You can also read this piece in Gujarati here translated by Tejas Khandelwal.
I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 11 years old. It made so much sense to me even back then, it was an excuse for my “bad behaviour” in school and my academic shortcomings. But as I grew older, I realised ADHD was about more than just being hyperactive and inattentive. I also realised the stigma around it, not only from my peers, but my teachers as well. Even after I finished my education, after college, I still face this stigma from many of my peers. It’s not always coming from a place of intentional insensitivity like it did growing up. In fact, it rarely does at this age when my peers are also older and more understanding. Rather it comes from a lack of awareness about the different ways ADHD affects my social interactions, my personality and my jumping training of thought. In this article, I’d like to share some of my experiences in various aspects of my life, from school, home, social behaviour and productivity, to my self-esteem and self-worth and other thoughts regarding the same that would maybe connect with a few readers who have been through similar experiences, and more importantly to make people more aware about the diagnosis rather than just knowing it as something that is just about being hyperactive and inattentive.
Part 1 – Home: Badly Behaved
At home, for the longest time, my parents had no idea why I was so “badly behaved”. I was all over the place and had absolutely no impulse control. As kids, when my elder sister teased me, which was often enough, I’d lash out by getting violent. The repercussions to this would be me getting whacked by my parents. There was a strict rule of “no hitting” and the punishment for its violation was a slap from my father. When I got angry, I didn’t think about what would happen if I pushed my sister, I just pushed her. In came my dad with a swift slap on the cheek. Don’t get me wrong, he never did anything more than a slap or two, but as a child, it was quite traumatizing to get slapped often and know why and what I did wrong, but still not be able to stop myself from doing it again. I was taught by the ‘stick’ to realise hitting was bad, but was never taught how else to express the emotion of anger or frustration, and that coupled with a lack of impulse control meant a never ending cycle of teasing-lashing out-getting slapped. When I lashed out, I knew that what I was about to do was wrong, and as soon as I pushed or pinched or shoved my sister, I would start crying, fearing the slap to come. Somehow, although I comprehended the relationship between action and repercussion, I was still never able to take a pause before I did something. If something came to my mind, I did or said it without a thought. This typically meant “bad behaviour” to the adults, both at home and in school. And for my parents who couldn’t understand why I was “like this”, their response to a behaviour that they couldn’t understand was a slap.
At one point, this incessant behaviour of mine led my parents to take me to a child psychiatrist. They just couldn’t understand why this kid, who clearly comprehends what is being told, has a hard time behaving. That’s when things really changed. The psychiatrist suggested that my parents get me tested for ADHD and sure enough he was right. They read books on ADHD and parenting, they visited a number of psychiatrists and professionals, and really did their best to bring me up in a way that was new to them. All credit to my parents for changing their parenting style after that, I’m sure it wasn’t easy. After all, the primary source of their ideas of parenthood came from their parents when they were kids and I’m sure that just like every generation, they inculcated the parenting styles they thought were right and discarded the ones they thought were outdated or wrong. It’s not a foolproof system, it evolves with society. Did they get it completely right? Of course not! But the slapping stopped and they really did try to change. It was a step in the right direction.
One of the big changes that soon followed was the introduction of ADHD medicines. This was motivated more by my lack of concentration and inability to score well, than it was to “calm me down”. Like so many parents in this toxic education system, they too were sucked into believing that in today’s world I needed to score well to do well, even if it was (in reality) an inconsequential seventh grade semester exam. Oh how I hated this medicine! It made me depressed and anxious and more than often even made me lose my appetite. I didn’t feel myself. As I grew older though, I (much to my mother’s discontent and worry) willingly opted out of the medication. This meant more complaints from school, and a worse performance in my academics, but I still think I was better off without it.
Part 2 – School: LD Kids
Back in school, although I was by no means a bla(h)ck sheep, there were other classmates with ADHD, we were all categorized as kids with Learning Disabilities (a wide array of any diagnosis that would affect a student’s academic performance, namely – ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia). During exams, we were put in a separate class room where we were given extra-time and other concessions (like spelling mistakes and being allowed to use a calculator for math). At face value, this seemed to make sense – it’s easier to coordinate exams if all those with the same concessions are seated together. On a deeper level, what this did though was create enmity from both students and teachers. We were labeled the “extra time” students, or simply “LD”. LD kids hence became a default member of the “badly behaved” kids in the teachers’ eyes, most of whom despised us, or at least seemed to. I don’t blame my peers though, we were kids and didn’t know better.
