There is a ‘rule of thirds’ when diagnosing Attention Hyperactive Deficit Disorder: One-third of children who are diagnosed with ADHD grow out of it, one-third continue to display symptoms in adulthood, and the remaining third represents those who are undiagnosed, able to mask their symptoms just enough to get by. I was the latter.
When I was 11, a psychologist pulled me out of class to evaluate me for the school’s gifted program. She brought me to a white-washed room, and sat me on a ‘big person’ chair across from her at a long conference table. For over two hours, I answered countless questions, reordered pictured tiles, and matched abstract shapes. I thought the whole thing was quite fun, but after it was over I didn’t think much more of it.
When my results came in a confidential envelope, my parents raved about my IQ scores, which allowed admission into the gifted program. However, they failed to mention to me, or even acknowledge themselves, that a discrepancy in my scoring patterns had been highlighted. A discrepancy that suggested I had a learning disability.
My test results were eventually tucked away in a folder in my parents’ filing cabinet. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I looked at them again. Searching for answers that might explain my recent difficulties at university, I read the document in a different light. My psychological evaluation from 15 years ago would end up becoming my Rosetta Stone, confirming long-harboured suspicions and frustrations that I might have ADHD. ‘A relative weakness was indicated on tasks measuring her ability to attend to details, visual memory, and the ability to concentrate… she is impatient and anxious to complete the tasks.’
What is it?
ADHD is a neurobiological condition that affects the part of the brain that controls attention, impulses, and concentration. It affects 3-7 percent of children in the UK, and although it was thought that the disorder is outgrown in adolescence, recent research has shown that ADHD often exists into adulthood. Common symptoms are:
- short attention span
- easily distracted
- frequent, careless mistakes
- inability to work through time-consuming tasks
- inability to sit still
- little or no sense of danger (my middle name is indeed, ‘danger’)
While everyone experiences these symptoms occasionally in singular form, having ADHD is a constant and unwavering conglomeration of them. Nevertheless, our culture has associated a stigma with the disorder. ADHD frequents casual conversation as an adjective (‘you’re acting ADHD’), is often believed to be a fake mental condition, and is commonly misdiagnosed and over diagnosed in America.
ADHD and the PHD
Growing up, I always knew my brain worked a bit differently than others. I had a difficult time focusing during class, but I taught myself to fill in the missing pieces, and worked hard to make it look like I was paying attention (even though I was not). With my parents’ persistence that ‘nothing was wrong’, I persevered and did well in school. My coping methods continued to work through my undergraduate years, however, they fell short in graduate school.
In class, I struggled to pay attention to lecturers and peers, despite being interested. I had no confidence in seminars because I found it impossible to form my own opinions during a discussion. If I dared to take part in class conversation, I knew that my scattered attention span limited my ability to bring up a constructive –or even relevant– point.
Just because words were coming out of my mouth, it did not mean that my focus was channelled. My mind would abruptly jump elsewhere before I could finish vocalising a thought. I really struggled using the right words at the right times, and I often lost track of what I was saying mid-sentence. I frequently had to apologise and ask to be reminded of what I was talking about in the first place.
Now, when you apply these unfortunate tendencies to the intensive reading and writing required of postgraduates, it is no surprise that my methods of ‘faking it’ began to fall short. The nature of graduate school made me recognise that I was unable to control, or even follow, my own thought patterns. I shared my concerns to my GP, and she recommended that I track the frequency of my distractions. At the follow-up appointment, I came back frustrated with my efforts, ‘You asked me to pay attention to how often I am getting distracted, my problem is that my distraction is so normal to me, I don’t even realise when my mind diverts to something else.’ She agreed to refer me.
The whole process from referral to diagnosis took five months. During that span, the doctor concluded that I was among the third of children whose ADHD diagnosis slipped through the cracks. To prove her suspicions, she pointed to my bouncing leg, and said that I was intermittently fidgeting the whole time I was sat in my chair. My diagnosis, she explained, would be the start of a 6-month period of ‘self-reflection’. When that was over, I would have the option to try medication. Meanwhile, I began to identify with the fact that ADHD was an explanation of my behaviour, not an excuse.
In my next instalment, I will talk about the positive changes I experienced after my diagnoses and discuss some tips I have learned along the way for helping one focus, especially in the graduate school environment. Meanwhile, if you suspect that you may have ADHD, or any other learning disability, act like a graduate student. Do your research, then talk to your GP. It’s not so scary to start getting the help you need, especially when the first step is already second nature.
Images 1 & 2: Authors own; Image 3: Science and Invention Magazine, 1925.