How ADHD Is Like a Train Station in My Mind

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If you look at me, you can’t tell. As soon as people find out it is the first thing they say to me… I never would have guessed you have ADHD. That’s the thing, people often have a lot more going on inside then they do on the outside. The second thing that people always ask is if it is real. “I thought it was just something kids who act up in class have.” Well, if you had seen me in primary school you would not be saying that. I may have always fidgeted a bit, but I was pretty much as close to the ideal child as any teacher could have wanted. You can see the outside of me; I may look calm. Yet if you could feel the inside of my brain the same way I can, you would view me completely differently.

I have spent a long time trying to think of a way to explain what is going on in my brain. I would say that my head feels like the London underground. There are so many people rushing around trying to get to the places they need to be. Some people get lost and that makes them more frantic. Others are slow, taking their time. Yet, they reach their destination in the end, the door to the outside world. Groups of people reach the door at the same time, desperate to be the first, so they all push through at the same time. That is like the thoughts in my head. It is honestly the best way I can think to explain it. There are so many thoughts rushing around my head that my focus point changes over and over. I may fixate on the one person who keeps my interest for a small while, but soon  another person is in my eye line and then another… and another.

Sometimes there is one person in the train station I can’t take my eyes off; they scare me. You could describe these people as what my anxiety feels like to me. I won’t feel safe until they have gone away. Yet within my brain it doesn’t just stay that person. Another terrifying person joins them and they start to talk. Soon they become a gang of people. That’s where my anxiety differs; when you pair it with the ADHD it is not just one thing bothering me. It spirals into so many worries and my mind swarms.

I am stuck in the middle of the crowd on the Underground, surrounded by the people who scare me most. I can’t get out of the crowd; they keep pushing into me. Reminding me they are there. You may understand that intimidating feeling; I believe deep down we are all a little bit scared of the Underground. It never feels like the safest place in the world. Now imagine the feeling of the Underground every second of the day. From the minute I wake up I am at the same underground station; I feel the same rush every moment of the day. Sometimes the station may feel emptier when there are only a few people on the train. But at the next stop, they crowd back on. It is never quiet for long.

Sometimes I love my train station; I don’t know how to live without how busy it is. Sometimes it is comforting; having all those thoughts means that I can get so excited about multiple thoughts in one go. Just like at the train station. Sometimes if you have time it is great to sit back and watch all the people go by, but I don’t always have the time and that is when the problem occurs. When I am in a rush like all the other commuters in the station I become agitated and frantic. My ability to stay focused goes when I most need it to stay.

To the people who don’t think ADHD is real, I ask you: Next time when you are at a busy major train station, imagine what it would be like to have that station in your brain — how stressed you would get (especially if already being in the train station is stressful enough) and how difficult it would be to stay focused and handle day-to-day tasks. It might provide you with an interesting insight. It has already helped me in many ways when I have shared this analogy with the important people in my life. I hope it will help you too.

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Thinkstock image by Alice-Photo.

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When a Friend Said, 'He Is So ADHD!'

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“He is so ADHD!”

The day started as one of those “good” days; I woke up early, made time for breakfast, was even having a great hair day! I felt confident enough to tackle the “public” and even possibly enjoy it. Before long I found myself chatting with an old childhood friend, laughing and sharing silly jokes all while revisiting our past. The amusement I was having seemed to come to an abrupt halt, however, after he made a sarcastic comment about another person we were discussing. “He is so ADHD!”

It stopped me in my thoughts. I didn’t know what to say or even feel. It was a new emotion for me. I had to excuse myself to go do what I often do when confused or troubled — isolate myself to process these thoughts and feelings and try to understand them.

Having been recently diagnosed with inattentive attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder along with clinical major depressive disorder as an adult, I’ve been having to re-learn so much about myself, my behaviors and how I respond to different situations and stimuli. I can recall a time before my diagnosis when I too was guilty of making similar comments, “He/She is so ADD;” “He/She needs to take some Prozac; “He/She must be bipolar,” etc. But the comment from my friend actually made me feel hurt and angry at first. How could he be so insensitive to joke about someone with ADHD? It is a real struggle and a real fight for some. If he only knew how hard it is for some of us to do what are basic and simple tasks for most, I think he would have been more careful in his choice of words. I know I am now.

