Anyone walking into my bedroom would say it’s a mess. There are piles of stuff on every table, a mass of papers on the desk, and loads of clothes—some dirty, some clean—strewn about the floor. But to me, it’s in perfectly good order, because I know where everything is. It’s a controlled chaos, scattered yet organized, much like my brain, which also can look like a jumbled-up mess to outside observers but makes perfect sense to me. All of this—the room and my brain and basically the way I run my life—is because I have ADHD.
I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder relatively late in life, in my early 20s. That’s pretty common, especially for women, who are less likely to be described as “hyperactive.” The kids who get diagnosed right away are the ones who make themselves really obvious by running around classrooms screaming—and those are usually, for whatever reason, boys. Boys, in fact, are three times more likely than girls to get an ADHD diagnosis, and subsequent ADHD treatment.
People like me used to be grouped into a separate category, called ADD (for attention deficit disorder)—basically ADHD without the hyperactivity. Lots of people still use that term, but doctors now categorize us all as ADHD, with a bunch of variations. It’s not that I’m more chill than a kid who’s constantly bouncing off the walls and disrupting class; it’s just that my hyperactivity is mental, not physical. A doctor once told me that for a lot of people the H in ADHD is like a tricky superpower that enables us to see and hear and feel everything a little more intensely—which can sometimes make the entire world seem overwhelming. But it can also be a lovely thing, in that we are ever fascinated by everything around us: blue skies are bluer and all of that stuff.
This condition has definitely been both a curse and a blessing for me. It makes certain things more difficult (I get bored verrrrry easily), but some of my most useful talents are tied to it, too (I have a ton of ideas streaming into my head at all times, and even if 99% of them are garbage, there’s usually one weirdo gem I can run with). Embracing the good stuff makes the hard stuff a little easier to deal with. This applies not just to a person with ADHD, but also to the people around them.
If you’re not currently close to someone with ADHD, you might be wondering what’s could be so “good” about it. Who would ever want a distracted, disorganized, hypersensitive, easily bored friend? Well, for one thing, we tend to be quick and creative thinkers. A brain that is constantly jumping from one point to another to another is pretty great at brainstorming and riffing ideas. If you’re having trouble coming up with a theme for your bat mitzvah or a name for your fish, ask a friend with ADHD—10 seconds later they’ll hand you a list of like 32 options. We tend to be extremely sensitive to external stimuli, which, yes, can be annoying when we “overreact” to things like sounds, smells, and social interactions. But sensitive people are also good at being sympathetic to others. So we can be really good friends, if you know how to handle us.
Which you will, after reading the following tips. They’re for anyone who loves someone with ADHD or a related disorder, but know that everyone’s ADHD is a little different, so the best thing you can do is to talk to your friend about what’s going on in their brain. These are just some general things to keep in mind.
1. Your friend is going to interrupt you.
Oh, man! Sorry, dudes. This is something that people with ADHD struggle with on the regular, and something that we consciously work on, as being “that girl who always cuts everyone off” is not a rep that anyone wants, really. It’s not that we aren’t listening to you—in fact, we’re listening as best we can, and you’ve probably said something that’s set off a light bulb in our brain, and we’re so excited to share the idea that we can’t help blurting it out, for fear that we’ll forget it if we wait five seconds before doing so. I’m working on it (I try to maintain eye contact and bite my lip), but I still blurt things out all the time, and my friends know exactly what to do: they typically acknowledge my idea before returning to what they were saying. It takes a lot of patience, but trust me, that patience is much appreciated. What not to do: ignore these interruptions completely, or yell at your friend to shut up until you’re done talking.
