Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is characterised by problems paying attention, hence “attention deficit”. For whatever reasons, people with ADHD tend to flit like butterflies from one focus of obsession to the next, usually fidgeting the whole time. It might not be one of the most severe mental illnesses, but it’s still capable of severely degrading a person’s quality of life.
People with ADHD often do things without remembering. The cliche is of a person with ADHD hearing their phone ring from the fridge, where they mistakenly put it because they thought it was a carton of milk or similar. This is common because attention has to be paid to something before it can be remembered, and a person with ADHD might have been paying attention to the thoughts in their head instead of the phone in their hands.
Also common for people with ADHD is struggling to complete tasks owing to having difficulty sustaining attention. They might start to complete a task, only to get distracted by something they noticed, and then to get sidetracked from that by a particularly unusual thought (the potential comedy value of such a thing should not be overlooked!).
The experience of having ADHD is, much like many other conditions, one of having too much chaos in one’s life. A character who has it will tend to be very disorganised, for the reason that paying attention to a task long enough to get it done is difficult (and rare).
Writing about this from a first-person perspective will be exhausting. Not only will it be hard to sustain for long, but it will seldom be necessary, for the reader should get the idea very quickly. For this reason, it’s hard to write from a stream of consciousness perspective here. Subtlety will have to be employed to describe an environment that reflects the impact of a person with ADHD.
As with many mental disorders, it’s easy to confuse ADHD with other conditions on account of apparently shared symptoms. A character with ADHD might appear psychotic to another because of a rambling conversational style that leaps from subject to subject. They might also seem dull-witted to someone who’s trying to teach them something that isn’t very interesting.
It’s also distressing to have ADHD (in most cases), and so many symptoms of it are those that are common to other mental disorders and which are ultimately stress-based: insomnia, anxiety, irritability, nausea, low self-esteem etc.
A lot of ADHD-induced behaviour can be mistaken for being on drugs. A lack of apparent ability to pay attention might be explained by another character as drug influence that is forcing the character with ADHD to pay attention to their inner world. The stereotypical caffeine high of jittery behaviour and staccato speech can also be hard to distinguish from a bout of attention deficit. It doesn’t help that use of drugs is common among people with ADHD.
For a variety of reasons, the personal experience of ADHD is frequently one of frustration. The condition itself is frustrating, because it’s hard to get things done and so chores and errands tend to build up and become stressful, but also the world, and its responses to ADHD, are frustrating – and often cruel.
Part of the story of a character with ADHD, then, might be about their experience as an outsider, for two major reasons.
The first is rejection by their peers. People with ADHD, especially as children, tend to behave in ways that lead to low social status. They are often not fun to be around because the fast talking and constant fidgeting puts others on edge. Worse, their attentional deficits can lead to a failure to process speech and body language cues as efficiently as someone without ADHD, degrading the social value of communicating with them.
Someone with ADHD might have trouble finding a friend who has the patience to listen to their machine-gun conversational style. On the other hand, if they do, it is more likely to be a genuine friend. There’s a good chance that the friends of people with ADHD have bonded with them by way of a shared experience of being an outsider.
The second is rejection by society. Society expects its charges to conform to a certain pattern: a pattern of passive, obedient consumerism. A character with ADHD might have trouble fitting into this pattern, because they find it boring as all hell (for good reason). Modern life is experienced by many as a cage, and few people feel this more keenly than those with ADHD.
This can lead to a kind of outsiderhood that brings with it bitterness, but it can also lead to characters who live highly unconventional lives owing to being unable to fit in with the demands placed on them by the standard work place. A character with ADHD could easily be a hero (or anti-hero) who rejected the excessive sobriety and mindless strictures of society in favour of a psychonautic life of consciousness exploration.
It’s easy for a person with an ADHD diagnosis to believe that the problem isn’t with them but rather with the world. After all, the demands of modern schooling are extremely unnatural if one considers that the human child has evolved to suit an environment that contains infinitely more novelty than a school classroom.
Indeed, there is some debate over whether ADHD is a mental disorder at all, or if it’s just a label given to those who have a high desire for stimulation and novelty. The biological past was a far more dangerous, violent, unpredictable – and therefore, exciting – place than the modern classroom or workplace, and it’s not realistic to expect all people to be easily able to make the transition.
It might be that your character is capable of distinguishing themselves from the majority of people with their condition by overcoming it and mastering an area of particular interest. People with ADHD sometimes are better at paying attention than the average person, as long as the subject matter appeals enough.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.