ADDitude Adjustment: The Language of ADHD

Sarah Rose // Features Editor

“Language,” William S Burroughs reminds us, “is a virus from outer space.”

I first heard the word maladaptive during my first inpatient psychiatric stay when I was fourteen. Trying to warn my mom about the man she was dating culminated in scrawling furiously. Words kept flooding my mouth, threatening to swallow me whole, echoing into nothing but the ravings of what looked like an unhinged teen. Words that feel the way the ground swells and blisters with heat and contracts into harsh, rigid geometry in the cold. The panicked staccato of my voice drowned in desperation, because I was speaking a language no one understood or wanted to.

You’ve heard this story so many times it has its own term within clinical psychology: the Cassandra complex.

The figure of Greek tragedy who could see the future, cursed by Apollo so no one would believe her. Cassandra is the embodiment of insight combined with powerlessness, retreating into madness. As psychoanalyst Lauria Layton Schapira wrote:

“She may envision […] something that would be difficult to deal with; or a truth which others, especially authority figures, would not accept. In her frightened, egoless state, the Cassandra woman may blurt out what she sees […] But to them her words sound meaningless.”

There’s no way to pass our own experiences to others the way water returns to the ocean. I wonder if it’s coincidence that water was often where I returned as a kid, submerged daily beneath the waves of the local YMCA pool. Beneath water is a safe place without sight or sound.

Language of neurodivergence is largely externalized to the effect it has on others. Take maladaptive—the standard definition in clinical psychology for manifestation of destructive symptoms in mental disorders. It’s predicated on third-party observable behavior. Think of it this way: Adapting to one environment means developing a maladaptation to another. My brain was sprouting gills, while the world around me dragged me from the water and left me gasping for air.

Words like maladaptive chained my proverbial foot to the concrete while I tried to figure out why I felt like an alien unable to see or speak the hidden language shared by everyone around me. My diagnosis might as well have been hysteria. 

Psychiatry, perhaps more so than the rest of medicine, is rife with controversy, ideological interruptions and cultural prejudice. Even if the psychiatric tribunal decides you’re not putting on an act, many women still share their fate with Cassandra, never to be believed.

When I first met my psychiatrist three years ago, I recited the hysterical woman script I’d become adapted to. He told me I had ADHD. It took me a year to believe him and another to try medication in earnest. Some go in and out of hospitals branded with psychiatric labels in the same way prisoners become their inmate number. My resistance to accept the label given was largely because the clinical portrait presented to me looked markedly different from what I saw staring back in the mirror.

“Girls with ADHD remain an enigma – often overlooked, misunderstood and hotly debated,” wrote Dr. Ellen Littman in her research on gender differences in ADHD. It’s difficult to accept your reality when it’s still being debated as real, and the first thing anyone should know about ADHD is that it’s real.

ADHD in adults wasn’t a valid DSM diagnosis until six years ago. Some doctors don’t recognize ADHD as a legitimate lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder. Despite being one of the most documented and studied mental disorders in medical literature, the majority of data is based on studies of preteen boys. This is reflected in the current DSM diagnostic criteria where boys are diagnosed at a rate of seven-to-one. Up to three-quarters of women with ADHD stay in Cassandra’s purgatory and will never receive a diagnosis. Many are tormented by anxiety, depression and substance abuse because they are never seen or treated properly. It cuts life-expectancy by an average of ten years.

Since first being described by Hippocrates as: “an imbalance of fire over water,” ADHD descriptors have included: “brain damaged child” and more colourful terminology that evokes a similar reaction to learning what H.P Lovecraft named his cat. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is just the in-vogue and ironically myopic iteration of what should be called something like: Executive Function Deficit Disorder. ADHD is not actually a deficit in attentional capacity at all, it’s a deficit in executive function; the ability to control attention.

Georges Bataille speculated in his aptly titled The Labyrinth that communication is best understood as contagion. For Bataille, a human being is no more than a conduit for communicative process: “A man is only a particle inserted in unstable and entangled wholes.” That’s kind of what executive dysfunction feels like. Executive function is regulated in the prefrontal cortex, now imagine ADHD is an interpretive lens to processing, and the ability to control your own cognition and memory. It’s a tormenting bifurcation between internal and external loci of control, swerving for dominance over your reality.

That unstable and entangling chaos is all-consuming. I spend most days propelled by anxiety as if I’m teetering on a precipice. Minor interruptions to my carefully curated adaptations can send me spiraling out of control. I’ve blinked and lost jobs, relationships, academic work, even my own home. Many days are lost in the maze of my mind, viewing the world through a foggy window pane, disengaged and completely non-functional. Most of the energy I had as a kid redirected and now manifests towards the innards of my mind, wringing out a crippling sense of anxiety and the ability to internally scream to the point where my energy could probably phase out of existence.

Had I read a single pamphlet that said: do you have a profound inability to accomplish your goals specifically because they’re your goals? Do you feel like you exist behind an invisible language barrier, and the thought of your friends not liking you makes you want to die? You might have: Trouble Sitting Still Disorder.

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