When we talk about ADHD in general, we often talk about it from the perspective of something that is looked at from the outside. We talk about symptoms that can be observed, and we talk about people with ADHD or people who have ADHD.
But if you actually are one of those people, you experience ADHD from the inside, which is a little different. That’s why when I’m talking about the experience of having ADHD, I often find myself referring to people who live with ADHD rather than people who have ADHD.
ADHD is something that, when it affects you personally, is a constant and inseparable part of your life.
My shoes are something that I have. My keys are something that I have (on a good day). My ADHD, however, is something that I live with.
One of the biggest challenges to coping with ADHD, and often one of the biggest obstacles to diagnosis, is being able to match up your lived experience of ADHD from the inside with clinical descriptions of what ADHD looks like from the outside.
The challenge comes partly from the fact that when ADHD is something you live with, it’s all you know. When you look at ADHD from the outside, as something that someone has, you can see that some people display the symptoms and some don’t. But when you experience ADHD from the inside, as something you live with, you don’t really know what’s normal and what’s not because you don’t know what it would be like to live a life without ADHD.
Learning to cope is an exercise in learning what it means for you to live with ADHD – how ADHD influences your life and your experiences. Here’s where therapy comes into play, along with ongoing self-reflection and learning to connect the dots between how ADHD symptoms are described from the outside and how they feel from the inside. Then, once you spot an area where ADHD has an impact on your life, it’s a question of figuring out what can be changed and what can be accepted.
If this process doesn’t sound simple, you’re right. Medication can definitely move the process forward, but it doesn’t allow you to bypass the process altogether.
For that reason, I’m not a great fan of the analogy between ADHD and nearsightedness, in which meds become the equivalent of eyeglasses for your brain. As a nearsighted person, I know exactly when a problem in my life is caused by my mediocre vision. I still don’t always know when something is an ADHD symptom, a personality quirk, something that everyone struggles with, a symptom of a comorbid condition, or some combination of all of the above.
The one similarity between nearsightedness and ADHD I do find compelling is that before I tried glasses, I didn’t know that struggling to see things the way I did wasn’t normal. Just like before I got diagnosed with ADHD and tried meds, I wasn’t aware of what it meant to not have inattention and impulsivity constantly undermine everyday life.
That’s where the feeling of epiphany in an ADHD diagnosis, the flash of insight, comes from. It comes from suddenly closing the gap between the description of what it means to have ADHD from the outside and the feelings of what it means to live with ADHD from the inside!