Confronting My ADHD

By “Ariana”

As told to Cliff Williams

Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with Ariana on January 4, 2024. We talked when she was in her late twenties. “Ariana” is a pseudonym.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) “is marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. . . . For a person to receive a diagnosis of ADHD, the symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity must be chronic or long-lasting, impair the person’s functioning, and cause the person to fall behind typical development for their age.”* 


Early Life and High School

When Ariana was being evaluated for ADHD in her midtwenties, she recalled a number of past events that were pertinent to ADHD. “As I reflected on my childhood, it became clearer and clearer to me that I struggled to concentrate and pay attention in elementary school. I remember the imaginative games going on in my head and the doodles I drew on my paper. I was in my own little world, but I didn’t recognize that that was not normal. And I wasn’t worried about it.

“In high school, I became interested in academic subjects, especially in the humanities. Doing well in school became important to me. But being a diligent student did not come easily. I was a huge procrastinator. I couldn’t organize my time so that I could sit down and do what I needed to do when I needed to do it. I often got up at five or six in the morning to do the lion’s share of my homework the morning it was due. 

“At the time, this felt as though it was a lack of discipline. I did not see that it had to do with an inability to pay attention to things or to focus on what I was doing. So I perceived myself as a bad student due to lack of discipline and willpower. I felt guilty about it all. Grade wise, though, I wasn’t a bad student, because I got As and B+s. I have often thought that if I had spent more time on schoolwork and had not turned in so many late assignments, I would have been an A student.

“I always had the hope that eventually I would get the right habits and summon the right discipline to be a good student: ‘Next year I will straighten out my study habits,’ I told myself every school year.”

In College

In college, Ariana started thinking about going to graduate school. “I was getting good feedback from my professors and had reason to believe I had what it took to do well in graduate school. I was able to understand difficult texts. At other times, though, I read the same sentence over and over with no comprehension. ‘Maybe this is above my level,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I am deceiving myself into thinking I can do well enough for graduate school.’

“I thought for a time that I might be crippled with imposter syndrome. Other students talked about imposter syndrome a lot. For me it was the idea that others perceived me as more intelligent than what I deserved: ‘I’m not really as good as all that. My peers are more competent and intelligent than I am. I’m just pretending to be smart.’ I definitely felt that some of the time. But sometimes I turned out a really good paper, which made me feel that I actually was capable of doing good enough work for graduate school.

“It never became clear to me either way. I was confused. And I was still procrastinating, because I couldn’t force myself to focus on assignments until the adrenaline of an impending deadline kicked in. 

“I noticed all these things the most when I was sitting down to do homework. I blocked out a good amount of time to do it. I went to the library, sat in one of the quiet study carrels, where there were no distractions, and put the text in front of me that I had to read or the document I was supposed to write. But it wouldn’t happen. I kept thinking of other things I wanted to do or things I wanted to think about.

“It seemed to me, again, that it was a lack of discipline that made me unable to do what I should have been doing. Or it was due to a weak will. I got distracted. I went on Facebook or read something unrelated to what I should have been reading or sat there thinking about something else. I couldn’t will my mind to focus on what it didn’t want to focus on.”

Becoming Aware

At some point during college, Ariana started to think that a lack of discipline or a weak will wasn’t key to what was going on with her. “I thought that my brain might work differently. There might be ways in which I could not do what other people could do. 

“Also, it occurred to me that my problem was something a psychologist might be able to help me with. At the same time, I was trying to diagnose it myself. So I kept chickening out from actually going to a counselor. I did a lot of research on my own.

“I thought at one point that I might have some kind of perfectionism that was tied to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). But the things I read about them didn’t add up. I conjectured at another point that I might have some kind of crippling anxiety, but that didn’t line up either. I dismissed all the possibilities and quit trying to find out what I had.”

