Vancouver park commissioner Sarah Blyth remembers when her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was so severe that she considered ending her life.
“I would always be scared to end my own life, but I think, when you don’t fit into the world the way everyone else does, and you don’t understand why and you don’t really know what to do about it…you know you’re just as smart as everyone else, but you’re just not able to do the same things,” Blyth, who just turned 39, told the Georgia Straight while sitting in a Kitsilano coffeehouse. “I think that it can be confusing, especially for young people.…I am sure there were times [I was suicidal], but I could never do it. I’ve thought about it.”
According to the provincial education ministry’s online information on ADHD, approximately three to five percent of school-aged children have the condition, which is a neurological disorder whose sufferers usually exhibit “significant impairment related to inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity compared to average children of the same age”, the special-education section of the ministry website states.
Downtown-based neurotherapist Dr. Paul Swingle defines basic ADD as “neurological imbalances that affect the ability to concentrate”.
He said that, for people who have to focus for long periods and think on their feet in the political arena, ADHD “can be a real problem”. And even renowned author Ernest Hemingway was not spared its vagaries, he claimed.
“It’s said Hemingway always wrote standing up,” Swingle said by phone from his office. “He had a typewriter on a mantle-like shelf. There are individuals who pace up and down in terms of doing their reading and studying.”
To counteract the more stressful elements of her condition, Blyth said, she has started doing yoga, thanks to her job comanaging the West Cordova Street–based New Fountain shelter, owned by the Portland Housing Society, which offers the classes. She said she also loves getting out on the soccer field, and plays (mainly) defence for PHS outfit the Portland Phoenix.
Not surprisingly, Blyth said she looks back on her school days with a certain horror but has learned to have a sense of humour about what were chaotic days.
“Well, you’re more aggressive,” Blyth added. “You’re different socially, I think, when you’ve got attention deficit disorder, especially when you’re hyperactive, because you tend to be a bit impulsive. So you’re poking other kids and fighting. I was a big fighter and a big poker, you know?”
Now Blyth is going public about her condition, she said, in part so that other kids won’t suffer the same way she did.
“Mainly, I want to raise it because it’s more about learning disabilities and mental-health issues and kids growing up, and I feel like, maybe if they looked at me, they could go, ‘Well, she’s sort of doing stuff with her life, even though she had challenges growing up,’ ” Blyth said. “That’s why I wanted to, because I know that young kids suffer. When I was told as a kid that I had a learning disability, you think there’s something wrong with you. You know that you are different and you learn differently.”
A long-time educator and school psychologist, Sarah’s father, Forbes Blyth, said he and Sarah’s mother, Nancy, were always supportive of their daughter—a fact Sarah acknowledged during the interview. He said he remembers a tough period for Sarah until she really changed things around when she was about 25 and sought counselling after going through the bleak, dark period.
Now, Forbes said, he is “not at all surprised” that his daughter wants to be a role model for others. And she plans to run for another term on the park board in Vancouver’s civic election this November.
“She’s personable and people like her,” Forbes told the Straight by phone. “She’s able to accomplish things, consensual goal-setting type things. People are happy when they are around her and they’re happy after they’ve been around her. I’ve always known that she’s had those qualities. To me it was the most natural thing imaginable, that she would get into the public life. She sort of was already. She was in the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition. She was a founding member of that.”
Pete Quily, a local ADHD coach who has ADHD, told the Straight he was pleased to hear about Blyth’s coming-out.
“I wish more politicians had the guts to do that,” Quily, who majored in political science at the University of Alberta, said by phone. “I think one of the things that nowadays people want from their politicians is honesty. And if you’re asking for honesty, it can’t just be, ‘Honestly, I’m just going to tell you all the good things I’ve had, and none of the possible things that could be negative.’ And ADHD can be both negative and positive. One of the positive aspects of a politician [with ADHD] is, they are curious. They are going to ask questions, right?”
Quily also noted that people come out over allegations they’ve cheated on their spouses, or that they evaded their taxes, “but rarely over an inherited neurological condition” such as ADHD.
Swingle said the problem with adults with ADHD is not really the neurology.
“That we can deal with pretty efficiently with neurotherapy,” Swingle said. “The problem is the psychological baggage as a function of the effects of the condition.”
A 40-year-old male with ADD that’s been untreated is a good example, the doctor added. Such a person will walk into his office, sit down, and say he’s just laid-back, but disorganized.
“I look them in the face and I say, ‘You don’t believe that for a moment,’ ” Swingle said. “They can’t hang on to a job. Their relationships are crashing all the time. I can fix the neurology easily, but making sure this guy understands that there is a behavioural issue here, that’s the real challenge.”
In closing, 66-year-old Forbes Blyth admitted he himself almost certainly has ADHD, or at least ADD, and recalled when his teacher wanted to “make a change” for him out of the regular class—and into a special-needs class—back before ADHD officially existed.
“We’re talking 1952, so it’s a while ago,” he said. “My mother refused, you know? She had a temper tantrum, as red-headed Glaswegians are wont to do. She got the support of my family doctor.”