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What ‘Attention’ Is Really Like With ADHD

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Growing up in school, I rarely raised my hand to answer a question. For some reason, everyone seemed to know the right answer but me. My brain would always come up with a correct answer, but it was usually not the answer the teacher was looking for. On the rare occasion when I did raise my hand, the teacher would hear my answer and reply, “I never looked at it that way,” or “that wasn’t the answer I was looking for.” I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t right either. No one else seemed to have as much trouble figuring out the right answer, and at the time I found that frustrating and discouraging.

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I noticed it happening in conversations as well. I would hear my friends talking about something, so I would bring up a topic that was related. They would all look at me confused because they didn’t see the connection between topics and thought I was just bringing up some random topic for no reason. I would try to explain the connection to my friends on occasion, and we would always end up laughing about how obscure the connection would actually be when I stopped to think about it.

For reasons I did not understand yet, I was an out of the box thinker, whether I wanted to be or not. I learned how to embrace that part of me as best I could, and while I would have preferred to fit in with everyone, I grew adjusted to being “different” and made the best of it.

I also had a knack for being oblivious at times. If a conversation or topic did not interest me, I had a tendency of checking out and going somewhere else with my attention. My family fondly called this “La La Land,” and they were always amazed at how well I could drown out a conversation and hear none of it. I was not trying to be rude, but my attention was being drawn elsewhere, and I didn’t fight it. My imagination ran wild and I found what I was imagining more interesting than conversations with people, so I missed out on a lot of things.

The classic example of this was when we were on a family vacation when I was 12. The OJ Simpson trial was in full swing and my older sister was talking about it with my parents. As usual, I had not been paying attention, but when someone said something about the “OJ trial,” I pulled my mom aside and asked her why orange juice was on trial. The heckling that followed was epic. No one could believe that I had not heard about the OJ Simpson trial; and honestly, they weren’t wrong. It was literally everywhere, so the fact that I knew nothing about it was rather impressive. But that’s how my brain functioned — if it did not hold my attention, I would pay it no mind.

I was in my 30s when a therapist finally effectively explained ADHD to me. It’s not just bouncing off the walls and having lots of energy; that’s one example of how it is expressed in some people, but that’s not at all how it showed up in my life. ADHD is not so much an issue of attention deficit; rather, it is an issue of regulating one’s attention. While some topics are mundane to me and therefore do not hold my attention at all, other topics or issues completely absorb my attention for various reasons. If I feel confident in completing a certain task, I will focus my attention on it easily, whereas if I feel uncertain about a task, I avoid it as much as I can.

While having ADHD is sometimes not considered “ideal” for living a whole and healthy life, it is not all bad either. When problem solving in a group, I often times make connections that others do not put together quite as quickly, or even at all. I see things differently, which makes me an asset on a team that is trying to accomplish a challenging task. I also have the ability to hyperfocus on tasks that I feel confident in accomplishing, which increases my attention to detail and makes the final product that much better. I’m also learning that managing my anxiety makes my ADHD more manageable as well; instead of avoiding tasks altogether because they are daunting, I am able to tackle them because I have better control over my anxiety.

I still have much to learn about ADHD, but I am grateful to the therapist who took the time to explain to me that it is not all bad, and that there is some good that comes from having this disorder. It helps to know I’m not just broken and dysfunctional. I need to hear about the silver lining, too.

Follow this journey on Love Letters to Laura.

This story originally appeared on Love Letters to Laura.

Getty image via Polar_lights.

Originally published: December 26, 2019
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