ADHD is “Get-Out-Of-Able”: My Interview with Dr. Ned Hallowell, the Godfather of ADHD | Ep. 5
On his 70th birthday, Edward (Ned) Hallowell, M.D. shares his unflinchingly positive outlook about adults with ADHD and the gift it can be in our lives.
Dr. Hallowell's 1994 best-selling book Driven to Distraction remains one of the single most important books about adults with ADHD ever written. His latest book, V.A.S.T., argues that ADHD is an outdated name and that Variable Attention Stimulus Trait is a much better one.
Finally, Dr. Hallowell shares his belief that ADHD is “get-out-of-able.” That diagnosing, treating, and learning to harness ADHD's gifts puts an end to the suffering it can bring.
Learn More about Dr. Edward “Ned” Hallowell
- The Hallowell Centers
- Books by Dr. Hallowell
- Dr. Hallowell on ADDitude Magazine
- Distraction Podcast with Dr. Ned Hallowell
- Dr. Hallowell's Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Two Quotes from Ned Hallowell
“In my career, I have not been treating disabilities. I have been helping people unwrap their gifts.”
“ADHD can ruin your life and just make life a living hell if you don't know what's going on. And that's so sad because this living hell is get-out-of-able. You don't have to live in it. You don't have to suffer.“
|1:53||Introducing Dr. Ned Hallowell, the Godfather of ADHD|
|3:21||ADHD—Better than “Minimal Brain Dysfunction,” I guess?|
|4:15||Dr. Hallowell's ADHD origin story|
|5:27||I have ADHD, and I know I'm not deficient, disordered, or disabled.|
|6:24||“People who with ADHD, which I have, I knew for a fact could do very well in life.”|
|7:38||If you believe you're unwrapping a gift, unearthing a talent, promoting a strength, your attitude is 100% different than if you think you're getting some disability fixed.|
|8:38||V.A.S.T., the Variable Attention Stimulus Trait|
|9:56||“ADHD” is a completely inaccurate and misleading term.|
|13:45||Living with ADHD is like playing a really, really difficult musical instrument.|
|16:31||Living with ADHD requires work and practice and honing skills.|
|19:05||Lawyers don't know what ADHD is, and what they do “know” is wrong.|
|20:30||Once you get the ADHD diagnosis, your life can only get better. The treatments we have can only lead to improvements.|
|21:52||Untreated ADHD knocks 15 years off your life and addiction is about 10 times higher.|
|23:45||I deliver new life in my office every day by making this diagnosis and offering treatment.|
|24:03||ADHD has its downsides. If you don't know what is going on, it can make life a living hell. And that's so sad, because this living hell is get-out-of-able.|
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Marshall Lichty: Hello everyone. It's Marshall. I'm a lawyer and I have ADHD. Thanks so much for being here today and happy new year and happy holidays. It's 2020 this is JDHD. It's a podcast or lawyers with ADHD. There are tons of us out there and so if you're new here, welcome. Listen, I want to give you a quick update on JDHD.
Marshall Lichty: First of all, it's hard and it's imperfect, but it is live. I have episodes up, and I have a bunch more in the can. You know what though? I'm a perfectionist and I'm trying to make them perfect and I've just got to go. So I'm gonna launch some great episodes this year in the coming weeks and I'm super excited about it. I've been having incredible conversations. I've been talking with Sam Glover at Lawyerist. I have been talking to Ned Hallowell on his podcast, Distraction. I have been having conversations with real live lawyers all across the country, in fact all across the world who have ADHD and who are interested in building a community with us. So thank you for being here. Thank you for being a new subscriber and for showing me vulnerability and curiosity.
Marshall Lichty: Listen, I want to talk about this episode because it is insane. I can't believe this. I don't know how to say this without it sounding like a humblebrag, but my goal was to have this interview sometime in my first 100 episodes.
Marshall Lichty: I am so thankful that I got to chat with this next guest. He is—literally—the godfather of ADHD himself. He graduated from Harvard undergrad is a psychiatrist with incredible credentials and has dyslexia and ADHD and some of his own imposter syndrome and all of the things that we talk about here. But in 1994, he wrote a book called Driven to Distraction and it is literally the Bible for people with ADHD, particularly adults. He has written 21 books now including Driven to Distraction and Delivered from Distraction. He has a podcast called Distraction. I am so thankful that I had a chance to talk with Ned Hallowell. Listen to the episode. Here it comes.
