WHAT IS ADHD?
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
First, if you are here seeking information for yourself or someone you love, WELCOME!
It might be cliche to repeat the overused phrase, "You are not alone," but it would be an accurate statement. We really are everywhere, people with ADHD and our loved ones alike. While there still exists some stigma surrounding ADHD, things have gotten much better in recent years; there is a greater understanding and an abundance of resources available to us.
If you were recently diagnosed with ADHD, it is not uncommon for the days and weeks following an ADHD diagnosis to be a little rocky. Some experience feelings of relief and understanding, a sense of empowerment, a call to action. A diagnosis can summon unexpected emotions, a bewildering sludge of shame and sorrow, anger and frustration, regret and isolation.
For me, it was a spiraling cornucopia brimming with all of that. Like the joy of remembering how much I love the night sky while, at the same time, becoming aware of an ominously seething cloud of dark matter blocking my view.. A billion points of negative self-talk and painful reflection, swirling out there in orbit around my life and sucking up all the light of our stars. Ooph.
Well, the truth is that the joy sucking constellation of doom is mostly an illusion. Sure there is some truth in there, but not nearly as much as I ever think, or fear. Also, the starlight is still up there, I promise.
OK, so, what is ADHD?
ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
I like the way ADDitude puts it:
"The meaning of ADHD is complex. It's a misunderstood neurological disorder that impacts the parts of the brain that help us plan, focus on, and execute tasks. ADHD symptoms vary by sub-type — inattentive, hyperactive, or combined — and are often more difficult to diagnose in girls and adults." https://www.additudemag.com/what is adhd symptoms causes treatments/
See the end of this document for resources providing clinical descriptions of ADHD.
I am not too fond of the terms ADD and ADHD because they are misleading in that it focuses attention only on one or two most stigmatized aspects of the disorder. Simplifying it down to those too-often maligned traits: a lack of Attention and Hyperactivity. But not everyone with ADHD is outwardly or recognizably hyperactive. And, many with ADHD achieve great things requiring consistent and focussed attention. People with ADHD do share common traits, but we do not display or experience them in the same combination, or to the same degree. Also, each of us has created our own unique and personal blend of skills and adaptations.
Many with ADHD have significant strengths and gifts, which can be leveraged toward amazing achievements. Searching the internet will return with many lists of people who have ADHD, a learning disability, or some combination of the often coexisting disorders. People who have contributed hugely to science, the arts, medicine. People who have shaped our world and how we live in it.
Spend a little time admiring their brilliantly shining examples. You will see that we are the problem-solvers and explorers. The 'out of the box' thinkers and tinkerers. We find the patterns to build rhythm from chaos. We are inventors, scientists and artists, astronauts, leaders, poets, and lovers.
For some examples, see the links and resources at the end of this document.
The overlooked part of the conversation
People generally do not reach out for help when we, or those we love, are doing awesomely. No, we reach out for support when we are hurting and likely at the end of yet another rope. We may be struggling in relationships, in school, in a career, in life. We may be experiencing things like shame, a sense of failure, confusion, frustration, isolation, and loneliness, a negative sense of self, anxiety, and depression. Many of us diagnosed as adults can reflect back on a life resonant with these feelings and the memories of experiences that cemented them into becoming our expectations.
I think that is an often overlooked part of the conversation when answering the question, "what is ADHD?". We tend to focus on what is wrong and how to medicate it. We examine what is lacking, or what is too much. We contrast and outline the ways we are not like the others and the frustration it creates. We inventory all the things we do poorly and what we fail to accomplish. What is sometimes missing is the conversation around the effect of all those things on us. Examining how experiencing life with ADHD shapes what we expect from ourselves and from others, how we react to, and what we expect from the world, what we expect from life.
It is not only an internal process. Many external things influence our lives with ADHD:
the level of acceptance in our community.
support or lack of support at home.
stigma, suppression, and pressure from the culture we are raised in
school resources, staff training, and student access to assistance.
stress in the home and community or at work.
the environment around us, and how we fit into it.
...these are some of the contributing factors to how we experience our lives with ADHD.
Some personal examples of my ADHD
Big crowds and loud places, no thank you
Parties or gatherings with lots of people, noisy restaurants, Disneyland, and other, similar types of situations and places are challenging for me. They are overwhelming in that they make it difficult for me to stay in the moment, hold a conversation, and enjoy the company I am with. I find that I function much better one on one or with small groups.
Sometimes the situation (Disney World, concerts, festivals, etc.) calls for a little magic. Earplugs. Oh, the blissful relief as tiny pieces of orange foam, that look like Cheetos, expanding into my ear canals as the world around me quiets down. It really is magical, especially at Disney.
I always assumed I was antisocial and really identified with being 'the outcast' as an aspect of who I was as a teen, and on through adulthood. Wearing the 'I'm Antisocial' badge can lead to some regrettable choices. And the thing is? I am so totally not antisocial. I crave and thrive in social situations, they just have to be the right tempo.
I like to zero in on a task, find my zone and get after it, alone
I can be a little grumpy if interrupted. This usually happens when I am fatigued, hangry, or otherwise stressed. More troubling for others, is when it is unexpected for the situation. This can be when I am deeply engaged in problem-solving or design, which, for me, is a deeply internal process of mind's eye imagery and contemplation.
To be honest, this one probably causes me the most distress because of the effect it has on others. The good news is that through awareness, I can practice catching the frustration before it flares into anger. People close to me might still notice a spark or two, but I'll keep practicing. Wonderfully, I also see how much less frustrated I actually get, the more practiced I am at catching it.
