Order Neil Peterson's
Embracing the Edge
on Amazon today.

Or buy it at the Edge Foundation. All profits from the sale of the book go to support the mission of the Edge Foundation.

View Neil's latest traveling blogs





Neil Peterson is an affiliate member of the National Speakers Association and frequently speaks to organizations on a variety of topics. Learn more

You may contact Neil about speaking engagements at:
(206) 910-7515

Writing is both mask and unveiling. 
- E.B. White

Any editor will tell you – writers can be a notoriously difficult group. Prone to perfectionism, deep melancholy, and the sense that – given a little extra time – literary genius would be available for the taking. This is, of course, only slightly in jest. However, it is interesting to note that much like the composers featured in a previous post, some of our written tradition’s finest authors have displayed traits not uncommon to people living with ADHD today. For those so diagnosed, it can be both comfort and inspiration – and in some cases, a cautionary tale. It can be proof that it is not the challenges that one faces, but the way in which one overcomes those challenges that tells the true story.

Learning Difficulties Awareness

Note: This selection features two writers who have frequently appeared on lists making the case for historical diagnoses.

Ernest Hemingway

As a celebrated writer and journalist, Ernest Hemingway remains on of the most respected literary icons in the American canon. His crisp, elegant prose has influenced several generations of modern writers, from contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald to J.D. Salinger. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novella, The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway was the focus of much public adoration during his life. Much of his fictional work was based on his personal experiences – as an ambulance driver during World War I, his impassioned interest in the outdoors, and his career as a war correspondent during two major wars – the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

Despite his professional achievements, his numerous emotional struggles paint a portrait of a man at odds with his genius. Hemingway had a succession of marriages and divorces, and his career often required continuous upheaval. These struggles, in addition to debilitating depression, mirror symptoms associated with ADHD – specifically an inability to maintain focus and a seemingly chaotic lifestyle. Although he would lose his battle with depression, dying by his own hand in 1961, his exalted place in literary history is certain.

Emily Dickinson

American poet Emily Dickinson never achieved the public celebrity and praise extended to Hemingway – fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime. Shying away from the respected forms and styles of the day, her work has been lauded for its unconventional approach to voice and imagery, and for her choice of subject matter. Her preternatural occupation with death and immortality is evident in the majority of her works, and is likely a response to her own struggles with depression – causing her to completely withdraw from social life in the years prior to her death.

Much of the speculation regarding a possible ADHD diagnosis likely stems from this illness (often seen in tandem with today’s ADHD cases), as well as her educational difficulties. Though an enthusiastic reader, Dickinson struggled with scholastic demands, transferring between several schools before abandoning her formal education altogether. However, despite her interrupted studies, Dickinson’s literary output is extraordinary – over 1800 poems reveal the complex, unconventional talent of this pre-modernist poet.

From certain angles, these life stories may seem disheartening – but it is important to note that both of these subjects lived in a time with absolutely no medical knowledge or understanding of ADHD, or associated mental illnesses. In that light, the remaining published works are a testament to their will and talent – a triumph that only those with ADHD can truly grasp.

The myriad of factors responsible for the development of ADHD may be still largely unknown to us, but while medical research into the causes of the disorder is only recently beginning to shed some light on the condition and its genesis, the symptoms have been well-documented throughout the centuries. This idea appears most notably in the 1798 writings of Sir Alexander Crichton, whose term ‘mental restlessness’ is believed by many to be the first recognized attempt at labeling and understanding ADHD. So, this may not be a modern disorder at all – but rather mistakenly labeled as such because historically the indicators of ADHD were never categorized under one common appellation. While today’s physicians can correctly diagnose the hyperactivity and inattentiveness as a known phenomenon – these same traits witnessed in the mannerisms of some of history’s most well-respected figures can only be viewed as clues into a larger mystery.

From Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, historical biographers and those interested in uncovering the ‘secret history’ of ADHD have found evidence to support their claims – mostly in anecdotal stories that seem to point to some other factor at play than simply pure genius. By viewing these biographies in the light of what we now know about the specific facets of this disorder, we may better understand the mental impetus that propelled these men to create works that are still enjoyed – and studied – today.