I began to deeply identify myself as LD. I had the whole package of diagnoses at some level of the spectrum or the other, and this led me to believe that I just wouldn’t be able to perform well in my academics. Most of the teachers surely believed that and I was determined to prove them wrong. And even when I did, after working hard and in hindsight putting myself through more stress than necessary, when I did do well, it was always attributed to my concessions rather than my hard work. I remember this one time when I did really well in my math exam, I was brushed off by a student, who was known to be one of the toppers in the class, who said “Take the exam without extra time or a calculator and show na!” Even teachers would say things like “Even with the extra time and concessions, you couldn’t score well?” I just couldn’t win. If I didn’t do well, I was a typical LD student, and if I did do well, it was attributed to my concessions. It was a lose-lose situation and it really demoralised me, and I’m sure other impressionable kids like me.
I remember speaking to my therapist back then, agreeing myself that I only did well because of these concessions. My therapist explained these concessions with an analogy that I still remember. “Don’t listen to them and let them get to you (easier said than done even at this age, but sure). Look at these concessions, in this case the calculator, as a pair of spectacles. Not everyone has a 20/20 vision, and those who don’t, wear spectacles to level the playing field. Look at it the same way. Having these concessions is to level the playing field with the other students. It’s a crutch in the same way spectacles are a crutch or a crutch is a crutch. You surely won’t attribute a student’s good performance to his thick lenses, would you? Something that’s just as inherent and definitely helps their ability to give the exam.”
This made sense to me and I even tried explaining it a few times in school when I was similarly called out, but to no avail, instead I was just further ridiculed for drawing this analogy. It hurt, and rather than overcome my self-doubt and believe in myself, I learnt instead to live with it: something that I’m sure has affected who I am today. I’m sure there are other reasons for me constantly criticising myself for my shortcomings and always attributing my achievements to external factors, but I’m also sure that these experiences have had a big role to play in it.
Part 3 – Social Skills and Self Image: Another ADHD Stable
My social skills have been an obstacle for me, more so now as an adult than when I was in school. My inability to gauge social and emotional cues or behave in a socially acceptable manner has affected my interactions with others and how they perceive me, and consequently my self-image. What is ironic is that I never knew this when I was younger and so it never bothered me. But now that I’m older and do know how I come across sometimes, it has shaken my confidence, which has made things significantly tougher. Now I’m constantly second-guessing my interactions with new people which definitely doesn’t help with my insecurity.
One of the most common complaints against me and others on the ADHD spectrum, is that we interrupt people. And I can’t argue with that, it’s true. This doesn’t come from a place of rudeness or lack of interest as perceived by others but on the contrary, a place of interest and relatability with a lack of impulse control. This tends to happen when something about the conversation resonates with me, or reminds me of a personal experience. I get so excited about sharing my experience, irrespective of whether or not the person talking has finished. Who wants to be friends with someone who is constantly interrupting? Nobody. It’s rude.
Since this was pointed out to me, I have tried to change that and control my impulse to talk and share whenever something comes to mind, but it hasn’t been easy. There have been times when something that I am keen on sharing does come to mind and I tell myself to wait for the other person to finish talking. This leads to one of two things – either I completely forget about what I wanted to say by the time the other person is done talking, or I’m concentrating so hard on remembering what I want to say and preparing myself, that I completely zone out and lose track of the conversation. Often when I’m in such a situation, while I’m trying my level best not to interrupt, I pinch myself hard enough to leave a mark so that I can look at the mark and remember what I wanted to say. Sort of like using a visual cue to remember what I was thinking when I pinched myself.
Time and again I make a fool of myself because of my inability to articulate what I am thinking. It feels like it’s always either my brain running faster than my mouth, or my mouth running faster than my brain. The two just refuse to work in tandem. This results in an inability to filter what I say from what I think, which can often be problematic. It also leads to me stuttering while making a point or being unable to efficiently bring to words a thought which in my mind makes perfect sense. The voice in my head then chastises me for being unable to communicate effectively.
When it comes to gauging emotional cues, I’m a wildcard. Sometimes I’ll understand that someone is feeling vulnerable and try my best to be empathetic. Other times I’ll be so oblivious to the emotions of the people around me, even if it were written in bold across their forehead, that I will simply continue what I was doing or saying and as a result be quite insensitive. Where I think this stems from, is that at the moment I am so occupied with the thousand thoughts a second that are stimulating my brain, that I overlook the most obvious external cues. It’s not that I’m not offering emotional support because I’m dismissing someone else’s feelings or due to a lack of intent, but rather because I failed to notice the emotional cues in the first place.
