It’s been a long time since I’ve published a post on here, but I felt compelled to start again after seeing funny-but-true post from an amazing meme account called @JennHasADHD:
My last post was about coping with social media addiction and depression. That’s a battle I’m slowly overcoming thanks to a pair of wonderful mental health providers. But it turns out a lot of the depression I had been experiencing over the years (and subsequent anxiety about letting depression get the best of me) was due to compounded effects of 30 years of untreated ADHD (and yes, all three of these conditions can coexist in a single brain… it’s a party in here, y’all!)
Part of the reason I’d been untreated for so long is that the popular narrative around ADHD focuses primarily on fidgety school-aged boys. It’s safe to say that, as of writing this article, publicly-spread knowledge about girls and adults as a whole with ADHD is minimal and under-researched. Most of what I’ve learned about adult ADHD (and female occurrences of ADHD) has come from two books, both of which I’ve just read in the last few months, and joining a couple online support communities. So, I figured “common myths about ADHD” would be a great topic for this next post.
To keep things nice and light, I’m going to intersperse a series of memes (some from me, some from Jenn has ADHD) because 1) they are just so good, and 2) even if you don’t officially have ADHD, many of these feelings are relatable.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional, and this does not constitute comprehensive information for self-diagnosis. If you suspect you have ADHD, please speak with a physician or psychiatrist for an official diagnosis.
Myth #1: All ADHD involves some element of hyperactivity and fidgeting.
Fact: ADHD is the umbrella term to include attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and hyperactivity disorder. ADD was coined first, which is why it’s become common vernacular to say someone “has ADD.” ADHD later replaced the term to reflect how frequently the two conditions coincide with one another.
There are three types of ADHD: hyperactive type, inattentive type, and combination type (which, as the name implies, includes both hyperactive and inattentive). I happen to primarily have the inattentive type of ADHD (…however, given my “tic” of constantly bouncing my leg while I’m sitting, and feeling restless if I haven’t exercised, it’s entirely possible I have the combination type.)
Common hallmarks of ADHD:
- Poor executive functioning – challenges to string actions together in a series of logical steps to complete a complex task
- Sensory issues – frequent over- or under-stimulation of different senses like touch, smell, or sound
- Impulsivity – tendency to act recklessly or with less consideration to consequences.
- Poor emotion regulation – aka “mood swings
- Hyperfocus – a finite ability to zero in on a task for hours, days, weeks at a time, when really interested, but then it abruptly ends; this also manifests as many abandoned or forgotten hobbies
- Inattention – paying attention to the “wrong” things often, or distractibility
- Poor working memory* – losing track of items, losing track of where you are in physical spaces and in a process, challenges reading or stringing together thoughts.. often linked to executive functioning issues
(* sometimes incorrectly referred to as “object permanence” but object permanence is technically a childhood development phase about knowing an object exists even if out of site, and not the ADHD symptom of holding a non-visible item in working memory)
- Restlessness or inability to sit still – fidgeting, bouncy legs, tapping pens, needing to pace, and other repetitive movements
You don’t have to have all symptoms to have ADHD, but it’s rarely ADHD if you present only one symptom.
Myth #2: ADHD is a “fake condition” that is over-diagnosed because modern society features highly stimulating and distracting technology. People simply need to improve their willpower to overcome a lack of discipline.
Fact: ADHD is a neurological condition recognized by the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition), which serves as the primary validated source of diagnostic criteria for all mental disorders. Brain scans on patients with ADHD often reflect highly divergent brain activity during routine or regular tasks and often slightly abnormal hormone levels (in particular, dopamine and serotonin). This is why you will hear ADHD-er’s refer to their brain as neurodivergent.
Depending on the type of ADHD you have, you may have a dopamine shortage, or an issue with functioning dopamine receptors (thus, your brain functions as if it has a low supply of dopamine, even when it doesn’t). Or similar issues with serotonin. This means the “reward” system of the brain does not function as a neurotypical person’s brain might. A neurotypical brain might respond very positively to getting tasks done and accomplishing important and necessary items.
However, ADHD brains typically do not respond in the same way, do not register the same satisfaction from accomplishing important tasks, and consequently are more susceptible to pursuing highly impulsive activity to either sharply increase dopamine, or wandering off from intended tasks (inattention) due to a lack of feedback from dopamine receptors.
In other words: willpower does not have the same effect in an ADHD brain as it does in a “normal” brain.
Now, do people without ADHD exhibit symptoms like the ones I showed above? Certainly. However, the severity of these problems is what determines whether it is a disorder or a circumstantial trait. Periods of high stress, major life changes, or, I don’t know, a global pandemic perhaps, may lead some neurotypical people to experience these symptoms a bit more. But if these symptoms are relatively minor and not detrimental to your day-to-day life, you likely do not have this condition.
(Again, I’m not a health professional, please ask a doctor if you’re unsure.)