I think that’s when it clicked. I was the same way until I gained some understanding and knowledge. Now, it’s not so funny. Don’t get me wrong, I like to think I have a great sense of humor and have learned to laugh at myself and humorously blame all my troubles on my ADHD. But to use it to belittle someone else hit a new nerve I didn’t know I had. If there is anything I gained from having ADHD, it is a greater sense of compassion, patience and understanding.

I questioned myself. Should I have told him I have ADHD, which would probably have made him feel bad and made things awkward for both of us? Should I just blow it off and hope it doesn’t happen again? I’m still not sure yet. But I do find purpose after this experience in helping to bring awareness through social media, blogging and learning not to hide it as much. I’m still working on the latter part; it’s not easy to put myself out there. But when I do, I find others respond very positively with support and even questions. Helping to spread awareness about ADHD is satisfying, meaningful and helps me better come to grips with this new reality I’m learning to live with.

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How My ADHD Influences Who I Am as a Teacher

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At the first college I attended, I struggled mightily. As a result of my ADHD, I was accustomed to the frustration that came with underperforming in high school. I was constantly getting grades that did not reflect the effort I put in to my work, or my interest in the subject material, because I truly love to learn. I actually really loved most of my high school classes I got C’s in. My senior year I took AP environmental science and while I scored a 5 on the AP exam, I received a C for the course, one of my favorites from my entire four years.

When I got to college, things only got worse. I went to a demanding and academically rigorous high school, but college was so much harder. Furthermore, I had no idea how to manage my time with all of this new freedom and a substantially heavier workload. I thought I was supposed to just sit and focus and get my work done, and could never figure out why that was impossible for me. I would become so frustrated trying to get my work done, I would often just give up. Either that, or I completely forgot I had homework until right before it was due and I was left to come up with some flimsy excuse to give my professors. I was constantly explaining I had left my homework in my dorm—sometimes I had truly forgotten. Other times I needed to buy myself more time. I once woke up late on the day of a test and emailed my professor to say I was sick, 10 minutes after the test had begun. I actually withdrew from a class because I had a paper due the next day that there was no way I would finish in time.

My professors thought I was a complete screw up. They thought I was lazy and irresponsible. I didn’t pay attention in class because I didn’t care. That girls don’t have ADHD so I must just be unmotivated. Or unintelligent. They never knew that in fact, I missed that last sentence because I was paying attention to everything. That I wanted so badly to just sit and listen like my classmates could. To get my work done in timely manner. But I couldn’t.

Eventually, I did figure out how to succeed. It took a long time, but it started with acceptance. It started when I realized it was OK that I couldn’t finish my homework in one sitting, and rather than try, I needed to build in enough time to take constant breaks. That I needed to write a detailed outline before starting a paper. I’m in graduate school now, set to finish with straight A’s, a feat I never thought possible of myself. I got here, however, on my own and with the love and acceptance of my family. During my first two years of college, it would have meant so much to me if just one professor had reached out to ask, “What’s going on?” It would have meant even more if any of them had seen me as more than the student who was chronically late and struggling to stay afloat.

For the past year, I have had the great privilege to teach some amazing undergraduate students as a graduate student instructor. I never ever want my students to feel like they’re worthless because they need an instruction to be repeated, or they forgot to answer a question on their homework or spaced on something really obvious on the test. They are such fantastic kids, all bright and interesting in their own unique way. I see them for who they are, and not for their grades; I know all too well what it feels like to be a number. The struggle is a gift, and because of my own challenges, I’ve made a huge effort to get to know my students and to put myself in their shoes, because I really see myself in them. I feel lucky to know these students as well as I do, and if my own challenges can help me to raise them up, then I feel lucky to have those too.

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia

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Living Life One Step at a Time With ADHD

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I honestly don’t even know where to begin. My mind is a cluster of thoughts. Did I do my laundry? How will I get the motivation to put all my laundry away? I want to watch that movie that just came out, but I also want to read that book that’s been sitting in the corner of my room for months. But the simplest of tasks can be more than exhausting for me to complete.

I attempt washing and drying my laundry. When it comes to putting it away, I am dragged away from the task by the thought of reading that dusty book sitting in the corner of my room. So I sit down, open the book, and put it down after a paragraph or less. I turn the TV on and try to watch a simple movie of interest, but continuously get up every two minutes, losing my train of thought as I fidget consistently.

