Hunters Meet the Self-Help Movement: On Being a Professional Victim of ADHD
Will we Hunters spend the rest of our lives as victims of our genes, pointing to them as the cause of every ill thing in our past & dragging the past into our future like the chains on Marley’s ghost?
The self-help tradition has always been covertly authoritarian and conformist, relying as it does on a mystique of expertise, encouraging people to look outside themselves for standardized instruction on how to be, teaching us that different people with different problems can easily be saved by the same techniques. It is anathema to independent thought...
—Wendy Kaminer, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional
When I was the executive director of a residential treatment facility in New Hampshire, I worked with a wide variety of psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists. One man, in particular, was amazing to me.
Dr. Charles, as he was called by both the children and staff (that was his first name) once confided to me that the ethics of his practice were his greatest impediment to financial success.
“My goal is for my patients to get better, so they no longer need me,” he said. “That doesn’t do much for long-term financial security.”
With the explosion of media attention directed at ADHD, there’s a corollary increase in counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and even fortune tellers (I met one in Atlanta, where it’s legal and licensed, who says she specializes in ADHD!), who are encouraging an odd form of dependency.
Because ADHD is a lifetime diagnosis, it can also represent a long-term income stream for a practitioner treating it. The voices of people pointing this out as a way of discrediting ADHD and the people who work in the field-are growing.
From rightwing radio hosts to the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to people within the insurance industry, critics of the ADHD diagnosis are becoming more vocal. At the same time, a growing number of authors and speakers on the topic of ADHD are becoming more adamant in their assertions that ADHD is a crippling disability, about which little can be done beyond medication.
In a speech to a group of ADHD adults I attended years ago, a psychologist pointed at the audience and said, “You people have an illness. You’re sick. Don’t you get it? Why do you think we call it a ‘disorder’?"
In the midst of it all, though, are the people themselves with ADHD. Many of them are receiving the signal, sometimes from people who have a financial interest in promoting that point of view, that they are damaged, defective, deficient, and disordered. In short, they are victims. And, for some people, this is just what they want to hear.
“Eureka!” they say, throwing the notion of personal responsibility or self-improvement to the wind. “I’m a victim of an organic brain dysfunction!”
At the same time, an increasing number of prominent therapists are taking Dr. Charles’ point of view toward ADHD. Instead of fostering a lifetime of dependence, they’re helping people define a specific therapeutic goal, working toward that goal, and just as in internal medicine, stopping the treatment when the goal is reached.
One example is the “SBT” (Solution-oriented Brief Therapy) approach espoused by students of Milton Erickson and brought into public awareness in 1995 by the best-selling book Fire Your Shrink by psychotherapist Michele Weiner-Davis. One of Weiner-Davis’s key bits of advice is: “Choose a perspective that offers a solution.” That’s a great idea, and it’s largely what I write about in the context of ADHD: choose perspectives that offer insights, solutions, and a path to the future you want.
Another example comes directly from the world of ADHD, and involves one of the most prominent psychiatrists in the field, Dr. Edward Hallowell. Before he became famous from his appearances on network television and co-authoring the best-selling Driven To Distraction, Hallowell was the therapist chosen by a good friend of mine. “Dave” recalls that Hallowell’s emphasis was on understanding and on producing results:
“After a few months of regular (but not weekly) visits, one day I came in for my appointment and he told me he didn’t want to see me as a patient any more,” Dave told me. “I wondered if I was a ‘bad patient’ or if he thought I was ‘cured,’ but, no, he said it was neither. Rather, he felt that he’d done as much for me as he could by way of imparting information, that I now had a good understanding of ADHD and what it and I were all about, and that it was now my duty to go out in the world and teach others what I’d learned.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Angela, a 31-year-old aspiring actress in New York City who cornered me after a speech, wanting to tell me her life story. Angela’s parents are wealthy, and she visits her therapist every week for her ADHD, and had for over ten years. She won’t date a man, make a career move, or even go out of town on vacation, without first discussing it at length with her therapist. Angela is stuck. By contrast, Dave is unstuck.
