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Recently, a friend confided in me over thosai and masala chai: “I think my husband has ADHD.”

I was incredulous. Her husband is a scholar and successful educator who has held several leadership positions at his workplace. On occasions when I had met him, he seemed socially adept. How could he have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder?

Like many, when I hear the acronym “ADHD”, I conjure up images of restless students who cannot keep still or pay attention in class. But hyperactivity is only one of the symptoms of ADHD.

Adult ADHD symptoms may include impulsiveness, poor time management or prioritisation skills, restlessness and mood swings. Those with ADHD can be easily frustrated and have trouble coping with stress, which often leads to angry outbursts.

Adults, even high achieving ones, could be living with the condition, undiagnosed and untreated, causing them angst and frustration in their relationships, school and careers.

According to Dr Lenard Adler, a leading researcher in adult ADHD and a professor of psychiatry at New York University, the condition is prevalent in about four per cent of adults worldwide, and at least 75 percent of these people do not know that they have it.

That is a significant statistic.

Adults with undiagnosed ADHD are at a much higher risk for serious problems such as mood disorders, extreme sadness, and anxiety. They also get fired from their jobs more frequently or impulsively quit, underachieve, slowly losing their self-esteem, confidence, drive and joy in life.

Not Your Typical “ADHDer”

unlocking adhd
Moonlake (right) being recognised by Minister of State for Education and Social and Family Development Sun Xueling for being on the inaugural Singapore 40 over 40 list. Image source: Moonlake Lee

Moonlake Lee, 52, only found out she has ADHD two years ago.

“I was a little bemused when I found out. As I was on the borderline, I wasn’t sure whether I really had ADHD,” Moonlake tells The Pride.

Moonlake, who celebrates her 29th wedding anniversary this year and has four degrees under her belt including a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Laws, did not exhibit “typical” ADHD symptoms.

People around her were just as surprised as she was by her diagnosis.

“We seem to have a certain stereotype of ADHD. If someone does not fit neatly into this picture, we dismiss the possibility that they have this condition,” explains Moonlake.

It was only after her then 15-year-old daughter, Alisa Cheng, got diagnosed three years ago that Moonlake suspected she might have ADHD too.

“We seem to have a certain stereotype of ADHD. If someone does not fit neatly into this picture, we dismiss the possibility that they have this condition.”

ADHD has a strong genetic link. If a child has ADHD, one or both parents could have it as well.

“The diagnosis put so much of my past actions into context. As I gradually transitioned from accepting it to wholeheartedly embracing it, it was liberating!” says Moonlake.

Some of her behavioural traits, like impulsiveness, being easily distracted, interrupting people, constantly moving from one thing to another, and the need to always be on the go, suddenly made sense.

In the past, Moonlake compensated by depending on to-do lists (a habit she learned from her grandparents) and daily schedules to keep herself on track. She maintained balance with a regular schedule of journaling, exercise and prayer.

She is also thankful for her “capable and trustworthy domestic helper”, as juggling work, domestic chores and child-rearing without her almost “drove her crazy”.

Years of frustration

unlocking adhd singapore
Alisa says that an earlier diagnosis would have saved her years of frustration. Image source: Unlocking ADHD

Like her mother, Alisa, too, did not have typical ADHD symptoms, but displayed some of the lesser known ones like inattentiveness, which is more common in girls and easily missed. Her poor grades finally led to her being assessed and diagnosed with ADHD when she was in Secondary 3.

Alisa wishes she had been diagnosed earlier, as that would have saved years of tears, frustration, anger and self-esteem issues.

What used to be deemed as behavioural flaws, like laziness and forgetfulness, is now interpreted as a neurodevelopmental issue, which can be treated.

Moonlake confesses that she too, added to Alisa’s burden before her diagnosis.

“Alisa was feeling stupid and there were many negative comments from us parents, her teachers, tutors, helper and even friends. It is tough when it feels like everyone is against you.”

This is why Moonlake is passionate about encouraging parents to get their child, or themselves, diagnosed. “It is better to face things and manage them, rather than keep wondering and be fearful. Labels may not necessarily be a bad thing. We need to own the labels rather than let them own us.”

To manage her condition, Moonlake takes medication and watches her diet. One thing she says has made a difference is the community support she found as an advocate for ADHD.

Unlocking potential, uncovering diamonds

Moonlake Lee, founder of Unlocking ADHD, with her daughter, Alisa Cheng. (Source: Moonlake Lee)

While their diagnoses provided a newfound clarity, there were still many questions.

What next? How could Alisa be supported academically and emotionally? What is it like to live with ADHD and how do other ADHDers (as they call themselves) in Singapore manage?

“My key concern at that time was how to ensure Alisa learned more about her condition so that she could take ownership and manage it independently,” recalls Moonlake.

“She was going to leave home for further studies in a few years, and even if she stayed in Singapore, it is important for young adults to be able to manage themselves. Parents, at some point, have to let go.”

Trying to find answers to these concerns proved challenging.

“If you search ‘ADHD’ and ‘Singapore’, you will find a lot of private clinic and hospital websites,” shares Moonlake. “There wasn’t a local site that provided comprehensive information about ADHD.

