What does it mean to “have ADHD?” You can “have cancer,” you can “have diabetes,” you can “have heart disease.” Is ADHD the same type of affliction? Is having ADHD the same as having a disease like cancer?
What does it really mean to have something? You have sandwiches for lunch, or your aunt to tea. You have a thousand dollars to spend on your vacation. You have a hangover. Having something means you have been given something, or that you accept a relationship.
At the same time, people define themselves by their mental state more than they define themselves by a physical disorder. You are more likely to hear, “I’m bipolar,” as compared to “I’m cancer.” You are more likely to hear “I’m schizophrenic,” as compared to “I’m a heart attack.” “I’m diabetic” is fairly common to hear; it may be an exception. Most medical conditions are issues people say they have (“I have gout”) rather than who they are (“I’m gouty.”) ADHD, like other mental, psychiatric conditions, is an issue people are more likely to say is what they are.
However, ADHD is different from many of the above conditions, even the other mental ones. For one thing, although it causes disability in some respects, ADHD carries benefits as well. It can improve creativity and contribute to innovation. Moreover, people who have a diagnosis of ADHD do not always think in an ADHD manner. Sometimes they are focused or even hyper-focused. So unlike cancer, hypertension, osteoporosis, and many other conditions that are constantly there (until they are, for some, overcome), ADHD symptoms can come and go from moment to moment and depending on the situation. Additionally, at least for the time being, there is no MRI, blood pressure reading, bone scan, or other medical test you can show your friends and loved ones to illustrate what, exactly, categorizes you as having ADHD.
When we say someone “has ADHD,” we mean that they think in an “ADHD way” a lot of the time. Everybody on this planet thinks in a focused way sometimes and in an unfocused way at other times. When we think in a focused way, our brain automatically prioritizes thoughts so that we don’t have too many different ideas cluttering our minds at the same time. When we think in an unfocused way, thoughts may be very transient and one thought may get lost amid many others in our mind. You get called “ADHD” when you are in an unfocused state a lot of the time—enough so that other people notice, enough so that it causes you to have problems functioning in some important situations, such as at work, school, and so on.
However, it’s important for people with ADHD not to define themselves, as with so many other mental disorders, by their ADHD. When people say “I’m ADHD,” they forget that their ADHD thinking is not constant: they are focused some of the time. They forget that there are things that they can do to move from an unfocused to a focused state (put down that cell phone and stop texting!) This is a self-fulfilling state of mind: When they forget that they do have ways to control the focus of their minds, they actually do start to think in an ADHD way more and more. Then they become the person who IS ADHD, and who is defined by ADHD.
If you have been diagnosed with ADHD, remember that you are capable of focusing your thoughts. Think about what makes you focus naturally: what topics are you interested in, what activities are you passionate about? Think about the environments where you tend to focus best: an empty quiet office space versus a crowded coffee shop with lots of background noise? Think about your personal state of mind when you are focused: most people, whether they have ADHD or not, focus best when they are happy about the activity they are engaged in, or confident about their ability to complete a task.
In this blog, our aim will be to discuss these issues and ways to help you learn how to focus when you choose to do so. There are going to be times—some of which you may enjoy—when you are not concentrating hard. That is ok, and it may even be very beneficial at times! Always remember that whether or not you ‘have’ ADHD, you are a whole person—you are not ADHD—you are you!