Do I have your attention?
By Aliya Kamran
The essay is not an expert opinion.
“Common” experiences described unfold on clinical levels for individuals with ADHD; so they are actually altogether different.
Don’t self-diagnose via this piece!
I had struggled with distractedness, forgetfulness, and fervent emotions for as long as I could remember. As a result, I became deeply self-critical. Then, two years into college, I was diagnosed with predominantly inattentive type ADHD.
The diagnosis came as pure relief. For the first time, I comprehended that my sabotaging behavior had been linked to neurological imbalances in my brain, and not to my personhood.
To try and reinterpret what I thought I knew about myself, I sought professional knowledge and turned to the exact source of the disorder: my brain. I wanted to know how ADHD brains like mine were different from neurotypical brains: how do we cultivate motivation, recall emotion, start and stop tasks, react to varying thresholds of boredom, perceive time, navigate friendships or romance, feel hurt, compile sentences, maintain self-esteem, do laundry?
I penned this 4-part personal essay and accompanying art to articulate some of what I learned, and what I still don't know, with the desire to begin illustrating the color, complexity, and character of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
To begin, I want to indulge in a modest, tasteful bit of self-inflation, if that is even possible. The disorder has unique strengths, which deserve to be celebrated! And I guess being neurodiverse is cooler than being neurotypical?
Seeking and savoring diverse knowledge: ADHD is a double-edged sword. It is not only inattention but also a tendency to hyperfocus and obsessively fixate on topics of personal interest (with no voluntary control over what those topics should be). A tolerable consequence of chronic procrastination is when I put off work and turn to hyper-focus on discovering intellectual subjects. I try to meet my brain’s incessant greed for stimulation by constantly learning. This stimulation attempts to momentarily compensate for the plausible shortage of dopamine plaguing ADHD brains.
Are the topics relevant to my commitments? No! But because of my explorations, I can talk your ear off about Rembrandt’s unique brush stroke or the history of animation. And don’t even get me started on the evolutionary significance of flatworm penis fencing.
‘nebulous focus ft. flatworms’
The dopamine rush of appreciating century-old art culture as well as admiring evolving ecosystems beats that ‘Econ’ group project any day. My teammates may not agree with me, but my brain has decided that this deadline, too, can wait.
Wacky humor and little quirks: I like having a lateral-thinking brain. Among other things, it lets me form associations between unrelated themes to produce a surprise comedic effect. Inducing laughter feels pleasant, and warm! Humor is also all about timing, and impulsivity ensures no time wasted on the challenging quips I think of. So when it comes to fun, I hand my scatterbrain uninhibited creative control and grant my impulse full security clearance to my mouth. Shooting gags, being silly, and generally talkative are manifestations of my faint hyperactivity that can feel safe, even enjoyable, to let out.
Naturally, there have been misfires: incoherent puns, dumbfounded looks, the occasional slap on the wrist. I have considered introducing myself as “hey, I’m Aliya and I apologize in advance if I say anything peculiar!” But I will not pick myself out for a net positive trait.
Thinking creatively!: If I had a penny for every idea I conceived that I think could be a unicorn... only to forget it the next minute. Or responsibly write it down on a sticky note… only to misplace the note itself. Needless to say, my brain owes me millions of dollars in start-up ideas. Hopefully, someday it will start to pay its dues. For the time being, I return to swimming in a cascade of ideas.
My personal idea stream darts between a LED light piece, an e-textile circuit, incomplete poems on adolescence, and unfinished charcoal sketches of the refugee crisis. Those are some projects I passionately began, only to heartbreakingly abandon. Mastering nothing, yet exploring everything, all at once.
In a society structured to reward specialized and consistent output, I wonder if I will ever find something I love for long enough to reach expertise. In my brain, there co-exists an abundance of passion with an equal scarcity of executing completion. Like in human relations, curiosity is a shit-starter if it never develops into loyalty.
Now that I have self-inflated enough, here are a few issues with the disorder.
What is “time?” No really, what is it?: I do not perceive time linearly as seconds, minutes, and hours. Instead, time feels like a gigantic cloud, a diffusion of events, people, emotions. It can feel densely packed, pellucid, or wispy in distinct moments.
This unstructured view of time is problematic. A fun night can speed into the morning, whereas a half-hour of cooking while juggling little culinary details feels like a whole day.
Your timing is a message: if you are punctual, you care. The dissonance between my true care, and the message I send to friends, professors, and family leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, marked with shame and frustration.
Maaaybe, next “time” I will show up on “time”?
Emotional dysregulation: A gravely overlooked core symptom of ADHD is emotional dysregulation. The same neurological deficits disturbing executive functions like organization and time management, also disturb emotional sensitivity, reactivity, and intensity.
For example, even physical surroundings can impact my frame of mind. This is so hard to explain to those living without ADHD, as I learned when I tried to describe to my roommate how her growing heap of packages in the living room derailed my good mood.
Or the funny story of how annoyed I was when she chose the name Jordan, for our foster puppy. I left in a huff, regained composure, and returned to express my emotions. It wasn’t the name that had irked me, but that I had been left out of the decision.
