It’s time to change how we talk about ADHD

One in five Americans has a mental illness, using the statistics from any given year.

We lend most of our eyes and ears to support for the mental illnesses that we consider the most ruthless, the most daunting. Bipolar disorder. Depression. Anxiety. Schizophrenia.

The mental illness we spend the least time de-stigmatizing, though, seems to be ADHD – particularly in adults.

As a kid, ADHD was most frequently diagnosed in the hyper kids, because it was so much easier to spot.

You know the ones I’m talking about. When the teacher is talking and that one kid literally just won’t sit down in their seat, yelling at the top of his lungs over her lesson on the Oregon Trail about how THAT’S SUCH A DOPE VIDEO GAME MY OLDER BROTHER LETS ME PLAY IT ALL THE TIME! The kids who physically lashed out, or crawled around on the floor for some unfathomable reason to the rest of us.

As an adult, admitting that you have ADHD usually gets you one of two reactions.

Some people you tell think back to those kids crawling around the floor of the classroom, poking their classmates in the leg with a semi-sharpened pencil when they should be doing their reading lesson.

You can see it in their faces; they look at you like you’re about to drop to all fours and lick them on the knee. You can almost watch the wheels turn in their brain, wondering how, exactly, you managed to control yourself during that one boring meeting last week. Is that why you don’t always use an indoor voice? Are you a closet spaz attack?

The other people are convinced it’s a made-up condition. They think back to the accusations from parents in grammar school, insisting that other parents medicated their children because they were lazy. All little children are hyper, they insisted. They don’t need adderall, they need discipline.

As an adult, they’re convinced you’ve been prescribed a cheat sheet, a study drug. They look at you like they look at that one co-worker who pulls out a pack of Marlboros next to the environmentally-friendly boss, or like that one friend who admitted to enjoying cocaine during college.

Very few look at adults with ADHD the way that they need to be looked at.

Did you know that adults with untreated ADHD are significantly less likely to hold down a job for a prolonged period of time? They’re also more likely to default on loans, forget to pay credit card bills, or get their cars repossessed. They have a higher eviction rate than normal, and they tend to get arrested for petty, white collar crime like IRS evasion and forgetting to pay their speeding tickets.

They get in trouble for lying a lot, and sometimes, they worry their family with reckless behaviour.

One time, I had a friend tell me that she totally had ADHD, but she didn’t need medication for it. “I totally get distracted when I do my homework sometimes,” she insisted. “I think we all have ADHD, if you think about it, most of us just know how to get over it.”

True, ADHD can be overcome without medication. Sometimes. In the right environment, with the right psychiatrist and a flexible lifestyle.

I spent years resisting medication, because I didn’t like how hard it made it for me to enjoy my food when I took the proper dose.

I set myself special alarms to do things that needed to be done, paid all my credit card bills as soon as I saw them in my inbox (even if it meant forgoing a formal budget to instead focus my efforts on staying on top of other things), and put absolutely everything possible on autopay. When I was in a zone, I got everything and anything done, knowing that if I moved on to another task, I’d completely forget about the first thing.

Now, I have an eight month old daughter. Patterns, quiet spaces to work, and flying without a budget don’t exactly work; I’ve caved, and I’m back on a mild dose of my medication, working with my psychiatrist once a month to make sure I’m on track. We keep me on a rigid diet, ensuring I get the right amount of Vitamin D and protein and all sorts of other things to keep me operating at optimum strength.

It makes me so mad, though, hearing people say that everyone has ADHD.

You have no idea.

I was first diagnosed as a teenager, because I wasn’t an overly hyper child. Instead, I was that kid that got straight A’s on tests, then absolutely fell apart when it came to busy work or fine details on projects.

I’d write a great essay, then totally butcher the bibliography. I’d have an excellent presentation for history class, but my poster board would be half finished and haphazardly drawn in pencil. I’d take perfect notes for history one week, then completely forget to do them the next and get an incomplete. Don’t even get me started on math problems; I’d answer the questions right, but fail to correctly show my work.

I was a disaster.

I got by in high school, graduating cum laude, but I was largely a disappointment – to both myself and my parents. That’s something a lot of people don’t get about ADHD; it’s not apathy or laziness, it’s a mental inability to stay on track and properly delegate thoughts in your brain.

You want to succeed, but your mind doesn’t let you. You hate your report card, but you can’t stop getting B’s and C’s when you know you’re capable of A’s.

It took until college for me to really take action. We knew I had a focus problem before then, and had taken mild steps to fix it – but in college, I really started to fall apart.

Professors aren’t as forgiving as high school teachers of disorganized intelligence. My senior year, teachers gave me late grades and partial grades and counted tests as more; my freshman year of college, my speech professor legitimately failed me in the class after my third speech presented without proper annotation.

I went to my university’s psychiatrist.

We did a personal evaluation, then went to the graduate psychology department. I volunteered to be tested for free by the graduate students, accepting their services and diagnoses in exchange for allowing them to use their studies and tests as part of their classwork.

