Having ADHD vs. Living with ADHD

CADDAC National Director

Thought Piece by Heidi Bernhardt, Founder of CADDAC

I just came across a brief blog, Having ADHD vs. Living With It by Neil Paterson. I suggest everyone who strives to understand ADHD take a couple of minutes to read it.

The message is simple yet one that I found powerful.

I have always known that language matters when speaking about ADHD and often find myself correcting others when they speak about ADHD, but Neil taught me something new.

During my presentations to parents and educators I explain that they understand ADHD from what they see occurring on the outside. They cannot see what is happening in that child’s brain and how they are struggling to meet the adult’s expectations. This leads to misinterpretation of the child’s actions. Perhaps more importantly, the child tries to understand what is happening but can only interpret things through their own lens of experience. They have not experienced having a non-ADHD brain so cannot understand that ADHD is the culprit. So, they often accept and internalize the unfair judgement of others.  

Neil explains it like this, “When you experience ADHD from the inside, as something you live with, you don’t really know what’s normal and what’s not because you don’t know what it would be like to live with life without ADHD.”   

He defines the epiphany that adults talk about experiencing after they are diagnosed as being able to close the gap between the description of ADHD symptoms and what it feels like for them to live with ADHD. He shares how difficult it is to know when something is a symptom or, perhaps better put, an impairment caused by ADHD; a personality trait; a symptom of a coexisting condition; or a combination of the above.  

However, Neil’s important message to me personally is the difference between speaking about someone with ADHD as opposed to someone who lives with ADHD. You have possessions or experiences, but you live with ADHD. It is so much a part of you it cannot be separated.    

I live in a family that has many members who live with ADHD and I work in the field of ADHD awareness and advocacy. Possibly because of my background in psychiatric nursing and having worked with medical experts in ADHD for decades I have always referred to children and adults living with ADHD, as children and adults “with ADHD”. Neil explains that when we assess for ADHD we try to tie what we are seeing with the symptoms of ADHD. So, people become those with ADHD. 

I now stand corrected and will now use the term “living with ADHD” in the future. Thank you Neil for taking the time to share your experiences so that others may learn and evolve our thinking.

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