Peter Parker Syndrome

“We’ve updated the manual since, but your initial diagnosis now better reflects inattentive type ADHD.”

Pretty casual statement, but my mind was reeling. At the time the larger implications were beyond my comprehension, but this off-hand admission by the psychologist was earth-shattering. All my life I’d been living with the knowledge that my difficulties in school had been a learning disability. My initial reaction was muddled; ADHD did not sound serious, but treatments I’d had in high school had done nothing, nor had the strategies they’d provided me with. And most importantly, would I even be getting the help I was here to seek?

“...There’s some therapies we can try....”

Everything blurred, as my old anxieties were washed away by a wave of relief that was almost immediately itself supplanted by new fears; my continued academic future was in her hands, or so I thought. I’d go on to be told medication and accommodations were not needed, advice which if I’d heeded in all likelihood would have drastically changed the trajectory of my life. 

When I was first diagnosed in the eighth grade, the psychologists that performed my assessment diagnosed my issues with working memory and executive functioning as a learning disability. It wouldn’t be until I was getting my accommodations updated during my third-year of university that I’d be told how the first time around hyperactivity had been a prerequisite for an ADHD diagnosis; the inattentive variety I was now being told I had simply hadn’t been added to the diagnosis manual yet. This didn’t come as a complete surprise to me, as I went through high school with the accommodations I was offered help in no meaningful way. Laptops, pencil grips, voice-to-text software - turns out I needed none of them. 

A breakup with a long time girlfriend made me severely depressed for much of last year, perhaps ironically the breaking point that would finally push me to seek the help I so desperately needed. At school when papers came up, they wouldn't register in my mind until a week before they were due. Essay due during tutorial on Thursday morning? I'd have picked my topic on Tuesday, and that night there would be a better chance you would find me sprawled on the familiar red armchair in our living room, (surprisingly comfortable, but quite possibly once a love nest for Kingston’s notoriously bold squirrels) than hunched over my laptop in the library. This may sound hardly unique to some, but what I had only then learned was ADHD’s already-debilitating effect had reached unprecedented levels of malaise. Socially, I felt more isolated than ever from friends I valued as much as family; and here I was, in my third year of living away from home, second where I had to cook for myself and yet I was still woefully unable to plan my meals, let alone make them.

The thing with ADHD is that it lacks the "serious" label associated with other neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism, intellectual disabilities and Tourette's syndrome. This is for a variety of reasons, from casual use of the term ADHD as a shorthand for focusing issues, to the ability of many who are not diagnosed until much later in life to live productive lives in spite of their condition. But it hardly is laziness quantified; living with ADHD without treatment is entirely possible, and many people can be quite successful in spite of it. It’s true, for example that despite how bad I'm going to make it sound here, I did manage to get into a good university program. But a large portion of my teachers from across my years of education would all tell you the same thing, independent of one another: “Sameer should be doing better, and I don't know why he isn't”. As you may have guessed - ADHD. And I'm among the lucky cases. An estimated one third of people living with ADHD have not finished high school, and even those that do often go on to face difficulty holding down a job, and experience significant strain on their relationships with spouses, children, employers and friends. The frustration and impulsiveness that characterizes the condition means that people who suffer from it often simultaneously suffer from eating disorders, depression, drug addiction and reckless behaviour that not infrequently lands them in jail (1 in 4 inmates exhibit symptoms of ADHD). 

And so people with ADHD are prone to develop a whole raft of other conditions, the simple reason being that having the condition leaves you utterly unprepared to deal with the traumas that unfortunately many of us inevitably encounter as we go through life. ADHD can leave you frustrated, as anything from a simple inability to sit through a song you’re playing on the stereo to not remembering where you left your passport six hours before your flight takes off can be incredibly demoralizing once it’s the fifth or sixth time this month that you’ve encountered such seemingly avoidable problems. Add these little slip ups together and it can mean potentially failing a class, missing an appointment, forgetting to order your girlfriend’s Christmas present until Christmas Eve, or even getting fired from your job. Mix into this the death of a close relative, a divorce, sexual assault, or any sort of traumatic event and oftentimes the cocktail of depressive episodes and impulsiveness that characterizes the condition can have serious or potentially even deadly consequences for the person who suffers from it.

