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The Real Lessons You Learn In School
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People don’t understand ADHD.  They think we can’t focus.  The truth is, we hyperfocus on things that interest us, which is often not what we should focus on.  Very few students enjoy homework, so for someone with ADHD, focusing on homework is almost impossible.  There are so many more enjoyable things we could do, and technology, though wonderful, opens the door to even more distractions.

Many people don’t believe in ADHD.  When I first tell people I have ADHD, they dismiss my complaints.  They think I'm one of the “children” misdiagnosed because they get bored in class or have too much energy.  But I’m not hyperactive and I am certainly not misdiagnosed.  They judge my ADHD without ever seeing me struggle in class or with my homework.

Friends make the same mistake.  If I complain about my ADHD (sometimes you just gotta vent!), they come back with, “Well, I have all these extracurricular activities so I get home late every night,” trying to prove their lives are harder than mine.  Still, they get A's and B's while I fail classes.  I can’t have any after-school activities, because my homework takes so much time.  I get distracted so easily, I mean really easi...

The computer, the blessed, yet cursed, computer, is calling me.  It’s whispering, “Leila, you don't need to do homework yet.  You have plenty of time.”  Its virtual arms reach out, dragging me into the depths of the Internet.  “Look at all these things you could do instead of homework!  You could write fan fiction, play computer games, chat with friends...  Come on.”  I’m hypnotized by its enticing voice, its gilded promises of fun and freedom… freedom from the pressures of school and the realities of life.

If I listen to you,” I protest weakly, my hand already reaching for the laptop in front of me… “if I follow you and have fun, I'll only be more stressed out and anxious later... But... No! I won't do it! I will do my homework so I can relax later!”

My psychologist taught me empowering arguments; they give me the strength to jump up from my chair and snatch my textbook, notebook, and fountain pen.  I always write with a fountain pen, a fountain pen given to me by my physics teacher when he saw me changing a pen nib in his class.  He gave me this one so I wouldn't have to change nibs anymore.  It's beautiful with a white, marbled plastic exterior and gilded nib.  I’ve worn off most of the gold using it so often.  The cap doesn’t fit anymore and just falls off, so I put a piece of...  Arrgh!

I’m distracted again!  Back to my homework!  My bedroom is quiet, which helps... sort of... I open my textbook, but that seductive voice calls again. “Leila,” the laptop murmurs, its voice a self-satisfied purr because it knows it has my attention, “don't fight me.  We both know what you really want… me.”  I slowly turn to face it.  I can imagine its proud smirk.  “What's the point in school or homework?  Everyone tells me I'll have trouble in school, but I’ll succeed in life.  Why fight fate?  Is school really that important for an aspiring novelist?”

Yes, it is,” I shoot back, stopping my hands from reaching for the laptop and my favorite Web sites.  “I toured Stanford… their wonderful creative writing department and their programs for studying abroad.  If I want to get into my perfect school, I need to get my grades up.  I have to do my homework.”  I feel stronger reminding myself of my goals.  “I’ll deal with you later.”  I close the laptop, forcing it to leave me alone.  It goes to sleep with a disappointed sigh.  I proudly turn back to my homework only to feel the even more enticing vibration of my cell phone.

Leila,” it chirps, its innocent facade hiding a malicious intent, “your friend messaged you.  Don't you want to chat with her?  I know you love writing your stories together.”  The cell phone has a point.  My stories are always better, more real, when I write with a partner, and I’ve never found one more brilliant.

My hand automatically reaches for the device.  I read the message, smiling.  I type a reply, glancing over my shoulder whenever I hear a noise so my parents won't see I'm not working.  I hate to disappoint them.  My partner and I exchange messages, weaving an exciting story of emotions and plot twists.  A knock on my door makes me jump.  I quickly hide the phone, pretending to read the textbook as my dad opens the door.  I look up, the picture of innocent study, but he notices the notebook page is blank.

How's the homework coming, sweetheart?” he asks.  I can see the stress of the day etched in his face and I feel guilty.

