When I was 18 years old, I was diagnosed with ADHD. To many, ADHD is often associated with a difficulty paying attention, sitting still, and laziness. Whilst these are all characteristics of the disorder, they’re largely stereotypical, and only scratch the surface of the effects ADHD can have on a person’s day to day life. Prior to this, I had also been diagnosed with an array of depressive and anxiety oriented disorders, as well as suffering with memory loss issues due to a head injury. Quite the boiling pot of brain-altering afflictions, however, this shan’t be a sob story, but rather one of how I’ve come to view my conditions as less a curse, and more a gift to be understood and utilised.
I attended two very small schools in the Welsh countryside during the early 2000s, when learning difficulties were still a subject being learned about themselves. In the early stages of my schooling career, I was considered “gifted” by my teachers. I excelled at reading and writing, had a head like a sponge when it came to absorbing information for topics I was interested in, and a notedly keen attitude towards learning. However, these characteristics were quickly outweighed by negative observations made by my teachers. I was awful at anything mathematical, and often considered wayward, easily distracted, overly chatty, restless, and of course, distracting to others. These are all buzzwords often thrown around in conversation about children with learning difficulties. Instead of being recognised as symptoms of a disorder, far too often they’re considered bad behaviours and flaws that must be punished and worked out to formulate a child to fit the mold.
When you’re a young child, you’re absorbing information at the fastest rate you ever will, and a lot of self assessment and awareness comes later in life when you have the headspace to actually think about it. As such, you really don’t realize you’re doing anything wrong, especially when you’re biologically wired in such a way. The scrutiny from teachers and peers about my relentless need to vocalise thoughts and engage in stimulating conversation led me to think there was something wrong with me, and I believe this was a key factor in my development of social anxiety as a teenager. There came a point where I was terrified of speaking to others for fear of being too loud or too talkative, I hated being seen by other people, and I would often be truant from school due to a growing sense of agoraphobia (fear of an unsafe environment, and often leaving one’s home).
I did say this wasn’t going to be a sob story, and I am a man of my word. My ADHD diagnosis came after an off comment from a friend sparked a chain of thoughts in my head. On one particularly quiet afternoon in a college class room, I impulsively launched an empty plastic bottle at a recycling bin across the length of the room (landing the shot beautifully, by the way), much to the disapproval of my teacher. I see now, that this indeed was probably quite disruptive. The sudden clattering of plastic on plastic more than likely came as a surprise to everyone but me. After I’d been given my due criticism by the wonderful lady conducting the class, (who really was wonderful, love you Miss J) my friend turned to me and said the immortal words “you’re like a restless puppy, you’re never focused on anything for long”.
At first, this created a wholesome mental image of a labrador bounding about in my mind’s eye, however I quickly began to analyse the words she had used. “Restless”…“never focused”…”puppy”…For once, I was focused. I carried this train of thought back home with me, and as soon as I had the chance, I was sifting through web pages about restlessness, difficulty concentrating, focusing, my nearest dog shelter, difficulty concentrating, and finally, I landed on it. I had ADHD. As this grand epiphany dawned on me, I cried. Not through sorrow, but because I finally had an answer. All these buzzwords that had plagued my school reports, my over critical sense of self, finally meant something. I wasn’t a bad student, I wasn’t a lunatic, I wasn’t stupid, I just had this thing. Now that I had a name for it, I knew I could do something about it.
After a few doctors appointments, I had the diagnosis. This was the first step in coming to recognise these traits, not as faults, but as tools. I’d always been and still am a creative. My true passions lay in music, writing, art, acting, anything that allowed me to turn my thoughts into something tangible. I was able to overcome my difficulties with social anxiety due to the faultless efforts and support of my exceptional drama teacher, who guided me from an introverted boy terrified of speaking to others to someone who was capable of performing in front of hundreds of people. She, and so many others since, opened my eyes to the benevolence of such fantastic individuals in the world. I feel that learning about this at such a late age allowed me to adapt to it in a much shorter amount of time.
