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Coping Skills for Adults with ADD, ADHD

This is a transcript of an online conference held on HealthyPlace.com during 2000.

The host, David Roberts, introduces Thom:

David: Good Evening. I'm David Roberts. I'm the moderator for tonight's conference. I want to welcome everyone to HealthyPlace.com. Our topic tonight is "Coping Skills for Adults with ADD, ADHD." Our guest is psychotherapist, lecturer and best-selling author, Thom Hartmann. You may recognize some of his book titles: Thom Hartmann's Complete Guide To ADD, ADD: A Different Perception, and Healing ADD.

Good evening, Thom and welcome to HealthyPlace.com. We appreciate you being our guest tonight. How did you get into writing about Attention Deficit Disorder?

Thom Hartmann: Thanks, David. I got into writing about this through the confluence of two situations. The first was that 22 years ago, for 5 years, I was the executive director of a residential treatment facility for severely abused children, and virtually all of them came in with labels like "minimal brain damage" and "hyperactive syndrome," which is how ADD and ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) were labeled back then. So I got curious and got into the research and Ben Feingold's book Why Your Child Is Hyperactive had just come out and Ted Kennedy was holding hearings on it all in Washington, D.C. I got to know Feingold and we did a clinical trial of his diet at our program (New England Salem Children's Village and Hunter School), and so I wrote that up and in 1980 it was published in The Journal of Orthomolecular Psychiatry, one of the earlier references to this all.

But then it got "really real" for me about 10 years ago when our middle child was 12 and "hit the wall" in school. So we took Justin to be tested for learning disabilities and the fellow told him and us that he had a "brain disease" called ADD. So that's when I really dug into it, and out of that experience I wrote a book to/for Justin, which became Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception, in which I was trying to give him back some small part of his self-esteem, which that doc had totally ripped away from him.

David:  We do many conferences here at HealthyPlace.com and the guests usually talk about the importance of medications and therapy. One of the things that struck me in your book, Healing ADD, was this sentence: "The challenge for most ADHD people isn't changing a person from one brain type to another (an impossibility), but, rather, to heal from the many, many woundings that ADHD people experience growing up." What kind of woundings are you referring to?

Thom Hartmann: The woundings of: not fitting in, of being told you're stupid when you know you're not, of not being able to perform things that others do easily. For children, the prime imperative in school is to "fit in" and "be accepted." So it's incredibly wounding for a child when they can't perform, and then, to make it even worse, we slap a label on them that has words in it like "disordered" and "deficient." Tell me, how many children do you know who would ever want to be deficient or disordered? My guess is none. Those are the primary woundings. Then kids try to recover or react to that by blustering their way through things, becoming the class clown or just intellectually dropping out, and then they're called "oppositional" and end up with other labels, and sometimes they commit suicide (the teen suicide rate has tripled in the past 30 years in the USA) and sometimes they seek out friends who will give them back some self-esteem but those are the "bad kids" and this whole spiral sets in that can be so destructive.

David:  But, as adults, there are many who are "glad" to find out that there is a label that they can associate with their "difficulties." We get emails all the time from people who say they've been "walking about all these years wondering what was wrong."

Thom Hartmann: Yes - I had a similar response. But as an adult, I'm able to process things differently than children do. Adults know by the time they get at least into their 20s with Attention Deficit Disorder that they're "different" somehow, and many have concluded that their "difference" is that they're bad or morally deficient or cursed or something even worse. And for many, it's a sort of secret. So finding out that there's some rational explanation for it all makes up, in many ways, for the "disordered" and "deficient" label.

Also, adults live in a different world day-to-day from children. Imagine how different you may feel about the "relief of getting the diagnosis and knowing it's ADD, ADHD" if that meant that a couple of times a day your employer would call a meeting and in front of everybody bring you up to the front of the conference room to give you your medication. That's the experience of children. Adults can keep it private.