I remember one day, I had to block off about three hours. I hiked down to the graduate building about two miles off of main campus, then sat in a room with one of the graduate students and took the longest test of my life.

One section was just simple math problems. It was like the Mad Minute we did in elementary school, only it was much longer and I hadn’t done one in years.

Another section involved me listening to a sentence and writing it down, word for word. Yet another asked me to listen to a word and point to the right one on a paper full of random keywords.

Seems easy enough, right?

We got the results from that lengthy test a few weeks later.

On things like speed math and other written directions with an immediate response required, I scored above the 90th percentile.

On the listening sections, I was around the 30th percentile. On tasks where I had to skip from one to another accurately, I was around the 40th.

We’d found our problem. No self-reported symptoms to be believed, no coercing my psychiatrist to give me pills to make me superhuman; we had definitive proof that I was functioning well below average when it came to focus and linear progression of thoughts.

Someone once tried to understand what ADHD was like. What made it so different from just being distracted? they asked.

The best way I can describe it, while still an imperfect explanation for my brain, is this. Picture four people standing in front of you; one represents the dinner you need to cook, one the laundry you need to do, one the bills you need to pay, the other the emails you need to respond to for work.

As soon as you go to address one of the four people, another one starts yelling at you, and doesn’t stop until you address them. After all, they’re important too, so you can’t ignore them. As soon as you begin to address that person, another one starts up, and so on and so forth until an hour has gone by and you haven’t fully committed your attention to any one of the four.

Think you’d be able to ignore the yelling person? Imagine they started slapping you with a stick until you paid attention.

When you have ADHD, you aren’t just a lazy person who likes to daydream, and you aren’t a wild kid who can’t just sit the hell down and shut up. You’re just an individual – not a stupid individual, either – whose brain cannot differentiate between what you need to do now and what can wait for later. Your brain cannot ignore new stimuli in favor of what you’re already doing, and it cannot choose what you remember (and when you remember it).

Once, I read someone with depression trying to explain just how frustrating most suggestions are from people who don’t know what’s going on in their brains.

You wouldn’t tell someone with diabetes to just start producing insulin again, they said. So why would you tell someone with depression to just start being happy again?

The same applies to ADHD. People always tell you to just remind yourself of the important things; just prioritize what you need to do in your mind! Write it down! Just put away all the other distractions! (That’s a big one – as if I can’t get distracted by looking at my fingernail and immediately going off down the rabbit hole of whether or not I need to buy new nail clippers).

I almost didn’t write a thing for May Mental Health Awareness Month, because so many people give you ‘that’ look when you say you have ADHD. I didn’t want to become the hyper kid, the try-hard, the lazy drug user to all of my readers, friends, and fans.

As the last day of the month approached, though, I realized that it’s important to start breaking that stigma. Not just for myself, but for everyone with ADHD, who maybe feels the same way. You aren’t crazy; you’ve just got a lot going on up there.


Women can, actually, do anything.


This past year – in two thousand and sixteen – I had an argument with a male friend of mine.

He could not, for the life of him, understand why it’s unacceptable to say that ‘playing like a girl’ in a negative connotation is something that needs to end.

To him, he insisted, it wasn’t an insult because it was just a fact.

It got murky from there, as many ingrained (but not fully thought through) prejudices tend to.

He believed that it was a consistent biological difference; women are weaker, physically than men on average, and therefore playing like a girl means ‘playing weakly’.

I pointed out that there are plenty of women who are stronger than the vast majority of men, and he amended it to look at the top one percent of professional athletes.

“The strongest man in the world is stronger than the strongest woman in the world. At the very highest level of competition, women can’t keep up.”

So, I tried to clarify, you aren’t trying to talk about generally speaking? And therefore probably shouldn’t use it?

No, he insisted. Since the strongest of each group are unequal, playing like a girl is still factually correct.

This same friend further muddled his own point just last week.

We were talking about how tall my daughter is. She’s in the 97th percentile of babies her age in height, and still in the 71st percentile of babies her age in weight. She’s been like this from day one – and based on her father and I, there’s plenty of evidence that she’s about to be a very athletically predisposed woman.

This friend built on that with a complaint about the height of women nowadays.

He noticed, he complained, that more and more women are his height (around 5 foot 9) or even taller.

“That’s because women are being given the chance to physically develop with the same strength and training advantages as men nowadays,” I pointed out. “As women are giving more formal athletic training growing up, they’re going to get bigger – they won’t be smaller based on developmental oppression.”

He didn’t like that.

“I don’t like women to be taller or stronger than me,” he pouted.

And there we have our problem in society.

Mike Francesca said THIS MONTH that women cannot be head coaches of male sports teams. He genuinely, in his deeply-engrained misogynistic mind, believes that women are incapable of coaching men and having the men listen to them.

“There’s no saying that everybody has to do every single job,” he said, per Anya Alvarez of the Shadow League.

“Some are better for some people. That’s all. That’s not being chauvinist. That’s not being Stone Aged. That’s just being reasonable.”

