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1st Person: My lifelong battle with Attention Deficit Disorder

By Peter Zhao

It’s time to ask myself that dreadful question I’ve been wanting to ask myself for a long time now.

It’s time to ask myself, “What does it really mean to live with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as a 40 years old man?”

It’s time to really ask myself, “Is my ADHD affecting my daily life? Should I give medication another chance?”

When I was last medicated to help suppress my Tourette’s Syndrome symptoms, I was still a kid. I started to take Orap (a.k.a Pimozide) at age 12, and I took it almost daily for eight long years from middle school to college.

Orap is an antipsychotic pill designed to help people with schizophrenia, but in the 90s, it became a popular medicine used to treat Tourette’s Syndrome and co-occurring conditions like ADHD and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

My mother was a big fan of Orap.  

My mother hated the fact that her son has Tourette’s Syndrome.  

My mother felt guilty because she thought the trauma I experienced from growing up in a household where my parents were constantly fighting may have contributed to my Tourette’s Syndrome symptoms.  

My mother might have also felt that because she refused to take mental health seriously, she was neglectful in failing to notice the early signs of my condition.  

My mother was really hard on herself, and I know she blamed herself a lot for my condition.  

Peter Zhao and his mom, Photo by Peter Zhao.

My wife just scolded me again like she would a child to remind me that I’m on my phone too much, and I should pay less attention to social media and focus more on the task in front of me.  

I had nothing to say because this wasn’t the first time she caught me wandering off, doing something else and failing to concentrate.

While I acknowledge that I haven’t been completely honest to myself and to my Tourette’s Syndrome advocacy, I am tired of being told off as if I were 8 years old by the mother of our two little boys at home. My wife is also online all the time, but I know that during this time, she is only focused on one thing: her lifestyle as a Korean Shaman.  

I’m really proud of my wife. When I first met her, I was intimidated, and I still feel that way because she’s able to devote herself to her passions without being distracted. She is amazing at everything she does from her job to her hobbies. 

Sometimes, I do feel that I want to compete with her. Sometimes, I do feel inferior because it seems her work is more significant than my own. Sometimes, I do think, “If only I could concentrate better — then, maybe today, we wouldn’t have to struggle so much.”

These days, we sit face to face on each end of the dinning table doing our own work. To me, the way we sat ourselves on the different ends of the table also symbolizes how we are, as a couple, polar opposites. She is an introvert, but I am an extrovert. She likes to be left alone when she’s studying, but I don’t mind being distracted because I believe I can multitask.  

But sometimes, I wonder, “Am I really good at multitasking, or am I just not paying attention to my own lack of attention?”  

Peter Zhao with him mom, Photo by Peter Zhao

My mother passed away six years ago from pancreatic cancer.  

During the last six years, I have become the father of two boys.  

Looking back at myself as a dad of 2 growing boys, I realize that I did things as a parent in the same way my mother did. I wasn’t always a fan of my mom — in fact, we fought as much as we embraced. There are people in this world right now who might still believe I was an awful son to my mother because I know mom had told her closest circle of friends about how I have repeatedly hurt her feelings.

Mom struggled hard during her last year of fighting cancer, and at the time, I was also struggling to accept my new role as an unexpected father — and on top of that, I was struggling hard as a son who felt conflicted. Whenever I visited mom, we would start off by carrying out friendly, great conversations.  

But we would always stumble upon subjects that created conflicts between us. 

Mom always liked to point out to me “how good my Tourette’s is today” and how “she’s so happy to see me without many tics today.” She meant well, but as soon as she would say these things, all my tics came right back. My mood immediately changed. But mom would just throw another jab at me and say, “Look how fragile you are: As soon as I praise you, here come the tics.”

That was when I would lose it, and we once again found ourselves in the same toxic pattern. 

I remember leaving her apartment one night a few months before she passed away. She was on chemotherapy, and she was skinny to the bones.  

I came to visit her, and I would eat dinner while watching her stare at me with envious eyes because she couldn’t eat. The chemo made everything taste like rust. Water tasted metallic and stale. She developed neuropathy in her hands, and she had to wear gloves in the summertime and couldn’t turn on the air conditioning.  

Before I left her house, mom asked me to fetch a box of cookies on top of the refrigerator. She said she really wanted to eat these cookies because they were nostalgic, but she couldn’t taste them. I was so sad when I heard that. I choked on my tears when I went to grab the box of cookies, and then I fell into her embrace and grasped her skeleton-like bony shoulders.  

