My name is Damien Southam. I am the Director of Operations at Reflex Social Services and I live with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Here are 10 things that I, and others like me, wish you knew.
1. It’s a real thing.
If you are the parent of a child with ADHD, you have no doubt heard the usual refrains: “They are just a naughty child;” “They are lazy and easily distracted;” “You are just parenting wrong, you have to be stricter,” etc.
Trust me, we’ve heard them all too. And each and every one of them ignores the scientific evidence — we are not neurotypical.
To put that simply, our brains are not the same as yours. Or most people’s. In much the same way that the brain of an autistic person is not the same as most people’s, our brains are physically different.
We are not morally deficient.
We are not “stupid” or unteachable.
We are not intentionally malicious, misbehaved or anti-social.
We are “wired” uniquely and at odds with societal expectations.
2. Adults with ADHD are not trying to “get drugs.”
Trust me, the fact that our difficulties are usually treated with stimulants is not lost on us in any way. That might seem “fun” to some. Certainly, there are those who offered to buy my Ritalin off me when I was still using it.
Sometimes the medications themselves don’t feel like great fun. Don’t get me wrong, for some of us they can be a godsend in holding down a job or pursuing our studies. But that also leads me to the hardest part of our medication regimes: We have a daily reminder that society sees us as “broken.” We are medicated by society, because we either do not fit in or are seen as disruptive of societal norms.
So no, we don’t do this to get drugs.
3. Most of us are hypersensitive.
As a child, your brain starts to learn how to filter out information. You can decide what’s important, what’s background information, what’s urgent/potentially dangerous and what it is you’re currently concentrating on.
This doesn’t happen for us.
We are constantly bombarded with sensory and thought information — there is nothing in our environment we do not notice and can decide not to pay attention to. As I sit here typing I am listening to a podcast, I have 24 web tabs open which present me with a ton of neuroscience research, my cat is scratching itself on the lounge just out of my peripheral vision, four cars and a truck are driving past the front of my house, the woman next door is screaming at her husband because he isn’t wearing the tie she picked out for him (again) and then I am bombarded by the smell of my mother’s chain smoking throughout the house.
This is only what I can hold in my head long enough to describe.
We are aware of every smell, sight, light fluctuation, background noise, background voice, uncomfortable or pleasant sensation on our skin or tongue. I am overwhelmed 99% of the time.
The best way for me to give you a hold on the impact of this — the amount of mental energy you spend doing a third year uni exam is the amount of energy I use to navigate most of my daily tasks. If I look tired to you, I am.
4. If we are stuck, most of your motivational comments don’t help.
When we are passionate , and we certainly can be, we can be far too passionate. But once we are overwhelmed and exhausted, it is difficult for us to care about one thing more than we care about any other thing.
So, if you want me to prioritize, go whistle in the wind. Firstly, I cannot not think about every individual thing, and secondly, I do not care about any one of them, at least not more than I care about any other. It’s hard not to just let my brain try to do everything at once, because there isn’t enough sense of punishment or reward for me to fight it into line.
It also makes motivation on the personal level difficult. Yes, I would love to go exercise right now, but that desire just doesn’t seem to make it into my body. I would love to do my self-care, but somehow it just doesn’t seem to occur to me — I sort of…. forget I need to eat, or drink water, or get up and stretch.
So most of the stock standard advice doesn’t help us — we know and agree with everything you say, but it’s just another in an entire web of things we are trying to remember, concentrate on or feel motivated about.
5. At this point, you are probably not surprised to find out that social situations suck!
Imagine a scene for me, just for a second: You are in a room. The room randomly changes temperature for no apparent reason. There are, let’s say… 50 other people in the room. All 50 of these people are talking simultaneously. They all speak at different volumes. Five of them are really loud and nasally. Now — the room also echoes. Now, for no real reason, you have been asked to pick out which people are happy, frightened, sad, lying, uncertain of themselves or unwell. You also are required to notice what color everyone is wearing. And if they are wearing shoes or boots. Or if they are happy to be there. And if they seem to know anyone else.