Having said that, when I do get it right, I try my best to address the person’s emotional needs, often going out of my way to do so. But the same doesn’t apply to my own emotional needs. When I’m feeling emotional distress, I often gaslight myself or resort to ‘tough-love’. Somehow or the other I always convince myself that it’s my fault. If I’m upset about something, I berate myself for feeling that emotion, something I wouldn’t even think of doing to others when they feel the same.
It is only during my research for this article that I realised this ability to practice empathy (although hampered), but extreme difficulty to practice self-empathy stems from repeated negative responses ADHD children receive in the environment around them while growing up. A child on the ADHD spectrum receives significantly more criticism from peers and adults for their repeated inability to reach academic and/or behavioural expectations. This results in the child never feeling good enough. During these impressionable years, this feeling of never being good enough is so recurring, that it becomes a core belief about oneself. When I read this, it made so much sense to me. With tears filling my eyes I realised to what extent a toxic (or rather ignorant?) environment in my childhood has resulted in who I am today. As an adult, even though I know the cause of this thought process, and even though I go to therapy regularly and discuss this, I find it extremely tough to not believe that I am not good enough. When I try telling myself that I am good enough, it feels so unnatural and wrong and I just can’t believe it.
Another way this constant criticism during my formative years manifested itself was Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (surprise, surprise – another ADHD staple). Everyone is averse to rejection. It hurts. But because my core belief is that I’m not good enough, and self-depreciation is internalised, I tend to feel rejected by others all the time, and most often it isn’t even true. My insecurities convince me that I have been rejected when in reality no such thing has happened. And I won’t deal with this rejection in a healthy way. It overwhelms me and often throws me into a pit of despair and another depressive phase. And this fear of rejection stops me from taking on so many endeavors, be it social interactions or taking up a new skill or presenting an idea or piece of work.
One thing I’m convinced about is that the lack of awareness regarding the various ways ADHD manifests itself in children, is one of the root causes of my self-deprecating nature. If I was corrected, albeit time and again, with empathy rather than criticism, maybe self-empathy wouldn’t be so hard for me to practice.
Part 4 – Productivity & Self-Image: Nope. Not Doing It
I have two default settings. When I’m working or doing something productive, my brain tells me to stop working so much and let my hair down, lest I get burnt out or depressed. When I’m relaxing, my brain won’t let me enjoy myself. At the back of my head all I can hear is “You’re wasting your time by not being productive. You could be writing your screenplay right now, but you’re going to spend your whole life wasting away instead.” I often get stuck in between the two. I’m either trying to be productive but unable to concentrate, or trying to relax, but can’t because how dare I relax when I can be productive?
Spending days on end being neither productive nor relaxed, is tiring. There are days I do nothing all day but still end up tired and overwhelmed. I used to be ashamed of myself for feeling burnt out even though I haven’t done anything productive for days. I spent almost a week between writing the previous article and this one, and even after that, I just couldn’t get myself to do it. I recently discovered that this is because even though I’m “chilling”, it’s not really relaxing when all I can think of is how I’m not being productive. It’s exhausting.
One of the biggest hurdles that ADHD brings is Executive Dysfunction, which refers to a cognitive and mental disability in performing goal-oriented tasks and behaviours. It hinders activities such as planning, focusing, remembering instructions, time management, juggling multiple tasks, and other such things. People with ED struggle to set and stick to schedules, organize themselves and their surroundings. They find it hard to arrange and perform actions to achieve long-term goals.
As a result of the struggle it takes to perform basic goal-oriented tasks and behaviours, even the simplest tasks equate to climbing a mountain. This doesn’t mean that I have no goals or don’t know what I must do to achieve it. What it means is, even though I know what I need to do to get closer to my goal, my brain seems to simply say “Nope. Not doing it.” To convince my brain to actually do something when it doesn’t want to, results in major mental exhaustion which, again, seems to lead to a quick burnout.
