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“What I Learned About My ADHD Brain on Quarantine”

I organize my days around external activities and schedules. When my daughter was exposed to COVID-19 and my family was forced into quarantine, I learned that losing that framework could send my ADHD brain into a spiral of aimlessness and time distortion. The fix? Fun.

My daughter is a first-year medical student. A few weeks ago, she flew to a medical conference in New York. As I write this, traveling on an airplane seems like a delightfully whimsical concept from an earlier time — like eating ice cream in a public place, or sending your kids to school.

After her trip to New York, my daughter came home for a brief visit. And then we got word that people who had been at the conference were testing positive for the illness. We were told by her medical school that we should quarantine for two weeks, just to be safe.

Many people under quarantine suffer from a sense of isolation, and while I do have great sympathy for them, that’s not been my experience. My nephew, his wife, and their baby live with us. My son was home for spring break. In total, there were seven of us in the house. That’s a lot of people in one house, especially when one is a demanding toddler.

Four or five days into our quarantine, my nephew asked me if I could remember the last time he’d taken his ADHD medication. At that moment, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken my ADHD medication. I couldn’t remember what I’d done yesterday or what I’d eaten for breakfast.

My nephew and I both organize our days around external activities and schedules. Without that framework, we’d both slipped into what I like to think of as toddler time — check your phone, feel anxious, wander around the house looking for something you’ve lost, check your phone, feel anxious, go to the kitchen to look for tasty snacks, check your phone, and maybe try to remember what you did with your time before life ground to a halt.

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To be fair, many neurotypical people have been experiencing the same kind of aimlessness and time distortion throughout this pandemic. But I have to remind myself that fighting aimlessness and time distortion is my everyday normal now. Also, I have tools to help me, which is easy to forget.

My nephew and I resolved to help each other out. Every morning, we remind each other to take our medicine. We’ve asked the non-ADHD people in the house to remind us, too. It’s more important now than ever before.

And we’ve started a group schedule. Those of us who are not working from home take two-hour shifts with the baby so everyone gets a little done. Yesterday I spent two hours helping the baby move puzzle pieces from one dish to another. She learned how to count to four. I consider this a much better use of my hyperfocus than spending two hours reflexively and obsessively checking my phone for updates on my daughter’s lab results.

Perhaps the most important item on our communal schedule is Roofball. At five o’clock every day, we gather on our fenced back porch to throw a big rubber ball on our long sloping roof and to take turns catching it. Attendance at Roofball is mandatory, though we haven’t had to enforce that rule. Everyone wants to go outside. Everyone wants to play Roofball. It’s a lot of fun.

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During this time, we are all focused on safety, and keeping life as normal as possible. That is as it should be. But the one thing I’ve learned is that people with ADHD have a low tolerance for unhappiness. Fun is desperately important for us. Schedule in fun time. If you can safely go out to the yard, do that. If you can’t, play games inside. If you’re alone, play online games. Stay on a schedule, take your medications, but make sure to have fun.

After two weeks on quarantine, my daughter tested negative for it. We are overjoyed and relieved, but also sobered. I’d like to think we are ready for whatever comes next.

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