I cried into her like a little boy, and I told her how sorry I was.  

I cried when I went home that night. I’m crying right now as I write about this. I have been haunted by this moment for six years.  

But the next day, we fought again. 

We continued fighting until the last time I spoke to her. That was when she ordered me to inform the doctor that she wanted to stop all her IV (intravenous) drips, including nutrients and antibiotics. Mom said she was ready to die alone, and she told me to leave. She was upset with me because I couldn’t keep my concentration focused on her, even at her last dying moment. I was still staggering around like the conflicted boy I was after all these years.  

She sent me away, and I cried as my wife drove us home.

Mom fell into a coma and didn’t wake up in the next two days. One December morning, I received a phone call: “I’m sorry to inform you, Peter, but your mom has passed.”

I didn’t cry.  

I didn’t cry when I saw her for the last time: cold with her eyes closed, fully dressed and ready to be cremated.  

I didn’t cry when I took her ashes back.  

I didn’t cry at her memorial.  

I didn’t cry for a year until it hit me.  

One day, while I was disciplining my child, I said something horrible to my son. It made me feel as though my mom had spoken through me. 

I cried loudly and angrily because I felt the pain my mother felt when she unintentionally mismanaged my medication; when I told her about how I was hearing voices, but she said everyone speaks to their conscience: “That’s called being mindful”; when I told her those voices told me to die, and she got mad at me because she felt I said these horrible things to her just to piss her off.  

By the time I was 20 years old, I was already married. We went to the courthouse without even telling my mom I planned to get married. At the time, I was balancing full-time college with full-time work. The voices in my head were so bothersome, they negatively affected my work. These voices sounded and felt just like my nagging mother. The only way to stop them was to go to sleep. I used to call out sick in the middle of my shift all the time. Eventually, I got laid off. I had no money and a lot of credit card debt, and I was also trying to support my wife, who didn’t have the legal means to find a fair paying job.   

I wanted to kill myself one night as I drove on the highway and cried.  

I really wanted to smash my car onto the opposing traffic. 

The next day, I went off my medication. I realized that how I felt might have been the side effects of long term-usage of Orap. The withdrawal symptoms hit me on the second day, and I was super twitchy and super hyper. I was unable to sleep all night and stayed awake until I passed out the next afternoon. I slept for 16 hours, long enough that my wife worried at the time that I wouldn’t wake up.  

But when I finally did, I woke up and felt reborn. I tried to summon those voices by going through my triggers, but they didn’t come back. I was finally rid of those voices, which I thought were much worse than my Tourette’s Syndrome. I thought I’d rather have a lifetime of jerking, twitching and barking than those nasty side effects from Orap.

It’s important to clarify that I’m not anti-medication. I’ve only ever taken one type of medicine to help my Tourette’s Syndrome symptoms, and I didn’t increase or decrease my dosage. The problem was that I had no blood work done and no periodical follow ups. By today’s standard, these long-term psychoactive medicines should be periodically managed, and dosages should be carefully scheduled and followed up. 

I didn’t have any of that. On the one hand, I believe the doctor was negligent and lacked specific training in pediatric Tourette’s Syndrome treatment. On the other hand, my mother didn’t want to lower my dosage because a tic-free son made her feel prouder than a son with tics. And I too feared missing dosages.

As a result, I became addicted to the medicine.  

Now, when I look back at the years that have passed without any medication, despite my daily vocal and motor tics and my anxiety and OCD behavior and patterns, I really felt as though everything were under control.

But today, I saw the disappointment in my wife’s eyes, and I felt as though I were slowly becoming less desirable in her eyes. I felt so shameful. 

Suddenly, it hit me. There has to be a reason why I constantly fall into my own traps. I have skeletons in my closet, and I haven’t been completely honest to myself for decades.  

20 years ago, I dropped out of college — not only just because I failed math but also because I couldn’t concentrate in class. Thinking back on those 20 years, I realized that I could have done much better. Only now do I realize that my concentration issues and the deficit of attention hindered the best of me, but even more so, I realize that FEAR is my worst enemy, and FEAR has kept me idle for too long now.

But it’s never too late to help yourself.  

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to contact my PCP (primary care physician) and schedule an appointment to talk about living with ADHD, OCD, and Tourette’s Syndrome as an adult. I was diagnosed back in 1992, when I was only 12 years old. Today, I am 40, and I want to get reevaluated and figure out what the best step to take is to help myself by doing more for my mental health.  

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