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ADHD is not a disability - I should know

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My life could have been a Quentin Tarantino movie, a collective of intersecting cinematic snippets jumping about in time, place and subject, sometimes tragic, other times light and energetic, always passionate but jumping about from one to another with no apparent connections. To those with a linear view of time, direction and ordered thinking I must seem an enigma, capable of understanding complex theories, but slow to complete the most basic tasks. I struggle to get everything on a 5-item shopping list without buying twice as much as I had intended, yet missing out the bread and milk. Am I abnormal? An idiot? A failure? Because I struggle to manage a full surgery in the allotted time, or am regularly late for practice meetings? I spend a lot of my time and efforts self auditing, retracing my steps to make sure nothing important was missed. Yet I can spot-diagnose the 19 year old with Addison’s Disease that everyone else has missed. Everyone has the occasional ‘forgotten appointment’, the ‘keys left in the fridge’ or the ‘notes left in the office’ moments. But this is the reality of my life, day-in-day-out. I have ADHD. 

‘That’s impossible, it only affects boys; girls and women don’t get ADHD; it’s not compatible with being an effective doctor’ I hear you say. ADHD is a challenge, not an exclusion criterion. ADHD minds excel at creative and intuitive thinking, jumping off of pre-destined tracks to explore new paths, able to rapidly switch attention from one issue to another and problem-solve on the go. 

Learning difficulties, including ADHD, ASD and dyslexia, and mental health problems are hidden taboos amongst medical professionals - present, widely known about but rarely spoken of. Wrought with assumptions about what is a disability or an illness and what is essential for an effective, successful life, many normal intelligent people find themselves swimming through a stigma soup. Conforming to ‘normality’ and ‘expectation’ is exhausting, demoralising. I think it’s fair to say general practice as a whole feels this way when you ask whose definition of normality are we trying to conform to.

We doctors are astoundingly dismissive of our own humanity. We prefer to turn away, or, worse still, subtly pity or exclude those that don’t quite conform- ‘Physician, heal thy self’. Perhaps we are frightened to look too close in case we see our own vulnerability.

Society is fascinated, transfixed by negativity- ‘Can’t do this, that shouldn’t happen, not enough money, systems failing, someone to blame’. It’s all too easy to complain about what’s wrong with ourselves, other people, governments and systems, much easier than to see what is amazingly right. 

The first step is to climb out of the soup, add a bit of seasoning to make it taste nicer, and start concentrating on the more positive scenes in my life-movie. And like any movie I need to let people in to see what it’s all about. So I have decided to open up, tell people what it’s really about,  challenge those preconceptions and taboos that held me back so long, and give myself and others the chance to see what I can really do with the right support. Perhaps, I talk too much for my own good, perhaps I am naive to think anyone cares, but my philosophy is one of openness, honesty, truth- with myself, my colleagues and my patients. Personally, I don’t see ADHD as a disability, I see it as Attention Diversity Highly Driven. 

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Readers' comments (15)

  • Good for you Cathy but neurotypical individuals rarely in my experience seem to appreciate the benefits to society of lateral thinking etc. If you managed to pass CSA with ADHD then well done.

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  • This is fascinating. I clearly tick every box for ASD, and my futile, obsessive memorising of useless facts only ever helped me in the Music Round of Pub Quizzes. But GPs thrive on lateral thinking, and your ADHD has probably helped more than hindered your (clearly excellent) clinical decision making. Could many of our colleagues have similar undiagnosed (but possibly helpful) syndromes?

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  • Thank you both-
    DecorumEst- yes, Passed AKT and CSA on consecutive days- for CSA, to the vexation of my trainer, got joint highest score in me deanery, despite his warning to me beforehand that I would likely fail!
    David Banner- I agree, there are certainly a lot of people in Medicine and other professions (and many who should have but never got there) with such diversions from cultural understandings of 'normality'. ASD allows for detachment from emotional tags, enhanced objectivity. ADHD associated with increased creativity, less likely to hold back from making bold statements just for fear of being ridiculed or disadvantaged, more entrepreneurial (look at Richard Branson!)
    Figures suggest 3% of adults have ADHD in some form, many (especially women) undiagnosed.

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  • ADHD is not a disease. Fair enough if you and whichever MH worker gave you this label and you are happy to enter into this pact. But you may as well call being happy go lucky or egotistical or a bit flirty or a hundred other descriptors of human personality (see W Shakespeare ) a disease

    Sorry...there needs to be an opinion ventured that it is all largely self-indulgence

    Get to adult life and accept yourself...or don't. These labels are spurious

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  • Are they? Where is your opinion formed?
    I accept there are alternative opinions regarding ADHD, just as there have historically been alternative opinions regarding many conditions that are now fully accepted. If you read my blog, Monty, I am doing exactly as you propose- moving away from the 'disease' label to see the positive and negative of who I am and the challenges I face as a result. The bottom line is, there is an amazingly narrow view of what is acceptable, normal, functional (and disfunctional), and what is required to be accepted. That attitude is hurting a lot of people and restricting the diversity we need in Medicine, because we are too blind, ignorant or close-minded to see it. We all face challenges due to our inate personalities, backgrounds, choices- some things can be changed, some cannot; most can be negated with the compassion and support of others. And there are some factors, when ignored, ridiculed and/or denied, that can destroy a person from within and out with, stopping that person from ever getting close to their potential, or condemning them to lifelong anxiety, depression and worse.
    So, who needs to grow up- the adult who recognises their shortcomings and does everything they can to make the most of themself, or the eternal child who continues to snigger at and exclude the odd-one-out in the playground?

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  • Just as Monty cautions against convenient labels, I urge everyone to reconsider their own opinions before laying labels on others, including 'lazy', disorganised', 'disinterested', 'flaky', 'slap-dash', 'highly-strung', 'disruptive'... Which is more helpful- one of the above or 'ADHD', which has a potential for support and success?

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  • Like say...self-indulgence

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  • Exactly, Monty, 'self-indulgence' is yet another unhelpful label! Sounds like you might be getting the idea?!
    Look at the roots of your own opinions and decisions before casting your aspersions on others...that is the basis of compassion

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  • This is a brilliant article!

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  • Hi All
    Catherine you think just like me and ADHD affects 3 generations in my family. It is after all the most highly inherited neuro-developmental condition; not surprising really given the evolutionary advantages that it brings to society. For the individuals affected it is however a journey of understanding. I am afraid that we will have to continue to put up with sceptics like M a bit longer, that is until the science of neuro-functional MRI matures.

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