Learning Terms for Things I’ve Lived With

About a month ago, I joined a FB group for women with ADHD, and it’s been really fascinating. Part of it has been learning terms for things I’ve lived with all my life (like time-blindness), part of it has been seeing women struggling with much more severe ADHD than I have.

There was a recent post in the group, and she used her name, so I’m not going to quote it directly, but to paraphrase, she asked:

‘Do you know someone that claims to have ADHD and yet they’re the most focused person you know?…. I feel that it diminishes or belittles the struggles I go through; I work so hard and only get a quarter of the things done that they do.’


I hate to think that people might be reading my blog and feeling diminished because they’re struggling with their ADHD when apparently I’m not. Maybe it’ll help if I lay out a few of the ways ADHD does affect me?

I take the lowest standard dosage of Vyvanse, and that’s enough to ‘clock’ me up to close to neurotypical processing speeds, enough that I can focus and get things done reasonably until it wears off. I suspect I look neurotypical to most folks, and even highly capable. But there’s a lot going on under the surface that isn’t visible on Facebook, or even in real life.

Keep in mind that I’m 51, I’ve been living with this all my life (undiagnosed until mid-40s).

I’ve gotten very good at what’s called ‘masking’ — presenting or performing social behaviors that are considered neurotypical; it’s a survival strategy, and not something I ever decided to do consciously, but it’s clearly there in most interactions with other people, including colleagues, friends, even my nearest and dearest; it’s absolutely habit now.



This is hard to explain if you’re not familiar with how fidgeting works, and I’m a not a doctor or a psychiatrist or an ADHD coach, so let me just speak for me personally.

For me, at least, ADHD is misleading with its name of ‘attention deficit disorder’ — it feels more like essentially an ‘excess’ of attention. I pay attention to everything — squirrel!!! — bright shiny thing!!! — new idea!!! — and so my eyes and thoughts are constantly being dragged around, making it hard to focus.

If you’re in a meeting I’m running, you may see me trying desperately to stick to an agenda, while twenty new ideas pop out, in between agenda items. (Sorry, SLF and Serendib folks! I hope you’ve mostly learned to just scribble down the ideas that might be useful to come back to later, and just ignore the rest.)

When I fidget, that occupies the part of my brain that wants to jump around, and makes it easier for the rest of my brain to focus on the things I want it to focus on.

Ugh — I’m not sure that was a good explanation at all, but hopefully it’s vaguely helpful. Some of the ways that manifests:

– I probably don’t look hyperactive to most people around me. I’m not even sure I’d test as hyperactive. But that’s because in a lot of situations, I’m exerting all of my available willpower (which is exhausting) to keep from visibly fidgeting.

– it is almost impossible for me to read these days unless I also have music playing; I can’t stay focused on the page for more than a paragraph. I only figured out the music hack a few years ago — before that, it was just getting increasingly difficult to read, which was tremendously distressing, as well as making my job much harder to do well.

– I’m a writer –I go to readings fairly often. It’s part of the job. They’re torturous for me. Sitting still for more than 10-15 minutes is really difficult, unless the subject matter is fascinating enough that hyperfocus kicks in — it’s super rare for that to happen at a reading, or in a concert, or a dance performance, no matter how good the artists are.

– The worst are the group readings when there are four of us together in the front of the room, so that for 45 minutes or so, I have to be visibly still and paying attention to the other readers, while I’m trying desperately not to move; it’s sometimes close to panic-inducing. I HATE that format; it would be so much better for me if the readers could be in the back of the room, and just be called up when it’s our turn to read.

– I’ve recently realized that at some bookstore readings I’m just attending, if the space is conducive to this, I don’t have to be trapped in a chair near the front — I can just not take a chair, and hover in the back of the room, so I have the option of unobtrusively moving around as needed while listening to the reading with as much focus as I can manage. That’s SO much easier for me.

– Plays and movies are easier to sit through, I think because they’re more immersive to me? I’m not sure. Although even there, I fidget far more than my seatmates, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll probably see me tapping my foot.

– Sometimes, when I’m in a situation where it’d be really distracting to others to see me fidget (say, seated at a funeral, for example), I have to deliberately tense and relax leg muscles in order to keep myself from moving. (It honestly amazes me how easy it is for most people to just sit still.)

– Zoom calls have been really helpful in this regard, because it’s much easier for me to take them on my laptop, standing at the kitchen counter, where I can move my legs a little if I need to, without others noticing

– someone I know recently mentioned that she knits pretty constantly through her days of Zoom calls, since her colleagues can’t see her hands moving below the screen, and I think I need to find a truly mindless stockinette project I can try that with.)

– I tried bringing my knitting to a department talk once, and it was much easier for me to pay attention to the talk; unfortunately, it’s not a social norm for neurotypicals to do that, and people were clearly distracted by my knitting, so I reluctantly put it away after a bit.

– If I were in a situation where I’d be doing such meetings weekly or more often, though, I think I might make the effort to try to normalize it. (I’ve had students knit through my classes before, and it’s fairly common at SF conventions to see people knitting in the audience.)

– This affects personal relationships too — I have friends and lovers who feel really hurt when I don’t seem to be paying attention to them; it feels like I don’t care about them, that I don’t make them a priority.

– my friendships are easier with people who don’t mind that I’m doing twenty other things while I’m on the phone with them, or even when they’re here in person. In fact, it’s probably a sign of intimacy, a sign that I feel relaxed with you, that I can stop masking and pretending that I don’t need to move.

– if I’m moving around while I talk to you, it doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention; it means I feel secure in our relationship, and in fact, doing stuff with my hands makes it easier for me to pay *more* attention to you. But sadly, it won’t read that way to a lot of neurotypical people, and so I force myself to sit still, as much as I can.

– that even comes out in things like board gaming; I had a good friend recently who I realized was getting upset because I seemed distracted when we were playing a board game. For him, I think it felt like I didn’t care about the game, and by extension, that I didn’t care about him. And of course, board gaming usually happens in the evening, or very late at night, when my meds have long worn off, so the effect is very acute.

– the last time we played together, I suggested (since we both had flexible schedules that day) that we try playing in the morning instead (after I’d taken my meds), and that went MUCH better. Not only was I able to pay attention to the game in a way that felt emotionally engaged and intimate to him, I also could concentrate better, and gave him a much more competitive game than I would normally.


Okay, this has gotten long, and I have to go prep for a 10 a.m. podcast recording, so I’m going to pause here. But I want to come back and talk about at least one other aspect of my ADHD that probably isn’t so visible, the way barely suppressed panic becomes a motivating force for getting things done.

Picture of yesterday’s Thai-style green peach salad with grilled steak. I did forget to add the cashews, oops, would make it even better! Excellent use of green peaches! 10 out of 10, would recommend.

(Another thing about people with ADHD is that we mess up things a lot, like running out of fruit protective bags and then when a second order of bags finally arrives, forgetting to bag the rest of the peaches, which means the squirrels knock them down before they’re ripe. We often get very skilled at improvising. Which is another masking behavior — learning how to turn failure into the appearance of success. And I *still* forgot the cashews, even though they were sitting right out on the counter next to the rest of the ingredients, where I’d deliberately left them so I wouldn’t forget them….sigh.)

Editing to add follow-up posts here: https://maryannemohanraj.com/2022/08/08/on-panic/

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