So, I’m not sure how many of you know this, but I have ADHD.
I was diagnosed when I was in eighth grade, so I must’ve been about 14. Up to that point, I’d been an okay student. I was always kind of smart, but I was always the really, really disorganized kid– I kept all my papers for all of my classes in one huge folder, because I’d figured out that keeping separate folders or binders meant that I was very likely to accidentally leave something at school that I needed for homework. My desk (or locker as I got older) was always a complete mess, with papers stuffed in every corner. I remember that in fifth grade, if we forgot our calculator in our locker for math class, we weren’t allowed to go get it and so we had to do the worksheet or whatever assignment we had without a calculator– I ended up getting pretty good at mental math because I never remembered my calculator. Basically, I was always forgetful and disorganized– but I was still a fairly good student. I generally paid attention in class, and that usually got me through, even though I struggled with remembering to do the homework.
But as I got older, and the assignments started counting more, and the work got harder and more important, I started to really struggle. I absolutely HATED school. It was for a lot of reasons, one of them probably being that I was still struggling with the fact that I was going through the wrong puberty, but one thing that I had always clung to was the fact that I was “smart” in some way. And in middle school, things started to get really hard. I started doing things like telling my parents I had no homework, or that I forgot the homework at school, when really it was sitting in my backpack because I knew that if I told my parents I had homework, they would make me sit down and do it and I would sit there and think about absolutely everything besides what I needed to do. I would sit down and try to write an essay, and I would start trying to write and fall asleep within 10 minutes even though I’d gotten plenty of sleep the night before. Things that seemed effortless for other kids, like reading the history textbook, were excruciating. I wanted so badly to be able to just read the chapter and be done with it, but every single time I tried to start reading, I would start a paragraph and then I was at the end of the paragraph having no idea what information I had supposedly just processed. I’d try again, and the same thing would happen. I could keep reading the same paragraph for half an hour and still have no idea what it said, until I just fell asleep or got frustrated enough to decide not to do the reading. I remember a teacher once said that reading textbooks could be like that– everyone has trouble reading boring stuff like that. You just have to keep trying and going over it. And so I would– again and again and again, but to no avail. And I just started getting frustrated– with myself, with school, with my parents for some reason– until I was just angry and sad all the time. I was also dealing with anxiety– looking back now, I think I had been experiencing mild panic attacks, which manifested themselves as a sudden, overwhelming butterfly-like feeling in my stomach. I felt symptoms of depression, too, and it was all spiraling into this vortex of “why can’t I do this work? I must be stupid. I’m not smart at all.” It was like impostor syndrome, but for normal, day-to-day life. I think those were really symptoms, rather than causes– I was dealing with gender stuff, school stuff, hormones in general, and all kinds of other things that I just didn’t have the tools to navigate as a preteen.
At a certain point, things started coming to a head. I would be watching TV and my parents would try and get my attention, and I would acknowledge them, and they would tell me something but by the time they’d said the first word I’d stopped paying attention. And they’d tell me again, and I’d lose focus again. And again. My grades were slipping, and there were arguments about that, of course. I felt so moody and so unfocused and so… directionless, might be a good word for it. At this point, I felt like I was sinking, and I couldn’t seem to get ahold of anything to pull myself out.
At some point, I started thinking that something had to be wrong with me. I started googling symptoms of depression, of bipolar disorder– anything that could fit. But nothing did. I knew that, while I did feel sad, it was mostly because I knew I wasn’t living up to my potential, academically and personally. It was actually a health teacher I had in middle school who talked about his ADHD that made me consider that I might have it, just in the back of my mind. And one night, after a particularly nasty argument with my parents about homework, I looked up the symptoms of ADHD online, and realized that they definitely described some of my behavior. So I told my parents. We went to my doctor, and after some tests, it turns out that I was right. I was given a diagnosis of ADHD.
I’d love to say that I got put on medication and that my life just turned around and everything was totally fine from then on. That would, of course, be the ideal situation. But that’s not the case. Medication doesn’t solve everything. But for me, it certainly helped me establish a baseline.
I started to be able to focus in class more. I started being able to stay awake when I wrote essays and did homework. In fact, I started… liking math. In elementary school and most of middle school, I hated math, because if I couldn’t immediately get the answer, I’d get frustrated so easily because all of my ability to focus was just zapped. Now, math was actually kind of interesting, like a puzzle. And if I didn’t understand something, that wasn’t such a horrible thing– I looked it up in the book, or I tried a couple of things to try and work it out for myself.
