This first appeared as the introductory essay to the show “The Gifts of Attention Deficit Disorder” on Going Shamanic:
Our show today focuses on what it is like to live with Attention Deficit Disorder in our society as well as on the gifts the diagnosis can bring. I became interested in ADD back in university when I was getting my teaching degree in 2000. There was a gentleman named Paul in my Teaching Training class who caught my attention. He was thoughtful, wise, and at 55, he was the eldest in our class. I noticed that he was always drinking coffee in a to go mug. He carried a thermos to every class. One day, I asked him about it and he said matter-of-factly that it was the way he self-medicates for ADD. This seemed counter-intuitive to me at the time but Paul explained, “It actually calms me down. My brain chemistry is different than yours. Caffeine also helps me to focus.” Then, he told me his story. Paul was actually born in Nigeria to parents who were Canadian missionaries. They lived alongside the Nigerian people until Paul was seven years old when they returned to Canada. Paul told me that it was then that he started having problems- when he began school. Before then, Paul spent much of his time hunting with Nigerian men and boys. They recognized his gift of being able to focus on one thing that interested him to the exclusion of all distractions early on and encouraged Paul. He became a pretty good hunter. In Canada, he was forced to sit still for most of the day- something he had never done in his training as a hunter. This was excruciating for him. I asked him why he decided to become a teacher after working in the trades for so many years. He said, “I met a lot of apprentices over the years- young folks who had the same issues I had in school. They were intelligent people who were simply misunderstood by the school system. I found ways to work with their talents and I knew I could do the same for kids. It made sense to me to start with younger kids when they most needed the confidence and skills.” I had the privilege of participating in one of Paul’s classes during our practicum. He was brilliant. The activities were mostly hands on. The kids worked together to solve problems and they were allowed to move their bodies as much as they needed to.
In 2001, I got to see the opposite of what Paul was doing in his classroom when I did my own practicum in a Grade 3 class. The teacher I apprenticed under was decidedly ‘old school’ using archaic teaching methods and running her classroom with rigid control. The children were not allowed to leave their desks without permission and there was no group work allowed. Anxiety levels were high among the kids in that class. When I came in, I decided to do more group work and project-based learning with the kids- something they loved. There was a learner in my class named Chris that year. He sat quietly at his desk with glazed eyes looking more like a zombie than an 8 year old kid. He struggled with the short blocks of time to do his work and the requirement that he compartmentalize his thinking. He was also of First Nations ancestry and his culture promoted social learning and interdisciplinary ways of studying the world. At the time I met him, he was a ward of the state being bounced around from one foster home to another. I was sitting at my desk at lunchtime one day when I went to stretch out my legs and felt a body there. Startled, I looked and saw Chris hiding. I asked him what he was doing and he told me not to tell the secretary where he was. When I asked why, he told me that she will give him the “pill” if she finds him. I later found out that Chris was on Ritalin and the school was required to make sure this was administered daily by the state (his legal guardian). I sat with him as he told me all of the ways he was stupid and couldn’t do school. After a while, I looked at him and said, “Chris, you are a long thinker. There is nothing wrong with that. You put the things you know together in ways that are different than what the school expects. That means there is a problem with what the school expects- not you.” At first, he looked at me with eyes searching me see if I was mocking him. When he saw I was sincere, he welled up with tears. Maybe I was the first person to really show him that I saw his gifts. I don’t know. But it sure made me wonder about how we pathologize people in our culture when they don’t fit cultural norms and how that affects our kids’ self-esteem and self-worth as human beings.
I know that medication works for some people; I’ve met a few that are doing well on meds. However, many folks I’ve met are not. The journey to healing and wholeness is a deeply personal one. This show is not interested in prescribing any one particular “cure” or “medicine.” Rather, it seems to me that we need to reframe the way we see Attention Deficit Disorder as a gift- a difference in cognition that can help us to see the world in a different way.