David: So, as adults, what you are saying is it's important to consider your childhood wounds caused by having ADD, so you can deal effectively with your adult life.

Thom Hartmann: Yes. Every ADD adult I've met carries wounds and pains and misunderstandings from their childhood, and often there's a LOT of negative self-talk around these, and so as adults one of the important things to do about that is to heal it, head on. That's what my book "Healing ADD" is all about. Of course, you can't "heal" ADD - the original title was "Healing from the Pain of Growing Up a Hunter in a Farmer's World," but the publisher said that was too long so I had to write a foreword telling the readers that I wasn't suggesting people could or even needed to be healed from ADD. Good grief. What are some of the other self-destructive patterns resulting from ADD and maybe you could briefly describe what an individual should consider in working towards "healing" them?

The single biggest issue that I almost always see in adults (and teenagers) is poor self-esteem. They had a rough time for years and years, and then to top it off somebody came along and tried to tell them that they have a deficient brain. There are all the social mistakes they've made, the academic problems, and very often, because they come from ADD/ADHD parents, problematic family situations. So the first step is to give them back their self-esteem.

This is done through a process called "reframing," which means seeing something in a new way, bringing a new understanding to it, and finding in it something positive and useful. In this instance, that's the "hunter in a farmer's world" metaphor, which I find personally very healing. There's not anything "wrong" with you, you are just wired differently than what we today choose to call "normal," but at another time and in other circumstances you would be "normal" or even "above normal." And anybody who's ever done a "hunter" job like sales or air traffic control or being in the Army's special forces or being an entrepreneur knows *exactly* what I mean.

David: Let's get to a few audience questions, Thom, then we'll continue with our conversation.

drcale:  From my childhood, I got to feel that I could not trust anything. So often, I got hit upside the head by unexpected censure, so now my Pavlovian response is to assume I probably have it wrong when I have been very enthusiastic, etc. How do you deal with that?

Thom Hartmann: There are several strategies you can use that are called "pattern interrupts" that will change that type of automatic response. You'll find them in my book "Healing ADD." (I don't mean this as a sales pitch - it's just that it would take way too long to try to teach them in a chat.)

There also is a concept of timeline repair that you may find useful. This involves first off figuring out where you keep your past and future. If I ask you right now what you'll be doing next week, notice where your eyes go to find the answer. Most likely it'll be somewhere out in front of you, probably up and to your right. And if I ask what you did last month, check out where you store those pictures/stories/experiences, too. They *should* be behind you and off to one side, down a bit. If they're out front, you may have the experience of being "haunted by your past." In our culture, we have an old expression that goes, "Put that behind you." The reason for this expression is that, literally, behind us is the best place for past memories. So there's a process that involves taking the past junk and moving it behind you, one by one. And if there are particularly painful or hot memories that you'd like to "defuse," you can also turn them from color into black and white, change their size, take out the sound or replace it with circus music, etc., etc. Lotsa things you can do to repair and recalibrate and thus re-experience and heal your past.

David: Here's drcale's comment, then the next question:

drcale: They are in front of me, up and left, and I feel like I relive them over and over.

Thom Hartmann: Drcale, try the timeline work tonight. You'll probably find it very useful. You *can* put the past behind you!

Forgetful me! How do I get my husband to accept the fact that my daughter and I both are ADD and although she is going through testing new week, I know from all the research that I have done, she is ADD. How do I get him to be okay with the time and efforts I put into educating myself so that I ,we, can manage our Attention Deficit Disorder? He is just the opposite, he is OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).

Thom Hartmann:  I'd suggest (and, not knowing him or you, this is a long shot) that the first step may be to make the concept of you and your daughter having ADD something that he can easily understand and that has some appeal or interest to him. If you frame it or position it or try to get him to see it as a disease, you may get the very common reaction of denial or avoidance or even embarrassment. But if you can put it in a comprehensible and less pathological model (I frankly prefer the hunter/farmer model <g>), he may find it palatable. Also, if he's OCD, notice the language he uses to refute or refuse your self-observation and figure out some way to agree with *those words* while, at the same time, making your point in a different way. Hope that helps. You may want to give him a real easy to read book on the topic as well. My first book, ADD: A Different Perception, is quite accessible and pretty short, and it reframes ADD in a pretty acceptable fashion (IMHO).

