Is ADHD a disorder or a gift? Friend or foe? Blessing or curse?
I was surprised to find this question inspires a lot of controversy in the ADHD realm. In case you aren’t familiar, ADHD is classified as a disability–one that’s protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Although some still don’t believe ADHD is real, it has been officially classified as a disorder.
But a few years ago, a book came out talking about ADHD being a gift. This book discussed all the potential positives that come from having ADHD. It encouraged us to celebrate our unique brain and learn to work with it.
Some took the gift and ran with it–wanting to lose the term ‘disorder’ entirely.
Others rejected the idea of ADHD being anything other than a terrible curse that creates only destruction.
And that dichotomy is basically where many still exist today.
So is ADHD good or bad? Blessing or Curse?
Each side of the argument has some good things to offer and some pretty big drawbacks.
Those impassioned on either side rarely like to hear that their point of view has some downsides. Or that the counter-argument has anything to offer.
Yet, if we’re going to have an objective conversation–and that’s definitely my goal–we’ve got to be open to the possibilities.
For easy reference, I created this chart to highlight some of the pros and cons I noticed on each side.
For time’s sake, I’ll hit some of the highlights for discussion that I found particularly noteworthy.
This is likely not a comprehensive list but it gets the point across.
Most Noteable Upsides and Downsides of ADHD as a Gift
Positive: Seeing ADHD as a gift may act as cognitive reframing.
If you are familiar with Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), you might be familiar with the term “cognitive reframe.”
If you aren’t familiar, a reframe is essentially the ability to see the same thing in a more helpful light.
Cognitive Reframing is a psychological intervention used most noteably in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In conjunction with medication, CBT is considered the “treatment of choice” for ADHD.
Looking at the potential positives of ADHD may function like a cognitive reframe. It shifts the perspective from what is wrong to what is right, from the cost to the gain.
Research indicates that when we focus on the difficulties, challenges, or drawbacks we are more likely to experience additional suffering.
And when we focus on the good, and that which we are grateful for, we tend to experience less suffering.
That’s why gratitude is linked to happiness.
It’s possible that, by seeing ADHD in this light, it could lead ADHDers to a more positive mental state. It could reduce the suffering and low self esteem that we often live with.
Negative: In it’s extreme, this position denies the scientific basis of ADHD as a disorder.
This could lead to some really bad consequences if too many people fully embraced it.
ADHDers usually need accommodations in order to succeed in school and in work.
If it were no longer called a disability, those accommodations would be out the window. Research on appropriate treatments and medications have only been done because it’s a disorder.
If research stopped and insurance no longer covered therapy or medication for ADHD, it would knock us off our feet.
ADHDers usually need accommodations in order to succeed in school and in work. If we no longer called ADHD a disability, those accommodations would be out the window.
Research on appropriate treatments and medications have only been done because it’s a disorder.
If research stopped and insurance no longer covered therapy or medication for ADHD, it would knock us off our feet.
Something to think about: The word gift has the connotation of being something purely good.
I don’t think you could live with ADHD and see it as purely good. Not when you’ve nearly set the house on fire a number of times for lack of attention.
And not when you impulsively pressed the gas at a red light and hit the car in front of you…
None of those things could ever be called purely good. The terminology of it being a gift can sometimes lead people to feel like they are facing the challenges alone.
Especially if everyone else with ADHD sees it as this amazing prize they won in the genetic lottery.
The Good and the Bad of ADHD as a Disability
Positives of ADHD Disability Position:
Because ADHD has been classified as a disability, we have resources, interventions, medications and accommodations that are much needed.
It also validates the extent of the struggle that ADHD causes. Knowing it’s a disability is what keeps us grounded in knowing that our struggles aren’t a moral failing.
Especially when we’re constantly told to just “try harder” and “stop being lazy.”
That framework can be invaluable when ADHD knocks you on your butt. When the challenges produce shame, it’s the reminder that your struggle is because your brain is wired differently.
Not because you are a worthless person.
That’s a pretty important pro.
Negatives of ADHD Disorder or Disability Position:
Exclusively focusing on ADHD as a disorder/horror is more likely to lower self esteem and increase the potential for depression. It’s that old adage that what we focus on we get more of.
If you only focus on the horrors of ADHD, it leads to bitterness, resentment, anger, and depression.
Perhaps by now you are beginning to see the next point.
The ADHD Dialectic: It’s a Blessing and a Curse.
The Gift and Disability controversy pits the two sides against each other. It argues them as mutually exclusive: ie a gift is purely good and a disability is purely bad.
Neither side leaves room for anything else.
But a dialectic is the ability to hold two seemingly opposing thoughts as both true. The ADHD dialectic is that ADHD is both a blessing and a curse. At the same time.
It is not purely either, but both at different times and degrees.
If we can hold both as true, we get to have all of the positives without most of the negatives. In holding both as true, neither side cancels the other out.
I think that’s a really important point.
