Are High-Achievers Hiding ADHD, Using Adrenalin as a Drug, and Wreaking Havoc on Their Health?
A Look into ADHD and its Unexpected Forms
A few years ago, I read a Facebook post about a woman who was diagnosed with ADHD at 52 after a lifetime of exceptionally high achievement. She found out about the diagnosis of her ADHD through her son’s diagnosis. It struck me like lightning since I had associated ADHD with the inability to complete tasks and being distracted in ways inhibited achievement. The article opened my eyes to a type of ADHD I’d never considered. I’ve come full circle to see that I, too, may have been using adrenalin as my drug, stress as my coping mechanism, and a host of adaptations to overcome undiagnosed ADHD. I was smart, compliant, and forced myself to work harder than everyone else all the time. And the stress it put on my body took its toll. I can see how this might be a medical epidemic for many of my high-achieving friends (and their kids!)
First, the excerpt from the prescient Facebook post
I want to share my story, if you are wondering whether or not you should help your kiddo [with ADHD] because I have heard from a few parents, “Oh, they seem to be doing fine” and that has begun to worry me. You see, I totally did “fine”. In fact, I was crazy successful as a child on literally all fronts:
ACADEMICALLY: Graduated second in my class at the most prestigious prep school in Minnesota, graduated with honors from an Ivy League and got a 4.0 in graduate school.
ATHLETICS: I was captain of my volleyball team and lettered all 3 years of high school. LEADERSHIP: President of every club I ever joined.
Yep, I was “ok”, maybe even super successful. But I want to share with you what I have since learned was the toll that success took on me as I unknowingly navigated life with a neural atypical brain.
In order to focus, I NEEDED ADRENALIN [capitalization added]. Some people with ADHD focus better under stress - and I did - so I FABRICATED STRESS IN ORDER TO GET THINGS DONE: [Caps added]
- Adding more work to my schedule than I needed to (I did the extra credit even though I already had 100% in the class)
- Working harder on a paper than I needed to (In graduate school, my thesis advisor told me, “You are done with the paper. Give it to me. I am going to give you an A.” And I revised it two more times.
- Taking on leadership roles, volunteer jobs, everything “extra” I could…
I have often joked about being a “recovering stress-aholic” with adrenalin being my drug of choice. Only now to realize just how serious it really was.
That constant stress wreaked havoc on my body. When you are under stress, certain “secondary systems” (body systems that aren’t crucial when in the flight or flight response) don’t get energy. The systems are digestion, immunity, and reproduction.
By the time I was 21, I had worn out my immune system. I was diagnosed with neutropenia, a seriously low white blood cell count. I also have a very messed up digestive system.
When I first read this article, I was in the middle of my own journey of discovery about my children and my family. It started when I met a brilliant programmer at work who told me that he realized he had ADHD when his son was diagnosed. His whole life, people had told him “he wasn’t living up to his potential,” and only now was he learning that despite his incredible intelligence, desire, and effort, it was because of an actual neurological challenge. He felt hurt and angry that he had wasted so much time without having compassion from others or from himself for his constant distraction. At home, things were tricky too; when he tried to make lunches for his kids, he would get distracted creating the most magical art on their lunch bags and had dificulty getting them them to school on time. I had deep empathy because I realized I had been unfairly irritated and harsh on my creative, spontaneous, distracted husband, who I thought also had undiagnosed ADHD. I classified ADHD as something that caused underachievement through noticeable distraction and inability to finish tasks - something that certainly didn’t apply to me…
Then during COVID, homeschooling my daughter, it took her 2-3 hours to do 30 minutes of work. My husband and I became locked in a battle. He thought she was being obstinate, and I thought she was trying, wanted to make us happy, but was having a problem. “Just pretend she has autism,” I’d say. “If you can help her through the first 25%, she does amazing work on the rest.”
My husband mentioned offhandedly that he had a lot of trouble paying attention to reading when he was a kid and that maybe he had undiagnosed ADHD. He said he would read things over and over and could never remember what he read. My sweet 9-year-old pondered at bedtime, “I think Dad may have given that thing to me. Can I get tested?” Her teachers did not think she had ADHD because she got all As, was not hyper in the least, and was always compliant. She got tested, had Attention Deficit Disorder - Inattentive (without the Hyper). She went on Adderol, and THRIVED in school, friendships, and life. She takes her meds every day, cleans her room, uses planning schedules, and does homework early.
While I was filling out all the paperwork to help my first daughter, I thought the the second daughter had even more expression. Eventually, she was diagnosed as well, but with a different type of ADHD - Hyperactive. This includes more impulsivity, impatience, sensory problems, and infinite energy.
