'I wouldn't be myself without ADHD'

Rachael Harper on her personal journey with ADHD; in conversation with her friend Chrissie Fitch.

Pearlaine Christabel (Chrissie) Fitch [photo above, left] has a background in Child Psychology having studied, volunteered and interned within the field, with interests in developmental research such as self-esteem, special education and relationships. Chrissie is now self-employed as a distance learning course author, tutor and editor, and is also a graduate member of the British Psychological Society. She recently interviewed her close friend and early years professional/lecturer, Rachael Harper BA (Hons) PGCE [photo above, right], about her personal journey of having attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and how this has shaped her core belief that anything is possible with the right support.

How old were you when you were diagnosed with ADHD?
I was ten. But this was after years and years of being poked, prodded and tested by… more professionals than I can count on my fingers...

Do you remember being diagnosed?
Yes… I remember quite a lot about it. It was such a defining experience for me. I remember the day the behavioural consultant – who I found to be quite a scary person – told my mum about his diagnosis. On the drive home from the doctor’s, my mum told me that it meant my brain was wired differently to others, and I didn’t have enough of some kind of chemical inside it. I didn’t know what it meant at the time… didn’t really understand… so I just kept quiet.

What problems have you faced as a result of having ADHD?
Ah. Attention, Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These words which have followed me around my whole life, and they bring both a sense of self and a sense of caution. Many articles on ADHD are riddled with stereotypes, that people with the condition will never have friends, never get a decent level of education, never have a job and sometimes end up in prison. I felt a lot of the weight of these stereotypes when I was growing up.

The main problem I’ve faced with ADHD is discrimination. When I started high school, I made the mistake of telling people that I had ADHD. In their ignorance, they didn’t understand and I was badly bullied because of the way I was. People didn’t know what it was apart from the fact that it was something to do with the brain, so they assumed I was psychotic and started calling me really horrible names like 'psycho'. This obviously hurt like hell, and I ended up loathing myself and my ADHD.

The truth was that I wasn’t exactly sure if they were wrong. I didn’t feel ‘in control’ when not on my medication … so if I was ‘out of control’ did that make me a psychopath? I had no volume control, I was impulsive, with a short temper and even shorter attention span; it did not make me the model student. Most of my teachers saw me as a hindrance, and even a challenge, to their job. It wasn’t what made me unique like my mother wanted me to think, it’s what made me different. 

Wow! So, do you think there is a stigma attached to it? 
Absolutely! More so now than ever! When I was growing up, nobody knew anything about it, there wasn’t that awareness. Now when you mention ADHD, everyone thinks you must act like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, bouncing around all over the place. I keep having to explain that it’s my brain that’s doing that, not my body.

Do you think people with ADHD are let down a lot of the time by lack of support?
There are statistics that categorically prove that people with ADHD are being let down by the system. Around 4.5 per cent of people aged 5-15 in the UK have a confirmed diagnosis of ADHD, yet there was an article I read that up to 20 per cent of those in prison could have ADHD. That’s a scary revelation if it turns out to be true; we’ve got to do better. The odds for people with ADHD are stacked against them from diagnosis figures to employment rates; we need to be redefining the odds!

What treatment did you get given for your ADHD and did it help?
I was given Ritalin at first, the every four-hour ones, so I had to go to the special needs mobile at the back of my high school and get given my tablet by some kind of administrator person. She was lovely though, I would go in there ranting or moaning about my day and she would listen to me. I started writing poetry as a coping mechanism and she even let me share the poems I had written about my feelings with her. I really appreciated having her to talk to, probably more than she even knew. She saw beyond my ADHD, she saw me as a person and for that I was so grateful. It helped me feel just slightly more in control. I felt like a zombie on Ritalin and nothing excited me about life, I was just there. Every case is different though and I know some people on Ritalin for ADHD who would describe it as their saving grace. I don’t take any medication now; I haven’t since I was 17 as the doctor said it was having no impact. Now all the strategies I use, I’ve developed myself through research or having a study skills tutor at university. It also helps that I’m very self-aware.

There has been a lot of talk about ADHD being over-diagnosed. Do you think this is the case?
There is a very fine line I think, and it’s sad because the more it is over diagnosed the more people will believe the stigma and think 'ah well it’s made up' or 'it’s just an excuse for bad behaviour and parenting'. For people like me, the struggle is real. Every day is a constant battle, so the fact that some doctor out there may be making the wrong call just because they don’t know enough about it – well that’s just kind of frustrating! Of course, I’m not medically qualified to say it’s over or under diagnosed… but I certainly think it’s different in other countries…

Do you think that some children will grow out of ADHD as they get older?
That would be nice, but sadly not! I still feel the symptoms today and this idea is just part of the misconceptions that surround it. Nobody really grows out of a disorder, and it is a neurological disorder; we just find better ways of managing ourselves because we’ve known ourselves for so long.

I left high school with hardly any qualifications, low-confidence and a desperate need to prove myself. I started working in the early years for reasons that a lot of psychologists might agree with; to chase the childhood I had wanted for myself. It was only after years of working alongside previous children and building up my confidence that I started to realise I was worth more. Yes, people still recognised me as different because of aspects of my ADHD but it felt more like a fact of life now than an excuse to prevent me from doing anything.

Would you say ADHD should be classified as a specific learning difficulty or neurological, developmental, neurobiological or neurodevelopmental disorder?
There are lots of phrases bandied around for what ADHD is… but I wouldn’t know for sure to be honest. I don’t think it’s just a specific learning difficulty like dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia because it affects so much of everything I do in life – right down to doing something like go shopping – so maybe it should be classed as something else also.

