If there is one thing I enjoy, it is learning new things. If there is something I enjoy more than that, it’s learning new things about myself. Nowhere does this fascination manifest itself better than in my relationship with my own disorder: ADHD. I love watching a new video about ADHD or reading an article, because it usually gives me a ‘Eureka’ moment. Something just clicks. So that’s why I behave this way. So that’s why I react negatively to this specific circumstance. In so many words, so that’s what’s wrong with me.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert on ADHD. I am not a medical journalist, heck I’m not even a journalist. I’m just a guy who grew up with a mental disorder, who’s trying to pass on a bit of his experience.
First thing’s first, let me tell you what ADHD is not. ADHD is not being distractible. ADHD is not being excitable. ADHD is not ‘lol im so random.’ Sometimes those things are a PART of ADHD, but those things by themselves are NOT ADHD.
“My mom tells me I have ADHD because of how random I am OH LOOK A SQUIRREL.” That is a statement that has been actually said to me. It makes you cringe, right? To go further, that is a statement that has been actually said to me by a person that I can guarantee you does NOT have ADHD. That was a person seeking a laugh. A child with ADHD, even if that was what actually was happening in their head, would not be able to string that statement together amidst the distraction. A teenager with ADHD would rarely have a group around them that they could make that joke to. An adult with ADHD would be as frustrated with that joke as I am.
It’s a little bit like the difference between being super organized and having OCD. Just because you are organized, does not mean you have OCD. In fact, some might argue if you can break your routine enough to make yourself organized, you probably don’t have OCD. Or the difference between being sad and depressed. Just because you are sad sometimes, or even a lot of the time, does not make you depressed. In fact, some might argue if you can actually feel the feeling of sadness, you probably don’t have depression. These might be generalizations and overstatements, but I hope my point is coming across. Just because you have something that’s associated with the thing, doesn’t mean you have the thing.
So what’s the difference? How do I know that I have ADHD and that I’m not just distractible? One of my favorite speakers on ADHD, Russell Barkley, says it this way: “Disorders begin when impairment begins.” In other words, a disorder prevents you from doing stuff.
ADHD, academically speaking, is sort of a spectrum right now, much in the way autism is. There are people in the academic and medical communities that are trying to split it up into specific disorders with different names and different subtle differences, but I think grouping it all into the same curve is good enough for right now rather than trying to go into specifics of ADD and SCT and further. The cause is up for debate; some people say it is the result of genetics. Some have attributed it to pesticides in drinking water, or exposure to smoke or sugar. Some even blame TV and video games, and some go as far as to blame parenting. I’m not going to sit here and debunk each and every one of these claims, that’s not what this post is about. Suffice it to say that, in my personal opinion and experience, genetics is your best bet.
One thing I will address though, is the people that don’t even believe ADHD exists. I can hear it now almost as clearly as the dozens of times I’ve heard it before. “We didn’t have all these fancy diseases even a few decades ago. All it is is just doctors giving bad behavior an excuse.” You know what else we didn’t know even a few decades ago? How dangerous lead was. It was in literally everything, for literally no reason. You know what else was big just a few decades ago? Asbesthos! Heck, a few decades ago a significant amount of our population still wasn’t allowed to vote based on their skin color. But we know better now don’t we? That’s the thing about time, it keeps moving, and things rarely stay constant, even science and knowledge. Previous ignorance of a thing does not disprove a thing.
Here’s what I know: I have ADHD, and it has impacted my life in a multitude of ways.
Any expert will tell you that the big points of ADHD are impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention. Some people will attribute more symptoms, such as a lack of motivation, a lack of social skills, poor memory, but I think that those can all be traced back to the big three. When I was young, I used to literally cling to the people I called my friends. I did a lot of weird things, such as attempting to jump over people, taking things that I hadn’t asked for, sometimes I’d stick my face right in another persons face. I had no semblance of personal space, but there was no barrier in my mind that told me any of this was inappropriate, even as I was being scolded and punished by teachers, and bullied and beat up by my peers. I’d think in the moment, ‘Oh, that was bad. I shouldn’t do that again.’ But the barrier wasn’t there. I’d get an impulse, and I’d act on that impulse.
