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ADHD among the dreaming spires

IK reflects on their experiences as an Oxford student with ADHD.

CW: Contains descriptions of addiction. 

“What the f*** is that?!” my friend blurted out, astounded. She’d just entered my room, to see my neatly-made bed, my pristine, spacious floor, and… a pile of one hundred plastic bags, floating on top of each other, gently tossed to one side.

“I mean to reuse them,” I said, “but I can never remember to take them to the shops with me.”

She stared as if she was still waiting for an explanation.

I have several stories like this. I was once half an hour early for a train, and then missed it because I was staring into space. I once sat an exam and answered every question twice… except the last one, which I forgot to read. I discovered my housemate had cacti only because I injured myself on them – twice.

“Airhead”, “ditsy”, “messy”, are words I previously used to describe myself, until I discovered four earth-shattering letters:


I can’t say there was a time when things started to feel wrong, since for me they never exactly felt right. As a child, I could tell adults spoke to me differently. As a teenager, I was relentlessly bullied.

Oxford was, in many ways, my redemption. The status distracted me from my failures and the opportunities afforded protection to me.

As soon as I arrived here though, things started to fall apart. I missed deadlines; I missed lectures; I arrived 40 minutes late to most of my classes. Anything social was irresistible to me, even at midnight before a 9:00 a.m lecture. Socialising turned into heavy drinking; heavy drinking turned into risking my life.

A key difference between myself and my peers was they appeared to have some sort of “stop” threshold. After all nighters they’d have an early night in; I’d celebrate by meeting friends in the bar. After an essay crisis they’d manage their work better the next week; I’d up the crisis without even realising. By the end of first term they appeared fully fledged Oxford students, while I dealt with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

It became clear to others I was struggling, and among many this invited empathy; I have a lot of love for those who supported me at my most vulnerable.

In a competitive environment, however, it also can breed one-uppance and disrespect. People sometimes asked me how my work was going, knowing my answer would make them feel better about themselves. People casually called me a “mess”, and appeared to enjoy pointing out my flaws to me. ADHDers respond to criticism extremely sensitively, and so I deeply internalized this. So, I hyperfocused myself away from self loathing. In other words, I was a workaholic.

The issue is this approach lacks balance. The parts of my life I’d neglected eventually caught up with me. And then came depression. I crashed.

Since then, I’ve been in a familiar cycle – work, hold it together, crash, repeat. Sometimes it’s on an hourly basis, sometimes it’s over the course of months.

I sort my sleep schedule. I attend all my appointments. I feel a calm, satisfactory peace. Then over time, an emptiness is unmasked — I feel disconnected, hollow, and in constant strife. Life is just swimming so you don’t drown, I think to myself. Will I ever feel truly rewarded?

So I slip. I go on my phone for 8 hours; I wake up drunk and needing to vomit; I leave a deadline until five hours before it’s due. Or it might be smaller — I order a takeaway instead of cooking for myself, and it just escalates.

It’s like jenga. I build a tower, I gradually remove blocks, and then BAM! I collapse.

As I researched ADHD, my life shifted into perspective. Years of social humiliation, confusion and failures suddenly made sense. I burst into tears when I read about the neuroscience of it.

To focus on tasks, a brain must be engaged. In a neurotypical brain, a careful balance of chemicals called neurotransmitters ensures this. Dopamine ensures they can start a task and pay attention to it. Noradrenaline keeps them awake and undistracted.

In ADHD brains, dopamine and noradrenaline are dysregulated. This causes us to flit between very-low and very-high levels of activity.

If we aren’t motivated to complete a task, then when we try to concentrate on it our brains shut down or flood with distractions. Studying feels like a constant battle. I think of three things at once while reading my lecture notes; I have the constant impulse to check my phone; I sometimes even become drowsy and lose consciousness.

When we encounter a task which is motivating, our nervous systems flood with motivation and reward – this state is called hyperfocus, and we have no direct control over it. We are so focused on one particular task that we lose all sense of time, proportion and consequences.I sometimes become obsessed with my problem sheets; I daydream all day thinking of a single good memory; I wrote the first draft of this article in a single night, and didn’t feel tired.

These immediate effects are primary symptoms. They create disruption at any given moment, and then it snowballs throughout the day. One of the most crippling symptoms of ADHD is executive dysfunction. Imagine you’re trying to type, but must manually find each and every letter every single time you touch the keyboard. Imagine you’re trying to walk, and must consciously and individually move every single muscle in your leg. This is what planning, organizing, remembering, and regulating is like for us. For this reason, self awareness alone doesn’t help much.

Secondary symptoms are scars which arise over a lifetime battle. They are particularly pervasive when we’re not diagnosed in childhood.

