How my ADHD feels like

Hey, I am Anna, I have ADHD and sometimes also suffer from it.

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and is a neurological condition that prevents input to the nervous system from being filtered correctly. In short, my nervous system has trouble deciding what is important and what not and pipes the raw data of every stimulus into my brain for me to evaluate.

I often hear: “Well, everybody has troubles concentrating in noisy environments.” Or another classic: “Well, I don’t always follow a conversation when I am bored as well.” This is true and may make you think, that ADHD is not a condition to be treated seriously.

So let me tell you a bit of how it affects me.

On bad days every sensory input has to be evaluated by me “by hand”. That conversation 4 rows down in the office? I *have* to turn my hand, look at it and listen to it. My mind is taking part in that conversation, I am actually forming sentences in my head. If I don’t look and evaluate the source of the noise (because I *know* it shouldn’t let myself distract from what I am doing) and try to keep working, I constantly encounter a thought saying “You haven’t looked yet. There is something going on and you don’t know what. You should look. You should look. YOU SHOULD LOOK”!

Every sensory input gets put on a stack and the size of that stack is reported to me at all time. Sometimes quietly, sometimes with metaphorical sirens and flashing lights.

For example: I am at the supermarket, forgot my shopping list and I am heading towards the lettuce I remember wanting to buy, there are a lot of people around me, the intercom is announcing a sale and my partner asks me if I would like some strawberries this week, my mind is racing where to put the focus. Is the announcement on the intercom important? Are those people around me going to bump into me if I stay here? Should I evaluate the question from my partner (they would be met if I just ignored them). GET THE GODDAMN LETTUCE SO YOU CAN PUT IT OFF YOUR MENTAL LIST, ANNA!

It has happened more than once that I started crying at the supermarket because I was just so overwhelmed. It made me feel like such a failure not being able to complete the simple task like “getting some lettuce”.

Also, my mind slips super fast. I open a link in Slack (a chat tool widely used in IT projects) to an article I would like to read, after a paragraph I usually skip back to where I came from because actually I looked at Slack to find the link to a Pull Request (a proposed change to a joint code base from another coworker) I wanted to review and got distracted by the channel that was already open. I find the PR, another tab opens in my browser (25 tabs seems to be my set point). I try to find that PR in one of the five Github tabs that are open. I open the wrong one and get reminded that my day started with trying to use a specific npm package (adding a piece of code someone else already wrote). I open the terminal to see if the package got installed. It did. So to the editor now. “NO!” I internally scream to myself “Finish one thing at least.” So back to the tech article (my last thing put on the stack). Read another paragraph. Repeat.

I hate myself in those moments and those moments happen a lot if I am not on medication to treat this condition. I again feel like a failure, because it shouldn’t be such a big deal to just finish ONE task.

Now talking about meetings. I was recently asked to “not show my boredom so much”. I was drawing during that meeting or playing with a fidget spinner, I don’t remember. I wasn’t bored. I was just trying really hard to stay focused in this meeting. See, apart from overstimulation, my brain also has issues with understimulation (that is the hyperactivity part). I have to keep it occupied by all means or else it will occupy itself. ADHD sometimes occurs together with depression, so for me this usually means thinking about creative ways to hurt myself or thinking about how I would react if my cat would die. Fun right? I’d rather prevent that.

So if someone is talking to me about something I am not super engaged with, my mind slips. I can, however, control how my mind slips, by self stimulating and thus direct it to something harmless. Drawing, knitting, playing with fidget spinners actually help me focus on conversations. For some people, this seems disrespectful, they ask me to stop and I usually comply. The rest of the meeting is me repeating “Focus! Focus! Focus!” in my head until it ends. The part of my brain, that needs to be occupied also has its own way and loudly starts worrying how unprofessional I must seem and that I will never amount to anything. That usually leads me to not being able to follow what is said, either.

I work in tech, the standard setup nowadays seems to be large open plan offices, holding multiple dev teams and sometimes “noisier” professions like marketing or public relations as well. Nerf gun battles seem to be standard procedure as well. While I simply find it disrespectful to have Skype calls on speaker, playing music to gather your team of 6 to the daily standup meeting or shoot nerf darts at other people, it also triggers my ADHD pretty hard. Yes, I usually am on medication or have headphones on if I am not pair programming with a coworker, which can ease the situation for me. But some basic decency and consideration for others would go a long way.

Getting all those unfiltered stimuli and trying to be functional while constantly evaluating yourself in terms of “Am I doing what I should do or did I lose focus again?” is pretty stressful. There is more than one day where I come home and just let my self sink down behind the apartment door, staying there for 15 minutes, sometimes crying from exhaustion, from having to keep it together for 10 hours again tomorrow.

Over the years, I have acquired tools and techniques (and medication) to keep myself functional in most of the situations. Some of us are still working on that. You can help them a lot by being more considerate.