What it a Dialectic Doesn’t Mean for ADHD
Often, people are uncomfortable calling ADHD a disorder because they feel that it makes them “less than” people without ADHD.
This belief is rooted in a stigma that you hold which we will get to in a minute.
On the other side, people are uncomfortable/unwilling to explore the possibility of ADHD having an upside.
Sometimes, this is because of the unconscious thought that a positive has to make up for any negatives in order to be positive.
That thought is an attempt at restoring the dichotomy–the all or nothing thinking of purely good and purely bad.
Remember, a dialectic is to hold both a blessing and curse in hand at the same time. Neither ‘make up for’ or ‘cancel out’ the other.
The ADHD dialectic is that ADHD is both positive and negative. There are parts that are beneficial and parts of it that are far from it.
Your positives may be different than my positives and your negatives may be different than my negatives.
The point is that it isn’t purely one or the other.
The Objections I know are Coming
“If you think ADHD isn’t a disorder you are priviledged.”
I call this the problem of privilege because alliteration is awesome. HA! See what I did there?
This position advocates that if you don’t see this struggle the way I see this struggle, you’ve had it easier. It assumes that the other person has been privileged with fewer symptoms or access to better resources.
This is the kind of argument where no one wins. It can be hurtful to others when it’s untrue and it traps you with no choice but to be miserable.
If this argument was true, it would mean that happiness/contentment/peace is unreachable unless you have an easy life.
“You wouldn’t be able to say there are any good things if you’d struggled as much as I have!”
Boiled down to it’s most basic form is
“You are content because your life is easy. You would be miserable if you’d had to struggle.”
Here’s why it doesn’t hold up
This argument doesn’t hold up when you really talk to people. I’ll never forget the man I met who had been through nearly every horror I’d ever imagined.
He’d experienced homelessness, drug addiction, physical abuse, loss of a child, his own mental illness, and more. Yet he was content. He wasn’t bitter or angry that his life had been so hard.
In fact, he told me some of the good things that eventually came out of all his struggles.
You can’t meet someone like that and still believe that you can only find good things in your struggle if it’s been easy.
When you use the argument of privilege you risk shaming someone who’s been through a lot.
You risk unnecessarily closing yourself to the possibility of something that improves your experience in life. Which sucks…
Thankfully, a person isn’t condemned to a life of being miserable because they were born into struggle. It means that no matter what your circumstances are, there is the possibility of happiness and contentment.
“Calling ADHD a disorder is shaming.”
Calling ADHD a disorder is no more shaming than telling someone that they have Celiac Disease, like I do.
Celiac disease means that my body attacks me when I eat gluten and damages the lining of my small intestine. Calling it a disease isn’t shaming.
It’s pretty much understood that I can’t help it; my body just doesn’t react to gluten the way I wish it did. Sometimes it sucks but it doesn’t say anything about who I am as a person.
It’s part of me but it doesn’t define me.
ADHD is a disorder and a disability. It means that the way my brain is wired often causes me to struggle in ways that others don’t.
Literally, a disability is a “chronic adversity that causes significant problems in activities of daily living.” And that’s not my fault either.
Nor does it say anything about my value as a person.
The only difference is that one is due to a problem with my immune system and the other is a problem with the wiring of my brain.
This Contributes to On Going Mental Health Stigma
Thinking that a disorder is shameful indicates that we still stigmatize mental health.
The truth is, if I don’t find it shameful to have a disorder then calling it such doesn’t bother me.
Finding it more shaming indicates that we still hold our own prejudices against mental and emotional struggle. And we are, unfortunately, perpetuating stigma.
“I have good qualities but they are all in spite of my ADHD.”
Everything about you interacts with the way your brain is wired. Everything. The good, the bad, the struggles and the victories.
They all interact. If you changed the way your brain is wired, everything about you would be different, not just the bad things.
This argument assumes that you would keep all of your good qualities if you never had ADHD. But if everything about you interacts, this argument is without merit because it’s too limited and surface level.
All we can really say for sure is that everything would be different. I argue that life would be better in some ways and worse in others. For instance…
Here’s how my life would be different (good and bad) if I didn’t have ADHD.
How Never Having ADHD Could be Bad:
One of the things that’s been a major struggle in my life with ADHD is losing things. I always seem to misplace important things, too. So I’m always searching frantically for what I’ve lost.
Or I’m looking for a way to overcome the disaster of losing the important thing.
It’s obviously a bad thing. I’m talking really important stuff, too. Did you know that you can only request a copy of your social security card 10 times in your life? I do…
You probably know why.
The deficit became a skill…
Because of this propensity toward losing things, I’ve gotten really good at finding things. I turn over every rock, leaving no stone unturned, and I don’t stop until I find it.
Because of that practice, I’m also good at finding obscure and necessary resources for people that I love. I look everywhere, I try everything and I ask anyone who will listen. And I don’t stop until I find it.
I do this to keep from feeling powerless when someone I love is struggling.
If ADHD were gone, I can’t see how I would have developed this skill. I wouldn’t have needed it to find things because I wouldn’t lose them so often.
