I have ADHD.
I was diagnosed at age 12. What happened is I got to middle school, and my life fell apart. It came on like a typhoon. Things seemed alright as I started, but I still remember that October when my family went to sixth-grade check-in.
My twin sister went first. The meeting lasted about four minutes. She and my parents left with smiles all around and talk of getting In N Out on the way home. Then it was my turn.
Every teacher I had stood in a circle. They seemed…different. One by one, they went around and told me that I was shit. Some were nicer than others, but everyone had the same message to convey:
Doesn’t complete his homework all the way
Distracts others trying to learn
Unable to follow along in class
Not sure if he can keep up
I then heard my grades: C-, D+, C+, A in PE, C, and an F in Social Studies.
I don’t remember being ashamed or embarrassed or anything. I remember being confused. I had gone to school every day and tried hard and thought I was doing what the teacher asked. Nope. Guess I wasn’t.
Nobody had much advice for me. They just wanted me to know that I sucked. And that my parents should understand so. I don’t know if my parents freaked out or punished me or what. But they weren’t happy.
The last to go was my social studies teacher, Sven.
He asked me if I knew how to read.
I politely nodded my head.
But he wasn’t sure. He talked about all the symptoms he had seen from me. To counter, I pulled a grad-level book on the Cold War off a shelf and read a page aloud while trying not to cry. People were even more confused.
Some estimate that a child with ADHD will receive 20,000 more negative comments before the age of 12 than a non-ADHD child will. I can’t speak to that exactly, but I can say that this was not the only time I’ve had a room full of people upset with me for reasons I never saw coming. It doesn’t get much easier.
Sven caught up to us as we walked to the car. He was cagey with his reasoning, but he told us that there might be something up with my brain. He recommended I get tested by a psychiatrist and see what she had to say. I’ve since come to my conclusions where he got such an idea.
The testing was fun. I’ve always liked tests. Didn’t mention it, but they also thought I couldn’t read in 2nd grade. Lol. That one went away after I took a standardized exam and scored in the 99th percentile of the nation in reading. I thought standardized tests were fun, you see.
I moved a bunch of colored balls into colored holes and tried to remember what color things were after 10 minutes and everything else you might expect. I didn’t know what I was even doing, but I felt I could hang.
Three weeks later, I got my results. The only part I remember is that my psychiatrist noted that in her entire career, she had never met someone who scored higher on specific tasks and yet lower on others. My chart looked like OJ Simpson’s polygraph.
I could keep going, and in another article, I will. But this is how I got diagnosed. And the key to all of it was Sven. Everything makes perfect sense after the fact, but only when you realize that a single teacher served as the link that completes the narrative. I do not know where I am today without him.
I got lucky that this story takes place in 2003, and at a private school with teachers who genuinely cared about me. For reasons a lawyer in the comments needs to help me understand better, public school teachers seem loathe to alert students of disabilities of any kind. This is includes ADHD but also things like autism, dyslexia, and mood disorders. Things that seem apparent to me in a way that makes it seem impossible that no other teacher in the past 13 years hasn’t also picked up on them.
That means many students go through primary schooling while having no idea they have a problem at all. When I mention to a student they might have ADHD, they are first confused, but then some memories come back. The first is that someone, usually a sports or music coach, had once told them the same thing. The other is that they remember a lot of teachers saying weird stuff they didn’t understand at the time. Stuff like, “You’re so talented. I just wish you could be better focused. Have you talked to anyone about why you could be having trouble?” To me, those sound like hints from a teacher who has been told by her bosses not to put the school at risk.
I am not a teacher. I’m a private consultant and can pretty much say whatever I want. I am also not a doctor – people would die – but I am a concerned adult who has taken courses in spotting learning disabilities. I’m also someone who will do absolutely anything to make sure his students have the best chance for success now and in the future. I’m also someone who asked both my ADHD-psychiatrist (hi!) and ADHD-therapist (hi!!!!!) if I had the right to tell students if I suspected something; they both went, Ya, dude. Totally.
So I try to be Sven. I try to pay attention to what my students do and say and provide feedback that can help them. I’d like to note what that feedback is here to make sure people don’t miss it because my pieces go on for way too long.