While I experienced periodic lows which on two occasions yielded suicide attempts, in the interim periods I did actually begin to improve, the culprit being the unlikeliest of suspects; joints. It may seem absurd, but that was the happy coincidence which inadvertently performed the role which readily accessible support services are supposed to fulfill. During the depths of my despair a roommate of mine with whom I frequently smoked pot resolved that I’d learn to roll the joints we shared; his motivations were likely far from selfless (less work for him, I see you), but between the familiar company and the sense of progression I experienced as my attempts evolved from bulbous to tubular the nights we shared became a form of therapy. I loved doing it; at parties this dubious skill gave me a small modicum of confidence that I needed to begin conversations with strangers, and when people asked me to make them a cigarette or joint, it had the unintentional effect of giving me the companionship that I was not otherwise seeking out, despite so clearly needing it. In the fog of those months, I’d forgotten even what the half-baked version of productivity that landed me in university had felt like; having learned and refined a brand new skill within the span of a couple months might seem like the smallest of victories but for how proud I was I might as well have scored all A’s that semester.

It isn’t a cliche, just the boring truth that depression renders many things that were once familiar suddenly completely foreign. The rush you feel when you accomplish a goal you’d set out for yourself; the warmth you feel when in the company of dear friends - and although I wouldn’t experience it quite so soon - the quickening of your heartbeat in that moment before you first kiss that girl you finally worked up the courage to ask out. It’s almost akin to learning to walk again, from the most elementary motions to a tentative first step until finally you’re running again. Now I go about my day understanding the condition which I suffer from, finally receiving the medication and accomodations I was seeking in the first place thanks to the intervention of my doctor. I’ve stopped smoking entirely and am now preparing to write my LSAT this summer, something that seemed unimaginable just a year ago. And yet it shouldn’t have to be like that; getting to this point was only possible due to a deeply caring GP and overbearing parents with the financial resources to match. In other words, my tenuously positive outcome is not one likely to be shared by the average Canadian suffering from such a disability. 

ADHD and similar disabilities are very real, and recognized as such by our government. The CRA recognizes it for disability-related deductions and credits, as does OSAP and any other body subject to our province’s Human Rights Code. That said, Canadians living with such developmental conditions who seek treatment must choose from costly medications, prohibitively expensive (assessments alone routinely cost north of $1000) therapies, and counselling services that are either overburdened, inadequate or expensive. Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz has spoken at length about the economic costs of the barriers marginalized groups face in academia and the workplace, but while progress has been made when it comes to increasing female and minority participation in the economy, as a country we remain blind to very real hurdles Canadians with intellectual disability face. We’ve spoken at length about the need to recognize and speak candidly about afflictions of the mind, now’s let’s talk action.

In terms of services, treatment and accomodations there are significant gaps in coverage which have allowed otherwise-promising youth to fall through the cracks, their potential squandered through little fault of their own. Many are not as fortunate as I was, lacking the “overbearing” parents determined to understand why and instead who either don’t know or don’t believe that their child has such a condition so poorly understand in the public eye, or simply don’t have the resources to do anything about these gaps. I used to refer to my diagnosis as “Peter Parker Syndrome”, a wry callback to the villainous Doc Oc’s description of young Tobey MaGuire as “brilliant but lazy”. It wasn’t until one night recently when my mum sent me an article about one person’s diagnosis and subsequent process of self-discovery that I realized the degree to which even I had internalized some of the very same stereotypes I first set out to dispel in this article. Much like how popular media gave rise to some problematic misconceptions about autism, I realized how deeply ingrained attitudes and misconceptions about such conditions are; ADHD hadn’t granted me my considerable appetite for reading material (cereal boxes would do), nor my being perfectly content spending hours scrawling away in my notebook about three ideas at a time. While it was a part of me, it didn’t define me; at the risk of sounding braggadocious, it wasn’t what made me “lazy”, and it sure as hell didn’t make me “brilliant”.