Let’s start with the name. Both ‘Attention Deficit’ and ‘Hyperactivity Disorder’ are terms often rejected by people who study ADHD, as well as people who have it. You might experience me as having a deficit of attention, or as being hyperactive, but that’s not what it feels like to me. I find it really hard to make myself do something that I’m not excited to do.
I know what that sounds like —we all enjoy doing things that we like, and we all grit our teeth and bear it when we need to do things that we *don’t* like doing. But no... That’s not what this is.
A metaphor that many ADHD folk have resonated with is that getting through a busy day/week/month is like being asked to carry a lot of golf balls, only everybody else seems to have a bag and we only have our hands. We can still do the task, but it’s harder and we’ve got a much lower capacity for lots of things at once.
It's not an issue of willpower, it's one of brain physiology
When I say that I find it really hard to make myself do something that I’m not excited to do, I mean that it is really hard. For a non-ADHD person, it might be only kinda hard. Sometimes they can just start doing the undesirable activity (booking the dentist appointment) because it's the sensible thing to do. For me, it’s almost always really hard, whether it’s squaring up my financials for tax time, or doing the dishes from dinner. They’re in a similar category of difficult.
In the simplest terms, ADHD is a disorder of brain development of the prefrontal cortex, which is delayed compared to peers of the same age. From the outside, it looks like a person who is slower to develop the ability to keep quiet, to stay focused, or to suppress their impulses. This person might be more prone to emotional outbursts, outbursts that anybody else would have appropriately squashed or hidden. Sometimes, they may develop a deeply intense fixation on a thing in their life (a TV show, a friendship, a hobby, an academic topic…) and they will miss sleep and other basic self-care tasks in pursuit of this new obsession. Sometimes these hyperfixations last weeks and stop suddenly; sometimes they last lifetimes.
Our culture has taught us to look for these traits in young boys, which is why they get diagnosed three times the rate of girls. However, current wisdom suggests that ADHD itself has no gender preference, and many girls and femme-folk have slipped through the cracks of a system that doesn’t understand this disorder and that wasn’t built to help them. Women have been routinely mis-diagnosed with anxiety, depression, bipolar and even just haywire hormones when the symptoms clearly showed ADHD.
To take current ADHD understanding a step further, you also don’t need to be young to have it. Up to two-thirds of children with ADHD symptoms grow into adults with symptoms. Adults with ADHD are still delayed in their brain development and sometimes never reach the neurotypical average levels of gray matter density, total brain volume, cortical network maturation, and prefrontal lobe development The most common symptoms express a tiny bit differently for adults, but they revolve around the same themes of struggling to pay attention, less emotional regulation, lower than normal impulse control, tendency to hyperfocus, and an often intrusive sense of restlessness.
All of the above is what ADHD seems to look like to people who don’t have it.
To people with it, it feels like a radio tuned to the notch just ‘next’ to the radio station, and we can hear what’s going on but there’s a lot of static. It feels like a grinding gear behind our skull at the base of our neck that pushes us to do a thing we very much know we shouldn’t do. It feels like thoughts flowing in rapid torrents and normal people just can’t keep up with us. It feels like everybody is carrying around a hundred golf balls, but neurotypical folk have bags and we only have our hands. It feels like there’s an appointment in an hour but we can’t move and now it’s half an hour and we can’t seem to make ourselves move and now it’s fifteen minutes and all we want to do is get off this couch and we want to and we need to and we genuinely just can’t. It feels like we’ve found the most exciting thing in the world and all we want to do is more of this and we can’t wait to tell everybody about it and we didn’t sleep because this was just too interesting and we couldn’t stop reading more about it.
To many in our ADHD community, the term Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a complete misunderstanding. We don’t have less attention than you—we can listen to 10 podcasts back to back, or play 80 hour video games from beginning to end. We’re not hyperactively disordered; we can learn an instrument in a 17 days, and be gigging the next month.
What we have is a difficulty making ourselves perform actions out of willpower. If we’re not interested or excited, we have less capacity than neurotypical folk do for faking interest. If something is fascinating to us, we have less ability than non-ADHD people do to keep ourselves from going and doing it right away. Our higher level executive function has less power over our behaviour, and in a society that demands so much of us, that can be a problem.