If you are a high school student who suspects he or she has ADHD, your best course of action is to talk with your parents and look into being tested by a professional psychiatrist who specializes in the topic. These tests are expensive, and mental health insurance in America sucks balls. But this is the fastest, most straightforward route to getting the help you need.
Option two is to try and work with/through your public high school to get them to pay for it. This site has some good info. My guess is that this method will suck. Public schools don’t have a lot of funding and will not want to spend it on you. That’s not your problem. You will almost certainly need your parents to back you up on this one and sit through a lot of boring meetings. I assume a lot of people will tell you a lot of reasons why they can’t help you. Your response every time should be some version of, “Sure. But I need help with this. And I’m not going to stop until I get the support I need. So what do I do from here?” Then you blankly stare at them and refuse to leave until they get you at least to the next step. I’m not sure how well this will work. If you do attempt or have attempted this method, please DM me or contact my Email with your experience. I want to know if this is even worth my student’s time.
If you can not afford traditional testing or do not feel your parents would support such testing, your best option is to wait until the day you turn 18 and then register for a telehealth company specializing in ADHD. The one I use and recommend is HelloAhead.com. They’re neat. They do not take traditional insurance, but their rates are much lower than most doctors. They are cheap enough that I feel an average 18-year old who wants help could find a way to afford it on his or her own. The downside with these sites is the waiting times can be long. Took me like five months. Other such sites are popping up, and while I can’t vouch for them, they all seem to offer a similar service.
Those paragraphs are what I want every student here to know. I’m much more comfortable having a trained doctor tell you what the deal is than I am trying to do it myself.
But I have to see something if I want to be Sven. The question then is, how do I see it? For spotting ADHD, it’s shockingly simple. And I’ll get to the real reason at the end. But for now, here is what I see when I see a student with ADHD.
The best way I can describe their lives is “endless chaos”
The chaos isn’t always bad! Rarely it’s fun chaos, but often it’s just chaos chaos. This chaos exists in both physical and mental forms.
Physical: Their shit is such a mess. Everything. Most of the work we do is digital, so I see the Google Doc version of their mind. Folders make no sense. Things are labeled inaccurately or not at all. Schools get combined, or separated, or forgotten altogether. It is not a single type of error, but instead a collection of small mistakes and poor decisions that make the work impossible to corral. I have some kids that are messy or lazy, but this is different. It’s like if the original folder system I built for them was an amoeba in a petri dish. Leave that dish out for a weekend and come back. The patterns will be remarkably similar to the organizational gore that they then try to utilize.
Mental: There’s always a story. “I was late because my car has a flat tire, and the guy was late, so I had to take an Uber.” “I didn’t know my music essays were due a month early because the form only mentioned there being a recital.” “My friend is mad at me, but it’s only because she didn’t tell me we were the first group presenting, so I spent more time preparing our project”.
These stories make sense at first. But after a few weeks, they start to pile up. Then I become the one hearing a story about why they didn’t do what I wanted, and I stop being so forgiving.
ADHD is a neurological disorder. Not a mental illness. It’s closer to diabetes than it is bi-polar. “ADHD” is a fairly garbage name for the condition because A) it has a stigma, and B) it isn’t even accurate. Both attention deficit and hyperactivity are symptoms of ADHD, but they are not the problem itself. It would be like calling clinical depression “low energy and excessive guilt disorder”. ADHD is actually an issue involving improper dopamine regulation in the brain combined with under-activity of the brain’s executive function component.
The executive function center is the part of your brain that is in charge of making sure all the other parts of your brain play nice and communicate. When the executive function center breaks down…those other parts don’t. The result is a failure to plan or coordinate + a need for impulsive stimulation, thus resulting in endless chaos.
This is what I’ll ask you if you DM me, btw. Is your life endless chaos? Sometimes do you like the chaos? Sometimes do you get bored and create the chaos yourself just to see what might happen? But when that chaos stops being so fun, can you make it stop?
They’re very, very intelligent
You’ve probably heard about the “gifted ADHD genius” thing before. I don’t think it exists.
My theory has always been that the “gifted ADHD child” is a victim of survivorship bias.
This means that students who still manage to succeed despite their disorder tend to have advantages that keep them in the game. Namely that they’re smart as hell. The other saving grace is that they come from secure support networks that prevent them from unraveling completely. I’ve heard from such students that their mom or dad works tirelessly to keep their life in order and to make sure they’re getting things done. I do not think it is a coincidence that when ADHD students leave for college, things often fall apart.
The fact that there are ADHD kids that others know and still like makes some think ADHD isn’t so bad or comes with natural cognitive advantages. Those same people do not become friends with the ADHD dumb kids who would disprove those perceptions. Do you remember that kid in elementary school who was his own worst enemy? He never had friends, and everyone was kind of afraid to even talk with him? He was kind of a bully but mostly just awful? He invited you to his house one time, but your mom wouldn’t let you go? That is my best guess of what a dumb kid with ADHD is like. It sounds cold writing it, but you know which kid I’m talking about right now. Where do you think that kid is today?
I end up with the smart ones—the ones with parents who care. And God damn are these kids smart. They’re brilliant, and funny, and likable, and charming. They have something different about them that makes them undeniable. And it’s not just me. I worry I play them up too much in my mind, but then I chat with a teacher or coach of theirs. It’s always the same thing: Oh, she’s brilliant. She can be so frustrating sometimes, tho.
They can be so frustrating sometimes, tho
The word is frustrating. Now bad. Not nasty. Not unlikeable. Frustrating.
I have some students I just don’t like that much (no, not you). What tends to be the common theme with them is that they don’t have much interest in my help and display a work ethic to match. On the other spectrum are the world beaters (totally you). These kids kick ass and not only follow my advice but often take that advice to the next level in ways that awe and inspire me.
And then there are the kids I think have ADHD. They don’t do stuff all the time. They don’t finish an essay, or they forget to spell check like I asked, or they write about something that has nothing to do with the outline we built the week before. That’s not necessarily the frustrating part. You kids are 17; you make mistakes. Early on, I try to spot these mistakes and point them out. Even the students who don’t like me seem to get my point after enough prodding and the problem goes away.
With these kids, the problem does not go away. Or if it does, another problem pops right back up to replace it. It makes me feel like there’s nothing I can do. It would be easier if the student was just a brat. Then I could either become a brat myself or mentally check out because “hey man, your future”.
I need a name for kids I suspect have ADHD…”MaybeHD”?
Ya. That’s super funny. Say it out loud and try not to laugh.
But these MaybeHD kids do like me. And they do want to get into school. And they do feel bad when I get upset with them. I end up in long, drawn-out conversations with them about why this is important and why they need to make specific work a priority to get into the schools they want to go to. Then they nod meekly and head home. Then they come back next week, and it’s the same story.
They are randomly awesome at the weirdest things
I love weird talents. Things that no one offers up immediately, but then you’re chatting, and it comes up naturally. “Oh ya, I love animals! I raise baby pigs in my backyard!”
At some point, the MaybeHD kid read something or watched a Youtube video that he or she liked. Then they wanted to try it. Six months later, they’re making 4k a month selling custom bathrobes on Etsy. There’s rarely any logic.
“Do you like baths? Or making clothing?
“Not really. I just thought it looked fun, so I bought a sewing kit and started making things.”
There is a noted link between ADHD and entrepreneurship. I see it with my MaybeHD students. They have an insatiable drive and passion for following up on curiosities that other students don’t possess. Passion is the wrong word. They have obsessions with mastering concepts in a way that feels beyond their control. The obsession itself drives them to be great.
The literature on the subject is cloudy. But there exists a term in ADHD circles called “Hyperfocus“. If you know what “flow” is, it’s kind of like that. Only more intense and less controllable. I often see the remnants of past hyperfocuses in their stories. They used to run that pig farm. They used to sell bathrobes. They used to be really into getting good grades at school. But then one day, just as quickly as they picked the skill up, they dropped it. They can seldom tell me why.
Their priorities are completely out of whack
The downside of hyperfocus is that it can be so all-encompassing that other priorities fall by the wayside. One of my favorite students ever is named Elleway. We chatted in our first meeting, and I was instantly intrigued by her background. She said she had designed and prototyped a unit that would automatically roll under parked electric cars for hands-free charging. I hear a lot of impressive stuff in my job, and a lot of it ends up being not that impressive. But then Elleway showed me the prototype video she made back when she was a high school freshman and it blew my mind.
