Adult ADHD: One man’s isolating journey to get help

Click to play video: 'Can adults have ADHD? A psychiatrist weighs in.'
Can adults have ADHD? A psychiatrist weighs in.
Can adults have ADHD? WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE as a psychiatrist weighs in on the symptoms – Feb 17, 2018

Jordan Vanderkuyl felt alone and isolated. He was teaching English in Seoul, South Korea, when he felt his attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was causing him to lose control. His family was begging him to come home.

To deal with the anxiety, Vanderkyul, 35, resorted to alcohol.

“I ended up self-medicating … and alcohol was my drug of choice. There was an immediate switch that went off. If I drank, the anxiety went away.”

The London, Ont., native says he was either hyper-focused to the point where he was ignoring all of his other obligations or he was disinterested and completely non-functional. There was no happy medium.

“I was failing in my relationship, I was failing at my work … everything was spiralling out of control.”

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Vanderkuyl was diagnosed with ADHD as a child but it was mostly ignored. It was regular kid stuff, he explained.

For the longest time, it was believed that children grew out of their ADHD when they reached adolescence, says Dr. Tim Bilkey, a psychiatrist in Ontario who specializes in adult ADHD.

“Adult ADHD is a valid clinical diagnosis,” he added. It was clinically recognized in 2013, after it was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

“With children it’s been known for a long time. Treatment was in 1937 but it’s only within the last several years that we have clear documentation that adults have it,” Bilkey says.

Since then, the diagnosis of ADHD in adults has been on the rise in Canada as it receives wider recognition, Bilkey added.

It is estimated that 1.1 million Canadian adults have ADHD, according to the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada. And worldwide, an estimated four per cent of adults have the disorder.

Studies have also shown that about 80 per cent of children with ADHD maintain their diagnosis into adolescence and at least 60 per cent continue to have symptoms of the disorder when they become an adult.

Vanderkuyl recognized that he was hyperactive and unfocused as a kid but it never really impacted his life until he went to study at Western University where he was on his own for the first time.

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A new routine, new responsibilities, bills and deadlines — he says the ADHD wouldn’t let him cope.

WATCH: Vanderkuyl shares what’s it like to live with ADHD as an adult 

Click to play video: 'Living with ADHD as an adult'
Living with ADHD as an adult

So how do you know you have ADHD as an adult? Bilkey says there’s no way of knowing unless you get a proper medical diagnosis but the symptoms really boil down to lifelong inattentiveness.

“These are the covert, hidden, invisible symptoms: procrastination, distractibility and forgetfulness.”

However, when you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking, “I have those symptoms too.” In today’s fast-paced environment, we’re often faced with a multitude of tasks and the constant emails, notifications and a million tabs that are open often make us feel distracted.

But there’s a real difference between “feeling like you’re ADD” and actually having ADHD, Bilkey explained.

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“You can’t just have a bad day and have ADD. This is something that has impacted a person for their entire life.”

Bilkey says typically in high school, you do everything last minute and teachers will say, “I know you can do a lot better, you’re just not applying yourself.”

“If you’ve had a lifelong experience of being told that we know you are really smart, you just need to pull up your socks, which is great advice for a person who has socks.”

Metaphorically speaking, these socks are the signals that should be going through your brain.

Essentially, when someone has ADHD the brain functions differently, Bilkey explained. ADHD affects the flow of transmissions through the neurons in the brain.

“The brain cells aren’t connecting in a coherent way. So the attentional network overall is not functioning optimally.”

But it’s not all bad news. Bilkey says once you get a proper diagnosis, which involves tests like questioning the loved ones in your life and looking at all aspects of your life, ADHD in adults can be regulated.

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“The wonderful thing about this condition, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve had it, you could have it for 45 years, once you get diagnosed and treated, you will return to an optimal function.”

There are four Health Canada regulated medications that are available for adult ADHD but Bilkey says it’s important to look at coping mechanisms first before resorting to any medication.

This could mean figuring out what triggers your lack of focus and figuring out a routine that works for you. Differing coping mechanisms work for different people, but health-care professionals can often help you figure it out.

As for Vanderkuyl, he says the best thing that ever happened to him was to recognize he needed help, even when he didn’t understand what was causing him so much anxiety in life. By understanding that ADHD was the underlying reason for his panic attacks and drinking problem, he was able to deal with the situation head-on.

His advice to others who might think they have ADHD: don’t face it alone.

“Don’t try and tackle it alone. How far have you gotten by yourself in your own mind? It’s so important that we remove the stigma and the worries that we have about addressing these things and bring it to the forefront of our conversations.”

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By seeking medical help, getting support from the loved ones in his life, he was able to understand that an idle mind was a huge trigger for him. If he had too much time to spare, his mind would go racing and it would completely throw him off, stopping him from completing anything he started.

Instead, he now knows that he has to have a rigid routine and he needs to have a set-in-stone agenda. Vanderkuyl is now an English teacher for international students at Brescia College at Western University. He’s happily married and is learning to appreciate the small things in life.

“Life couldn’t be better. It’s really amazing how your life can change when you address the problems head-on instead of trying to work it through your own head and never coming to any solutions.”

Vanderkuyl says he is slowly weaning himself off medication and relying more on his coping mechanisms to get him through the day. His next step is to try to figure out a way to relax, even if he doesn’t have a set agenda.

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