Marshall Lichty: Dr. Ned Hallowell. Thank you so very much for being here on the JDHD podcast. We really, really appreciate it. Well, it's my pleasure to be with you. So I've heard you called in various circles, the godfather of ADHD. I don't know how you take to that phrase.
Ned Hallowell: Oh, I'm honored by it. Any comparison to Marlon Brando, I'll be happy to take it.
Marshall Lichty: As I recall very early on in your training for psychiatry, you attended a lecture and learned of ADHD and the wheels started turning.
Ned Hallowell: Well, of course, the real answer to that question, I've been doing it for as long as I've been alive, which as of today is 70 years. So, you might say my training began 70 years ago, but my formal training, the kind that it really is not nearly as important as real-life training was indeed in 1981 when I was a fellow in child psychiatry at Mass Mental Health Center, which is a teaching hospital of the Harvard Medical School, a professor—Elsie Freeman was her name, and I'll be forever indebted to her—gave a talk about this condition that I honestly had never heard of. I had heard of it during my adult residency in reference to some patient, and some resident came in and said, you know, this guy might have minimal brain dysfunction in adults that he gave me a paper from Mass General about MBD in adults.
Ned Hallowell: And so that was sum and substance of my exposure to this condition, which in fact, it used to be called minimal brain dysfunction. But when Dr. Freeman gave her talk the condition had been renamed attention deficit disorder. Hyperactivity hadn't been stuck into the name yet. So I learned it as ADD (“attention deficit disorder”). And as she began to read the symptoms I had this great a-ha moment, maybe the single greatest a-ha moment of my life in terms of epiphany: namely that I had it. But at the same time, I also realized—which I'm continuing to emphasize—that the medical model, the model in which I was trained slanted it entirely in the direction of pathology. So, so you were told you had this condition, but you were told it in a mouthful of polysyllabic pathologies, attention deficit disorder (now, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
Ned Hallowell: And I knew that wasn't true. Because I mean, I'd gone to Phillips Exeter Academy, which is a very rigorous high school up in New Hampshire, a boarding school. And then I'd gone on Harvard which is a pretty good college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then I'd gone to Tulane Medical School, a wonderful medical school down in New Orleans, and then back to Harvard for residency, internship, and residency in psychiatry. And so I knew I was not the deficient, disordered, disabled. Yes, I faced challenges, which everyone does. I also knew I'd known this for a long time, that I was an incredibly slow reader. Yeah. And I have dyslexia, which is another condition that's misunderstood because the upside of dyslexia is a talent with words. And in fact, I'd majored in English at Harvard while doing premed and graduated with my honors.
Ned Hallowell: And I've just finished writing my 21st book. And I'm small potatoes compared to someone++like Winston Churchill who also had dyslexia, or John Irving, one of our great novelists who has dyslexia. So, you know, people with these two conditions ADD/ADHD and dyslexia, both of which I have, I knew for a fact could do very well in life. And so it became my mission back then in 1981 and continues to be to this day in 2019, almost 2020, to teach the world what it needs to know that these condition conditions managed properly are tremendous assets. And in my career—I've been in practice since I graduated from my fellowship in 1983—in my now long career, I have not been treating disabilities. I've been helping people unwrap their gifts. And that shift in emphasis is tremendously important because if you believe you're unwrapping a gift… unearthing a talent… promoting a strength, your attitude is 100% different than if you think you're getting some disability fixed.
Ned Hallowell: And that shift in enthusiasm emphasis makes all the difference in the world. And it also happens to be true. It's not like I'm blowing smoke. It's not like I'm pretending that there are talents embedded in this condition. It's easy to prove. I can just line up millions of people who have it who've done unbelievably well. But it's also important to know that if you don't manage it properly, it can be a disaster. Life with ADHD (as it's now called) can be living hell if you don't know how to manage it properly. And so my life professional life has been devoted to helping people learn how, first of all, to identify it, to name it, second of all, the not be afraid of it, to embrace it. And then third of all to extract the positive from it and minimize the negative.