A GOP politician in Utah claimed that women’s pay equality is bad for the economy because it ‘takes money and jobs away from men’. A Polish member of European Parliament said this week that women should not be paid equally because they aren’t as smart or as strong as men.

Even beyond these extreme examples of sexism, though, International Women’s Day exists because of the first two stories.

My friend believes that women are weak and inferior and that playing like them is a negative. Mike Francesca believes that women cannot command a large group of men in a paid or professional setting (in this case, in professional sports).

These beliefs permeate society’s thoughts and influences. Women are less likely to get scholarships or grants or job promotions because of these beliefs. If the men in charge (of which there is still a vast majority) think that women are the inferior candidate based on their gender, they’ll be treated poorly. They won’t be given the same opportunities. Even if there isn’t a direct bar against them in a male-dominated field, they’ll be barred from certain ceilings nonetheless.

A different friend of mine recently posted on Facebook about how the gender wage gap is bunk.

Equal pay for equal work is already largely in effect, he insisted. The reason women make so much less money? They choose to! They choose lesser fields and they choose not to take promotions within their careers and they choose to leave work and raise their families without choosing to remain employed. All choices, no?

No. Not at all.

As long as men still believe that women are incapable of certain things in male-dominated fields, women have limited opportunities – even if those limitations aren’t spelled out on paper.

As long as men still believe that a woman will do an inferior job at something, women will still have limited opportunities for job growth in certain sectors.

As long as men still believe that women should be vilified for choosing to work and have a child (and man oh man, you wouldn’t BELIEVE the comments I’ve gotten in the not-so-distant past about how I’m not ‘raising my own child’ or I’m ‘failing to see her best moments, what a shame!’ from men in my community), women will lose opportunities. Men are less likely to promote a woman if they’re nervous (or secretly hopeful) that she’ll eventually take time off – I know, the horror! – or ultimately quit for her child.

There’s no hesitation of this sort when it comes to men, which is sexism at play.

My daughter’s father changes diapers. He can feed his daughter with no problems. He is as good at her bedtime routine as I am (sometimes, when I see him reading her a bedtime story, I suspect he’s even better at that part). He can dress his daughter and he knows how to entertain her.

He knows all of this because – get this – he watches her when I’m at work on the nights I cover hockey games. Is my daughter not still getting plenty of parental contact and emotional development with the roles reversed?

Yet no one would ever consider barring her father from a raise or a promotion for having a child, yet plenty of organizations would be hesitant to give me increased opportunities for the sole reason that I have offspring.

Men still tell women that they’re whining for wanting equal rights.

You can vote, you can work alongside us, you have the choice to be anything you want to be! They love to yell. Stop being stupid and be grateful for what you have.

Stop asking for special women’s days. Stop asking for special women’s campaigns. Stop asking for special laws ensuring you get rights you already have. Stop asking for my jobs; if you haven’t earned it, that’s why you don’t have it! You don’t deal with any oppression.

When I was in high school, I got my first job.

I remember being so excited to work at my favorite mom and pop restaurant. Getting the brownie madness and the Switchman’s pasta every day of my life? Sign me up.

That quickly became my least favorite job. Ever. The boss was a misogynistic old white man who carried a gun around the restaurant as an intimidation tactic and treated women like dirt.

He wouldn’t let me become a server at 18 or work solo as a hostess -even though he let boys my age do it – because he ‘didn’t trust me to do it right’. Never mind that I, as a food runner, routinely took and put in orders for servers when they were swamped and taught the new servers (all men, all my age) how to carry the big trays without spilling things. never mind that he was fine with me working as the dishwasher, and then leaving me alone to wait for my dad to pick me up at midnight.

He wouldn’t even give me a letter of recommendation for college. When I left for a more fair job, he refused to speak to me when I came in to eat at the restaurant.

Other jobs have made me wear tight shirts, though. I’ve had to bartend in a skirt and knee high socks. I’ve had to wear heels in a locker room to look ‘my best’ (and some women literally are legally obligated to wear heels, although that’s hopefully changing). I was once told I shouldn’t expect to get a big gig because I don’t ‘paint myself up the right way’.

Women have days like International Women’s Day to remind us that all of these men trying to push us down, keep us down, are wrong.

We can do anything. We have the ability to change perceptions and be anything. We can be good parents and work in the highest sectors. We can be effective architects. We can be incredible soldiers. We can coach professional sports teams. We can do it all.

We have these days because members of the Marine Corps still post nude photos of their servicemen on private Facebook groups and invite lewd suggestions and threats, all with the handy inclusion of those service members’ names, stations, ranks, and personal information.

We have these days because women get harassed out of their STEM majors regularly. They are denied internships by bosses that think they’re a risk to quit and start families, and then they’re denied promotions by bosses that *want* them to quit for their families.

We have these days because men still believe that women, somehow, can’t do anything. They think that women are weaker, less intelligent.

Things aren’t changing fast enough, but I’m hopeful.

By the time my daughter is out in the real world, I hope she can be an NFL coach if she wants. I hope she can be equally considered for a promotion at her technology job. I hope she can wear what she wants to work without being shamed for it.

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone.