Misunderstood: The Lives of People with ADHD - Handel Behavioral Health
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Misunderstood: The Lives of People with ADHD

September 26, 2023

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Amy Mauro

“A lot of people see ADHD as something only really hyper or overly-active children have. When you’re an adult and struggling to stay on top of your work and meet deadlines, people who don’t understand ADHD might see you as being lazy or ignorant.”

Jonathan sat across from the psychiatrist, tapping his feet against the desk and fidgeting with every object he could get his hands on. 

A curious and bright six year old boy, Jonathan was constantly getting in trouble for not paying attention or following directions. 

Now, twenty years later, Jonathan says, “To people who don’t understand ADHD, it seemed like I wasn’t paying attention or absorbing information, when really my brain needed some external stimulation to focus.”

The diagnosis for ADHD was clear, and the psychiatrist went on to prescribe Jonathan with Adderall. 

“Once I started medication, it was a complete and obvious shift in my behavior,” he says. 

Like the estimated 6 million children diagnosed with ADHD in the US, Jonathan found that behavioral management skills, organizational strategies, and special education services- in combination with the medication- helped him manage his ADHD symptoms. 

After experiencing feelings of depression in high school, and finding it difficult to stay organized and on task at school, Ashley was diagnosed with depression and ADHD. 

When Ashely got to college, and the depression lifted, she went off the antidepressant but depended on her Adderall prescription for meeting deadlines and staying on top of her coursework. 

“I wasn’t abusing my prescription because I knew that if I ran out of it I wouldn’t be able to get anything important done,” says Ashely. “But I was definitely approaching the medication with the intention to complete my biggest tasks of the day,” says Ashely. 

Ashley wanted to manage her time effectively, and commit herself to healthier lifestyle choices that would help her find balance without the medication.

In honor of ADHD Awareness month, we’re sharing the lived experiences of Ashley and Jonathan, two individuals who have been diagnosed with ADHD. The following stories show us that everyone’s experience with ADHD, its symptoms, and its effects on their life are honest and unique. It’s also true that many people with ADHD share common experiences and traits which can help to build a supportive community. 

We’ll hear from Greg Handel, PhD and Clinical Supervisor with HBH to learn more about what ADHD is, how ADHD presents itself, and what treatment with mental health care providers can involve.

ADHD From a Clinical Perspective:

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a complex neurodivergent condition that impacts the executive functioning parts of the brain.

Greg explains that people with ADHD may have difficulty organizing, remembering instructions, staying on track, and following through with tasks. These are the signs associated with executive function challenges.

What are the common traits of ADHD?

Many traits of ADHD are problems with executive function. A person with ADHD may experience: 

  • Difficulty planning and organizing activities 
  • Difficulty prioritizing and sequencing steps to complete tasks
  • Easily distracted when completing tasks
  • Trouble meeting deadlines
  • Trouble regulating emotions
  • Showing up late to appointments, events, meetings, or social activities
  • Losing essential items for work or daily activities
  • Lacking motivation to execute and complete tasks
  • Difficulty with multitasking
  • Impulsivity and poor decision making
  • Difficulty switching between tasks

The Hyperfocused ADHD Brain

While many people with ADHD have trouble focusing on tasks that aren’t interesting to them, some people with ADHD experience deep and intense concentration, called hyperfocus. 

“When people with ADHD experience hyperfocus, they may absorb themselves so completely into an activity that they become unaware of everything around them,” says Greg. 

While this level of intensity can be channeled into creative projects or difficult tasks, it can be challenging for people with ADHD to step away from the task they’re immersed in, in order to complete other pressing responsibilities.

Jonathan’s Early Experiences After Being Diagnosed with ADHD

Once Jonathan was formally diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medication, his parents helped him develop coping mechanisms to succeed in school and at home. 

“My parents helped me develop this behavioral rating card that I’d bring to school every day for my teachers to fill out and send back home. It was a helpful tool to monitor and reward my positive behavior and performance at school,” he says.

Jonathan’s parents helped him create predictability in his day, and made sure that he had opportunities for movement, and breaks to “reset” between tasks. Charting his responsibilities in order of importance also helped him focus on completing one task at a time.

Alongside working with his psychiatrist, who monitored the appropriate dosage of medication, Jonathan’s parents and teachers helped him plan out when to take his medication. 

“Even after getting medicated, my stimulatory responses didn’t go away. I was always doing something with my hands or tapping my feet to stimulate my body,” says Jonathan. 

To people who didn’t understand ADHD, it might have looked like Jonathan wasn’t paying attention, when really, he needed another source of auxiliary dopamine to focus and absorb information.

Adjusting to Adult-Life with ADHD

Nearing the end of high school, Jonathan was on a low dosage of his medication and using the organizational habits he’d learned over the years.

“When I got to college, I was feeling confident about not being medicated. It quickly became difficult for me to juggle between classes, tight deadlines, social life, and extracurricular activities,” Jonathan says. 

“It would take me almost three hours to write a one-page essay, and tight deadlines always led to feelings of overwhelm and anxiety,” he says. “It was like my brain was moving faster than I could write- I was always bouncing to the next topic.”

