Sitting in a class for my minor, learning how to identify different neurodevelopmental disorders and illnesses in students who might one day sit in my classroom, is not somewhere I ever anticipated learning something about myself. Discovering that I had ADHD at nineteen felt like whiplash but also clarity- somehow at the same time. It felt like something that definitely should have come up sooner than it did, but I could also track exactly why it didn’t. I was in the National Honors Society and multiple AP classes in high school, student-body vice president and drama president, performed well in school and multiple extracurriculars with no problem getting into colleges that I wanted. My social circle was also fairly wide- I was supported and relatively well liked. I know that sounds braggy, but I promise I’ll make up for it with deprecation soon.
There were definitely aspects of my ADHD present in high school, especially the socio-emotional side, but losing the structure of my incredibly rigorous high school schedule as I transitioned to college was when it got bad. But in special education classes, even as I heard the symptoms listed off and ticked dozens of boxes on my own mental checklist, I initially denied myself the agency to associate with the disorder that I pre-labeled as childish and immature. Even still, I slowly learned clinical terms for the things I hated about myself. Sitting at my desk, staring at my blank Google Doc for two and a half hours straight with the cruelest words running through my head because I couldn’t start this basic task that everyone else just could was called “executive dysfunction*.” Withdrawing, ruminating on the flaws of my every word, and not talking anymore at all because someone in the group gently and nonchalantly informs me I’ve been talking too loud is called “rejection sensitive dysphoria*.” Running through a list in my head of the multiple tasks I know I have to accomplish but being too overwhelmed by the length of the list to choose any one of them to start (and consequently doing nothing instead) is called “decision paralysis*.” I thought all of those were just personal flaws and failures until I learned that ADHD is so much more than what it is made out to be in the public consciousness.
The reason I never identified this sooner is both because it got worse in college but also because everything (almost) always got done. I wasn’t missing assignments and I got good grades, but the only reason that that was happening was because I was able to shame myself into a corner at the very last moment to find enough motivation to get anything done- not a sustainable way to live, but effective. To me, there was nothing wrong with my brain, I was just lazy. I was just unmotivated, irresponsible, and a chronic, if high-achieving, procrastinator. I was defective. With ADHD in adults, especially for me and especially before it is recognized or diagnosed, the factor that is talked about and recognized the least is the shame.
Shame rears its head throughout all parts of life when you live with ADHD, especially socially. As an adult woman, the stigma of ADHD being associated with young children, lives in my mind with everything I do. I work with students with ADHD every day, and I see so much of myself in them that it causes me to police myself in social settings to maintain an air of maturity. My brain moves so quickly that I sometimes interrupt people without meaning to, just to show active engagement or because I can’t stop myself fast enough. I often ramble in conversation because I don’t think linearly and everything I say reminds me of something else or because I’m afraid to forget the thought passing by. Some part of me always has to be in motion or I cannot keep focus, so I find myself bouncing my leg, picking at my nails, or fidgeting with whatever is around me or on me (often jewelry), which is not a very becoming nor grown-up sight. I consider myself to be “too much” in the way that a third-grade boy calling out in science class or drawing on a desk would be considered “too much” and moved to the back of the class. I don’t have an apt parallel of being moved to the back of the class as an adult, but the social consequences of being “too much” certainly exist.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the negative effects ADHD has on my life. I didn’t touch on the guilt and self-hate associated with the disorganization, forgetfulness and atrocious working memory**, and the fact that my very first “car-warming” gift was a Tile to attach to my keys to locate them when, not if, I lost them. I think that I have been in a constant state of looking for something since I was maybe thirteen. Unpacking everything there would take a novel, not an article. But as much hatred that I have for this disorder in myself, I also recognize that it makes me a more creative, quick-witted, hard-working person than I’d ever be without it. The same hellscape brain that I have that makes it nearly impossible to think linearly or focus on fine details is incredibly good at coming up with innovative, big picture ideas and putting in the work and effort to get it done in an alarmingly short amount of time if I’m passionate about it. (You should see the virtual Disney World field trip I put together for my students.) The same rejection sensitivity that makes a mountain of self-doubt out of sociorelational molehills makes me even more in tune to how I speak to and empathize with other people, be it friends, students, colleagues- anyone. My own forgetfulness and disorganization (which is getting better, but Rome wasn’t built in a day) makes me more compassionate and understanding with forgetful, disorganized students and allows me to support them better because I know where they’re coming from and I know what has helped me. I know for me that seeing my first Type B education professor meant the world because it showed me that I don’t have to appear perfect or completely put together to make a significant impact. The speed at which thoughts move through my head is sometimes nightmarish, but sometimes it makes me funny! It’s all a balance.
Me being me, I had about 73 goals for writing this article, but I think the primary one was to just highlight the complexity of ADHD that is completely missed. I don’t want people to think of me differently because of it or to gain pity, but I do want to be able to express that part of myself without thinking the other person is infantilizing me or labeling me as those horrible things I labeled myself as for so long. I understand that it’s difficult to comprehend things like executive dysfunction and decision paralysis unless you’ve experienced them, but I do want you to believe that they’re real if someone trusts you enough to confide in you about them. At the very least, I hope you can understand that ADHD is a lot more multifaceted and genuinely impactful than most people really know.
*Do more research on these terms if they sound really familiar/relatable or you just want to learn more! My examples are really specific fragments of my own experience, but there’s so much more to them.
**Working Memory: the ability to hold information in the short-term memory while completing another task
If you want to learn more about ADHD, check out some of the great resources below that are both really solid for information and entertainment, because everyone’s experience with this disorder is so different!:
(Sorry there are no books, kind of ironic!)
- I Have ADHD with Kristen Carder
-More Attention, Less Deficit with Dr. Ari Tuckman