Recently, I had to cut short a telephone call to handle some urgent business. The distraction lasted only a few minutes, but by the time it was over, I'd forgotten about the call. By chance, something jogged my memory, and I called my friend back - but not until the following day.
Unfortunately, that kind of disconnect is not unusual for me. Walking around my house in the morning, I find myself narrating reminders: "Turn off the iron," or, with a slap to my forehead as I'm heading out the door, "Keys." Shortly after arriving at the office, I often have to return home to retrieve a notebook or a file.
For years, friends, family members, and colleagues kindly chalked up these lapses to my being a little spacey. I have, they would tell me, plenty of charming qualities to compensate. But lately it seemed my absentmindedness had gotten out of control.
More and more people were getting insulted by those neglected phone calls. My tendency to procrastinate was reaching pathological proportions. And in the office, where I edit documents, my "eye" was becoming remarkably inconsistent. Even my boss had noticed. Eventually, at wit's end, I sought the advice of a psychologist.
My doctor's hypothesis
After a lengthy conversation about my personal history, he offered a surprising hypothesis: Perhaps I had the adult version of attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD).
But aren't people with ADD hyperactive? I asked. The official name of the condition is, after all, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and as anyone who knows me will attest, I operate in anything but high gear. Even when the brain is working fast and furious, this body barely budges. That was even more true of me during childhood, when ADD is generally diagnosed.
It seems, however, that there are two distinct types of the condition: the more familiar one, called predominantly hyperactive, and one that's gaining recognition, predominantly inattentive. People with the latter variety are notably absentminded, the daydreamy types who quietly tune out at meetings or in class. Often they go undiagnosed because their symptoms are so subtle. The majority are female.
Perhaps, the psychologist suggested, I was suffering from ADD number two.
Over the next few weeks, as I talked to people I knew about ADD, I heard skepticism and even contempt. "You can focus," one colleague told me. "People who have ADD can't focus." (She was wrong. People with ADD can focus - just not consistently.)
"You've simply got too much on your plate," a friend said. (She had a point. I was working on many projects at once. Was I merely overextended?)
"Oh, ADD," moaned someone else. "Isn't that the disorder du jour ?"
It seems that it is. Since 1990, diagnoses of ADD have more than doubled, and the curve seems to be getting steeper. Books on the topic are selling briskly. At conferences with themes like "Living the ADDventure," vendors hawk ADD-pride paraphernalia, special ADD date books, and coaching services for the terminally scattered. Most high schoolers, and many college students, who have ADD can get extra time on standardized tests because of their disability.
The boom, in part, reflects a rise in diagnoses among children. But a portion of the newly diagnosed are adults. In 1990 Alan Zametkin, a psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Health, published evidence from positron-emission tomography scans that showed ADD to be associated with at least one physical marker in the brain: lower levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex, from which planning and self-control proceed. Other researchers have suggested the condition tends to run in families.
This article comes from the February/March 2006 issue of ADDitude .