Can you do that? I sure as hell can’t. She wasn’t even an engineer. She calmly explained that she had partnered with several older male engineers who had helped turn her idea into reality. Then she had done all the promotional and marketing work herself. Then she got second out of 300 students at a young entrepreneur contest held at Columbia University. Shortly after, a tech CEO came up to her and asked if she would like to work with him to file a patent for the invention. She agreed and is now a trademark holder.
That was all in our first 10 minutes. She then went on to share the half dozen corporations she had worked for. And the three businesses she started. And the graphic design work she made for her website. She told me how she was a Nationally ranked fencer until she lost interest. She was now merely a Nationally ranked golfer.
Then I saw she had a 2.9 GPA and thus zero shot at getting into NYU like she hoped.
I did not initially think Elleway had ADHD. I thought she was a pathological liar. It seemed impossible to me that this same girl who had already taken a grip on the world was then unable to keep up her grades in math. That just isn’t how any -any- of my other ultra high-achieving students behave. Then Elleway showed me pictures of her casually hanging out with Andrew Yang. And then her LinkedIn With a lot of people who do not accept your request unless they want to. I had to figure out what the hell led to all this.
Elleway’s patent and ambition to work on it had taken up all her time. She was so singularly focused on doing what she cared about that the world behind her didn’t seem to exist. She was hyperfocused on a goal, but once she reached it, she woke up to a reality that punished her for ignoring everything else.
That’s the longing writer’s version of the story. The more popular one is that she didn’t give a shit about school, was warned repeatedly about the consequences, and ignored them. She got what she deserved. That’s the version the rest of the world had for her.
It goes back to frustrating. I’ve gotten kids into NYU that don’t show a fifth the potential that Elleway did. Those kids went to all the camps their parents paid for and entered competitions with a tech doorbell or something lame, and they’re just fine. But MaybeHD students are often world-beaters in ways that make them seem so special. They talk endlessly not just about what they’re into but how they figured it all out and why it is all so important to them. I believe them, and I want to fight for them. So I give them as much assistance as I possibly can. But then they don’t do the increasingly easy tasks I ask for them to complete. Then they suffer the consequences.
Elleway didn’t get into NYU. She didn’t get in much of anywhere. It eats me up inside, and I feel like I failed her. I don’t know how many other people in my position would feel the same way. That’s why I have to be Sven.
This is getting long, and I’m getting depressed. Here’s the TL: DR of what I see when I see a student with ADHD
Me. I see me. And it can hurt really bad knowing what a condition like ADHD does to a young person’s life.
My life is endless chaos. I’ve been out of food for nine days. My house looks like Badger from Breaking Bad bought a loft in Palo Alto. I am still writing this at 3:25 AM when I have to be up for work at nine. My cat has started doing this thing where she sleeps in her food bowl when it gets empty. It’s equal parts adorable and humiliating.
I’m smart as shit. I know it. I made up half-ideas. That article is absolute fire. I got published on Cracked.com five times in 2011 when that meant something. I went to Tulane on a half-ride merit scholarship, used to win creative writing contests, and have done a bunch of other writery stuff that made people stand up and go, “Woah”.
But I only made it to college because my mom carried me there, kicking and screaming. She packaged my life together, and I held on for the ride. Then I got to school and made it two months before she got an Email alerting her that Tulane was planning to revoke the remaining $70,000 of my $80,000 scholarship due to my grades. I barely scraped by and survived. But the shame and frustration in her voice when she read me that letter over the phone haunts me to this day.
I analyze handwriting. And I turned a Reddit account into a successful business in four months. And I collect college T-shirts from schools my students go to. And I own Bitcoin I bought in 2011 for $4.50 each. And I’m teaching myself piano with a video game. And I’m exercising with a video game. And I’m ranked 42nd in Northern California at Super Smash Bros Ultimate. And I’ve tried the nachos at over 100 Taquerias in the Bay Area. And I own a really cute cat.
But I’ve spent 15* hours this week writing this instead of a sequel to that Costco piece. I have one coming where I edit my Common App essay from 2009. It’s a great idea and a great article. One that will drive significantly more business to my site than this piece will. Hell, I predict this piece is likely to lose me business because I come off like a mess in it. But it’s what I want to write, so I feel like I have no choice.
