Tom Creaven’s life flashed before him after reading a chapter about attention deficit hyperactive disorder in a book sent to him by his sister who was in America.
“I said ‘That’s me’,” says the 53-year-old cognitive behaviour therapist. “I felt huge relief. It was like ‘You mean I’m not lazy, stupid or crazy?’”
His school days were blighted by concentration and motivation difficulties, poor co-ordination, a sense of disorganisation and of being easily distracted - challenges which he now realised read like a symptom list of ADHD, a neuro-biological genetic condition which affects up to eight per cent of people.
“For the first time everything made sense, especially my school days. I was considered to be very bright but was told I didn’t try hard enough. I was withdrawn, dreamy and didn’t pay attention.”
Tom - who was born in Dublin to a County Galway father - and who now lives and works in the west, says he ended up in a “C graded class with really tough guys, future criminals!”.
“At home I would have been in a room supposedly studying but not tuned in. My ploy in class was to be as invisible as possible. I was useless at sport - hurling and gaelic were very big in my school. My co-ordination was awful, I was directionally challenged. I left school with a very mediocre Leaving Cert.”
He got a clerical position with the then health board but knew in his heart he was not playing to his strengths.
“Organisation was not my best attribute. One of the things I noticed with the benefit of hindsight was that if I worked in a closely supervised department I was brilliant. If someone provided a tight structure I was great. But if I had an easygoing boss I did little.”
He continued working with the health board for seven years before moving west in 1980. “I went through a lot of adventures, I got married, had two childen, tried organic horticulture and ran a landscaping business for nearly 20 years. Unfortunately my wife and I parted.
“I was in a very bad place after my marriage broke up and went for counselling. It really helped. Various painful experiences brought me back to it. It had such a wonderful effect on me that I decided it would be something I should do. I went back to college and did a degree in counselling and psychotherapy. I’m currently doing a master’s in cognitive behaviour therapy.”
He was keen to find a way of learning which suited him. “I knew I couldn’t learn the way others could. Because of my distractability and attention variability I needed to find a way which worked. I had to do it my own way. I’d sit in a lecture and hear blah, blah, blah and I’d keep writing down words. Then, I’d take it away and translate it into mind mapping.”
When his sister who lives in the United States sent him the book which deals with the effects of exercise on anxiety little did she realise it would change Tom’s life.
It not only put a name to what he now believes is the disorder he has but it gave him a licence to stop giving himself a hard time for not being like other people.
“But coming with this great sense of relief is a huge deal of grief and loss and the pain/suffering that comes with it. You’ve got to work through it, don’t deny it. I had chronically low self esteem until I got into adult education. Even though I excelled at my studies I didn’t believe I was good enough. This is common to lots of [ADHD] sufferers.
“People told me at school ‘You’re a spacer’ ‘You don’t care’, ‘You’re not motivated’. I was trying hard but getting nowhere. I was totally stressed and anxious. There was always this sense of impending doom, fear the whole thing would fall apart. Years later in one job I was managing a project and it was burnout stuff for me.
“Day to day I would have difficulty with organisation and structure. I have to write things down, I can’t be separated from my filofax. Another area I’ve problems with is returning phone calls. Or I’d walk into a room and forget what I’d come in there for. All my bills are direct debits now or else I’d forget to pay them. Sometimes I’d set out with the intention of cleaning the room and my eye would get caught by an article and I’d forget the cleaning.”
Tom, who is waiting on an appointment with a specialist to get a “proper diagnosis” says he received “fantastic support” from Rose Kavanagh of the Galway based Irish National Council of ADHD support groups.
“The key thing is there is hope. I still get wound up but it is important to remember the condition can be managed and you can have a contented life.”