, we distract them from battles and break their hearts.

“Woman must be avoided,” he says. I picture his wife sitting on a church pew, six inches from him.

I know I should be listening, scooping in details, but I have no way to care. No way to adhere to a spot in conscious thought that allows me to take in what’s being said.  I have no fishnet for catching the gibberish being scrawled on the chalk board. I’m distracted. Little swimmers flip by me in a stream of silver.

But it’s 1981, so nobody says I have ADHD. Nobody suggests medication for my Cs. I am a smart girl, boy-crazy with glazed eyes and shy smile. A smart but silly (typical) girl. There’s no diagnosis for that – only scriptures warning me to be quiet and keep my shirt on.

Finally, as a psychology student in college, I start to understand algebra. I comprehend the gibberish after I dump a mean boyfriend. After I speak freely with a friend about that teacher who started class each day with a damning verse about my gender.

My younger brother starts taking Ritalin as a college student. Ritalin changes his life, makes him smarter, more efficient. He excels. He says, “If only I’d gotten the diagnosis in elementary school! I could have actually learned something!” I congratulate him and I feel skeptical.

A psychologist mentor once told me that when she finds herself vanishing in a therapy session, it means something important. Emotion is being ignored. And in therapy, emotion is everything. When the speaker gives voice to his pain, we return. I think she’s onto something. I get distracted when some key piece of the story goes missing. Usually, it’s the feeling. My brain searches for the true meaning and pattern of the story moment while my body sits and nods.

I vanish when I’m tired, hungry, depleted, or mystified. Distraction serves as my alarm. It invites me to examine: “What’s really going on here? How can I make sense of this?” I need to do something. Stand up. Stretch. Get a drink of water. Ask questions. Find the missing piece.

“Right now – what emotion do you notice?” I say.

“What do you feel in your body as you tell me this story?”

The psychologist has license to ask. And most people try to give me an honest answer. Even my husband humors me with self reflection. His work stories trigger my vanishing because while he describes his day in conference with colleagues, I know that every faculty meeting sits atop a mountain of political garbage, like a building on a landfill.

“Agitated,” he says. “Ready for the punching bag.”

“Ahhhhh,” I say. “I’m with you now.”

But what about the first-grade boy who gets called “distractible,” “a daydreamer,” “unable to follow directions”? Does he have the freedom to ask his parents or teachers what they’re feeling? If they like him? If they’re angry about something? Will he get a satisfying answer?

That little boy craves genuine emotion-talk with his parents. It’s universal. But what if his parents feel frightened they won’t be able to keep the family home out of foreclosure? What if they have no idea how to tell him? What if his parents are haunted with flashbacks and a tight, anxious body from a Gulf War or from child abuse that dominated their bodies 30 years ago?

Our distracted little boy, the one who has trouble staying on-task, has a head full of questions that cannot be asked. He senses something, a barrier between him and his parent(s) like a slab of Styrofoam. Sometimes he can ignore it and play his video game. Sometimes he can’t.

We all dissociate to one degree or another . . . and I have to think it happens for a reason. Some of us get sleepy when it’s time to pay bills. Lose the bills before we’ve had a chance to pay them. Have trouble finishing a project or reading a book. Have no memory of last week. Some of us cannot listen to a lecture or focus on our tennis serve without drifting into a conversation we need to have with our mate.

I think our distraction serves an evolutionary purpose. It takes us from product to process. It moves our awareness from words and instructions to the nuances of relationship. It tells us to nap or stare into space or conserve energy for navigating a treacherous social situation. It annoys us into alertness about the missing pieces.

I know, I know. ADHD medication transformed you. You focus now. You can read a whole book, get your paperwork done, remember names.

But what if you never had a brain disorder? What if that was never the problem? Could it be that even though Strattera makes you more productive, a brain disorder never existed? What if your distracted mind was just doing its job?

And what if there’s no such thing as ADHD?

If there’s no such thing as ADHD, why do so many of us have it?