When I was eight years old, I was diagnosed with severe ADHD. I was a pretty classic case: painfully disorganized and distractible, a gifted student in subjects that captured my attention, and an abysmal student in everything else.
While my ADHD has changed in the 20 years since my diagnosis (I no longer try to leave the house with only one shoe on, for instance), I’ve also learned to cope with it. And I’ve come to see it as less as a curse and more as a set of ups and downs. For everything my quirky brain costs me, I find there’s something else it gives. Here are a few.
Even when I’m doing something I’m really interested in (like writing this piece, for instance), my mind still has a frustrating tendency to wander. It’s especially tough when I have access to the entire internet’s distractions. This distractibility is why even simple tasks can take people with ADHD longer, and I can get absolutely furious with myself when I realize I’ve wasted an entire workday falling down a social media rabbit hole.
Of course, there are advantages to being an omnivorous reader who can spend hours flitting from topic to topic. Because even if I’m not doing what I’m technically supposed to be doing, I’m still learning. This far-ranging thirst for information means that I’m a valuable team member on trivia nights, and I have a huge knowledge pool to draw from in conversation and in my work. “How do you know that?” people ask me frequently. The answer is usually that I learned all about it while I was distracted.
As some people grow older, symptoms may lessen or diminish, but for those of us for whom they don’t, we carry a certain reputation of immaturity. This can manifest in ways that are frustrating not just for ADHDers, but for our friends and partners, too.
Disorganization (such as my perennial inability to find my keys), less-than-stellar impulse control, and a low frustration tolerance are things that people with ADHD have a hard time growing out of. Even harder is convincing the people in our lives that we’re not behaving childishly on purpose.
Not everything about maintaining a childlike sensibility is bad. Folks with ADHD also have a reputation of being funny, goofy, and spontaneous. Those qualities make us fun friends and partners and help offset some of the more frustrating aspects of the disorder. The classic joke goes like this:
Q: How many kids with ADHD does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Wanna ride bikes?
(But really, who doesn’t want to ride bikes?)
There are a lot of ADHD drugs on the market these days, but for many of us, they cause nearly as many problems as they solve. I took Adderall for the better part of a decade, and while it gave me the ability to sit down and focus, it also made me short-tempered, impatient, and humorless, and it gave me bouts of terrible insomnia. So after ten years of medication, I took nearly ten years off, and in some ways, it was like meeting myself for the first time.
There’s no one right way to manage ADHD. I’ve learned that, while I don’t want to take medicine every day, it’s helpful for me to have a prescription for those days when my brain just refuses to behave. And while I’ll never understand how anyone can take ADHD drugs recreationally, it’s pretty remarkable how productive I can be with the aid of pharmaceuticals. I can clean my house, complete all my writing assignments, and make one dread-inducing phone call! It’s just a question of deciding whether the anxiety induced by medication is better than the anxiety induced by not getting anything done.
I’m comfortable saying that ADHD has made my life a lot harder. But every life situation has its ups and downs, and that’s just how I look at ADHD. I don’t wish I didn’t have it any more than I wish I weren’t a woman, or gay. It’s one of the things that make me who I am, and at the end of the day I’m grateful for my brain, exactly the way it is.
Elaine Atwell is an author, critic, and founder of The Dart. Her work has been featured on Vice, The Toast, and numerous other outlets. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.