If I ask you to picture somebody with ADHD, you’ll likely imagine a little kid – probably a boy – frantically bouncing around a room and trying to turn every object he can find into a hat. You’re probably not imagining a depressed adult woman staring blankly at a screen for hours on end.
That is exactly what it looks like for people like Alex. And there are lots of Alex types out there. Maybe you’re one of them, and don’t even know because what you have doesn’t fit the stereotype. So let’s shoot down some misconceptions about ADHD.
“This Is Just A Label For Energetic Kids!”
Many people think that ADHD is the psychological equivalent of a bumper sticker that parents slap on their elementary schoolers when they can’t get them to be quiet. However, Alex didn’t get diagnosed until college, and that was only after she learned about the symptoms in a psychology class. So that she didn’t freak herself out with WebMD telling her that she had ADHD and 15 surprise kinds of cancer, she went to two separate psychiatrists and learned that she had Type 2: Inattentive ADHD. Yes, there are multiple types.
Type 1: Predominantly Hyperactive/Impulsive
Type 2: Predominantly Inattentive
Type 3: Combination
Type 1 is a classic, and everybody knows it and loves it. But no one really cares about Type 2, which affects more women than men, and is referred to as an invisible disability for women because it usually doesn’t manifest itself in someone bouncing off the walls. In fact, the symptoms include stuff like severe daydreaming, memory loss, auditory processing issues, and listlessness. If you didn’t know that there are multiple types, you wouldn’t guess ADHD at all. You’d probably just think that the person is either laidback or lazy, depending on how judgmental you’re feeling.
Here’s a typical example of Alex’s brain in action: Once, when she was little, she decided to pray about something bad she had done, which was probably either stealing her sibling’s toy or taking our lord’s name (Sailor Moon) in vain. But one sentence in, she got distracted thinking about something funny someone at school said, which made her think about school and how cute one of the boys in her class was, and how if we got married, his friends wouldn’t be invited to the wedding. It was like a late-night Wikipedia trip where you start by looking up the history of Saturday Night Live in the ’80s, and an hour later you end up trying to find out what the largest prehistoric mammal was.
She kept trying to go back to the prayer, and by the time she was finished, she was actually mentally exhausted. And weirdly enough, the reverse has happened as well. Once she was reading an article, and didn’t stop until she heard yelling. She looked up and realized that the room was filling with smoke – her sister had gone for a walk and asked Alex to watch the chicken she was cooking. Not only did Alex forget to check on it, but had been so focused on the article that she didn’t notice anything else, even when the room was about to burn down around her.
This is because of something called “hyper-focus.” People who suffer from ADHD are known specifically for their lack of focus, but there’s also a problem with getting incredibly locked in at other times, seemingly at random. There’s no middle ground; when the brain feels like finally focusing on something, someone could shout in your face and you would take in none of it. When the brain doesn’t feel like focusing on something, you can spend hours reading a page over and over, gathering no information other than “Yes, this is a page.”
“So What If You Have Trouble Paying Attention To Stuff? Everybody Does!”
College wasn’t a great time for Alex. She was trying to act in a pleasant buddy comedy with her ADHD, when suddenly depression decided to crash on her couch in a guest star role that no one asked for. This is because with ADHD, risk of comorbidity (having two or more diagnosable conditions at the same time) is super-high, even with conditions you wouldn’t think were connected. This is the other part everyone misses if they think ADHD just means “Can’t pay attention to boring things.”
One of Alex’s symptoms was poor impulse control, with addiction being a constant risk for adults with ADHD (for a bunch of different reasons). But addiction doesn’t just involve narcotics. Alex had a tendency to do certain things obsessively when feeling overwhelmed and need a “fix” to relax. This includes things like watching a TV show to the extent that the people around start to grow alarmed.
