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Learning to live with ADHD

I’ve always had trouble staying focused, but it wasn’t until sophomore year when it became a problem. An atomic bomb dropped on me when I got three Cs. They were in honors English, chemistry and AP European history. I was used to getting As, but was having a hard time taking the tests. Either I couldn’t finish in time or I’d rush through. I couldn’t concentrate in class and was bored with homework.

In English class we read To Kill a Mockingbird aloud in class. I couldn’t focus on reading it even though I was hearing and looking at the words. My mind would wander off. I sat near the window and stared at the pool or counted the birds that flew by.

I finally got an idea of what might be wrong. During meetings with Jane, a counselor my parents had hired to help me prepare for college, our conversations would start on one subject and end up on another. I’d ask her a question. Then I’d think of another question to ask and then another question. By the end of the meeting, I would end up on a totally different topic! Jane, who is also a psychologist, told me I might have ADHD or another learning disability. Hearing that made me worry about my future. I didn’t think I’d be able to get into good colleges with Cs. I didn’t want to get in trouble with my parents. They were always pressuring me to strive for the best. No matter how hard I tried, not getting As in my classes was proof to my parents that I was not trying hard, even when I was.

So that I could learn more about ADHD, Jane and I went online. ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It causes people to have trouble concentrating. People with ADHD sometimes are forgetful, distracted and do things without thinking. This disorder is usually noticed in childhood. We also read that premature birth is known to be one of the leading causes of learning disabilities. I was born a month early and had a seizure as soon as I was born. But because the doctor told my parents that I was perfectly fine, they never worried.

Illustration by Ellen Khansefid, 17, Hamilton HS

Was this why I get distracted easily?

A lot of what I read about ADHD sounded like me—making stupid, careless mistakes and struggling to stay on task. But concentrating in school and finishing homework was the worst. My mind would start wandering or I’d get a song stuck in my head and play it over and over again until I couldn’t even hear myself think. Or sometimes, I would think about how hungry I was and try to decide what to eat for dinner. It would take me hours to finish homework because I would get distracted when working on my laptop. I would go on Facebook or check out the latest music in Korea on the Internet and forget that I hadn’t finished the homework I’d started. I also always forgot things and I would call my mom during first period, asking her to bring my homework, textbook or pencil case.

My counselor talked to my parents and tried to convince them to get me tested for ADHD. They didn’t believe there was a problem. They thought my classes were too hard or maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. Jane kept talking to them and told them that it would affect my grades if I was not diagnosed and didn’t receive accommodations at school. I agreed with her. She said that after hours of studying, it’s not normal to be getting Fs on tests like I was.

My grades were still bad and three months later my parents decided we had nothing to lose by finding out if something was wrong. I went to a psychologist and took a series of tests. The tests had vocabulary games, drawing images from memory, finding patterns, memorizing lists, reading comprehension, simple math calculations, and identifying figures such as blocks and dots. Some of the tests were simple, but others were really hard. The memorization part was difficult because I had to memorize a passage and say it back. I tried to rush through the tests as fast as possible because they were so boring. I completed the 12-hour test in eight hours over two days.

A week later, I was back in the psychologist’s office with my parents. The psychologist handed us a packet containing my scores and diagnosis. It said I had been diagnosed with ADHD. I was sad and happy. I was sad because it’s a learning disorder, but I was happy because it answered a lot of what I had been going through.

Not too long after, I Googled ADHD to find out more about it. I found that many famous people had characteristics that experts now believe are ADHD, like Albert Einstein who won the Nobel Prize for physics and Vincent van Gogh who was a great artist. My favorite example is Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most accomplished composers of all time. I am a musician and I love playing his compositions on the piano and viola. His music shows very spontaneous moments. This shows that people with ADHD are just as capable, if not more, as anyone else.

A quiet library helped me do better on tests

Once I had the diagnosis, I could get extra help at school. I had a meeting with my parents, my school counselor and the vice principal to discuss accommodations that I would be getting. I can choose where I want to sit in class. I usually sit in the back because when I sit in front I feel like everyone is staring at my head and I can’t concentrate. Because I forget to bring my homework to school or I forget to do it, I can turn in my work a day later with no penalty. I used to have friends text me the night before an assignment was due to remind me, but I couldn’t deal with all of the text messages so I asked them to stop.

I get as much extra time as I need on tests and I can also take tests in the library or somewhere where it’s quieter. The library is big and I have space around me. I feel like I am the only one there. I feel like I can think and I don’t feel the time passing. I don’t have to worry about people finishing faster than me. Once, it took everyone else two hours to take a test, but I took it in three.

My doctor prescribed Adderall to help me concentrate. It took about 30 minutes to work. It’s like I’d have tunnel vision all of a sudden. It was like magic that suddenly helped me do better in school. I would take it after breakfast. Before, I couldn’t sit still for an hour in class. I would get up three or four times to throw something away. But when I took Adderall, I didn’t feel like I needed to get up. It made me calmer.

My friends said I was like a different person. When they used to talk to me, my mind was all over the place, but now I was actually listening to what they were saying and looking at them when they were talking to me. My friend said, “Elis, it’s like you’re walking in a straight line. Before it was like you were walking in curves.” 

Before I was diagnosed, school was so much harder. Most of the tests were multiple choice and those were the worst. The answers are long and I have a hard time concentrating and reading through all of the answer choices. They all look similar. Now I read the question, come up with the answer and then look to see which of the choices fits best. My school counselor had suggested I try doing that. My grades went from Cs to mostly As.

ADHD affects my social life as well. I have episodes of hyperactivity. Because I’m so hyperactive and burn so much energy, I last no more than two hours without food. I would talk non-stop in conversations with my friends and have trouble being quiet. People often compared me to Tigger from Winnie the Pooh because I am always bouncing around. I have even had friends say that being around me just sucked their energy and they would suddenly become tired.

I realize now that ADHD has always been a part of me. Because I was born with this disorder, I don’t know what “normal” life is. When I was in elementary school, my teachers described me as inattentive and hyper. Even now, when I’m at home, I’ll go to the kitchen to eat. But once I walk down the stairs, I forget where I’m going and why I was walking down the stairs because my thoughts about what I was going to eat trail off and I start to think of something else. This is what I have lived with my whole life so this is what I am used to.

I’m still going to be successful

My brother makes fun of me because of my ADHD. He tells me I won’t be able to graduate from college because I won’t get good grades. He always says, “Oh Elis, I heard that everything in life is going to be harder for you.” I want to prove to him that I can be like everyone else and do normal things.

I don’t take Adderall anymore. At the beginning of junior year my parents lowered my dosage. They were worried about side effects like nausea and dizziness (which I never had) and they didn’t like that I showed less emotion and had trouble sleeping for several months. They also worried that I might get addicted. My parents lowered my dose so much that it felt useless so I stopped taking it. But I’m still doing well in school because of the help I’ve gotten. I force myself to study more and sometimes it literally hurts to think.

No matter how much I wish things were different, it’s not going to change the fact that I have ADHD. One of the lessons ADHD taught me was to just suck it up and deal with it. I know I have to make the most of the life I have. I feel good about my grades getting better. I want to go to law school and get a job where I can help people. I’m not going to let it hold me back from living my life to the fullest.