As we close out the month of May, I am honored to share Eddie’s story with you. His experience highlights how challenging it can be to live with attention-deficit disorder, especially when it goes undiagnosed for a long time. His story also challenges us to think beyond labels like “lazy” or “chaotic” as we seek to understand instead of stigmatize. You can find Eddie’s story and many more in my book, On Edge: Mental Illness in the Christian Context. If you want to do more, run an 8-week class in your church on mental illness. My On Edge Leader’s Guide will tell you everything you need to do. Every single church needs to be talking about mental illness on a regular basis because there are so many in our churches and in our communities that are struggling.
Here’s Eddie’s story and my response:
Chaotic. Random. Out-to-lunch. These were all words friends had used to describe Eddie. From childhood, Eddie seemed like he was always in motion—high energy and rambunctious. Back then, his teachers hadn’t really heard of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and they just looked at Eddie as a disruptive troublemaker. He could be so sweet—“Why wouldn’t he just follow directions when he was told?” they wondered.
Eddie always knew he could do better in school but no matter how hard he tried he just couldn’t seem to get his act together. He also felt so ashamed when he promised to meet his friends and then completely forgot to go. They’d have forgiven him once, but eventually they just stopped asking because they couldn’t rely on him. Eddie was a passionate person and cared deeply for others, but more than one romantic relationship had ended because of his chaotic ways.
A musician and artist, Eddie was incredibly creative and could spend hours writing and recording music. Though he had trouble focusing in certain settings, when he was making his music or painting he could go for hours on end. He felt as if he could simply get lost in his art and the world just faded into the background. Unfortunately, this meant that he could forget to go to bed until 5 or 6am, even when he had to get to work at 8. That alarm clock could just never seem to cooperate (if it actually was set in the first place)—many a boss had tried to work with Eddie before sadly having to let him go.
God had always been a big part of Eddie’s life. As a child, Eddie would often stare out the window, look up at the sky, and imagine seeing God right there on a cloud. Prayer was always a powerful encounter and from a young age Eddie watched God’s responses to his prayers. He believed that God was actively at work in the world and in his life. He loved the Bible, and from a young age he loved his church because he got to sing and jump around in their kids’ program. “Why can’t we jump more at school?” he wondered. “If I could learn math while jumping I think I could do it…”
Now as an adult, Eddie remained close to God. Despite all of the disappointments and problems in his life, he always knew God was leading him. The world just seemed to have different priorities, and sometimes he thought even other Christians had it backwards. “God is a God of order….” they’d say when Eddie was caught in chaos. Timeliness seemed next to cleanliness which was still right up there by godliness. He found these priorities strange. Yes, chaos was disruptive to his life. He didn’t want it to be that way, but he couldn’t seem to avoid it no matter what he tried. And certainly cleaning and organization were not his thing, but he’d rather invite people over to a messy house than not be hospitable.
As a worship leader in the church, Eddie was dynamic and Spirit-filled. Eddie’s face almost seemed to glow when he was up on that stage pouring out worship to God. Sure, he was late to practice half the time, but he always knew his part and showed up ready to encounter God. He always tried not to judge, but sometimes he couldn’t help but notice that one or two who were always right on time looked so flat up on stage. How could they sing about God with almost no expression on their faces?
After he was fired from his fifth job, Eddie started seeing a Christian counselor recommended by his pastor. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t seem to get to work consistently even when he really wanted to be there. When he worked as a salesman, he closed more deals than any of his co-workers, but he missed out on a lot of commision when he turned in his paperwork incorrectly (when he didn’t lose it first!). Maybe he just didn’t understand what career he should be looking for. He thought about going to back to school to broaden his options, but the semester that he tried was like a repeat of his entire childhood. He didn’t think he could face the classroom again.
After a few sessions, the counselor asked Eddie if he had ever been diagnosed with ADD. Since he had never been to a counselor or evaluated in any way, he had never even thought about having a diagnosis. He thought his problems were his own laziness or chaotic personality. When the counselor read Eddie the symptoms, his jaw dropped. If someone had written a description of his problems, it would have been identical to that list.
