ABC News online probes the work of Robert Jergen, and ADHD adult who carefully manages and optimizes his attention difficulties.
What is important to realize in reading this report is that he is a minority; he is one of the very few ADHD adults who successfully manage their attention difficulties. Although his success story is quite moving, it is not the norm as Dr. Joseph Biederman found in his recent study that indicated ADHD adults lose $77 billion yearly to ADHD related job issues.
Also, note the fact that Jergen almost committed suicide because of ADHD. Obviously, what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. However, one must wonder how many adults haven’t adapted and successfully put an end to their ADHD troubles by suicide.
What can be gleaned readily from Jergen is that ADHD is manageable using a variety of tools. The true question may be what enabled him to succeed where others fail?
Robert Jergen writes two books a year, works on several research projects simultaneously and, after finishing a PhD in half the normal time, began a successful teaching career. It takes a special person with special skills to complete such a heavy load, but one would never guess the secret to Jergen’s success.
“I have ADHD,” says Jergen.
ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is often considered a childhood disorder. Yet an estimated four percent of adults may also suffer from the hyperactivity, inattentiveness and impulsivity that ADHD causes.
With information about this disorder spreading quickly, many adults are suddenly realizing that their previously unexplainable childhood and adult problems may have stemmed from ADHD. Jergen, now in his late 30s, didn’t have a name for his problems until he was 22, and ironically, taking a class on special education.
But, as Jergen explains in his book, The Little Monster, the signs started much earlier.
“As soon as my eyes would pop open after a nap, the crib would start to tremble and [my mother] would always know when the little monster was awake,” says Jergen.
Growing Up Different
The nickname “little monster” was bestowed upon Robert as he destroyed everything in his path; his parents just didn’t understand that he couldn’t control his actions. Jergen describes numerous situations where he would impulsively throw a knife, dismantle a lamp or toss lit matches at a model ship, each time thinking a moment too late, “Now that wasn’t such a good idea.”
It’s not that Jergen didn’t know right from wrong; he just acted without realizing. And being hypersensitive, like many other ADHD children, Jergen’s head is still filled with his mother saying over and over, “Jesus Christ, give me strength! You are such a rotten kid!” even though he is not entirely sure if she ever said it more than once.
It was the constant disappointment and scolding, both at school and at home, and constant comparisons to his athletic, intelligent, sweet brothers that caused a slow slide into depression.
“I always heard, ‘Rob, I love you, but you don’t do what you’re told, you don’t finish what you start, you do things without thinking,’” he says. “And what I grew up hearing was, ‘I really don’t love you, but I would, if you would stop doing this.’”
By eighth grade, Jergen had twice attempted suicide.
The Lowest Point
Jergen’s outlook improved after meeting an accepting group of friends in high school, but the hopelessness returned in college when he fell in with a group who called themselves the “All-American Drinking Team.”
Jergen, typical of those with ADHD, found alcohol to be the one tool that could be used to quiet his head, which helped him concentrate in class, improve his grades and calm his constant anxiety over how he appeared to others. But alcohol also brought out years worth of pent-up rage. So, after an ugly night at a bar, Jergen realized he had to stop drinking.
With the drinking stopped, Jergen’s head became noisy again. And while he loved his job teaching adolescents with special needs, it was the quiet paperwork, long meetings and coworkers angry with his antics that made work miserable. The stress was quickly driving Jergen back to alcohol and depression.
To try to stem the tide, Jergen returned to school, where he last felt most comfortable. It would be here that he would receive an answer to all of his problems.
A Wall of TVs
At the beginning of a master’s program, Jergen’s condition became steadily worse. Rude comments would just pop out of his mouth without him even realizing. He once poked his boss in a thin patch of hair and proclaimed “bald spot!” Unable to concentrate on any of his reading assignments, unable to control his actions or even his mind, Jergen was again considering suicide.
Oddly enough, Jergen would find help in a student, Troy, who had schizophrenia. Jergen was furious one day when he found out that Troy was not taking his medication and lectured him about how smart and successful he could be if only took a little pill every day.
A bell went off in Jergen’s head.
“I thought, ‘you are such a hypocrite. You are just sitting there waiting for death or a white padded room. Maybe there is some drug that you could take to make you normal.’”
This was the beginning of Jergen’s turnaround. After countless therapy sessions, incorrect diagnoses of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia, an abnormal MRI and EEG (two tests that are commonly used to diagnose ADHD), Jergen happened to attend a support group meeting of ADHD adults for a special education class, when someone said:
“My mind is like a wall of television sets, each on a different channel and I don’t have the remote.”
For the first time, Jergen found a way to describe what was going on in his head. “One second I thought that I was a loser. A freak,” he says. “The next moment I knew that I had ADHD. I wasn’t alone.”
Turning ADHD Around
Most patients with ADHD go through years of trying different types and doses of medications before a successful combination is achieved. For Jergen, after two years of trying various medications with no success, or unbearable side effects, he became resolved to make ADHD work for him, instead of relying on medications to control it.
Jergen is not against medication, and he openly agrees that it can help one focus. “But medications do not teach people to learn, do math or act appropriately,” he says. So, he reminds parents and teachers that one will not just “get better” with medication and advocates behavior therapy to help a person with ADHD learn the organizational and social skills they may not have learned as a child.
For Jergen, however, the goal became to use the hyperactivity of ADHD instead of masking it. “All my problems were when I was trying to slow down, when I was trying to go at everybody else’s pace,” he says.
He became hyper-productive. Jergen kept a log outlining when and where he got the most work done. Then, he designed a work environment that would push out distractions and allow him to remain focused.
For example, Jergen’s office is dimly lit with one bright light shining on his computer, constantly reminding him where his attention should be. Soft music playing in the background blocks any outside noise. A computer game runs on a nearby laptop to give him something to do for a few seconds when his mind begins to wander. If the heavy clouds of ADHD begin to roll into his head anyway, Jergen hops on his treadmill. He has found that a short burst of exercise clears his head and allows his focus to return.
Most importantly, Jergen understands the importance of a strong support system. An honest, encouraging mentor got him through his PhD program and, now, his wife helps to keep him on track, reminding him to take a walk when he seems most on-edge. It is this support system that has helped Jergen build his self esteem after so many years of failures.
There are still problems. Jergen has a hard time staying quiet when his students are taking a test, and not everyone at work is so understanding of his disorder. Even his parents still doubt that he has ADHD, saying instead that he just needs to try harder. Nevertheless, Jergen is currently testing some of his techniques to see if they will help others with ADHD turn their greatest challenge into their greatest advantage.
“Don’t repress ADHD, utilize it,” says Jergen. “ADHD is A-OK.”