Giving Up My Dream

Until Ariana’s last semester, she was planning on applying to graduate school. “That was my dream. That was what I most wanted to do. For a time it felt as though I had a choice between going for that dream and consequently having a stressful, chaotic, and unhealthy life or not going to grad school and being depressed because I could not do what I most wanted to do. But that choice dissipated during my last semester of college when I finally realized that I couldn’t do grad school. I just could not do it.

“I had gotten a decent grade point average, but my study habits were chaotic. I got up early to do assignments, as I had done in high school. Sometimes I turned in papers that I knew were subpar. Or I didn’t make a deadline and then was penalized. It seemed less and less sustainable to think I could keep doing these things in grad school. Besides being stressful and unhealthy, it would include a good deal of anxiety.

“It hurt to give up the one dream I had for my life. But I couldn’t figure out how to have the right study habits or the right kind of routine to make it work. I had a faint hope that I would get it together someday, but I was not very optimistic about that.”

Feeling Like Garbage

After college, Ariana moved in with her parents to work and to try to find herself. “I thought it would be much less stressful to have a nonacademic life. But I struggled in many of the same ways I struggled in an academic environment. I couldn’t keep up even with lowered demands. If I had a list of things I needed to do, I merely sat thinking, ‘I should be doing that. I should be doing that.’ I couldn’t push myself to do anything, even for simple things like washing the dishes or making a phone call to set up an appointment.

“It was a bizarre to feel so helpless. Most people don’t experience that, at least not on a regular basis. If they know something is important, they can push themselves to stand up and walk over and do the thing, even if they don’t feel like doing it. But I couldn’t do that.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t normal. I need to find a therapist.’ So I did for a few months. It turned out to be an extremely painful experience. 

“The therapist suggested trying depression medication and then anxiety medication. But I knew that the depression and anxiety were not essential to what was going on but were their results. So even though I was acutely unhappy, I knew that taking medications for them was not something I wanted to try. I knew people who were depressed and anxious, and I could tell that my depression and anxiety were different.

“I was depressed and anxious because I couldn’t do the things that were personally fulfilling to me. When I was in certain social situations, my mind sometimes went blank when I wanted to say something. I lost my train of thought in the middle of conversations. When I sat down and tried to read something academic, my mind was flooded with other thoughts and I couldn’t concentrate. 

“I described these to the therapist. I dredged up all my struggles and dissatisfactions. And after each therapy session, I was an emotional wreck. Therapy made me feel like garbage.

“The therapist was a general therapist and may not have known the symptoms of ADHD. Or maybe she didn’t recognize them because ADHD looks different in different people. She wasn’t able to help me, so I stopped seeing her. But I kept looking on my own.”


After a year or two of researching online, Ariana started to catch on that she might have ADHD. “It took a long time to figure this out, even after I was reading about ADHD. So many of the descriptions of ADHD did not seem to match up with my experiences. Part of that, I think, was because most of the descriptions were from a third-person perspective. They were by outsiders describing what people who have ADHD look like to someone who doesn’t have it. And those didn’t ring true for me.

“Also, I discovered that there are three kinds of ADHD. There is hyperactive ADHD, inattentive ADHD, and a combination in which people show signs of both the first two kinds. Boys generally have the hyperactive symptoms, and girls generally have the inattentive kind.

“Boys get diagnosed more easily than girls, because they are disruptive in the back of the classroom. They throw paper airplanes around the classroom or something like that. So people realize that something is off with them.

“Girls have a much higher rate of not being diagnosed, because girls with ADHD are often sitting still and quiet in the back of the classroom off in their own little worlds, not being disruptive, but not paying attention either. So they fly under the radar, especially when, like me, they get decent grades.

“A lot of what I found when I looked up ADHD had to do with young boys. But I finally started finding descriptions of ADHD experiences that were like mine, the kind that girls often had. And having the right vocabulary helped a great deal—words that I had not applied to my own experiences, such as ‘focus” and ‘attention,’ plus some psychological terminology. It seemed more and more clear to me what was going on. I was pretty much convinced that I had inattentive ADHD before I sought diagnosis. 

