The Gifts of ADHD

Lew Mills, PhD, MFT

You can always start a debate amongst a group of people with ADHD by asking whether ADHD is a "disorder" or a "difference." Is it a curse or a gift? It's everyone's favorite topic, and everyone has an opinion. Actually, I have two opinions. Like many big questions, the answer lies somewhere not just in the middle but at both ends.

On the positive side, if treated, ADHD doesn't usually have to ruin your life. What's more, there are lots of skills, abilities and characteristics that routinely come with ADHD, and which most people find appealing. This is why in debates about treating children, we always hear warnings about "taking the spark" out of some "Huck Finn" type of child. Never mind that Huck is a fictional character, and that if you had to raise him as your own, you would be a rather frustrated parent. Still, Huck has a charming perspective on the world, a winning way with people and an infectious enthusiasm for life. These qualities often do translate over to the real life people with ADHD.

But at the same time, ADHD is defined by symptoms. In the book of diagnoses, a person doesn't even qualify as having ADHD without "significant impairment." If it doesn't get in your way, it's not ADHD. This is literally "by definition." There also doesn't seem to be a "fully treated" ADHD yet. Treatments are clearly not fully "normalizing." We can just reduce symptoms. Usually a person comes upon the diagnosis because things have been going significantly wrong. The person who is being diagnosed is not naive about what they are up against. Hopeful "gift" sermons might meet with skepticism.

I suspect that virtually always, the person with ADHD has experienced significant shame in their life, about things that they were not able to do, and which came easily to others. One part of the difficulty is that the disorder is largely "hidden." ADHD adults say things like, "If I were in a wheelchair, people would understand how hard I have to try, but nobody gets it with ADHD." Furthermore, the debilitating aspects of ADHD are usually also confusing for the person that has it. As children, we cannot figure out on our own that we are disabled by ADHD. Instead, we erroneously attribute our own behavior to "bad character", lack of motivation, or worse.

Because of this, a central experience of ADHD is humiliation and shame. That sounds harsh, but it is crueler to ignore that, to date, the experience of shame is nearly inevitable. The depth to which our culture condemns the incapacities which ADHD brings remains largely unfathomed.

So why do I insist that ADHD is still "a gift" as well. It could be sentimental compensation for enduring what is clearly a big problem. But I have two other much better reasons.

It does bring gifts. I have frequently heard ADHD people say that they know they see something in the world that nearly everyone else is missing. I don't think this is just a cheap self-aggrandizement, to make up for their pain. I think it is often true. There are two more bits of good news here. I don't think that treating the ADHD makes these go away. And second, these really are the gifts that we find idealized in children like Huck Finn, or maybe like Harry Potter. They are hard to explain to the "muggles" who don't live in this wizard's world, but they are intuited and revered there, even as the wizards of ADHD suffer them like a secret scar.

My second reason for seeing ADHD as a gift may be a harder sell. I once quipped, "ADHD is God's way of teaching you humility." I think I came up with this after having to apologize for and explain something that I did which was indeed, inexplicable. I slowly realized that there is some benefit in knowing that you can't control all the aspects of your life. This is despite the fact that you would like to and that society demands it of you. You have limits. You make mistakes.

These days, when the concept of hubris is considered quaint, a touch of humility may be a great gift indeed. But the trick, of course, is how to transform experiences of humiliation into the wisdom of humility. Often enough, they instead lead to greater defensiveness, arrogance and the hubris we would like to avoid. I think that the secret is to learn to accept our limitations, even at the moments when everyone else continues to condemn them. With acceptance of our limitations comes a new hope for our realistically appraised capacities.

Nothing takes a person further from him or herself than trying to perfect the challenged parts of themselves that they don't understand. And nothing brings a person home as much as discovering their true strengths. ADHD has the wickedly strange ability to force the understanding of our challenges. With luck, we then turn to studying our strengths.

As we find our limitations, I think we are also more inclined to find the interdependencies we have with other people. ADHD will enforce asking for help. My personal goal is to say "thank you" at least as many times to those who help me out as I am obligated to say "I'm sorry" to those whom I disappoint. Once a person has to acknowledge that they cannot master everything by themselves, the door is open to seeing how universally we need to consider each other's strengths and challenges. In that, I believe, is a truer dignity than we might have gained otherwise. It can also lead to deeper and more rewarding relationships.

Gift or curse? Sometimes a gift feels like a curse. Sometimes a curse is a gift in hiding.

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