By Gail Johnson
Growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, Pete Quily always did well in school, even though he found it hard to finish some assignments. He procrastinated, was easily distracted, and had trouble managing his time. It wasn’t until he was in his early 30s and living in B.C. that he happened to notice a poster in a library that had a list of signs of attention deficit disorder on it.
“I read that checklist and just went, ”˜Oh, my God’—check, check, check,” Quily tells the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “That was me. If you have ADD and you don’t know what it is, life can be very frustrating. I wish I would have found out a lot earlier.”
Part of the reason Quily, who’s now 45, was never suspected of having the neurobehavioural condition—which is marked by sustained patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity—was that he succeeded scholastically. Although he did some of his projects at the last minute, he threw himself into others with all his energy and attention. He says that if he found something interesting, he could spend hours concentrating on it.
“It’s a myth that if you have ADD you’re on the verge of dropping out of school,” Quily explains. Although some people with ADD—which is also known as ADHD, for “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”—have learning disabilities, many others have high intelligence. For proof, Quily points to the MENSA special-interest group for people with ADD that has more than 500 members and successes like that of David Neeleman, who founded JetBlue Airways.
After he learned he had the disorder, Quily researched approaches to managing it and found many that worked for him, including exercise, personal coaching, talk therapy, support groups, and spiritual exploration. He’s come a long way since the early ’90s, when he was diagnosed.
“Back then, it was, ”˜Here’s your Ritalin; here’s your Dexedrine; you’re on your own.’ ”
Quily was lucky just to get a diagnosis. The condition is still widely misunderstood and often either misdiagnosed or missed altogether by doctors.
According to a February 2009 British Columbia Medical Association policy paper, it takes an average of 18 months for a person to be treated for ADD following his initial contact with a doctor, and as few as 11 percent of adults with the condition actually receive treatment. Part of the problem is that few family physicians are qualified to diagnose ADD.
Psychiatrist Derryck Smith explains that the disorder is genetic in about 80 percent of cases. “Twenty-five years ago, the belief was that children grow out of ADHD by age 12,” Smith says on the line from his office. “What started happening was child psychologists would make a diagnosis in a child, then give the family all this information to take home to read. Then the dad would come in and say, ”˜Hey, doc, I think I’ve got this too.’
“Now we know that symptoms persist into adulthood”¦and if you’re born with it, you’ll have it all the way through life.
“With adults, it’s mostly inattention; the hyperactivity and impulsivity tend to reduce.”
In adults, ADD can take a serious toll on multiple aspects of people’s lives. Some have trouble with substance use and abuse, while others get involved in crime. Then there’s the way many handle motor vehicles.
“These people make terrible drivers,” Smith says. “They’re more prone to accidents and are more inclined to speed.”
Furthermore, ADD is linked to an average of 35 missed workdays per year as well as poorer job performance, lower occupational status, and less job stability than those without the condition, according to the BCMA paper.
People with the condition experience other problems when it comes to treatment, which can include behaviour modification and neurofeedback. Simply writing a prescription, however, is “woefully insufficient care”, the BCMA report states. Making matters worse is that ADD often takes a back seat to other mental-health disorders, like anxiety, depression, and psychosis. Many mental-health teams don’t even consider ADD part of their mandate.
When people do take medication, the drug they’re often prescribed needs to be taken several times a day. That’s because B.C. PharmaCare doesn’t fund a long-lasting drug that only needs to be taken once a day. Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec cover or provide restricted access to this pill.
“You’re getting people who are distractible, forgetful, to take meds three times a day? Isn’t that sadistic?” Quily says. “We’re pretty backward here in B.C.
“And what about people who need more than meds, who can’t afford coaching or don’t have extended benefits for psychologists?”¦It’s a condition that the government, the health-care system, doesn’t take seriously.”
What helped Quily the most was personal coaching. He got so much out of the one-on-one sessions, in fact, that he became a coach himself. Now he specializes in helping adults with ADD who, like him, have a natural curiosity but who might be overwhelmed by paper clutter or unable to finish tasks, or find it hard to handle stress.
Quily helps others focus on the positive aspects of ADD. “People with ADD are creative; they think out of the box,” he says. “The thing that bothers me is that ADD is a mixed bag. It can really drag people down if you don’t know how to manage it, but it can propel you to great heights if you do manage it.”¦Coaching helps with the practical, day-to-day challenges: work, relationships, social things”¦time management, underemployment, job-hopping.”¦But there has to be an openness to change.”
Smith applauds the BCMA paper’s call for more services for adults with ADD. “In the medical profession, many people have the mindset of 25 years ago, that it isn’t a problem that affects adults,” he notes. “There’s a big education process we need to undertake.”