As a teenager in high school, I always had a feeling I might have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I could never focus, I was a terrible test-taker, and I wasn’t able to apply myself to be the better student I knew I was and could be. It was in late 2013 when I really began to notice a difference with my focus and concentration.

I began taking online classes with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, majoring in photography. At the beginning of the course, I knew something wasn’t right. I would look at a single sentence within my notes and I would have to re-read it five, even six or seven times for it to vaguely sink in. I started to fall behind with my studies and projects that needed to be completed in a timely manner. Photography is one of the things I am most passionate about, so I was very hard on myself for not being able to complete simple educational tasks for something I love so much.

I also love to read and write, but ADHD does not discriminate. When I write, I can only write a few lines at a time because my attention is being pulled into five different directions. I get severely fatigued by the middle of my day because I cannot complete the goals I have set for myself for that day.

Since being diagnosed with ADHD, I have been receiving treatment through medication and practicing more patience. It took me a long time to learn that just because you have a disability, it does not mean you cannot accomplish anything you set your mind to. I believe if you dream big and have faith, anything in this life is possible and worthwhile.

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Why I Tell People I've Just Met About My ADHD

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I am typically not the most open person. It can take a long time for me to trust someone enough to open up to them about my personal struggles and insecurities. However, I don’t hesitate to tell people I’ve just met that I have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

I am often told how great it is that I’m comfortable being open about my mental illness, but I’m not comfortable with my ADHD. I am not comfortable sharing one of my biggest insecurities and feeling like I’m making excuses for my faults. I tell people about my ADHD because I feel like I owe them an explanation for who I am as a person.

I tell people I have ADHD because I can’t apologize again for interrupting them when I’ve done it six times already.

I tell people because I see the look of horror on their face as I dig through the mess of crumpled papers, old pencils and food wrappers at the bottom of my backpack only to find I forgot to pack my assignment that was due that day.

I tell people because I don’t know how else to explain to my friend that I’m driving with my brights on because my headlight has been out for 4 months and I keep forgetting to get it changed and yes I know my service light is on, I need an oil change, and yeah I know I need gas, I’ll stop later, and yeah I know I need to get the crack in my windshield fixed and fill my power steering fluid and sorry, but I can’t clean the windshield, I haven’t had wiper fluid for over a year and I’m sorry I almost caused an accident, I got distracted by a cute dog.

I tell people because I can feel my entire bottom cringe when I hear them ask: “Why don’t you just…”

Ahh yes, please finish; I’m sure I’ve heard it before. “Why don’t you just leave earlier?” “Why don’t you put things back in their place?” “Why don’t you just start your homework sooner?” “Why don’t you just pay your bills on time?” “Why don’t you just keep a planner?” “Why don’t you just stick to a budget?” and on and on and on.

I know they mean well and I know they are just trying to help, and I know they can’t possibly understand the mess that is my brain, so I tell them I have ADHD because I need them to understand I’m trying. I need them to understand I hate being late and that being disorganized gives me anxiety.

I need them to understand that doing well in school is so important to me and I won’t invite them over because I’m embarrassed by the mess that is my room. I need them to understand that I spent years asking myself those very questions before being diagnosed, and I still struggle to be kind to myself when I can’t seem to handle the basic responsibilities that come with being an adult. I feel constantly overwhelmed and stressed out and I can’t handle others’ judging me for what I already judge myself so harshly for.

So I tell people that I have ADHD, because I know I can’t hide it.

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5 Tips for Surviving Exam Season for Students With ADHD

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It’s that time of year again — the dreaded exam season! While for most it means a bit of added stress, time spent revising and having to work a little harder that usual, for someone with ADHD, it means something much more terrifying.

The mere thought of having to sit in a room for an hour, with no change of mental stimulation, no break from concentration and the pressure of a time limit is enough to make me anxious. Let alone the fact that some of my exams are up to five hours long. I struggle to keep concentrated in an hour and a half lesson, often finding myself starting to show my tics and getting frustrated with being unable to concentrate on anything the teacher is saying or what I have written in front of me.

