More Than Distracted: Life with ADHD

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that seems to center around issues with norepinephrine and dopamine based on the efficacy of medication. If you are not diagnosed with ADHD, it can be difficult to fully grasp just what it is, how it feels, and why it is so damaging. While the depiction of boys diving off of furniture or misbehaving may be true in some cases, the reality is that it affects both sexes, all ages, and the experiences we face may not fall in line with what you typically think when you hear the term ADHD.

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I was diagnosed with ADHD this year at the age of 32. I struggled with organization, executive functions, focus (and hyperfocus), and daydreaming. Though it may not sound like much, these symptoms have hindered my life for as long as I can remember. I also struggled to complete pretty much any task, which left my personal, professional, and at times academic life in shambles. I compulsively exercised and consumed far too much caffeine, which I later discovered were both methods of self-medication, with caffeine serving as a calming, focusing agent and exercise being an outlet for hyperactivity as well as compulsive behavior. I was impulsive and obsessive, to the point of making very poor decisions. But contrary to what some may believe regarding ADHD, I’ve never tried to scale the walls, I never got into trouble at school – in fact I was a model student – and I am not distracted every moment of the day.

My symptoms impact my life in profound ways, though this has improved vastly with treatment. I would sit down and try my hardest to work on assignments, but inevitably my mind wandered off to some other topic. I catch myself distracted or daydreaming, and then the guilt sets in. Why can’t I maintain focus? Why can’t I force myself to pay attention? Then, an hour later I am sucked into a new topic I suddenly found interesting, researching to the point that I ignore everything and everyone in my life. Most people think of ADHD as a lack of focus, but this view is inaccurate: in reality, living with ADHD means dealing with dysregulated attention. And it isn’t something you can just magically fix. You can’t just ‘do better’.

What is it like to have ADHD?

– It is sitting down to watch a movie, to have a conversation, thoughts swirling around in my head to the point of missing out on what is being said. It is struggling to be fully “present”.

– It is feeling this sensation in my chest and stomach, this pressure rising up and building. When this happens, I know it means I have to move around, or else I fear I will explode. This is restlessness. It is also hyperactivity, which is so different from what people typically think of it in my experience. For one, hyperactivity can manifest in my life through impulsive behavior, such as spending or rash decision-making, or through excessive talking, and overexercise.

– It is being so forgetful that I forget what I am doing in the middle of the act. I forget what mundane objects are called. I lose track of my words mid-sentence.

– It is looking around my apartment, surveying the clutter, and not knowing where to start. It is failing to start at all, or giving up halfway through.

– It is feeling as if someone is pressing their hands against my ears when people speak. I have to struggle to listen. When I try to think, a million thoughts descend into my mind and I don’t know which one to follow. When I try to read the words I feel as though they do not reach my brain; my eyes merely scan the page and I start to skim, on autopilot.

– It is trying to clean, and the only thing I know is to do so compulsively, methodically – otherwise I can only sit on the floor and cry, not knowing where to start.

ADHD can have a profound affect on self-esteem. Mostly, mine results in not feeling ‘good enough’, ‘smart enough’, ‘capable enough’. Sometimes I feel like a failure. I ask myself, much like the world asks, why I can’t just pull myself together?

But it doesn’t work like that. ADHD is a real condition and it affects millions. Some are children struggling to calm down or maintain focus. Some are regular people working jobs and moving about the world. Some are like I was, dealing with these issues and not knowing it, suffering greatly under the weight of being undiagnosed.

Prior to being diagnosed, I found that my life was touched by ADHD in some form on a daily basis, some of which proved to be life-hindering. These days I manage pretty well with medication and therapy, as well as lifestyle changes, like adequate sleep. Additionally, since I was diagnosed later in life I learned some ways to get by, taught myself to do things certain ways. I made due with what I had.

Do you want to know what ADHD looks like? It looks like the person next to you, the woman passing you on the street, your friend, your loved one. It is the child that hates being called on in class because he or she cannot focus on the teacher’s words. It is the business woman that appears pulled together, hiding the inner turmoil and overworking to compensate for her perceived flaws. It is the wife that scrubs her house from head to toe, only to have it revert back to its disorganized state instantly, resulting in an endless cycle of self-loathing and tireless compulsions. It is the college student with mediocre grades that doesn’t realize why he can’t catch a break. Maybe he gives up trying.

ADHD is far more than being distracted. That is just one piece of the puzzle that makes up a spectrum of symptoms. Perhaps with time, more will come to understand what ADHD really looks like, which could result in a more accurate, timely diagnosis, and those struggling under the weight of darkness may finally find a way to walk in the light.

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Charlie is a graduate student pursuing a degree in English and Creative Writing. When she is not doing coursework or writing, she enjoys hanging out with her husband and dog. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, in particular essays and novel-length works. She blogs daily on her site Decoding Bipolar, with a focus on education and incorporating positive changes in order to live fully while coping with mental illness.

You can follow Charlie on Facebook, Twitter and her personal blog.

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