Organised & Systemised NOT Neat & Tidy

Read this article about the effectiveness of ADHD medications in adults.

My daughter Malka and her husband were walking out the door to go on a two-day vacation, when Malka turned around and called out to me, “Oh, and Ma, don’t forget to give Shulamis her Ritalin tomorrow morning.”

“Don’t worry, dear,” I said. “You just have a good time and don’t think about the kids.” Malka had left me a detailed list of instructions for watching her four children, who ranged in age from two to ten. The list covered the morning get-up-and-get-out routine, the afternoon homecoming-and-homework routine, and the supper-bath-bedtime routine.

Armed with my faithful list, I got through the next morning smoothly, and congratulated myself on a successful morning when the last of the children climbed onto her bus and waved cheerily to me through the window.

It was later that evening that I remembered Malka’s parting instruction to me. I was trying to help Shulamis, her seven year old, get ready for bed, but Shulamis took forever to get into pajamas, brush her teeth, and settle down. When I finally covered her and tucked the blanket tightly under her feet, the way she liked, she sat bolt upright and wailed, “But Bubby, I forgot to do my homework!”

I looked at her and said, “And I forgot to give you your Ritalin.”

Then I added, “Maybe I also needed to take Ritalin, to remember to give you yours.”

We both laughed.

I was born several years after World War II, to parents who married before the war, spent the war years in different concentration camps, and were miraculously reunited after the war.

Looking back, I am astonished at the way they managed to pick up the pieces of their lives and give my siblings and me a healthy, normal upbringing. I always felt cherished and secure, and although my parents talked frequently about their wartime experiences, I never felt traumatized the way other children of survivors did.

My main challenge, growing up, was school. I was a bright kid, and I was eager to learn, but I daydreamed my way through class and consistently got low marks on my tests. In those days, teachers had no problem showing overt favoritism, and naturally, they were partial to the kids who did well. Dumb kids like me were out of favor.

Once, I was standing near my teacher, and I heard her tell another teacher, “Give Toby a doll and let her sit all day and look out the window.” There was not even an effort made to lower her voice so that I shouldn’t hear.

I very much wanted to go to college and become a scientist, but my grades were too poor.

In those postwar years, shidduchim weren’t the highly scripted, carefully vetted process they are today. My husband Levi and I met, we liked each other, we got married. Never mind that he was a highly educated academic and I had barely earned a high school diploma; never mind that his family was yekkish and mine was chassidish.

In my family, time had never been much of an issue. But to my husband, time was holy. If we were supposed to be somewhere at eleven o’clock, he’d be there at exactly eleven. To me, eleven o’clock was merely a suggestion. At 10:30, instead of starting to get ready, I’d think of something else that I had to do before I left, and that task would always take me longer than I expected. Invariably, I’d show up late, huffing and puffing, and find my husband irate and beside himself.

My answers to his oft-asked question of “Where were you?” were never satisfying to him, and each time I resolved to be more punctual. But it was always a struggle.

Keeping house was a challenge for me, as well. I didn’t know how to pace myself, how to allot enough time for each of the tasks that had to be done each day. I remember one memorable Leil Haseder at which I hosted 14 guests. My husband and the guests came home from shul, and I was still in the kitchen frantically preparing the lettuce, the chicken, the horseradish.

The following year, I made sure to be ready for Pesach ahead of time. All the cooking was done days in advance, and on Erev Pesach, I took my children out to a nearby forest for a hike.

When a friend of mine heard about this, she was scandalized. “Toby, that is so disorganized.” I laughed. It was only because I was so over-organized that I was able to take my kids out on a trip while practically every other Jewish woman was scurrying around her house doing last-minute preparations.

I couldn’t leave anything to chance. If I tried to wing it through the day, I got hopelessly mired in the laundry, the cooking, the child care, and half the tasks I meant to do fell through the cracks. With time — and after countless occasions when my husband expressed extreme frustration with my scatterbrained tendencies — I learned to make lists of everything that had to get done. I started using a daily planner and a notebook, writing down every task and planning when to do it and how much time to give it. The hardest part, for me, was remembering to take along the appropriate list when I left the house.

Each time I left the house, I’d ask myself, “Did I forget anything?” I’d mentally run through all the items I’d need during that particular excursion — purse, house key, car key, money, baby bottle, umbrella — and nine times out of ten, I had to go back and get something important that I had forgotten. My parting words to myself when I walked through the door became, “Toby, don’t forget the list!”

Another problem I had was finishing what I started. When I was working in the kitchen, I’d run to check the laundry, and then forget about whatever it was I had started to cook. Then, the kids would come home from school, and I’d jump up and say, “Oh, my goodness, I completely forgot about supper.”

Even in my conversations, I had trouble finishing what I started. I’d begin by talking about one thing, then jump to a completely different subject, and then backtrack to the previous subject, or two subjects earlier. My conversations, like my life, were chaotic. I could start talking about the new dress I had bought, interrupt myself to mention that one of my kids had done well on an important exam, and then interject that a neighbor had died, before going back to how much the dress had cost.

