It’s ADD Awareness Month. And as it happens, I have ADD.
I don’t generally talk about it much. This is, in part, because the term gets thrown around so much. Oh my God, I’m so ADD. It’s something people say when they lose something or have a moment of distraction.
And it’s fine, it’s not offensive like when people use the word “retarded,” but it takes the meaning out of the term.
Every time I hear it, I have the impulse to say, “No, I have ADD.” But it’s just really not worth an argument. To jump in on a label being thrown around like it’s a trend just feels flaky, and I already feel flaky often enough without that.
It’s also in part because there is in fact a stigma attached to ADD, and I enjoy being taken seriously at work.
This is furthered by the fact that the type of ADD I have (inattentive) does not show the stereotypical symptoms we’ve come to associate with this disorder – even as a child, I’ve never been the bounce-off-the-walls, rambunctious, impulsive type.
I wasn’t the kid who made the teacher want to pull her hair out. I was the kid the teacher loved, because I sat quietly to the side and didn’t cause problems. Ironically, this was a prime symptom of my ADD type. Inattentives are daydreamers. Space cases. We’re masters at looking like we’re paying attention, while in our heads we’re out chasing figurative butterflies.
But in the spirit of awareness, this seems like a good time to step out of my bubble a bit and talk about my ADD. It’s undeniably shaped my life’s narrative and personal identity. It still affects my life as an adult.
And hey, that’s worth talking about.
Diagnosis and Identity
If I had found out I had ADD as a younger child, I think it would have made a big difference. Primarily, I probably would have been much more willing to believe that I was dumb because of my ADD, and I think society would have been much more willing to tell me so. I’ve seen it happen with other kids I’ve known, when they get put in the LD (learning disabilities) Center.
(Let’s be clear: Intelligence and learning disabilities are totally separate things. You can have ADD, dyslexia, whatever, and still be a genius.)
So it was probably a real blessing that I didn’t start showing red flags until around age 14, even if it did cause some serious disruption to my life at the time.
My grades began to drop at the same time as I started getting migraines, which for a while caused my parents to speculate that I could very likely have a brain tumor. Which is a story all on its own. For now, let’s just jump right to doctor 8 or 9, the one who finally thought to separate the two things and recommend LD testing.
By that point, after about a full year of being told I was simply not paying attention, I wasn’t being careful enough, wasn’t trying hard enough—that I was simply too smart to be getting these grades—all the while knowing that I was doing my damnedest to do well, and worse, that despite my grades I knew all the material (we’re talking D’s in calculus classes while crushing AP exams with 4s), finding out there was something real going on was a huge relief.
I scooped up every book I could find on the topic to understand what was going on with my brain.
Learning to Cope
I tried a few different medications. They helped me focus, sure, but they also made me bored and, worse, I developed a terrible temper, the kind where you scream, cry, throw things across the room. The kind where you see yourself acting insane, but can’t stop it.
Around my senior year in high school, I decided to try going without medication.
It was good timing.
As my life became less externally structured in college and beyond, I learned how to structure it in ways that worked better for me, based on my strengths and weaknesses and ADD tendencies.
For example, I cling fiercely to the force of habit (keys go in the basket in the hall as soon as I get home; I write every morning at 5:30) to ensure that important things don’t get lost and my most important actions are completed.
I’ve learned that writing things down by hand increases my odds of remembering them about 237%, and writing it down on my hand increases those odds to roughly 1011%. The more I could condense things like keys, or calendars, or membership cards—the more I could make them things that I touch frequently—the less likely I was to lose them.
(Though my husband is quick to point out that our definition of “lost” is very different: To me, it’s only lost if you are unable to find it after aggressive searching, for 24 hours or more, at a time that you desperately need it. To him, it’s lost if, at this particular moment, you’re not sure exactly where it is. Sounds awful nit-picky, to me.)
And, I’ve learned to trust my gut. There are times when I want to say something in a group, but my gut says it’s not the right thing for the moment. The times I have gone against my gut (Be assertive! I tell myself, Speak your mind!).
I end up regretting it, and realize later that there was in fact a good reason not to say it—I just was unable to articulate it to myself in the moment. It’s like I know things without recognizing them, as if certain pieces of information have been tucked away into the wrong brain-file.
Tapping into my Superpowers
But ADD isn’t all bad. The better I’ve come to understand it, the more I’ve learned to appreciate it as part of who I am. Even better, I’ve learned how ADD can be a strength.
My mind’s tendency to wander is like a creativity hyperdrive. I’ve learned my tendency to be quieter than others to observe first, and speak only when I have big to contribute (this one’s a double-edged sword, in an extrovert’s world, but it works for me). And I’ve learned how to tap into hyperfocus almost on demand, which lets me dive deep into a project and block out everything else—literally even when someone is standing right there, saying my name repeatedly.
Regular exercise has always been one of my life’s foundations, and knowing it was an important aspect of managing my ADD has been a strong incentive to maintain this as an adult.
And habit. I cannot say enough about the power of habit to ensure consistency in my life.
Knowing my Limits
That’s not to say my ADD doesn’t still affect me. When life gets particularly stressful, or there is a lot going on, I lose things. I start injuring myself doing dumb things like slamming my hands in doors and walking into coffee tables. This is when I lose my car keys for three days, only to find them in the freezer.
It also makes me extremely resistant to disruptions of my routines, especially when I don’t get advance warning. My life is built on those habits—it’s what makes my life function—and when you take them away I start to feel unanchored.
I hate this about myself. Spontaneity is often a good thing, challenging my thinking, getting me out of my bubble. I have to deliberately force myself to let go of my frustration to be able to enjoy these moments in life. And I’m not going to lie, sometimes I fail at it.
Let's Stop Labeling
Having an ADD label attached to me has not always been easy. Even after my diagnosis, I had teachers who refused to fulfill simple requests like an extra textbook to keep at home (so I could do my homework without worrying about forgetting my book at school), arguing that really, I just played too many sports. Others, ironically, got angry that I was so smart (“This is a class for seniors, not sophomores,”).
But would I change it? You know, I don’t think I would.
My ADD is deeply entwined into my identity—it’s not a set of conditions, it’s just part of the various gears, parts, and pieces of how I function, as the unique individual that I am. We all have weaknesses. We all have strengths. These are mine.
And ya know, I love the person that they have shaped me into.
But for the love of God, let's stop the labeling. Let's stop telling kids with ADD that there is something wrong with them that has to be drained or drugged or fixed.
Let's frame ADD differently. Let's talk about the unique strengths that come with ADD. Let's talk about ways to better engage ADD students and treat this condition without medication. Let's educate teachers so they don't antagonize their students for asking for the kind of help they need.
More and more kids are being labeled with ADD. We can argue over whether this is a trend of over-diagnosis or whether we're just understanding how to recognize it better, but regardless, that label is going to shape these kids for years to come.
If we could just frame how we present these diagnoses differently to empower kids to understand their strengths, and to cope better with their weaknesses, I think we'd need a lot less Ritalin and see a lot more ADD kids go on to thrive and accomplish amazing things.
Do you have ADD, or another learning disorder? How do you cope?