Marshall Lichty: Well, and I, that is what has resonated with me from the moment I heard of you and listened to the podcast for the first time and read the book. Is this idea of unleashing some potential rather than simply managing some symptoms that might be a bit pathological. So, I want to look at this from the angle first of all of your next book, which I understand is coming out next year sometime and you call it VAST as if the name that we have labeled this thing with hasn't been wrong enough for long enough. We're now proposing that we finally get it right. And so you've talked about the misnomers around ADHD and you don't think ADHD is right. You haven't thought that ADD was right. You didn't, of course, think that “minimal brain dysfunction” was right. You've called it maybe the “entrepreneur's trait.” You've talked about some other things too, but, but the idea of VAST, the Variable Attention Stimulus Trait to me is so mesmerizing. And I want you to talk a little bit about the book that you wrote with John Ratey that's coming out next year. And why you think that ADHD is a completely inaccurate and misleading term and why VAST is a better one.
Ned Hallowell: Well, just look at the term “attention deficit.” It's not a deficit at all. It's an abundance of attention. The challenge is in controlling it. If it were a deficit, it would be a form of dementia or a form of a sleep disorder or some form of impaired consciousness, which it absolutely is not. So right off the bat, the word “deficit” is not only insulting, but it's wrong. I don't mind… you know, we have to call a spade a spade. And if a thing is, in fact, a deficit, call it a deficit. But it isn't! It's an abundance of attention. We who have this trait have a ton of attention. The challenge we face is how to control it. You know, because boredom is our kryptonite. The minute we're bored, our attention darts off somewhere else. And if we're in the middle of taking an exam or listening to a lecture, we miss everything.
Ned Hallowell: So, “deficit” is wrong. Then the next word, “hyperactivity” is often not present at all. And, even when it is, it overlooks the positive side of it. You know, I'm turning 70 today. I'm really glad to have that. It's called energy. And that's the positive embedded in this negative phrase, hyperactivity. And then “disorder.” Well, it's not a disorder because there are so many positives that go with it. Yes, it can be disabling, but it also can be incredibly enabling. Incredibly positive. So the only legitimate word in the term is “attention” because yes, attention is impacted in this syndrome.
Ned Hallowell: So then I came up with… Actually it wasn't me, it was a woman in one of my lectures at the Cape Cod Institute a couple of years ago who works for San Francisco Public Television… Carrie Freeland (sp?) is her name and she said, “why don't you call it VAST for “variable attention stimulus trait?” And I just loved it. I said, “you nailed it.” I've been looking for this for so long. It's perfect because you put in in the two key elements, our constant search for stimulation and our constant need to control attention. And then you put it in the adjective “variable”, which is absolutely the case. It's varying. And then you nail it with “trait” because trait it says, you know, this is neither good nor bad. It's like being left-handed or right-handed. Like being, having blonde hair or brown hair, you know, it's a trait and what you do with it turns it into something you like or don't like. Now I have no illusion. Believe me, the DSM is not going to rename it. The academic circles… I have no illusions about that. They will scoff at it and they'll say, “Oh, there goes Hallowell off on one of his wild goose chases.” But the fact is the population is with me on this. It's not a wild goose chase.
Ned Hallowell: It's truth. And you know, my term is a whole lot better than attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for the reasons I just pointed out. And renaming it, variable attention stimulus trait will be a whole lot more helpful to the children and adults who come to see me, who don't want to leave my office being just told they have a deficit disorder for goodness sake. When they don't. It will be one thing if they did, but they don't. And so they will be much more motivated to get the help they need if they're working on something called VAST than if they're working on something called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It's just a mouthful of pathology.
