What is Living with ADHD Like?

I write about a wide variety of interests and issues on my blog. Most recently, I’ve been writing about calculus and general facts about academic argumentation and logic that are helpful for both day-to-day thinking and big picture questions. I’m also in the beginning of a long reading project that will eventually lead to a lot of posts about physics, math, and theology.

Another interest of mine is psychology and mental health. I write much less about this than other topics, mainly because I know less about it, so I normally don’t feel qualified. But although I don’t have much academic knowledge about psychology, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – known as ADHD – as a child and have lived with this my whole life. Since it is now ADHD Awareness Month (which in all-too-typical ADHD fashion I didn’t know until halfway through the month), I figured I’d make a post discussing a slice of my experience living with ADHD towards the end of October.

Before reading on, it is extremely important to understand that I am not a mental health professional. I speak from personal experience, but ADHD is among the most versatile of mental health conditions and can actually have diametrically opposed symptoms between different people. So, this is a very complicated topic, and nobody should take my word over a professional’s word. But, perhaps what I have to say can help you begin to empathize more with people in your life who have ADHD.

What is ADHD?

On a quick Google search, I found a brief yet helpful definition of ADHD. To summarize this, ADHD can cause impulsivity, hyperactivity, and problems directing focus. I’d like to provide additional clarification on what “problems with directing focus” means. Most people who have heard of ADHD think that it means things like distractibility and zoning out a lot (ironically, I zoned out while writing this sentence). But, while that is part of the experience of an ADHD has, it is often not the complete story. Allow me to give a more concrete analogy to help explain why this is incomplete.

Imagine that your level of focus is expressed on a scale of 1 to 100, where a 1 would be being asleep or braindead and 100 is so engaging you couldn’t take your eyes away even if someone shot you. Of course, nobody is really ever at 1 or 100. For a person without ADHD, they have pretty good control over where on the scale they are at any given moment, and probably they are always somewhere between 35 and 65. A person with ADHD differs from this model in two ways. Firstly, we have a lot of trouble maintaining control over where on the scale we are at any given moment. Secondly, our day to day experience has a broader range of ratings on the scale, let’s say 20 to 80. The lower numbers represent zoning out and being distracted. The higher numbers represent are called hyperfocus – such an intense concentration that the rest of the world might as well not be there.

Let me give you some examples of hyperfocus and my inability to control what I focus on, since these are the two aspects mentioned above that are least understood.

Hyperfocus: When I was in college, I greatly enjoyed homework in several of my classes. There were times that I sat down in the library, intending to do 1 hour or so of homework, and what felt like 20 minutes later, 8 hours had passed and I had done an entire weeks worth of homework. Even setting a notification on my phone to get me to do other things would occasionally not work.

Lack of control: When I was a child, I had trouble responding to people talking to me if I was watching TV. It wasn’t that they were far away and I couldn’t hear them – I could. But the flashing lights of a TV screen kept my brain in a loop, and even though my brain was able to in some sense recognize that someone was trying to talk to me, I was for whatever reason not able to make the second step of responding to that person. It sometimes took my mom 10 or 15 attempts to get me to respond to her when my issue was at its worst.

How I Experience ADHD

Since I’ve lived with ADHD my whole life, it isn’t like I have any external reference frame for my experiences. However, I do notice that other people seem to think about certain things differently from me.

ADHD and Socialization: Socializing is one of those things that is extremely difficult to do without control over your level of focus. It takes extended and consistent concentration to pick up many social cues. Perhaps, for example, someone’s body language is telling me that I should stop talking about a certain topic. I might notice, or I might be so engrossed in the topic itself that I don’t notice. I also have a problem with interrupting people. There are a couple reasons this happens. Sometimes it is because the person takes a very brief pause and I don’t notice that they were about to say more. Sometimes, I have an idea or question and before I think long enough to realize that the other person is still talking, I’m talking. I don’t interrupt people on purpose, but it happens a lot on accident. It is something I have always had to work on, and will probably have to work on for the rest of my life.

