When I was twelve years old, my history teacher set me an unusual detention. I was to write down on a piece of lined paper the reasons that I hadn’t done any of the homework she had set – and no excuses were allowed, she wanted the real reason. I wrote the most honest answer I could – that I really didn’t know. The essays didn’t seem insurmountably difficult, I had no difficulties finding space or time to do them, I was, sincerely, very interested in history (though, it must be admitted, not really in her classes) and I did, truly, want to do well at school. The honest truth was that there was no fathomable reason for not having done any homework – and yet I still hadn’t done it, not any. Needless to say, she was less than satisfied with my essay along these lines, and ripped it up and put it in the bin as soon as she had finished reading.She wasn’t the first teacher I would infuriate, and she certainly wasn’t the last. I wasn’t a troublemaker, I didn’t get into any fights or break many school rules, I was punctual and respectful to teachers, but I just didn’t do any work, not even in my favourite subjects.
To take an obvious example, I was already writing short stories and reading classic literature when I started high school, so English classes should have been a breeze. But no. In my first year the English teacher was a semi-retired former PE teacher, and a typical assignment would be to copy out, say, “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies” from a photocopied sheet in our best handwriting. My best handwriting was still appalling, and that was on the work he did see, which was very little indeed. A year of this and I was put into a lower English set, which was ok for a while as we had the wonderful Mrs Maxwell (the only teacher I will name here), but still I wouldn’t or couldn’t (in the words of another good teacher) “show them what I could do,” and a demotion later, subsequent English classes were much less friendly, the next teacher tetchy and aggressive, my set of fellow students mostly uninterested in the subject. Every term we would be set a new book, and large portions of classes were set aside for reading aloud, which meant listening to my classmates enunciating each word painfully slowly, until I could take it no more and would start reading pages ahead, until I heard “Ok, now James” and I would say “sorry, which page are we on” and then there would laughter from other kids, a telling off for daydreaming, and quite likely a detention.
This was for English, my favourite subject, so you can imagine how badly my maths classes went.I don’t really want to blame my high school, or (most of) the teachers there. They were doing an OK job as far as the vast majority of the students were concerned – if one kid was too lazy to do any work then that was just par for the course. It was my responsibility to do my own work and nobody else’s. They once made an effort to get me to sort myself out – one teacher informed me that I was the subject of debate in the teachers office and should “take advantage of this opportunity.” I had no idea what this meant at the time (and I don’t think I know now either) so I did nothing, and the result was that I was “put on report” and had to carry round a card to be stamped after every class, alongside the truants, troublemakers and the more problematic special needs kids. This didn’t help. By the end of high school I had been thrown out of technology class and wasn’t even entered into the English literature GCSE. I was humiliatingly removed halfway through a history class and put in the lower group geography class instead, a subject which apparently neither I nor the school cared about. Uniquely in the entire school, I had free periods where I was required only to show I was there, then keep to myself at the back of someone else’s class, reading a book, drawing a map of an imaginary country, or writing another story.
That’s the kicker here. I was always reading or writing something – just not what I was supposed to be reading or writing. At times I tried to use this reading or writing in class, but it never fitted at all. Our RE teacher once gave us an “investigative project” in which we were supposed to compile the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I immediately got to work on a Raymond Chandler style detective story titled “The Case of the Missing Body” and had completed a few pages when the teacher decided to start her own investigation into what I was so busy with. She picked up the pages, read for perhaps ten seconds, then ripped it up and put it in the bin.
That was a shitty thing to do, but again it’s not fair to blame her for my disenchantment with school. There were about 500 students there in total, a national curriculum to stick to, targets to meet. There clearly wasn’t time to change everything just to match the interests of one weird kid. But I can’t help wishing that one teacher could have noticed me reading and writing, taken an interest in what I was doing, praised me for something, shown me how to direct my energies towards the kind of attainment they wanted.
Fortunately this wasn’t the end of the road for me. I finished high school with just about enough GCSEs to go to the local sixth form, and after a wasted year doing the wrong subjects, I managed to get into the correct ones, that is ones which I had an interest in, and even managed to get an A in English Literature A-Level, a subject I wasn’t even entered into for my GCSEs. University, on the other hand, was perhaps a step backwards into my school days. I was fine with exams, but had chosen a subject which wasn’t what I had expected, and which required numerous essays, each of which had to be planned, written and handed in. I would be expected to organise all of this myself and not be reminded at all. This is, of course, pretty standard university expectations, but for me it was the exact opposite of what I would do well at, especially when I had a proper social life for the first time.
