I was diagnosed with ADHD in my sixth year of undergrad.
I was a receptionist at a counselors office running copies for one of the counselors who did a lot of testing for neurological disorders. In my hundred yard stare at the pages coming off the copy machine, I saw a list: signs of ADHD. “If seven of these ten describe you, you might want to be evaluated for ADHD.”
I had nine. Well, actually I had all ten, but I was totally unaware that I’m a fidgiter. No one else was unaware of this.
Instead of putting the copies in the counselor’s box, I waited until he came to the front office. “Umm. This list. It… uhh…it’s… it’s me.” He chuckled knowingly and generously offered to evaluated me for ADHD over a couple of his lunch hours. I didn’t have medical insurance — or money to spare — so this was a deeply appreciated gift.
Lacking insurance, I got a secondhand book on ADHD — Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell & John J. Ratey — and got to work. I knew medicine wasn’t an option for me. And my university wasn’t being cooperative in giving me my legally mandated accommodations. But I could read. In fact, I would come to learn reading is my hyperfocus.
I had never been evaluated for ADHD, despite my parent’s suspicions, because I was constantly reading. Teachers and my pediatrician brushed off the concern because “Kids with ADHD have trouble focusing to read.”
Well some do. But others like myself read The Lord of the Rings in one sitting. It took three days, but it was one sitting.
Obviously, something is not normal here.
Reading Driven to Distraction was like someone pulling back the curtain on the swirl of chaos, showing me the mechanicians behind it. There was a cause to all these disparate struggles I had, and the cause had a name: ADHD. Specifically ADHD Inattentive Type with OCD tendencies.
All my hyperactivity lives in my brain. It’s running 100 miles an hour and doesn’t know how to slow down even if I’m sitting still reading a book for three entire days. Over the years, I had developed OCD tendencies as a coping strategies. 1 I became an all or nothing organizer. Either my clothes were hanging in my closet in ROYGBIV order, or they were scattered across my entire apartment, somehow including my kitchen. I knew if I gave myself an inch in disorganization, chaos would run ramshod over my life and take ten miles. I also obsessively popped pimples (of which my teenage self had an abundant supply) and picked at scabs when I was stressed and overwhelmed, which was always. All of this was to try to rein in the chaos that threatened to derail me at any minute.
When something has a name, it’s easier to grapple with.
I was constantly and perpetually late. I was labeled — and labeled myself — irresponsible, uncaring, disrespectful.
I rarely could get assignments in on time. “Irresponsible. Not trying hard enough. Doesn’t care.”
I have trouble following spoken instructions. “Doesn’t listen.”
I got viciously angry in the blink of an idea. “Anger issues. Terrible temper. Mean.”
I had trouble having conversations without getting distracted or interrupting. “Inconsiderate. Self centered.”
I didn’t want to be any of these things. I wanted to be a good student, to learn, to show my friends I really cared about them — because I did. I wanted to hear what people had to say and enjoy their company. I wanted listen to my professors and learn from their lectures, to do well on tests, to get to class on time with my assignments done. I wanted to do all of these things. When I looked around, it seemed like most people could pretty much handle it. But for some reason I couldn’t. “I’m just irresponsible. No matter how hard I try, I’ll fail. I’m horrible. I’m doomed to failure. I might as well give up. No one would miss me if I was gone. I’m just a burden anyway.”
Many people living with undiagnosed or unmanaged ADHD struggle with depression, and rates of suicidal ideation is higher in girls and women. I was one of those girls. I lived with a mountain of shame, guilt, defeat, and despair.
My ADHD diagnosis saved my life.
In Driven to Distraction, the authors say that people with ADHD tend to not have a sense of time passing. When I read that I thought, “Wait. Do some people have a sense of time passing? What does that mean?” I had heard the phrase, but I thought it was a metaphor. I didn’t realize that some people actually feel time passing. In fact, most people do.
To me, time has not passed until the next time I look at the clock. If I look at the clock and 6:34am, it is still 6:34am until I look at the clock again. Or course, I know intellectually that time has passed. If you were to ask me how much time has passed, I might say 5 or 10 minutes, even if it’s been an hour.
No wonder I couldn’t get anywhere on time.
But there’s a tool to help! Since we don’t have a sense of time passing, we tend to not know how long routine tasks take us, so we underestimate how much time it takes us to get ready in the morning. Neurotypical people can make this calculation in their heads without much effort, evidently. 2 Instead, ADHDers can write out the tasks that we need to do to get out the door, then time ourselves actually doing those things. Keep track of the time for individual tasks over the course of a week (That’s what the books suggested. I did three days because I wanted to be done already.) and take the average. Total it up, add ten percent, and that’s how long we need to get ready to go in the morning.
I needed an hour and a half from waking up to being in my seat in my first class. I was giving myself thirty five minutes. No wonder I was constantly late. I made the necessary adjustments in my schedule, and guess what. I was on time. To everything.
One week I was in my familiar state of constant stress and embarrassment for perpetual tardiness. The next, I was on time to every place I needed to be. Not only was I consistently on time, I managed to do it without much effort. It was easy. I had tried to white knuckle my way into being on time for as long as I could remember, but now, with the right tool, it was easy for me to show up a few minutes early to where I needed to be, calm and prepared.
That Friday night, after an entire week of being on time, I sobbed on my couch for hours. That mountain of shame had started to crumble.
The problem wasn’t my character. It wasn’t that I didn’t care or that I was lazy. The problem was my tools.
I had been handed a toolset meant for a neurotypical person. But I’m not neurotypical. And these tools would never work for me. I needed different ones.
Since I was I child, I had learned to think that my character was the problem: no work ethic, lazy, inconsiderate, incompetent. But I had been trying drive nails with a screwdriver. It can be done, but its rough.
With the right tool, my desire to respect people and be responsible by being on time was realized. If it had been a problem with my character or my work ethic, the right tool wouldn’t have helped. When I realized this, the cloud of depression I had been living under for about 10 years finally started to lift. It would take more time, using more ADHD tools to address other problems in my life, and more learning to see myself from a different perspective. But the cloud had begun to lift. I began to believe again that maybe… just maybe… with some hard work and a little luck and some help along the way, I could finish college, get a job I liked (and keep the job) and have the kind of life I had been wanting all along: quiet, productive, with rich relationships, and a lasting impact.
1 This is different than OCD, a neurological disorder separate from ADHD. I do not have OCD.
2 Even though my husband absolutely does this all the time, I still have trouble believing it’s real. It seems outlandishly impossible. He also does this for me. If I’m listing off the 72 tasks I’m going to get done in the five minutes before we need to walk out the door, he starts listing off how long it takes me to do the individual tasks. I’m like “How do you know these things? What oracle have you consulted? What wizardry is this?” His answer: “The clock.”