Tigger, squirrels and things to think about – an ADHD backstory

We all know Tigger. He is the overly exuberant, obliviously happy, irritatingly irresponsible and often trouble-making tiger friend of Winnie the Pooh. Known for his bounce, especially into the ‘personal bubble’ of others, he is characterised as energetic, outgoing, fun-loving and overconfident. He rarely sits still and is always running, climbing, or fidgeting. Tigger makes bold, audacious statements, proclaiming that he can do anything: “That’s what tiggers do best!” At times, Tigger is fearless, optimistic and resourceful. Impulsive behaviour, interrupting and intruding are the essence of Tigger’s problems. Soon after first meeting Pooh in an impulsive visit to the much quoted philosopher’s dwelling, Tigger suddenly interrupts Pooh, climbs on to the table, wraps himself with the tablecloth and brings everything crashing to the floor. Tigger accuses the tablecloth of trying to bite him rather than owning his hyperactivity. He appears to have no sense of fear and certainly little sense of responsibility. His behaviour is sometimes irritating, sometimes endearing and often times reckless. The stories of the Hundred Acre Wood are rich with examples, like the time he ascends a high tree with little Roo on his back before determining whether he was able to climb a tree in the first place. Only when the two get stuck does Tigger realize he has no idea how to climb down – a classic ‘horse had already bolted the barn’ moment. On another occasion, Tigger grabs Roo’s medicine from Kanga and swallows it impulsively, almost downing the spoon as well. Dear Tigger never seems to learn from his mistakes, which frustrates others. Nonetheless, he bounces back from hazardous incidents almost immediately and demonstrates enviable resilience and grit. There is no doubt that Tigger’s behaviour worries those around him, some of whom offer misguided but well intended advice. Rabbit boldly asserts that Tigger should be loosed into the forest, believing that the shock of being lost might cause Tigger to calm down a little on his return. The strategy backfires, however. You’ll have to read the books to find out how. Let us forgive Rabbit his bizarre methods and surmise that if Rabbit had access to the DSM-V, he’d likely recognise that this bouncy character is suffering from ADD, with hyperactivity.

To be clear, Tigger doesn’t actually have a diagnosis. There is no mention of a pediatric consultation in the tranquil setting of the Hundred Acre Wood. However, in our media rich, connected world, Tigger is extensively labelled with the term “ADHD”. One quick Google search takes a reader straight to him as a prime example, along with dozens of other celebrities. Most people, adults and children today have some idea that ADD or ADHD references a distracted and/or active person who may be challenged to regulate their “lively” behaviours and impulsivity to stay focused and on task. Just recently, in a talk delivered at Bellavista S.H.A.R.E., expert Developmental Pediatrician, Prof Andre Venter, spoke of bringing the diagnosis “out of closet” in the last twenty years. He is right. There has been significant break through in acknowledging and naming Attention Deficit Disorder, recognizing it as a reality for some and learning how to manage it. The advances in understanding the condition medically are marked. Treatment options are improving all the time. We know now to treat, and we have an evolving but better understanding of how. With this, quality of life for those who experience the condition is improved.

With mainstream acceptance of the condition, however, there is arguably a marginalization of its effect on the individual and those in their family. Some say they know and understand, but they don’t. Not really. Their partial grasp of the condition is evidenced in their language. “Look, squirrel!” is a term playfully used when describing someone who, mid-conversation, leaves the topic at hand to have another thought, or pursue a distraction. Then there are other lighthearted phrases bandied about, like: “swinging from the chandeliers”, “wild”, “all over the place”, “sixteen tabs open simultaneously”, “revving” or, “out of his tree”.

