Many people misunderstand what it means to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “ADHD is not like pregnancy,” said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “It is not an either you have it or you don’t phenomenon.” Each of us has some ADHD traits some of the time, he said.
“When diagnoses exist on a spectrum like that, it can lead people who have a trait, but not ADHD, to think that they know what the latter part of the spectrum feels like, when they don’t.”
We asked people who have ADHD to share what ADHD feels like. You might notice both similarities and differences in their descriptions, because as writer Kelly Babcock said, “ADHD is never exactly the same for any two people.”
According to Dan Perdue, an ADHD coach, blogger and parent with ADHD:
“For me, ADHD often feels like living in a room with a dozen TVs all at about half volume and each playing a different station. In that room are also another dozen people having six different conversations at the same time. There are probably several small children running around in circles laughing and squealing, and on the far side of that room is someone trying to get my attention and tell me something important and probably upset with me because I am many times unable to filter out that person from all of the other noise and commotion in that room called my brain.”
“We have our own language, our own culture. When I speak with others with ADHD, our conversations are completely different than when I talk to non-ADHD people. We ‘get’ each other.”
She elaborates on this concept in this piece on her Psych Central blog “ADHD from A to Zoë.”
According to Babcock, who pens the Psych Central blog “ADHD Man of DistrAction”:
“I’m living with a brain that races past everything but secretly hopes that, in some warped holistic way the important things will be noticed. But while that’s going on, this brain is also rocketing through thousands of random thoughts. It’s kind of like doing your taxes while watching a TV that someone else has the remote for and they can’t seem to make up their mind about what to watch.”
Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, an ADHD coach and author of The Queen of Distraction: How Women with ADHD Can Conquer Chaos, Find Focus and Get More Done, has the inattentive type of ADHD. While her body is sluggish, her brain never slows down, she said.
“I am juggling hundreds of ideas, sensations, thoughts constantly, which often means I cannot concentrate on other things, especially conversations. Or movies. Or TV shows. Or boring lectures.”
It’s exhausting. “[I]t feels like you’re ‘on’ all the time just to keep up with the world,” Matlen said.
Years ago, before her diagnosis, her self-esteem plummeted, particularly when it came to being a mom. “I felt like a horrible mother for not being able to sit and play board games with [my kids]. Or feeling claustrophobic when they’d hang all over me. And guilty that I couldn’t seem to get those school papers signed and sent back on time. Heck, I couldn’t even find them half the time.”
But, in addition to the challenges, there are positives. ADHD has given her empathy for others who are struggling. It also might be connected to her creativity.
“I have sensory intensity, for lack of a better term, and tend to see, hear, smell and notice things others don’t. This gives me a creative edge because my senses are so sharp and so out of the box. I have utilized this my entire life by making art, music and more recently, through writing.”
Olivardia described ADHD as a maze: “I am always seeking out what is stimulating, pleasurable, and/or emotionally decompressing. In this maze there are obstacles, which can be boring, routine, and requires an attentional capacity that I don’t naturally have. I might want to avoid them, not out of laziness, but because I know it requires a level of strength that feels out of my capacity.”
He likened it to being asked to bench-press 400 pounds when you’ve never done any weight training. “But I know I have to bench press that 400 pounds, so I am always strategizing ways to do it that are effortful.”
For him ADHD also is a physical experience. He feels an intense level of energy and passion for who and what he loves, including his family, work, music and food. “When you are someone who gets bored easily, the things you love are experienced in such a heightened way.”
Olivardia stressed that ADHD manifests in different ways, depending on the person’s strengths and challenges. Even context counts.
Olivardia is successful in his profession as a psychologist and professor, because he picked a career that’s stimulating and important to him. “Put me in a cubicle-type job and I would be rendered dysfunctional.”
He also noted that not everyone with ADHD struggles in school. In fact, Olivardia found it easier to get his doctorate than to graduate high school.
“Getting a Ph.D is not easy, but I loved what I was studying so much that the effort felt natural and fluid. High school, on the other hand, felt like a chore that I couldn’t wait to get through. I didn’t have the energy to care about getting A’s. I had to just get through it.”
Psychotherapist and author Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, NCC, described having ADHD as “being in many places at once. It’s like having constant committee meetings in your head. ‘Look at this!’ ‘No, look at that instead.’ ‘What about this?’ ‘What about that?’”
For Douglas Cootey, who pens the award-winning blog “A Splintered Mind,” symptoms vary. “When I’m overwhelmed, too much information has demanded my attention, as if I was in a noisy bus station trying to listen to somebody whisper while juggling circus clowns dropped sparkling bowling pins in my peripheral vision.”
Sometimes, when he needs to decide between different items, all of which trigger an intense emotional response, he feels paralyzed. “During those times there is a cacophony of thoughts in my head vying for dominance.”
“Other times ADHD is the eye in the storm as I serenely focus on something that has captured my attention, blissfully unaware that the world is falling apart around me. For me ADHD is an attention dysfunction disorder.”
If you don’t have ADHD, Babcock stressed the importance of not being patronizing. “[D]on’t try to tell us we aren’t right because you know better. You don’t.”
If you do have ADHD, he said, take it easy on yourself. “Don’t let others’ judgments bring you down; what other people think of us is none of our business. Remember you have a wicked fast brain, revel in that joy of speed, but remember, we’re gonna miss a few stop signs and corners. It’s all good, we can still make the finish line.”