ADHD, a Balancing Act

by Kevin Heppner

Rarely do I ever have a thought by itself. More often than not, if not always, my thoughts transition from one to another faster than I can keep up with them. Some teachers throughout middle school and high school called me bright and intelligent, some peers called me stupid and slow, but every doctor I have ever encountered used a more precise definition: attention deficit hyperactive disorder.

During the third grade, I started noticing I was different from everyone in class. My peers sat still in their seats and perfectly recited vocabulary words back to the teacher up front, while I was more concerned with counting the number of ceiling tiles in the room. Twenty-six and a third. Or was it twenty-five and half? I better count again. Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, a red car drives past the window. I wonder how many red cars drive past in one day? I should start counting!

This is when the notes started getting sent home. It seemed every single day my teacher had a new note to put in my backpack. Here, Mom! Kevin did X, Y and Z today in class. Kevin could not sit still in his seat today in class. Kevin did not want to come in from recess today. What did it matter to me though? I had just passed my test on multiplying the numbers one through twelve by twelve. The next best kid in our class was stuck on the multiplying by nine test; he didn’t even pass this time. A few days later my mom explained I was going to miss school tomorrow because a couple of her doctor “friends” in Boston wanted to do some tests on me. I was happy—anything to get me out of that boring classroom. A psychologist conducted some tests. I played games with blocks, calculated math problems in my head, and listened to a long list of words which I recited back to them (I tried). Some of the tests were really easy; some I struggled to complete. I was told they were testing my “working memory.” What that was I hadn’t the slightest idea. I was sent back to school the next day, but this time with a prescription.

I started using amphetamines at a young age, not for pleasure or partying, but for school and homework. I wasn’t smoking meth, I was taking a small blue pill out of a small orange bottle, with a thick white cap which I couldn’t figure out how to open no matter how hard I tried. At first the pills were amazing. I could focus for once. I did my homework on time. I sat still in my chair and paid attention in class. My teachers stopped sending notes home. My parents were pleased with my report card. All was good in the world.

Until the pills wore off. The warm tingly warm feeling in my head was lost, I became tired, restless, agitated, antisocial and angry for no reason: this was the price I had to pay for being different. What could I do about it? The doctors prescribed me uppers for school and homework, and then downers to mellow me out after. I was either 100% or 0%—there was no middle ground. I slowly became a zombie. Life was no longer enjoyable; friendships were lost; I had no time to talk in school. All I ever wanted to do was more math problems, write more English papers, complete more history projects. My personality came to a screeching halt, but what did it matter? My grades were the best they’d ever been and that mattered more, right?

But then in sixth grade a teacher reported that I was pulling my hair out in class. I guess that’s something that happens when you’re too stressed, what do I know though? I was just the patient. More doctor appointments were scheduled, followed by new uppers and downers, but the same old side effects never changed. The cycle repeated itself again in high school. Hair pulling was replaced by depression, anxiety, suicidal idealization, and self harm idealization. What do you expect to happen when a kid is put on a legal pill form of meth and trapped in a box from 7:40 A.M. to 2:20 P.M. five times a week? I drew the line. I refused to cooperate with the wishes of my parents and doctors and stopped taking the pills. All of them. My grades suffered but I didn’t care. All the side effects were gone for once, Kevin was once again alive, what a surprise.

For the first time in ten years, I took a breath of fresh air without amphetamines raging throughout my body. The effects were profound: my zombie-like state transitioned back to a living, breathing, emotional human. Colors even seemed to become brighter to my eyes. I began to live again. I no longer desired to write more papers or to get my math homework done five days in advance. Instead, I was playing soccer with my math binder in the hallway with my friends during English class. I was stealing my friends backpacks during lunch, dumping all their binders out, flipping the backpack inside out, replacing the binders and zipping it back up (we called this “turtling”). I was a middle school student again.

This breath of fresh air was short-lived: without the medications my ADHD began to thrive once again. My assignments were late, my attendance tardy, my room messy and my attention span was non-existent. On any given day, a teacher would be explaining an assignment to the class and while the first few sentences were composed of clear, concise, comprehendible English, the sentences that followed were hazy––in one ear out the other. By the middle of the explanation, they were speaking in a completely different language. Soon after the teacher would ask, “You got that? Is everything clear?” and the class would respond with a unanimous “Yes.” My head nodded in agreement.

Every single day I had to tackle a new set of challenges. These challenges often resided within my own head instead of on paper or in a book. One day during my junior year physics class, I remember a class discussion on how time works as well as the theory of relativity, a topic I found both interesting and stimulating. I remember the explosion of thoughts, ideas and questions I had to add to conversation. My hand shot up, my muscles tensed, I was eager and excited to participate, for once. I waited a few minutes as a girl finished her response, and then my teacher pointed towards me.

“Yes, Kevin?”

My mind went blank. The train of thought had crashed and there were no survivors. My brain had turned on me, once again. I stumbled on my words.

“Ummm, ummm, uhh, come back to me later.”

The discussion moved on.

Everyone seems to have an opinion regarding ADHD. Some who are diagnosed with it call it a death sentence because of the zombie-like side effects. Others call it a blessing. Some doctors believe ADHD should be combated with heavy medications; others prescribe diet and exercise changes. Some parents will fight to the death to get their children with ADHD accommodations in school, while others firmly believe ADHD is a made-up disorder. My friends and peers often diagnose themselves with ADHD while procrastinating on a homework assignment, simply because they lack the motivation or desire to complete it.

There is no panacea for ADHD. The only treatment that works is for the sufferer to find a balance within their own life. Imagine attempting to level a two-sided scale with unevenly weighted blocks representing aspects of your life. One for school, friends, sports, medications, sleep, diet and so on. It may not seem that hard for a normal person, but for someone with ADHD it is like balancing the scale on the back of a boat in heavy, turbulent seas. A balancing act, in every sense of the word.

Throughout high school I learned how to balance my scale; I thought I had perfected this skill by the time of graduation, believing it would never become unbalanced again. College has proven me wrong. Challenged in ways that I had never before anticipated, I have come to learn that striking this balance will be an infinite assignment. Perhaps I am ready.