The Gift/Curse Debate: A Nuanced Perspective (Part 2)

NOTE TO THE READER: Andrew, a recent visitor to this blog, has written a number of well thought out (and lengthy) comments that, I felt, deserve to stand alone as their own post. In discussion with Andrew, who has agreed to allow me to do this, the hope is to spur additional debate on these topics.

This post is actually one of Andrew’s comments to Part 1 of this post.

NOTE TO NEW VISITORS: If you are a new visitor to this blog, you may want to read these posts that ask if A.D.D. is a gift or a curse.

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I thought I would [...] try to more clearly define the two sides to this debate of whether ADD is a gift or curse. The issue is an emotional one and effects people quite deeply, myself included. I do see the debate more as a philosophical argument, rather than a scientific one, right now. Do we consider only the problematic parts of our character are from our ADD. Do we assume all our positive traits to be just our natural character? If we have unique talents or skills should we consider these part of our normal (non-ADD) character and intelligence or are they unique ADD characteristics? The two philosophical camps seem to be:

1. The “disorder” view – held by most in the medical establishment and many ADDers is that people with ADD have a disorder that causes many problems from under-performance in education and work, broken relationships to co-morbidities such as addiction, depression and anxiety. Doctors and ADDers here wish to externalise their ADD as a “disease” that they suffer from, an illness to be cured.  ADD medications offer a partial, if temporary cure. The view is perhaps the simpler and less controversial view, it makes it easier to argue for help, aid and medical support for people with ADD.

2. The “disorder/gift” view – held by a number of authors, many ADD coaches and ADDers is that ADD is a neurological difference, not a disorder. The difference does bring with it the problems defined by the “disorder view” that may need medication and/or support but the ADD difference can also bring “special” traits, perhaps even advantages over neuro-typical minds. These traits include ability to hyper-focus, intuition, creative thinking (out-of-the-box, big picture, inventive), energy, humour, greater empathy and high-intelligence.

I have moved between the two philosophical camps since my diagnosis 18 months ago. But I do not see how anyone can be certain that either view is “correct”. There has been virtually no research as to whether there are advantages to ADD, the medical establishment is just not that interested in this area. For many doctors arguing the “disorder” model is understandably a much easier way to gain funding and support for patients than a more complicated “neurological difference than can cause problems” model would be! There is not much more that anecdotal evidence to support the “gift” view either. But even the statistics and evidence of the disorder of ADD are problematic. Without a specific genetic test, brain scan or blood test for ADD, no one has really pinned down what ADD is yet and who really has it, whether ADD is one disorder/difference or many. I am not debating the existence of a set of characteristics found in a proportion of the population that we call ADHD (incidentally I hate the H in ADHD as I how can I have a hyper-activity disorder when I am quite usually lethargic and not remotely Inattentive!) but we do use a fairly simplistic subjective list of symptoms and characteristics that, for medical convenience, excludes people who have ADD characteristics but don’t have serious problems? Research indicates that 40% of people with ADD have had problems with depression, is that because the DSM criteria specifically rules out well functioning people with ADD? ADD shows some widely differing traits under/hyper-focused, hyper-active/slothful and some ADDers respond to dopamine, some nor-epinephrine and some to neither – I think diagnosis still remains more an art than a science.

I favour the “gift view”, as I mentioned previously, in my lifetime I have experienced my differences from other people, with not only negative but positive traits. My girlfriend, also ADD, has a very different ADD from mine. Some of her challenges are different but some are the same. Some of her “gifts” are different but some are the same. I don’t tend to see our challenges or gifts to be as pronounced in non-ADD people. Some of our strengths seem to logically follow from having less executive control and perhaps more dominant right brains, though perhaps they are just our normal underlying characters? But if our neurology if different, would it not make sense that it would bring both bad and good attributes? It is not that our brains are smaller or don’t function, it is just that they are connected and wired slightly differently.

I am about to start coaching ADD adults. I want to help them Understand what ADD is, to Accept the challenges it brings but also to Embrace their positive traits too. I do not want to deny or avoid the negative traits but to use experience, support, work-arounds, medication, supplements, sleep etc to help with them, but I also want to help clients (and me) to focus on what we do well, our strengths whether we call them “ADD gifts” or just part our innate character, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I do want to encourage them to take the positive view: that ADD is a difference and not a disorder.

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  • Pam

    I can easily envision a melding of these two viewpoints. My son (young adult) was finally diagnosed in December and I know that both he and the rest of the family has recognized the “disability” of ADHD. I also recognize the great gift of hyperfocus that he has. This has enabled him to rise to amazing levels in scientific research. Although he hyperfocused on the his research projects, he could not function at college. I am hopeful that the new diagnosis and addition of medication will smooth out the rough places.

  • Papa John

    Dear Jeff & ADDers:
    I am the father-in-law of a 39 year old daughter-in-law who exhibits many of the A.D.D. characteristics discussed on the blog. She is bright, beautiful and exciting. She is also impulsive, unaware of tomorrow, and easily distracted. She is the mother of 5 children ranging from 21 months to 12 years. She is a devoted, loving, and exceptionally caring mother but given to periods of depression, extreme anxiety and frustration of the kind described by others on the blog.

    The non-stop demands of 5 young children require the ability to multi-task. In this respect she is remarkable and seems aided by her A.D.D. On the flip side, despite wonderful intentions, conditions continually cascade into chaos with resultant frustration for everyone.

    In the past year, following shoulder surgery, she appears to have become addicted to pain medication. While the shoulder pain should be gone, she maintains a need to stay on the medication. It is obvious that the medication is providing significant A.D.D. relief. But, there are clearly significant downsides to the drug addiction especially related to the child care requirement.

    It was the recent awareness of the drug dependency that brought me the recognition of Adult A.D.D. but she has not been professionally diagnosed. Her first husband felt that she was bipolar but the lifelong characteristics seem better defined by A.D.D. characteristics and the experience related on this blog. Life teaches to listen most to those who have actually been in the arena over “expert” spectators’ advice or counsel from many with a profit motive. This is not to discount the value of legitimate research but it tends to apply better to group generalities than individual specifics.

    My request for help and advice is the following:
    1. How best to tell her about my suspicion of A.D.D.
    2. How best to find competent professional diagnosis and help
    3. How important is on-going coaching
    4. How helpful/necessary are medications (best?)
    5. How helpful/available are A.D.D. support groups
    6. Getting started advice.

    Any advice will be very much appreciated. The professional literature is confusing.

  • Jeff


    Go to this section of my blog:
    The first two books will be very helpful. Gina Pera’s book provides a great overview of every aspect of handling adult ADD and also what problems you’ll run into. The second book is the “classic” text on ADD. If you (or your daughter-in-law) read the book and it sounds like her biography…then she’s got A.D.D.

    Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any other questions.


  • betsy davenport, phd

    Papa John -
    I also suggest – depending, of course, on her general temperament and capacity for hearing – that you err on the side of caution in telling her what you think, too soon. Few among us – and fewer among those with AD/HD – care to be pegged by someone else, especially if we suspect Something Is Not Right but haven’t figured it out and are defensive about our deficits.

    As a bright person, surely she has experienced many frustrations at not being able to do what she sets out to do based upon an inner sense of what she’s capable of (if only the external conditions would line up properly – since most of us are about a quart low on cognitive flexibility). Many of us have suffered awfully at the hand and tongue of others who criticize our tendency to the wayward.

    Many parents recognize themselves in the evaluations and words of professionals when diagnosing and treating their children. With all those children, does none of them have AD/HD?

    Best of luck to you and her and everybody.

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