Libi Boroda, our volunteer Social Media Manager, shares her experience growing up with ADHD. This article was first published on Perspective The Blog in July 2020.
Disclaimer: As obvious by the title, I have ADHD. As such, this article may jump all over the place. I will probably go off on a tangent, switch to a seemingly unrelated (but still informative) topic and then, with any luck, we will circle back in the end. I hope you find this style endearing, educational even, verses disruptive and disorienting. If the latter is the case – well, my friend, welcome to having ADHD.
At age seven, my mind slowed down for the first time. The doctors called it Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The medication was like putting on glasses, the world suddenly made sense. I could read, I could write, and I no longer felt like the dumb kid or the hyperactive kid. I began to explore the world through books and express myself in words. I was finally able to just be me.
For those who aren’t familiar, ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder.
This is a fancy term to say that my brain doesn’t function in a neurotypical, or “normal”, way. Dopamine, a chemical in the brain, is released at a much slower rate, and this affects concentration, emotional-regulation and behavioural responses.
However, medication isn’t a “cure”. You still have ADHD. I will always have ADHD. But it does make it a lot easier to think clearly, regulate my emotions and behave in an age-appropriate, socially acceptable manner.
“Regulate” is an important term that I want to unpack.
Neurotypical people have the ability to manage how they feel, think and then decide to react to a situation. Your brain can assess a scenario based on past experiences, current mood and information available, and then come to a measured response of action within a given time frame.
Your brain is doing this all the time. Let’s look at a simple scenario:
You have woken up 40 minutes late and need to decide how much of your morning routine you can complete before you have to leave for work. A neurotypical person will check the time, calculate how long it usually takes and cut out non-essential tasks. You may get slightly worried about the time, even feel guilty for staying up late. Even so, you will make it out the door in time for work (granted you have two clean socks and can find your keys).
Now when you have ADHD, everything feels so immediate. It all fits into two categories: now and not-now. If something is now, then it needs to be done immediately. With that mindset, you can usually sustain enough motivation to focus and complete the task. If you let too much time pass, or you push it off even a little bit… well, then it becomes not-now. And once it finds itself there, well, then it’s in murky territory. It’s like the poppies in Wizard of Oz, or the Wicked Witch’s candy house in Hansel and Gretel. Whatever resolve you once had, goes out the window and the likelihood of getting back on track is a gamble at best.
If something is in the now, you feel like you need to have all the answers immediately. There is no time to think things through, or weigh your options. And if you are thinking, then you aren’t doing. (When you have ADHD thinking and doing, rarely happen simultaneously.)
In our scenario, you’ve woken up late and your entire morning routine needs to happen now. Everything you need to do is equally important, and for some reason you can’t remember how long they take, or in what order. So you choose what to wear and then brush your teeth, not considering you might get toothpaste on your clothes. Not a good start to your morning. While getting changed, again, you are trying to sustain enough focus to remember what needs to go in your bag. You realise that you probably should have eaten breakfast before brushing. You stand there pondering whether orange juice is still a good idea. You check the clock, and of course, you have five minutes before you have to leave.
It’s important to note that the clock is never your friend. It’s either moving too fast, or way too slow. If you ask me, sixty seconds is the definition of a social construct, or maybe just a sick mind-game.
Truthfully, our relationship with time is linked to our emotions and the capacity for self-regulation within a given duration. Neurotypically speaking, you can successfully manage your time because you have the discipline and forethought to map out the necessary tasks, and complete them according to urgency, as well as complexity.
But when you have ADHD, your relationship with time is wrapped up in your emotions about a situation, as well as your self-confidence to manage time responsibly. So a deadline, beginning a significant project, or even a list of small tasks and errands, can feel overwhelming. This feeling is heightened by past experiences, external expectations, and real or perceived consequences.
ADHD is often used colloquially in reference to being distracted – like getting off track and watching YouTube videos while you should be studying. But there is more to it.
Self-regulation is like your brain’s internal secretary – it organises incoming mail, calls and appointments. For those of us with ADHD, there is no secretary, or if there is, they’re the type to take frequent breaks and to constantly play solitaire. Our inbox has 600 new emails and it’s too overwhelming to distinguish what is important from what is superfluous. This symptom is called executive dysfunction.
To compensate, ADHD brains can only focus on things they have motivation to do. Without a healthy dose of enthusiasm, urgency or peer pressure, we will inevitably fall prey to activities that we find more interesting in that particular moment.
In fact, we actually have a hidden superpower. We can ‘hyper-focus’, spending hours writing a thesis, developing a risk management strategy or cooking a three-course meal. But on the flip side, hours could go by and we won’t eat, drink water or do anything to jeopardise our bubble of motivation until the task is complete.
This may seem counterintuitive, but hyper-focusing occurs because ADHD affects the ability to regulate attention. The impulsivity of now means we struggle to pace ourselves; and when we get stuck in the paradigm of not-now, it is nearly impossible to sustain focus without sufficient motivation.
Like all disabilities, however, ADHD brings with it a very personal experience of adversity.
Growing up, it felt like I was working ten times as hard to get half the amount of work done. I would experience anxiety attacks during timed assessments at school, and stay up until 4am working on a university paper that was due at midnight. More recently, I have rambled during interviews, making the wrong first impression. Too often my life has felt out of my control, like my brain was working against me.
Beyond all that, I want people to understand how my experience with ADHD goes hand in hand with my identity and my personal journey of self-acceptance.
I am a chatterbox, a procrastinator, and a night owl. But as strange as it sounds, I couldn’t tell you what aspects of my personality are unique to me, and what is just a symptom of my disorder.
I used to hate that fact. To me, ADHD was a disability – something that was wrong with me, something that I just wanted to “fix” or wish away. Even worse, I felt like I was always apologising for being myself. Anytime I would go off on a tangent, speak without thinking or interrupt someone mid-conversation, I just wanted to be “normal”.
Medication made things more complicated, especially as a kid. I remember thinking that I lived a double life. At home, I was this ball of energy that struggled to focus on my homework; then at school, I was socially reserved, a perfectionist and constantly hyper-focused in class. It felt impossible to resolve these two sides of myself.
Remarkably, my mindset shifted when I found the confidence to talk about my disability. As I shared my experience with teachers, colleagues and friends, they reciprocated with patience and understanding. I felt supported and seen for the first time. It was then that I realised ADHD is a part of who I am, and that’s okay.
Truly, I can’t imagine my life without it. I have accepted that to lead a productive life, I have to put in the effort. That means regular visits to my psychiatrist, taking medication and practicing techniques to stay organized.
Even so, I know there will be times when the day gets away from me and my to-do list will remain undone. But there will be lots of small victories too, like meeting work deadlines, paying my bills on time and remembering to eat breakfast.
I don’t have all the answers. But I can say: it does get easier – easier to ask for help and easier to forgive yourself.