I, Allison Shipp, have a disability. You cannot see it by looking at me; I don’t require a wheelchair to get around or need special technology to read my mail. However, my disability impacts me daily. It is a part of who I am as a person, even if it is invisible to most around me. My disability is the reason for some of my lowest moments, but also a key player in some my greatest successes as well. There are times when it is at the forefront of my mind, and other times I forget about it. There are days when I have been ashamed of my disability and tried to keep it hidden, and then there are days when I have worn it like a badge of honor. I am human. I am not perfect. I struggle with some things and excel at others. My hidden disability is ADHD, inattentive type (formerly known as ADD).
I was actually diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, shortly after the birth of my son. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist because I thought I was experiencing some form of anxiety. He asked a lot of questions about my current issues and experiences, but also inquired about my childhood and college years. I remember wondering what my earlier life had to do with my current symptoms, but I respected the process. Once we were through with the long list of probing questions, the psychiatrist informed me that I had “a severe case of ADHD – Predominately Inattentive Type.”
“Uhhhhh…” I am sure you could’ve picked my chin up off of the proverbial floor because I just sat there blinking with my mouth wide open, clearly stunned by my recent “diagnosis.” I truly didn’t understand how this could’ve gone on my entire life without anyone (including me) ever noticing. The psychiatrist then went on to point out a few of the more unique coping mechanisms and compensation strategies I had put in place in an attempt to keep my life together. I remember asking him, “doesn’t everybody do things like that?” to which his short response was, “no.”
It took a while for this news to sink in. I had a successful career, a great group of friends, a husband and two kids. I had also somehow managed to get a Ph.D., through sheer determination and apparently a whole lot of “coping and compensating.” There was a lot of problem solving that came into play, and oh-so-many late nights. One of my more unique compensation strategies was specifically selecting my doctoral committee chair because I knew that he would (upon my request) give me arbitrary deadlines, and also make me adhere to them instead of letting me just “work on my own.” I knew that without those deadlines and someone who would harp upon me until I stuck to them, I could easily spend a lifetime as ABD (“all but dissertation”).
While some of my family, friends, and coworkers may feel otherwise, I am generally not “hyper.” So, I do not fit the typical public perception of someone with ADHD. However, my mind is always whirring with rapid fire thoughts. Sometimes I am distracted internally, appearing uninterested or unfocused. Other times my thoughts get verbalized, and it is only from the puzzled looks I receive that I realize my comment seemed “out of the blue.” It made perfect sense in my mind, but I also made five connections in my head that the others around me didn’t follow because they cannot read my thoughts.
I easily lose things. My desk can look like the aftermath of a tornado, pictures can sit unhung for months, my kid’s permission slips get turned in at the very last minute, and the microwave door has been unintentionally left open a time or two. I can spend long hours working on something without taking a break while other times I have trouble maintaining my focus. I am also a “fidgeter.” I have to make a conscious effort to NOT tap my foot, NOT doodle on my notepad, NOT click (tap or break) my pens, and NOT wiggle in my chair. It takes sustained mental effort to stay still, oftentimes further distracting me from the conversation or task at hand. Knowing this little quirk of mine, one of my coworkers even brought magnetic fidget rocks to keep on her desk for me. I am not sure if she was trying to help me out or keep me from breaking any more of her pens, but the gesture was appreciated all the same.
While there are a few things that I don’t like about my disability, there are also many things that I love about it. As a result of my ADHD…
- I am a creative problem solver. I have figured out unique and often unconventional ways around my disability to minimize the negative impact it has on my life. I often think “outside of the box” and come up with unusual ideas and potential solutions. This creative problem solving is invaluable in so many aspects of my life and career, and even comes in quite handy as a mom.
- I am the eternal optimist. “I should have enough time to finish this email before my 10:00” “I will get that birthday card in the mail tomorrow.” “My proposal will surely get approved THIS time.” My intentions are always good and my hope is never ending, even if the follow-through isn’t always on-point or the end result isn’t always the best-case scenario.
- I can hyperfocus. One misnomer about ADHD it that it keeps people from focusing. While this is true in some situations, the opposite can also be true. I recently got intrigued by ancestry research. I found myself “accidentally” staying up till 4:00 and 5:00 am over the holidays. I also often become hyper focused and lose myself in work projects. This allows me to do things like create Power Points and prepare for a 2 hour presentation on the morning it is to be delivered.
- I am resilient. While I may appear successful to some, I have encountered quite a few hiccups, embarrassments, and downright failures along the way. However, with each disappointment and setback, I have adapted my strategy and pushed forward. I have learned to always get back up, preferably with a smile.
- I have a good sense of humor. Laughter has been a great coping mechanism for me, allowing me to chuckle at my frequent blunders and occasional randomness. It also allows me to share the often-comical side of my disability with others.
- I am good in crisis situations. I am often running late, in a hurry, or scrambling to get something done before a deadline. Because my normal mode is often resembling some of the frenzy and quick action that is required in crisis situations, this also means that I am typically pretty good during an actual crisis. I am usually able to maintain my composure and able to take the prompt action needed.
- I am very compassionate and empathetic. I have always been drawn to those who may not have it all together, because I have often felt that way myself. I value fairness and compassion, and I have no trouble putting myself in other’s shoes.
- I am a great multi-tasker. I get bored easily, and my thoughts never stop jumping from one thing to another. This means that I often have 20 or more active documents, emails, and/or internet tabs open at once. It can be quite overwhelming to someone without ADHD, but my mind is actually able to focus better when I have multiple things to catch my attention. I work best in chaos.
- I am quick to respond. I have often been praised for being the first to respond to something or very prompt with my attention to requests by others. The little secret that most people don’t know is that this is actually a compensation tactic for my ADHD. I know that if I don’t respond immediately then that “to do” item is likely to fall off of my mental radar. So, I try to do things immediately to keep them from getting lost in the shuffle of my daily mental whir.
- I am persistent. While many may see me as laid-back, I have fierce persistence when it comes to things about which I feel passionately. I set my sights on something, and even though I might run into multiple road blocks along the way, I typically remain steadfast in my determination until I reach my goal.
This is just a sliver of my personal story of living with a disability. It may come as a shock to some, but be old news to others. Just as I have done in this blog, we should all look for the good in others. Each and every one of us has unique traits, interests, and abilities. Life with a disability has its challenges, and some days are downright hard. However, respecting differences and seeking out the strengths and positive characteristics in others will allow us to all work together to realize our potential.