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.