A Letter to People Surprised by My ADHD Diagnosis

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Dear friends and family,

If you didn’t know already, I guess the cat is out of the bag. I have ADHD. I was just diagnosed at the beginning of the year, but I realized I have unknowingly been dealing with it for quite some time (basically my whole life).

You might be surprised. I get good grades. I do not jump out of my seat randomly or have random outbursts. I can sit and watch full episodes or movies on Netflix.

But these are not the only symptoms, and not everyone with ADHD has these symptoms. Everyone has different symptoms, and there can be differences between males and females.

My ADHD is displayed through my constant worrying and anxiety.

My tendency to constantly be on my phone, because I can change tasks often enough to satisfy my racing thought patterns.

My constant shifting in my chair, not because I am uncomfortable in the position, but because I have trouble sitting still.

My frequent typos even though I read and reread and reread what I type.

My love of exercising because it helps to relieve some of the extra energy I have so maybe I can keep my attention on an assignment for more than five minutes.

My lack of engagement in classes because reading for classes can be near impossible.

My constantly late arrivals because I try to brush my teeth, get dressed and make lunch all at the same time.

My loss of complete conversations because I could not focus on what you were saying despite my best efforts.

My last-minute assignments because the pressure of the clock is the only thing that nails me down in a seat to be productive.

My depression because sometimes I feel like I am 10 steps behind everyone else in classes and success is not possible for me.

I have been fortunate enough to have access to care that helps me. On my best days I am able to balance my time so I can complete work and decrease my anxiety. I am able to get something out of class and remember what happens after I leave. I feel like my head is in one place at a time, not five different ones.

You may not see a difference, but I cannot explain how amazing it feels to be in the moment.

As your relative or as your friend, I ask two things of you:

1. Please do not think of me differently, because I have not changed. I just now have a diagnosis for something I have always had.

2. And please do not hesitate if I bring it up. I want you to ask if you have questions. I want you to learn and understand me.

Kindly,
Still me

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What It Feels Like to Be on ADHD Medication

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“What is it like to be on ADHD medication?” a friend asked me the day I started.

For me? It was a huge mental difference. Not a “high,” but a zen calm. It’s the feeling you would get after sitting down after a long hike up a mountain to visit a sub-tropical rainforest spring. But that’s only part of it, because it’s hard to describe without also understanding what living without medication is like. Until I started, I had no idea either. I mean, I had read about the external symptoms and I’d ticked enough boxes to get myself to a specialist. But I didn’t really understand.

In fact, when I asked the specialist, in my usual worried way, “How will I know if it’s working?” he smiled at me and said, “You will know.” I swear, I heard a Yoda-like cadence there, too. This was not reassuring at the time. But of course he was right.

What does it feel like to be on ADHD medication? For me, it feels like being a person without ADHD. I get up and I can do things. The visual buzz quietens – I can actually focus on things without needing to deploy visualization minimization strategies, such as looking down when I walk, or finding material to occupy my mind, like reading. I can walk without a hat and look up instead of at my feet and still be able to do things like cross a street safely. The visual noise is gone.

I have a lot of strategies I’ve developed over the years to get things done. Hell, most days I look and act functional. I thought this was what everyone did, but I was in awe of people who could remember other people’s names, or be able to remember an appointment and get there on time without multiple loud buzzers as reminders. I didn’t understand how someone could always remember to bring essential stuff like wallets and handbags without carefully planned and practiced mindfulness techniques.

If you’ve ever seen me worriedly scanning a seat after I get up, or doing a quick once-over of a room before I leave it, that’s why. But if the routine is interrupted? Boom. Lost stuff. Forgetting glasses, or expensive musical instruments. Yes, that happened. Twice. Thank goodness for honest people. Actually that could be my mantra – thank goodness for honest people, as I have left many important things over the years. In fact, despite all my careful groundwork, it still happens at least once a month.

I also have zero organizational capacity,  something I mention to people when I meet them. Usually it’s met with, “Oh yes, I’m terrible at that too.” But they don’t really understand. I’m not going to pick up a phone and organize a meetup. That’s two steps. I can’t do that without a lot of mental gymnastics. And the more stuff I have to organize, the worse it all gets. I was pretty functional before I had two kids who also have the organizational ability of goldfish. Now, I can get us to medical appointments mostly on-time, and with most of the stuff we need. Going beyond that? Flying pigs all the way.