David: You have written many books on ADD, spoken to many people who have ADD, ADHD. Do you think that many of the ADD issues can be resolved through self-help, or is outside help (a therapist) necessary or more helpful?

Thom Hartmann: Thom Hartmann: It depends entirely upon the person and upon the therapist. There are some (probably many) people who are sufficiently self-aware that they can do most of the repair work on themselves. On the other hand, having a competent professional to help really can ease the path. The big problem is that there are also, as in any profession from plumbers to surgeons, some folks out there who are simply incompetent or who don't understand ADD. They can end up doing more damage than good: I have seen a startling number of adults and children who've been more wounded by their therapy than by their lives. So look for professional help but also remember that you're a consumer of mental health care services and you can audition or choose the person to work with you just like you'd choose your hairdresser or dentist. If somebody hurts you, find somebody else. Shop around. And when you find somebody who can produce rapid, successful change in you, the way you want it, stick with him or her.

cellogirl: This is my first time in a chat room ever. I have never experienced all the trauma of ADD that Thom is talking about. I have been very successful in all areas of my life. I guess I had just enough OCD to keep me in line, doing what I was supposed to. After a few years on Prozac, my obsessions have eased up and now at 50. I find myself becoming more ADD and finding it hard to do what I'm supposed to do. I know I need to grade papers, but I don't want to. I know I should make lesson plans, but cellogirl isn't doing them. Any suggestions?

Thom Hartmann: Interesting. A few years ago, a friend of mine, a psychiatrist in Atlanta, made the offhand comment to me that, for a person with ADHD, a little bit of OCD is probably a good thing. This sounds to me more like a matter of finding the balance between the two, and that maybe our person here has tipped a little too far away from the "seat of control" that OCD-like things can bring. Of course, this is just a wild guess, as I don't know this person and am not her doc.

kimdyqzn: I have a son with ADHD (possibly both boys have it) and I was recently diagnosed with ADHD as well. I see a lot of educational products for helping children learn to "retrain" their brain and learn to pay more attention. Do you know of any computer software products like these for ADDults?

Thom Hartmann:  Not personally, but I now they're out there. There's a conference on this topic in a few weeks in Miami (I think you can find the info at www.futurehealth.org) and you may find their website useful.

My take on biofeedback and the related techniques is that they're just high-tech ways of teaching us to bring our attention back to something, over and over. The "old" biofeedback device was the rosary, for example. So it's nothing new, but the technology is new, and seems to work quite well for some people, and because it uses computers the feedback is so much faster than the old techniques that people learn to attend to things faster. So I'd suggest you explore that site and maybe www.eegspectrum.com site, which is probably the best on biofeedback, and make up your own mind.

Phatty:  I was known as ADHD when I was younger. Now at 17, I have mellowed out, but noticed I have lots of anxiety and I constantly shake my legs and can't stop with out really trying. Could this because I am ADHD or from the medicine (effexor)?

Thom Hartmann:  Common causes of anxiety reactions include caffeine drinks, stressful life changes (going to high school?) the family changes associated with growing up, and, of course, all medications have some side-effects. 

