What’s it like to have ADHD?

David Ellis reflects on ADHD and the language – and judgements – around it.

‘But you said for me to write a couple of lines’, I protest as the teacher ushers me out of the classroom for having had ‘the cheek’ to write only two lines.

Situations like these were rife in my childhood, at home and at school, and one thing remained constant throughout – a powerful feeling of injustice for having been punished for doing exactly what I was told. Although now as an adult I can better appreciate the irony of this self-perpetuating cycle, as a child I could only express its absurdity through appeals to fairness and the teacher’s inability to issue clear instructions (which went about as well as you can imagine). As a result, I could always feel the teacher’s eyes on me as soon as I entered their classroom, and they made no attempt to hide their gaze until the bell would ring and I would leave with a sigh of relief bidding me farewell from behind. Now I am someone else’s problem.

But what was the problem?

I was told several things and none of them clearly – it was my attitude, my behaviour, my disregard for others. Yet I could not see what they saw, I could not grasp it as they did no matter how hard they tried to phrase it, and now I cannot help but think that they would have done a better job if they hadn’t of insisted that I watch them as they speak. ‘Look at me when I speak to you’, is a phrase which anyone who has experienced ADHD is no doubt familiar with, and my response ‘I don’t need to watch you to hear you’, never seemed to satisfy anything other than the burden of proof to support their belief in my wrongdoing. Simply put, the answer is a very literal ‘no’ to whether I think before I act – even now, I am not acting out what I had originally planned, but am discovering what my intentions are in the process of performing the act. When I make ‘funny’ noises or say ‘silly’ things, there is no thought behind it or judgement of whether it is appropriate, rather I discover myself doing it at the same time as you hear it, but I find it funny. It is like a twitch which you can feel coming and know will be satisfying to do, or like a sneeze which you are waiting for, but I am not bothered by the twitch or sneeze. I just do it.

There is no ‘filter’ because there is no experience of a ‘before’ the present – I experience life in the here and now, and I struggle to step out of the immediate and enter into reflection, despite how hard the teacher tries. Importantly, these things are qualities of my internal life, and although they seem different to the internal lives of others, we cannot in principle be sure, after all, I cannot get inside your mind any more than you can mine. The issue is that my condition is only observed by other people when it manifests in actions, and so it is almost natural for people to quickly understand ADHD as being a behaviour, and not something more integral to my identity. It feels as if I become understood more through the judgements you make of my behaviour than the individuality from which it stems, and to hide this (more from yourself than me) you treat my ADHD as something separate to who I am.

For the most part, ADHD only gets diagnosed when enough teachers conclude that the child’s behaviour is that disruptive that there must be something wrong. This sets the tone for almost every discussion I have had about my ADHD, whether with teachers, friends, or doctors. And I say that you hide this from yourself; the teachers do not want to admit that they are not skilled enough to deal with me, and no one wants to blame the struggling parents, or brand the child as broken. So instead you tell me (and one another) that it is not my fault, that I cannot help it. It is the fault of something else which I am struggling to control. You target this medical ‘other’ and attempt to medicate it away, and the true issue of this is that it is not an ‘other’ – it is me.

I am not saying that ADHD does not exist and that my behaviour is ‘typical’; I am saying that I do not experience ADHD in the way you talk about it. The ADHD which you have in your mind does not exist in mine.

It is one thing to observe a feature of a behaviour (self-harm) and trace it back to the person’s brain in attempt to find a cause for it (a chemical imbalance); but it is another thing to judge that behaviour as bad, and then believe that that badness is a feature of the behaviour which is caused by a ‘broken’ brain. Put in another way, when you think of ADHD, you likely think of that disruptive child who will live a life in and out of prison without order and direction. Rarely do you think of that creative artist who is blessed with a boundless imagination; that athlete who has an unlimited reservoir of energy to draw from; or that journalist who is willing to ask the difficult questions and challenge the authority in pursuit for justice. Even if you surprise me and tell me that you do think of those things, it should nonetheless concern you that I, and others who have ADHD or have experienced it, do not think that you do.

ADHD becomes more than just a word for ‘bad’ behaviour, it becomes a codeword for bad person – it transcends a judgement of behaviour and becomes a judgement of identity. You think of ADHD and you think of the sort of person who has it, just consider how this is represented to children with Bart Simpson, Denis the Menace and Horrid Henry. I related to these characters as a child not because of how they acted, but because of how they were treated – I did not break into houses, damage property, or carry a slingshot, but I was expected to. Now as an adult I see these characters as representations of what society thinks of me: a horrible menace who never grows up.

The problems which I and others have with how ADHD is portrayed in society goes far deeper than complaints about its negative association with crime, or how whenever I achieve something positive it is in spite of my ADHD, and even how the prevailing belief is that ADHD only exists in classrooms with children. These things are serious issues, but they are the result of something more deeply entrenched – the medical dialectic of the condition itself. With less jargon, the way we frame and conceptualise ADHD is reflected by how we talk about it, and we are limiting our ability to express how it feels to have ADHD by teaching children a language which makes them discuss it as something which they ‘relate’ to. I do not ‘relate’ to my ADHD, I do not feel like I need to ‘control’ or ‘cope’ with it; ADHD is who I am. Telling me that I will ‘grow out of it’ or ‘learn to cope with it’ not merely patronises me (and makes me feel underdeveloped because I have not grown out of it), it causes me to think about my experience of ADHD in terms which do not pertain to my lived experience. There is no ‘me’ and ‘it’; there is this aspect of what makes me, me; and you are trying to medicate it away. My feelings of isolation and misplacement, being broken and underdeveloped, even the existential dilemma of wondering whether ‘the real me’ is the one on or off medication, is not a feature or product of my ADHD. It is a feature and product of how you make me talk about it.

I find myself caught up in a web of language when I reflect on my ADHD. It is as if language is the thread with which I weave my thoughts and beliefs, but this thread has certain bends and twists which manipulate the shape of whatever I create. I then struggle to tell apart the features of my beliefs which I intended to be there from those which the thread forced it to hold. The first step to a better representation of ADHD is the formation of a language by those who have ADHD, rather than the created classroom dialectic designed by those people who made my condition into a problem.


Dr. David Ellis is a Lecturer of Philosophy, Ethics and Religion at Leeds Trinity University. He researches the overlap of religious language, belief and experience, and can be contacted at d.ellis@leedstrinity.ac.uk and at Twitter @David_Ellis95

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