Having the advantage of self awareness and recognition of my own being gave me the opportunity to look at aspects of my personality and thinking and examine how they may be affected by this condition. I learned that my inability to focus was actually a fantastic vessel for taking a creative concept to a new height. An initial spark of inspiration sets off a chain reaction of other ideas in my head, bouncing around like ball lightning. My restlessness was in fact the energy I needed to drive a creative project forward and see it come to fruition. Relearning all of these things about myself was a beautiful experience of self realisation and actualisation.
Check out George’s band Take Breath
Of course, it still has its drawbacks, and these come in the shape of things often unknown about ADHD. If you consider the mind an internet browser, you’ll likely have a handful of tabs open at any one time, closing them one by one as you finish using them. When you experience thinking with ADHD, it’s more easily likened to having fifty tabs open on a computer from almost 2 decades ago that still has MS paint on it but only has 1 USB port. This often leads to the important tabs you have open getting buried in with all the other things you want to look at as well, including the notes document you have open to remind you to look at the tabs in the first place. Overclocking your mind-computer with this many single pieces of information and trying desperately to remember all of them exist, let alone the actual information on them, can lead to overheating and a crash.
To speak less in metaphor, emotions come in fast and they come in strong. It’s easy to become overwhelmed because each emotion you feel, you feel intensely. Furthermore, I have a great deal of trouble with auditory processing, and can’t always block out background noise to focus on a conversation. I often worry that this makes me come off as rude, when in all reality I’m just trying to find the tab that the sound I want to hear is being played from.
My education since leaving college has fortunately been relatively unimpacted by my condition, largely due to the fantastic support and understanding available at the university I attended and recently graduated from. In exam conditions, or any situation of pressure where there is a time constraint, my issues with anxiety, memory, and attention start to act as a tandem bike ride with two flat tires. I know I have to recall a lot of information on command, I can’t do that very well, so I get nervous. I get distracted by how nervous I am, which takes my focus off the task at hand. Before I know it, I’ve spent so long fretting about how I’m going to accomplish this task in the time I have that I’ve now got even less time to do it in, nothing accomplished, and a brain spinning like a loosely planted catherine wheel just one over zealous rotation away from spiralling off into the dark and causing a bushfire the likes of which rural Wales has never seen.
Thankfully, many universities now offer alternative assessment to exams for people who struggle with these sorts of conditions, so if you, dear reader, are a prospective student and concerned about this, fear not! In recent years, mental health has begun to be taken much more seriously by educational institutions, which is a fantastic development to observe and experience.
Coping strategies for these kinds of difficulties vary greatly from person to person. For me, music and writing have always been my go to catharsis. These are both things I thoroughly enjoy, which allows me to engage in something unique to people with ADHD. Hyperfocus is a trait exhibited by people with ADHD, who whilst having difficulty focusing most of the time, can demonstrate immense levels of concentration on certain tasks for durations of time that extend far past that of even the most neurotypical and well adjusted individuals. You may be wondering, “author of this rambling article, how do you create music if you have trouble with auditory processing?” Well reader, I’m glad you asked. I grew up listening to loud rock, punk and heavy metal music. This hasn’t changed, and for me and so many others has served as an escape, a body armour, and a safe room from the difficulties of life. Loud music overrides the noise of everything around me, and I find more often than not that the kindest place for me to be is between two earphones or amongst my band mates, surrounded by a wall of noise. I’ve also found that people can be far more understanding than I often give them credit for. By simply explaining that I have difficulty with hearing, almost all the time they’re accommodating and understanding of that, and will forgive instances where I haven’t quite heard them. Art is a powerful tool for those who struggle, and not something to be underestimated. I write poetry, stories, songs, and other long rants not too dissimilar to this in order to get my thoughts down, and close a few tabs whilst I’m at it.
When I reflect on the time I’ve spent knowing about this condition, I feel only pride for how far I’ve come. It’s easy to become despondent and self deprecating when faced with adversity, but a simple conversation with a good friend about where you’ve been and where you are can serve as a healthy and reassuring reminder that you’re doing so much better than you think. More recently, I’ve begun to learn that I should talk to myself how I would talk to a friend about any struggles I may face. Being a good, forgiving, understanding and kind friend to oneself is just as important as being that to someone else, and that has proved to be the most important thing I’ve learned about living thus far.