David: Phatty, you may all want to check out the medications area of our website for the side-effects of Effexor and certainly, I'd let your doctor know what's going on.

suzeyque: I was diagnosed with ADHD this year at 40. I tried college, but quit after 4 months. I honestly can't handle "sitting" and paying attention all day! I've tried three different kinds of medication (ritalin, welbutrin, ionamine) but still couldn't pay attention! So again, I feel like a failure. Any suggestions for getting through college if I ever attempt it again? (my marks were great, had instructor who humiliated me and I gave up)

Thom Hartmann: Yes. Find a different college. I've seen an incredible number of "failure" kids do brilliantly when they get into different environments. There are very community-oriented colleges like Warren-Wilson in Asheville, NC, and there are online programs from most all the colleges and universities, and there are community colleges, and even same-gender colleges. The key seems to be either a high-stimulation, novelty-rich environment or small classrooms, or both. Shop around. Interview your prospective professors the term before you're considering attending and only take classes from those who are not boring. Get to know them in advance and build a relationship so you feel committed to the class. Sit in the front of the room where you're not easily distracted by the other students. Decide to have fun while learning, and for the terrible, boring, required classes, find the times or a community college where you can take them in smaller classes or from interesting profs. There's a bunch of this sort of stuff in ADD Success Stories, by the way. <g>

David: One of the things that strikes me, and it's really not surprising, but it seems many adults with ADD also suffer from depression.

Thom Hartmann: Yes, and it's often a healthy response. When things aren't going well, it's entirely appropriate for us to have a negative reaction to things. We call this, in one of its may forms, depression. If a person hit a wall in life and *didn't* get depressed or upset, then that would be a real problem. The damage happens when people think that the depression itself is the "problem" and take antidepressives but stay in "not working" life situations. Of course, there are some people who have an actual disorder of depression, and for them the antidepressant drugs are life-savers (literally), so it's very, very important to see somebody who's competent and capable of sorting out: "Is this circumstance-caused depression that should be treated by changing their life's circumstances, or is this a biochemical problem that needs meds and nutritional changes?" It can be a tough call, because when we have circumstance-caused depression there *is* a change in neurology that happens...albeit temporary. So it takes somebody who knows what they're doing, and who understands how frustrating ADD can be, to differentiate between the two and make appropriate recommendations.

David:  We are looking for journalers in the HealthyPlace.com ADD/ADHD Community to keep online diaries of their experiences. If you are interested in doing that, click here. Mr. Hartmann's website is here.

luckyfr: I have been diagnosed with ADD and depression instead of hyperactivity. Is this common?

Thom Hartmann: Yes. When I see this in people, it's most often people who've been very "beaten down" by life's experiences. I wrote about this at some length in "Healing ADD." People who primarily experience the world and life through their feelings (as opposed to those who are primarily visual or auditory) seem to have this sort of problem more frequently, too. My advice to such folks is to find somebody who's competent with one of the solution-based therapies, such as NLP, Core Transformation, or EMDR, and give that a try. And also to carefully examine their life's circumstances and situations for opportunities for change that may be interesting and exciting.

monoamine: You mentioned children diagnosed ADD or ADHD often coming from broken homes in your earlier practice or studies. Given the co-morbidities of ADD/ADHD, viz., Alcohol Abuse/Personality Disorders (among others), isn't it possible that a physiological effect is communicated through the progeny? In other words, isn't it possible that domestic trouble is merely another manifest of a valid physiological condition?

Thom Hartmann: Yes, I think it is. There's both nature and nurture, and reactive, impulsive children usually have reactive, impulsive parents (for example), or at least one parent like that, and so the kids get both the genes and bear the brunt of the behaviors, which they also learn, and then inflict on their own kids. That's why it's so important to intervene and break that spiral.

David: If I remember correctly, you also wrote a book called something like "ADD Success Stories," where people with ADD shared their strategies for coping with it. Am I right about that?

Thom Hartmann: Yes, ADD Success Stories is a book that I wrote because of all the mail I got after the publication of ADD: A Different Perception. Lots of people shared with me the strategies and techniques they'd used to be successful in home, work, and school situations, either in spite of their ADD or even using it as a tool, and so I took about 100 of the best of those stories, plus a bunch of my own, and compiled that into the book ADD Success Stories.

David: Could you share with us two or three of those strategies that proved successful?

