My lifelong problems with attention deficiency


Last year, the director of my department was speaking in an online panel discussion when she said, very casually, “I have ADD.”

That brief aside caught me by surprise. Here was a 57-year-old woman with an incredibly successful career, former American diplomat, in charge of a department of nearly 600 people at a prestigious institution — and she was comfortable with the whole world knowing that she had this condition.

In all my years of working, I’d never heard anyone in a senior management role admit to being challenged by anything that was non-physical. I’ve never heard anyone say, I’m taking today off because I need a mental health day. I’ve never met anyone in management who was open about being neurodivergent, even though I’ve met plenty of people that I suspect would qualify. And aside from Twitter, I had never met a woman in real life who was open about having ADD or ADHD.

Hearing her state her condition in such an easy, judgment-free way led me to reconsider the way in which my own brain works, and how throughout my whole life, I’d never really questioned the tools that I had to work with or the things I had to navigate. After all, as I’ve told every therapist I’ve had, I am very high-functioning. I’ve been able to earn a master’s degree, cultivate a great career, form strong relationships with others, keep my home clean, and do everything that a regular person is expected to do. How could there be anything “off” about me?

As a child, I didn’t have to study much. All I had to do was pay attention here and there in class and maybe read the textbook once, do a few exercises, and I sailed through every exam and every class. I was always a little weaker when it came to math and science compared to English and social studies, but the difference wasn’t significant.

But everything changed in my junior year of high school. I enrolled in AP Physics C: Mechanics, and for the first time in my life, I really began to struggle. I couldn’t follow the class at all. When we split into groups and did labs, I sat blankly on the side because I had no idea what was going on. When I tried to study at home, I realized that I had never learned how to study. Studying was tedious and overwhelming and I could not skate through it; there was no shortcut. I watched TV and took long naps instead.

At the time, I was also dealing with severe depression that had been an issue since childhood. I did not ask for help from anyone because I figured no one cared. And no one cared because I did not ask for help. The cycle continued for the next two years, and I all but gave up on high school. I graduated with Cs and Ds on my report card from various physics and calculus classes.

The same thing happened in college. I skated through the first two years with high marks because the classes were non-math related and therefore easy. I had wanted to major in film studies come junior year, but since we were in the middle of the recession and artsy majors were useless, I opted to attend business school for the final two years. I had to take classes like corporate finance and accounting, and once again, I didn’t know how to study. As much as I tried to read the textbooks, I couldn’t retain the information. I came close to failing multiple subjects again, eventually graduating with an embarrassingly low GPA.

This time, though, the circumstances were different. The first was that I had made a core group of friends in college, people who made me feel happy and like I had a place in the world. The second was that I had started working a part-time office job on campus, and I had realized that I was naturally good at working. School was often difficult, but work was never difficult. I couldn’t learn to balance debits and credits in my accounting class, but somehow I could redirect that mental energy into figuring out how to create a complex formula in Microsoft Excel. I couldn’t write a satisfactory essay for my management strategy class, but I could turn around and churn out high-quality press releases and project updates for my boss like it was nothing.

Work was what gave me confidence and hope for my future. It made me realize that even though I often zoned out in class and couldn’t sit still to read a textbook and did poorly in any academic subject that didn’t interest me, that didn’t mean I was doomed to fail. I was simply wired differently.

Three years after college, I returned to grad school, because I work in a field where you can’t get ahead without a master’s degree. I worried that I would once again struggle with the attention problem, and I was right. Even though I wasn’t taking any classes that were “boring”, I found it difficult to do the assigned readings, which were often hundreds of pages of PDFs from academic journals every week. So I kind of… didn’t do them.

I would skim the first and final pages and gleam the information I needed from the executive summary and the conclusion. And when it came time to discuss these readings in class, I would instead draw from outside knowledge that I already had from years of working in the field, from attending free panel discussions and expert talks (a benefit of being based in DC), from reading The New York Times. And to my surprise, I made it through grad school. I think I graduated with a 3.7 GPA. Not bad by my standards.

