Me, Myself and ADHD
The road to learning that I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
By Alyssa Shaw
I’m not the ADHD stereotype. I’m not a boy. I’m not outwardly hyperactive. I sit still. I appear to be listening. I got relatively good grades so my ADHD slipped under the radar. I was good at being the person others wanted me to be. I was inoffensive, non-disturbing – the good girl.
Here’s the thing: In high school, I was plagued by anxiety. I would shake and sweat, my face would turn red, and I would feel very nervous. Little did I know, ADHD was lurking. My anxiety was a result of my inability to focus and follow along with what was going on in the class. I remember times when I would all the sudden notice my classmates moving into action — and I wouldn’t have the slightest idea why. My biggest fear was that I was going to be called on and I would give the wrong answer, because more than half the time, I hadn’t been following along. My saving grace? My social life!
My social life allowed me to see the humour in my inability to follow along. Having close friends alongside me allowed me to laugh at my lack of attention rather than wallow in it. My friends, without knowing it, were enabling me to continue spacing out in class; if I missed something, I would just ask them about it later. Looking back on my pre-diagnosis days now, my biggest takeaway is that I never caught on to my own lack of focus. I thought I was paying attention: I was looking at the teacher, I could see what they were writing, and I could hear the words out of their mouth. But was I grasping the information? Heck no! What I also didn’t know then is that these are classic symptoms of someone that has inattentive ADHD.
In high school, I was plagued by anxiety. I would shake and sweat, my face would turn red, and I would feel very nervous. Little did I know, ADHD was lurking.
As you can tell, I made it work in high school. CEGEP is where the “fun” began. Students are given a lot more freedom and autonomy in college. We finally get to make our own decisions! Unfortunately, not all of us see the excitement in decision-making. Decisions were not something that came easy to me; in fact, I never really made my own. I followed along. (Hence, the classroom story above.) I listened to my parents, teachers, and authority figures. If they said jump, I asked, ‘How high?’
This new school was just another step toward whatever it was I was supposed to be doing. CEGEP also meant that my “normal” had been launched into the stratosphere. I find security in familiarity: knowing what to expect and how to mentally prepare for new situations. My new school, with classes scattered throughout a huge campus, was all very unfamiliar, and it didn’t help that I was (and am) directionally challenged. Again, my social life was my crutch. I’d follow friends to class, and actually based my class selection purely on how many friends I could surround myself with.
In this transition from high school to college, or CEGEP, the nature of schoolwork changed. In high school, I could get away with cramming the night before an exam. Back then, I was the Queen of Procrastination. But my affinity for doing-it-later was a spark plug for my anxiety. Each and every 10-more-minutes and one-more-episode delivered an unhealthy dose of anxiousness. Here’s the problem: CEGEP is more demanding than high school. At my new school, I found that I needed to actually follow the curriculum and its increased workload throughout the semester in order to prepare myself for the big test that would follow.
‘My saving grace? My social life! My social life allowed me to see the humour in my inability to follow along.”
Each class was its own beast, rich in information that was all relevant. In high school I could fake it, but not anymore. So what did I do? With the freedom of CEGEP also came the ability to skip classes and go unnoticed. My anxiety celebrated — I now had an escape route. Even if I’d go as far as to skip class the day of my oral presentation — an unthinkable offence in high school — my professors didn’t care. I would simply lose the marks, a sacrifice I could deal with.
I never would have graduated without the help of my best friend. We took classes together and she would pick me up and drive me to school. Most days, I wouldn’t have gone if she hadn’t been waiting outside for me. We also studied together. I didn’t know it at the time, but our way of studying was beneficial for me. I don’t learn by just reading. I need to talk through (and joke about) the information in order to grasp it. So I always performed better in the classes I had with her. She made school fun… or as fun as it could be.
I would often take those online tests that promise to determine your personality type or dream job. I felt lost and didn’t feel like I totally fit the bill of the nice, cute, kind, and quite honestly, not-so-smart girl that I labelled myself as. These labels weren’t out of left field; they were based on my experiences. During my quest to find that missing piece of who I was, the answer that would explain everything about me and make me feel like I belonged, I came across ADHD. At the time I was 19 years old and in my last year of CEGEP.
‘During my quest to find that missing piece of who I was, the answer that would explain everything about me and make me feel like I belonged, I came across ADHD.’
This ADHD thing rang true to me. I took my newfound term to my GP. I explained that I thought that I had ADHD and he asked me why. I explained to him that I would walk into a room and not know why I had entered it or what I was doing. Yes, this happens to neurotypicals (those that don’t have ADHD) but it doesn’t happen nearly as often. Another symptom of ADHD is an inability to gather all the information and explain it in succinct detail.
My GP told me that ADHD was a fad and it did not exist. I believed him and dropped the term without a second thought — after all, he was my doctor. It’s really unfortunate that he was grossly uneducated on the subject because looking back, I cannot imagine how different my life would have been had I continued my schooling with an ADHD diagnosis in my pocket. It wasn’t to be, however.
After two and a half years of CEGEP (I had to do an extra semester due to my incessant class-skipping) I applied to Concordia University on the very last possible day. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to study, but I applied to and was accepted in Psychology. At the same time I was starting university, still without a proper understanding of my unique brain wiring, my family moved and our new home was going through extreme renovations. You may be catching on to the fact that changing environments is like kryptonite for someone with ADHD. Add to the equation another new campus and a new route to school (by train!).
‘Another symptom of ADHD is an inability to gather all the information and explain it in succinct detail.’
This was doubly debilitating. To my detriment, none of my existing friends were in my program, and none of the other students were looking for friends. I not only felt alone, but I had lost one of my best coping skills. My friends were my sounding board and my study tools, and I no longer had that. I stuck it out for one painful year before deciding to move on.
Part Two, coming soon…
ADHD Awareness Month is celebrated every October, with events and activities happening all across the country and now, around the world, on the ground and on the Internet, capturing the notice of numerous national, regional and local media outlets resulting in articles, interviews and feature stories. ADHD Awareness Month’s mission is to educate the public about ADHD, a neuro-developmental disorder and a serious public health issue affecting both children and adults around the globe. We focus on ADHD Myths and Facts to dispel the harmful stories that perpetuate stigma by disseminating reliable information based on the evidence of science and peer-reviewed research.
Alyssa Shaw, AAC is a coach who specialises in helping students overcome issues related to ADHD. Learn more at coachalyssashaw.com.