And I certainly wouldn’t have gotten enough practice with this skill to turn it into the strength that it is today.
How Never Having ADHD Would be Good:
Let’s take another one from the other side of the spectrum. Another major challenge I’ve had with ADHD is difficulty regulating my thoughts.
This pops up when I’m trying to coach myself through some anxiety.
Here’s an example.
I was at the doctor’s office not long ago and he told me to follow up in 6 months. There was some confusion with the scheduling department. I was told I wouldn’t be able to schedule this far in advance.
I felt really embarrassed and you’re probably wondering why.
So was I.
I couldn’t figure out why the interaction made me feel so ashamed. I started using my logical thoughts to try to coach myself through it but didn’t get anywhere.
It’s hard to use those thoughts effectively when you’re thoughts bounce around as much as mine do.
No ADHD would mean less anxiety…
I can think of logical thoughts but before I can use them, my mind has jumped on to some thing else.
It means I stay embarrassed for much longer. Hours. And even over the next couple weeks when I think of that situation, I re-experience the embarrassment.
I didn’t realize it was related to my ADHD until stimulant medication changed it.
With medication, I may still get embarrassed (because, social anxiety…). But I can use my logical thoughts more effectively and let go of the shame much faster. More like minutes instead of hours and days.
If I didn’t have ADHD, it would have saved me SO many hours, days, years… of embarrassment and shame. Because I could have used my logical thoughts more effectively.
The Take Away on how life would be different
ADHD is a disorder and a gift. A blessing and a curse. It interacts with all of the good things we’ve experienced and all of the bad things, too.
Taking it away would create a complicated result, not a purely good or purely bad one.
This is just an example. You probably won’t have these same examples in your life but if you look closely, you’ll probably find your own.
When ADHD has a Comorbid Condition
It’s pretty well known that ADHD is often comorbid with other mental health struggles. As I mentioned, I have social anxiety, which is a common one. Others are generalized anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, and the list goes on…
Sometimes, especially when we have a comorbid diagnosis, our struggle is heightened in the subtle ways that keep us stuck.
For instance, ADHD is often diagnosed with depression.
Depression tries to trap you in negative thought patterns, lower your self esteem, and make it harder to function. The combination of the two is a force to be reckoned with.
Depression can Complicate Our Experience of ADHD
Depression is often involves brain fog, which feels similar to inattention and zaps your motivation to do anything.
ADHD and depression create an additional struggle that can make it feel impossible to see anything positive or find strategies that work.
Depression distorts the way we see ourselves and magnifies our experiences with ADHD. That can make them feel incredibly shaming.
Ask yourself: is it possible that your struggle is complicated by a co-morbid condition like depression? And if so, is it possible that it impacts what way you see yourself? or the way you see your ADHD?
The struggle with ADHD is made so much harder when it exists alongside depression but this is just one example.
Treating ADHD (and Co-morbids)
When it comes to treating ADHD, Depression, Anxiety, etc…I always recommend working with a therapist. Mental health challenges are stubborn and painful. Having an expert is helpful and often necessary.
When it comes to ADHD, it’s often most helpful to find one who is well trained in CBT. I personally recommend you find a therapist who’s been trained by the Beck Institute.
But if you can’t find that, talk to your therapist about doing the full CBT treatment.
Self Help for ADHD
In addition to therapy, I find that workbooks can be really helpful. The structure of a workbook takes some of the overwhelm out of adding something to your plate.
It’s already outlined for you and you don’t have to try to figure out where to start. It’s like step by step instructions on how to help yourself. Nice, right?
I’m picky about the workbooks I use or recommend but these are on my approved list. Each book has a different focus that relates to our struggles so explore these and find the one that fits you best.
I like these two for CBT needs. It can help with improving your negative self talk and boosting your self esteem. CBT can help improve your stress levels and emotional well being. Both are highly rated and good resources for ADHD.
This one is more specific to ADHD executive functions. It’s geared toward helping you find strategies that improve your organization, planning, and other executive functions.
This is a mindfulness based strategy to working with ADHD rather than a cognitive one.
If you are someone that prefers a mindful style over a cognitive one, this one might be more your speed.
Just know that with this workbook you need a CD player to really benefit from it. If you’re like me, the only CD player you still have around is in your car.
Probably not the best place for a mindfulness exercise…
This workbook is not specific to ADHD but is worth doing, nonetheless. It has been incredibly helpful to me and so many people that I work with.
It can be beneficial to those with ADHD as well as anyone with OCD, Anxiety, Depression…
If you’ve been around my blog, you’ve probably seen this one recommended before.
That’s because it’s my favorite.
These are solid workbooks that can be really helpful. If you use one, let me know how it goes–I always appreciate hearing feedback about what I’ve recommended.
It helps me make sure that I continue giving you the best strategies.
I want to hear from you!
Alright, where do you sit on the ADHD Blessing or Curse Controversy spectrum?
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