As a boy, Mike Garza struggled in school. He missed graduating with his high school class because he failed Spanish. Three times he flunked out of college.
"All through school, I couldn't stay focused," he said. "I always wondered what was wrong with me."
At 62, Garza finally learned why it took days for him to complete a project that others finished in hours. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder had stalked him his entire life.
Now 70, Garza said he still deals with the distractions and impulsivity of his youth, but as an adult, ADHD affected his life in different ways.
"When you get older, you don't have the energy you had at 25 or 15, so your hyperactivity slows down," he said. "But it's still like you have a motor that's always running."
Garza is among an estimated 11 million people in the U.S. with ADHD, a neurobiological condition that causes poor attention, restlessness, impulsivity and procrastination.
The biggest misconceptions about ADHD in adults are that it doesn't exist and that children outgrow it, said Dr. Aashish Parikh, a psychiatrist with the ADHD Clinic of North Texas in Arlington. But about 50 percent of people continue to have symptoms into adulthood.
The disorder affects about 4 percent of adults in the U.S., but only about 11 percent of them receive treatment, according to Children and Adults With Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
In February, a CHADD support group for people of all ages was founded in Tarrant County to raise awareness and reach out to those affected by the disorder.
"There is a population out there that is isolated and needs some support," said Kari Dossett, co-founder of the group. "We know ADHD tends to be misunderstood."
Whereas children with ADHD may be more hyperactive, adults are more restless, Parikh said.
They may have difficulty multitasking and sitting still during a meeting, or they may make impulsive decisions that others question.
Adults tend to have frequent job changes and failed relationships, Dossett said. Low frustration tolerance, boredom, time-management problems and procrastination are common.
"At home, they may forget to pay the light bill," Dossett said. "In relationships, they may not be able to read social cues, so they end up blurting out things or interrupting people."
Garza knows the difficulties well. "I heard thousands of times that I was not trying or I was just lazy," he said.
He developed coping strategies, relied on organizers and channeled his hyperactivity into sports. "The thing that saved me is I started playing tennis real young," he said. "It helped get rid of some of that energy."
Although he bounced from one college to another and tried different jobs, he eventually earned a doctorate in psychology in 1976 from East Texas State University.
Soon afterward he found success teaching, first at El Centro College in Dallas and later at Brookhaven College, but it was not without challenges. "When I started teaching, sometimes I would show up on the wrong day and wonder, Where were my students?" he said.
Relationships were also rough. He's now in his fifth marriage. "People with ADHD tend to get bored with relationships," he said.
Difficult to diagnose
Lack of understanding and stigma can make living with the disorder difficult for adults. But just as challenging is getting diagnosed in the first place. There's no blood test to prove that someone has ADHD, Dossett said. Rather, the diagnosis is based on the client's history, standardized behavior rating scales and observation.
The disorder is difficult to diagnose in adults because it can mimic other problems, Parikh said. It also requires a thorough evaluation that looks at how the individual's life is being affected.
"That's not something you can do in 15 minutes," he said.
Some people assume that anyone who can make it through college doesn't have ADHD, but that's not true, Dossett said. Some, like Garza, learn to compensate and may not know what is causing their difficulties until late in life.
"Oftentimes a parent finds out they have it when their child is diagnosed," Dossett said. "They see their child struggling and then that light bulb goes off."
Garza finally got help after he asked his physician for medication to help him focus.
Adderall, a commonly prescribed stimulant, changed his life. "It was the difference between night and day," he said.
Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin work for about 75 to 80 percent of adults, experts said. Nonstimulants, antidepressants, even blood-pressure medications are also used. The medications do more than control the symptoms, Parikh said.
"One of the best reasons to treat ADHD is really self-esteem," he said. "If your whole life you have been told negative things about yourself, it's going to have an effect. Treating ADHD doesn't just improve concentration, it helps them feel good about themselves."
Mood disorders are so common with ADHD that Parikh said he rarely sees a patient with ADHD by itself. Garza, who lives in Farmers Branch, said he has dealt with depression throughout his life.
In addition to medication, life coaching and cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective.
Having lots of structure also helps, Dossett said. Finding the right job is very important.
"Stay-at-home moms often struggle with this because there's little structure," Dossett said. "Knowing your strengths is also very important, but sometimes people with ADHD don't have great self-perception, which is important in making career choices."
Garza, who founded the Dallas chapter of CHADD and serves on the organization's national board, said he was lucky to fall in love with teaching.
After failing every class his first semester in college while on a full tennis scholarship, he just kept trying.
"Now I tell my students to write perseverance on their foreheads," he said.
Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664