Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a bit of a misnomer; I think the name is a big reason why ADHD is so poorly understood and controversial as a mental illness. Those of us with the disorder aren’t necessarily hyperactive, and it isn’t always characterized by a deficit in attention. We aren’t bouncing off the walls from one thing to another, never able to finish a project because we have so much energy to burn off and no way to actually direct it. I mean, it’s partially true — but never in the way that people unfamiliar with the disease or its critics imagine it to be. ADHD is, like almost all other mental illnesses, a fairly complex disorder that can have a variety of expressions.
Also like so many other mental illnesses, the exact cause and nature of ADHD is poorly understood. However, there’s been a lot of research for it possibly because it’s such a controversial subject, with a number of scientists spearheading research to better classify it. We do know that ADHD expresses itself differently in children than it does in adults, primarily because undiagnosed children develop internalization mechanisms in order to “hide” symptoms, cope with them in increasingly complex social or professional environments, and attempt to deal with the lack of support or understanding for their difficulties.
We do know that ADHD is primarily a dysfunction of the parts of the brain that govern executive function, which leads to problems sustaining attention, being organized, and procrastinating. It affects planning, prioritization, time management, impulse control, decision making and mood regulation. In children, this can look like they’re incredibly hyperactive and impulsive, with a tendency to lash out and ignore instruction. In adults, this often looks like someone who is a ‘space cadet’ — lazy and unfocused with no capability of remembering the things they need to.
In any case, it’s generally accepted that the frontal lobes in the brain handle executive functioning. While there may be differences in the structure or volume of brain matter in this region, there might also be really hyperactive dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake mechanisms there. Since those neurotransmitters are very important for brain function in these regions, this can result in the neurons in that part of the brain working “sluggishly” because there simply aren’t enough chemicals within the synapses needed to promote enough electrical activity. This is why, paradoxically, stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin work so well. They increase the level of dopamine and adrenaline (epinephrine) in the brain. It’s also why folks with ADHD tend to seek out constant stimulation; it’s the brain trying hard to get its fix.
People with ADHD tend to have other mental illnesses, either as the direct result of the physical/chemical issues within the brain or due to the struggle to understand and cope with the illness. Depression and other mood disorders, anxiety disorder, low self-esteem and other issues all tend to pop up; I know for the longest time, before my diagnosis, I thought I was simply broken. I couldn’t make my brain do the things I know it needed to, and my focus would just slide off a task that I knew would require sustained, intense effort. This has been the case ever since I entered high school, to be honest — it was then that I realized I couldn’t simply coast through lessons, but I had never learned how to actually work for the consistently high grades I had gotten before. It was a pretty hard crash, and I never managed to recover from it.
For me, ADHD expresses itself in the form of intense procrastination on projects that I know will be difficult and require sustained focus, detailed effort and a lot of moving pieces. The kinds of stories I like to write are the worst for this, and I genuinely wish I could adopt a style closer to, say, Vonnegut or Douglas Adams or Charlie Jane Adams. But stories with tightly-written plots and thoughtful, nuanced takes on difficult themes often require great care, and I so badly want to make sure that I’m treating these subjects with the mindfulness they require. It’s been a great struggle to fight through a brain that simply doesn’t have the equipment to be as organized and detail-oriented as it needs to be.
It took me a long while to come to grips with the possibility that I had ADHD, mostly because of the stigma and controversy that exists in the media. There’s a steady diet of hot takes out there suggesting it’s a made-up disease, or that it’s especially overdiagnosed in children who are just being regular kids, or that drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are abused by people who are looking to stay up all night and crush that exam or work project.
There’s also a heavy stigma around the use of Adderall. Do you remember that (likely doctored) Calvin and Hobbes comic where Calvin is prescribed medication and it forces him to ignore Hobbes? I’m not going to lie, that scared the shit out of me — the thought that my ability to daydream, to be creative, would have to be sacrificed in order to be productive haunted me for a long time.
But now, of course, I know that’s a false dichotomy. ADHD actually hinders your ability to be creative; if you’re like me, you get hyperfocused on one aspect of the story and (because of my anxiety disorder) fall into a loop where you feel you need to rewrite again and again and again before you’re allowed to move on to the next aspect. Then, you get burned out or distracted and end up with three paragraphs that have been polished to within an inch of their lives.
Medication is absolutely a viable option for treating ADHD, especially in adults, but it’s only one avenue of treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other techniques are needed in order to unlearn all the bad habits that our own stumbling about to deal with our brains might have introduced. It can also give us a greater understanding of our individual challenges with ADHD and offer ways to cope with them.
Now that I know that my executive function is impaired and that makes it really difficult for me to stay on task, resist distractions, stay organized and deal with my impulses in a healthy manner, I’ve taken steps to address those. Developing routines that teach you how to consciously do what many others can do in their own heads has been a lifesaver; it’s how I make sure I take my medication, meditate, feed and water my rabbit; it’s how I make sure I’ve broken down projects into bite-sized chunks that I can actually handle one at a time; it’s how I make sure I write down just about everything I need to remember and keep on top of my to-do list. It’s still a struggle to get things done, but I’m no longer wondering why things are so hard or what’s wrong with me. There’s nothing “wrong” with me; my brain works differently from most and while that offers certain challenges it also opens up a lot of benefits too.
Hyper-focus, for example, is a tremendous tool. I know that if I’m emotionally invested in something or fascinated on a certain level it’s a lot easier for me to enter a state of flow where that’s all there is in the world. If I can find a way to access that feeling for a certain project, it’s much easier for me to devote a significant chunk of time to it. Learning how to be organized and mindful is also a strange fringe benefit, but it’s served me well. My Bullet Journal and I are super-best-friends, and the organization, mindfulness and productivity it has brought me feels so much sweeter because it’s been so hard won.
It’s also enabled me to recognize problems with executive function in other people. If someone can never seem to be on time, or forget things if they don’t write them down, or constantly misplace things, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to. Understanding myself and how I work allows me to be more compassionate towards the difficulties that other people face. It’s so very hard to be an adult, where it feels like you’re juggling balls and spinning plates all the time, and people only notice the kind of job you’re doing when something goes crashing to the ground. All of us are trying to keep too many things in our heads at once; it’s kind of a blessing to know how impossible this is and stop trying.
Symptoms and issues of ADHD can happen to anyone, but that doesn’t mean that ADHD isn’t a “real” illness. Multiple symptoms have to be present for a long time in order to be diagnosed, and medication can also have a weird ‘calming’ effect. For example, meditation and Adderall enables me to focus much more easily than I would be able to otherwise and I’m much more resilient against distractions.
If you think you might have ADHD — or even just an issue with your executive function — it’s best to learn more about how executive function works, what it looks like when that region of the brain isn’t working as expected, and schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss the possibility. Even if it turns out you don’t have that diagnosis, there might be other issues or more information that might help you improve your focus, organization, and memory. Regardless of whether you’re neuro-typical or coping with a mental illness, proper nutrition, regular exercise and enough sleep are foundations for better mental health.
This post is a part of Mental Health Awareness Month; all month long I’m writing posts about my personal experience with mental illness, the stigma that prevents conversation and treatment, and bits of fiction that highlight these issues. If there’s a subject or aspect that I haven’t covered, please leave a comment!