ADHD, Loneliness, and Guilt: Although I miss a lot of social cues, I have always had a sense that I was missing things and that I didn’t fit in quite as naturally as others. Knowing on a subconscious that I was not experiencing conversations in the same way other people do, along with other similar differences, leads to a strong sense of social insecurity and isolation on a subconscious level. I had a hard time making friends. For instance, the first close friend I ever made in a school context was in eighth grade – and I think the only reason we were able to connect so well was that he also has ADHD. I never really felt like people were actively rejecting me or intentionally trying to be mean to me (although, as many people have, I did experience some bullying). The problem was more that I could tell nobody understood how I thought about or experienced the world. Being extremely into mathematics from a young age didn’t help this feeling, but I think the general sense I had of not understanding social cues very well (or at any rate, not quickly enough to be of any help) was in many ways the deepest root of my insecurities growing up.

Let me give a specific example of how ADHD can lead to a low self-esteem. Zoning out is a helpful example. As a child, I did get distracted easily, and naturally, occasionally people became frustrated at what must have felt like being ignored. I wasn’t trying to ignore anybody, and I know the people close to me didn’t blame me. But realizing that people often became frustrated about something I felt I had no control over can do a lot of damage to a person’s self esteem. I think this happened to me – and to this day I still feel guilty when I zone out in the middle of a conversation or don’t notice that someone is uncomfortable.

ADHD and Medication

A lot of people with ADHD take prescription medication that helps with some of the issues that ADHD brings into life. Many do not take medication, but many do as well. I am one of those who does. So, what is this stuff anyways?

What Medication Does: There are actually two very, very different kinds of medication that can help with ADHD. I don’t know much about one of them, but I can talk a little bit about my understanding of the family of medications called stimulants.

At first glance, you wouldn’t think that a stimulant would help with ADHD – after all, aren’t these people already hyper? But these actually can help. Here is the way I’ve come to think about it (I’m not a doctor, so I may well be wrong here). Imagine that your brain is constantly extremely under-stimulated (by stimulation, I mean roughly the amount of chemical responses in your brain). In such a case, your brain will try to reach healthy levels of stimulation by grabbing onto whatever happens to give you a boost in that moment. So sometimes that could be an intense focus on one thing, other times, jumping randomly between many things. Your brain wants to, well, feel normal, and the only way for it to feel normal is to constantly seek out intense stimuli to make up for a deficiency. To me, this explains how an under-stimulated brain could be an ADHD brain.

A stimulant would help by raising the level of chemical stimulation to a level nearer to normal. That way, your brain will not be so “needy” and will have more freedom in deciding what to focus on. This enables us to exercise more control over our attention span, which levels out both hyperfocus and inattentiveness.

There is a class of medications called depressants, which are as I understand it the polar opposite biochemically from stimulants, that can also help with ADHD (to give some extreme examples, meth is technically a stimulant and alcohol is a depressant, although neither of these would be used medically for ADHD). I don’t understand as much how depressants work, so I don’t want to comment on that.

Pros: The pros of medication are obvious – for many people, they work. This includes me. I have taken a stimulant since not long after being diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and it has always been helpful for me. I can tell when I forget to take it. If I forget to take it, my levels of motivation will drop to almost zero, I feel as if I have less control over my actions, and I am very spacy and unproductive. When I do take my medicine, I am much more alert and productive and am almost never plagued by the incessant, almost tortuous feeling of boredom that takes over when I forget. It isn’t as if medication takes away all the symptoms of ADHD – I can still tell that I have it – but it moderates the symptoms.

Cons: Medication works for some people, but not for everyone. As with any drug, there can be side effects, or the drug could just simply fail to work for a given ADHD person. The side effects can be both physical (like loss of appetite) and psychological (anxiety, depression, etc.). For some people, taking a medication for ADHD completely alters their personality. I have a friend who is in that situation, and because of how radically it changes him, he chooses not to take anything.

There are, of course, other treatment options as well, and different combinations of the various alternatives work better for different people. For example, a lot of people benefit most from learning how to notice when they are struggling and learning techniques for regaining control over their focus. This would be parallel to someone with depression learning how to notice when they are having toxic negative thoughts and how to effectively remind themselves that these thoughts are false, or someone with anxiety learning how to notice when they are becoming anxious and ways they can calm themselves down. As in all of life, nothing is perfect here, but lots of things can help.

I hope this has been a helpful read for anyone who takes the time to read it all the way through. Gaining a better understanding of what your friends with ADHD might be struggling with is one of the best things you can do to help them with the feelings of isolation and loneliness that often plague us. At the end of the day, knowing that people care about me and want to understand how ADHD affects me is one of the things that helps the most.

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