Feeling overwhelmed yet?
Now imagine that as you start to get tired, the room will increase the volume of the echo. And as you start to get anxious, the light will also get more intense.
And now you are in our world. And it’s awkward, because you talk louder and faster because you are competing with noise that only you are aware of and an anxiety that only you feel. And you start fidgeting more, because your impulse controls are slipping as you divert focus on to remaining calm and pleasant. Anything with more than one person is a sensory overload.
In a similar way, conversations one-on-one are fraught. We have noticed every shift in body language, calculated every possible outcome of every situation the person has spoken of, and yet we are also frightened we have missed something they have said because we are also aware of the car outside, the 10 other conversations happening in the room, etc.
This is also a factor in the fact that, while we can have successful relationships and we tend to be very loving people, in my experience, I don’t often start the relationship. I have calculated all the potential ways I could hurt you, fail you and be hurt by you about 10 seconds after I realize I am interested in you.
6. It’s not really attention-deficit. It’s focused-attention-deficit
Oh believe me, we are paying attention. But never to just one thing. And never to any moment in time. Our past, present and future are all happening right now. And this thing that I am writing is happening at the same time as the bird outside with the amazingly red chest is gliding from one branch over to the lower arch of the next tree; the cat adjusts how its sleeping, the TV in the next room is at half volume; etc.
People with ADHD, contrary to the name, never struggle paying attention. It’s maintaining attention or narrowing attention into focus that falls short. And it’s as frustrating for us as it is for those around us. Especially when we have deadlines to fulfill, study we should be interested in or are faced with something that makes us afraid of failing.
7. ADHD may have once been a useful evolutionary branch and that explains what we are good at.
Imagine yourself in a Nordic/Viking village around 1,500–2,000 years ago. There are specific roles in your village, as there are in villages in many cultures around the world; blacksmith, medicine man/woman, elders, shepherds and goatherds, fishers, cloth weavers, soldiers and warriors, etc. However, your village lies in the shadows of the west Caucus, not many degrees of latitude below the Arctic Circle. Not only must all the roles of the village maintain their roles and tasks, they must do a year’s worth of them in six months before the massive freeze of winter. People who are “jacks of all trades, but masters of none” and who are ferociously energetic tend to do multiple things at once, and can see outside the social systems and come up with extraordinary alternatives would have been completely essential.
Unsurprisingly, people with ADHD have a tendency to be highly creative, capable of extraordinary problem-solving and a tendency to want to always be in motion, or fully immersed in something that is better than movement. We serve the modern society well as artists, creators, designers, theorists, analysts and in emergency service roles where multiple factors need to be considered and acted upon simultaneously or in rapid succession.
But, that does need to be tempered against the issue that:
8. Modern society is not really designed for us; and modern tech is designed for us a little too well.
There is a strong emphasis in society, especially for children, of expected behaviors and “processes.” This is difficult for people whose brains are not wired for sitting still and doing or thinking about one thing at a time. The social cues that are established around the overall behavioral expectations of this world are difficult for us to interpret, and we feel ostracized or awkward around our communities.
We might seem to talk to ourselves because our thoughts and ideas scream around our skulls so fast they tumble out of our mouths.
We might need to touch everything and feel sensations.
We might be afraid of this exact thing, so we move with obsessive caution through any environment, which leaves us fluctuating between desperately wanting a hug and cringing from the slightest contact.
We may need to obsessively repeat patterns of actions and movements as our brain struggles to stay still or stay focused.
There are so many more things like this — all of which causes us to be uncomfortable in society in general, let alone my description of actual social events above.
To top it off, social media, smart phone technology, YouTube and the internet in general can be an utter nightmare. Not because they’re bad, but because they are almost too perfect for us — constant information, bombarding notifications, constant demands for shifting focus and attention, voices, sensations, colors, ideas, captivating thoughts, 40 to 50 simultaneous conversations… It’s exactly what our brains do , in satisfyingly digital form. But then we find ourselves back in situations where we are not allowed to do that.