2. Be prepared to repeat yourself.
The people I love more than life itself could be sitting in front of me, telling me the greatest story of all time, and I still may zone out momentarily. It’s not because the person talking to me isn’t interesting, or because I don’t care, or because I’m not trying my hardest to pay attention—it’s because my brain is like a television that’s constantly changing channels, and a weird image or piece of a song or thought may come filtering through, blocking out the words right in front of me. Oftentimes I’ll miss one crucial line and have to hear the entire story again, and though most people would just give up and walk away, my friends now have learned to rewind to the missing piece and pick things back up. It has taken years of practice, and a lot of frustration on both sides, but we all understand by now that I don’t mean to fade in and out, and I do try my best to focus on conversations—therapy and meds have helped a lot with this. Give your friend a little room to space out. She’ll come back to you.
3. Accept their organizational style.
Organization is a challenge for a lot of people with ADHD. Your friend will most likely find her own way to keep on top of things, and that might look chaotic to you (like my room). Everything she owns may be covered in to-do lists. She may need to turn on the television, the radio, the computer, and her cellphone while you’re studying together. If her phone alarm goes off all the time, it’s probably her way of reminding herself to do something. Just remember that her brain works differently from yours, and what seems counterproductive to you might be the key to her own productiveness. If she’s like most people with ADHD, she would probably appreciate your support to help her stay organized—what she doesn’t need is to be mocked or judged about how hard this is for her.
4. Don’t ask for our medication.
This is such a dick move that I’m annoyed that I even have to write this out, but c’mon dudes, don’t ask for our medication. People with ADHD brains don’t get high off of their meds, and because so many people abuse Adderall, Ritalin, and other ADHD medications, we have to jump through annoying hoops to get our prescriptions filled every month. We rely on our medication just to function normally, and it’s a serious bummer when people we care about get all creepy on us and try to bum a pill or two for party funtimes. It also makes us feel as if you don’t respect us, our brains, or personal boundaries. Don’t be that person. That person is gross.
5. Don’t treat them like they’re “crazy.”
First of all, don’t treat anyone in your life like they’re “crazy”—if someone truly has a mental illness or a behavioral disorder, they don’t need you adding to the stigma they already face every day. Second of all, ADHD doesn’t make people irrational, immature, dumb, or insensitive. If anything, it makes them more sensitive to everything around them, and able to focus intensely on the little things. Your friend may be a bit of a space cadet, but trust that there’s a lot going on in there, and most of it is pretty neat.
6. Don’t be a doormat.
All this being said, being empathetic and understanding doesn’t mean that you have to put your own needs aside in order to make things easier for your friend. She’s not a delicate flower who needs protection, she’s just working with a different thought process. So while you may want to be a bit empathetic if your friend is constantly running late, forgetting plans, or forgetting important dates like birthdays or what have you, you don’t need to ALWAYS let her off the hook for repeatedly disappointing you or constantly showing up 20 minutes later than she promised. You might want to try what my friends do with me, which involves a benign kind of lie: If a party starts at 11:30, they tell me it starts at 10:30. That way I can be late (my tendency) and on time (what everyone, including me, wants). Respect your friend’s limitations—if she can’t be counted on to remember plans, don’t depend on her for really important stuff, like a ride to school. But also, set your own boundaries. If it’s not OK with you that she forgot your birthday, tell her how much it hurt your feelings, and that it’s important to you that she figure out a way to remember it next year. Then let her do that. Right at this very moment you are reading an article to understand her better; she also has to put in work to make you feel appreciated. If you’re constantly giving and she’s constantly taking, that’s not a healthy scenario for either of you. ADHD is not an excuse for being a shitty friend.
It all comes down to finding a happy medium. The best friendships are built on mutual understanding, love, empathy, and respect. Being patient and kind with your friend—and letting her know your own boundaries and needs—will strengthen not only your friendship with her, but also your appreciation of anyone who thinks differently from you, which, after all, is everyone.
Oh, and P.S., if you ARE the friend with ADHD, know that there are people out there who won’t judge you when your mind starts drifting even your editors when you’re supposed to end a piece cupcakes rainbows Ryan Gosling marshmallow pie OMG horses you guys