Here’s a story I wrote about the difference between not being on ADHD medication and being on it. I imagine it’s also the difference between what it’s like to have the attentional issues that are labeled “ADHD” and to have a “normally-functioning” brain. At least the medication can help to make it appear to be closer to normally-functioning, until the effects wear off.
It’s important to note that there are also schools of thought and options that don’t involve looking at attention problems through a biomedical lens. Examples of these are PACE and Interactive Metronome.
What it’s like to have ADHD
You’re sitting in a chair across the room from a television set. A man in a uniform (Authority) tells you that you must stay in your seat, you must watch this video, and afterward, you must take a test on the information in it. If you fail the test, all sorts of bad things will happen to you: you’ll be fired, you will be ridiculed by many people, you will lose some friends, and you may even be killed or cause the death of other people. So the evaluator starts the video and walks away, reminding you that this could be life or death. Are you stressed yet?
The volume on the video keeps turning up and down. It just won’t stay steady. The lights in the room keep flickering on and off. A radio is playing loudly, interfering even more with your ability to hear. The image on the screen fuzzes in and out, so not only can you not hear it, you can’t even see part of it. These things continue the whole time.
Other people come into the room and walk between you and the TV. One stands there, refusing to move, but you’re not allowed to leave your seat. The best you can do is lean to the side and crane your neck, trying to see. It makes your body hurt, but you know that you absolutely must watch and retain the information in that video. Your life depends on it.
People talk to you and around you and you can’t tune them out. You hear loud voices from outside the building, too, along with traffic and some construction noise. Someone is cooking something that smells good and it’s hard to ignore it. You’re hungry and you want some, but you can’t get out of that seat; you must watch the video and learn everything in it, because you don’t even know what will be on that test.
Your stress level rises continuously until you’re ready to scream at anyone for any reason. They are all interfering with this task you’ve been given. It sure looks like they are interfering with it on purpose! They know how important it is, don’t they? You could die if you don’t get this done right, but they just don’t care. It’s a task you didn’t even want, but you were given it anyway. Every possible thing that could interfere with accomplishing that task does interfere with accomplishing that task.
Then the evaluator asks you questions about things that you could just swear were not even IN that video. You’re not sure what was supposed to be in the video, because of all of the interference, and because there didn’t seem to be any cohesion to the video. You might even get that video mixed up with another one you saw.
It is impossible. You give up in despair. There is just no way you’re passing that test. You’re probably going to be killed before you can get out of there, and even if you’re not killed, your life is ruined, forever. You’re a mess and everyone is staring at you with disgust! They keep saying, “What is the matter with you?! Can’t you do anything right? Just pay attention!”
That is what it’s like to have attention-prioritizing problems (aka ADHD) or other issues that are not addressed. Millions of people live with it every day, and they might not have any ability to explain this to you. We don’t live “lives of quiet desperation” as Thoreau so famously said most people do. We live lives of noisy cries for help, repeated failures, strings of lost jobs, and broken relationships.
Effects of ADHD medication, or life without ADHD
Now for the other side. You have a neurotypical brain, you’ve trained your way past attention problems, or you took a dose of ADHD medication and it’s working. The experience couldn’t be any more different.
You’re seated and told that you’re going to watch a video and you will be tested at the end of it. The video plays perfectly. The lights stay on and you can see well. There’s no one around to get in your way, no radio, no talking, no smells. Just you and a perfect video. You answer every one of the questions correctly at the end. You’re given rewards and you go on to the next piece-of-cake task in your life. Perhaps you look at the person with the focusing problems like he’s an idiot. How could she possibly have missed any of those things? They were right there in the video. Duh! What a disgusting excuse for a human.
ADHD medication side effects
Stimulant medications have drawbacks, just like any other medication, and anyone considering any drug should look into the drawbacks first and discuss them with their medical professional. ADHD meds may literally rewire the brain and cause permanent changes to the brain’s structure. It is highly debated whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s up to you to decide whether or not it’s worth the risk.
I took ADHD medication for a while. This was before I knew that the meds restructure the brain in some negative ways, or that there were other ways of looking at and addressing attention problems. Frankly, I loved being on the medication. The only thing about it that I did not love was this: it made me want to get things done, even more than I already wanted to.
With young children in the house, whom I homeschool, it was not a good thing. I got snappy when they interrupted me, and my children deserve better than that. So for my family’s sake, I went off meds, but while I was on them, I had been learning some techniques that help me think and get back to what I was doing, after an interruption occurs. At best, the medication is a tool to use while we learn new strategies or train the brain using Interactive Metronome or Processing and Cognitive Enhancement. It doesn’t “fix” things like a course of antibiotics or chemotherapy will. I think it has a place, though. The medication made it possible for me to notice things I never noticed before, and to learn and implement those techniques, so I was better off for having taken them.
Having an uncooperative brain that doesn’t fit in our culture’s idea of “normal” is hard. People who don’t have neurotypical brains deserve compassion and patience from the people around them. They also have some responsibility to do what they can to be successful and stand on their own two feet. Please share this story with your friends to help raise awareness of what it’s like to have ADHD. A little understanding can go a long way.