And, since her ADHD gives Angela such a convenient excuse for all the problems of her life, it liberates her from the need to do anything for herself. “Why bother trying to learn to pay attention,” she asked when I offered to teach her some of Harry Lorayne’s memory techniques, “when I’m so ADHD?”
Some people say, “Look at all I’ve been through—I’m a mess, and if I never make anything of my life, it’s understandable!”
And then there are those who decide, instead, to get on with their lives. I remember, for example, Jonathan.
He came into the residential treatment facility where I was executive director when he was fourteen years old. Three years earlier he’d seemed a normal boy, if not a bit too bright and extroverted for his teachers’ liking. His parents one day had found a marijuana plant on his bedroom windowsill. Not knowing what to do, they called the police, who hauled Jonathan off to the juvenile detention facility.
From there, Jonathan was placed in a foster home, but he was now angry, and determined not to give in to what he thought was an inhumane system. He ran away. The police caught him and put him in another foster home, and he ran away again. This time when they caught him, they took him to the state mental hospital for observation.
The psychiatrist there diagnosed him as suffering from oppositional-defiant disorder (often a fancy way of saying, “This kid offends me”), and ordered him institutionalized. For the next two years, Jonathan was in virtual solitary confinement.
He spent half of one year tied to a bed, and during the entire time of his institutionalization was daily given huge doses of the powerful tranquilizer Thorazine, which reduced him to a near-vegetative state.
When Jonathan was referred to our program at the age of fourteen, we were told that he was possibly psychotic, that he needed powerful anti-psychotic drugs, and that he might be mentally retarded because all the recent tests done on him showed that he functioned at about an eight-year-old level.
The day Jonathan came into the program, our psychiatrist took him off the Thorazine. At first Jonathan was angry and defiant, but when we learned his history, we understood the source of his anger and worked with him to learn to deal with it.
The Thorazine left him with small seizures, a condition called Tardive Dyskenesia, which is a long-term side-effect of having used Thorazine, and, for many people, is permanent. His tongue would leap about his mouth, he’d twitch, and occasionally he’d have a full-blown seizure and throw himself to the floor. Over a five-year period, these gradually lessened to the point where he could disguise them.
Jonathan, it turned out, had a near-genius IQ, as well as ADHD.
Four years later, still living at our facility, he graduated from the local public high school at the top of his class. He came back several years later to visit, and even wrote a short piece for one of our brochures, as a “graduate” of the program. And he never, ever, thought or said he was destined to be a failure because of his past or his ADHD.
Jonathan was a fighter, not a victim. He chose a different path from that of the many people who blame their boss, their spouse, their parents, and, of course, their ADHD, for every failure in their own lives.
In Bogota, Colombia, I met Juan, who was the driver for Elizabeth Blinken, the woman who started and ran the Salem program there. He looked like he was at least half South American Indian, and was well-dressed in slacks and sweater, with a friendly smile and dark brown eyes.
Over dinner during one of my first trips there Juan told us his story.
When he was three years old there was a political uprising in the area where he lived and soldiers (he doesn’t know if they were government or rebels) came into his house. They took him and the other members of his family into the living room and tied them up, then raped his ten-year-old sister and mother. Other soldiers came and raped them again.
When his father protested, one of the soldiers shot him in the chest. It took his father nearly an hour to die, Juan said. Later in the day, the soldiers methodically went through the little village and killed every person. Through some bizarre morality that only they understood, they didn’t kill the very youngest children, and so Juan was spared.
He stayed in the house with his dead parents, sister, and two older brothers, for two days until word of the massacre reached a nearby town and he was rescued.
His aunt took him in, but she soon tired of surrogate motherhood and took him to a state-run orphanage, telling him she’d be back for him in a week. She never returned.