So it wasn’t just a school thing. This disorganised person, unable to focus on a task at hand, capable of doing anything except the thing he was supposed to do, this wasn’t a temporary problem, this was in fact me. Assuming this was uniquely my problem, I found strategies to cope. To this day I have specific pockets for items – front left for wallet, front right for keys and coins, watch pocket for small valuables, back pocket for cloakroom tickets, inside jacket for phone and headphones – every day I move these from old clothes to new clothes. I knew that most other people survived without inventing such byzantine systems, but I could not understand how.
Most of my working life I have been am ESL teacher, which suits me fine. There is a set deadline by which time I need to prepare a class, preparation mainly involves reading and making a few notes, if I am not well prepared, experience allows me to improvise classes, we call this dogme teaching, it’s draining and stressful, but it actually results in better classes. I have completed a master’s degree in the subject, and a practical professional qualification, and have worked as a manager and trainer for the best part of a decade. But I am still me. Deep down I am no more organised or focussed, I just have systems and stubbornness to get me through.
A few years ago I had a manager who took against me, much more so than I realised at the time. I thought that if I got better results than others, it wouldn’t matter that I gave off an air of messiness and anxiety. Businesspeople care about results, surely? But no. She decided that my lack of focus on her personal goals, and my inability to use social skills to try and get on her side, meant that I was working against her. I find it impossible to deal with people who are being openly hostile to me, and in meetings I could barely even speak to her.
It was only a couple of years ago that I realised that all of this wasn’t just “me” – it had a name, a name I was already familiar with, and was in fact fairly common. I learned this not from a doctor or a life coach or a psychiatrist, but from reading articles linked on Twitter and internet forums, articles which described everything I’ve described, and a host of other very familiar symptoms which I’d failed entirely to connect. ADHD.
I thought perhaps I’d known ADHD kids at high school – they were the ones who ran around like they were full of sugar and got into trouble all the time, and according to the TV and the papers, and anyone who seemed to have an opinion about it, “ADHD” was an attempt to medicalise their naughtiness, to sell their parents personality-altering drugs. I had never been hyperactive or a troublemaker, I’d always been quiet, shy, inactive. Jumping around the room was the last thing I was going to do. I knew I had something wrong, but it was certainly not that I was one of the “hyperactive” kids.
Here is a description from a Dr William Dodson which might shed some light on this:
“The DSM-V – the bible of psychiatric diagnosis – lists 18 diagnostic criteria for attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Clinicians use this to identify symptoms, insurance companies use it to determine coverage, and researchers use it to determine areas of worthwhile study.
The problem: These criteria only describe how ADHD affects children ages 6-12, and that has led to misdiagnosis, misunderstanding, and failed treatment for teens, adults, and the elderly.
Most people, clinicians included, have only a vague understanding of what ADHD means. They assume it equates to hyperactivity and poor focus, mostly in children. They are wrong.
When we step back and ask, “What does everyone with ADHD have in common, that people without ADHD don’t experience?” a different set of symptoms take shape.
From this perspective, three defining features of ADHD emerge that explain every aspect of the condition: 1. an interest-based nervous system, 2. emotional hyperarousal, 3. rejection sensitivity”
So let’s look at those three features. First, an interest based nervous system – this is where the “inattentive” thing comes from. Like most people with ADHD I am capable not just of focusing on a task, but can focus on it to a sometimes completely unreasonable degree. If I am engaged in a project, it is quite possible I will stay up the whole night to finish it. I am, as I write this sentence, being told to go to bed as it’s nearly midnight. But that’s for things I want to do, and am in the right mood to do. If the interest isn’t there and the time isn’t right, it feels like there is a physical wall between me and the task, and however much I try to push myself into doing it, that wall is still there.
Emotional hyperarrousal, there’s that “hyper” thing. My mind often feels like it is going too quickly for me to control it. When I am engaged in a conversation with somebody else, I have an unfortunate tendency to skip a couple of steps ahead, which inevitably confuses whoever I’m speaking to. I have spent most of my adult life teaching English as a Second Language, and for the first three or four years spoke much too quickly for most of my students. An American I worked with in China told a table full of my friends that she “couldn’t understand a word I said.” It has always been difficult to get to sleep, my body clock seems to be on a 26-hour schedule, and the one time I stopped fighting it I ended up going to bed at 2pm and waking up at 11, which unless you are actually working a night shift is not ideal. The “emotional” part of emotional hyperarrousal manifests itself as a more intense experience of highs and lows. I will not publicly dance around in joy when watching or listening to something exciting, but well, I am glad there are no cameras watching me when nobody is around. The flipside of this is that I find it very hard to take criticism. A criticism of something I have made feels like a criticism of my entire being – if I have been able to focus on it, then you should know that I have put everything into it, and if I care about your opinion then it’s crushing if you don’t like it. I know this is unreasonable, I know that this is too much of a burden to put on anyone, so for decades I would avoid sharing anything personal with anyone I cared about.
This is called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, and feels more raw and personal than other symptoms of ADHD, so let’s hear from Dr Dodson again.
