Let me give you two pictures of ADHD.
The first is of a disorder that’s basically about being a little more scattered than usual. You have a harder time concentrating, you don’t plan ahead well, you get bored easily, you’re impulsive, you have a hard time staying organized and keeping on track.
The second is of a disorder that changes every aspect of your life. It makes you less likely to graduate school, it sabotages your career, it messes with your relationships, and it affects your health.
If you point to any individual ADHD symptom in isolation, it’s hardly going to sound like something that could ruin your life. In fact, it might even sound like the kind of thing everyone has – yeah, who doesn’t have trouble focusing sometimes?
There are exceptions, of course. For example, when a slip of attention takes place behind the wheel of a car, the consequences can be devastating. Mostly, though, an impulsive action here, a failure of planning there, none of it sounds like anything to write home, much less a psychiatrist, about.
And yet, we know from a lot of research that ADHD has a real impact on pretty much every aspect of people’s lives. So what gives?
What gives is that ADHD isn’t about one specific catastrophic symptom that you can point to and say “Look! This exact symptom is what makes ADHD so serious.”
ADHD is about something more insidious than that. It’s about how lots of little moments add up to become patterns that merge together to alter the course of your life. ADHD is about lots of little things adding up to one really big thing.
Sure, overlooking a detail here or there isn’t a big deal. But when you overlook a detail here and another detail there, and then show up late, and then rush through a project because you left everything until the last minute, and then miss some important piece of information because you weren’t listening – at some point your boss or your colleague or your teacher or your significant other is going to start wondering if you really care or if you’re lazy or selfish or just incompetent or what.
Anyone who’s ever procrastinated knows all about little things adding up. It’s so easy to put an item on your to-do list off just one more moment, and then just another moment after that, until you reach the moment where there really isn’t another moment left to spare and you wonder how things got so out of hand.
The fact that ADHD is about lots of little things adding up to change your life in profound ways is what makes it so hard to develop insight into the condition. It’s easy enough to catch this inattentive moment or that impulsive action, but to see how you’re living in an entire web of these moments and actions takes a lot of work that probably never really ends.
This is also why so many people with ADHD have a little voice in their head that whispers doubts about whether they really have ADHD or whether ADHD really even exists long after they’ve been diagnosed. There’s no one clear symptom you can latch onto and say “Aha! This is what ADHD is about and this is why I have it.” Instead, you only have the cumulative effects of underachievement, outright failure and low self-esteem to work with.
It can be tough going. The human mind basically isn’t made to understand how lots and lots of little things add up to one big, meaningful thing. Sure, we know there are billions and billions of atoms that add up to the universe we live in, but we’re not good at understanding it.
But for those of us with ADHD, trying to understand it is pretty much the only way forward, and it’s more than worth the effort because the more you can see how your ADHD symptoms add up to create larger forces that shape your life, the more you’ll have a solid idea of what ADHD means for you and how you can best live with it.