Feeling a lack of control over one’s emotions is scary. And in the wake of overreacting, being misunderstood and resented is even more difficult. It is on us to use this knowledge to become more mindful of our words and actions, and a little understanding from those close to us goes a long way.
Fear of failure and rejection: It’s great that feeling emotions more deeply has allowed me to feel unbridled joy in good times, induced genuine laughter from (at best) mediocre jokes, and infused simple moments with meaning. On the flip side, negative feedback like failure and rejection cut deeper.
RSD or Rejection Sensitivity Dysmorphia is uniquely tied to ADHD and has provoked a lot of curiosity from doctors studying the disorder. RSD is when even an imagined perception of negative response can invoke real pain. Whoa.
People with ADHD often suppress shame and fear around their symptoms and anticipate rejection from others. I certainly do. The most extreme example of that is days when a conversation can make me self-conscious. Some examples include overexplaining a story that was retrieved completely out of context, or going on uninteresting, disorienting tangents as my brain inadequately juggles details. And the worst one: when my mind unwittingly drains of all substance, leaving me speechless like a goldfish, just as I am about to reply.
With all the previous stuff simmering on the inside, it is easier to just slap on a lid and forget the broth. Camouflaging to appear like a neurotypical person is a masterclass in self-control, from highly functioning ADHD-ers. The consequence of being our symptomatic selves is so scary, that we learn to expertly control and conceal our blemishes.
Guilty over tragically low class attendance? Enforce perfectionist standards on assignments! Unable to follow social cues by impulsively interrupting people? Become that silent, mysterious bystander in group settings! Yes, the cognitive load of always monitoring yourself weighs heavy but as a ‘high achieving Duke student’ the trade-off feels well worth it.
Often as a result of subconscious masking from a young age, females with ADHD disproportionately go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for disorders stemming from untreated ADHD such as mood disorders, eating disorders, and anxiety.
Growing up, girls face higher expectations to be ‘put together.’ Masking is picked up fast and ‘bad behavior,’ like hyperactive classroom disruptiveness, is suppressed so we are seen as ‘good girls’.
Stigmatizing and/or denying the legitimacy of ADHD is harmful, but so is the stereotype that ADHD cultivates creative individuals who go on to be successful, ‘tortured geniuses.’ In my view, the real disorder lies in the burden of self-administering my symptoms, every moment of every day. I believe life is radically different for someone treating their ADHD compared to neurotypicals. And reimagining life in ways it works for your individual, unique brain requires a hell of a lot of creativity and courage.
The following are a few methods that help me overcome common obstacles.
The ‘parking lot’: Shoutout to the Academic Resource Center at Duke for this suggestion. The idea is simple: as you encounter scattered, sporadically popping up thoughts that take your focus away from what you were hoping to accomplish, just write them down on a note called the ‘parking lot.’ By parking intrusive thoughts, my brain can relax, knowing I will get to address them in my spare time.
The motivation dilemma: With ADHD every step of accomplishing anything is, ehm, a real pain in the butt. Everyone wants to enjoy what they are doing. For disorder brains, however, enjoyment is a necessary prerequisite and hence a significant barrier.
You may be motivated to do something, but poor executive functioning does not prompt you to make a start. Whereas you may start, only to find that your lower boredom threshold makes you abandon the progress. Alternatively, you may get lucky with the trifecta! You want to do it, you start and you stay on it. In that case, poor executive functioning could always prevent you from terminating the action. So, you find yourself working to the point of forgetting to eat or go or sleep on time.
I have a petty grievance with the advice to “just do it!” I don’t know how to just do it. Doing is supported by a host of brain activities like recalling, scaling, prioritizing, decomposing, timing, initiating, evaluating, solving, and so forth. My disordered brain, bless her, is inept at each one.
Recruit a professional committee! : My friends tease me by saying, “there is a team behind Aliya.” It’s the truth. My cohort of badass women comprises three mental health professionals, an advisor at the Academic Resource Center, a case manager at the Student Disability Accessibility Office, and of course, close friends and journals. Asking and receiving long-term help, even when things appear dandy, is so important. Opening up to outsiders takes courage. Unfortunately, the fear of vulnerability congests the area of your brain where love and connection reside.
This is not some cringe, self-help hoo-haa. Research backs that emotional vulnerability is part of limbic system activities, and as Brene Brown pans, “Either you do vulnerability, or vulnerability does you.”
'the lost gems of a masked lake'
ADHD is living with a brain that has its own brain” - someone
I have spent too much time self-ruminating rather than self-reflecting as I processed my diagnosis in connection to my life. I unhealthily focused on why things had to be this way, why life had to be seemingly harder for those with ADHD than those without. Until I decided to replace attempts to work against my brain with attempts to work around its blind spots.
Now I am somewhat fond of the way my brain works...
Le fabulous brain!: I find humor in the abstraction of my disordered brain being a self-determining, stubborn but fabulous personality marching to her own beat!
~ Here I try to illustrate her.
In reality, the more I unearth my brain, the more I feel like I am getting to know an entirely different person. She has her own priorities, preferences, motivators, and vices. My brain is like a best friend: she annoys me to no end, by virtue of the endless time we spend together. My advice to her often goes unheeded. But I know that when push comes to shove, she and I return to marching in tandem.
'her mind's whims'