The symptoms of ADHD look an awful lot like laziness. It’s a developmental disorder, and the three main symptoms are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. That might not sound that serious, but it affects your executive function, which is your brain’s ability to regulate and control your attention, inhibitions, emotions and memory. When doctors screen for ADHD, they look for the impact of these symptoms across all areas of your life – your relationships with your friends and family, your performance at school or university – expecting to find a trail of Bad that you didn’t mean to leave, but did anyway because day-to-day functioning is difficult and overwhelming. Because it does look so much like laziness it’s easy to blame it all on yourself for not trying hard enough or not being clever enough.
I can’t remember how I got the idea to look into ADHD after years of being in denial that there was anything going on. Sixth form was the first time that my issues with concentrating and applying myself had real consequences, and the first time I started trying to figure out what might be wrong. I knew what depression was and I knew what anxiety was but it made no sense that me being depressed and anxious was tied up in how I couldn’t make myself study or control my frustration with myself, to the point that I would lash out at teachers in front of a whole class. My way of coping with being forgetful and unreliable was always to be a caricature of myself: if I made sure everyone knew I was always going to be late, never do my homework and probably be on the verge of tears at all times, then no one could be disappointed because they weren’t expecting anything more. Making a joke out of myself and how much I struggled made it harder for me to ask for help. Everyone knew I managed to blag my way through everything. I never handed in drafts of essays or revised until the last ten minutes before an exam. My teachers accepted that was just the way I did things and didn’t bother trying to punish me because they knew the work would get done eventually. One of the things ADHD does is make you very good at procrastinating but also very good at achieving things under extreme pressure (like writing entire coursework projects the night before the exam board came to moderate, and getting away with it). I think always managing to scrape by worked against me though, because it meant no one felt the need to step in and try to help.
In school I always did better in the subjects I liked, so I thought coming to uni where I only had to study what I cared about would make it easier to motivate myself. I resolved to get organised and meet all my deadlines and get a job and balance it all, but that didn’t happen. I managed to get through first and second year hardly speaking to anyone, not really going to lectures or seminars because I needed to catch up on work from previous weeks, but never actually doing the work because there was too much to do which made it too scary to even start. I gave up in the middle of second year, deciding that I couldn’t cope anymore and was going to drop out. It’s an ADHD thing to be indecisive as well by the way, so doing a complete U-turn and deciding that, actually, I wanted to try and get into honours about three days before the day of my first exam probably wasn’t all that surprising. Thanks to the intense sense of urgency that motivated me to actually study, and hyperfocusing on what I needed to learn instead of getting distracted, I managed to get into third year (still very shocked, still very proud).
Just after May exams I started seeing a doctor through the university counselling and psychological services who was willing to believe that I might actually have ADHD. I’d seen some doctors before who had tried to talk me out of pursuing an ADHD diagnosis on the basis that only boys have ADHD. The ratio of boys diagnosed compared to girls in the UK is 6:1, partially because girls are better at suppressing and compensating for their symptoms in order to fit in. Depression and anxiety are common comorbidities for people with ADHD anyway, but girls with ADHD have shown significantly higher rates of self-harm, substance abuse and attempted suicide as a result of internalising their inability to cope, as well as being at greater risk of experiencing abusive relationships.
Not having a name or explanation for why you seem to be incapable of things everyone else does with ease is terrifying, and I’m so lucky that I was diagnosed relatively quickly after finding a doctor who actually listened to me. Now that I know I have ADHD it seems so obvious and I’m so surprised that I’ve managed to get to (almost) twenty-one without anyone noticing. I’ve stressed the impact ADHD has had on me academically but it really does affect everything; even things like timing in conversations. I’ll often misjudge when is the right time to speak or what is the right thing to say, which comes off as tactless and rude; sometimes I’ll zone out of conversations or spend so long processing what was said that I miss the punchline of a joke or take its meaning literally; I will genuinely forget about people’s birthdays or events that I wanted to go to until it’s too late.
Despite everything, there are some aspects of ADHD that I like. Hyperfocus saves my self-esteem from crumbling completely because it’s proof that I can learn, even if I do accidentally get fixated on things that don’t help at all with uni (like Shakira for example). Being hyper is like being drunk for free (although it tends to happen at the most inappropriate of times and completely wipes me out afterwards). I love finding other people who have ADHD. I love projecting a diagnosis onto fictional characters (Lorelai from Gilmore Girls, Lucy from I Love Lucy, Holtzmann from the new Ghostbusters) and I’m so glad I was able to spot the same symptoms in my younger brother so he’ll be getting help way sooner than I did. I love that I can come up with all kinds of solutions to a problem because my mind is always racing and always ready for a challenge, and I like that ADHD gives you no choice but to be stubborn and resilient to be able to deal with all the times you fail.
At the moment I’m still arranging what provisions would be most helpful for me through the disability service, and I’ve tried some medication but it makes me panicky so I need to try a different kind. I still can’t study to save my life but I’m trying to get myself into a routine and trying to find ways to make it fun, which at the moment means making all the backgrounds on my word documents pink. Hopefully now that uni are aware of me and I’ve got a support system in the form of some really lovely new friends, I won’t be able to dig myself into a hole this year. I don’t know though, we’ll see.