“Made-up American disorder”: being an adult with ADD

“Kids: if anyone tells you you have ADHD, pay no attention.” – Sickipedia

I really wish I didn’t have to write this article. Believe me, given the choice I’d be sitting here writing a cheery short story, or a song about my cat… But circumstances have crept up on me, and now writing about my experience of ADD* (attention deficit disorder) feels unavoidable.
I write out of a sense of frustration. On its worst days, being the way I am is like having a tangle of wool for a brain; you’re told that you have to untangle the wool, but you can’t let anyone see what you’re doing. You can’t let anyone see that you’re struggling.
People often assume that I am better at life than I actually am. They tell me I seem calm and together, and wonder how I manage to pursue so many things I love. Actually, my life feels like a crazy balancing act sometimes – like juggling spoons on a tightrope.
I have always seen myself as a naturally visible, colourful person. But as an adult with ADD, as a multiply marginalised adult, I feel invisible sometimes, left behind by my inability to concentrate. I expect myself to be brilliant at everything, to have time for everything and everyone I love. Then I end up feeling burned out and inert, skipping between websites or activities at random, constantly late for everything, unable to do basic tasks. It is hard to do things that you love.
To be honest, when I see articles or blogs about children with ADD or ADHD I sometimes feel a slight surge of jealousy. These children, bright and brave: I don’t envy their struggle, which is one I know all too well, but I wish I could have got help at their age. I slipped through the net. I wasn’t diagnosed with ADD until age twenty-one, after turning up at the university student services offices and saying “I just can’t work. I want to work, I just can’t.”

Previously, my life had followed a pattern, which I noticed at age ten or eleven but felt unable to prevent. At the start of the school year I would be organised, proud of my new school books, determined not to make a mess of things this time. Eventually (usually by about December, sometimes even late September) I would slip into a hazy mess. A teacher once described me as “absent-minded professor.”
Books, pens, rulers and letters went missing, I seemed to scatter chaos wherever I went. In class, the teacher’s words buzzed around me: I ended up staring at the Kings and Queens chart on the classroom wall, while inconsequential thoughts rushed through my brain. Homework was handed in late, or went missing.
When things had truly descended into chaos, I would get told off by a teacher:
“What is going on? I know you can do so much better than this, if you just worked harder and got organised…”
I would apologise over and over, driven to contrition by the teacher’s concern. Then I would do an excellent run of homeworks or turn in a great project, partly out of guilt, also to prove that I wasn’t lazy.
I did not feel left behind. In the lessons I loved I sometimes felt I was speeding ahead, flying from A to Z while my classmates used the normal, plodding method to get from A to B. Yes, their method was correct, but if you flew you got a much better view.
Probably if I had been seen as a complete dunce, something might have been done earlier. But thanks to my mother – who had fought for me to be seen in the best way possible – I had gone down at an early age as a gifted child, which complicated things: everyone knows gifted children are different. Gifted allows you to be somewhat weird, whilst also raising everyone’s expectations.
When I went on to grammar school, my skill in some lessons (and the fact I was always reading) allowed me to slip the net again. Grammar school is a diffuse place in some ways, where it is easy to feel that no one is particularly concerned about you unless you fail spectacularly. For people who fail, quietly and consistently, in some areas of their lives and studies, it is easy to escape the radar. I was a quiet student, outspoken in the lessons I liked, daydreamy, and did not fit any stereotype. I passed my exams, sometimes doing very well.
Whenever the “organisation failure” did get noticed, I was blamed for allowing it to happen. (“The problem with you,” a teacher told me, “is that you don’t think properly. You jump to conclusions that amount to complete lunacy.”)

There is a laundry list of things that frustrated me then, and continue to exasperate me now: my inability to concentrate on things that aren’t immediately gripping. My distractibility. The fact I find it difficult to complete a project, after an enthusiastic start. The initial burst of energy, and the tailing off. The underachievement. I am painfully aware that I often start books and don’t finish them, that I usually can’t sit through a film, that I am not as good as I wish I was at any of the things I love. These days, I envy other people their persistence and ability to learn and retain information. I sometimes still feel this is all my fault, even though ADD is recognised as a disorder.
At twenty-one, I was sent to see a kind psychiatrist, who confirmed what the student office thought. He gently explained that he dealt with many talented young people who had struggled with these same symptoms, and that there were ways to cope with it.
Afterwards I spoke to my doctor, who looked sceptical. “We don’t really comment on ADD,” he told me, looking at my non-clinical report. “Plenty of doctors think it’s a made up American thing.” Other people said the same thing, more or less. A Google search results in “is ADD a real disease?” (New York Times), and “ADHD does not exist” (New York Post).
It’s odd, to live in this world. To know that there is a coherent explanation for the way you are, but to constantly see that explanation questioned or snatched away from you.
But, I have hope. Not so long ago, dyslexic children (like the novelist Sally Gardner) were being labelled “unteachable” and accused of laziness. But now, thankfully, dyslexia is much more accepted. Someday ADD will be accepted, too.
Perhaps that’s the reason this article has been nibbling at my brain: I want to prove that the way I am is real, that it matters.

*My official diagnosis is ADHD (inattentive type – not hyperactive) as a specific learning difficulty, not a medical diagnosis. As I am not hyperactive, I prefer to use the term ADD to describe myself. More information on the difference between ADD and ADHD here.

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