If you ask me about how I was like as a kid, my recollection is that I was shy and liked to draw a lot. My parents, however, remember it differently.
I grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn until I was about 10. My parents, having emigrated from Ukraine around the time I was born, struggled immensely with making ends meet. I attended a not-so-great public school, which broke their hearts, because they moved to America so that I could have a better life and the education and freedom they didn’t have in the Soviet Union.
Adding to their list of problems was the fact that I kept being put in the lowest level classes every year. They talked to teachers, who would complain that every time they spoke directly to me, it was like I heard nothing, like their words vaporized around the imaginary force field around me.
They took me to doctors, one of whom theorized that I would develop schizophrenia because I walked on my tippy-toes sometimes and hardly ever talked, while, as I remember it, all I wanted to be was a ballerina.
My parents never treated me like there was anything wrong with me, so I grew up believing that I was simply lazy, and that it was something I’d grow out of one day.
About a year ago, my mom showed me a book called Healing ADD: The Breakthrough Program That Allows You to See and Heal the 6 Types of ADD.
"Read the section about Inattentive ADD," she said. "It's you."
There it was -- all the obstacles I had faced growing up, every symptom an exact description of what my day-to-day life was like. Incredible difficulty reading. A tendency to daydream nearly all the time. Extreme messiness. Inability to adequately follow through with assignments. And the kicker? Many people with this type of ADD (the second most common type) are never diagnosed, but simply written off as careless and slow.
My childhood memories came into focus as I remembered a teacher standing over me and making me clean out my desk in front of the whole class, which was littered with crumpled papers and candy wrappers, and saying "Look now, you've wasted everyone's time."
I remembered how I always felt so stupid, because I didn't like reading, because the mere attempt at reading almost always proved to be futile. I would start at the top of a page, totally fine, and then see a word or phrase in the middle of the page that would cause me to sidetrack. I would ponder this while my eyes would still scan the page. Then, I'd snap out of it, already on the fifth page, and realize my brain had not actually processed any of the words -- that I simply grazed over the text without letting any of it seep in.
Now I realize that I wasn't just "lazy" or "stupid."
And looking back, I'm grateful I was never put on medication, because I don’t need it now, and, in some ways, I’ve grown to appreciate the brain that I have.
To be clear: I'm not saying that if you do have ADD that you can get by without medication. If you think you have it and feel that it disrupts your life, you should, by all means, see a doctor and talk about it, as there are multiple variations and everyone will react differently.
But there are ways to help yourself focus without popping pills and feeling like a defunct piece of machinery. These are my suggestions:
Take Note of Everything, Especially Deadlines
I know you've probably heard it before -- it's the dry, passive-aggressive remark tossed at you by teachers and bosses every time you forget something. I always thought I was above it, but, honestly, ever since I started using the little "Post-it" app on my laptop, I've been significantly less stressed out about everything. I have never, in my entire time at college, turned in something late, except the one time when I was in the hospital. I don't "miss" deadlines for jobs or competitions. Missing a deadline can mean no apartment, no job, no financial aid. But just because the stakes are high doesn't mean things aren't manageable! Simply having a visual reminder can change everything.
Focus On Your Assets
Just as depression can make some people more observant and people with Asperger Syndrome can be more mathematically inclined, ADD can definitely help you tune in creatively.
For me, one benefit of drifting off constantly in school was my ability to come up with little stories in my head and weird art that my parents collected for some reason.
Eventually, I started to write these ideas down, and decided that, hey, if I'm going to daydream in history class, at least I'd be doing something productive. I wrote short stories, song lyrics, and little notebooks full of poetry. I never did anything with most of it, but these were the building blocks that led me to get accepted into the college of my dreams to study dramatic writing, and I'm glad my bizarre mind took me there.
Really Get Into What You're Reading
While reading has gotten easier and easier as the years have gone by, I still have the same issue. What helps me is to find a specific time and place to read in the middle of the day when I’m not exhausted, because that’s when focusing becomes a challenge. I reward myself throughout the week by giving myself hour-long intervals of time where I can just go into a nearby Cosi and read.
Another thing that helps is doing a little research on the subject -- who wrote it? Why? What was the historical and social context? Is there a cool movie adaptation to watch after? Sometimes knowing a little more about the piece can help spark more interest and keep your thoughts more guided. It helps me.
Lastly, if you do find yourself zoning out, don't get frustrated. Try to calmly go back to the last part you remember and reread. It's OK!
Get Your Game On
Over the summer, when editing a resource guide at my campus job, I discovered Lumosity.com, a website aimed at helping boost your brain power. You can do a trial run and create your own program based on what exactly you want to improve, and you get all these different games that can help with memory, attention span and response time. The coolest part is you can track your progress and see how you've improved. There are several different payment plans to pick from that are pretty reasonable, and it’s a great thing for everyone to do, whether you have ADD or not.
Fresh Air and Exercise
When I'm in the city, I walk as much as I possibly can (unless it was pouring out, I’d walk the 30-something minutes it took to get to the xoJane office, every time.) When I'm back home in New Jersey, I take long walks with my mom every day, which are especially wonderful in the autumn. Getting fresh air and physically moving does something to your brain that makes you focus a little easier, and, also, it gives you the chance to be able to drift into thought. Which brings me to...
Let Yourself Dream
So, I have this thing that every prospective roommate should know about me: I take long showers. Like, at least 45 minutes, but that's if I'm feeling particularly rushed. Obviously, I take everyone's schedule into consideration (I always half-jokingly ask if either my roommate or her boyfriend need to pee because I'm about to shower, which usually results in him jumping off the couch immediately).
It's just a thing I do -- once I get in, I enter daydreaming/casual pondering about the universe/humming the entire soundtrack to Les Miserables mode, and that mode is damn hard to snap me out of. But, as my roommate is cool with it and it’s something we joke about, I embrace it. It's nice to just stand there and let my mind go where it wants to go, without having to snap it back into place all the time. Also, stress is a huge factor in being unable to focus, so some stress-free un-focusing for a designated period of time is a great way to feel motivated and attentive later on in the day.
Treat Yourself Like a Normal, WONDERFUL Person, Because You Are
There are moments that I get really frustrated with how I function, and there are days where my thoughts are more scattered than others. But, one has to remember: defining a perfect mind is like defining a universally perfect person -- erm, impossible. I find comfort in knowing that the very sexy Adam Levine is outspoken about his ADHD, that there are truly successfully people out there who could have very easily struggled to keep up in school and even feel okay about themselves.
The trick, at least for me, has always been treating myself like a normal person with high expectations for myself, rather than someone who needs desperately to be "fixed." And so far, it's been working perfectly.