Thom Hartmann: Well, the school answers I gave earlier are all in that book. The idea of figuring out what sort of neurology/person you are and then determining the best career for you based on that. Finding a partner who compliments you but isn't identical to you. (Hunters often do well when they marry farmers, for example, although that's by no means a hard and fast rule.) Learning how to learn. Geez - it's been about 6 years since I wrote the book and I haven't read it since then, so I'd have to go grab one and read the table of contents. <grin>

blacksheep:  I'm 35 years old. I have lived with Attention Deficit Disorder all of my life and one thing that I have found is that sometimes I can't understand why things happen to me.

Thom Hartmann:  If that was the entire question, I can empathize. I'm still trying to figure out why some things happen to me. <g> Seriously, though, this one of those things where I've found that spiritual practice, the idea of living one day at a time, of surrendering my will to Gods or the universe or higher power or whatever you call it, and learning to go with the flow, is the best coping mechanism. Keep repeating, "Everything works out in the end." And find that place in yourself where you know that's true.

cluelessnMN: Hyperfocusing. Good Thing? Too much of a Good Thing?

Thom Hartmann: Yes! Yes!!! <g> The trick is learning to notice when you've switched it on and then deciding if it's useful in that circumstance, and then choosing to hang out in that mode or turn it off. That's a process of learning self-awareness that's very useful and that most people, surprisingly, have never really explored. Start noticing how you notice things, noticing your reactions and responses to things, and noticing the internal switches and levers that switch you on and off. From there to taking control of it all is actually a surprisingly short path.

twinmom: For those of us parents who are ADD and have trouble with follow thru and have ADHD kids, what one thing would you suggest that we focus on to improve quality of life for our kids?

Thom Hartmann: Forgiveness. It's so easy to think that we all have to have Beaver Cleaver lives and homes and all, and it's important to learn how to just be who you are and how you are and allow the same for your kids. Of course, we're always trying to improve things, but when it becomes a grind or painful, then the work is often more destructive than the results are beneficial.

David: Actually, Thom, what I've found in life that we all think our neighbors are living perfect lives, until one day it comes spilling out on the front lawn, and we find out they are no different than us. :) Here's the next question.

Thom Hartmann:  Yep!

addcash: Hi. I'm 42 with an ADD son who is 3 1/2 and showing signs (eyes out of focus, angry outbursts, etc.) and want to start an ADD community center in Toronto, Canada. Any suggestions, Mr. Hartmann?

Thom Hartmann:  I'm not sure. CHADD and other ADD groups seem to be on the decline, member-attendance-wise, and I think that's because people no longer need to go to meetings to get info, and most people don't need the level of help that, for example, alcoholics do with AA. There are so many books and all out there, magazine articles, the info is all over the place. On the other hand, if you can put together a community center or program of some sort that's truly useful for people and meets local needs (maybe not even calling it ADHD?) then you may be a real angel. But be sure you have a business plan and an exit strategy in place in advance for when it becomes boring to you. <g>

luckyfr: I have had Attention Deficit Disorder since I was 4. I have learned to do all things in small bits! Is this a good way?

Thom Hartmann:  Yes! One of my favorite pieces of advice from ADD Success Stories is: "Break big jobs into small pieces."

David: I know it's getting late. Thank you, Mr. Hartmann, for being our guest tonight and for sharing this information with us. And to those in the audience, thank you for coming and participating. I hope you found it helpful. We have a very large and active community here at HealthyPlace.com. You will always find people in the chat rooms and interacting with various sites. I invite everyone to stay and chat in any of the other rooms on the site. Also, if you found our site beneficial, I hope you'll pass our URL around to your friends, mail list buddies, and others.Thanks again, for coming Thom.

Thom Hartmann: Thom Hartmann: Thank you, David, and thanks to everybody who showed up!

David: Good night, everyone. And I hope you have a good and peaceful weekend.


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