A lot of people imagine having ADHD to be like the life of a dog chasing a ball. I’m reminded of the dog Dug in the movie “Up” who would abruptly stop mid-sentence to point out each new “Squirrel!”, rendered utterly unable to continue his previous thought. Yet this depiction of ADHD is largely because boys are diagnosed with ADHD at a 2-to-1 ratio compared to girls, and many girls tend to experience ADHD with more “inattentive” symptoms, compared to the “hyperactive” symptoms that tend to present more externally and boisterously in boys (or at least, young people who are socialized as “girls” or “boys”.) (1) (2)
This gender gap in diagnosis is compounded by other factors as well. There are still other effects of ADHD that are less represented in popular media and long-standing stereotypes: time blindness, hyper-focus, memory deficits, emotional sensitivity, fatigue, etc. The racial gap in mental health treatment also flattens more nuanced, diverse depiction of ADHD: Asian Americans are three times less likely than their white counterparts to seek treatment for mental health concerns,(3) and a range of cultural conventions can prevent Asian Americans from recognizing some of their own difficulties as mental health issues.(4)
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that an older gentleman who was mentoring me in a volunteer program (who himself had been diagnosed with autism) shared that he had experienced many of the same difficulties I was describing. Perhaps it wasn’t quite the same, he said ... but it certainly sounded quite similar. He said that sometimes, people with ADHD can have similar struggles on the surface.
The pieces clicked slowly and begrudgingly for me, like when you eat french fries too fast and have to wait uncomfortably for the lump of potatoes to move down your throat. After all, I had still been able to complete a rigorous university program, gain admittance to a graduate program, and find a promising job without much delay. But the thought that perhaps the sum of all my struggles across a pair of decades had a name? That it could not just reveal but connect me to others who had had navigated these similar experiences of trying, failing, and trudging through even the most basic tasks? Having a conversation without interrupting someone else; keeping track of where I had left my phone each day; remembering a person’s name for more than 1.5 seconds; remembering to put the thing back in the bag — the possibility of that name felt like the sudden appearance of a shaded bench on the way up a long and dusty hike.
Until that point, the great systems of my life that have kept the rhythm of my days had ticked me forward with a fearsome and unyielding persistence. When I was young, the school bell rang for class at 8:30 a.m. or even later as I got older. In my career, little pop-ups on my laptop would blink for meetings from 10:00-11:00 a.m., then 11:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m., and so on. But as my responsibilities multiplied and my to-do’s lengthened, the strain of holding together my world against the insatiable, temporal momentum of capitalism and respectability started causing me to fray beyond my edges.
In the back of my mind, I thought about how the periods of reprieve while I was in college — time to get an extension for a paper, an opportunity to hit “eject” from a class that had completely overwhelmed me, etc. — were made possible only when I had become sufficiently unwell to a medical professional. In fact, it was far easier (and cheaper!) to request medical leave from the university in order to exit an ongoing semester than it was to pursue any other withdrawal option. Any leave of absence, apart from a medical leave, required stacks of paperwork and uncertain results for re-admission, grading, and more. But a medical leave required a single meeting and came with a clear-cut, existent process for re-entering and continuing with my degree.
As I started to falter in the day-to-day requirements of my job, I tried many of the more “conventional” approaches to reducing the stress. I took a day or two off here and there; tried to escape on mini vacations; unearthed my Kindle; even discussed some reduction or restructuring of workload with my manager. But no massage booking or stretching session can be enough to sufficiently tackle a stubborn chemical imbalance on Day 1. I learned that the very activities that sustained me at work as a Queer woman of color — supporting Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, championing nonprofit causes that the company could aid, speaking out about how the company could do less harm to its underrepresented groups in company events — were also seen as the obstacles to my success. After all, these activities were time and effort that had no immediate impact in revenue generation or in hitting my immediate job goals for the fiscal quarter. Any previous encouragement to support the underrepresented in a company was certainly contingent on first succeeding in the existing system.
In the end, despite so many groups’ efforts across the landscape of American labor to champion the value of mental health support, sustainable work hours, and holistically healthy employees, I believe that the institution of work in the U.S. can only be resisted through the mechanisms of another, equally dominant institution. American capitalism, meet the American health care system, your equally flawed and colossal counterpart. No process was as direct or outlined with as complete of an existing process as that of scheduling a meeting with the human resources department to take medical leave.
I learned then that having not just a name for my struggles but having the right person learn this name as well was what could finally act as my shield against these thousands of tenterhooks that were pulling me apart. But it was a difficult process, filled with a hundred hotspots of shame, to accept that my private suspicion about ADHD needed to be verbalized by a white coat and printed into a file in order to access the privilege of medical resources and institutional protection. This was the opposite conclusion to what the many immigrant Chinese women in my life had taught and modeled for me about silently bearing your own (and your family’s) struggles while plodding forward to the hope of an easier future.
As routine as I’m sure it was for my doctor, it was life-changing for me to see a handful of pre-formatted notes from him force space into my work calendar, unlock new options for managing the myriad symptoms that tripped up my day, and begin lifting the fog of ADHD’s closely related companions: anxiety, depression, and exhaustion. While I have had the great blessing and privilege of receiving many spoken words to celebrate new milestones in my life — congratulations, invitations, promises, and even apologies — I am sure that the unique, naming act of a diagnosis by a doctor has been one of the most impactful for me. A name only really has power when it is said by the right person.
I have hope for Dug. He may still call out the “Squirrel!” in his head, but at least the conversation can continue.