Edit Desk: Focusing on ADHD

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Kelly McCoy

A young girl sits at her desk, straining her attention to focus on the teacher.

Multiplication problems scrawled across the chalkboard seem like a foreign language to her. She glances back and forth between the board, the open book concealed in her lap, the myriad of erasers and pencils on her desk and the outside world where recess is just wrapping up.

Ripping a small piece of paper out of her notebook, she jots down a short note and passes it to her friend next to her and then whispers something to her friend across the table.

Across the room, a young boy fidgets at his desk.

He blurts out unnecessary answers to most questions and tosses his pencils at a classmate across the room. He can’t understand the multiplication problems either, which could result in another disruptive outburst of anger in the classroom, or perhaps more distractions.

In this situation, it is more likely the young boy will receive testing, and ultimately help for ADHD, over the young girl.

ADHD, particularly inattentive ADHD, goes largely under-diagnosed in women. If it is determined, it normally happens much later in a woman’s life. Inattentive ADHD’s symptoms are quieter, and mostly more internal than a stereotypical hyperactive ADHD case. When they are assessed, however, women are more likely to have inattentive-type ADHD than men.  

Women with inattentive ADHD have difficulty organizing tasks, managing time and remembering important information — or anything at all really. Sometimes focusing is impossible, and other times it’s impossible to break this focus, a symptom called hyperfocus.

The deficit in executive function also leads to trouble regulating emotions. Any feeling — anger, sadness, even happiness — can become all-consuming, regardless of the situation. This also relates to impulse control. With inattentive ADHD in women, impulses can lead substance abuse and risk-taking behaviors, more than just blurting out comments. And on top of all of this, there is an overwhelming sense of, well, being overwhelmed.

For me, it took 21 years of pain, confusion and intense stress to finally reach a diagnosis.

I was the young girl with the book in her lap — daydreaming in class, focusing on 30 other things rather than the one thing I was supposed to. In parent-teacher conferences, my teachers remarked that I was brilliant, and I could succeed if only I just stopped talking so much. Most subjects in school came easily to me, with the exception of math. Despite my talent, I watched others surpass my success because I simply couldn’t plan out projects or focus on assignments I started.

To an outsider, I seemed lazy or entirely unmotivated. However, this perspective didn’t include the late-night work sessions. It didn’t include the thousands of tears shed over math assignments I didn’t understand. It didn’t include the essays I just couldn’t get down onto paper. And it didn’t include the chucking of books halfway across the room because I just couldn’t understand what I was reading.

My stress in school and at home only skyrocketed as I was expected to depend more on my own abilities to plan and execute my work.

Everything looked good on paper though — I had good grades, I was involved with a dizzying array of extracurricular activities and by high school, I played three instruments. As such, my teachers assumed I had everything under control, while I continued to wonder what was wrong with me.

It wasn’t until college that I realized what I was actually dealing with and was finally able to seek help. During this time, I had started seeking counseling for depression and anxiety, which I later learned are close cousins to ADHD. Through researching my symptoms and talking with Lehigh’s services, I traced the eternal source of my stress and anxiety back to ADHD.

A simple google search about ADHD and it’s manifestation in women led me to articles that echoed my every thought. Things I had spent my entire life dismissing as character flaws and personal failings suddenly became symptoms I could manage. Things that were inexplicable to me before finally had names, and these names carried strategies for coping.

Everything clicked.

Feeling incredibly overwhelmed and upset in busy or overstimulating environments — IKEA is a nightmare for me. Emotional outbursts at small setbacks. Constantly sprinting through life to try to catch up with everyone else. Being able to remember obscure Star Wars trivia, but not any of my homework assignments. It was all ADHD.

An official diagnosis brought medication, support and tutoring from Lehigh. But just as no two people with ADHD are entirely similar, neither are the treatments for these individuals. Medication has given me a fighting chance to implement the strategies I have learned and I’m still learning about them in counseling and through Lehigh’s academic support offices. It’s a 24/7 job to manage my symptoms.

But even with the strategies, ADHD honestly sucks sometimes. There are still days when I wish, above all else, that I could be “normal.”

It’s embarrassing not to be able to control your emotions well. It’s demoralizing knowing that no matter how hard you might try sometimes, your brain is always two steps ahead to sabotage you. I’ve lost friendships over missed social cues or because I was too overwhelmed to focus on anything but my own life. It is still a daily struggle to keep my emotions in check.

But over the past year, I’ve come to view these symptoms as weaknesses that just need a little work and, more than anything, compassion. Everyone has their weaknesses. Mine just happen to be that I don’t know how to plan things or remember things or focus on things.

And furthermore, I’ve realized for every weakness ADHD has given me, it has also given me a strength. ADHD brains have their advantages compared to their neurotypical counterparts. I’ve excelled at most artistic mediums I’ve tried — painting, music, writing, etc. If there is a project or subject I am passionate about, I can harness the power of hyperfocus and produce amazing things.

I’d like to think ADHD makes me funny sometimes too. Most importantly, though, the unbridled natural state of my emotions allows me to love endlessly and fully embrace joy when I feel it.

Kelly McCoy, ’17, is the design editor for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]

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