Alex did that with Gravity Falls. During a particularly rough patch in life, she started watching it every night while falling asleep, and every morning while getting ready for work. She watched while eating dinner and when her boyfriend was over. He was at first delighted (because he was the one who introduced her to it, and it’s a great show), then concerned. When we broke up (for other reasons, she promises), she watched it even more because it reminded her of him.
She didn’t realize how bad it was getting until the website she watched it on crashed for the night and she became physically itchy. Overwhelmingly itchy, tense, restless, and upset.
Alex has never tried really hard drugs. If a cartoon would do that to you, imagine what itchy doors heroin would open, she says.
“People Just Use It As An Excuse To Get Adderall!”
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding ADHD treatment, partly because one of the most effective medications is kind of, um, meth. It is also HELL convincing your insurance to pay for medication that potent (though trying to get it without insurance can cost you up to about $500 a month). There’s more red tape and hoops when it comes time to get a prescription renewed. So no, people who saw a news report about ADHD that one time, we are not whimsically cramming pills down the gullet of every youth who forgets their homework.
Alex has had numerous jobs, with various kinds of medical insurance (when lucky enough to have a job that even offered it). So every time she got new insurance or just started seeing a new doctor, she had to start the whole process of getting ADHD treatment over again – review diagnosis, fight insurance on medication brand and potency, plead her case on why they should pay for it, bare-knuckle fist-fight the pharmacist, etc.
And if you get through that entire process and somehow lose your whole bottle, trying to get new meds when it’s not time to renew your prescription makes you look like a drug addict and will get you cut off. Once, due to a typo on a prescription, a pharmacy refused to give Alex meds until they got confirmation back from the insurance company, and the back and forth on that literally took two weeks. Alex could’ve watched every episode of Gravity Falls 21 times before the pills arrived.
Alex has decided the hassle and risks outweigh the benefits, and Adderall is the only thing that has ever worked, so she is currently on no medication. To re-start would mean tracking down ALL medical records and original diagnosis paperwork (hard to do if you’ve moved even once) and give it to the current doctor, have her refer Alex to a psychiatrist covered by insurance (if there is one), have the psychiatrist agree to write a new prescription, and beg the insurance company to agree with the prescription brand and dosage strength, which will have the meds delivered in… a month? At the earliest?
“You’ll Grow Out Of It!”
ADHD happens because, basically, your brain’s frontal lobes keep taking sick days. They’re in charge of stuff like organization, problem-solving, and motivation, and when you have ADHD, you’re forced to rely on stuff like therapy and medication to be their personal trainers. And the older you get, the harder it is for your brain to adapt to all of the things that you’re trying to do to wake it up. You’re screaming “WE HAVE AN APPOINTMENT AT EVERY TIME O’CLOCK,” but your brain begs for five more minutes of sleep.
People who were diagnosed as adults have also spent their whole lives knowing that certain basic things were inexplicably harder for them than other people, and the only explanation available (especially if they were Type 2) was that they were lazy and slow. Alex’s parents were immigrants who had no idea this disorder existed, and she grew up in the type of neighborhood where nobody even thought to bring it to their attention. Saying “Well, that kid just sucks” is way easier than sitting parents down for a full-scale diagnosis.
To everyone around her, Alex was a confusing kid, what with her high school reading level in elementary school plus her inability to remember her way home from said school despite the fact that she went the same way every day. So when you’re written off as lazy, you internalize it a lot and figure that you need to work twice as hard as everyone else and drink nine times as much coffee.
This is no doubt one of the reasons that you so rarely hear about adults seeking treatment for ADHD. If you’ve been deemed an idiot your whole life, it seems easier to just go with that flow rather than ask a doctor what the hell is wrong with you.
That is really the point of all this. People argued for years that we were over-diagnosing our kids with ADHD, but I’m betting that we’re not diagnosing ADHD adults enough. If any of this sounds like you, ask your doctor. A bunch of things in your past might start making a whole lot more sense.
For more on adult ADHD, check out The Mindfulness Prescription For Adult ADHD.