Usually, I go through my life surprising people with my diagnosis. Just this summer, after learning I have Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) my boss responded with: “I never would have guessed, you just seem like you have so much going on, and you juggle it all so well!”
Juggling it is, and I am certainly no circus clown.
I’m a 3.98 GPA student. I am or have been an executive member of three different organizations. I’m in theatre, on the swim team and I write for the Pleiad. Amongst all of that, I somehow find the time to spend time with my friends on the weekends. I love everything I do, and I do it all the time.
But there’s so much juggling. I have all of these things I’m meticulously balancing in the air, terrified of the day one of them inevitably tips out of balance and my whole act collapses.
Of course, all of these things are exactly what the crowd wants; to have enough things in the air to keep them on the edge of their seats. These are the things I have to do to make sure everyone knows I have my life together. More than that, it’s how I prove to myself that I have my life together.
I’m pretty freaking good at it – I have to be – because the moment everyone around me realizes I’m not, they’ll know how many things I could not juggle at the expense of this front.
I forget to eat. I haven’t done my laundry in two weeks. Deadlines become a blur. I called campus safety twice last week to let me into my room (I’m on my second student card this year). I have 13 people with opened, unanswered texts and emails – which I think about for hours every day – instead of taking 45 seconds to respond.
The guilt is incapacitating.
For people with ADHD, the part of your brain that works on attention, memory and self-regulation is impaired. Many people believe that they know ADHD when they see it; in reality, ADHD presents in many forms. Plenty of people with ADHD are talkative young boys who can’t seem to sit still in class, sure, but others are quiet introverts who fidget; some simply appear inattentive, others overcompensate and work twice as hard as their peers.
Overcompensation is far from uncommon.
“There’s a lot of masking going on,” Albion Spanish Professor Marcie Noble said. “I don’t want people to think I’m stupid, so I pretend.”
This is one of the many reasons ADHD is underdiagnosed in assigned female at birth (AFAB) people. From a young age, girls are taught to conform and perform at much higher rates in schools. This lowers the evident “hyper-activity” seen in young boys and leads young girls and AFAB folks to avoid diagnosis.
This lack of diagnosis furthers burnout, guilt and depression as AFAB folks with ADHD continue to fall short of their peers, struggling to uphold the standards given to them. Even when they are properly diagnosed, young AFAB people are less likely to be prescribed medication as their problems are consistently disparaged. Furthermore, this medication, primarily tested on male patients, is speculated to help significantly less due to the gonadal hormones produced in AFAB people.
One 2013 study found that individuals with ADHD are 33% less likely to graduate with a four-year degree and 11 times more likely to not enroll in a four-year program in the first place. Defying the odds, people with ADHD at Albion continue to fight forward. The presence of these people on campus is an unsung victory and deserves recognition. With more awareness and education, this disorder doesn’t have to be such an isolating and shameful experience.
Increasing awareness of ADHD is crucial. A lot of people don’t know why they’re struggling the way they are compared to their peers. It’s common for people to not think of getting a diagnosis until someone close to them is open about it.
Noble sought out a diagnosis only after her brother did.
“My brother was diagnosed before me. That’s why I decided to look in that direction,” Noble said.
Joe Lee-Cullin, a professor in the Albion earth and environment department, said a similar thing about getting diagnosed after their spouse.
While the average age of diagnosis is seven, it’s common for those assigned female at birth to not know until their late 30s or 40s. This can lead to many individuals not getting the help they need, which results in exponentially increasing rates of drug dependency, depression and anxiety.
“How would my life be different had I been medicated?” Noble asked, adding that they wished they had known when they were a kid.
The sentiment was echoed by Lee-Cullin and many others who received a late-in-life diagnosis, who have spent years of their life trying to “make do.”
Even with a diagnosis, however, there’s a sharp lack of education on the disorder. Ana Kiser, a junior from West Hills, CA, was diagnosed at five years old, the average symptom onset age for people with severe ADHD. Their whole life, they’ve struggled with emotional dysregulation.
“I was like, ‘Okay, something’s seriously wrong with me,’” Kiser said.
They finally decided to do more research into their diagnosis, only to find that emotional regulation is “just not there” for people with ADHD.
Lack of Emotional Regulation, object permanence, rejection sensitivity and impulsiveness; there are so many things that people with ADHD are not equipped for after learning of their diagnosis.
A diagnosis also doesn’t equal a solution. There may be medication, but there is no cure.
“The medicine helps, but it doesn’t make you any other kind of way,” Lee-Cullin said. “It’s more of a tool.”
While there is still so much progress to be made, ADHD is becoming more widely recognized, resulting in people going out in search of a needed diagnosis. This diagnosis goes beyond simple peace of mind; it allows people to find the resources they need to be successful.
“Accommodations at Albion were easy,” said Kiser. “I don’t always use them, but they’re helpful to have.”
Accommodations aren’t just for students, though.
“I’m in therapy,” Lee-Cullin said. “It’s helpful for trying to understand, ‘when this thing happens, how does it affect you?’”
As my arms tire from the endless juggling act I’ve been performing my whole life, I’ve conceded that I need to find these resources for myself as well.
I’m communicating with professors about my needs, I’m asking for help when I need it; surrounding myself with people who work like I do, who don’t shame me for getting to a goal differently from some of my peers. The more I start to fight for what I need, the more I find that rather than it being shameful – it is in fact a radical act of defiance to the neurotypical mold society has created.
The more I find that I don’t need to perform excellence, I need to redefine it.