Note: In the interest of cohesion, this particular selection features composers who have frequently appeared on lists making the case for historical diagnoses.

George Frideric Handel

Though today Handel is mostly remembered for his oratorio The Messiah, featuring the still-popular ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, in his day this German-English Baroque composer was regarded as an accomplished and early musical talent. Having become a ‘skilled performer’ at the harpsichord and pipe organ by age 7 (incidentally the average age at which ADHD begins to manifest), he published his first two operas, Almira and Nero by age 20. Despite his father’s wishes of a career in law, Handel continued his musical works, garnering acclaim from composers of his day (among them Mozart and Beethoven) for the way in which seemingly simplistic melodies could deliver such strong effect when combined. At his death, Handel had over 40 operas, 29 oratorios and 120+ cantatas, trios and duets to his credit – and The Messiah is still performed annually in cities around the world.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Considered by aficionados and musical scholars alike as the greatest composer to have ever lived, Mozart produced over 600 works during his short life – many of which are still performed and celebrated today. Like Handel, Mozart was a child prodigy – first developing his interest in the keyboard at the age of 3 while watching his older sister’s lessons. Mozart began composing his own works at 5, and travelled with his family throughout Europe performing for the royal courts. Much has been made of his lifelong ‘restlessness’ – no doubt the reason for his frequent inability to sustain tenure as a court composer, the accepted position for a composer of his abilities in that era. Although he was constantly working, searching out new musical challenges, Mozart would die penniless at the age of 35.

Young Mozart Marionette

Robert Schumann

An influential 19th century Romantic composer, Schumann was the first to marry literary tradition with classical music. Influenced by his father, a bookseller and publisher, Schumann began his early professional career as a writer and critic. He would later create musical works based upon fictional characters – at the time considered an innovative approach – most notably in his compositions Papillons and Carnaval. Schumann was also fond of inserting symbols into his works, as the opening notes of each Carnaval section corresponds to a letter, spelling out Asch in German. (Likely representing a Bohemian town of that period and in reference to his name). Despite success in both music and literary fields, Schumann struggled with depression – which today has been linked in some studies to ADHD. Although an injury suffered in his 20′s would prohibit Schumann from playing piano, he continued to compose pieces for the instrument until his death in 1856.

We may never be able to say conclusively that ADHD had a role in the celebrated and prodigious achievements of these figures – but it may indeed be true that to fully comprehend the vast potentials and abilities hidden within this disorder, we have to ferret out the signals left by those who came before.

Terry Bradshaw is a hard guy to ignore – not that you’d want to. The four-time Super Bowl champ has become a fixture of the American football tradition – known as much for his legendary professional career as for his informed yet brash commentary as a game analyst on Fox NFL Sunday. Quick-witted, and quick-to-laugh, it’s hard to imagine Bradshaw being challenged by much. But in recent years, Bradshaw has revealed his personal challenges, becoming an advocate for millions of others like him who have struggled with clinical depression and ADHD. His is a story of true natural talent, but also one of perseverance under unknowable circumstances.

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Bradshaw comes by (what friends refer to as) his ‘Good Ole Boy schtick legitimately. A natural athlete, he set a national record for the javelin throw while he was still in high school (earning him his first mention in a Sports Illustrated feature). But it wasn’t until he began playing football at Louisiana Tech University that people truly started to take notice of his exemplary physical talents. His powerful throwing arm led to a junior year #1 ranking in the NCAA, and helped Louisiana Tech score a winning season and victory over Akron at the Rice Bowl. By his senior year, Bradshaw was considered by many pro scouts to be the most outstanding college player – an opinion that was amplified by his selection as the first draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1970.

His early NFL career was not without its setbacks. Although he was named to the Steelers’ starting line-up only one year into his pro career, coaches and commentators alike were not kind, criticizing his playing as erratic, and mocking his Southern roots. (This came in lockstep with jokes deriding Bradshaw as dim-witted. Knowing of his struggles with ADHD, one can only wonder how much more psychologically ruinous this kind of media attention had on the young player.) Once he adjusted to the unique demands of the professional league however, Bradshaw was a force to be reckoned with.

