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.

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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.

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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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The Adderall Stigma

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My daughter turned 18 recently and I decided it was time to put the baby album together I’ve been meaning to get to for quite some time now. When I pulled out the boxes and boxes of photos and mementos, I came across some of my old report cards and yearbooks. As I went through them, I noticed a common thread woven through the words of my teachers and friends alike. Elementary school report cards had comments such as, “Jessica is very bright, I wish she would live up to her potential” and “Unfortunately, Jessica had a lot of difficulty following the classroom rules, this quarter. She simply will not stay in her seat!” A yearbook entry from a girl in my trig class read, “Jessica, you are so fun and so funny, it was great having this class with you. Two full semesters of trig, and I don’t think you’ve brought your book to class once!”

Wow! The writing has always been on the wall. For some girls and women, ADHD may present itself in ways that are not typical of the common public perception. This was not the case for me. Apart from being female, I fit the stereotypical image of what ADHD looks like, to a T. Hyperactive, impulsive, forgetful, scattered, the list goes on. Unfortunately, ADHD was not as widely understood in the 1980’s, and because my grades were always good, I don’t think anyone felt any reason to intervene, other than to tell me I really needed to get my act together.

As I got older, and my behavior shifted from being “hyper” and “antsy,” to risky and at times even reckless. I got into three car accidents within my first year behind the wheel, and was subsequently dropped from my parents insurance plan. I was very well known by the high school deans as well all of the local police officers, several of the county judges and the assistant district attorney. They were all quite fond of me, as I was incredibly charming, but I was pretty much always in some sort of trouble, the reasons varying from traffic violations, to truancy, to underage drinking. It was not that I was some troubled teen with compromised morals, it was that I was simply not able to think through my decisions to do whatever it was I pleased. (You know, that voice that tells you, “Sounds like a great time, but my desire to avoid facing misdemeanor charges far outweighs my desire to  partake in this risky behavior.” Yeah, I didn’t have one of those.)

At that point my mother knew I had ADHD, and attempted to seek treatment. Unfortunately, the doctor we met with was adamant children should not be medicated for behavior problems, and basically insinuated that my mother should do a better job of keeping me in line. And, well, you know… doctors know best.

It was not until I was 25 that I once again sought treatment for myself. I was a nurse, I worked downtown and there was a great neuropsychologist in the area that performed an extensive analysis that confirmed the obvious; I did in fact, have ADHD, and it was pretty significant. He gave me the name of a psychiatrist and I was finally prescribed a medication that would forever change my life.

It is difficult to describe what Adderall does for me. I like to say that it’s like my brain finally got glasses after years of poor vision. Unmedicated, it’s as if my brain is stuck between several radio stations and I’m getting pieces of a couple songs, a talk radio show, the Spanish station and a whole lot of static. Medicated, my brain can fine-tune to a single station, giving me clarity and focus. It has enabled me to follow through with tasks, focus on conversations I’m having, and work more strategically and fluidly. It helps me perform the tasks most people do automatically and with ease. It has made my life more manageable, which in effect benefits my children, my husband, my patients and anyone who may happen to be on the streets while I am driving.

It also happens to be one of the most widely abused prescription drug in America.

There is a stigma attached to Addreall, the medicine that has lifted me from the fog and chaos that was once my life.

Undiagnosed ADHD, is inevitably associated with a risk for decreased self-esteem and feelings of shame . All those years of hearing “why can’t you just…” or “what’s wrong with you?” along with the obvious frustration that we cause our loved ones on a fairly consistent basis; it starts to chip away at our  confidence, and we start to believe what we hear… that clearly there must be something wrong with us.

Fortunately, proper treatment has enabled me to work through all of those feelings, and I have really learned to own my ADHD. I no longer feel the need to apologize for what I can not control, and I realize I will be a life long “work-in-progress,” and I love it! Knowing that I will continue to move forward in terms of my personal development is empowering. It’s like, the best is always yet to come.

Yet… I dread the monthly refill requests. And I rarely discuss with anyone, the fact that I take Adderall.

From the receptionist at my doctors office, to the pharmacist, to the people who may happen to see the prescription bottle in my purse, there is a level of judgement by others attached to taking this medication.

A few months ago, I called my doctor’s office to get my monthly refill. The receptionist looked up my chart and saw that the last refill was less than 30 days ago. She told me I could pick it up, but it would be dated for the following day. However, there were 31 days in that month, so this would cause me to miss a day of my medication. I tried explaining this to her, but she was determined to keep my “drugs” away from me for an extra day; out of spite. When I asked to talk to the doctor, she said she’d have him call me. I am assuming, he either set her straight, or she realized that she was being a jerk, because rather than him calling me, she called me back and said my prescription was signed and dated appropriately.

That same day, I dropped off my prescription at the pharmacy and the technician told me it would probably be a few hours because they were busy. No problem. But when she saw the three wild little kids in the back seat of my car, she looked at me and dryly said, “looks like you probably need it now, don’t you?” As if it were a “fix,” my answer to the demands of suburban mommy-hood.

My own friends will ask me how I was “able to get a prescription” and for the name of my doctor, as if anyone off the street can just walk in and request some “uppers.”

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of controlling highly abused medications. I am a nurse, I am quite familiar with the devastating effects of substance abuse and addiction. However, the misunderstanding of the use of this medication for its intended purposes, contributes to the skepticism of ADHD, and mental illness in general.

I am a stereotypical, text-book version of ADHD and a thoroughly informed medical professional. If am still made to feel that I am being judged for taking a medication that has helped me to manage an otherwise often debilitating condition, then imagine the difficulty it must take for an undiagnosed woman with an atypical form of ADHD, and no medical background, to make the decision to seek treatment for herself.

Its heartbreaking to imagine how many people there are, untreated and suffering because of the fear of judgement or discrimination that come along with the diagnosis and treatment of any mental health issue.

I am hoping that in writing this, I am able to contribute in some way to the dismantlement of the barriers to recovery for those suffering with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD, as well as any other structurally stigmatized conditions and  illnesses, that can and should be treated. By hiding my ADHD or being silent about my treatment, including the fact that I am medicated, I am only contributing to the obstacles presented to those in need of help.

The fact is, that millions and millions of Americans are affected by mental health conditions. It is estimated that more than half of them are not receiving proper treatment. If you feel that you may be struggling with a mental health condition of any kind, please know that you are not alone. You are far from being alone. There is help, and getting the help you need, is OK. It is more than OK… it is imperative.

Editor’s note: This piece is based on an individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Please consult your doctor before starting or stopping medication.

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