“If I Only Knew Sooner”
I wonder how different my college experience would have been if I had been diagnosed earlier.
The scene was set. The coffee shop was quiet, but not too quiet. My essay outline was open in front of me and my computer was on airplane mode. All around me, students sat in front of laptops, typing their way to another successful semester while sipping overpriced lattes. I, too, was about to join their ranks.
Two hours later, I had written three sentences and memorized all the lyrics to “My Shot” from the Hamilton soundtrack.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between procrastination and ADHD. Even now, after receiving a formal diagnosis, I occasionally wonder whether I’m not just a weak-willed person hiding behind a serious-sounding disorder. In college, these doubts were constantly affirmed by a campus culture that normalized the image of the anxious chronic procrastinator shaken out of his or her complacency by the panic of approaching deadlines. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that just keeping up shouldn’t be this hard.
It’s not that I didn’t try. I always loved learning, and I desperately wanted to be a better student. For years, I scoured the internet for productivity tips and followed them religiously (for a little while). I eliminated distractions (though they kept cropping up anyway). I saw a therapist, who told me that I couldn’t concentrate because I had anxiety (though I suspected that my anxiety was caused by my lack of concentration, not the other way around). If my grades were good, it was only because I spent every waking moment compensating for wasted time. Each day was an uphill battle, and I kept losing ground.
The internal pressure crescendoed when the time came for my senior thesis. This was the capstone of our undergraduate career, a 30- to 40-page research paper meant to show off our writing chops. For me, the pressure was extra high: I was editor-in-chief of our department’s academic journal, so I was in charge of reading other students’ theses and deciding which ones were worth publishing. Now, it was my turn to show the world how it was done.
Instead, I lost it. All study techniques went out the window in the face of the enormity of the assignment. Just thinking about it made me queasy. As graduation approached, the stress became so overwhelming that my immune system went on hiatus, meaning that I spent the last months of my senior year with a case of chronic tonsillitis that had me in and out of urgent care more times than I can count. It was during one of those visits, while scrolling mindlessly through Facebook in another beige hospital room that smelled of antiseptic, that I came upon an article that described something called “inattentive ADHD.” It was a revelation. It felt like I was reading my own biography. I set up an appointment with a psychiatrist the next day and got my diagnosis about a month later, soon after I graduated.
Getting diagnosed with ADHD didn’t fix everything: Finishing my thesis was still difficult and concentrating hasn’t gotten any easier. What the ADHD label did provide me with, however, was legitimacy. For the first time, my problems didn’t feel like the complaints of an overworked college student. They felt real and, most importantly, surmountable. While I’m grateful for the newfound validation, I wonder how different my college experience would have been if I had been diagnosed earlier, if it didn’t take my body shutting down to finally consider the possibility of a disorder.
I also wonder how many other college kids would benefit from hearing that their struggles are worthy of notice. It’s hard to look for help when you don’t realize you need it. ADHD or not, all college students would benefit if we collectively stop assuming that quiet suffering is a normal part of higher education.