By Rick Green,
I don’t want to take ADHD medication.
I don’t want to have to take a pill every morning.
I don’t want you, or your child or a loved one, to have to take ADHD medication.
And guess what? Good news! You actually do NOT have to take medication.
No one does. Yes millions of people have used ADHD medication and many still do. Because they have found the upsides outweighs any downsides.
So, to be clear, I’m not Pro-Medication. Which is why TotallyADD.com isn’t sponsored by Pharma companies. It is maintained through sales in our shop. (When people tell me, ‘You’ve saved my family and made a huge difference in my life. I don’t know how I can ever repay you,’ I want to shout, ‘Go to our shops and purchase our videos. That way we can make a difference for other people like us.’ But that sounds needy, doesn’t it? )
One ADHD specialist said, ‘I’m not Pro-Medication. I’m Anti-Suffering.’
DEALING WITH ADHD
It’s estimated perhaps 20% of adults who are suffering with ADHD have been diagnosed. And perhaps half of them are doing something about it.
Doctors would say they have a ‘treatment plan.’ Medication can be one aspect of treatment. Exercise, diet, mindfulness, coaching, etc.. are other strategies that makeup a balanced, holistic approach.
Lacking a good explanation, they invent bad ones. ‘I’m lazy. Weak-willed. Hopeless. Dumb. Flakey. Unreliable. Bad.’ And what’s the treatment for being Dumb? Or Bad? Or Hopeless? Nothing. Because this is who you are. (Rather than something you have that adds an extra layer of challenges to everything you do.)
Unaware of what’s going on, they have no hope of overcoming it. They are not dealing with it, getting it treated, or figuring out ways to manage it.
Or are they?
Actually, I’m going to suggest that the vast majority of people with undiagnosed ADHD have found ways to ‘treat it.’ It’s very haphazard. It’s not a conscious plan. But they’ve stumbled upon strategies that actually seem to help them, unfortunately some have appalling side-effects and long-term costs.
WHAT’S YOUR MEDICATION?
In our video series, ADHD Medication: Straight Answers to Big Questions, a number of specialists outline many of these ‘unconscious strategies’ that we adults with undiagnosed ADHD use to wake up our brains.
In fact, I’m going to suggest that every adult with undiagnosed ADHD has finds ways to ‘medicate’ themselves.
I came to this conclusion after interviewing 18 adults from two local ADHD support groups They spanned a wide range of ages and experiences. Almost all of them mentioned how they managed to get by before finally being diagnosed: Caffeine. Nicotine. Cannabis. Extreme sports. Alcohol. High-risk careers. Constantly changing jobs, homes, and relationships.
It sounds outrageous, but I’m going to suggest… Pretty much EVERY SINGLE ADULT WITH UNDIAGNOSED ADHD IS MEDICATING THEMSELVES.
We want to feel calm and clear and in control. We find things that help us focus. In other words, things that give us the blast of neurotransmitters that we’re lacking. The stimulants we use may be sex, gambling, shopping, drugs, or any risky activity that gives us that blast of adrenaline.
I speak from experience.
MY NAME IS RICK AND I’M A COLA-HOLIC
Fifteen years ago I was undiagnosed. As I read over the results of the ADHD Screener Tests the school had given my 12 year old son my mind was racing. Until I saw that list of ‘symptoms’, I had no inkling I might qualify as having this ‘disorder.’
Gradually, over the next few months, as I worked with Dr. John Fleming, and devoured book after book, I began to see hundreds of ways ADHD had undermined every aspect of my life. And in some ways it had propelled my life forward. Certainly my ADHD wasn’t a disaster for my career in comedy.
As for my first marriage? Failed friendships? Disastrous finances? That’s where the damage lay.
‘Sorry, Doc. I Don’t Do Drugs!’
At first I was terrified of the idea of taking an ADHD medication. Then my doctor mentioned a phrase invented by addiction researcher Dr. Edward Khantzian.
The term was ‘Self-Medicating‘.
We ingest or inhale or sign up for something that wakes up the brain.
We treat ourselves. With substances or behaviors. Or misbehaviors.
No wonder I crave 5 or 6 cola drinks a day. It’s not the sugar, it’s the caffeine. The stimulant.
If you’d asked me, I would have said, ‘It helps me focus. Makes me more productive.’ It was ‘a help.’
My Unplanned Treatment Plan.
ADHD explained why I always had 1,000 things on the go. One year I co-wrote, acted in & directed 22 episodes of The Red Green Show, and also wrote, and hosted 26 episodes of another TV series, Prisoners of Gravity. Oh, and I co-wrote a play and a number of newspaper articles. And a stage play.
ADHD explains why I was totally alert and alive on stage in front of thousands of people. I was relying on Adrenaline to make up for the lack of Dopamine.
You may well know that feeling of having a shortage of neurotransmitters. It’s like running the appliances in your house on 63 volts instead of 120. That’s how the routine tasks of life felt to me. Doing ‘normal life’ felt draining and disheartening. I thought I was just lazy. But even the best appliances struggle to run on 63 volts.
This is why I believe almost every single adult with undiagnosed ADHD is medicating themselves. (And if you consider ‘Avoiding’ a form of self-medicating, well, I’d argue it’s all of us. For example: ‘I don’t like going to loud concerts.’ Or, ‘I can’t talk to my sister, I get too angry.’ Or, ‘I turned down a promotion because it meant way more paperwork.’)
Until we are diagnosed, and even after that, we are ALL relying on something, usually several strategies or crutches, to manage our symptoms. (If you dislike the term ‘symptoms,’ call them your traits, quirks, mindset, or challenges. Whatever works for you.
The problem is that these ‘crutches’ are not conscious, informed choices.
STUMBLING UPON RELIEF
Once I was diagnosed, I worked up the courage (or the desperation) to try a stimulant medication. It was Ritalin. It was not an easy decision, as I explain in the Straight Answers to Big Question series.
Like some of the 18 adults who share their medication experiences, I was lucky. The change was immediate. With few if any side-effects. Or none that I noticed. The shift was so dramatic a whole bunch of emotional stuff came up for me. That’s pretty common when you get the diagnosis and especially when things quickly improve. If you’re trapped in that process of grieving, our video Now You Tell Me!, will help you get through this emotional tornado.
It’s so common. And almost inevitable.
The Upside of Self-Medication
I do want to acknowledge that yes, some forms of self-medicating may be positive or productive. Being addicted to exercise is probably better than being a shop-a-holic. Finding a career that works with my ADHD has been a blessing for me. The problem was that eventually it was the only thing in my life that gave me any joy.
At that point it wasn’t something I loved, it was all I had. The adrenaline from overwork and caffeine were my strategies for ‘undiagnosed ADHD. For others, it may be gambling, alcohol, substance abuse, extreme sports, addiction to drama, explosive anger… All viable ways to wake up the brain. But not particularly sustainable.
Once I understood what was going on and recognized how I was self-medicating, I was able to replace the massive doses of caffeine and ‘overwork’ with Yoga, Mindfulness, a coach, and a number of different strategies…. Including medication on days when I have to manage a ton of stuff.
How about you?
What was your form of ‘self-medicating’ before you knew what was going on? And what strategies and practices do you use now?
[Originally published Feb 25, 2016 – Revised March 2, 2017]
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