Welcome to my second post that invites you into my world with ADHD — from diagnosis to transitioning into adulthood and finding my way to grad school. You can read more about how I found out I had ADHD in my first post here. I decided to share my story because there is a lot of stigma and misunderstanding associated with ADHD.
Can someone living with ADHD thrive and achieve great things? As an adult with ADHD who recently completed a PhD, I confidently reply: "certainly." I want to show people that even if your brain works differently and that your strengths are sometime (wrongly!) seen as weaknesses in our society, it is possible to achieve great things and make a difference in this world.
Ten years after my diagnosis and my journey through grad school, I have learned a lot about myself and how to manage the challenges — but also the wonderful capacities that people with ADHD, like me, have. My hope is that it will help other adults with ADHD to achieve their goals while learning to embrace their uniqueness rather than fighting it. Here are five things I have learned so far:
1. Know your strengths. Know your limits. Embrace them.
One thing I learned about myself is I'm not good at dealing with details. Writing a 50-page research report. Boring. Filing my taxes. Extra boring. And boring means easy to forget and very tempting to postpone. I learned to structure my work days in alternating boring tasks and interesting ones (at least from my brain's perspective). That way, I can keep my attention and focus throughout the day and be productive. Sometimes you face tasks you have to do — there is no escape in adult life. When that happens, I settle in with a nice cappuccino and put on some interesting music. After a while, I get into it.
2. Managing distraction and periods of hyper-focus.
One thing that is difficult to understand for people who do not have ADHD is the coexistence of both states of hyper-focus and distraction. How can we can focus for hours on a task if we have "attention deficit disorder?" Distracted days are difficult to predict, and when they happen, I can't focus at all. I work in an office the size of a closet, with two other students, facing the photocopy and mail room and the common kitchen. I can't complain — in the world of grad students this is luxury. However, that is not the ideal situation for my ADHD.
Eating snacks, stretching and going for walks during these forced breaks are helping me stay healthy.
In light of this, I try to limit distractions: I turn off my cell phone notifications, my emails and use tools like OmmWriter with noise-cancelling headphones. This writing software will create a sound each time you hit a letter on your keyboard to help mundane tasks seem more entertaining.
There are also days where I'm in hyper-focus mode. These days are great for getting work done, but are hard on the system. I can sometimes spend three hours sitting, working at the computer and forget to eat, use the washroom and move. It's exhausting. To avoid that, I use an app called Time Out that will turn your screen entirely grey, every hour, for 10 minutes (don't worry, you can adjust the settings). At first, I was getting mad every time my screen would disappear because I was so into my task and couldn't believe another hour was already gone. However, I eventually got used to it and, overall, eating snacks, stretching and going for walks during these forced breaks are helping me stay healthy and avoid leaving my workday like a zombie.
3. Learning to live with hypersensitivity.
Many of us with ADHD are hypersensitive, meaning that our system picks up and reacts to so many things in our environment (no wonder why we are so "distracted"). I became aware of my hypersensitivity when I moved from a quiet suburb in a middle-sized city to a big city. Being a student with a tight budget, I obviously chose the nicest apartment I could afford, which was not very nice.
The thing I didn't consider was that my apartment is one block from: a) a major, busy street, b) a police station and c) the fire hall. I am also located beneath the exact spot where planes begin their descent to the airport and I, of course, chose the building with thinnest walls ever built. I had never lived in such a noisy environment in my life and it took me a year of being completely exhausted and not knowing the root cause until I finally bought noise-cancelling headphones that changed my life and saved my mental health.
4. Managing the mental hyperactivity.
Everyone with ADHD will tell you that our brain never stops. I can have the oddest thoughts at the most inappropriate moment.
[Me in attending a seminar]
Brain: "Hey! Psst! We need to buy new vacuum filters!"
[Me proceeding to mentally sort through my utility closet to find the said bag...]
Me: "Right, I am in the middle of a seminar. Focus..."
These things happen all the time to people with ADHD. I now habitually carry around a little notebook to jot down these types of thoughts.
5. Giving your brain a time-out.
Focusing is a difficult task for everyone, even more for people with ADHD. It becomes more challenging every day as we are living in a world that increasingly demands our attention: phone notifications, email notifications, bright and loud advertisements...
One important thing I discovered to keep me going is allowing myself time to daydream and be creative. I recently started to paint. It's a nice way for me to exercise a completely different part of my brain. I've also discovered that whenever I'm among nature, I instantly relax, and it's the perfect place to daydream. It's sometimes challenging because I will catch myself thinking, "You're wasting your time focusing on this flower or this little bird." I would argue that, for me, the best remedy to stress and an overworked brain is to allow it to wander wherever it wants and to let it be — as "distracted" or intensively aware of its surroundings (I personally prefer the second definition) and see where the journey takes you.
If you suspect that you or someone you love could be living with undiagnosed adult ADHD, visit "coulditbeadhd.ca" and fill out the symptom assessor that can be a helpful starting point to guide conversations with your family doctor.
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