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first person

Illustration by Adam De Souza

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Endless chatter, frequently scraped knees, countless stories of adventure, my youngest nephew is eerily similar to my husband at that age.

To burn off some of his energy this summer, we challenged him to run a timed lap around my in-laws’ house, which sits on a large yard in a rural community outside of Winnipeg. He jumped at the chance, the allure of such a dedicated audience too enticing to pass up.

Hearing our cheers as he rounded the yard, excitement lit up his face and he proceeded to another lap. Ending his sixth lap, he threw his arms up in exasperation and breathlessly declared he would never do that again. We cheered once more, and someone shouted for a victory lap. For the briefest of moments, he looked at us with dismay then the expression quickly resolved and he was gone, taking his congratulatory lap.

We have a strong suspicion my nephew will be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is a condition I see frequently in my family practice. It is also extremely common amongst the members of my husband’s family. They are the most energetic group of people I have ever encountered. An undeniable introvert, I am easily overwhelmed during family get-togethers. For me, the gatherings are always a balance between sheer entertainment and absolute chaos.

My husband, Andrew, has ADHD. As a child, in an effort to manage his bottomless tank of energy, teachers sent him to the gym teacher to help the younger grades. Similarly, his family would let him out of the car on the side of the road a mile from their house. He would happily run his way home as the vehicle followed close behind. A win-win for everyone, the vehicle’s inhabitants had momentary reprieve from his constant chatter and he could expend some of his energy.

For nearly every memory Andrew has of those around him having foresight to creatively manage his energy, he has also internalized some deeply painful messages. He was treated poorly by several teachers in high school, one repeatedly reminding him of his low potential. Another frequently called him dumb and berated him publicly. In an act of self-preservation, he quickly relinquished any effort in school. He believed his teachers’ unkind assessments and it coloured his self-view well into adulthood.

Andrew is actually remarkably intelligent. Similar to his father, he has a way of eloquently connecting with people and I am frequently in awe seeing him in action. His clarity in the midst of crises has led me to emulate his behaviour during obstetrical emergencies. A lack of confidence in his potential, however, has followed him even through his successes.

Andrew and I are polar opposites. Although my days are filled with constant interactions, I am never able to escape feeling at least a little socially awkward most of the time. I met him shortly before I entered medical school. The morning after a major exam, he cooked me a surprise breakfast. Instead of waking to the smell of fried eggs and buttered toast, however, the smoke alarm blared, our cats raced under the bed and Andrew frantically waved towels in the air. His thoughtful intention quickly morphed into a kitchen disaster after forgetting to check on the bacon in the oven.

He is the yang to my yin, the pursuit of adventure to my pensive pondering. I tend to draw him inward as he processes difficult emotions, while he continuously reminds me that the outside world is not so scary and sometimes hiking and meeting new people is actually fun. The balance between our two natures has been a constant art of juggling. Some days we navigate this masterfully, while others are filled with four arguments in the span of one drive.

ADHD can be a difficult condition with which to live. I often see children and adolescents in my practice encountering similar messaging that Andrew had. These families provide some of the most enjoyable encounters I have. Sometimes we discuss medication and sometimes we discuss mindfulness and meditation. Always, we discuss how it is simply a difference in the brain’s need for stimulation and that “different” never means “wrong.” Always, we discuss the ways in which adults can support these children, trying the best we can to minimize the potential blows to their self-esteem.

I have come to find a certain freedom amidst the inattention and hyperactivity. Being in the presence of someone who, like my husband, is genuinely excited by his current circumstances, offers me permission to feel the same. Standing beside such steady optimism and hope allows me to dare to dip my toes into that same pool. His mere nature offers permission to others around him to engage with things we have long abandoned: fun, play and unencumbered laughter.

Recently, I was dealing with some painful personal circumstances. These were the type of days where a simple smile takes all the energy one can muster and, even with that, it is an uncomfortable half-smile at best. This overlapped with seeing Andrew’s family in the summer and it was then when I realized how much I need the people with ADHD in my life.

I saw clearly the ways in which they lift my spirit and lighten my heart. They often recover from intense situations quicker than I can even process them. They constantly teach me the necessary art of adaptation to life’s various surprises. They remind me to loosen my grip on certain aspects of life because when those things are gone, acceptance is always less painful. There is always a tomorrow in their world. And if there’s no tomorrow, there’s still today and we might as well enjoy it. After all, on even the darkest of days, how can one not smile at a sweet boy willing to run an extra lap around the house for the sheer enjoyment of hearing his family laugh and cheer in the distance?

Brittany Penner lives in Steinbach, Man.