Myth #3: Clutter, inconsistency, and forgetfulness is a moral failing.
Okay, fine, maybe this is less a myth about ADHD and more a myth I have about my own behavior. But this is perhaps the root cause of many of my own anxiety and depression issues over the years, and appears to be the same of other ADHD-ers around the world (based on anecdotal social media evidence and an informal social sentiment analysis). Looking at my own piles of un-filed paperwork, missed deadlines, forgotten birthdays, and, my constitutional incapability of remembering to close the cabinet doors, or where I put my wallet, it’s hard not to beat myself up for “not trying hard enough” or “not caring enough.” Others have said the same of me, so it’s easy to start believing it, especially when you realize you’re starting to build consensus with other people.
Fact: These are all symptoms of a neurological (medical) condition which is un-curable (albeit somewhat treatable). But they are viewed as a symptom of decreased willpower and discipline, rather than symptoms of a medical condition.
If I were to explain this another way, imagine if someone (let’s call them “Reilly”) was born with a permanent limb disability – perhaps a right hand which does not grow. The idea that clutter, inconsistency, and forgetfulness is a moral failing would be the equivalent of saying, “Wow, Reilly, you’re really rude and self-centered for not shaking hands with people. Clearly you don’t care at all about building relationships with other people. You should really try a lot harder to shake hands more often.”
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but as you can see, it’s pretty absurd to say that, when Reilly is physically incapable of shaking hands because of a biological condition, it doesn’t matter how much Reilly wants to or tries to shake hands, Reilly will never be able to render that traditional greeting. Reilly can certainly supplement this disability with medical intervention, like a prosthetic hand for example (in the case of ADHD, this intervention would be medication and/or therapy). But even then, Reilly will never shake hands in the way other typical people shake hands. That doesn’t make Reilly rude or uncaring. That’s literally just how Reilly is built as a person. So, Reilly can certainly lean into it and do some cool left-hand shakes or foot-based/dance greetings (side note: how cool would that be?!), but would otherwise have to live with the fact they will never shake right hands, and some people will find that odd or rude. That does not mean Reilly is self-centered, or a bad person. Reilly is doing what they can.
I use that analogy–shaking hands–because clutter, inconsistency, and forgetfulness are all symptoms that impact relationships with others. The inability to participate in society or maintain relationships in a “normal” way can really ostracize and isolate people with neurological conditions, who are biologically incapable of doing so.
Myth #4: ADHD is a deficiency, a terrible disorder, and otherwise a barrier to success.
Fact: First of all, many famous people, important innovators, and foundational figures of society have had neurodivergent conditions, such as ADHD or autism. Some examples include Will Smith, Emma Watson, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Will.i.am, Adam Levine, Walt Disney, just to name a few. Even historical figures such as Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, Mozart, and Leonardo Da Vinci are suspected to have had ADHD. Some speculate it may be precisely because of ADHD that these individuals had the capacity to innovate, think, and act from a unique perspective.
And, given the growth of ADHD awareness and the rapid increase of ADHD diagnoses, it’s not that ADHD has suddenly become a popular affliction; it appears as though it’s been under-diagnosed in society for hundreds of years.
That said, if the disorder was truly terrible, why does it still exist, and why is it so prevalent?
Michael Joseph Ferguson, author of The Drummer and the Great Mountain: a Guidebook to Transforming Adult ADD / ADHD, has a theory: there may have been an evolutionary benefit to ADHD in earlier civilizations. Having this condition: distractibility to movement, intense, lengthy focus in periods of high adrenaline, ability to maintain high levels of energy, quick swing in emotion from calmness to aggression, and creative ability to solve problems – these were essential traits for a society of nomads, but specifically, hunters (and perhaps warriors). Hunters who had these traits objectively had greater success than hunters who lacked these traits. So, it makes sense that this is still a part of our society, even if those hunting skills aren’t exactly needed in the same way anymore.
Does this mean ADHD is suddenly devoid of all its downsides? Absolutely not. What ADHD giveth, it also taketh. What I’ve learned over the course of several months is that you can view ADHD in a lot of ways: as a neurological deficiency, a divergence of brain development, or as an evolutionarily-advantageous quirk; but these realities aren’t exclusive of each other. You can, in fact, hold all three of these truths in your mind at the same time; and to be honest, I’ve been happier for it. (…and I mean, I guess having ADHD helps keep all the truths in your head at the same time).
The challenge for me now is finding ways to celebrate these differences and learn how to live with my own brand of ADHD. This post (in my humble opinion) was a great place to start. Now, comes the hard part: eliminating the stigma and dismantling decades of behavioral expectations. I imagine it will be a tough task. But if the ADHD community has shown me anything, it’s that we are excellent at both feeling intense pain and frustration, and quickly forgetting about it because of a funny video or a good joke. So, I’ve gotta say, if anyone is equipped for the persistence required of this undertaking, it’s us. We’ll get through it together, with solidarity, communication, and a hearty dose of memes.