Suppers kneels at her son’s elbow and takes a deep breath, making a concerted effort not to snap. She begins guiding him through the spelling words, with an occasional “See? You got it, buddy.” She listens to him read and helps him with the math that she was never good at and always has her husband, an electrician, double-check.
The living room is neat, despite the understandable chaos of toys and balls and piles of newspapers that come with busy family living — the result of yet another late-night effort to tidy for company. But in the kitchen, the counters and table are awash in scraps of paper, kid artwork, opened and unopened mail, bills and toys. For meals, Suppers sometimes shoves the clutter to one end, and the family eats at the other. Lately, though, they’ve taken to eating in front of the TV in the living room.
Though parts of the house are a jumble, Suppers makes a big effort to keep the kids organized. She spends hours in their playroom, stacking the toys neatly on shelves. She makes sure their days have the routine that she never had as a child and struggles with still as an adult. The children get regular exercise, play on sports teams, get a daily dose of fish oil, eat dinner at 6 p.m., have their baths and are in bed early. Suppers herself often won’t make it to bed until after midnight and then can fall asleep only after hours of TV or playing games on her iPod.
When the homework battle has finally finished, her husband, George, arrives home. He takes over cooking the hamburger for dinner when she gets distracted looking through piles of paper on the counter for a sticky note he left her about a car repair the week before that she completely forgot about. He is convinced that she has ADHD. He teases her that she has never made a decision in her life, not even about what to order for dinner. “There’s just always way too much stuff going on in my head,” she says. “It feels kind of silly trying to make serious conversation about it. Other people have it so much worse. I think if I didn’t have the kids, I’d think, This is the way I am, so whatever. But I worry about passing it on.”
Later that evening, after the boys are in bed, George finds an online ADHD screening quiz and has Michelle take it. Based on her score, she is advised to seek out a trained mental health professional. “Immediately.”
To better understand the reach of ADHD in women’s lives and the nebulous point where the stress of modern life ends and a neurobiological disorder begins, I spent months contacting support groups, psychologists, doctors, clinics and ADHD life coaches. Many women called immediately, invited me to their homes and in intricate detail laid bare how ADHD had shaped their lives. One constantly rearranged the furniture. One became addicted to alcohol and ever-higher doses of her ADHD medication. Another got caught up in what she called the “ADHD industrial complex” and spent thousands of dollars on pretty pink and blue brain scans, quantitative brain mapping, 40 neurofeedback sessions at $100 a pop, talk therapy, life coaching, yoga and organic blue algae to try to calm her mind. One woman dreaded spring sports season because she could never keep track of her kids’ schedules and continually mixed up practices and missed games. Many conversations wandered around like so much tangled string.