When I was 9, my brother dubbed me the absent-minded professor. It was his nickname for me for years. If you’ve ever read “Tintin,” you’ll remember Professor Calculus, who shows up and talks high-level physics and math before accidentally eating his shoe. Well, imagine Professor Calculus is a she, and she settled down and had two mini-Calculuses, who might also accidentally eat their own shoes, but are probably going to wander up to mummy’s chalk-board and correct her math.

I can’t pay bills. I can’t use the phone to organize stuff if I have to look up a number and dial first. (And yes, my husband has on occasion looked up the number, dialed it and then handed me the phone.) I’m probably going to forget organized meetups, or get the date wrong if I don’t write it down and set an alarm straight away. And I mean straight away. A minute later? It’s gone.

Also, that worry-face? Had that since before puberty. I’ve had permanent worry-lines since then as well. My wonderful husband finds it amusing when when I tell him bemused stories about random strangers asking me if I need help or directions almost every time I go out. I’ve even been asked at my local train station, when I was traveling through there four to five times a week. By the staff.

In my life, there was a borderline-panic that was so familiar it became background noise. On medication? That voice just stopped. It’s like living with Mr Chatterbox for so long you don’t realize they are there. And then suddenly… silence.

My brain had to scream over that noise to be heard. Now, I don’t have to do the internal yell at myself to  kick in the adrenaline so I go into a mini-panic to break my concentration. On medication, my brain doesn’t need to recreate every horror imaginable in order to get my butt into gear, from dying in a ditch of starvation through to the sacrifice of my first-born. Suddenly, there’s enough quiet to be able to say, “Hey, you’re bit hungry. Maybe you should get breakfast now.” And then my brain goes, “Yeah, OK, let’s do that.” So I get up, and have breakfast.

That’s a bloody miracle. All praise the medical science gods. Really.

It kind of makes me a bit weepy – but thankfully only a bit (and that’s the medication too, by the way). I don’t need to keep going over and over and over the same scenario in my head. I practiced for years to redirect my mind and find ways to break out of those cycles. It took years until I reached the point where I would only have to mull on things a few dozen times a day. Even though I knew it was pointless. Even on really trivial stuff.

I built mental muscles to heave that darn boulder up the hill. I got used to the weight of fighting my own brain. In fact, I’ve always had to do this – I didn’t know other people don’t do this every day. I got used to the weight of that thing.

And then it was gone.

That first day? You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

It felt like a holiday. It feels like freedom.

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

Follow  this journey on Yellow Readis.

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When My Son Told Me Going to School All Day Is Exhausting

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I had attention and anxiety issues when I was a kid, only it wasn’t understood at the time. I didn’t find out until I was drinking age that I legitimately had an attention issue. My youngest son, Taylor, was fortunate to be born at a more accepting time, so I got him tested as soon as I noticed the signs, and he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder (ADD).

One morning during breakfast, I realized Taylor was staring sadly into oblivion over his cereal with his head in his hands. I asked him what was wrong, expecting a generic, “I don’t want to go to school.” Instead, he explained how tiring it is to be in school all day, how he doesn’t feel like the other kids, how he feels different. He said, “I don’t want to go to school all day. It’s so exhausting.”

About a week before, I picked him up from school and asked him if he wanted to go get ice cream. He replied, “I just want to go home, Mom. I’m exhausted.”

When I look back, school days seemed ridiculously long to me, too.

I wasn’t able to pay attention, and because of that, I’d daydream. I’d spend hours in my own world, lost somewhere beyond the fence in the back of the school property visible through the classroom window. I’d see how long I could go without looking at the clock, which moved so unbelievably slow; and it always seemed as big as the wall, so I couldn’t miss it.

I didn’t learn how to properly manage my issues with the anxiety that came with my attention problems, so school was hell most of the time. I faked being sick constantly in an attempt to stay home.

I hear and see everything that’s going on around me, which makes it difficult to concentrate in a classroom setting or anywhere that’s full of people. Taylor is the same way.

He gets nothing but praise from his teachers for being a good student and for being a great helper. No one can see how much he may struggle to keep it all up every day. Sometimes if a task seems daunting to him, he may struggle to finish work and need time out in the hallway away from the distractions to finish.

Taylor is also on the autism spectrum. When he’s home or out with us, he flaps his hands or stiffens up when he’s excited. At school he hides it, and the energy it takes can drain him by the end of the day. I’ve often wondered if I’m on the spectrum too since I did (and still do) similar things to hand flapping. It’s all so exhausting when you try to suppress yourself all day. I know how it feels.