At age seven, Juan escaped from the hellish orphanage, where the children lived in huge rooms and were regularly beaten and raped by the guards. For the next two years he lived as a street child, begging and stealing. He managed to avoid the “hunting clubs” of middle-class teenagers, soldiers, and off-duty police who go out at night in much of overpopulated South America with rifles and shoot street children for sport, often even taking pictures of their “trophies.”
But finally, when he was nine, Jose was captured by police and put into another orphanage. Here he was “adopted” as the “foster son” of a family in Germany through one of the many programs where people send a monthly stipend of ten or twenty dollars to a child. This stipend allowed him to attend school for the first time, and he ended up graduating first from high school, then from college with honors, and finally receiving a graduate degree in mechanical engineering.
Juan was not enthusiastic to tell his story; Elizabeth brought up the details after he had spent a day playing tour-guide and showing me around Bogota. He acknowledge the events of his life, but when I asked him how he felt about it, he shrugged and said, “At least I survived. So many here do not survive, and most of those I knew as a child are now dead. I worked hard to stay alive, and I was lucky.”
Juan had a legitimate right to put living and growing on hold and claim victim status, but he chose instead to move forward with his life.
It’s rare that I meet an person who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult who doesn’t feel frustration and anger about all those lost years, and the pain of growing up as a misunderstood Hunter in a Farmer’s world. Yet a quick recollection of Juan’s story, or Jonathan’s, will help put that pain in a more useful perspective.
Don’t be a victim
Many adult ADHD support groups I’ve visited resemble AA meetings, and some I’ve seen are run by people who encourage attendees to yell out, cry, or make a great public drama about the pain of their lives with ADHD.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of becoming a victim of ADHD. In modern America, it seems, many people want to be a victim of something. It’s so easy, so convenient, so comforting to know that our failures and weaknesses are not because of “us,” but caused by a “them.” Being a victim has even become an excuse for murder, as we saw in the initial acquittal in the admitted shotgun slaying of their parents by the Menendez brothers.
But taking the victim position may be the least effective way for a person to deal with their own ADHD: it is not, after all, alcoholism or the result of abuse.
At a 1990s conference in Santa Fe put on by my late friend Michael Hutchison, author of MegaBrain, I met a psychologist who told the interesting story of one of his patients, a man with all the symptoms of ADHD who’d been through the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
He saw virtually all of his closest friends die, and his best friend from high school, who’d joined the army together with him, died in his arms. Certainly, one would think, this man had every right to claim victim status and to even walk around with the shakes or a pint of gin in his hip pocket.
But that wasn’t how he viewed it.
“We were working on finding reservoirs of strength that could be drawn from past experience,” the psychologist told me, “and, for this man, that experience was one of the times in his life when he was the strongest. So now, when he’s confronted with difficult emotional experiences or the frustrations of his ADHD, that is the experience he brings back to mind, his time during that battle, as the thing that will empower him and pull him through.
“Because he survived, and was able to tell himself that he survived not because he was a coward or ducked bullets, but because he did the very best he could, and perhaps because his luck was just a little bit better that than of some of his friends. He viewed that battle as a positive experience, in retrospect.”
This story illustrates the point of this article: the stories we tell ourselves about the significance of things that happen to us usually create the core meaning of those experiences for us.
In certain middle-eastern cultures, it’s a horrifying and embarrassing experience for a woman to have strangers see her bare arms. If you were to rip off her shirt sleeve, or roll it up to look at her elbow, you could create emotional trauma that could last a lifetime.
In American culture, as a contrast, people walk along the beach in bikinis and swimming trunks without feeling any shame or humiliation.
Yet those Americans who wear swimsuits at the beach may feel negative emotions if they were forced to remove their bathing suits altogether, a state of (un)dress that’s “normal” on many of the beaches along the southern coast of France, Monaco, Italy, and Yugoslavia.