The more I learn about ADHD, the more I think I may have it too. It’s not just my husband and my kids… In true parenting fashion, I spent all of my time and money trying to help my kids first. But the whole time I needed to help myself to really help them. My whole life, I’ve been intense (now I see) using adrenalin, excessive planning, and excessive double checking to try not to make mistakes (I have dozens of processes to avoid being late and forgetting things. I work 3x as hard on detailed projects, have lists on lists, and alarms for everything). I never thought I could have an attention problem because I can focus better than anyone I know - I can get so deep and go so long that I lose track of time and space, and I don’t eat or drink… Which I now know could be a form of ADHD hyperfocus. I get so much done! People think I’m exceptional at budgets, spreadsheets, operations, and detail - it may be because I’m over-compensating.
One of my daughters experiences anxiety - and it’s possible that the ADHD and the stress of forgetting, messing up, or being afraid you’ll mess up (and as a child get in trouble) is the cause of the anxiety.
I have started to have multi-generational compassion — my mom struggled with always being late, losing things, being exceptionally disorganized, having anxiety, and was also a high-achieving woman lawyer in a time when there were few. She died young after battles with breast cancer, heart disease, anxiety, and other problems. I thought her health challenges might have been caused in part by being so stressed her whole life. Could she have had ADHD?
Coming full circle to my brilliant developer friend, for the first time in my life, I have compassion for myself and how hard I’ve been trying all this time. And I have compassion for my husband and kids instead of being constantly annoyed.
My Friends’ Kids
As I’ve started sharing my journey with my colleagues and friends, I’ve been FLOORED by how many of them have children with ADHD as well, and how many discuss their insights into their own experience. According to the CDC, only 6% of kids under 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. The % of my high-achieving friends whose kids have it seems much higher to me. Could it be that there’s a high prevalence in high-achievers? Could there be a whole segment that is self-medicating with stress and adrenalin? Last year, I was floored by the engagement on a LinkedIn Post sharing data on how Entrepreneurs have a 29% prevalence of ADHD vs. 5% in the general population:
My Friends’ Health Problems
While I celebrate the amazing accomplishments of all of my high-achieving friends, I also can’t deny that many struggle with a lot of health problems related to their stress: poor sleep, poor digestion, immunological challenges, difficulty conceiving children, cancers and more. My high-achieving set and I think of the constant use of adrenaline as the norm: it gets you up to take that 6am flight, it helps you power through finishing that board deck, it pumps you up for those difficult conversations. We have always used it. Part of my transition from full-time CMO to advisor was the desire to 1) figure out the challenges with my children and 2) improve my health to avoid an early death like my mother’s.
Ironically, 8 years into this journey, I feel like we’re only just beginning. I could compensate for my own ADHD well without ever having noticed it. But trying to manage the ADHD of all four people in my family almost broke me. I couldn’t get team Dietrich anywhere on time without someone forgetting something (remember that time my husband forgot his PANTS at the wedding… twice? Or my daughter forgot the only equipment she needed for her gymnastics competition?)
But now we know more, we can do more. We’ll experiment with nutrition (will lower sugar, artificial colors, gluten make a difference?) We’ll experiment with medications (Adderall worked great for my first daughter. It sent my second daughter to the emergency room.) We’ll experiment with Neurotherapy… does this work? We’ll have lots of executive-function supports (I have comedic numbers of lists, calendars, and reminders all over the house)
As I’ve been on the journey, I kept saying, “I’m going to take care of the kids first, and then I’ll wrap back for me.” And now it’s time. Any advice for me?
Outtakes / Self Insights
Are you allowed to do funny outtakes in a blog like in a movie? Some funny things I’ve realized aren’t normal:
One of my favorite activities is walking around the house and letting myself get distracted by chores while doing chores - carrying something upstairs to my office, but stopping to do laundry, deciding to sew something, but then deciding to fix the sewing machine, then seeing that a lightbulb needs to be changed, but then finding the watering can and starting to watering the plants… being able to let myself be distracted on weekends feels like a relief after making myself focus all the time.
I sometimes put a post-it note on my desk to remind myself what I’m working on right now - because in the middle of working on it, I think of so many other things I need to do I have to remind myself what I’m doing now.
LinkedIn is my biggest distraction - I go to look someone up, but then accidentally read an article, think of a thing, contact a person, write a post, close the tab, go back to the email, and realize I need to look someone up and start all over again.
I literally hyperfocused on writing this article. I forgot about time, forgot to take a shower or eat breakfast, and was almost late picking up my daughter : )
Do you have any other funny coping mechanisms or tiks?
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