Sometimes I interrupt
This is another common thing people with ADHD experience. We tend to blurt things out while others are still talking. Why do we do this, when we know it’s impolite? One theory is that we have learned to do this because, while waiting and listening for others to complete their thoughts, we try and fail to remember what we needed to say.. So, we blurt things out in a rush; lest we forget, remember it later, and stew in frustration. The more excited I am about the topic, either positively or negatively, the more I am apt to interrupt others.
Here are a few of the more common things people do to help with this. Hold the thought between two crossed fingers. Carry a little notepad and write ideas down. A notebook works better in a meeting or support group setting, it looks strange when you take notes while talking to your date.
Sometimes I will imagine a thought as a physical thing, grab hold of it and reach out to place it off to the side for later. I am sure this looks really strange, but my beard already makes me look like a madman, and it works for me, so whatever.
"Do you listen to me?" -- Bill's wife
I DO!!! I swear!
But sometimes I get to thinking about what people said and miss the rest of our conversation. Notice how I wrote "our conversation." Yep, whole chunks of conversations lost in time. I was probably listening and responding, but because my mind was otherwise occupied, there were no cycles left to store it. I'm not sure if I actually forgot, or if it was never even in there to be forgotten. The mysteries of life... with ADHD.
My wife and I were driving to run a list of errands. Paula was giving me directions and had just told me where to turn next, adding a few details about the route. A moment later, I ask for the next turn, as one does. I was not aware that we had gone over it, and could not remember the rest of the conversation we had just had (a really crazy feeling btw). I imagined the route, picturing it in my mind while I drove, also present and reacting to traffic. I remember driving, thinking about getting to our first stop, what lane we were driving in. However, the details of the conversation following the first place to turn were missing from my memory. Like it did not happen. Welcome to Bill's ADD. "Seriously, are you gaslighting me!?"
Shame is one of the strongest threads in the ADHD groups I attend.
I have yet to meet someone with ADHD that does not carry some shame about it.
You can probably spot ways that the examples above might cause conflict, embarrassment, failure. For many with ADHD, that adds up to negative self-talk and shame. Oh, boy, does it.
In my now-50-years, I have gotten pretty good at tuning myself out, hiding from praise, attention, and connection; in large part due to all the shame I have experienced. The real problem with all of that is that it becomes challenging, sometimes even painful, for me to receive-- or even recognize-- affection, praise, recognition, or love. That means valuing myself becomes difficult, too.
Why is that? Because to receive, to recognize, to value, it is necessary to experience myself. That is really hard to do when I have been cringing and turning away from myself for so long. Changing that is like learning a new language.
Once we allow Love (awareness? recognition?) to penetrate the thick, stone walls of denial, Love, like water, reshapes us, softens our edges, and finds its way back to our core. We relearn its language, absorb its message, and re-form our ideas of self. We relearn to recognize Love in many places. It is everywhere; we are awash in it.
"No, I'm not crying! You are!"
OK… moving on.
Some ADHD qualities
I could go on and write several desk crushing tomes about how ADHD has affected every aspect of my life. Also, about the ways I have adapted, both positive and negative. Nobody has time for that, so I'll save those for the months and years ahead and put them in the blog. Here, we're going to go with brief pros and cons of some of my favorite aspects of my ADHD.
Some people call it 'Hyperfocus'
When interested and engaged, an individual with ADHD can zero in on the pursuit of their goal with heroic levels of commitment and determination. Hyperfocus is remarkable, sometimes an even superhuman-like quality that can lead to enormous productivity.
Powerful as it is, hyperfocus must be practiced and wielded with skill. Else other aspects of our life suffer, and that negatively affects our ability to be productive. One must also be mindful of becoming hyperfocused on negative or unworthy things. It can become a problem when we neglect other things; they do not exist in our state of awareness. Things can slip through cracks, into the gulf: time, commitments, relationships, sleep, personal care.
Alas, hyperfocus is fickle, causing us to stew in shame, wondering why it is so hard to get work done. So confusing! Until we understand that we are Interest-Based focused. That is, if something is not interesting to us, not novel, or dramatically urgent, we then have a hard time summoning the focus and motivation to apply ourselves to it.
Many with ADHD are incredible at finding novel and creative solutions.
Entrepreneurs, names you know, people who continually find new ways to push the boundaries of the state of their art-- many of them have ADHD.
That curiosity and drive to try new things can bring a constant flow of ideas to explore. But it can also cause distraction and lead us away from completing those last 89 projects we started.
We are more common among the risk-takers and 'adrenaline junkies' in the room. You will find us among Fire and EMS workers. We are among the most influential and well-known entrepreneurs as well; see the end of this document for lists of examples. Human discovery and knowledge depend on people who are willing to accept the risks, seek adventure, and experiment to push the boundaries of what is possible.
As a species, facing danger and providing selfless service depends on those of us willing to acknowledge, measure, and prepare for these dangers., We must also accept the risks, so others may live.
Woah, there! Risk tolerance, especially when coupled with impulsivity, can result in unfortunate outcomes. That is especially true in the teen and young adult years before the frontal lobes are fully wired up. And, that can take a little longer to happen for people with ADHD.
Answering the question of “what is ADHD” in a meaningful way, for those of us living with it, is an individual thing. It involves learning about your ADHD and how it has affected your life. Taking stock of how you have adapted to live in this world with ADHD. Celebrating and building on your strengths and gifts. Identifying and creating ways to address the negative things about your ADHD. What we find in the process are the real answers to the question, and that is a big part of why I became a coach, and why I am here with you.
What are some of the ways you experience life with ADHD?
What would you like to keep, what would you like to ditch?
I look forward to the conversations we are going to have.
CHADD provides a wonderfully detailed section on ADHD
And for adults
The American CDC