Marshall Lichty: I love that about the way that you talk about ADHD and VAST partly because I know that you are an educator about these things. And a lot of times the way that you educate is through metaphor. And one of the metaphors I heard in Philadelphia at the International ADHD Conference was the idea that living with ADHD is like playing a really, really difficult musical instrument. And that metaphor for me was really powerful. And it hits on what you just said, that when you are given an instrument with a desire to play it and you know that it's difficult… You are motivated to master it. Because you know the sound that a violin makes by someone not prepared to wield it is god awful. But my goodness, when you have mastered it over years and years the music that it makes is some of the most beautiful in the world. So I think that that reframing is critical for all of us. And I love that you've…
Ned Hallowell: Well, I love that you picked up on that particular metaphor or analogy because you know, I, I do make analogies. I've called this condition… It's like having a race car for a brain with bicycle brakes. And I'm a brake specialist. I've said it's a, like Niagara Falls until you build a hydroelectric plant. It's just a lot of noise and mist. And I, and I'm in the hydroelectric plant business, so then you can, you can light up the state of New York. But the musical instrument is one that I particularly love because it does imply both the beauty that can come out of it, but also the work it takes to make the music. So this gift does not unwrap itself. You know, it really doesn't. I mean, I didn't become a published author just by snapping my fingers. I had to work really hard starting in grade school and I knew in fifth grade that I liked words.
Ned Hallowell: But boy oh boy. I had to learn grammar and learn Latin and learn rhetoric and learn, you know, all the, all the techniques that go into becoming a writer. And most of all I had to write, I had to write and write and write and write. And, and where I really learned writing at Exeter, that was what they had us do. They, they didn't teach writing so much as they told us to write. And by writing, you learn how to write. Then when someone marks it up with a red pen and then you go back and edit it. And so a lot of work went into my becoming a writer. Well similarly if you want to take your ADD and make music with it as opposed to screechy scratchy sounds like someone who doesn't know how to play the violin, you have to work at it.
Ned Hallowell: And we do, we do have to work at it and you have to practice and hone your skills. And, you know, there are some things we're bad at, like being on time or getting organized or you know, staying on track when something gets boring and, and you have to work at that because you gotta learn how to play your scales and read the music to make the beautiful sound that a good violinist can make.
Marshall Lichty: Well, let's carry it on and carry it forward a little bit to talk about the folks that I talk to every day. I talk to lawyers with ADHD and I talked to lawyers with ADHD whether they know it or not. And let me, I just want to feed you a little bit of information so that we can frame up the way that we talk about it because there's, there's data out there that, that are important to this discussion. You know, we know that lawyers have an extraordinarily high rate of anxiety and depression, substance abuse, alcoholism, addiction, suicidal thought, divorce, a whole bunch of pathology. We have done very little to explore those And, and that's why I think it's so fascinating to hear about you and your practice and to hear about you and your own ADHD. These are things that are real in our profession. We also have lawyers self-identifying at 12.5%. The number of folks who self identify as having ADHD that are lawyers is 12.5%.
Ned Hallowell: Wow. And that's self-identifying. So you could probably multiply that by three to get the real one.
Marshall Lichty: Sure. And that goes to this statistic that 80% or so of adults are not diagnosed with ADHD even though they're walking around and they have it. It's complicated indeed by the fact that folks who are smart tend to be more difficult to diagnose because of their ability to cover up some executive dysfunctions that might otherwise show up. And so, you know, here we are with this group of people with you know, compulsive behaviors and addictive behaviors and a whole bunch of things that make it hard to diagnose, not to mention the stigma of licensing and the concerns about credentialing.
Marshall Lichty: Where are we when it comes to unlocking this vast potential in lawyers with ADHD to help them contribute in the ways that they know they can, but they haven't?
Ned Hallowell: Well, your podcast I think will go a long way. It's a matter of how do you bring good news to someone who is not ready to hear it and your population is not ready to hear it for the same reason doctors aren't and other professionals aren't. They don't know what it is. And what they do know or “know” is wrong. They think it means you're stupid or they think it means you're unreliable. They think it'll ruin their career. They think they have to keep it secret from the bar association. They think their patients won't… who wants to see a lawyer, an attorney who's got ADD? That's the worst thing in the world. Right? You know, the same way… Who wants to go to a surgeon who has ADD? It's the worst thing, right? Well, a lot of surgeons have it.
Ned Hallowell: And a lot of trial attorneys have it. The reason being people with ADD are drawn to high-intensity situations. Well, what is more high intensity than an operating room or a courtroom? Both the crucibles of high intensity. And so you'll find a lot of people with VAST or ADHD there. But these folks don't want to hear the good news cause they think it's bad news. I think they think it's their dirty little secret or they just deny it altogether and say, I don't have it. And the reason that's such a shame is there they are costing themselves the quantum level of improvement in their life that they could get if they embrace the diagnosis and got the right help. I mean this is a condition… once you get the diagnosis, your life can only get better. The treatments we have can only lead to improvement, only lead to improvements.
