I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when I was 24 years old.
This story is one of my favorites to tell. When I first started seeing a therapist for anxiety and mild depression, he asked me if I ever drink coffee. I love coffee. I average about ten cups of coffee every day. In fact, I was known as “Coffee Man” in college. I wrote sketches about my love of coffee and joked about it being my “medication.”
I knew why he asked me that question. And when he told me that coffee was adding to my anxiety, I explained to him that drinking coffee helps me to focus. I’m not affected by it the same way other people are.
After giving me a quizzical look and asking more questions about my symptoms, the doctor had me take a few tests, which eventually led to my diagnosis of ADHD. Suddenly, so many things about my life made sense or had some sort of explanation.
I have a few friends also living with ADHD. When I told them the news, they were actually surprised I didn’t already know I had the condition.
Although I’m still putting the pieces together as I reflect on my life with ADHD, I can recognize that some of my then-unknown ADHD symptoms may have impacted some of my behaviors and traits as a kid.
1. Insomnia due to hyperactivity
What kid doesn’t like to stay up past their bedtime? When I was a young child, it would take me forever to fall asleep — over two hours sometimes!
I was kept awake by racing thoughts on the meaning of life and what our purpose is (I was a philosophical little thing as a kid). It was such a struggle to fall asleep that sometimes I would cry. Sleep wouldn’t come no matter how hard I tried.
Looking back now, it makes sense.
Tip: Now I write down my thoughts just before bedtime, knowing I can revisit them in the morning. With that off my plate, I have a better shot at being able to drift off to sleep.
2. Reading comprehension and distraction
I had a very hard time reading as a child (I still do, to be honest). I found it hard to pay attention and would always misinterpret words and overanalyzing everything. My high school English teacher once said, “Nerris, I don’t understand how your brain works but you need to exist in this reality.”
I would get distracted and have to read paragraphs over and over again. As a very young child, I had a flair for dramatics. In school, I would cover up my reading troubles by volunteering to read out loud with all the gusto in the world. It was a cunning move for someone so young. The teachers thought I was the best reader, but in reality, I wasn’t comprehending anything I was reading.
Tip: In addition to reading out loud, act out what you’re reading, and break it down into simpler words.
3. Having many hobbies
Though I struggled with reading, I could learn to play any instrument within hours. By the time I graduated high school, I could play seven instruments. I was also involved in many creative extracurricular activities like choir, film production, drama, dance, and composing. While I loved doing all of these things, at times it could be hard to pin myself down to one activity and manage my time.
I was a jack of all trades. Ironically, this was the reason my mother had a hard time believing I have ADHD. She just thought I was just creative!
Of course, having many different creative hobbies doesn’t necessarily mean a person has ADHD, but struggling with staying on task, focusing on one thing at a time, or following through on an idea (I changed by major 28 times, literally) could be signs of ADHD.
Tip: Being a jack of all trades doesn’t mean you’re a master of none, as the saying implies. You can excel at many things! Be proud of all your talents, and do whatever makes you happy.
4. Connecting the dots
My friends always came to me for advice in high school because I’m able to think outside the box. I could see things in ways they couldn’t, and make connections between things that seemed unrelated. I consider this to be one of the greatest perks of my ADHD.
Many well-known artists have ADHD – Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine has even become a vocal advocate for those of us living with it. While we may struggle to focus at times, I like to think that ADHD also helps us see the world differently.
Tip: Take advantage of your ability to see things differently. Think of it as a skill, and apply it to your personal and professional development.
5. Taking the road less traveled
Being able to properly demonstrate how I solved math and physics problems was perhaps my greatest academic struggle. It’s sort of the flip side to my previous anecdote about intuition. I had to solve advanced math problems in my own way, often going against the grain of my teachers’ instructions.
This caused a lot of tension between my teachers and me. I would write the correct answers on tests but had points deducted for not working the problem out the exact way we were taught.
I didn’t know how to explain that I had my own way of understanding mathematics, so they assumed I was cheating or taking shortcuts. In retrospect, I know this was my way of finding solutions in unique ways. I always found X, I just had to go down a few different roads until I got there.
Tip: Tell your academic advisors early on about having ADHD. Be clear about the support you need. Frame your condition in a positive light, so that your teachers don’t see it as a burden. It’s just a different way of thinking.
While I may have had a hard time focusing on books and tests in school, I had no issues when it came to interesting lectures. When a topic fascinated me, I could sit and listen for hours. In fact, I was often the official note taker of each class.
During my junior year of college, I took triple the number of classes than the average student. I did it because I found their subject matter fascinating.
Understanding how I’m able to learn new things has shaped the way I digest information today. While I’m a slow reader, I can watch an interesting lecture or tune into a Ted Talk and follow it without a problem. My family nicknamed me “The Sponge” in my early 20s because of how rapidly I could absorb information.
Looking back, I now attribute this to ADHD hyperfocus, which comes more easily when I’m learning something I feel passionate about.
Tip: Explore your own learning habits and find out how you learn best and what interests you. If you struggle with reading, you might be great in a different setting, such as a lecture or lab. If you have a hard time understanding graphs, you might do well with visual cues.
ADHD-US-NP-00026 AUGUST 2018