So when I saw him with his head in his hands at the table, staring down at his cereal saying he didn’t want to go to school, I believed him. People who have not been in our shoes can have a hard time understanding what it’s like to function as we do in a typical day. They might label us as lazy, which is not the case.

For me, it’s hard to watch my kid struggle through the same issues I did. I can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt about it.

I tell him it’ll be OK, and that he can ask for a break if he needs it. I made a note to myself to call the school and ask for a meeting to discuss further accommodations for him. In the beginning of the school year, the teacher and I discussed waiting before we went ahead with a 504 (a 504 is a formal plan made for accommodating a special need or needs). It was time to discuss moving ahead.

He has me, I’m his biggest advocate, and I’ll make sure the changes he needs are made for him to be successful in school. Until then, he still has to go to school and do it all over again until we can get a plan in place. It sucks that as a parent I can’t wave a magic wand and make everything better for him right this second.

I realize I’m thankful I’m not a kid in elementary school anymore. I’m an adult who understands and can try to help Taylor through this.

After my phone call to school to schedule the appointment, I sat and thought for a while.

I wonder what my son is doing in school right this minute? I wonder if he remembers what I told him before he left for school this morning? I hope so. He can ask for a break in the hallway if he feels overwhelmed, and not to be afraid to ask. I told him not to suffer in silence, like I did. I hope he’s learned the clock game, because I remember seeing a clock in his classroom. I also hope he remembers he’s got an ally in me.

Follow this journey on Sweatpants and Swear Words.

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My One Regret as an Adult Diagnosed With ADHD and Autism

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I stumbled across the following question on a site I regularly contribute to:

“What are the biggest regrets a person with ADD/ADHD has?”

I like the way my answer turned out, so I’d like to share it with you.

My only real regret is that I didn’t start receiving help earlier. But I have faith that everything happens for a reason, and if that means not getting a diagnosis until I was 25, well, then that was exactly when it was meant to happen.

I often wonder what life would have been like had I been diagnosed in, say, preschool when my traits first became obvious. I’m also diagnosed with autism (of the type formerly known as Asperger’s), OCD and anxiety. The latter two diagnoses also came at 25, and I didn’t get the autism one until I was 31.

Although I endured some struggles, I managed to come out pretty successful. I have a Bachelor’s in Social Work and three jobs in human services. I don’t yet live on my own, however it doesn’t bother me that I’m not yet ready. One thing at a time. Besides, it just gives me more time to work, make money, and take life at my own pace.

Had I been diagnosed earlier, where would that leave me? Sure, I may have had an easier time with things, and known more about myself earlier on, but what if I just became another statistic? Another kid thrown into the special education system which is still in need of great reform today?

I was in all regular classes, and demonstrated that I could handle them, given there were no diagnoses yet in sight. Had I been slapped with labels from the get go, perhaps my abilities would have been overshadowed by them. I don’t like to look at my diagnoses as “labels,” but rather “titles,” as they have given me many answers about myself. However, in some cases, they are seen as only labels and people look for what they limit, rather than enable, in a person.

I’ve seen friends go through the special education system, friends who have outstanding levels of intellect and could easily have gotten a degree. However, they were set back because they were not awarded the same diploma as their peers. I feel the system has failed them.

If I have any regrets, this may be the only one, but at the same time, I feel very fortunate to have gotten as far as I have. And I can use that combined with what I now know about myself to help others in similar situations.

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When People Treat ADHD/ADD as a Joke

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I was diagnosed with ADD when I was in first grade. I still remember sitting in my classroom trying to keep up with the activity we were doing. Everyone else was on the fifth question, and I hadn’t even finished the first. I got so frustrated I yelled “Stop! I can’t keep up!” and broke into tears right then and there. I’d also break down crying trying to do my homework. (I still do to this day.) That’s when my mom took me to the doctor, where I was diagnosed and put on medication.

The diagnosis was hard on all of us, and my parents deciding to give me medication was even harder on them. It hasn’t been easy living with myself, and my family, although they love me, found it hard at times to deal with me. Tasks that take most people minutes to complete will take me hours. I have to invest so much mental energy into the simplest things; even doing the dishes will leave me exhausted. Some days I get so restless and uncomfortable it almost brings me to tears. The worst is trying to stay organized, remember things, and complete assignments.

