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ADHD Adults: "What It Feels Like to Have ADHD"

Your brain and you everyday experiences feel different with ADHD.

What does it feel like to have ADHD? And more importantly, what’s the long-term experience of ADHD like?

A recent post on my website reminded me how poorly those of us without ADHD understand the ADHD experience, and how critical it is that we think compassionately about our loved one's way of being in the world. Non-ADHD partners tend to underestimate the significant issues that adults with ADHD face every day.

To help provide perspective, I'll start with eye-opening descriptions I’ve heard over the years about what it feels like to own that ADHD brain, and close with the life experience described by ‘Richard’ on my site.

The ADHD Brain Is Different

The ADHD brain differs chemically and physically from the non-ADHD brain. Here are a few of the ways that those with ADHD describe it:

“Like having the Library of Congress in my head with no card catalogue”

“Like driving in the rain with faulty windshield wipers. Moments of clarity along with lots of blur.”

“Like having 59 televisions blaring in my head all at once. Medications turn off 58 of them.”

“Like having a race car brain with bicycle brakes.”

The Life Experience

These quotes capture the energy, lack of hierarchy and overwhelming aspects of dealing with ADHD. But what’s it like to have that brain, day in and day out? ‘Richard’ shares his experience:

“People that meet me find me intelligent, friendly, funny, attractive, kind, and relatively normal. I say this because these are the qualities that have made diagnosing ADHD so difficult. I can do many things and have some strengths in creativity and other areas. It is when I am tasked to do detailed, mundane, repetitive things that I come apart at the seams.

Furthermore, loud noises, clutter, paying bills, and household chores can send me over the edge. I want to run and hide from the barrage of sensory over-stimulation. Every person has a unique experience with ADHD, so what may be true for one may not be true for others. I'd like to give you a little look at what my experience has been.

Imagine there is a room full of people and you are told that these people have some information to give you, in order to accomplish something important. You're also told that some of that information is critical and that you must retain it along with the name of each person. In addition, you're told that you must track the movements of each person as they walk about the room. As each person delivers their information, you try to store it in memory and track their movement as they walk away. As you're trying to memorize the information and track the person's movements, more people are approaching you with their information.

Still trying to focus on the first people, the new information coming in begins to cause a low hum in your head. The hum gets progressively louder to the point where you cannot distinguish what people are saying. Suddenly you realize that you are probably missing some important information and you try to break through the hum to collect it. Now you've lost track of the first person and begin to panic.

You start looking for the first people in order to recollect their information, but you can't because you're still collecting from the others. Now every bit of information that breaks through the hum carries the same weight. There is no way to distinguish what is most important. You try to start over, but you've already forgotten much of the first bits you've collected. It's a losing battle and eventually, you give up on that task and berate yourself for failing.

Take this scenario and apply it to virtually everything you have to do to function in life. It's impossible.

Now you want to prove to yourself and others that you are not an idiot, so you move on to the next task you think you can do. If that thing is in line with something that highly interests you, you may be able to hyperfocus and be successful. However, life is challenging even for someone who doesn't have ADHD and that brings a whole new set of problems. Add to the mix the responsibilities we have to our friends and family and their expectations of you as a normal person and you have the perfect picture of potential failure.

Once you complete the cycle a few hundred thousand times or more, you become defensive every time someone says "What's wrong with you?" or "I just told you that, don't you remember?" or "You need to try harder" or "You only care about yourself" or "You're just making excuses." Sadly, those are only some of the nice things people say. Soon, people begin to dismiss you, or call you names and even laugh at you. They try to force you to do what they themselves can do. They are struggling to manage their lives and yours and they learn that you will step up your efforts if you feel bad enough.

Soon, you begin to avoid interactions with people and even isolate yourself, just so that you can feel a little break from the onslaught. However, this too is perceived as being selfish and uncaring. You may begin to defend and retaliate in order to protect any remaining self-worth. This causes severe mistrust and conflict. Meanwhile, depression has been creeping into the picture and you are not aware of it until it has you in its claws. You begin to play the victim, because you believe they must be right. The psychological impact of this is incredibly damaging to self-esteem and personal growth. The impact of this on careers and relationships is not hard to see.

Now you vow to fight on and try harder, because you know that deep in your heart, you are a loving person who wants to contribute and share in the bounties of life that others seem to enjoy so easily. You so desperately want to please others and be accepted, but you live in a secret world of shame and self-loathing. You begin to believe that there really is something wrong with you and that you must be a bad person. You began to step up your efforts to cover your tracks, so that you can show your loved ones that you care. The problem is, you are being judged as a normal person and people are beginning to only see you for your failures, further compounding the ugly feelings. Bring to the table life's confusion of careers, family responsibility, finances, and people's personal baggage and you have a no-win situation.

If you are a person struggling in your marriage with an ADHDer, I implore you to find deep compassion in yourself and get help immediately. These people are trying hard to function and can feel great rejection, loneliness, and isolation from the people they love. If you are a person with ADHD, do your homework and find a good, recommended therapist. Try to be patient with the people who don't understand you.”

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