I could rarely relax, because my mind was always busy thinking about what I had to do next and what I was forgetting. These thoughts continued racing through my head at night, keeping me awake much of the night and making me feel tired and sluggish in the morning.

Running a house and taking care of a family was so draining for me that every once in a while I had to go away for a few days by myself, just to have some peace and quiet. Even that wasn’t enough. During a regular week, when I’d find myself feeling like a spinning top, I’d drive three-quarters of an hour to the beach, and just sit there and watch the waves for five minutes, until I felt relaxed. Then I’d go right back home, where I’d try my best to live up to my husband’s yekkish standards.

Eventually, I learned to leverage Levi’s maddening orderliness to my advantage. At the beginning of the week, I would sit down with him and he would help me plan my week: when to do the shopping, which days we had simchahs or other obligations, when to start preparing for Shabbos. Often, when I had to be somewhere at a certain time, I would say to him, “Levi, can you help me figure out what time I need to leave the house in order to get there on time?”

This teamwork took the edge off the issue that was the biggest source of contention in our relationship. After the children grew up and got married, things became a lot easier, because by then we both had cell phones, and I was able to call Levi and let him know if I was going to be late. He was still frustrated by my tardiness at times, but at least he didn’t have to worry about me or wonder when and if I was going to show up.

Seven years ago, Levi passed away at the age of 59. I was heartbroken. Like every marriage, ours wasn’t perfect, and we had our issues — mostly related to punctuality and efficiency — but we were best friends and cherished soulmates nonetheless. All my life I had struggled, but now, for the first time, I suffered.

At around that time, my daughter Malka took her daughter Shulamis for a psychological evaluation. Shulamis was having trouble concentrating in school, finishing her homework, and keeping her things organized. After she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and placed on Ritalin, my daughter Malka decided to get herself evaluated as well. Like me, she had always had trouble with schoolwork, and I can’t even begin to describe how messy her room was when she was growing up. When Malka was young, I didn’t know what ADHD was, and it was only when she filled out the questionnaires in the psychologist’s office about her daughter that she recognized herself in those questionnaires.

After Malka got herself diagnosed, she called me up and said, “You know, Ima, you probably have ADHD, too. Why don’t you get yourself evaluated?”

“Oy, Malka,” I said. “I’m over 60, okay? I managed until this point, I’ll continue to manage. Abba is not alive anymore, I’m not raising children anymore — who am I bothering if I don’t go on medication?”

“Ima,” she replied, “maybe you should do it for yourself?”

I really didn’t want to get myself evaluated. But as the months went by, I kept thinking about it. And then came the day when I forgot to give my granddaughter Shulamis her Ritalin. Seeing the difference in her behavior with the medication and without it made me wonder how different my life would be if I’d be willing to face my problem and actually do something about it.

If I do have ADHD, I reasoned, then I should probably know about it before I leave this world. So I booked myself an appointment with a psychiatrist.

Five minutes into the appointment, I knew with certainty that I had come to the right place. Out of nine conditions for ADHD, I checked off seven. I had ADD, without the “H” for hyperactivity.

“You’re a very intelligent woman,” the psychiatrist told me. “You managed to adapt and function well despite your ADD. But it depleted you, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” I admitted.

“Were there things you always wanted to do that you couldn’t?” he asked.

“I always wanted to get a college degree,” I confessed. “But I was never able to study, so I couldn’t.”

“I want to hear from you in two years’ time that you’re in college,” he said, before writing me out a prescription for Concerta, which is a slow-release form of Ritalin.

Half an hour after I took my first Concerta pill, the world started to look much clearer. It was as though a veil had lifted from my mind. The day I took my first pill was a Friday. For the first time in my life, my Shabbos preparations did not feel harried. I knew exactly what I had to do, and the finish line — candlelighting time — seemed like a goalpost, not like an ominous, hazy monster that hovered above me mockingly.

I lit candles calmly, exactly on time. How proud Levi would have been to see it! And how sad that he would never get to know the new me. I cried fresh tears of sadness, wishing he could still be alive now to marvel at the change in me and share a good laugh over my metamorphosis.

The next day, I went out to a shiur, and for the first time I could remember, I was actually able to pay attention through to the end, instead of spacing out or falling asleep in middle, as I usually did.

Being diagnosed with ADD at age 66 was bittersweet. Sweet, because I feel that the fog has dissipated from my brain, and I now have a new lease on life. And bitter, because my life, and my marriage, could have been so di. erent had I known what the problem was and gotten medication and therapy to remedy it.

If Hashem saw fit to keep me alive, that means I still have a job to do in this world, and I still have to grow and change. Obviously, it was His will for me to get a diagnosis and treatment at this stage in my life. But to all those who are struggling, with ADHD or any other issue, I say, get help now! And to all those who think they are too old, I say — do it anyway! Hashem gave you life, and He wants you to live it to its fullest.

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© Mishpacha Magazine Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Mishpacha Magazine.

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