So, as much as we have the raw experience of life itself, what we ultimately carry from our living are the stories we tell ourselves about it.
This is not to say that the trauma of growing up with undiagnosed ADHD is not painful or even destructive. In a EEG Neurofeedback training program for physicians that I attended, there was a lot of discussion about the value of using alpha/theta brainwave training to bring up traumatic memories, and then using it to “discharge” the emotions associated with those memories. This is used as a form of therapeutic personality integration and ego-strengthening.
What was most interesting to me was that virtually everybody in the room (most were psychiatrists or psychologists) had traumatic memories themselves, ADHDers and non-ADHDers alike, yet all of us were from basically “normal” middle-class families, without histories of severe abuse.
Nonetheless, even without the life experiences of Juan or Jonathan, we all had terribly painful experiences we could point to in our past.
How do we deal with difficulties?
The bottom line is that life itself is often difficult. And this is particularly true for the Hunters among us, who have suffered through years of trying to fit into Farmer-style schools or jobs, and often experienced years of frustrating failures in their efforts.
Nobody gets out of life unscarred, and we all have times and events we can point to wherein we experienced great pain and stress, often as a consequence of ADHD.
The issue, though, is how we process those events.
Do we nurse them and lick them like a dog with a wound, causing them to blossom and fester? Or do we choose to resolve them (through therapy, EEG Neurofeedback, NLP, Ritalin, reframing, learning new strategies, etc.), and move on with life?
And, perhaps more important in the broader context, how does our culture, and how do our professionals, encourage us to deal with things like growing up with ADHD in a non-ADHD world?
Some people reacted to the initial proposal of my Hunter/Farmer model negatively, because they believed it deprived them of their right to claim victim status. More than one person said, “I’m not a Hunter: I’m the victim of a neurological disorder!” and this debate has persisted for years since the publication of my first book on this topic in 1993.
These people want a “disease” to be responsible for the way they are, and if that disease is treatable by the medical establishment, so much the better. When they’re still disorganized and late for meetings, they can then blame it on the medications not being properly balanced, or on the therapist not yet having completely worked his or her magic, or perhaps even on the therapist’s incompetence.
This is where we see the empowerment of individuals inherent in the Hunter/Farmer model, and the disempowerment intrinsic to the words “deficit” and “disorder.”
Dr. Lynn Weiss, one of the most insightful writers in the field of ADHD, shared with me an important insight. In her opinion many people with ADHD are as harmed by years of living undiagnosed and misunderstood as they are by the ADHD itself. This includes being told that they, to use Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo’s brilliant book title, are “lazy, stupid, or crazy.” In some cases, Dr. Weiss told me, the harm of being misunderstood is greater than the “problem” of the ADHD itself.
In a recent dialogue on the internet, a teacher with little patience or tolerance for kids with ADHD enumerated a long litany of problems she’d encountered teaching ADHD children. These included defiance of authority, poor test-taking skills, homework failures, and the fact that many of her ADHD kids were performing below their grade levels. She blamed this all on the children. And, from her personal experience and in the realm of her perceptual reality, many of her points were correct.
But was it the fault of the children, or of the system they were thrown into which was not appropriate for their learning style?
Pete Wright, the attorney who successfully argued the Shannon Carter case before the U.S. Supreme Court, thus forcing public schools to take financial responsibility for educating ADHD children, told me of one of his cases. (Pete, himself, by the way, has ADHD...and is one of the most successful attorneys—and human beings—I’ve ever met.)
A young boy had been failing for years in the public schools, yet he had a very high IQ and, when he was put in a summer program designed to meet the learning style of ADHD kids, he jumped several grade levels in just a few months.
Pete’s wife, Pam, a psychotherapist who’s spent years working with Vietnam veterans, is very familiar with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When she evaluated this little boy, Pam found that he was exhibiting many of the classic symptoms of PTSD, including sleep disturbance, irritability, temper outbursts, difficulty concentrating, frequent nightmares, and fearfulnes.