“Emotional dysregulation is when a person feels an emotion so intensely that the emotion takes over and cannot be subdued. With rejection sensitive dysphoria, Dr. Dodson says the person experiences extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception—real or imagined—of being rejected, teased, criticized, a disappointment to important people in their lives, disappointed in themselves when they failed to attain their own standards or goals. The pain is so primitive and overwhelming that people struggle to find any words to describe it. They can talk about its intensity (‘awful, terrible, catastrophic’) and cannot find words to convey the quality of the emotional pain.”
Now why should this be so? Well if you have been constantly told that you are lazy, that you cannot take criticism, that you are awful at conversation, when you have internalised all of this, naturally it becomes difficult not to fixate on setbacks, especially those in personal relationships. For this reason I have felt an acute fear in sharing anything really personal with anyone – not just negative things, but even shared interests. Before reading about ADHD I would have called this “embarrassment” – but did not realise that other people did not feel this acute, almost physical pain, whenever forming social bonds. When in my early 20s I would often see someone in the street who I’d met in a pub or club before, and would always completely blank them – it felt physically impossible to do anything else – and on a few occasions this led to acquaintances deciding I was an arrogant prick, which seemed like a massive injustice. Why were they angry at me for blanking them? Didn’t everyone else feel rising panic when encountering someone they knew in the street? The answer, it turns out, is no.
Guides to ADHD generally seem to be written by Americans, and descriptions of rejection sensitivity focus on things like not getting picked for sports teams, which to be frank doesn’t sound like a nightmare to me – I have never been very concerned to do well at sports. In the UK we have something worse, though – let’s call it “banter”. At its best banter is just gentle teasing between friends, at worst it’s little more than plausible deniability for bullying, generally it’s some sort of mix of the two, intersecting with the kind of complex power relationships, group dynamics and prejudices that activate whenever two or more people meet. There is a great deal of social currency in being the kind of person who can “take” banter in good humour – that is, being a person who both instinctively understands it, and does not take it at all personally. To fail to understand banter, or to take it personally, is viewed as nothing less than a moral failing.
This is all ridiculous, isn’t it? I’ve no idea what personal qualities this cultural norm is supposed to elevate, but whatever they are, I do not seem to possess them, and I do not understand why this is a problem, but not being able to work out when I’m being picked on and when people are just being friendly genuinely has been a source of heartache on a number of occasions.
Then there’s social media, another minefield. I have friends from around the world, how can I possibly keep in touch with them? Sometimes I’ll get a nice message from someone, I’ll need to reply to it. Writing the perfectly phrased message is a very difficult task, very difficult tasks will be put off indefinitely without a deal of effort, whether I want to do them or not. So most people will get a couple of words, or nothing. And then there is the act of “unfriending” – I was once “unfriended” by an acquaintance who was not undertaking any great cull of their list, and then spent a good couple of days actually fretting over what it was that could have offended them. I remember this one in particular because they are actually someone who has more recently been writing about ADHD on the internet. Obviously I was not close to them. Is this a ridiculous thing to worry about? Am I oversensitive? Well yes, and yes. But making myself not care has been a struggle, and the path it has lead me down is a crappy one where I increasingly feel that I have no close friends any more.
I have been writing this piece for five years now, maybe more. When I started it I hadn’t so much as considered that I might have this condition. My initial motivation for writing was a discussion my wife about different educational approaches. She also felt unmotivated and uninterested in high school, but she has more of an excuse. In China the years from 10-18 are mainly spent frantically cramming for the ‘Gaokao’ – the end of high school diploma which seems to determine your entire future. For Chinese teenagers the whole waking day is spent on memorization and rote learning. You can’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend, you can’t spend time with your friends, you can’t play games or read, you only study, and you study hard. There are millions in your graduating year, all of them studying late into the evening every day, and if you aren’t in the top 10% then your life is a failure, and everyone will know it from the school league table posted on the wall.
This is the number one reason we moved back to the UK, I could not even think of putting my children through that.
From the looks of it so far, my older son is fairly likely to take after his parents. He does not like being given tasks to complete. Discipline-based encouragement is useless. If he is truly engaged in something, on the other hand, he can sit and focus on it for hours. He might only be eleven years old, but his personality is already quite clear, and I wouldn’t fancy his chances at a Chinese high school. Fortunately he’ll be in the UK, though if he has the same sort of high school experience as me, I fear that history may repeat itself.
But these days ADHD is not treated as such a joke. I will be there to support and offer my empathy, and I hope his school will too. This is for him.
Written and recorded by James M Errington, 2023. With thanks to Gene Baxter and Emily Dongray for the use of your voices, and to Katie and John for the feedback. Waste paper bin image by RyGuy on Wikimedia Commons.