In a way, my attention deficiency hasn’t been all bad; it’s helped me, too. It’s made me very good at scanning a long piece of writing and quickly identifying its key points. It’s also helped me as a writer. Over the years, I’ve learned to write more clearly, in shorter sentences. I get to the point faster.

How else does this condition manifest in my life? Here are some more examples.

I have an overactive imagination and constantly daydream. When I am in a situation where my brain doesn’t feel stimulated — sitting on the bus, waiting to fall asleep — my brain goes into “fantasize” mode. When I was twelve, I created a group of characters inside my head. Almost two decades later, they still live in my head with me. Some of them have gotten married and started families. I build the worlds of their lives as I build my own.

I have developed tools and coping mechanisms to try to keep myself on track. My short-term memory is incredibly poor, so the only way I can stay organized is by creating reminders on my phone. I am obsessively organized, and I find myself constantly wiping down the counter, washing my hands, folding clothes, running the robot vacuum.

Despite this, procrastination remains a serious problem in my life. My coffee machine broke in May 2020, two months into lockdown. Two years later, I still haven’t brought it to the store to get it fixed. I’ve initiated exciting creative projects at work and then let them wither and die because I felt too overwhelmed to actually do the work.

I constantly start and abandon hobbies. I took piano as a child and gave up after a year. I took erhu lessons in high school and gave up. I tried to take up sewing and even bought a sewing machine and learned how to use it and then gave up. I’ve taken classes in Arabic, Korean, Indonesian, German, and given up on all of these languages. I haven’t painted or practiced calligraphy in months even though I still have all the supplies.

I cannot do online learning. Period. With a live professor, self-guided, doesn’t matter. Aside from HR-mandated courses for my job, and a JavaScript and jQuery program when I was really into coding a few years ago, I have abandoned countless online courses.

I have problems with hearing. Being at a bar or in a noisy environment stresses me out immensely because I cannot hear conversations properly. If someone whispers to me, I cannot make out what they are saying. If two people are talking at the same time, I can hear neither of them. Often, someone will ask me a question, and I will automatically answer with “sorry, what?” even though I heard them the first time. It seems to take my brain extra time to process the sounds and convert them into actual words with meaning.

At the same time, background noise — that is controlled by me — is extremely comforting. Sometimes I find that I cannot do basic activities if I don’t put on a podcast first. I’m talking about basic stuff like getting out of bed and going to wash my face. I can’t cook if I don’t play a podcast. I can’t fold my laundry if I don’t play a podcast. It doesn’t work if it’s ambient background music or white noise. It has to be people’s voices talking loudly that I can turn on and off at will.

Some people have the impression that people like me don’t listen. That if we’re sitting there, talking to you, we will just rudely zone out. That’s not the case for me at all. If I am in a face-to-face conversation with one or two or up to three people, I am super engaged and focused. I am very good at reading small cues and nuances. However, at times, if I feel like the other person is starting to ramble or lose the thread, I do have the tendency to jump in and offer a summary of what I understand to be the point that they’re making, or ask a question that essential boils down to “okay, so how would you like to move forward with that?”, so that we’re on the same page and can turn to the next page. I am also getting better at asking the question: “are you telling me this so you can vent, or are you looking for solutions and advice?”

I can’t speak for other people, but for me, since I am quite high-functioning, I do not think I have a disability. Unfortunately, when I was a child and a teenager, because I was so well-behaved and quiet and not the stereotypical boy acting up in class, I did not get the support that I needed from my family and my school, both in terms of my problems with attention and my severe depression and anxiety. If I’m honest, I still feel bitter about it — that because no one cared nor helped, I suffered more than I should have for many years.

Thankfully, nowadays, discussions of mental health are much more socially acceptable, and I’ve also learned a lot of the language that I need to describe how I am and what I need to function successfully in society. I am grateful to the director of my department for normalizing her neurodivergence through her everyday actions, and I seek to do the same.

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