Ned Hallowell: I could spend all day telling you stories of professionals who just who told me to go jump in the lake at first and then, and then they now send me Christmas cards. They love me. And it's not me they should love, really. It's, it's the message and the message is so empowering and you know, and it's by the way, not only do their legal careers take off or their medical career or whatever career take off their relationships get saved to go from on the brink of divorce to falling in love again. They go from being a terrible father or mother to being a wonderful father or mother. They go from being a completely unreliable friend to being a wonderful friend.
Marshall Lichty: Doctor, I don't like to focus too much on the negatives. Again, without being naive, I like to face them head-on. I'm going to ask you a two-part question though. So one of them is what is, you talked about the costs and the benefits. What are the costs for folks who pretend like they don't have ADHD or they pretend like it doesn't exist? What do some of those costs look like? And maybe you can hit that quickly.
Ned Hallowell: Well, right at the right of the top of the Russell Barclay's most recent statistic, he's one of the great researchers in the field. And really if you want to know any numbers, call Russ Barkley. He's a Prince of a human being. Anyway, his research shows that this condition undealt with knocks about 15 years off your life, 15 years due to all the various problems people with ADD encounter. Now, what are those problems? Well, addiction is about 10 times higher, 10 times higher. Depression is much higher, the suicide rate is higher. Absenteeism from work is higher, divorce is higher. The prison population is full of people with undiagnosed untreated ADD, violent behavior, car accidents, violent crime, all kinds of problems with lying. People with ADD lie. They don't call it a lie, but they don't tell the truth.
Ned Hallowell: Not because they're malevolent, not because they have no conscious because they forget. They overlook and they resort to subterfuge. So there they don't pay their taxes. They don't file on time. They make all these kinds of mistakes that come back to haunt you and they get bitten in the butt. And then they just chalk it up to, well, I'm not disciplined enough. All the things they've been told since first grade, I need to get my act together. I need more discipline. And then they get down on themselves. I say I guess I'm just a loser. And they get depressed and they start drinking or using drugs and they start failing. And you know, it's a downward spiral and it's a terribly sad story. What makes me just want to scream is it's completely avoidable if you get the diagnosis and get the treatment, that horrible negative story of sturm and drang can turn into an absolute Christmas Carol of joy, laughter, and new birth. I mean, truly this diagnosis I have before I became a psychiatrist, I was thinking of becoming an obstetrician. Well, I feel like I am one. I deliver new life every day in my office by making this diagnosis and offering treatment.
Ned Hallowell: It's such good news. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there isn't a downside. I just told you the downside. It's horrible. It can ruin your life and just make life a living hell if you don't know what's going on. Oh, that's so sad because this living hell is “get-out-of-able.” You don't have to live in it. You don't have, you don't have to suffer.
Marshall Lichty: You've talked about treatment and I think, I think the way I want to wrap up, and maybe we'll move into it shortly here, but before we do you've talked about treatment starting with education. It is literally about the first building block is learning what this thing is and demystifying it so that you understand what those challenges that need to be overcome and can be overcome are so that you can unlock that potential. And so speak just very briefly about when you get treated does it tend to start with someone like you, a psychiatrist, or can it start anywhere else in the world?
Ned Hallowell: Well, you're absolutely right. The first step is education. And sometimes it begins by reading one of my books. You know, sometimes it doesn't begin with a professional at all. They read the Driven to Distraction or Delivered from Distraction.
Ned Hallowell: And they have an a, I've heard this hundreds if not thousands of times, they start crying. They say, my God, how does this person know me so well? Has he been living with me? I mean, you know, because in those books I really drill down into the granular details of everyday life and far more than the stupid list of symptoms in the DSM. Not to say it's stupid, but it's very reductionistic and it doesn't get to the meat of it all. And, and so in those books, I really flesh it out. And you and the people, men, women, children see themselves so vividly and they see themselves portrayed in such a sympathetic way with, with answers attached to this is what to do. And so often the treatment, if you will, begins simply by reading a book or, or, or talking to someone who understands it.
