How Not To Be A Dick To Your Friend With ADHD

People with ADHD have gotten the “why don't you just pay attention/try harder/get organized” speech by well meaning and not so well meaning strangers, friends and family members hundreds of time.
Publish date:
September 13, 2013
mental health, how not to be a dick, adhd, adderall, ADD

My name is Meghan and I have inattentive type ADHD.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (formerly known as ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It has three subtypes: inattentive type, hyperactive-impulsive type, or combined type. I'm oh-so-lucky you guys and I've been diagnosed not once but twice with inattentive type, though this is the first time I've publicly discussed it.

I'm not the first person with ADHD to keep their diagnosis on the D.L., but the general public is rude as hell about invisible diagnoses. So today, I come to you with some personal anecdotes and general rules about how not to be a dick to your friend who has ADHD.

And while it should go without saying I want to make it clear that I am not attempting to speak for everyone who has ADHD. These are based entirely on my own experiences and frustrations but I think that those of you who have ADHD will relate.

1. Never EVER say “I'm so ADD lolz!”

This statement is actually true of any neurological/developmental/mental disorder -- but man is it frustrating to hear when you have ADHD. It's rude, inaccurate, and not actually funny. When people say this, it diminishes the experiences of those of us who are struggling to manage our disorders.

I understand not everyone has the means or access to be professionally diagnosed, so I recognize it's not my place to tell anyone to just get a diagnosis. But this also doesn't give you carte blanche to claim you have a neurological disorder when really you just drank too much coffee.

2. Enough with the jokes.

Speaking of things that aren't funny, enough with the squirrel jokes. By all means, make fun of something I have no control over, you are just so clever. Next thing we know you'll be making fun of people who have Tourrette's by imitating their vocal tics, because you're just so edgy.

Seriously though, “squirrel/shiny object” jokes trivialize our disorder and reduce it to a single symptom. For ADHD peeps, our attention wanders and we can be easily distracted by new things. But if someone trusts you enough to reveal their diagnosis to you, don't make a joke about it.

3. Oh and by the way, ADHD isn't just about a lack of focus.

While it's true I have been diagnosed with inattentive type, having trouble paying attention is hardly where the diagnosis ends. According to the CDC & the DSM-5 someone diagnosed with inattentive type also has trouble being and staying organized, difficulty paying attention to detail, is forgetful, and loses things often. The full diagnostic list for both types is at the link.

So while I do have trouble paying attention, I am also quite forgetful (I have been known to forget what I was going to say mid-sentence) and I lose things all the time, which is less than helpful when you struggle with organization as well. For people with hyperactive type, it's a different experience. I can't speak for how different the experience is, because I don't have combined type or hyperactive type, but inattentiveness is the very tip of the iceberg.

And of course, in addition to having ADHD by itself many people have co-morbid diagnoses of anxiety and depression which is a particularly fun mental health cocktail, let me tell you.

4. But you're not a child! Isn't this just a learning disability?

While it is true ADHD does have a huge impact on how people learn, it is not just a learning disability. It impacts all of us who have it in our day-to-day lives regardless of age or enrollment status. Trouble with organization isn't just being unable to find your homework, it's being unable to keep your apartment clean because you're overwhelmed by the thought of keeping it in order. Forgetfulness isn't just forgetting you have a test until you walk into class on test day (been there, done that, it sucks); it's forgetting your boss asked you to take care of something three times and you still haven't done it.

Having ADHD has life-long, real world implications. Don't even try to tell us otherwise.

5. Shouldn't you have grown out of it? Can't you just pay attention?

I have actually had a licensed physician say this to me, in spite of being given the same diagnosis by two different professionals over a time span of 10 years. She said I was probably just going to “grow out of my ADHD,” and didn't need medication and anyway she didn't prescribe it (BTW, anyone want to recommend a good primary care physician?).

People with ADHD have gotten the “Why don't you just pay attention/try harder/get organized” speech by well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning strangers, friends and family members hundreds of time. Trust me. Just like you can't make a heinous sinus infection go away by trying really hard, if you have ADHD, you cannot simply pay attention by trying really hard. If it were just about trying harder, then we would have already done so. It's about brain chemistry and we can't just wish that away.

6. “ADHD was totally invented by Big Pharma.”

It is ironic to me that the majority of people who complain about “big pharma” are neurotypical, able-bodied people, with no history of mental illness or long-term physical illness. There is actually some evidence that ADHD has been documented as early as the 1700s.

It's easy to blame stuff on “Big Pharma” because it's an idea you don't actually have to fight. While people can and do live their lives without ever taking medication for ADHD, there are many who do and have a better quality of life. What is needed is an engaged discussion about the impact of large pharmaceutical companies on our health and society, not telling people their diagnoses aren't real.

7. No, I will not commit a federal offense for you.

While we are on the topic of medication, it's none of your freaking business if someone is taking medication because you are neither their doctor nor pharmacist. Don't ask about it. But if someone does share with you that they are on medication to help manage their ADHD, for goodness sake, don't ask if you can have some.

First of all, almost all medications with an on-label use of managing ADHD are controlled substances. This means that it's a felony to even share the medication, let alone sell it. Second, it is a prescription medication that is closely monitored by a medical professional for a reason. The side effects, as with most prescriptions, can be serious and life threatening.

You wouldn't take someone's heart medication just because you had a little chest pain would you? Having a big project, a term paper, or wanting to lose some weight are your own problems and you don't need someone else's medication to deal with them.

8. Don't think I don't like you because I sometimes have trouble being a "good" friend.

People with ADHD can be forgetful and disorganized. We appear to flake on plans, forget birthdays or other important information, and we may come across as impolite in conversation. Sometimes we will interrupt the conversation. These characteristics are part of our diagnosis and we are (hopefully) working on coping with these problems in a healthy and meaningful way.

So if we get you a birthday card a month after your birthday, it's not a weak gesture. We're doing it because you're our friend, we like you, and we like being friends with you. And really, isn't friendship about accepting someone's struggles and faults and liking them regardless?

So those are some of the things I have personally dealt with, but I'm sure that there are many other “Actually ADHD” peeps who can and should contribute to the conversation. Have you had any luck (gently) educating people about ADHD? What kind of mystic sorcery did you use to accomplish this? Please share your experiences in the comments!