To begin explaining how it has affected me, let me explain one more thing: ADHD has nothing to do with knowledge. I personally can be a testament to that fact. All through my school career I would get fantastic test scores and excellent grades. I was frequently on the honor roll in high school and graduated cum laude. College was rougher admittedly, but I still graduated with about a 3.5 gpa and 2 degrees. ADHD is not a knowledge disorder. Again, to quote Russell Barkley, “It is a performance disorder.”
ADHD is often mistaken for selfishness or laziness. Procrastination is a common trait with those who have ADHD. Not because we’re inherently lazy, but because we are inherently unable to deal with time in an organized manner. Mentally, next Tuesday is as distant from me as the first Tuesday in November. Distant deadlines are all equally distant. Procrastination happens when the distant deadline becomes an imminent deadline, and suddenly it’s the foremost thing in my mind and it’s a crisis it has to get done right damn now and why didn’t I just start this before ok I have 7 hours before this is due where are my materials where is my research what was the prompt ok now I have 6 hours I can hammer out a rough draft in 2 and then go to sleep and I’ll set my alarm for 7 so I have an hour to edit before I have to walk to class and…
Of course all of that could have been prevented, which is why people will call it laziness. I knew what the deadline was, and I had plenty of time. Luckily, I’ve been able to train myself a little. I know now that breaking something down into multiple deadlines can get things done in a much more timely manner. I still procrastinate to each deadline, but big projects are now multiple little projects. I am not always able to implement this strategy, but I have overcome some of the difficulty.
In my life, ADHD has manifested as noise. Static if you will. I am constantly fighting through a fog of half-thoughts and flittering ideas. There is a layer of my mind that has melodies repeating over themselves, partial conversations both had and imagined, recollections and new ideas, all fighting for the foremost of my attention against what is happening around me right here and now. For me personally, it tends to effect my speech. I’ll begin a sentence, instantly lose the point of my sentence amid the distractions, and then…. Age and experience have taught me to apologize and say I forgot my point, laugh at myself, and move on. Younger me would either trail off, or continue babbling and talking until I either found the point I set out to make or found another interesting point. It all worked very well in my head, but the train of thought did not always translate to my listeners.
The noise isn’t always internal either. I’ll hear a noise, my mind will start following it, and I’ll suddenly have the realization “Oh, that’s something happening down the hall.” This literally just happened to me as I was writing the last paragraph.
One interesting thing that has manifested itself through my ADHD is a little counterintuitive. I have the ability to hyperfocus on things. Basically what that means, is that I can focus on one thing for extended periods of time to the exclusion of all else, almost like a trance, which doesn’t really work in the typical ADHD model. If I’m so distractible and inattentive, how could I possibly have this ability? This is an aspect of myself that I am still learning about, but what little reading I’ve done is that it typically happens with things that are psychologically rewarding. It could be something like reading, or playing a game, or watching a show. Something with instant feedback. I’ve been known to accidentally miss meals, not noticing my own hunger during a particularly intense gaming session or while reading a particularly good book. I’ll start in the early afternoon and suddenly I’ll look at the clock and it’ll be past midnight.
Before I close things out, the following must be said. My experience with ADHD is not THE experience with ADHD. Each person who has it can be affected by it in a completely different way. Some will be more hyperactive, some more forgetful. Some will have more symptoms, some will have less. Some people with ADHD are able to use it to succeed, others are quite inhibited by it. That in no way dismisses my experience or any one else’s experience with the disorder.
Unfortunately, even if I broke this article down into several parts and continued writing for weeks, I could never convey to you my entire ADHD experience. At least not in a cohesive manner. That would take time I don’t have and practically a degree in psychology. The longer I sit here typing, the more examples and anecdotes and aspects I can come up with, which I guess is in part due to my ADHD. I could talk about medicine, I could talk more about the argument against ADHD’s existence, I could break it down more into its different types, or I could talk more about my experience growing up. In fact, one day I might. Consider this an overview, a peek into the world of a man and his mental disorder.