Before I was diagnosed, I often felt like I didn’t know quite how to be human. I put in effort, yet rarely succeeded; my attempts to connect were met with rejection; I felt on the outside of “life” because I could not become truly engaged with anything. I’d often lie in bed with thoughts whirling around in my head about how I’m worthless and a failure.

The experience I’m describing here is called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) – 98-99% of people with ADHD have it. Criticism and failure are extremely, intensely painful. In an attempt to avoid it, we may obsess over our failures, become career obsessed, develop an eating disorder, give up on trying entirely, or in my case: people pleasing. I regularly compromise my own safety, values and needs, for fear of angering others by being me. Much of my life is spent hiding.

The ADHD nervous system can contribute to RSD. It’s not hard to see how sensitivity and hyperfocus may lead one to be vigilant of failure. It’s worth noting too though, that the world constantly tells us we’re not trying hard enough. When I sought help, I was frequently told that nothing was wrong with me, I should “try harder”, and that the problems I was experiencing were normal – including by many health professionals. Often people would claim I was creating my concentration issues – pointing to my caffeine or alcohol consumption as evidence of this.

I believed everything was my fault and that I was looking for excuses. This actually stopped me from seeking help.

Or rather, it stopped me from seeking help for the third time. I was 17 when I was referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. I was 19 when I was discharged from Oxfordshire Adult Services and told “missing your lectures doesn’t mean you have a mental health problem” as tears rolled down my cheeks. This type of neglect is lethal; one in four women with ADHD attempt suicide.

Most doctors refuse to accept that ADHD exists. In fact, the NHS didn’t recognise it as valid until 2000 (for children) and 2008 (for adults). When I and most other ADHDers were born, our parents had no resources or sources of support.

The world blames them as “bad parents”, and they may internalize it, or grow to resent us. At least 40% of our parents have ADHD too, and so may already be struggling to cope. We spend our childhoods wondering what’s wrong with us, and why we’re causing our family so much pain.

Substance abuse is another extremely common symptom. Alcohol, marijuana, and stimulants are the most common drugs of choice, because the influx of dopamine alleviates our symptoms. Cocaine, in particular, is similar to Ritalin (an ADHD medication). When we take it, many of us feel calmer and more sober than we would without it. Upon learning this I felt betrayed by my brain – like I’d been born with an addiction to anything and everything. I recalled the times I’d drunk spirits specifically so I could complete my problem sheets, and the way this was laughed off by anyone I told. ADHD brains and substance-dependent brains have similar dysregulation of the dopamine reward system.

Many of us don’t take these drugs to feel high; we take them to feel sober.

The combination of ableism, trauma, and a binary nervous system can make for a toxic combination. ADHD has a lot of comorbidities, though it is also commonly misdiagnosed. On average, an adult will go through 6.6 antidepressant trials before finally being diagosed with ADHD. ADHD may mask-as or occur-with the following conditions:

Depression; Anxiety; Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; Oppositional-Defiant Disorder; Learning Difficulties; Language Difficulties; Executive Dysfunction Disorders; Tourette’s; Autism; Borderline Personality Disorder; Addiction (on top of substances, this may be sex, videogame, internet, gambling, or spending addictions); Dissociative Disorders; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; Bipolar Disorder.

Despite the challenges I’ve faced, ADHD is not a flaw, nor a death sentence. My hyperfocus is exactly what got me into Oxford – I was addicted to solving maths problems, and my hyperfocus compensated for my inability to sleep. The struggles we face aren’t purely the consequences of our nervous systems. We’re forced to be people we aren’t, shamed when we can’t live up to it, and given the wrong advice, consistently. Diagnosis and treatment can be life changing, since they break this destructive pattern.

Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, and Gillian Lynne (the choreographer of “Cats”) are among the may people who demonstrate ADHD neurotypes. Will.I.Am, founder of the Black Eyed Peas, credits his ADHD for his creativity. Simone Biles, who has 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, recently tweeted she’s not ashamed of her ADHD.

We are not deficient, we are different, and we’re raised not to know who we are.

A few months ago I suspended my studies, so I can focus on addressing my ADHD. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated, but forcing myself into a neurotypical timeline has only ever hurt me.

Medication is already having a profound effect on me; I feel closer to “CEO ADHD” than I do to “crisis point ADHD”.

My struggles still feel like an overwhelming, vicious wilderness, but now instead of fumbling around blindfolded I see footsteps of those who’ve walked before. Through medication, support groups, and ADHD Life Coaching, I can glue my fragmented self together — not for the second, third, tenth or seven hundredth time, but for the first. Now this isn’t just stimulating — this is truly magnificent and exciting.

Artwork by Gbenga Chesterman.

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