Marshall Lichty: And I'm going to drop those in the show notes. I will promote them everywhere in the entire world because that has been the experience that I have had and the experience of folks that I have spoken with about my ADHD and about what it looks like to start getting treated for ADHD as an adult. I will, you know, Driven to Distraction and then Delivered from Distraction are two extraordinary books. And if you have a hard time reading them, listen to one audiobook, they're available there too. So we'll drop those in.
Marshall Lichty: But I think doctor, I want to be respectful of your time, especially here on your birthday. We're very thankful for you. And I think maybe the best way to talk about all of the positives literally is to point people to your entire body of work. Those books, the writing that you've done online the new book that is coming out because I know that you believe it in your core that this is a strength and I do too. And,
Ned Hallowell: But I should, I want, I just want to add to that, which I really appreciate your saying, but my even greater achievement if you want to call it an achievement you might as well is the 30-year marriage that I've had to the most wonderful woman in the world. I couldn't have even begun to do any of it without her and the amazing three children we've had: Lucy who's 38 and Jack who's 27 and Tucker who's 24… They all inherited my ADD and they all are thriving and, and I often tell people I have achieved my life's most cherished goal, which is with Sue leading the way, my wife to give our kids the happy childhood I didn't have. And, and it's just a, again, today is special day cause I'm turning 70. But that, that is what I'm most proud of and I couldn't have done it without understanding my add. I couldn't have done it without knowing why I am the way I am and what to do about it. If I just relied on chance, I would have flubbed up over and over and over again.
Marshall Lichty: Well, I have a quote sitting in front of me that is resonant. “The key to a happy, successful life is to pair up with the right person and find the right job so you can work in your sweet spot.” And that if I understand you, Dr. Hallowell is a pretty clean and tidy way to describe your perspective on this vast potential that we have with ADHD and the way that you bring it to us is really critical. Say I have one favor to ask as we close, I have a listener her name is Liz and she has a question for you.
Ned Hallowell: Okay.
Liz: Hi Doctor Hallowell! This is Liz. My question is, what is one thing that you wish the world would know about adults with ADHD?
Ned Hallowell: That if they will take it seriously and learn about it, it can change their lives dramatically for the better.
Marshall Lichty: I think that's great and I think it's a really clean place to finish up. Dr. Hallowell. Once again, I can't thank you enough on behalf of my family, we've, we've read your stuff and we listened to the podcast, but on behalf of a vast community of professionals and coaches and adults and kids with ADHD, the work you do is important. Your ambassadorship, your role as the godfather is wonderful. And I can tell all of you find Dr. Hallowell, find him on his website, which is drhallowell.com. He has from a stage in front of thousands of people said, “My personal email address is email@example.com.” And when I sent an email to that address, he responded within minutes.
Ned Hallowell: Yeah, absolutely. I want people to know that. And it's drhallowell, no period. Drhallowell@gmail.com. I'd love to hear from your listeners and, and back at you for doing the favor you're doing to attorneys. What a huge group of people who could be really helped in a big way. And then, of course, there's the ripple effect. All their clients who get help and, and you know, so it's like helping the doctor. It's helping the attorneys, you know, the really incredibly important professions where there's a higher than average rate of this condition that I call VAST.
Marshall Lichty: Doctor, happy birthday. Enjoy it, enjoy it so much and you know, to many, many more years of living with ADHD and changing the lives of others who do as well.
Ned Hallowell: So much for the work you do. It is a pleasure talking to you.
Marshall Lichty: So, that is Dr. Ned Hallowell in all of his glory. I'll tell you what, if you liked Dr. Hallowell, you can find him just about anywhere. Like I said in the intro, he has written 21 books about ADHD. He is all over the internet, including his own website, which is drhallowell.com. You can find him @distraction_pod on Twitter or @drhallowell on Twitter. And as you heard in the episode, you can literally email him at his Gmail address: Drhallowell@gmail.com. This guy is the quintessential giver. He wants to make the world a better place by sharing the news about ADHD with an unflinchingly positive approach, and that's what you heard in this episode. That's what you read in his books and you can hear it dripping from his voice. He gave us a gift on his 70th birthday and it was to talk to all of you about your ADHD and I'm so thankful that he did it. So that's really it. I hope you enjoyed the episode. Please reach out to me. Please connect with us. Let's do this together. Let's make ADHD easier. Law is hard enough.