ADHD in College: Struggles and strategies with my neurodivergence


I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 4 after I bit a girl on the arm because she had stolen a crayon from me. Before that point though, I had already been a problem child in school, with this incident simply being the last straw. I was restless, made bad decisions, and struggled more than my peers to understand why the things I was doing were wrong. The school I went to asked my parents to take me in for a diagnosis, and after my parents and my teacher answered some questions on my behalf, I was officially diagnosed and prescribed medication.

The struggles didn’t stop after I was handed some medicine though, as I was still very different than majority of the people I knew. Growing up, it seemed like nobody struggled in the ways I did. I had trouble picking up on social cues, two of the three medications I’ve been on hindered my ability to express emotion and socialize, feeling stuck and unable to do things at times, intense surges of emotion, and a lack of understanding from role models all plagued, and still plague my day-to-day life.

It hasn’t been an easy road, but through each struggle, I’ve found ways to get by. Ways that I believe can benefit a lot of people who suffer from what I suffer from.

Inability to Start Tasks

One of the most frequent issues I’ve struggled with is an inability to motivate myself to start a task. Whether it’s chores, homework, or even things I want to do like go out or watch/play something, it sometimes can be physically impossible. Sometimes I’ll get stuck in a state psychologists refer to as “analysis paralysis,” where the brain becomes so overwhelmed by whatever I should be doing, that it simply decides to do nothing, no matter how much I fight it.

How do you trick your own brain to start on tasks? Well, if you’re anything like me, the crushing weight of last-minute pressure or disappointing someone in your life is a perfect motivator. I’ll sometimes ask a friend or family member to sit by me and check in on me from time to time. This is especially helpful when I don’t have medication, but it does not work all the time.

Many of us with ADHD struggle with Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) – feeling emotions more potently than others do, which makes even the slightest perceived criticism or off-hand remark debilitating at times. In those instances, we can take advantage of something called body doubling.

Body doubling involves having another another person help you stay on task by being nearby and keeping your focus where it needs to be from time to time. This is why I often find a study partner for school work. This can help motivate that part of the brain that doesn’t want to disappoint someone, helping hold you accountable and thus letting you get work done.

Keep in mind that everyone’s ADHD is different, we’re on a spectrum after all. My techniques may not work for you, but they have helped me progress through my academic career. This helps me most of the time, and also at times when I don’t have access to medication due to shortages.

Intense Emotions

Becoming overwhelmed happens to me so easily, it has been my biggest hurdle in life. Things that may not seem big, important, or stressful to others, sometimes feel like they might put me in a coma. From things as little as me forgetting to say hi to someone or someone not saying hi to me, to things as big as missing an important event, it all feels equally painful in my mind. It’s a mix of fear and grief that comes and goes at random times.

This overwhelming state doesn’t just affect negative emotions though, it also can make good feelings, no matter how small, feel explosive and euphoric. However, in my life, I’ve unfortunately learned to be careful about how much excitement I show. People who don’t understand are often quick to shut it down, completely destroying the emotion.

Sometimes negative emotion can trigger anger spirals – bouts of intense frustration and rage. Things may be thrown or pushed, screams may come out, crying may take hold, but eventually, it does settle. A coping mechanism for this can change where the emotion gets placed. Never, ever, take emotions like that out on people. Focus on the situation instead. Do what you need to do to refocus, just don’t don’t drag someone else along for the ride.

Sadness is another emotion that plagues the ADHD mind. Overthinking can make you believe that just because someone looked at you in a certain way, that they’re mad at you. Or, because they said something a certain way, they don’t like you. It’s a hard feeling to overcome, but there are ways to overcome it. This may not work if your mind is overwhelmed or there’s too much going on, but taking the time to sit and ask yourself why you feel that way helps a lot. Look back at previous interactions, ask what others things may be going on for that person. Ninety percent of the time, they’re likely not upset at you.

People Don’t Understand or Believe

Before I say anything, if you suspect a person doesn’t believe in ADHD, there’s not much you can do in my experience other than just let them be and limit interaction with them. These people have always been the worst to interact with in my experience. Not everyone we meet in life will be so keen on taking the time to get to know you and what you need, especially when their opinion of you is that you’re lazy or just don’t care.

“Everyone has a little ADHD,” “Just focus,” “Nobody else is struggling,” and “You don’t need those drugs,” are all incredibly hurtful things to hear, and they’re things that I’ve heard all through my life. Stigma leads to shame and invalidation makes you question what you know. ADHD is a very real thing and it’s not something that ever goes away, we just get better at living with it. Don’t let someone tell you that your struggle isn’t real or that your experiences aren’t valid, they’re wrong. Sometimes it’s hard, especially if it’s a parent putting you down or a role model, but a support system can be found everywhere whether it be in your school, online, or just a group of friends. You’re not alone, and the life you’ve lived matters.

This can be especially challenging in a school setting where the environment varies by classes. Expectations and course requirements can vary, yet all be a priority. As anyone with a disability knows, academic accommodations are like magic and can make life much easier. The accommodations I’ve had in school are extended time on assignments and having a note-taker provided by the school. If it hadn’t been for these things, I don’t think I would have made it this far in my education. The struggles we face are real, and we don’t always have to face them at a disadvantage.

Neurodivergence often goes misunderstood by many, and it’s unfortunate because it makes the things we experience just that much more of a struggle, leaving out the important aspects about the person living with it. It’s not easy sometimes, but there are ways to get by and people who will be there for you. I hope this helps.

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