I was first diagnosed with ADHD in first grade after I, completely unprompted, punched my classmate Jake in the leg. He immediately burst into tears, and I joined his chorus of sobs, not understanding why I had just hurt my friend. After this incident, my parents decided to take me to a psychiatrist to see if my chaotic energy was normal for a first-grade boy, at which point I was diagnosed with ADHD. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this particular scientific acronym, ADHD stands for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (it’s like ADD, attention-deficit disorder, but with the added benefit of hyperactivity!). For those of you who are familiar with the acronym, you probably picture those with ADHD as bouncing off the walls and getting distracted by all external stimuli. While I have met a few people like this, the majority of those with ADHD don’t live their lives in such a tumultuous fashion. Instead, for people with serious ADHD like myself, the disorder’s effect on our lives manifests itself not in the hyperactivity itself, but in the medicine taken to suppress it.
Ever since I was six years old, I’ve been taking a stimulant called Concerta to reduce the symptoms of ADHD. On one hand, Concerta is great because it allows me to function like a normal person and live a normal life. On the other hand, Concerta comes with a whole slew of side effects that routinely muck about with my life. In addition to suppressing my appetite and ruining my taste palate, the medicine also screws up my sleep schedule and causes me to constantly overthink and stress myself out. But since I can’t adequately study or pay attention without Concerta, the sacrifice that comes with the medicine is necessary for me to succeed in the world.
Or so I think. While the medical community all agree that ADHD is real, that Concerta does cause side effects, and that I do have ADHD, the specifics of day-to-day life with ADHD are much less uniform. This is because the severity of a particular case of ADHD, as well as an individual’s specific physiology, can alter how a person is affected by hyperactivity and Concerta, meaning that someone else with ADHD could have an entirely different experience than me. So while it is true that not taking my medication makes it harder to focus, there’s no concrete way to determine the extent to which it is more difficult to focus. This variability, combined with the difficulty in objectively measuring ADHD, makes me often question the legitimacy of my experiences. For example, I’ve met people who regularly take the same dose of medicine that drove me crazy in high school. After learning that such a dose wasn’t an ordeal for them, I immediately began to wonder whether my feelings during high school were valid, or if I had been falsely convincing myself of what my brain should and shouldn’t be feeling based on what I expected it to be feeling. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that maybe I can focus more and work more than I think I can, and that I’m limiting my options based on what I believe my brain should be capable of. While I think this isn’t true, there’s no way to be completely sure of it.
The uncertainty surrounding ADHD, combined with how frequently I am medicated, leaves me unsure of a lot of things about myself, making it difficult to really pinpoint who “I” am. I spend so much of my life on medication that the distinctions between me and the Concerta become blurred. For example, I like to think of myself as a scholarly individual, but I’m only really capable of focusing with my medication. On the other hand, I also like to think of myself as an outgoing and social person, traits which are blunted by Concerta. As a result, I identify as an amalgamation of two different personalities, neither of which can exist at the same time.
I tell you all this not to elicit pity. Having ADHD is a part of my life that is neither good nor bad—it simply is. There’s nothing I can do to change who I am, so why waste words trying to get you to feel bad about something that cannot be altered? Instead, my goal here is simply to create understanding. Next time you meet someone with ADHD, maybe you will be able to empathize with them a little better, have a sense of what their life is like. Everyone has their own issues, but by striving to understand the issues of others around us, we can all make the world a little bit more understanding.
Daniel Knopf is a member of the Class of 2022 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.