Let us really think about what it is to live with Attention Deficit Disorder:

  • What is it to struggle each day with thoughts that race, ideas that relentlessly torrent through your mind and anxiety that builds when routine demands overwhelm.
  • What is it to miss deadline again? And again? And again? Even for the same task!
  • How is it to experience failing grades when you know your subject, jobs lost because you arrive late every day despite your best intentions, and relationships failing because you didn’t perceive the value to the other of remembering an anniversary or birthday, and you forgot it every year?
  • How does a mother feel when she chases every routine from brushing of teeth to falling asleep (or likely not) to unpacking bags, every day, all the time, and her child is twenty?
  • How does a father feel when he gets a call from the school yet again reporting his son’s impulsive misdemeanor or lack of organization?
  • What does it feel like to have a keen mind that chases its interest and soaks up reams of fascinating information, that most people don’t want to hear about?
  • How is it to sit behind a desk in a 1mx1m unfenced enclosure in the classroom, concentrating desperately on staying still while resounding boredom drowns all motivation out.
  • What is it like when the buzz of the neighbour’s lawnmower is louder than the podcast the teacher prescribed in the homework task?
  • How tender is the journey of acceptance that treatment is required if you are to fit into society as it is normed today, given back packing in the hills of Knysna is not an economically sustainable option for your lifetime?
  • What is it like to pursue calm because you can never reach it and yet you crave the stillness that others describe?
  • How does it feel to find elicit substances available that take you out of the busyness of your brain but lure you along an addictive pathway?
  • How does it feel to commit to treatment and a ritualised lifestyle to find ‘normal’?
  • What is the crushing depression that sets in when you see the disappointment on the face of someone who you let down again, although their expectation was so reasonable?
  • What is it like to be told that a liturgy of famous greats each has ADD and questioned around such evidence of your ‘brilliance’.
  • Where did your cute factor go when you’re still living with the impulsivity at age 40, and diagnosis was at age six?
  • What is it like to have teachers nagging for assignments and, on escaping school, SARS just takes on the role looking for returns.
  • What is it to apologise more often in a day than hear “well done”?

Likely, none of it feels very good. But we laugh anyway.

We laugh at the jokes about being “scatty”, chuckle at the mayhem and chaos of the morning routines, and smile at the efforts made. On good days, when the rest of life is not stressful, we embrace it all, even to a level of endearment. On other days, we cry, alone. Or we rant and vent and blame. We mistakenly blame all manner of moral ills on ADD and we attribute roaring success to it too, randomly. We even own the condition proudly, “Sorry, its my ADD.” Perhaps, more destructively, we parade celebrities as being known sufferers, implying, “What’s your problem, then?” to the other 99% regular and never-to-be-famous members of the population. Iconic life stories offer hope and inspiration on one hand, but crushing pressure on the other. Truth be told, we don’t know the price of fame –  the exchange of the creative brilliance for normal living, sleep, family, harmony and centeredness perhaps.

Before we speak about someone’s ADD or any other diagnosis publically, including our child’s, we ought to stop and consider all the questions and challenges above. This is not to say that we shouldn’t laugh, nor is it a suggestion that we keep the matter closeted. A diagnosis can liberate a person and offer a way forward in lifestyle choices. Laughter helps us make sense of the condition as it shifts our perspective and reduces any sense of threat. Laughter is invaluable to our human condition. Humour creates a psychological distance and helps us feel less overwhelmed. Think how quickly memes and cartoons follow on from apparently tragic or worrying incidents and realities. Humour helps us diffuse conflict. We must laugh. It is therapeutic. We must diagnose, it is useful. However, when and where and why we laugh as well as who we laugh with, needs to be sensitively considered. Likewise for when and where and to whom we disclose a diagnosis. Certainly, we should be very careful not to laugh at a person nor define him or her with a medical label.

If a child, or even you, has ADD, the condition must be acknowledged, understood and managed. But more so, the person who experiences it needs support now and in the long term – committed, loving and unconditional support. Like Tigger, he or she needs friendship, mentoring, safety, acceptance, recognition and purpose.  You may be the person who offers all this to someone you love or care for. Do it wholeheartedly. Do it informed. And if there are squirrels popping up in any conversations, take a look! You may be missing out!