“I found resources on US websites and books, articles and webinars by experts in other countries. I learned a lot, but some of the recommendations were for the Western context and not exactly applicable in our local situations.”

Meanwhile, Alisa started to show tremendous improvement after receiving treatment — her grades leapt from an L1R5 of 36 points in Secondary 3 to scoring 14 points for her O levels.

She is now studying in a dental school in England.

“I believe Alisa’s story is not unique,” says Moonlake. “There are other children and young people in Singapore that may have ADHD but are not aware that they have it. I believe that once they get the help they need, they can change their future.”

Armed with this hope, Moonlake wanted to start a “go-to place for anything to do with ADHD” — from those seeking to confirm a diagnosis to those looking for resources on how to live life better.

Unlocking ADHD

That was how Unlocking ADHD was born this year, formally launched in October — ADHD Awareness Month — with a webinar on whether to medicate an ADHD child by US developmental-behavioural paediatrician Dan Shapiro.

Moonlake confessed that, like many of those with ADHD, it took a while before she actually acted on her idea. However, in January, Moonlake attended a workshop to find her purpose in life.

“I defined my purpose as “uncovering diamonds”. I saw ADHDers as hidden diamonds, inherently precious people whose strengths and capabilities were covered through years of shame, low self-esteem and missed potential.

“At the workshop, we also had to map out our future plans. This forced me to take action.”

Through Unlocking ADHD, Moonlake hopes to empower those with ADHD and their families to live life to the fullest.

She explains: “No one chooses to have ADHD… the family is involved too because of the genetic link. We use ‘empower’ because once you find out you have the condition, you can do something about it to live life better.

“We don’t believe in just leveling the playing field with accommodations. We believe that we should aim higher. ADHDers should have a growth mindset to live a productive and successful life.”

An ADHD story behind every volunteerUnlockingADHD

Unlocking ADHD is run by a team of about 75 volunteers who live with ADHD, or have a family member with ADHD.

On the portal, those with ADHD share their battles with heartfelt honesty — many for the first time in public, with hopes to reduce the stigma.

Stories like Andrea Koh’s.

She was diagnosed at the age of 33 last October after a period of immense stress brought on by changes at home and work due to the pandemic.

It provided relief but also grief. A mother to a four-year-old boy, Andrea worries that her son may have inherited the condition. “I cried for a few weeks. I feared that he would also go through the same self-esteem issues as I did,” she says emotionally.

Andrea recalls skipping school when she was young to escape bullies. “Kids used to throw my bag down the stairs. If I did not pick up my stuff in time, they would throw it down the toilet. I felt very alone.”

She was also constantly chided for being lazy, forgetful and being late for appointments — typical ADHD symptoms.

In her teenage and adult years, she retreated online, finding friends and acceptance in the virtual world of online games. It was also where she met her husband, who is also a gamer.

Andrea says her son is her source of motivation for her advocacy work. (Source: Andrea Koh)

Andrea says she worries for her son the most: “I don’t want my son to think that he is not enough. To spend his teenage and adult life searching for who he is, searching for somewhere to belong. What I went through, I can still deal with it. But when I think of my son, that affects me the most.”

Andrea’s son is seeing a private behavioural paediatrician and is in a neurodevelopmental programme for early intervention. His diagnosis can only be confirmed when he starts school, but he shows signs of ADHD.

“As parents, we have to keep advocating for our children,” said Andrea, who works in the public sector doing web analytics.

Andrea is one of Unlocking ADHD’s original volunteers. In fact, she designed its logo. Now, she helps with maintaining its website, social media and has also shared her story on a few webinars.

“It’s been very fulfilling and has helped me a lot in speeding up my healing journey,” says Andrea.

ADHD Volunteers
Clockwise from top right: Unlocking ADHD volunteers Yuan Wu, Andrea, Emilie Tay and Moonlake. Image source: Andrea Koh

The community at Unlocking ADHD has also been instrumental in her journey, says Andrea.

“My fellow volunteers are awesome people! Being around neurodivergent people who can relate to my struggles makes me feel less alone. We support each other during tough times and celebrate small wins together. It is a very wholesome community with a lot of real conversations, something that is rare to find these days.”

Moonlake agrees. “The volunteers are some of the most generous, resilient, positive and compassionate folks I know. We have naturally evolved to be a pillar of support for each other. Many have become friends in the process.”

She also highlighted that authentic and relatable stories such as Andrea’s are the most effective way to connect with people. ADHD presents in such a diverse way that it is helpful to show this in all its different presentations and across age, ethnic, academic and socio-economic groups.

“I am tremendously proud of the volunteers,” said Moonlake. “At times, I was moved to tears by what they produced. We will not be where we are today without the passion and hard work of their dedication.”

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Another example is the launch of the website itself which is testament to the “magic” that can happen when those with ADHD harness their strengths, says Moonlake. About 50 of them worked together to create a wealth of content and videos that went ‘live’ after only seven weeks.

Never stopping, Moonlake already has several plans up her sleeves to better support the ADHD community, including support groups based on demographics and also coaching for parents, youth, adult or school support.

“I really hope to provide resources for the ADHD community so that we can understand the condition more and learn how it affects our daily lives and live with it to the best possible.”

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