Driven To Distraction
Adults are as scatterbrained as kids. And the disorder may be rooted in basic biology
When Nancy Quinlan was in her early 20s, her 6- year-old son was bouncing off walls. His high intelligence simply couldn't compensate for his utter lack of self-control, and no form of discipline seemed to help. When she finally, in desperation, took him to a doctor, she was told that her son had something called minimal brain dysfunction with hyperactivity. The doctor warned her, however, that nobody--not family, not teachers, not even pediatricians--would take the little-known diagnosis seriously. He nonetheless gave Quinlan a prescription for Ritalin to help calm her son's fevered mind.
That was 40 years ago, and that physician was way ahead of his time. Quinlan was, too, in a way: As she filled her son's prescription, she began wondering if this pediatric drug might possibly help her as well. An intelligent woman, she had gone through her school days in utter agony, always struggling to pay attention or to organize herself and her thoughts. She suffered from low self-esteem, and her only pleasure came from thrill-seeking activities like drag racing. Was it possible that she shared her son's affliction? She took a dose of the Ritalin and was stunned. She remembers thinking: "This one pill is what I have been looking for all my life. I can actually concentrate."
Despite that epiphany, she and her son suffered for years after. Well-intentioned friends and family berated Quinlan about dangerous drugs and addiction and crack-pot diagnoses. She never gave her son another dose nor took one herself until more than 20 years later, when another one of her seven children was having trouble in school. This time the neurologist gave her a book on attention deficit disorder (ADD), and she recognized herself immediately. "I was 49 years old before I found out," says Quinlan. "And my greatest regret is that it took so long."
Nancy Quinlan is one of the nearly 9 million adults who experts estimate have either attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Both disorders involve inattention and impulsiveness, but hyperactivity is present only some of the time. While people's stories vary widely, Quinlan shares many experiences and traits with other adults who have the condition: a long history, often extending back into childhood, of inattention, lack of focus, underachievement, and low self-esteem. Quinlan's epiphany is also typical: Many adults with ADD first learn about the disorder when a child is diagnosed. And medication can often lead to a dramatic reordering of a once chaotic life, one that had been punctuated by traffic accidents, unstable job performance, troubled marriages, substance abuse, and often confounding disorders like anxiety or depression. The diagnosis can come at any age or stage of life. Indeed, a grandmother was diagnosed at 82 and happily reported to her doctor that she was no longer painfully restless while reading stories to her grandchildren.
Old and young. ADHD is the most common psychiatric diagnosis for children, affecting nearly 7 percent of school-age kids in the country. While it was once thought that children outgrew the disorder--thus leading to the erroneous impression that adults couldn't be afflicted--it's now known that nearly half of kids with ADHD never outgrow it. Still, while 4 percent of American adults suffer from the disorder, less than 1 in 4 of them knows that he or she has it.