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The Who, What, Where, Why and Huh? of ADHD, Part II: What The #$#%! Is ADHD?

In Monday’s blog post, we weighed the merits of name-no-name: are we cool with being labeled with ADHD? I came down on the side of, yes, I am. My goal is to learn everything I can about what that means for me, and to eventually transcend identifying with the label ADHD.

Zoë and Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and John J. Ratey, M.D.
Zoë and Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and John J. Ratey, M.D.

So, the day after my diagnosis, it was off to the library to load up on books. For the next two years, I read everything I could get my hands on: books, websites, articles, blogs. Part of this was to try to figure out how I could get myself out of my ADHD mess; the other reason was to prep for writing my own book about women and ADHD.

Finally, I sat down to write. Five hours later, I was weeping. This was followed by full-blown rant mode, swearing and stomping around my office, wildly gesticulating to no one but the plants on my desk. (My cat and dog had high-tailed it outta there to cower variously behind the couch and under the bed. Smart.)

My first chapter was going to be easy (I naively thought). I’d simply tell everyone what ADHD was. Piece ‘o cake. Turned out to be more like a burnt upside-down cake with random ingredients, including large helpings of contradiction and confusion.

Hey, Zoë (you knowledgeably point out) — it’s defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM IV).

Ah, but is it?

The answer is, yes — and no. Yes, for children. No, for adults. And even then, it’s mainly the cluster of symptoms that is agreed-upon, not what ADHD is. Like Maria in The Sound of Music, it seems that ADHD, especially for adults, is more difficult to pin down than a cloud.

In the spirit of camaraderie, I’ve decided to share my pain with you, dear blog reader.

Directions: 1) pick your favourite definition, 2) combine them, or 3) make up your own. I’m starting with 3) making up my own, ’cause that’s the most fun.

Ready? Here we go. Here’s my definition of ADHD:

1)  ADHD is an evil spell that is cast upon a child around the age of six (or sooner). A malevolent faery flits into the room of the helpless, sleeping child and sprinkles toxic faery dust over the innocent child’s face. That child, especially if it’s a boy, will immediately wake up and begin bouncing on the bed, or off the walls. Alternatively, if it’s a girl child, upon awakening (late) she’ll notice the cool patterns on her bedroom wallpaper, and begin to create an imaginary world in her head based on the design on her walls. Mom will come looking for her because they’re late for the babysitter (again), only to find her in this silent reverie. For many, the spell will last a lifetime, and by their 30s, that child is blurting in the boardroom; in their 40s, they’re forgetting their spouse’s birthday; in their 50s, they’re racing along the highway at 8 a.m., screaming Janis Joplin lyrics at the top of their lungs and fantasizing about being the drummer in the band.

There. They should put that in the DSM V. Ok, ok, before you dismiss this definition, see if you can find a better one in the choices below:

2) I’ve spent a great deal of my professional life studying ADHD and its treatments, and I can definitively tell you that it’s a verifiable illness with a host of unpleasant and life-altering symptoms. (from Scattered Minds by Lenard Adler, M.D., p. 12)

3) ADD is not an illness, although some influential authorities have called it that. It is an impairment, like, for example, a visual impairment in the absence of any disease. (from Scattered by Gabor Maté  MD, p.25).

4) ADD is a neurological syndrome whose classic defining triad of symptoms include impulsivity, distractibility, and hyperactivity or excess energy. (from Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and John J. Ratey, M.D., p. 6).

I’ve also heard it referred to as a disorder, a mental illness, and a childhood disease from which we’ll outgrow.

So, um, now that we know what ADHD is, stay tuned for Monday’s post, where I talk about the origins of ADHD. That is, did it come from a malevolent faery (see definition 1 above). Our genes? Our lousy home life? A head injury (through car accident, or maybe by running around too fast and falling … in which case, now that I think about it, we probably already had it anyway).

Ain’t learnin’ grand?

Tune in next Monday when we explore the origins of ADHD.

(btw — if you have the definitive answer, please, by all means, send it in!)

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The Who, What, Where, Why and Huh? of ADHD, Part II: What The #$#%! Is ADHD?

Zoë Kessler, BA, B.Ed.

Zoë Kessler is an award-winning author, journalist, and speaker specializing in women and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD / ADD).

A frequent contributor to ADDitude Magazine, Kessler has also created video, standup comedy, and guest blogs on ADHD and Marriage covering ADHD-related topics.

Zoë, an internationally recognized ADHD expert, has been interviewed on radio and featured in magazine articles, documentaries, and books on the topic of women and ADHD across North America.

Her newly-released memoir ADHD According to Zoë - The Real Deal on relationships, Finding Your Focus & Finding Your Keys (New Harbinger Publications, 2013) about life with ADHD is now available.

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APA Reference
Kessler, Z. (2015). The Who, What, Where, Why and Huh? of ADHD, Part II: What The #$#%! Is ADHD?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Jul 2015
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