But of course, living with undiagnosed ADHD for so long took its toll on me. I never really developed some of the skills that other people learned when they were kids, like how to direct your focus, or how to work efficiently without wearing yourself out too much, or just basic time management skills. Those are skills I’ve had to learn as an adult, and that’s not always the easiest thing to do.
Now, looking back, I sometimes wonder how no one ever diagnosed me with ADHD when I was a little kid. I’ve gone back and read some of my report cards and progress reports from elementary school, and many of them say things like “smart, but needs to develop focus in class.” I remember in fourth grade, we weren’t allowed to have anything on our desks that could be distracting, but we were allowed to have bottles of hand sanitizer, so over the school year I used lots of hand sanitizer so I had empty bottles of many sizes on my desk that I made into a “family” of sorts. There was lots of drama in the sanitizer family, and I just sat in class ignoring what the teacher was saying and making up scenarios about the lives of this hand sanitizer bottle family instead. I was also quite a wild child– I would come home from school when I was little and just play Dance Dance Revolution for hours to expend energy. I was the kid whose activity at recess was just screaming. I wasn’t necessarily impolite or anything, but if there was an outlet for me to expend some energy, I expended it explosively.
My point here isn’t to say that everything is great for me now as a college student– it’s actually more the opposite. I still struggle every day with ADHD symptoms. Obviously, the medication helps, but it isn’t everything. There’s the main symptoms that still occur (though less often and less severely), but there’s also the struggles that aren’t caused by the ADHD itself, but rather society’s attitude towards ADHD, and towards mental health in general. First, there’s this stupid, harmful stereotype that all mental health problems can be solved by someone telling you to feel better or try harder, which is just not true, and I think there have been enough articles published on various websites that I don’t have to refute that one.
Another thing that stems from that line of thinking is that mental health medications are just bad for you, and that any issue you have can be cured by some exposure to nature. The version of this I’ve heard most about ADHD is that the stimulants I take every day to function are just study drugs whose only purpose is to help drug-seeking college students get through exams. This is probably the thing that gets under my skin the most, because it ignores the fact that ADHD is real. The mentality is that the evil pharmaceutical industry is drugging our children and taking away their creativity and poisoning them and whatever else people want to throw on that burning garbage pile of an argument. Yes, the pharmaceutical industry in this country is fucked up. It overcharges people for medications they need, and I might even venture to say that in some cases, maybe medication is prescribed in cases where it shouldn’t be as the first option. It is not a valid argument, however, to say that these medications are just “study drugs” and have no other purpose.
From my position, the fact that I take medication for my ADHD sometimes makes me feel like I’m cheating somehow– like I have this “unfair advantage” because I’m taking something everyday that my peers see as a “study drug.” I sometimes catch myself in the back of my mind thinking, “maybe I don’t have ADHD and the only reason I’ve made it this far in college is that I’m taking a study drug.” And I think that’s perpetuated by the way that society views ADHD, and mental health as a whole. It’s a harmful mentality that I think we need to work on.
And, finally, there’s of course the old “oh look a butterfly! Ha, I’m so ADHD.” joke. It used to be much more prevalent, but I still see some form of it once in awhile. On the one hand, I frequently interrupt myself with interjections about things I observe in my environment. It’s a constant thing in my life. And yes, it can be funny. But on the other hand, when someone without ADHD says that, it can seem like they’re minimizing something that is a real issue that some people have to deal with in their lives, or minimizing ADHD to this one symptom, when in reality there is a lot more to ADHD.
Now, that’s not to say that I don’t laugh at myself and my ADHD. I do, all the time. And I think that’s one of the ways that I deal with having ADHD. I can interrupt myself in the middle of a sentence and make a joke to my friends about it, because it’s my way of owning it. I find it funny now when I forget what I’m talking about halfway through a sentence, because when you’re having an argument with your boyfriend about which restaurant is better and you totally forget what your point was in the middle of making it, you can laugh together about the fact that it must not have been that important anyway. I love to make my friends laugh by, in traffic, narrating what other drivers are doing because I want to be aware of my surroundings and the best way to do that is to describe traffic patterns like David Attenborough describing the daily habits of a rare bird of paradise. I can laugh about forgetting to eat sometimes during the day because of my medication, and how I become instantly hangry at about 9 p.m. every night as my medication starts wearing off.
I would recommend that everyone watch Chris Gethard’s HBO comedy special, Career Suicide. He is very open about his own struggles with mental health, and how he was able to find the humor in it all. It really inspired me to write this post, because maybe someone will change how they think about ADHD.