Eddie’s counselor talked with him about treatment options. She gave him a referral for a psychiatrist who specialized in testing for and treating ADD, and she continued to work with Eddie on specific time and task management strategies to help manage his symptoms. His diagnosis was confirmed through testing at the psychiatrist’s office, and he was starting to see a big improvement with the combination of medication and skill development.
One of the biggest things Eddie still had to work out with his counselor was his view of himself. He had always believed he was lazy, not working up to his potential, lacking in self-control, and a chaotic mess. Years of teachers, friends, and bosses seemed to confirm these ideas. As a Christian, Eddie had always wondered how he could be so filled with the Spirit and yet seem to have little self-control. Isn’t self-control a fruit of the Spirit?
Attention Deficit Disorder is both highly misunderstood and highly over-diagnosed. Because some of the symptoms can be seen in just about all of us at times, some doctors and psychiatrists have been quick to diagnose and prescribe. This practice makes life a lot harder for those who truly do have brain dysfunction in this way. However, psychological testing can help rule out those who do not have all of the symptoms of ADD and help accurately diagnose those who do.
In our case example, Eddie had to wrestle with his understanding of himself. Without proper evaluation and treatment, Eddie had lived many years being labeled (by himself and others) as lazy, chaotic, and lacking in self-control. He had adopted these words as a definition of himself, and they seemed confirmed just about every day as the symptoms of ADD played out over and over.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (2013, commonly known as the DSM-5) provides specific lists of symptoms for mental health disorders. Doctors and counselors use the DSM-5 to diagnose mental illness. According to the DSM-5, there are three types of ADD: the inattentive type, the hyperactive type, and the combined type that includes both inattention and hyperactivity. Symptoms include problems with organizing tasks, easily losing things, distractibility, inability to remain seated/constant motion, and frequent interrupting.
In order for an adult to be diagnosed with ADD, multiple symptoms must have been present before the age of 12, and these symptoms must have been observed in multiple settings (like home and school). Most importantly, to truly meet the criteria for an ADD diagnosis, the symptoms must interfere with a person’s quality of life and ability to function in these multiple settings. Simply losing your keys from time to time does not mean you have ADD. There must be a clear pattern across various parts of life that disrupt a person’s ability to function.
As is often the case with mental illness, the symptoms and one’s personality seem intertwined. Because emotions, task management, and one’s approach to living are highly impacted by mental illness, it is hard not to believe that this is your identity. If you lack self-control, it must be a spiritual problem, right?
Getting the right kind of help is critical when the symptoms of a mental illness are present. If Eddie’s pastor had tried to help Eddie with his problems without referring him to a professional Christian counselor, it’s possible that the presence of a physical problem would have continued to go on undetected. Helping Eddie with self-control on a strictly spiritual level would have likely made him feel like even more of a failure. This kind of approach often makes the understanding of one’s identity far worse, as the physical symptoms are untreated and every effort to change is met with failure.
Medication can be an essential part (but not the only part) of treating ADD. Some medications, such as Ritalin and Adderall, are stimulants, while Strattera is not. Only a doctor can help you decide which medicine would be appropriate for your symptoms. Leading ADD experts Edward Hallowell, M.D. and John Ratey, M.D. (1994) write,
“When medication is effective, it can help the individual focus better, sustain effort over a longer period of time, reduce anxiety and frustration, reduce irritability and mood swings, increase efficiency by enhancing concentration as well as reducing time lost in distraction, and increase impulse control” (Driven to Distraction. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 237).
While it may take time to find the right medication for your symptoms, your quality of life should improve as the symptoms in your brain are targeted and decrease.
Eddie clearly had a vibrant spiritual life, with a strong connection to the Holy Spirit. While his untreated symptoms disrupted his ability to be in control, self-control is certainly not the only measure of the Spirit in one’s life. Ultimately with appropriate treatment for his symptoms, including medication and professional Christian counseling, he saw that he was capable of self-control and focus. Pursuing wellness physically and spiritually are essential for moving forward in life. This wellness includes your brain functioning. Our true identities as children of God are most evident when we are well, as all sickness will be healed when we fully enter into God’s kingdom. When we pursue health and receive proper treatment for symptoms, we move closer to a defeat of Satan who seeks to bring disease and disorder in our lives.