Guest Blogs

Words Matter: On the ADHD Narratives We Allow Ourselves to Believe

“The realities we create, and how we experience them, are limited only by the words we use to define them. That means that we always have the ability to create counter-narratives to challenge oppressive or dehumanizing ideologies. All of these ways of thinking began with words and, therefore, can be dismantled with words.”

Throughout my life, I have battled a secret enemy.

Invisible to most, but there nonetheless, my antagonist challenges me when I read or write, in daily conversation, or when I try to give someone my undivided attention. When my foe gains ground, my attention is often scattered, and my brain slips into overdrive – assessing, processing, thinking, thinking about thinking, and fighting to be present and engaged with others.

My adversary is formidable yet easily hidden in the recesses of my brain, where it patiently waits to attack in the moments when I most need to be attentive. My foe is ADHD. And after years of fighting this nemesis, I think I have finally learned how to transform its hold over me into a gift.

It is difficult to convey, especially to the individual without ADHD, just how trying my symptoms can be at times. Imagine sitting in a room full of people all talking at once. Now, try to zero in on one of the many lively conversations. Can you? Let’s assume that, after much effort, you can. Suddenly, for whatever reason, you can no longer focus on that solitary conversation. Multiple conversations begin desperately vying for your attention. The noise, volume, and chatter are just too much. You become so overwhelmed that you must run out of that room to safety. When you do make it out, it’s too late – the conversations have infiltrated your mind. No matter what you do, your mind can’t stop replaying everything you just heard. There is no escape.

Multiple narratives and dialogues run through my mind almost constantly, guided by whatever has managed to grabbed my attention. Each thought leads to another; each sparks a connection, blending in with other thoughts in a cohesive way that I do not fully understand.

Because I must pay close attention to what people say, words exert a powerful hold over me. In conversation, in passing, in my surroundings – every word I hear spawns others. ADHD often tries to rip words from my grasp, so I race to define and analyze them before moving on to the next one. The frenzy of activity in my mind often makes for disjointed, fractured moments.

[Read: What Does It Feel Like to Have ADHD?]

When I come across a new word, I rush to look it up, almost compulsively. With each flip of the page in my dictionary, I feel as though I am making a discovery, getting closer to a secret that is waiting to reveal itself. When I find the word, a stillness falls over me. After memorizing its meaning, I turn to the Greek or Latin root word. Sometimes, I lament how the original meanings of some words have become diluted. But then I consider how each word has a life and history of its own, which has shaped communication throughout the ages.

My mind is rarely content with stillness. During my professor’s lectures, in a desperate attempt to anchor my attention to the material, I frantically take notes or look up relevant information on Wikipedia. But while I am engaged in these attention-anchoring activities, I find myself ruminating – over whether I can get an A in the class, if I completed the assignment correctly, and even if my dog is okay in his crate. If, what, what if, this and that – all of these extraneous thoughts fracture my attention, making it difficult to complete the task at hand.

Oddly enough, my fractured attention is the means by which I experience a deeper form of learning. Multitasking is a daily occurrence for me, and I have never encountered the inefficiency of multitasking that troubles so many people. When I write, for example, I have to listen to music just to focus my thoughts. Somehow, it taps into my subconscious, and to my many internal narratives of and dialogues. Sometimes when I struggle to find the right word, I hear a verse from an artist and that elusive word comes to the surface. Music powers my brainstorming and writing process, which in turn deepens and broadens my learning and understanding.

[Read: 8 No-Fail Focus Tricks for Adults with ADHD]

In his seminal book The Archaeology of Knowledge(#CommissionsEarned), Michael Foucault writes about how power is exercised through language. He outlines the ways in which leaders construct conceptual references with words to influence the narrative by which many of us live our lives. These narratives, then, constitute the little stories we tell ourselves to navigate the world and to make sense of our reality. In my last few years, I have come to appreciate the power of words, as well as the potential realities they unlock. We have the capacity to assign meaning to anything we experience. The realities we create, and how we experience them, are limited only by the words we use to define them. That means that we always have the ability to create counter-narratives to challenge oppressive or dehumanizing ideologies. All of these ways of thinking began with words and, therefore, can be dismantled with words.

When it comes to ADHD, could we change the language we collectively use to describe its impact on our lives? My reality, and the way I process, retrieve, and use information are all informed by my ADHD. I am the product of my fractured moments and competing narratives, all merging into a way of seeing and appreciating the world – especially the power and beauty of words. Why would I wish to trade that away?

The Power of Words with ADHD: Next Steps

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Updated on May 12, 2021

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