Hmmm I should work on a new blog post. Ok open up word, oh hey that’s right the sci-fi collaboration I am supposed to be working on. *opens file*. Hmm but I should really get another post up on skeptability… oh I love her hair! I should cut my hair, but I want to have it long when I get married. I am not even engaged yet, why am I worrying about this. Because I am 27. Tee hee divisible by 9, 18, 27, 36, 45…. Oh yuck my coffee is cold. Should I order another one? What time is it? Alex gets off work in two hours. I could wait here till then and then go pick him up. That works. Oh wait do I have money for another coffee. Ok… I have this much in my bank account and these are my bills, this is how much money I should be making from this and that and … oh god oh god oh god, nope don’t get anxious about money. Grrrrr concentrate, wait what was I doing? Oh right I was going to write the next scene of my fantasy novel! Wait is that right? Holy Crap when did it become 4:30? I have to go!
This is just a fraction of what it feels like in my brain whenever I try to work on something. The harder I try to concentrate, the harder it gets. The only exception is if I become so focused on something that I start to ignore everything, including anyone who is talking to me, what I am supposed to be doing, and even the fact that I am in pain or hungry. I have actually once managed to burn myself because I didn’t notice that the heat I was feeling was my laptop adapter that was on my thigh and not just the flush of excitement from being on a writing role. Luckily I had to go to the bathroom before the 1st degree burn turned into a 2nd degree burn.
Imagine being in a crowded restaurant with a friend. All around you there are a multitude of conversations but you are also trying to focus on the conversation you are having. To a normal person, you can tune out most of the conversations and focus on your friends. To a person with ADHD it is as though I have to concentrate on all of the conversations within hearing range at once. I cannot prioritize one conversation over the other, which means my friend is not getting my attention. I can try, and even succeed, for short bouts to stick to what I am trying to do, but all it takes is one hook and I am dragged back into the swirling current of conversations around me; drowning. That hook can be anything: a similar name to mine, a word I find amusing, a tone of voice that demands attention, even the fact that someone is speaking off key can drag my attention away.
I didn’t get diagnosed with ADHD till I was 25. I was always a really quick learner and so the lack of attention was assumed to be because I was bored. The problem however, was that I never tested well. Whenever the gifted accreditation tests came up, I wouldn’t score as well, to the endless frustration of my teachers. Since I had a great memory, I never had to worry about the fact that I couldn’t study. My grades on the other hand, followed consistently the same pattern every year. High at the beginning, a drop near the middle, and then a slight boost back up near the end.
Over and over I would hear people telling me that I was lazy. I found it hard to believe since I was actually usually occupied with a variety of things; it was just that I had a hard time finishing. Over and over again I would start projects, do the research, learn a bunch, and then somehow never finish the project. I would start newspapers, extra credit assignments, school clubs, and more. The only way things got done was if I had a deadline or someone watching over my back. I was a self-starter, but not a self-finisher.
On the other hand, I would get so absorbed in other things though that I would forget to eat. When reading for example: Mom would be screaming my name standing right in front of me, and I would be completely oblivious. Needless to say, this did not make her happy.
Eventually, I noticed that when I had a slight distraction, like sketching, my marks in the class would improve dramatically. I started joking that I had reverse ADHD. It’s not that I couldn’t focus, it is that I focused too much, just on the wrong thing.
Despite all these hints to the fact that something was wrong, it wasn’t until I had a boss with ADHD that it was finally suggested that this might be the answer. I went to my doctor and psychiatrists. They administered a variety of tests and I scored high on the ADHD indicators. Here suddenly was an explanation for all the problems I had been having consistently. Imagine my shock when I found our that hyper-focus ADHD is a thing.
This new diagnosis even explained why coffee and tea with caffeine never kept me awake. When I started the medication, it was a huge help. It didn’t make the conversations disappear but it did make it possible for me to dim how loud they were and ignore them. It helped me not ‘not-get distracted’, but to prioritize. This thought, it can wait till later.
I noticed a change immediately. The speed at which I was speaking slowed way down. I no longer had to worry about getting words out as fast as I could before I forgot them. I also started speaking more quietly. I was able to pay attention to details rather than having them escape my notice.
It was a revolution in thinking! It was a revelation. Why had I not started this earlier?
The truth is that my ADHD escaped notice for the same reason that many mental health concerns end up getting ignored for as long as they do. Our society has a mental picture for what the ADHD child is supposed to look like. The honour roll student, captain of the debate team, didn’t fit that model. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t focus. It didn’t matter that her potential might have been even greater if she realized she had this problem and could reteach herself new mental habits while still young enough to ingrain those habits. Nope. The important thing is not that she feels comfortable in her mind. What matters is that she be not overmedicated and labelled different.
What does it matter? You did well in school, so no harm done?
Except that in University, suddenly that lack of focus and lack of good study habits started to matter. The fact that I couldn’t take multiple choice tests properly suddenly started to matter. Most science classes depend on multiple choice exams when they are dealing with several hundred students at a time. When you are in the deep end and stuck in a current, it is too late to learn how to swim.
What’s more, there is a level of anxiety that builds surrounding finishing a project. No matter how often I succeed, the start of every project is surrounded with a sureness that I will never finish. When I signed on to write Young, Sick, and Invisible, I became convinced that I could never finish it. So much so that many times when I would sit down to work on it, I would be sabotaged by thoughts that I could never finish so why both starting.
Although I scored high on the test for ADHD, when I first approached my doctor to request a referral to a psychiatrist, I was accused of “drug seeking”. This is a refrain I had heard frequently with every one of my conditions and every time doctors had been proven wrong; usually at my expense. I wasn’t sure if I had the condition, I just wanted the opportunity to find out. If it wasn’t ADHD, then there were a variety of other things that could have been causing the disorder. Our society is so afraid of the stigma of mental illness that my doctor was trying to talk me out of even seeing a psychiatrist. This, even after she admitted that I was probably right! (Yes, I have a new family doctor now. And she is wonderful!)
This is why I get so upset whenever anyone shares those “ADHD doesn’t exist” memes, or talks about how horrible it is that our children are over medicated. Every person with ADHD I know who was diagnosed as a late teen or adult had the same problem with access to treatment. Even to this day, we have to rely on our doctor’s goodwill to give us our refill. Not to mention lectures from pharmacists, and from every Tom, Dick, and Susan who ever picked up a magazine and thing they’re an expert.
Most of the time, the concerns surrounding overmedication have to do with not understanding how the medication work. These memes go with one of two tactics: either they call the meds the “Shut up and sit down drug” or they try to scare people by discussing the similarities between Ritalin and Cocaine. The fact that these tactics are polar opposites never seems to occur to them.
It is true that the medication provided to ADHD patients are stimulants. For someone with ADHD, stimulants regulate impulsive behavior and improve attention span and focus by increasing the levels of certain chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which help transmit signals between nerves.* In fact, this effect is also seen in people without ADHD which is why Ritalin is a popular drug with college students who have too much homework, and busy parents. In a person with ADHD, it increases productiveness to “normal” levels.
That said, stimulants in most children would have the effect of making them bounce off the walls. Similarly to how children act when they’ve had too much caffeine. So the idea of calling it the sit down and shut up drug is complete willful ignorance.
And now for the chicken impression! I was working on writing while on my visit to Portland. Caleb and I decided to work together in a coffee shop. We made a deal that if we didn’t manage to get writing done we would post something embarrassing. I did not succeed, so this is my “punishment”. Introducing the best chicken impression you have ever seen.