What happened then is now the stuff of NFL legend. His leadership (both as quarterback, and as an on-field play caller) propelled the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles, and eight AFC Central championships. During his distinguished career, Bradshaw was twice awarded the title of Super Bowl MVP, as well as being named to several All-Pro and All-AFC selections. A chronic elbow injury would eventually end his career in 1983, but his lasting impact on both the Steelers’ franchise, and the NFL will never be forgotten.

The Immaculate Reception

In the more than two decades since his football career ended, Bradshaw has become a modern Renaissance Man. In addition to sport broadcasting (for which he has been awarded 2 Emmy’s) he has also co-authored several books, built a successful horse breeding business, recorded several country/gospel albums, and parlayed his hard-won celebrity into numerous television and movie appearances.

His life-long struggle with depression has also played an important role, prompting him to discuss his story in an effort to remove the social stigmas surrounding the disease and urge sufferers to seek treatment. For those who remembered the golden boy of the NFL, and the new generation of fans watching his weekly game coverage, his brave willingness to discuss what most certainly is a deeply painful account is a revelation – that Terry Bradshaw, one of the most celebrated quarterbacks in NFL history faced his greatest rivals not on the field, but in his own mind – and won.

From the outside in, Emmy award-winning actress Mariette Hartley appeared to have it all. A successful career acting on stage, film, and television, co-authoring a best-selling memoir, Breaking the Silence, and performing an acclaimed one-woman show. But is the life behind the scenes that is raising public awareness of an entirely different sort of existence – the personal day-by-day struggle of living with mental disorder.

The granddaughter of infamous psychologist John B. Watson, whose studies in child development would have a marked effect on her early life, Hartley witnessed the suicide of her father and her mother’s slow descent into alcoholism. Despite her growing professional success, Hartley struggled throughout her early adult life with depression, alcoholism, an abusive marriage, and promiscuity – things she would later learn were symptoms of undiagnosed bipolar disorder. It was Hartley’s own experience in seeking treatment that has pushed her to become an advocate for others suffering with bipolar disorder, and to act as Honorary Director of the American Suicide Foundation.

In 1994, Hartley was first diagnosed with depression – an occurrence that hinders the doctor’s ability to treat the underlying disease. As most bipolar patients are pushed to seek treatment only when experiencing a profound low, doctors often mistake one for the other, resulting in a course of treatment with anti-depressants that can potentially trigger manic episodes. It was her experience in pursuing an alternative diagnosis that has brought to light a surprising connection between ADHD and bipolar disorder – both the commonalities of how the disorders manifest and the potentially dangerous results of misdiagnosis.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

The difficulty in diagnosis stems from the similar traits witnessed in both those with ADHD and bipolar disorder – among them intense emotional reactions to life events, impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity. While ADHD exhibits as a chronic disorder, and one that can often decrease with time, bipolar disorder is episodic and its effects can increase as the patient ages. To properly diagnose either disorder, and to treat the symptoms, there must be a thorough, detailed evaluation of how it manifests – a step that can be hindered if the patient is a child. (Many pediatricians are not fully trained in distinguishing the nuances between each, so if there is a genetic link with either disorder, it is best to seek the consultation of a child psychologist.) Misdiagnosed, it can take years to find the correct medications to address the symptoms.

ADHD and bipolar disorder can co-exist, prompting some researchers to speculate that there may be a third disorder that is not yet known. It is important to note however that in most cases, ADHD is the most likely culprit – occurring in 3-5% of school-age children, while bipolar occurs in less than 1%. But given proper medical attention and treatment – whether through medication or psychotherapy, patients are able to lead full, productive lives.

In sharing her own struggles, Mariette Hartley’s story has been reflected in the challenges faced by others, bringing greater social acceptance and understanding to this community. But it is an endeavor that is not yet finished. It is important to recognize that for those living with either of these disorders; the social stigmas can be as difficult to overcome as the symptoms.