Jonathan knew that he needed to get back on medication. He also found it helpful to utilize the accommodations that his college offered for students with ADHD. 

“At first I felt self-conscious about asking the teacher for extra time on a test or an extra day to finish an essay, but I knew that without those accommodations I’d struggle,” says Jonathan.

Now, in his adulthood, Jonathan says that he’s able to “commiserate” with others who’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and share similar experiences.

“A lot of symptoms of ADHD showed up in my life that I didn’t realize were symptoms of ADHD until I began talking to people about our shared experiences,” says Jonathan.

Through his own self-awareness, Jonathan has realized how commonly misunderstood and stigmatized ADHD is. 

“A lot of people see ADHD as something only really hyper children have. When you’re an adult and struggling to stay on top of your work and meet deadlines people might see you as being lazy. I think that as more people start talking about what ADHD is, the more we can be supported and understood,” says Jonathan.

Ashley’s Experiences After Being Diagnosed with ADHD

Like many people who take medication for their ADHD, Ashley turned to her prescription to improve her performance in college. 

“I’d take apart and stash out how much of my medication I’d need for the upcoming work week- to complete a project or study for an exam,” says Ashley. “Then I’d have to mentally prepare for the come-down the next day.”

“I wasn’t abusing my prescription, because I knew that if I ran out of it I wouldn’t get anything done,” she says. “But I definitely felt tired of depending on medication to be productive and create valuable work.”

Ashley started to question the long term physical effects of Adderall and wondered what she would accomplish without the medication.

Finding Alternatives to Medication

When Ashley stopped taking her prescription, she knew it was time to be honest with herself about her lifestyle choices that were making it inherently difficult for her to stay on task and balanced. 

“As I began to make small lifestyle changes- like exercising regularly, eating better, smoking less, and sleeping more- my self-esteem improved and I found myself focusing and getting my work done,” says Ashley.

To this day, Ashley wonders if she really needed medication for ADHD. 

She also admits that she’s the type to multitask, and bounce around different ideas and projects at one time.

“When I was on medication, I could decide when I needed to be hyper productive. Personally, I found that lifestyle to be unsustainable and inauthentic with the way I approach my work,” says Ashley.

She also says that people with ADHD tend to be very reactive to their environment, so they need to be careful of the environment they put themselves in, and ideally, the structures of their environment will shift to meet their needs.

What treatment for ADHD can involve

Treatment for ADHD depends on the individual and the severity of their symptoms. 

Greg Handel explains that effective treatment for managing the symptoms of ADHD may involve medication, behavioral management, skills training, and psychological counseling.

  • Medication for ADHD

The types of medication, stimulant or non-stimulant, that doctors prescribe for ADHD depend on the individual’s specific symptoms. Not all people with ADHD will respond to the same medication in the same way. 

Always talk with your doctor or psychiatrist about medication use, dosage adjustments, side effects, risks, and benefits.

  • Therapy for ADHD

In therapy, individuals with ADHD learn preventative and coping strategies to help them manage their symptoms and navigate life’s challenges. Oftentimes, family members will participate in counseling sessions to better understand their loved one’s condition, and how to best support and interact with them.

Behavioral Therapy:

Behavioral therapy typically involves learning behavior-changing strategies and coping skills for dealing with life challenges. It can involve learning organizational skills, time-management skills, and how to reduce impulsive and/or disruptive behaviors.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) strategies may also help individuals with ADHD overcome their challenges in everyday executive functions that are necessary to effectively manage time, organize, and plan for short-term and long-term obligations. 

It may also focus on helping the individual build emotional self-regulation and stress management skills. 

  • Alternatives Treatments for ADHD

Certain lifestyle changes can also help individuals with ADHD improve their physical, emotional, mental, and social environment. Some of these measures can involve: 

  • Getting enough sleep and practicing good sleep hygiene
  • Regular physical activity
  • Avoiding too many sugary, processed foods
  • Practicing mindfulness or yoga
  • Managing and following routines
  • Having visible and concrete deadlines, upcoming events, and tasks: to-do lists, calendars, alarms, reminders, or sticky-notes
  • Keeping workspaces organized and free from clutter and distractions
  • Breaking tasks down into smaller ones
  • Maintaining designated spots for keys, wallet, bills, and important documents
  • Taking regular work-breaks

Finding ADHD Treatment in Massachusetts

ADHD can be difficult to understand on your own but with the right mental health provider, you’ll be able to understand your symptoms and develop personalized coping strategies to meet life’s challenges. 

Our therapists at HBH are here to help you find the right treatment and develop the necessary tools to lead successful, self-determined, and authentic lives.

We offer counseling and psychiatry services online, and in-person from our offices in Amherst, Franklin, West Springfield, and Wilbraham Massachusetts.

Contact us today at  (413) 343-4357 to make an appointment!

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.

Greg Handel Headshot

Greg has more than 35 years of experience providing positive life supports for individuals, couples and families. He has worked in several different environments including inpatient and outpatient mental health centers, rehabilitation facilities, congregate residential settings and in private practice. More About Author →