But do you think there are any positives to having ADHD?
This is a difficult one, but yes I do. I mean I wouldn’t be myself without ADHD, and I wouldn’t have my creativity and my bubbliness which people have come to associate with me. I enrolled on an early childhood studies degree and by sheer luck ended up choosing the university which would be able to provide me with the support I needed. Three years later I graduated with a first-class honours degree and a stronger sense of who I was. I wasn’t just a victim of ADHD; I was a person who happened to have ADHD who wanted to ensure other people had access to the right support. Of course, there are a lot of negatives too so I wouldn’t say it’s something people should strive to have… you make the best out of each situation.

Have you had the experience of being around others who have ADHD, and were you hyper-aware of their needs?
Yes, I’ve worked with some children who have had it and I’ve even undertaken research on one particular child, and it showed that while ADHD has a number of shared traits, everyone who has it is very much individual… which is why it’s such a minefield.

Have your studies change your views of ADHD at all?
Yes, absolutely. I did a research project at university on a case study of a boy with ADHD. He was just seven-years-old and he was already on Ritalin. I can’t deny I was biased going into the project as I was very anti-medication as a treatment for ADHD and was very sure of what I would find. However, though there were definitely similarities in terms of getting a diagnosis, the interview with the child’s mum was heart-breaking… it was very clear that this child was not like me. He was so confident, which was lovely to see, and I also saw the clear benefits to the medication he was on through observing his behaviour when he was medicated and when he was not. If anything, it showed me that while medication can be a good thing in terms of getting an education for those with ADHD, we need to explore other coping strategies too. 

According to something I read, many people with ADHD struggle to get a decent level of education. Was this the same in your case?
Absolutely, it’s very sad the way compulsory education is designed in the UK. It only works for those who are average or high achievers, and even that’s to a certain extent. It doesn’t really cater for those who need more help than usual. I left high school with two GCSEs thinking I was totally stupid, and for many years afterwards it’s something I really did believe about myself. Education destroyed my confidence more than anything else. I graduated in July 2014 with a first-class honours degree in Early Childhood Studies – so I guess I proved myself wrong!

Yay! So, can you tell me more about how ADHD has influenced the choices you’ve made in life in respect to your education, career… and personal life?
Gosh, that’s like asking how has being you helped shaped the choices you’ve made! I suppose the biggest impact it’s had on my life is that because I hated compulsory education so much because of how it failed me, I was determined that it wouldn’t be the same for other children. That’s what drove me to work up the ladder in the early years sector. Then many years later it’s what made me want to train as a college lecturer, which is what I am working as now. I teach others how to work with children, and I always try to instil in them the passion that anyone can achieve their ambitions with the right support. If only someone would have treated me that way, I probably would have got here faster but then the journey wouldn’t have been as meaningful. Isn’t that just so psychological?

So, you have professional experience and qualifications in the early years sector. How do you think ADHD is related to child development, parenting and the education sector generally? 
Well it’s a huge part of them all, isn’t it? The parenting aspect is interesting because from the research I’ve done, it suggests that an authoritative parenting style of course works best with ADHD, because authoritative parents are positive and supportive, and find boundaries subjective and hard to follow as it is. Growing up, my parents had quite an authoritarian parenting style and though I resented them for it at the time, I think perhaps it was probably the best thing for me. It’s sad how ADHD affects child development even at a young age. Being a very self-aware person, I’ve always known I was different. In fact, on one of my first days coming home from school, I actually said to my mum “I’m not like other children, am I?” and it broke her heart. I really wish I could go back to that insecure four-year- old and say, “no you’re not like other children, and that’s a good thing!”

According to an article I saw in a national newspaper, being different is not an illness. Suppose this can be said about specific learning difficulties and so on. Can or should we be treating things as conditions and illnesses?
I think labelling things is a double-edged sword really. On the one hand, yes everyone is different with different needs. But the more labels we can put on things the more we can perhaps address people’s needs quicker, which can be a good thing. However, of course labels can lead to stigma too, so it’s all very complicated and entwined… like a big bowl of spaghetti!

I know you were in two minds about whether to do this interview anonymously or put your name to it. Why is that?
This will be the first time I have publicly put my name to having ADHD. I’m very proud of having ADHD and achieving what I’ve achieved with it, but as soon as you tell people you have it then they make assumptions or stereotypes. Whether I like it or not there is a massive stigma surrounding the condition and there is, also, I’m afraid to say, some discrimination. However, ultimately, I’m sick of lying by omission about who I am and having to justify myself and I’m doing it in the hope that I can help to break some of the stigma. After achieving so much, I guess I have nothing to prove anymore and I also want other people with ADHD to be inspired by my story, that they can achieve too. 

It almost feels like I am coming out as it’s a part of myself that I’ve kept hidden from the world for quite a long time. Now, I’m like "this is me!" I’m hoping people will see past the stereotypes to the intelligent young woman whose refusal to allow herself to be labelled helps to redefine ADHD, and more importantly myself.

Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to those who support or become acquainted with someone who has ADHD, what would it be? 
It’s interesting you ask this. I love writing and I’m working on a book about my personal experiences; not just my ADHD but everything that comes with having it, including my creative flare. I would call it a book about being able to overcome anything! I’m hoping it will help people like me realise their potential. I think I’d let them know that every small step they make is good enough even though they might not think so; that they can definitely achieve anything. Most importantly, I will make sure they know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them and they are human just like everybody else in this world, and they too will finally get the last laugh!

- Chrissie Fitch [email protected]

- Rachael Harper [email protected]

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