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Brain On Fire: How I Navigate College with ADHD

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UMKC chapter.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never felt comfortable. 

In elementary school, I always remember dreading the days the teachers told us that whatever we didn’t finish in class would be homework. With my levels of inattention, I knew good and well that it would all be homework for me. In high school, I desperately wanted to do it all, but it was nearly impossible for me to manage my time and stress without getting burnt out. In college, I started noticing myself fluctuating between immensely high levels of focus and motivation followed by periods of intense fatigue and overstimulation. 

I felt out of control, as if everyone else received a guidebook on Being A Successful Human and I somehow hadn’t managed to pick up a copy. I was angry with myself for how much effort it took to get up each day and complete tasks that I not only wanted to do but seemed to come so easily to everyone else. With every lost key, late assignment and procrastination-induced all-nighter, I felt defeated. 

One day while in therapy, I mentioned some of these issues to my therapist. I expressed shame for the neurotic state I always seemed to be in. When I told them how I felt, they asked if I’d ever heard of neurodivergence. 

Dr. Nick Walter, author of Neuroqueer Heresies, defines neurodivergent people as having a “mind that functions in ways which diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of ‘normal.’” Common identities that fall under the neurodivergent umbrella are autism, ADHD and dyslexia, however, the label neurodivergent is not limited to these identifiers.

Now that I have an ADHD diagnosis, daily tasks feel a lot less like a losing battle. I’ve been able to apply techniques specifically designed for people whose brains work like mine–like minimizing external stimuli and body doubling. I now understand why the typical time management and attention strategies never worked on me: color-coded planners and good intentions can only take you so far when your brain is on fire. 

If you’re like me and are struggling to navigate college as a neurodivergent person, this list is for you. I am not a therapist or doctor, and while I do work in academic mentoring, I am far from an expert. As such, this list should not be viewed as comprehensive or universally applicable. This list is just how I help myself. I hope that by offering it to you, some of what I have learned may help you too.

1. I let my room get a little messy sometimes

Before getting diagnosed with ADHD, I was very hard on myself for having a disorganized room. Don’t get me wrong, I like a clean space as much as the next person. But attaching shame to my ability to keep a tidy space only makes my executive dysfunction worse. 

Instead of allowing cleanliness to define my identity, I began letting it define my situation. For example, if my room is impeccable on Monday and a disaster by Friday, I try to walk myself back and understand why that may have happened. 

For Example: 

Unproductive: “My room is so messy and it’s never going to get better. Why is everyone else able to keep their room clean and not me?”

Productive: “Is my room messy on Friday because I prioritized my exams this week? Great! Let’s find time to clean it on Saturday.”

In the productive example, I didn’t allow shame to be the motivator in getting my room clean. Instead, I replaced the shame I used to feel with grace. A messy room does not have to mean an unproductive life.

This logic doesn’t have to stop with a messy living space. Reframing issues associated with neurodivergence as situational rather than personal can oftentimes make them feel less debilitating.

2. I use my accommodations as often as I need

I will preach about accommodations from the rooftops every day if that’s what it takes for others to use their own. The accommodations I receive for my ADHD may not be the same as yours, but some common ones you can request are extended time on homework or exams, alternate locations for testing or having a note taker in class, but you aren’t limited to these options. 

When I was first diagnosed, I hesitated before using my accommodations. But the more I learn about myself, the more I realize just how necessary they are. I’ve learned to accept that it is not unfair to others to make adjustments that better serve my mental health needs. 

If you’re interested in receiving accommodations at your school, check out your university’s disability or accessibility services offices. Requirements will vary from school to school, but for more information on implementing accommodations at UMKC, click here.

3. I keep multiple planners

Some may call it overkill, but I call it adaptive. The truth is, that keeping a planner is not always a realistic expectation for me. Some weeks I don’t use one at all and it feels like a burdensome chore. Other weeks my planner cannot leave my side. Depending on a wide variety of factors, time management aids fluctuate in their levels of effectiveness for me. This is why I let myself have options. 

I use an Outlook Calendar to schedule when I’m out and about, write in a handwritten planner for assignments and to-do lists, and utilize a dry-erase weekly planner to manage my daily tasks. It may sound like a lot, but the variety not only keeps me from getting bored, it allows me to have multiple backups for those weeks when using a planner just isn’t in the cards. 

4. I surround myself with other neurodivergent people

As a neurodivergent person, I didn’t realize how lonely I was until I began hanging around other people who think the way I do. As a neurodivergent child, I always felt like I was a little too much. Too complicated or too loud; too impatient or too needy. By surrounding myself with others who understand how I feel, I’m starting to feel like I’m more than enough. 

At UMKC, there are several ways to connect with other neurodivergent students on campus. A few of my favorites are the Neurodivergent Student Union and Unmasking: A Neurodiversity Discussion Group. If you attend a different university or aren’t in college, I encourage you to check out online groups for neurodiverse individuals and check out the local resources they recommend. 

Having friends who don’t expect me to change integral aspects of my identity to remain their friend has made a world of difference in my mental well-being. While neurodivergent people aren’t the only ones who can provide that kind of support, immersing myself in like-minded individuals was the catalyst for feeling accepted. 

As a late-in-life diagnosee, I’d be lying if I said getting diagnosed completely changed my life. I’m still fairly hard on myself when I notice my room is getting a little messy and I’m still chronically late to every coffee shop date I plan. But in many ways, having a label has made life more manageable. Having the language to describe the ways my brain works allows me to show myself grace for the parts of myself that don’t always look good on paper. 

My therapist often says that when you’ve met a neurodivergent person, you’ve met one neurodivergent person. We are not a monolith, and not one of us has the final say on how neurodivergence manifests. Whether you see yourself in this article or not, I hope it is clear just how widely different the experience can be from person to person and how important it is for us to take care of each other. 

As neurodiverse people, our brains may never not be on fire. Learning to live alongside my ADHD, not despite it, has made a world of difference in how I approach caring for my mental health. I hope that by showing ourselves grace, destigmatizing accommodations and uplifting the neurodiverse community, we can start to appreciate the warmth the fire brings rather than dousing the flames to avoid being burned.

Kale Marie (she/her) is a third year undergraduate student studying sociology and theatre at UMKC. Outside of writing for HerCampus, she is the President of UMKC Trans+ and works in Academic Support and Mentoring. In her free time, you can find her touring local coffee shops, reading books about whatever she's currently passionate about, and directing/designing for local theatre companies.