When I cast my eyes over my exam timetable this year, I outwardly groaned! Friends asked me, “What’s wrong with you? You’ve only got four exams!” I groaned because I saw the time for one of my written exams — two hours and 45 minutes. How anybody is physically meant to be able to write for that length of time is beyond me, but for someone who is already starting to zone out writing this post, I can already see my grade dropping — and it has nothing to do with my academic ability.

My usual coping mechanisms would have me disqualified — Listening to music or taking 10 minutes to change the subject and check Facebook on my phone. So how on earth am I meant to cope? It’s taken getting to my second year at college to finally find some things that help. They are both external and things I can do myself. Here they are:

1. Small group and rest breaks (the exam gods’ greatest gifts!)

If I hadn’t discovered this exam concession, I would probably have dropped out of college last year and be sitting around with no A levels to my name. But surprisingly, in a college of over 4,000 pupils, I finally received the help I needed through my tutor.

He introduced me to the idea of having these. At first I turned my nose up — I didn’t need special treatment. I felt I didn’t deserve that! But he reassured me it really wasn’t a big deal and directed me to Study Support. They informed me a note from my doctor would have me whisked away from the huge sports halls lined with hundreds of students taking exams to a smaller room where I could simply raise my hand and ask to leave the room (escorted) for as long as I needed without it affecting my exam time or grade.

As someone who also experiences back and joint pain from hypermobility, this also meant I could have a stretch and a walk and return with a fresh mind and body ready to continue my exam. I honestly can’t tell you how much these helped me. I suddenly became an A student, but more importantly, I felt a lot less stressed in the exams and was able to continue college for another year.

I really stress to anyone who has from ADD, ADHD, any concentration disorder, anxiety, pain or anything else to please talk to the necessary people — teachers, your school’s equivalent of Study Support or your doctor will all be able to help you. I didn’t even know it existed until my tutor told me about it!

2. Add some fruit and vegetables to your diet.

No, I mean it this time! Chocolate chips really won’t help! I know everyone says the same thing about healthy eating — “Vegetables give you brain power!” But they really do! Eating a more balanced diet and helping your body to not be working overtime to find nutrients in what you are eating really helps your brain to focus on the task at hand — exams!

I dare you to try it. I’m not saying don’t eat chocolate, but just think about adding some extra fruit and vegetables to your diet, it will really give your brain the upper hand to help you concentrate and focus and generally have more energy.

3. Avoid energy drinks.

I speak from experience! This time last year, I could not function if I didn’t drink a particular brand of energy drink before every lesson. I’ve never really drunk other energy drinks, but friends have told me they pretty much do the same thing. I genuinely thought even the drink wasn’t doing enough to keep me focused. My heart would be racing in a lesson and I wouldn’t be able to even focus from the beginning. I couldn’t keep this up let alone afford to buy one for every class!So I started to wean myself off of them. Eventually, I made the connection that they made it worse. I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know why, but I presume it has to do with the sugar and caffeine making my body and mind work overtime.

4. Take some time for yourself.

You needn’t spend every hour of your life studying! It’s hard work trying to prepare for exams, let alone when that work doubles when you have ADHD or another concentration disorder. If you have a free period, you don’t always have to use it productively. Spend some time just sitting and chilling sometimes — read a book, look at your phone or have a nap if you can find somewhere!

It really helps to just reset your brain once in a while and have a recharge. Don’t feel guilty about it it’s simply a bit of self-care!

5. Know you aren’t alone.

People might not always be able to understand, but they are willing to help. I spend a lot of my time in a bubble. If you tell someone you can’t concentrate, they might laugh and tell you to just concentrate. Little do they know it isn’t as easy as that! I spent a lot of time struggling in silence until I discovered a community of people with mental disorders on social media. They’ve helped me realize a lot of things I thought only happened to me, actually happen to a lot of people. Knowing this has helped me talk to people to help them help me. My teachers will all check in with me once in a while now, to check that I’m up to date with everything and have managed to catch up on what I’ve missed in a “zone out.” I’ve asked to be emailed PowerPoints used in lessons, which has actually helped others in the class too when the teacher has shared them. It’s almost impossible for anyone to take in all the information they learn in a lesson!

It’s really important to never struggle in silence, and one thing I have learned is that other people don’t want you to either. But they can’t help unless you let them and help them do so. They may not understand how my brain works, but if I decipher the code for them, most people are willing.

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