Focus: My ADHD Story

(Foreword: this was originally written as a non-fiction creative essay for a creative writing class I took in college during my fall 2015 semester. I have not edited its contents at all; this is word-for-word the same essay I submitted about a month ago. I’ve been debating whether or not to publish this to my blog ever since then, but today I decided to finally get it up on here.)

“Focus, Billy. Focus. You can do this. Come on.”

An Olympic athlete may say something similar just before the start of a potentially gold medal-winning performance; a lowly office employee may whisper something similar just before making a big speech to corporate executives; a 19-year-old college student may state this exact phrase to himself over and over as he stares at a blank Word document that he needs to transform into a high-quality essay before a fast-approaching deadline.

To the average person seeking self-motivation, the utterance of these words might just help kickstart that person’s productivity and get the ball rolling with an upcoming assignment (provided that he or she replaces “Billy” with that person’s own name).

Things for me, though, are a bit different. I’ve had times in my life when I’ve had to expend an abnormally high amount of willpower just to stay focused on tasks, or, for that matter, start them. I get frustrated at myself for having this difficulty, and ironically, this frustration only serves to get me farther behind and unsettle me even more. I have other times when I feel unbelievably high-strung and jumpy, as if I’m running on pure adrenaline and caffeine mixed into an unbelievably potent cocktail. I act on impulses without even thinking; I’ll blurt out a rude remark that tried oh-so-hard to be clever in a conversation with one of my friends, or I’ll send a potential romantic interest a much-too-soon confession of my feelings towards them which inevitably end up severing ties between us.

No, I’m not an average teenager sprung on the five-second attention span of the Internet age and downing five energy drinks an hour. I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, in 2006, just before I was about to start middle school. My teachers and my family started seeing telltale signs of ADHD in me throughout my later years of elementary school, and as I was planning to start in a highly gifted magnet program in middle school, my family took me to be evaluated for ADHD. Turns out, I had it, and I was prescribed both short-acting tablets and extended-release capsules of Adderall for the upcoming school year.

But there’s a catch: I didn’t know how to swallow pills. I actually didn’t learn how until the second semester of senior year of high school, so the way I dealt with this issue in the interim was by crushing or opening up the pills and putting them in soft, liquidy foods such as yogurt and pudding. I did this rather well for the first quarter of sixth grade, and ended up making the honor roll despite being in pretty rigorous classes.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing and springtime daisies, though. The process of taking pills through food, especially with regard to how the final product tasted, was absolutely terrible. My stomach churns just thinking about it. It was so bad that halfway through sixth grade I blatantly refused to keep doing it, to the dismay and frustration of my parents. Fits were thrown, lots of screaming happened, and my grades plummeted.

Couple that with my newly-formed adolescent habits of drinking sugary, caffeinated soda all the time (I used to rarely brush my teeth back then), spending way too many hours on my computer (which included my first forays into pornographic material), and all of the hormonal and physical changes associated with adolescence, and I was a flat-out mess in middle school. I even grew my hair out because I thought it looked cool at the time. I couldn’t have been any more obtuse.

Then came freshman year of high school. My grades were still poor, yet overall they were better than they had been in middle school. I became more involved with school activities, participating in both marching band and the boys’ tennis team. I was finally getting the dental work I had neglected for so long, and I went to sessions with a child psychologist that specialized in children with ADHD. But the biggest upside to this all was that I had found an ADHD medicine that I could take without needing to swallow pills. It was called Daytrana, and it was a transdermal patch I would apply to my hip each morning. In the correct dosage, it worked so well for me that I used it for the rest of high school.

Switching to Daytrana caused a whole new series of problems, though. Just starting out on it, the most difficult problem for me was trying to find a dosage of it that worked well enough. Freshman year was essentially a year of experimentation with different dosage levels, but luckily I was able to find an effective one before sophomore year began. The patch also had the typical ADHD medicine side effects: loss of appetite, uncontrollable sweating, muscle twitches, and occasional headaches, dizziness and nausea. I learned to deal with these as I spent more time on the medicine, and all of these are still problems I deal with in one form or another to this day.

Overall, though, it made quite the difference. Ever since the first day I took the patch, I felt much more focused and could concentrate both at home and at school. Simply put, it allowed me to get tasks done. From the first quarter of sophomore year until the end of high school, I made honor roll every marking period, and had straight A’s for the entirety of sophomore year. I was starting to break out of my shell, in a sense, and it gave me a chance to broaden my social horizons and make a ton of new friends. I finally got my hair cut, too. Things were looking up.

But to this day, ADHD still looms over me, like a black cloud on an overcast afternoon, unpredictable as ever. Since graduating high school, I’ve switched back to Adderall since I can swallow pills now, and the experience has been mostly the same as it was for me on the patch in high school.

There are still certain things that even medicine can’t treat, however. Like how sometimes I feel a crippling lack of motivation that borders on full-blown laziness. Obviously, it depends on how interested I am in the task at hand, or how I’m feeling at the time, but it’s a feeling I can experience even when it’s toward something relatively minuscule. I’ve improved my dental habits, yes, but I still have to make myself try and brush my teeth every day, and admittedly, there are days when I don’t do it because of this lack of motivation. It’s a moral battle, since I know I feel terrible and guilty when I don’t do it (this same feeling applies if I don’t do a school assignment, for example), and with ADHD, this guilt only piles on to the omnipresent lack of motivation, and ultimately, it only makes things worse.

ADHD is a legitimate mental disorder, and millions of people suffer from it daily. I’m always regretting certain things I didn’t or couldn’t get done due to this chemical imbalance in my brain, and it’s horrid. Small wonder that ADHD is closely linked to bipolar disorder and depression, since they share a lot of the same symptoms and potential treatments. Interestingly, one unique thing that these mental disorders all have in common is how people diagnosed with them tend to be subjects of criticism and skepticism by certain groups of people in society. These people think they’re faking it, or they’re not trying hard enough in school or at work, or they’re just straight-up, pathetically lazy. They’re constantly stigmatized by these groups in society, and even though these groups’ views are nowhere close to what most people in society think, their words can still carry venom.

The fact that medicines used to treat ADHD are abused by college students all over the country doesn’t help erase this stigma, either. I did a speech last semester on how these medicines are abused by students in order to gain an academic advantage. I made it clear that students that abuse these medications get ahold of them illegally, as they usually aren’t diagnosed with ADHD themselves. I presented facts and figures I had found from research, and informed my audience of how dangerous and life-threatening this abuse was. I walked out of that classroom hoping that I had struck a chord within each and every one of my fellow students in the audience. I hoped that they wouldn’t just know the risks associated with scoring some Adderall to cram for exams, but that they would know why people with ADHD are prescribed those medicines in the first place.

Hand on heart, I can unequivocally say that I suffer from ADHD, and I don’t just mean its symptoms that make it really hard to do algebra homework or study a chemistry textbook. By extension, I also suffer from ADHD’s burden of being a mental disorder, something not apparently obvious to a casual observer, which leads to possible skepticism and thoughts to myself such as “wow, everyone else around you can do this no problem, so why are you struggling to do it?”. It’s a constant stalemate, a tug-of-war, a Cuban Missile Crisis, a catch 22. It’s something I can’t fix, or make go away, and trust me, there are more times than I can remember that I’ve wanted ADHD to not exist. But it’s something I have to live with and deal with every day, just like any other medical ailment. I just try and do my best.