I’m a woman who is off the scale when it comes to the H — hyperactivity — component of ADHD. This, apparently, makes me something of an anomaly. According to the experts, approximately 90 percent of women with ADHD are not blessed with the H component, but rather fall into the inattentive, or some other sub-type, according to an interview I did with ADD coach Pete Quily in July 2008.
Then there’s me.
All my (adult) life, I’ve been praised for having “high energy.” In childhood, I was constantly being asked, “Can’t you sit still for one minute?” No, I couldn’t. Unfortunately, my perpetual motion was interpreted as wouldn’t — rather than couldn’t — behave. Translation: I was a brat. Little did my mom or anyone else know that, rather than willful misbehavior on my part, my constant need to move was due to neurobiology. Hyperactivity was just not seen in girls, and in any event, I don’t think my parents or many of their generation knew much about ADHD. (I grew up in a small Canadian town in the sixties.)
As a young adult in my 20s, I craved a steady level of excitement to keep me from the deadly boredom of a 9-to-5 job. African hand-drumming, writing and performing poetry, running for a provincial election, and improvisational theater all fed my hearty appetite for stimulation. These relatively safe and healthy outlets helped me to deal with my hyperactivity and stay focused on something, anything, for at least a couple of hours. Swimming, free weights, dancing, a hard-driving game of tennis, any intense form of physical activity also helped to burn off some excess energy.
It was obvious to me that my life was fast-paced and high-intensity compared to others. It’s not that I was that self-aware (poor self-awareness being another hallmark of ADHD); it was that I heard, “Wow! You have so much energy!” on a regular basis.
But I also knew that my hyperactivity was taking its toll. Sometimes, I’d burn out. I knew I’d hit the wall when I’d break into uncontrollable sobbing for no apparent reason.
To me, being hyperactive feels like having every cell in my body jump up and down on a trampoline 24/7, yelling, “Woo-hoo!”
Not just all day, but nights too, especially when I was a kid. When I lay down to sleep, I was often filled with so much excessive energy that I used to roll my legs back and forth, or pound my feet fast on the bed, just to shake some of it off.
When I took my first dose of stimulant medication, at age 47, I was shocked. It was like all those cells in my body just laid down and took a rest, already. I did not feel stoned. I did not feel tired. I still had mental clarity, but for the first time in my life I just felt, well, calm. I could finally relax for the first time in 47 years.
The other way I describe my feeling of hyperactivity is, it’s like having your hand stuck in a wall socket and the current is flowing, bzzzzzzz … all day long. No wonder I became exhausted. Again, I only realized how wired I’d been after my meds unplugged me.
My diagnosis explained why I had one friend with whom conversations were like no other. We interrupted each other, changed topics twenty times a minute, and spoke rapid-fire, excitedly, all the while being able to follow each other no matter where our conversation led us. There was no one else I could do this with. Chris, who’d been diagnosed with ADD in childhood, was the one who suggested that I get tested, too. (This is the online quiz I took at home. My general practitioner — a.k.a. GP or family doctor — uses the same test to help diagnose his patients with ADHD.)
Along with relief came the realization of how uncomfortable my untreated hyperactivity had made me feel. How could anyone live like that? Why should they, when help was available? And why didn’t anyone help me? I recognized the things that I’d lost, in part, due to my hyperactive behaviour, and was full of grief.
I’d lost the opportunity to have a relationship with my mom. As a kid, I felt I was driving her crazy (she said as much), but I couldn’t stop myself. Try as I might, I couldn’t settle down. I only found out about ADHD decades after her death.
I had also lost opportunities as an adult. For example, once (in truth, I’m sure this happened much more than once) during a job interview, my nervousness translated into rapid-fire speech and near manic enthusiasm. I realized, even during the interview, that I was totally wired, but I couldn’t control it, no matter how hard I tried (shades of childhood). I realised afterward that the guy interviewing me probably thought I was manic. (I wasn’t, there’s a distinct difference between being manic and being hyperactive.)
I’ve learned to control, or at least to manage, my wild side. I recognise the positives: my high level of energy can take me through grueling writing deadlines, produce artistic projects, and keep me feeling young. I still have total strangers say to me, “Where can I get some of that?” When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.