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Reflections on Navigating Life with ADHD

by Claire Fultz, DSW, MSc, MSW, LCSW-C, CCM

A high school student vividly recalls a day marked by a familiar afternoon daydream. Lost in their thoughts, they were abruptly jolted into hyper-focus by hushed chatter in the hallway, centered around them. The rising temperature in their cheeks mirrored the surge of social anxiety as they processed the words spoken about them.

The words stung. Accusations of laziness and speculations about the use of ADHD as an excuse to secure advantages in academics felt like a personal attack. Their achievements suddenly appeared invalidated, and they wrestled with the notion that seeking support somehow made their journey easier, akin to a “free ride.” Tears welled up as they grappled with the frustration of being unable to tune out the hurtful conversation, despite being perfectly focused, preoccupied even, on their internal turmoil.

The label of “lucky” for having medication struck a nerve. Little did others know that ADHD felt akin to attempting to watch every television channel simultaneously. It was an eternal challenge where they felt little control over the ever-elusive wellspring of internal motivation. In fact, motivation seemed to have a life source of its own, appearing and disappearing with seemingly no rhyme or reason. It entailed a constant struggle to initiate and complete simple, mundane tasks. It involved days of hypervigilance and days of perpetual mental fog, both resulting in a relentless hurdle in the pursuit of accomplishing goals. Hearing teachers say, “You’re smart, if only you’d apply yourself,” became an all-too-familiar refrain.

Successful initiation of those tasks not immediately motivating felt like a distant, desired haven, completely out of reach. The individual would rush toward it, only to slam into a wall of task inertia, unable to find the tools to climb. Paralyzed, they watched as the wall grew taller. It was never a matter of not wanting to climb. Their feet felt cemented in place, rendering them stuck. The cement turned to quicksand, and hopelessness and shame became their regular companion as they wasted precious hours grappling with task initiation and inertia that all of society was screaming they should be able to do.

As they grew older, this struggle deepened, accompanied by social anxiety and eventually generalized anxiety. Surprisingly, anxiety became an unexpected ally, pushing them to complete tasks through a sense of fight or flight. If the world was on fire, they could act without hesitation, surmounting the task wall and achieving their goals. However, this was unintentional, and in the absence of crisis or hyperfocus, the inertia persisted.

Supportive words from loved ones, executive functioning coaching, therapy, psychiatry, and most importantly, a fresh perspective on their operational mode initiated profound change. With a proper understanding of ADHD and the appropriate support, a sense of relief and emotional growth washed over this high school student. The ability to manage tasks, like “normal” people, felt incredible. It marked the beginning of a journey to adapt their environment to optimize their functionality, replacing years of internalized shame with a newfound appreciation for their crisis response skills. It initiated a shift to understanding ADHD as an asset, not a curse.

This journey reinforced a reality that ADHD struggles are not indicative of personal failure but rather stem from the challenges inherent in navigating a world not designed for those with ADHD, a world where there is pressure at every corner to meet neurotypical expectations, and an overall lack of understanding of the unique gifts of people with ADHD. ADHD struggles are not shortcomings but rather invaluable opportunities for personal growth, adaptive learning, and evolved perspectives.

Furthermore, this experience underscored the significance of not internalizing negativity from others, refraining from measuring personal success through the lens of external judgments, and consistently approaching everyone with empathy and compassion. These principles have become an intrinsic part of the high schooler’s core values, guiding them through adulthood as they continue to navigate life’s obstacles with resilience and a perpetual commitment to dismantling barriers along this journey of life with the gift of ADHD.

  Claire Fultz, DSW, MSc, MSW, LCSW-C, CCM is Director of Mental Health Services at Jewish Community Services

Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence.  To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.

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