The Many Faces of ADHD: Betty, a Grandmother

Terry Matlen, ACSW Health Guide
  • She was a dancer, a dancing instructor, an art teacher and active her whole life in various community charities. Her warm smile, good sense of humor, sensitivity and a deep interest in others, made her popular amongst her peer group, from her elementary school days to the present time.


    But what Betty won't share with her friends, is the fact that she has ADHD. Betty still grapples with the devastating effects living with undiagnosed ADHD has had on her life. All 85 years. When I heard about Betty, I wanted to hear her story. There is little written about ADHD and how it affects people later in life. In fact, I was unable to find any research at all on the topic, so I wanted to learn more.

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    I interviewed this fascinating woman from Chicago, who shared with me some of her deepest emotions and memories of growing up with ADHD and how she still manages living with it.


    Betty's childhood was difficult. The youngest of six, her parents, immigrants from Austria, struggled to make ends meet. Sleeping two and sometimes three to a bed, Betty was lucky if there was a slice of bread in the kitchen to get her though a meal, let alone an entire day. A child of the Depression, life was hard for most in her neighborhood. Just getting through the day was a feat. But Betty had more challenges. She struggled in school. In fact, her earliest memory takes place in her Kindergarten room; a memory so etched in her mind, that she recalled it with ease. She remembered being stunned and excited at seeing an entire room full of toys and feeling nearly overwhelmed by it; for as a youngster, she had virtually no toys at home.


    "I saw some delicious toys in the corner of the room, grabbed a handful and put them in the middle of the floor, then went back for more. It was like being in a candy store! With my arms filled with more toys, I looked for my original pile, but couldn't find where I'd put them just moments before." This was Betty's first experience of feeling different from the other children. "How could I misplace a pile of toys in the Kindergarten room? I was so lost..."


    When Betty started first grade, her classmates began to learn to read. While the others were picking up sight words and sounding them out, Betty stared at the letters, not understanding how to string them together to form words. Her older siblings patiently worked with her until she had that "aha!" moment, when it came together for her. But by then, her feeling of being different from the other children began to gel and define what kind of student she would become.

    Once she learned to read, she still struggled in school because, as Betty continued to explain, she lived in a deep, magical imaginary world that occupied and stimulated her creative brain. Says Betty: "my greatest pleasure was looking out the school window and picturing myself like the Lone Ranger, high on that beautiful white horse. In my mind, the children would be in awe, seeing me ride up to the school as they peered out of the second floor window." Betty spent countless hours daydreaming, while the other students were attending to the teacher's lessons. Of course, she got further and further behind in school because she simply could not pay attention. Her inner life was much more interesting.


    As she progressed through elementary school, her grades continued to be average at best. No one understood in those days how to help a struggling student. They were seen as lazy or simply not very bright. And sadly, Betty internalized those perceptions and grew to believe them- that there was something wrong with her; that she was slow to learn.


    At the age of 11, her older sister saw that Betty had a gift for dance, and found enough money to enroll her in a dance class. Their mother would save pennies in a jar so that she could continue her lessons, for, in a very short time, Betty excelled in dance and became a favorite in her teacher's eyes.

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    By the time she was in high school, Betty began teaching at one of the most prestigious dance schools in the city of Chicago. Still, her grades plummeted in high school, for now, her fantasy of riding a grand white horse evolved into dreams of becoming a professional dancer. While others were learning algebra and literature, Betty daydreamed about dancing on stage while memorizing the dance routine steps in her head. The dance teachers were amazed that Betty could fly through her new routines so quickly, so easily. While the others had to practice and practice, Betty had already nailed the dances by picturing each move in her head.


    By the skin of her teeth, Betty graduated high school. Though she left her classmates and teachers behind, what she took with her was the belief that she was not smart and not capable. Of course, in those days, ADHD wasn't understood. But it found an early victim and it took hold of her for the next 75 years.

    Betty continued to live with a secret that would affect her entire life. Her friends and family never knew that this vivacious, creative and bright woman was struggling with the deepest of self-doubt and lack of confidence.


    After high school, Betty continued to follow her dreams and became a professional dancer. While at the local dance studio, she was the star student and later the esteemed teacher. But she wanted more; she wanted to break into show business. Just as she was about to leave for California to make that dream a reality, she met the man who would become her husband and thus, she chose instead to stay in Chicago, marry and eventually have two children.


    In the 1950s and 60s, few women worked, but Betty needed a creative outlet for her artistic passions and continued to dance at charity fundraisers and later, returned to teach, eventually opening her own dance studio. As she got older, other interests drew her away from dancing and she became fascinated with the visual arts. Self taught for the most part, with a short stint at The Art Institute of Chicago, Betty began giving drawing lessons out of her home and became well known in the community, with many students signing up for her popular classes.


    Yet even with all of these successes, Betty continued to doubt herself. She struggled with staying organized. Papers would get lost or misplaced. She'd be late for appointments and social events, which caused her terrible embarrassment. Worse, she would struggle to remember people's names, even those she'd known for years. ADHD had full control over Betty, but she had no clue what it was. In her mind, it was a shameful deficiency; a flaw she needed to hide.


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    Years later, an amazing thing happened. At the age of 75, a friend's daughter, whose own two children have ADHD, began talking about their struggles. Betty's spine chilled as she listened to what sounded like her own life story unfold. Then it slowly dawned on her- could she, too have this thing called ADHD? Could her life long problem of "tuning out", not getting projects done, constantly being late, her poor sense of direction be attributed to ADHD?


    She discussed the possibility with a mental health professional who did diagnose her with ADHD. Betty was relieved. But not before disbelieving the possibility. For 75 years, she believed she was simply not bright. How would she switch that perception into believing that what she'd been struggling with her whole life was actually a neurobiological condition she had at birth and most likely, inherited from her parents?


    I asked Betty what happened to her when she learned of her ADHD. She said, "I was embarrassed. But I was also relieved." Few close to her know her secret, as she still cannot shake the stigma of having ADHD, thinking no one would believe, anyway, that this striking, capable and talented woman could possibly have struggled so hard all her life. She spent a lifetime hiding it and it was nearly impossible to accept it fully; she was still haunted with the comments people made when she was growing up: "Betty can't do it; she's too spacey"., etc.


    Betty chose not to pursue medical treatment for her ADHD. Feeling that she has been able to compensate well enough all these years, taking meds didn't feel "right" for her. But armed with the knowledge of what ADHD is and how it affected and continues to affect her, she has let go of a lot of that negative self image and continues to work on shifting her self-concept to a more positive one.


    An important lesson can be learned from reading about Betty's story. First, knowing the devastation and damage that undiagnosed, untreated ADHD can have on an individual, regardless of their age, might help motivate them to look into an evaluation. Study after study shows that getting the appropriate treatment early in life will improve the quality of one's life. A lifetime of self-doubt, low self-esteem and worse, can easily be avoided if appropriate treatment is given. Had Betty received this (though at the time, it obviously wasn't even available), her life might have been much different.


    We're fortunate that ADHD is better understood now than ever before. Perhaps Betty's story will implore others to seek an evaluation and get treatment, avoiding a lifetime of shame, secrecy and self doubt.

Published On: April 10, 2008