This is what it’s like for me to have ADD, yet many people use it as a joke. They think of an annoying, obnoxious and hyper child and make a lot of stereotypes and jokes. Trust me, it’s not funny at all. There’s nothing funny about feeling so restless it hurts. There’s nothing funny about breaking down because you’ve been sitting at the computer for five hours and only typed out five sentences of your essay that’s due soon. There’s nothing funny about people constantly telling you how obnoxious, annoying, and irresponsible you are. There’s nothing funny about walking into a class half an hour late because you forgot when it started. There’s nothing funny about having your professor pull you aside and tell you that you’re failing the class, and you ended up writing some silly nonsense on a writing assignment you lost track of. It’s frustrating, annoying, and downright embarrassing!

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been teased, laughed at, and yelled at because of my ADD. So the next time you hear someone cracking a joke about ADHD/ADD, just remember it’s a disability. You wouldn’t laugh at someone in a wheelchair or someone who is blind, so don’t laugh at someone with ADHD/ADD.

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What My ADHD Looks Like

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I once read, “If you’ve met one person with ADHD, then you’ve met one person with ADHD.” I think this is pretty accurate. ADHD is not a one-size-fits-all disorder, and in fact, it is pretty complex. It requires a multifaceted diagnostic approach, and its presentation can vary from person to person.

I have heard many people with ADHD say that in order to focus, they need complete silence. Background noises are too much of a distraction to concentrate. However, I am the opposite. I need background noise. When I am doing homework, or writing, even when I’m trying to fall asleep, I always have the TV on or music playing.

I’ve met people with ADHD who are chronically early for everything. This is something I can not relate to at all. If I ever somehow miraculously leave the house in time to get somewhere early, I will then inevitably forget something imperative to my journey, requiring me to turn around and go back home to get it, causing me to arrive late. Every. Single. Time.

Here are some of my personal “quirks” and life experiences that I associate with my ADHD. Maybe you’ll find that you can relate to a few of these.

I can turn anything into an analogy.

I will dive right into new projects before I research the steps required to complete them. It is not until things start getting a little tricky that I will look into the directions — and inevitably end up having to go back a few steps.

When I discover something that interests/inspires me, I become obsessed. I can spend hours on end learning everything there is to know about it and can produce grandiose ideas related to my newfound “calling.” Until I get bored. Then I’m over it.

I work well in a crisis. It’s the mundane everyday tasks I find so challenging.

I feel things very deeply. A tragic news story can consume my thoughts and emotions for days. On the other end, show me a story about human acts of kindness, strength, or perseverance, and I’m reduced to a blubbering pile of emotions with a restored faith in humanity.

I love a challenge. Tell me something is impossible, and I am immediately interested in proving you wrong. It’s as if those words are an ignition switch to my brain.

I am a problem-solver, a puzzle-decoder, an out-of-the-box thinker. Nonlinear thinking leads to nonlinear solutions.

I secretly love finding broken toys in my house because I can throw them away, and that means less clutter!

I sometimes feel like a fraud and that the bottom can drop out at any time, exposing just how fraud-y I am. I feel this way far less often than I used to. I have come to accept that I really do deserve all that I’ve worked so hard for, and when people compliment me, it’s because I really am smart/talented/special, and I’m not just fooling everyone.

When I try to describe what ADHD is like to me, I compare it to having 22 different radio stations on at once and trying to learn the lyrics to one song. Try it.

I also say it feels like my brain needs glasses. (I love me some analogies!)

I am terrible at small talk.

If I have an unstructured day but I know there is plenty I should/could be doing, I become overwhelmed and opt to just stay in bed instead. In order to avoid this, I actually have to prioritize my to-dos and write out a schedule for myself.

I’m not afraid to try something new and actually thrive on changing things up a bit regularly.

If I love something, I end up buying a ridiculous, unnecessary amount of it (makeup, phone cases, “buttery soft” leggings, picture frames, books, office organizers, etc.).

I am completely oblivious to lights being left on, clothes piling up, or hearing the home-shopping network blaring from an empty room somewhere in the house, but I cannot stand for a door to be left open in a room I’m in. If someone pops into my office while I’m deeply engaged in a writing project and they forget to close the door on their way out, I cringe. I may even yell, “Get back here and close that door!” Even just opened a crack, it sends my blood pressure up a few notches. I have no explanation for this one.

I’m pretty sure my brain is turned off until the “final hour.” My best work, strongest ideas, and most creative solutions have always been produced when it got down to the wire.

This list can go on for days, and I’ll save emotional reactivity and lack of impulse control for their own separate post. I’d love to hear some of the traits and qualities you associate with your ADHD.

Image via Thinkstock.

A version of this post originally appeared on Hack Rack.

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