How Reading Changed for Me After My ADHD Diagnosis
My colleagues and friends have always described me as an absent minded professor. It’s part of my artsy girl charm. But when we got sent home in March of 2020 and didn’t return that school year, it seemed like my spacey-ness increased. Teaching during the pandemic was especially hard for me. I taught from home, in my guest room/office where things were too quiet. Since it was an entirely new process for everyone involved, my district kept making adjustments to the bell schedule, then to the end of the school day, and deadlines were often moved in light of new information. I was constantly frustrated because I kept missing key information until I heard it from one of my co-teachers in class or in a work group chat.
“You didn’t get the email?” was a constant refrain in my life. When I went back to check, I had, in fact, gotten the email. Inevitably, the email was 4-5 big, block paragraphs full of important information. None of it was bulleted, highlighted, or bold. It was all just there and I was expected to find it, like a professional adult. But I couldn’t do it.
The school year went on, started again in the fall, and it kept getting worse for me. So then I started getting anxious about the potential details I was going to miss that would cause more work for me to correct later. Don’t even get me started on the errors I had in the grade book. When they sent out the spreadsheet with who had finished grades and who still had errors, my name was always red. Always. Which, of course, caused me more anxiety.
So I talked to my doctor about it and decided I should try some anti-anxiety medicine. It helped in a lot of ways. Everything didn’t feel like a disaster all the time anymore. I was still making mistakes that my colleagues weren’t making, but I had a better emotional response to it now.
Then, destiny stepped in, just like she usually does, out of nowhere. My then 17-year-old niece and I went hiking where she told me all about her recent ADHD diagnosis from her therapist. Everything she described sounded exactly like struggles I had. Everyone loses their keys sometimes though, right? Everyone forgets sometimes and many people aren’t detail oriented.
The thought wouldn’t leave me. I went down ADHD information rabbit holes where I related to almost everything I read. Finally, I asked my co-teachers, the women who work with me most closely and see me every day. I started the conversation by being self-deprecating and dismissive, calling myself a hypochondriac. When I finally stopped talking, there was a terrible, vulnerable moment of silence.
“Yes, I think you totally could have that. It makes a lot of sense.” I am telling you I felt a shot of validation all the way to my toes. That spurred me on to talk to my doctor again and make appointments with mental health professionals to get tested. Five months later, I finally had a diagnosis. I was both relieved and rage-filled. The constant question in my head of “what’s wrong with me?” had an answer at long last. My brain is different, not wrong.
Looking back at my life, it’s easy to see the signs now. I was called a daydreamer in school, but that added to my artsy pixie stereotype. It was a character flaw in my mind instead of a symptom. Many traits I thought were part of my personality, were actually symptoms of ADHD and couldn’t be changed with prayer and determination. My psychiatrist said she thought I would have tested worse if I wasn’t on the anti-anxiety medication. Now I had an entirely new lens to look at my life through. Like Rene Brooks said on an episode of the Ologies with Alie Ward podcast about what it’s like to have ADHD, “It’s like finding out you were not the person that you thought you were. I think the only thing you can really liken it to is like, finding out that, I don’t know, that you’re secretly a princess or something. So, then you have to re-spin your entire life in the context of you being this person who you did not know that you were.” I had a lot more information to clarify the context of my life experience.
Now I could see why boring emails with blocks of information didn’t stick in my mind, why my grade book was always off by three tenths of a point, and why not going to in-person school had me missing more details than normal. I didn’t have any of my usual coping skills available to me, like asking a friend at work for clarification during the faculty meeting or being able to ask for informal guidance that in-person meetings or conversations gave me.
Next time I got a long email, I didn’t roll my eyes and give up before I had even started, which is what I used to do before asking a coworker what the email said. Instead, I gave myself the time I needed to read and reread until I got it, without getting frustrated or embarrassed about not understanding sooner. I had to read the first paragraph three times and make myself slow down so I didn’t skip ahead to what I thought was the important part and miss all the other (also important) parts.
At this point in my life, I was reading all my books almost exclusively on audio. I’ve written before about how audiobooks saved me when it came to ADHD. This wasn’t acting as a helpful tool for me at the time; it was an excuse to not even try reading with my eyes.
Turns out I’m not a bad reader, as I thought my whole life. I just have to read the first paragraph (or first page) three times before I am really engaged with the book. This happens every time I open it, too. The first time I’m skimming and hopping around the page, excited about the prospect of a new book. The second time I’m thinking about something else, chores to do or a conversation from earlier in the day, and none of the text sticks in my brain. But the magic third time. The third time, I’m in it. And thanks to my good friend hyperfocus, I could be in it for hours.
Reading in silence is not what’s best for me, as I previously thought. My ideal reading soundtrack is Brown noise. I tried white noise, but it was too scratchy inside my brain for focus, but it’s good for putting me to sleep. Pink noise is a little too high and tends to make me want to move and fidget, ups my anxiety. I also put on Brown noise when I’m writing. It’s like a signal to my brain that it’s time to focus.
Ereaders are better for me than print books. I love print books. I like their weight and smell and the way I feel when holding them. Books in print make it easier for my eyes to jump around the page, tempting me to skip ahead. Then I miss key parts of the story or a flip ahead to see how long I have in the chapter left and if I can just white knuckle it a few more pages. Whereas on an ereader, there is only a select amount of text in front of me, which helps me stay on task. I can also change how the book is quantified at the bottom to minutes left or my location in the book, which is just nonsense numbers to my brain. It also tells me what percentage I have left. Having 20% left in a book is much less daunting than 80 pages for me.
I spend more time reading now than I did before my diagnosis. Approaching a book with the right frame of reference rather than a lifetime of failed attempts, does wonders for my reading confidence. Recently, I deleted Instagram because it was adding to my reading anxiety. The endless scroll made me anxious. I felt like I was always behind and couldn’t catch up, winding me up before bed or keeping me wound up after work. Replacing the time I’d spend on Instagram with reading books has made my evenings calmer and my bedtimes earlier. Sleep improves ADHD symptoms, making it easier to focus on reading the next day, too.
The diagnosis has revolutionized my relationship with print. My favorite thing to do on Saturday and Sunday mornings now is to open the curtains and get back in the bed, under the covers with my dog curled up next to me while I read for an hour. This was just a dream for pre-diagnosis Nikki. A way I wished I could be, but never actually thought I could enjoy.
Yet here I am, reading regularly. In the five months leading up to my diagnosis, I was worried about my identity changing. I both didn’t want to be a person with ADHD and couldn’t fathom what I was going to do if I wasn’t a person with ADHD. ADHD is often overlooked in women and girls. Now with the popularity of Instagram experts and TikTok therapists giving examples of what ADHD feels and looks like, a lot more people are getting diagnosed. If you think you might have ADHD, it’s worth a conversation with your doctor. Being able to name what was going on with my brain was freeing in a way I didn’t anticipate. It’s helped me cope in so many areas in my life, letting me reframe all of my “mistakes” as what they really are, differences. Realizing my brain is atypical did not make me feel other or disconnected. It made me feel seen and capable. Knowing helped me find tools to make my life easier and more enjoyable. Being diagnosed helped me read in a way I’ve never experienced before. Worth it.