People with ADHD may have a tendency to misplace things, but here’s one thing we never forget to take with us: our ADHD symptoms.
ADHD symptoms are mobile like that. You can have them in a lot of different places.
In fact, one of the criteria for being diagnosed with ADHD under the DSM is that you experience symptoms in more than one setting. So if you have trouble focusing at work but you’re a model of sustained attention in every other aspect of your life, that in and of itself wouldn’t suggest ADHD.
On the other hand, if you can’t focus at work and people always complain that you don’t listen to them when they talk and you often have trouble reading more than one paragraph in a book without zoning out, something might be up.
It might seem like a technicality that the DSM requires having symptoms in more than one setting as a criterion for diagnosis, but it actually highlights an important part of ADHD: although we often talk about how symptoms show up in school or workplace settings, these symptoms can affect every aspect of people’s lives.
ADHD symptoms affect the way you interact with other people socially. They affect the way you build romantic relationships. They affect how you organize your life and your home, and how you make decisions about your health. They even affect how you perform everyday tasks like cooking or driving, sometimes with implications for your safety.
If you notice the same problems cropping up in different areas of your life, that can be a telltale sign. If inattention, procrastination, disorganization, impatience, forgetfulness, lack of self-control, an inability to cope with understimulating situations, etc. are pushing things off the rails in multiple parts of your life, that’s something to take note of: the common thread is your symptoms, rather than a particular situation, which is what the DSM criterion of having symptoms in multiple settings is about.
A similar question to ask yourself is whether these symptoms carry across through different phases of your life.
When I was in high school, before I was diagnosed, I somehow thought that all my symptoms would go away when I went to college and was in a new place. Then again, you can’t really blame me – neither teenagers nor people with ADHD tend to win awards for self-insight.
Of course, when I got to college, things just got worse, and I’ve learned by now not to expect that changing environments will change the way my brain works. You can go to a different place, but you’ll still have the same symptoms. (Which isn’t to say that some environments aren’t a better fit for someone who has these symptoms, but that’s a separate topic.)
Thinking about how your symptoms show up in different settings can be useful for a few reasons. If you’re going to talk to a mental health professional for a possible diagnosis, it’s good to be aware of how your symptoms cut across different aspects of your life because it’s probably something you’ll be asked about. And if you already have a diagnosis, this line of thought can yield new insights into what impact ADHD has on your life and how you can manage your symptoms.
They say that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. In the case of ADHDers, though, we sometimes forget to pay our taxes, so even that isn’t true. But ADHD symptoms are certain. They’ll follow you even more closely than the IRS. Hence the importance of learning to accept and live peacefully with ADHD – no matter what different place you find yourself in, on some level you’ll still have the same symptoms.
Image: Flickr/Michael Yuen