People who struggle with being hyperactive also tend to struggle with emotional self-regulation. This is especially a struggle when we hit the sensory overload threshold.
It’s hard for young people who struggle, who often report:
“I try my hardest not to be naughty.”
“I just wish people understood me.”
“I just wish they’d realize I need to fidget.”
“I wish people would understand I’m not a bad kid.”
“I want to behave, but my brain sometimes tells me not to. I have really big emotions and don’t mean to get so mad when things don’t go my way.”
“I cannot simply control myself. This lack of control makes me feel like a failure most days.”
This, combined with our symptoms, sadly places us at great risk of addiction and negative self-comforting. One example is video games — these present us with control, predictable but very sensory worlds, where our capacity to rapidly shift between variables and thoughts are rewarded and where we can feel comfortable and accomplished. Our fidgets and tics can be replaced by rapid reflex movements on controls and keyboards, and the more we “fidget” the better at the game we are.
We also struggle with other addictions as a result. I personally have a severe caffeine addiction; it grants me a small window of time where my body feels like its moving and reacting at the same speed as my mind, and this feels like I have control. In my teens and early 20s I had a dependent relationship with alcohol. It slowed my brain to a point where I felt (reasonably) socially normal, but had too many depressive side effects. Many of us are vulnerable to dependency on cannabis for similar reasons.
10. While we have the power to be beneficial to our society — some aspects of our disorder are… well… funny.
We are interesting people who struggle to get out of bed at 7 a.m., but will randomly vacuum the house at 3 a.m.; we act the instant a thought forms; we are often night owls; we are in fact highly intelligent, philosophical and aware; we have so many browser tabs open that we regularly crash even the fastest computer processors; we randomly compliment people; we will make all your office notes disappear and probably most of the pens; you will have to politely remind us when all 10 pens are in our breast pocket and when the post-it notes are stuck to the side of our heads; we can create entire Venn diagrams out of the last three hours of conversation; we will obsessively stick to organizational systems… unless they’re boring or don’t quite work how we want them to; on the days we remember we have a calendar, we will probably hyperventilate as we realize we’ve missed about 10 appointments and four social engagements and your birthday, but we really do love you, honest; and of course, coming home from our random mountain bike ride (which we took at midnight, naturally) to find to our great relief that we left the phone in the fridge.
But for all this, some truly profound social activists, theoretical physicists, artists, politicians and entrepreneurs in all industries are people with ADHD.
Our capacity to theorize and collect large amounts of tangential information and data, and memorize huge amounts, make us extraordinary planners, creators, organizers and presenters, and most especially our capacity to read people and notice small details can, with the right behavioral training, makes us extremely sensitive to the needs and sufferings of others, so you’ll often find us on the front lines of social justice, advocacy, policy and mental health.
So please don’t fall into the trap of thinking of us as lazy when we can’t do written work or study or stay on task. Don’t assume we aren’t intelligent when we look at things in a different way. Truth be told, if we could do everything by voice recording or voice command, we would probably be running the world by now.
So how can you help?
If you have our permission, place your hand on our shoulder or hold our hand while you are talking to us. It grounds more of our senses into the one conversation.
Be patient with us; don’t let us sit around all day, but give us a little extra time to complete one task, as we are probably completing three or four at the same time.
Respect how much mental energy it takes for us to function “normally.”
Help us in our efforts to build work environments that have supportive sensations and sounds.
Encourage our experimentation with systems of organization.
Make sure we always have deadlines, but enforce them positively.
We will take 40 minutes to find the socks we want sometimes — we do know that’s annoying. We are sorry.
We are mostly stuck in our heads, caring for our bodies sometimes needs a reminder.
Curiosity is my greatest strength as well as my weakness, help me to remember to use it constructively.
Once we hit the “I don’t care/I can’t decide” stage, give us a moment to rest and think, or tell us why the decision is important to you, and we will then decide based on data.
What would you add?
This story originally appeared on Flex-Ed, a resource for the latest in mental and social health research and development.