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ADHD and Scholarship

I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, after taking time off from school because I was melting down from the stress I put on myself, and how unnecessarily difficult everything related to scholarship seemed to be for me. I think a lot of people struggle with the same issues that I was struggling with (and still am): productivity, procrastination, wanting to feel like we’re doing our best work, focusing and giving deep attention. I need to write about these things to say that, while they affect all of us, they are that much harder for those of us with ADHD. I’m being open about it with most everyone, because I think my case is not unusual, and I think it’s important to know we’re not alone in the things we struggle with.

The thing is, it’s not always so easy to diagnose ADHD. And its effects go way beyond having trouble with homework: it affects basically all areas of functioning one needs as a responsible adult. I need to remind people of that because in this society it’s easy to dismiss signs you see, to put off going to the doctor, to dismiss problems that might arise from ADHD as character flaws, or to think people with ADHD just wanted extra time for their tests.  I went for 21 years without a doctor properly recognizing the signs–I “passed” because I have a special talent for ad-libbing and grinding out decent work–but it finally got to me in a big way. Even when there aren’t many external signs–perhaps when you’re performing “average” by your own standards–it can really be affecting you internally (again, this was the case for me).

I’m talking about these things so that I have somewhere to point people to when they ask about how ADHD might affect aspiring academics, or when I just want to explain more about my own ADHD. Mostly I need to say this because there are a lot of things that really ate me up, that I really beat myself up about, that ended up having a partial biological basis out of my control.

For years and years of my schooling, I insisted to parents and teachers that I didn’t feel I was learning deeply, that I didn’t feel I was doing my best work, that I was cut up about having bad work habits but couldn’t seem to change them. Mostly people were confused and a little dismissive, especially before college, because objectively I did so well in formal schooling–very high grades and test scores. Neither they nor I knew better than to think I was being a high-strung perfectionist and worrywart with my standards. But, and I realize this more in hindsight, the internal struggling was real, and I am so glad to have part of an explanation for it. I really started to think I was crazy for feeling the way I did about my work; I just couldn’t figure out why the disparity, and I’m bad at settling for not understanding.

Here are some things I beat myself up for as a student that I now understand to be partially related to ADHD: Procrastinating and “getting away with it” by receiving decent grades (not enough motivation to change my lazy, awful habits, I thought). Very poor test taking skills in college (when the tests started to not be trivially easy; if I had to focus, I failed. And there was a spiral effect: for every test that I did badly on and confused my professor by how badly I did, I felt more pressure to show that it was an anomaly, and the next time went worse.) Not starting assignments til the last minute, even when I enjoyed and engaged the class: and then convincing myself that I wasn’t really learning anything, I was being lazy. Not being dedicated enough to mathematics–because, I thought, who in their right mind aspires to be a professor when she can’t handle basic undergrad classes all the time? Not being cut out to do academic work: because I was bad at organizing my time, because I clearly couldn’t learn on my own, because I didn’t always get through all my reading and go beyond, because I felt I could be distracted by practically anything. These thoughts ate up so much of my time–I can’t begin to describe how much.

So here it is: we all struggle with these things as aspiring scholars and teachers. It’s normal, and we’ve got to support each other through all that. But sometimes it goes beyond what’s normal anxiety or troubles, and that’s when it’s time to enlist all the help you can find and figure out what’s going on. Please, please don’t assume you’re a bad person, or you’re just not cut out for what you want to do. Give yourself a chance first–the best chance–by finding all your options for knowing yourself and how your mind works, how to manage yourself, with medical intervention or talking it out or otherwise. It’s so worth it–and it can catch up with you if you neglect your mental health.

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