*The 15 hours is a guess. I have no idea how long it takes me to write and edit these things. I start typing and X hours later look up and realize how hungry I am and how much I need to pee. The writing controls me.
I see myself in my MaybeHD students. I see their unfettered curiosity and flair for taking as much good from the world as possible. I see their infectious enthusiasm and ability to quickly forgive others because they know too well how it feels to want forgiveness themselves.
Yet I also see their inattention to detail, their weak excuses, and their general confusion that makes me realize they couldn’t fix some problems if their lives depended on it. I see their sadness and shame when those mistakes pile up. I see when the chaos stops being fun, and they want out, but they don’t know how. I don’t know what I, as their consultant, can do. But as Sven, I can recommend they go talk to someone else…
Hey, so, I was considering hiring you and all…but you seem kind of bad. Why should I trust you?
Because a couple of years ago, I got back on my medication and turned my life around. You aren’t reading this if I don’t reach out for help and trust a trained psychiatrist to guide me. There are no groups of friends in Delaware or Connecticut comparing their half-ideas lists. There sure as shit isn’t a CollegeWithMattie.com.
I still have ADHD. But one of the greatest things about ADHD is that it is -without rival- the most treatable form of mental illness or dysfunction known to man. It is not curable, but there are endless medical and non-medical options available for those willing to reach out and get the help they need. My story is that it was only by getting re-medicated that I then could learn and use coping mechanisms that allow me to achieve the type of life I’ve always wanted.
Christ, 4,400 words. You know, I’m also submitting this for a class I’m in. That’s why all the backlinks are to actual sources instead of links herding you into my website. Hi Amy! That’s one more thing. ADHD people are hyper-efficient...Kind of.
Alright. If you’re still here reading this, you might be suspecting some things about yourself. My DMs are open if you want to chat, but again, I am not a doctor. I will say that right now as you prepare to head to college is a really good time to get this all figured out. College is a giant reset button on your life. Figure these problems out now so that by the time you head off for your next chapter, you will have given yourself the best possible chance to succeed.
Here is the bold part again:
If you are a student in high school who suspects he or she has ADHD, your best course of action is to talk with your parents and look into being tested by a professional psychiatrist who specializes in the topic. These tests are expensive, and mental health insurance in America (still) sucks balls. But this is the fastest, most straightforward route to getting the help you need.
Option two is to try and work with/through your public high school to get them to pay for it. This site has some good info. My guess is that this method will kind of suck. Public schools don’t have a lot of funding and will not want to spend it on you. That’s not your problem. You will almost certainly need your parents to back you up on this one and sit through a lot of boring meetings. I assume a lot of people will tell you a lot of reasons why they can’t help you. Your response every time should be some version of, “Sure. But I need help with this. And I’m not going to stop until I get the support I need. So what do I do from here?” Then you blankly stare at them and refuse to leave until they get you at least to the next step. This will suck and I’m not sure how well it will work. If you do attempt or have attempted this method, please DM me or contact my Email with your experience. I want to know if this is even worth my student’s time.
If you can not afford traditional testing, or if you do not feel your parents would support such testing, your best option is to wait until the day you turn 18 and then register for a telehealth company that specializes in ADHD. The one I use and recommend is HelloAhead.com. They’re neat. They do not take traditional insurance, but their rates are much lower than most doctors. They are cheap enough that I feel an average 18-year old who wants help could find a way to afford it on his or her own. The downside with these sites is the waiting times can be really long. Took me like five months. Other such sites are popping up, and while I can’t vouch for them, they all seem to offer a similar service.
Update: The lines aren’t that long anymore! Monday was Elleway’s 18th birthday. She sent me a screengrab of her upcoming Ahead appointment in early September. She told me she spent the entire day crying because all her friends were going off to great schools and that she was stuck at home. I’ve told Elleway that I plan to help her reapply to NYU this year. I doubt I will ever want to see another student succeed as much as I will with her.
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(This piece won the 2020 r/applyingtocollege acorn award for most helpful post! It’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever written. Half-ideas is such fire omg.)