ED is a hard thing for an unprofessional like me to explain accurately, but I’ll do my best. Take the example of the task of me writing this set of articles. This is something I really wanted to do. It means a lot to me to be able to share my experiences with others. Having said that, it took me forever to actually start, days in fact. There were times I would just be sitting idle, telling myself “Okay, let’s do this! Let’s write this article and get something done.” I spent hours just wanting to start, but unable to. Ultimately when I finally did, I was only a few sentences through when I was mentally drained.
This concept seems difficult to comprehend. “What do you mean you want to but your brain doesn’t?” I understand how that can make no sense to most people, but I really have no better way of explaining it. I just get so overwhelmed by the thought of actually starting a task that my brain kicks into its defense mechanism; “Okay, I know you really want to, but let’s not do it. That seems like the best option.” To the majority, this just seems like another excuse for being lazy, but I assure you that it’s not. What it is, is a complete mental block between the will to do something and performing the action required to do it.
Since school, I was told that I’m lazy and this I started to believe. And even though I didn’t want to be lazy, however much I tried, I couldn’t seem to change my ways. That resulted in me hating myself which only made things more difficult. I’d put myself down for not being productive, which would just overwhelm me more and push me further into a vicious cycle of not being productive and hence hating myself.
I’ve often been told to break up a task into a series of steps to make it seem more achievable. I’ve tried that and it does work at times, but more often than not it doesn’t. However hard I try, that one task seems more difficult than it actually is. I don’t know where to start and get overwhelmed which leads to me pushing it for later and then being ashamed when that “later” arrives.
There are other times when something piques my interest, that I seem to have an endless supply of motivation and concentration. It’s called hyperfocus. I’ll spend hours on end doing something, reaching a point of obsession. The problem with hyperfocus is that I have no control over when or what will drag me down the rabbit hole. For instance, I was doing some research for this article and the next thing I knew, I had been reading about the difference between old world and new world vultures for the last few hours. How I went from ADHD to vultures? I don’t know.
There are times when I hyperfocus on something “useful”. I will try my best and give it my all. Sometimes I’ll even stay up all night or skip meals in order to just continue what I’m doing because I know that if I stop, I might not be able to do it again until the next sudden burst of motivation, and who knows when that will come? Often, the self-deprecating part of me kicks in and I’ll think I suck at what I’m doing. I’ll give up and in a way reject myself. This makes me loathe myself for not matching the expectation in my head of being perfect at the first go. I feel so dejected that productivity for the next week is out of the question.
So often I feel like a failure who’s not good enough, or just a lazy bum. I can’t stress how much ED has affected my mental health. I’m prone to depression and I’ve had long bouts of it stemming from my guilt for not being productive. At a deeper level, I think this depression also comes from the pressures a capitalistic society has ingrained into all of us. The myth that you must be productive and achieve in order to be happy, and that leisure needs to be earned. Since the executive dysfunction means that I have trouble being productive and the self-depreciation means whatever I do isn’t good enough, my leisure time never seems to be “earned”. I’m only just beginning to realise how wrong and detrimental these deep-rooted ideas are, and yet, even though I know better, I’m finding it hard to stay happy.
Recently, I even briefly tried starting my ADHD medication again. I was so depressed that I risked the side-effects, like (more) depression, anxiety and loss of appetite, in order to be productive, finish my screenplay and “achieve”. Needless to say, it didn’t work out too well and I did fall into a deeper pit of depression. But so toxic is the society we’ve grown up in that I was willing to take the medicine, knowing full well how it has affected my mental health in the past, in order to feel better about myself by being productive and rid myself of the shame of taking too much leisure time.
There were two main things that motivated me to write this series of articles. One of them is the desire to connect with at least a few readers who have gone through similar experiences and, however cheesy this sounds, to make them feel like they aren’t alone. Because I know that when I read about someone who’s gone through similar experiences or had similar difficulties as I have, it really does make me feel less alone and out of place. It definitely does make me feel better.
Another key motivation is my desire to make people, caregivers in particular, more aware of what ADHD is and how it affects a person in various aspects of their life. One thing that’s certain is that their interactions with children, neurodivergent or otherwise, plays a big role in moulding their way of life and thought process even as an adult. I think it’s essential for them to know personal experiences of various types of neurodivergent people so that they have a better idea of how they think and behave and what expectations to have. This in turn, I hope, will result in the child growing up to be more confident in oneself and lead a happier life.
Maitreya (he/him) is a filmmaker and when he isn’t trying to recover from depression or a burnout, which is often enough, you can find him hunched in front of his computer writing a screenplay that he wishes to direct someday.