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Q&A with writer and director Michael McNamara

It was the diagnosis of a long-time friend — a successful professional in his 50s and father of three — that triggered Michael McNamara’s interest in ADHD.

Until then, the Toronto writer and filmmaker did not realize that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, was a concern for people his age, let alone a condition that could be diagnosed in adulthood.

“As my friend told me about his diagnosis, it explained much of what I knew about him: He is smart and funny and eccentric and careless and often late for appointments,” McNamara recalls. “I soon learned these are all symptoms of ADHD.”

McNamara was so intrigued by his friend’s experience that he started work on a documentary film that would highlight the challenges of being an adult with ADHD.

Watch the trailer to ADHD: Not Just for Kids here.

Two months into his research, and soon after his 62nd birthday, McNamara discovered that he too had ADHD.

Though he does not reveal this fact in his film, ADHD: Not Just For Kids, McNamara says his diagnosis informed every aspect of his work, from how he framed his interview questions to understanding the feelings of stigma attached to having a mental disorder.

Ahead of his film’s broadcast premiere on CBC’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, McNamara, now 63, talks to the Star about his journey with ADHD.

What was it like to discover that you had ADHD?

I had been interviewing a number of people who had been diagnosed with ADHD later in life, and the kinds of stories they were telling me — about the problems they had, things they remembered from their own childhood — they all started to sound familiar, much like my own story. It was a bit of a shock to me. I had never been diagnosed with ADHD as a child, never had any psychological issues. But I did some more research and, along with my wife, took the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale questionnaire (a screening tool developed in conjunction with the World Health Organization): I checked off all the boxes. She did not. So, I went to a specialist, did some more tests and soon had a diagnosis of ADHD.

When you look back on your past, does your diagnosis make sense?

Just like everybody I had interviewed, a lot of things came into sharp focus for me about past behaviours that had been frustrating me: problems with procrastination, problems with beginning a task and following through, regulating my emotions. These are symptoms that sound like normal behaviour and normal human interactions, but for people who have ADHD, they are taken to the extreme.

Did you pursue treatment?

I did. The treatment, in use for 50 years now, is effective. It is a slow-release stimulant, so you don’t get high off of it, you get normalized. I also went to see a coach to help me learn new skills to help me cope with my behaviours, including procrastination. It has transformed the way I work.

The problem with adult ADHD is that people will often say: ‘Why don’t you just try harder? Why don’t you just buckle down?’ One of the doctors who I talk to for the film said that’s like asking someone who is nearsighted to not bother with glasses, to just squint.

There are many people who have not been diagnosed and who are quite happy and successful. They may be lucky to have a supportive partner or a job that keeps them constantly stimulated.

It really comes down to functionality. If you are highly functioning already (with ADHD), then there is no reason to be seeking treatment. It’s understanding what your limitations are and seeing whether they are getting in the way of your goals. That is certainly one of the motivating factors in the people in the film — that they feel that something was missing and they got treatment.