“Fine, Daddy,” I reply innocently, years of drama classes paying off in a convincing lie.  Dad nods, believing the lie and making me feel worse.

Let me know if you need help staying focused,” he says.  I nod, feeling defensive.  I always get defensive when my parents try to help.  My subconscious is trying to convince me I have no reason to feel bad, that they are at fault for not trusting me.

The moment the door closes, I'm back on my phone.  The next time I look up is also because of a knock on my door.  It opens more quickly this time, not giving me enough time to hide the phone.  Caught, I tell my mom, “I've been working, but the Ritalin wore off, so I'm taking a break.”  She looks skeptical, but accepts it.

Dinner's ready,” she tells me.  “Come set the table.”

What!?  A glance at the clock tells me five hours have slipped away and I haven't done a bit of homework!  I feel awful, but nod.  “One minute, Mom, I'll be right there.  I just need to finish something.”  She nods so I finish typing my reply and a promise to return later.

After dinner, I while away another hour before the alarm goes off to remind me if I don’t do my homework now I’ll be in a lot of trouble tomorrow.  I can’t finish everything, but at 1:00 am, I give up and go to sleep.  I’m falling further behind and I know it.  I promise myself tomorrow will be different… but it’s exactly the same.

I want to do well in school.  I really do try to succeed, but I get so easily distracted when I don’t want to do something.  Even though I've had ADHD my entire life, my junior year of high school is the first time I've failed a class and I hate that.  I feel like a failure and it hurts my already bruised self-esteem.  I know I could do better if I finished the work and turned it in.  When I complete an assignment, I get an A, but I just can’t complete them, so my grades suffer.  My goal of getting into a good college is so close I can almost taste it, but it’s always just out of my grasp; the worst form of torture.

It's hard to stay motivated.  I've worn a trench beneath my feet, plunging me deeper into the earth with each bad grade.  When I finally seek help, the walls are too high for me to climb.  I see the sky, but no matter how hard I fight to be free, no matter how many strategies and schemes I devise, despite a lot of help, I can never quite reach it.  If I stand on my toes and stretch, I can just feel the warm rays of success on my fingertips, but I can’t pull myself up.

Of course, in addition to my distractibility, worry and stress feed my ADHD, helping it grow until it suffocates me.  If ADHD is the pit I’m stuck in, stress is the shovel I dig it with.  I say "dig" and not "dug" because it hasn't stopped.  I sink a little more every day.

I know I will not escape my self-imposed prison this year.  It's simply too late.  I take consolation in knowing it will be better next year.  I've been working with a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a school counselor, and, most recently, an ADHD coach to try and fix the mess my ADHD and I have made of this year.  They all help me in different ways:  the psychiatrist prescribes my ADHD medications and deals with their physical side effects; the psychologist helps me cope with stress and other emotions; the school counselor helps me work with my teachers to make things easier; and the ADHD coach teaches me strategies to help with my focus and homework problems.  I owe them so much and only wish I'd reached out to them sooner.

The ADHD coach is the most helpful, and is the one who’s made the biggest difference in the least amount of time.  She helps me schedule time for different assignments and to prioritize them.  I can text her when I get distracted and she helps me get back on track, and she helps me stay motivated.  She also helped me understand how ADHD was affecting me.

Everyone has internal arguments about whether to work or procrastinate, but in an ADHD brain, the neural activity in the executive functions center of the pre-frontal cortex is lower than most peoples’.  The voice of reason and responsibility that tells me to get to work, and warns of the consequences if I don’t, isn’t nearly as loud as the ADHD voice that pulls me away.  I hear the reasonable voice and I want to listen, but ADHD’s voice drowns it out.

This year I learned my most important lessons the hard way.  Always, always seek help immediately when you start to fall behind.  My problems were not caused by laziness.  My distractibility is not a personal failure, but a symptom of my ADHD.  I learned I don't have to struggle alone; there are people willing and ready to help me.  And I learned I am not a failure.  I am an intelligent, creative young woman with a bright future ahead of me.  And that is what truly matters.

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