All the things your friends with ADHD want you to know

I’ve had ADHD for as long as I can remember. I was diagnosed when I was 11 years old, and this was following years of lost stuff, missed assignments, and odd outbursts. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about what ADHD looks and feels like, at least for me (everyone is different, and men and women often present their ADHD differently, as well). Here’s the summary:

It’s not that we can’t pay attention…

Well, not exactly. It’s more that what we’re supposed to pay attention to and what we actually pay attention to are often totally different things. It may be that we’re supposed to be paying attention to a lecture or a movie, but something else entirely has caught our attention, and it’s that thing that we’re super focused on. So if you ask us a question and we ask you to repeat it, it’s not because we didn’t care enough to listen – it’s just because we were caught up in an important internal debate about whether or not the birds outside are singing in harmony, or if we should adjust our chair to be higher, or what tune the guy next to us is tapping his foot to.

…it’s just that our brains just work very differently. 

ADHD all comes down to this concept called executive dysfunction. Executive functions are like cranial middle management — it’s how your brain tells you what to do and when to do it. ADHD is one of a number of disorders where those functions don’t work right. Basically, our those with ADHD have middle managers in our brains who are all drunk or phoning it in, and as a result we have serious issues planning, organizing and following through.

Everyone experiences their ADHD differently.

From a medical perspective, there are three types of ADHD: predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, and combination. Basically, you’re either can’t focus, can’t sit still, or both.

However, like most things, it all exists on a spectrum. People can experience severe distractedness and moderate hyperactivity; they can also be great at remembering dates but terrible at following a lecture. At the end of the day, the only thing all ADHDers have in common is that our brains sometimes act like a roadblock.

It often comes with a lot of guilt, or other murky feelings.

Most people understand that ADHD makes it hard to deal with planning and organization, probably because we’re used to thinking of ADHD in terms of incomplete school assignments and missing keys. However, the way your brain works affects more than just school, and the guilt from not being able to just do things can hit you in weird and unexpected ways.

Just as an example: Say it’s my turn to do the dishes. I’m an adult in an egalitarian relationship, and I understand and agree that I should take on my fair share of cleaning. However, sometimes ADHD makes the follow-through hard. The best-case scenario is I just do the dishes like a normal grownup. More than likely, though, I forget. My fiancé gets impatient and does them, and then I feel bad for forgetting and he (rightfully) gets annoyed that he’s always doing the dishes.

Which leads me to the next point…

Sometimes tasks are downright impossible.

Some days, it happens like this: I stare at the dishes. I look at the dish soap. I think about doing the dishes. I picture it. I remind myself that it would be so easy. I scream at my arms to move. I imagine picking up the scrub brush and just getting it over with. But in actuality, nothing happens. I don’t move. The dishes stay dirty.

Now, this kind of thing doesn’t happen every day. But when it does happen, it’s beyond frustrating. I’m like a deer in the headlights, except instead of a car, I’m facing a couple of plates and a colander.

Many of us are as passionate as we are flighty.

Most people with ADHD have abandoned more hobbies than those without will start in a lifetime. We fall in love with new things – if the idea of being great at something really clicks, we’ll get hyper-focused on it. For example, I knitted my first scarf in one day. I did nothing but knit and watch movies. After I was done, I decided I was awesome at knitting. I went out and bought about eight skeins of yarn, came home and made a binder filled with interesting patterns I’d found online.

That was around six years ago. I haven’t knitted since.

This isn’t to say we can never stick to stuff – just don’t be surprised if one day we love something and the next we couldn’t care less.

Don’t mind our post-it notes (or other organizational techniques).

On an average day at work, I probably make about six different to-do lists. The first list says what I’m going to do for the day, and on what timeline I’m going to do it. The second adjusts for the fact that I work slowly in the mornings, and I should have given myself more time for my first few tasks.

The third is my “get it in gear” list – I usually make this one around noon, and it’s when I yell at myself for working slowly in the mornings the way I always do. Lists four through six are the most inexplicable – when I finish a task, I decide I want a new list that shows how few tasks I have left.

This is just what’s in my planner. I’ve also got about a billion post-it notes and a spreadsheet where I obsessively track my work though out the month. It might sound like overkill, but through many years of trial and error, I’ve found this method works. It’s not perfect, but it helps.

Meds are pretty personal.

I used to take ADHD meds. Now I don’t. I stopped because they ruined my appetite so badly I ended up malnourished. When I started having heart issues at the ripe old age of 13, I freaked out. I wouldn’t let the doctor simply put me on a lower dose or try me out on a new prescription; I was done, and I wanted to be weaned off of my medication completely.

Other people have experienced the same thing, but they decided to try out other meds. Moreover, there are ADHDers who experience difficult side effects like appetite loss or insomnia but find their results are worth it. Taking meds or not taking meds doesn’t make ADHD more or less a part of someone’s life. After all, meds don’t cure ADHD, they just make it easier to handle. Don’t bother people about whether or not they take meds – just trust they know what’s right for them.

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