“I had to go through a long process of being interviewed about my childhood experiences, and I had to reflect back on things that were less obvious to me. It took several months before I got an official diagnosis. But pretty quickly after that I started on medication. I was lucky that the first prescription they tried on me worked. Over two years later, I am still on the same dosage of the same medication.”

A New Life

 Ariana had read that some people who took ADHD medicine felt a big difference right away. “But experientially I didn’t notice a difference. I didn’t feel more focused or organized. What I did notice was that I was able to navigate my life differently.

“Without medication, there was a spectrum. At one end, I could not sustain the effort and concentration needed to read and write. I was at that end of the spectrum most of the time. At the other end, I could concentrate on reading books and writing papers in short bursts. That, however, was never enough to live a fulfilling life in the way I wanted.

“With medication, I could more consistently work on the better side of the spectrum. I could focus and concentrate on reading and writing complex papers over long periods of time, the very things I needed to do for graduate school.

“After years of discouragement, I was finally able to pick up an academic book and read more than a few pages at a time. I went to the library and practiced taking notes. In college, my notes were on unorganized loose sheets of paper. I didn’t have notebooks to organize my notes. It had never even occurred to me to organize my thoughts when reading an academic book.

“Later, I worked on my writing sample for graduate school applications. I set aside a few hours each day to sit down at a table with my laptop and make the changes I had flushed out. I found that I could do that. I could work between whatever hours I set for myself. And I discovered that that was what working was really like.

“My default experience in the past had been so unlike that. If something else popped into my head that I wanted to do, I ended up doing that instead. So I gave up on what I had originally set myself to do. And even if I didn’t go and do the other thing, I sat there battling with my will trying to force myself to concentrate on the thing I had first wanted to do. That, of course, took up the time I had set for myself to work on something.

“It was harder then to push a thought to the back of my mind. If I was trying to focus on a project, my own thoughts would distract me, and I couldn’t easily push them away. But after taking medication, I was able to direct my attention in a way I wasn’t able to do before. I could organize my thoughts, and I could have more control over my life.

“I was also able to set goals for myself and follow through on them in a way that I couldn’t consistently do before. I could tell myself that at a certain time, I was going to get up and wash the dishes or make a phone call and then actually do that more often than not. Without medication, I was paralyzed. I could not make myself do something, even if I had decided to do it. 

“All of my new experiences, I discovered, were connected to being able to focus my attention, including those in social contexts. In conversations, I had struggled with the impulse to interrupt someone I was talking with because it was hard to bracket a thought that came to mind and wait until the other person had stopped talking. I don’t struggle with that as much now, though I am still working on it. The medication hasn’t cured everything, but it has given me the ability to work on doing better.

“My academic life, though, has been like night and day. I got all As in my first semester at a decently prestigious graduate program. Every few weeks of that semester, I stepped back from what I was doing and stared in disbelief. All through high school and college I had been disappointed at not having gotten myself together. I had repeatedly given up hope that I could ever go to graduate school. And then gradually I became disillusioned with that hope and thought it would never happen.

“Even after I started taking medication, I thought that academic life would be only a possibility until I actually did it. Now that I have done it, I am pretty sure I can keep doing it.”

Finding Meaning

“I was miserable during the years after college,” Ariana said. “I had very few friends who shared any kind of academic interest with me. I was not doing things I was good at and that I felt were meaningful. I was working at dead-end, minimum wage, part-time jobs because it was too draining to maintain a full-time job I didn’t find interesting.

“Now I have a tight-knit social circle of people who I have a lot in common with. I’m surrounded by brilliant people who I am keeping up with. I am feeling competent and confident, at least in academic situations. I still keep looking in disbelief at what I have become. And it has been wonderful to make sense of my childhood self, the one who was sitting in the back of the classroom in her own little world. I can understand things about myself I never understood before. Everything has been fitting together.”


* “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” Mental Health Information, National Institute of Mental Health (NIH):

© Cliff Williams 2024


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