Yet he hadn’t been in a war: nobody had beaten or shot at him — there was no history of an actual traumatic event or experience that involved death or fear of death which could lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. He had model parents. So what caused the trauma?
“It was his failure in school, as a result of the school not properly handling his ADHD,” Pam said. “His teachers told him that he was lazy, that he was defiant, that he had many deficits, and that he had ADHD, which they referred to as a mental disorder.”
In Pam’s view, this young boy’s trauma was caused by teachers who understood ADHD as a label, but who had little empathy for the lived experiences of individuals with ADHD. She said that this child’s anxiety symptoms, so similar to individuals diagnosed with PTSD, were causally connected to his negative school experiences over a period of years.
One of the problems that people who do not have ADHD (like Pam’s patient’s teacher) experience when trying to define, discuss, or understand ADHD is that they’re struggling with a reality that is, for them, entirely conceptual and not at all experiential.
A person whose experience of life and the world is very “Farmer-like” will look at ADHD and ADHD people from their own point of view, scratching their head and wondering how these poor people could ever make it through life.
Overlay that with a smattering of knowledge of current trends in psychological thought, and their observation/confusion often expresses itself with words like “pathology,” “deficit,” and “disorder.”
For a person who has experienced life with/as ADHD, however, the Hunter/Farmer perspective is so gut-level-true that it often evokes an instant and visceral, “Yeah, that’s it!” response. (And no, this isn’t an attempt to put lipstick on a pig. Experienced personal truth and feelgood self-talk are wholly different things.)
“The only truths we can point to are the ever-changing truths of our own experience,” Peter Weiss wrote in 1964 (Marat/Sade). Andre Gide in 1921 wrote that “Each of us really understands in others only those feelings he is capable of producing himself.”
This is at the root of both the debate over how to present ADHD to people with it, and how to respond to it therapeutically and in schools. Several blind men may differently describe an elephant, but only the elephant truly knows its own nature.
Parents of ADHD children must ask themselves if they want their kids to grow up telling themselves, and interpreting all their experience through the filter of, the story that they’re “disordered.” Or would they prefer to know that they’re Hunters, facing specific challenges thrown at them by a Farmer’s world? And those of us who are the adult ancestors of Hunters must make a similar choice.
Both models acknowledge the struggles and difficulties of life with ADHD. The former, however, often disempowers people and provides them with excuses to hand off responsibility for their lives to others. The latter model demands that we learn as much as we can about our true nature and our deficits, and then take personal responsibility for changing our lives.
Virtually everybody will take on one role or another: we require an identification or self-identity in order to function in the world.
Psychotherapist George Lynn told me about a discussion he had on this topic with Marcia Jacobs, MSW, who is the head of Mental Health Services for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. She’d just returned from Bosnia, and George said of their discussion, and his thoughts on it:
“A subtle force for maintaining victim status for trauma survivors is the self-identification with the role. Marcia pointed out that people will, on one level or another, ask, ‘If I don’t have this status (of victim) what fills the void?’
“This hearkens back to the fact that if a person feels that his life is meaningless, he will cling to some identity. Living without meaning is terrifying. This is why so many people are dying in Bosnia, for they identify the very purpose of their existence with their cause.
“I think that this gets me back to my suggestion for your book [on ADHD] that a Hunter without a mission will see himself as a prisoner of his condition — better this than nothing. This, in turn, argues for techniques that show Hunters how to use their innate intuitive and creative strengths to locate (for want of a better phrase) Right Livelihood.”
So the question: Will we Hunters spend the rest of our lives as victims of our genes, pointing to them as the cause of every ill thing in our past and dragging that past into our future like the chains on Marley’s ghost?
Or will we stand up, take a deep breath of the fresh air of the present, and decide to move forward, as Scrooge himself ultimately did?
The choice is ours.