When Liz Templeman’s son Mack was four, she started to realise that he was different from other children his age. He couldn’t sit on the carpet to listen at school, didn’t seem to be in control of his arms and legs, made funny little noises, and would shout out.
He was described as ‘a proper little comedian, very random and off the wall even for a little kid. My friends used to say, “He’s just like you,”’ says Liz, a 49-year-old teaching assistant. Liz says that she can be emotional, impatient, hyper-focused; that she has no filters, speaks out against things she finds unjust, and doesn’t respect authority. She also has an odd body clock, taps and fiddles with things, and can’t stand the sound of eating and breathing.
‘Also, I don’t “do” people very well. I’ve always been a bit odd – so I thought Mack was bound to be quirky, too. I didn’t think much of it – and anyway, that’s how children are,’ she says.
By the age of seven, at junior school, it became obvious Mack couldn’t comply with what his teachers wanted; even certain noises used to make him run out of the room. The school started to bandy around the term ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
‘I had a stereotypical idea that it was just an excuse for poor parenting,’ says Liz. ‘But as soon I looked at the checklist of criteria, it was like a train had hit me. I thought, “Oh. My. God.” Everything screamed ADHD at him. And me.’
At that moment, she says, ‘I realised we both had the condition.’
This realisation coincided with Liz’s coming across her old school reports. ‘I cried when I read them,’ she says. ‘I saw the comments from teachers – “Doesn’t apply herself, wasting her talents, won’t stop talking.” At school I felt angry and low about myself. I felt different. And I realised that if this is what my son has, he’s in for a tough time.’
But there can be an upside. The book The ADHD Advantage lists the bonuses of the condition, and Liz would concur: ‘I have a lot of energy, I’m creative and spontaneous. And considering I’ve been depressed a lot of my life, I’m funny, witty and optimistic.’
ADHD is a hugely misunderstood health issue, according to the charity ADDISS (the National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service). The main symptoms are inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, but this can manifest in a cocktail of different behaviours. Those with the condition can find it impossible to concentrate on one thing, to remember details, to organise, prioritise or compartmentalise.
It has been described as ‘living without brakes’; those who have it may have an inherent restlessness and a low boredom threshold. Liz describes it as ‘like watching a bank of 40 TVs in a shop, all showing the same programme. You can’t focus or concentrate on any one; your eyes are darting all over.’ (Both she and her son, now 11, now take medication; for her, this was ‘like someone gradually switching off all the TVs until it’s all nice and calm’.)
Much as Liz wishes someone could give her a manual on how to behave, she says, ‘with an ADHD brain that is that unfettered, you cannot apply those restraints. The impulsivity is awful.’
Even with a diagnosis, treatment in the NHS can often be slow. At Clinical Partners, a nationwide private practice, the third most common presenting problem (after anxiety and depression) is suspected adult ADHD, most frequently as a result of a child being diagnosed.
‘I see more and more cases, what I would call an epidemic of ADHD,’ says Dr Pablo Jeczmien, consultant psychiatrist at Clinical Partners. He puts it down to greater awareness. ‘One of the most common issues is depression, because people are underperforming. And usually they are very intelligent.’
More boys than girls present with the condition, whereas in adulthood it is, he says, the opposite.
In fact, ADHD has been perceived as an issue that disproportionately affects men. But according to Andrea Bilbow OBE, founder of ADDISS (who herself has ADHD), women just have different symptoms.
‘They internalise their restlessness whereas men externalise it,’ she says, which is why it’s said that boys are four or five times more likely to have the condition. ‘Girls will be sitting at the back of the classroom, twisting their hair but getting neglected.’
This was the case for Sorcha Jones, 55, a psychotherapist who now counsels those with ADHD. ‘I got missed out: I was a girl, I was quieter, I wasn’t jumping off cupboards.’ She only realised she had ADHD when her son, 17, took an assessment. ‘The assessor said to me, “Have you ever thought of being tested?” I realised I wasn’t a complete mess-up.’
Sarah*, 46, a designer, also had a blinding moment of realisation that both she and her daughter had the condition when her son was diagnosed.
‘It suddenly hit me and made sense. My life is chaotic,’ she says. ‘I remembered, when I’d just met my husband, we saw Tracey Emin’s bed at an art gallery and he said, “God, that looks just like your room!” It was funny… but it wasn’t.’
Her teenage son’s depression was, she says, a result of his undiagnosed ADHD.
A diagnosis makes sense of behaviour for many. ‘I realised that it was my brain chemistry that led me to live my life in the way I had,’ says Liz. ‘And I felt optimism for my future for the first time in my life.’
Often overlooked and hard to define, ADHD can also exist with a range of other conditions – ‘comorbidity’ as it’s known. Liz’s son has now been diagnosed with ASD – autism spectrum disorder – but these other issues can include bipolar disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, OCD, and certain compulsive behaviours (gambling can be an issue in later life, for example).
But depression and anxiety appear to be overwhelmingly common – especially before diagnosis, and partly as a result of not understanding quite what is ‘wrong’. For Liz, anxiety had always been with her. ‘But I hadn’t recognised it as anxiety. It was an overriding sense of doom with irrational thoughts and negative reinforcement.’
Women are more likely to seek help, but they have an extra difficulty according to Andrea; the condition is, she says, affected by hormonal flux, so PMT can be worse, and puberty and the menopause can cause a spike in symptoms.
‘The tragedy is that ADHD responds well to treatment but access to that for adults is limited and waiting lists are long,’ says Andrea. ‘It’s also inheritable. If you are trying to treat a child, you cannot do it effectively unless you treat the parent.
The ADHD parent has to provide structure and organisation for their child and if they don’t have those skills it’s going to be harder. Children need proper support – so you have to help the parent as well.’