by Douglas Harris
I knew it was over late on a Friday afternoon. In my doctoral program, neurobiology seminars were required and I was sitting in my usual spot in the back of the room. Through the open window I could hear the Michigan marching band practicing in the distance. And that was all I could focus on or cared to focus on.
My wife had started her medical practice, we had a three year old, and we were living in a 140-year old farm house we were renovating ourselves. I was commuting to school but felt torn in many directions. I switched to botany the following semester, grasping at straws to save an academic career, but I eventually dropped out. I hadn’t anticipated this turn of events when I opened that acceptance letter from the University of Michigan biology doctoral program. That day anything seemed possible. Years of frustration had shattered that belief.
Fast forward twenty four years. Jennifer, a young woman recently arrived from overseas, entered the same program with the goal of earning a Ph.D. in the Biology. Jennifer grew up in a stable middle class family, attending strict schools. She had flourished as a student in that environment but when her high school and college proved much less structured, she found it harder to achieve at the same level. She still managed to get by as in her culture it was not uncommon to have hired help for chores such as shopping, cooking and cleaning. Without these distractions, Jennifer could focus all her attention on school. She took advantage of her opportunities and eventually found herself in Ann Arbor enrolled in a very competitive program of study.
Jennifer faced many challenges, both academic and domestic, as she began her studies. As she recalls, "The first year here was especially difficult. First of all, the adaptation process a foreigner has to go through is very draining. In addition to that, I found myself having to play different roles, no longer being the student who would come home and have everything done for me. I had to clean, I had to do laundry, I had to go grocery shopping, cook, and do all the other boring, time-consuming daily activities that keep a human being alive… all this in addition to working in lab and attending classes.”
Jennifer’s first year, which had started with high hopes, gradually unraveled. "I found myself eating disgusting, frozen food, barely sleeping, spending very little time in the lab and doing poorly in my classes.” Recognizing the signs of depression from earlier struggles, she sought medical help through the university clinic. "I started medication, and while that helped to some extent, it did not return my life back to normal. I barely passed my course work. I spent very little time in lab and had even less to show for it, and eventually it all came crashing down when I failed the preliminary exams at the end of my first year here.” Not passing her prelims meant not continuing on towards her degree.
Desperate, Jennifer pressed her doctor to refer her up to a psychiatrist. Fortunately, the psychiatrist was able to diagnose her ADHD. For the first time, Jennifer’s struggle had a name and help was available. She started on medication and immediately noticed the difference. Empowered by this new knowledge and sense of hope, she appealed to the university for a second chance and was granted the opportunity to try her prelims again at the end of the following semester. While researching ADHD online, Jennifer stumbled across the local ADHD Support Group. She found it valuable meeting people who had the same struggles and could offer important support. Recommendations from the group led her to therapy with local ADHD expert, Sari Solden. Together they worked to discover what steps she could take to cope with her ADHD, which led to her working with an ADHD coach — something Jennifer says may have been the most valuable step for her.
With her coach’s help, Jennifer made major strides in time management and prioritizing. "Fortunately, coaching helped me identify situations where I used to get trapped. Regina (my coach) also helps me change my mindset. I am actively training my brain to avoid some negative thoughts, trying to interrupt them.” With the combination of medication, therapy and coaching, Jennifer is able to better manage the demands of the program. On the second attempt she passed her prelims. That was a couple years ago and she is now halfway to her degree. It’s still is a constant struggle—she works very long hours in the lab, often misses deadlines, regularly frustrates her advisor and her fridge still is empty more often than she’d like. It takes all her time and energy to keep on track and she finds herself missing out on other things that she really enjoys, such as sports. Jennifer now has a boyfriend who also has ADHD and finds it really helps her to have someone who understand her struggles and who is supportive.
As Jennifer summarizes, "I want to make it clear that I didn't get rid of my ADHD, I am learning to live with it. I have finally accepted it, and I'm learning; trying to minimize the bad stuff that comes with it and to use the good stuff that comes with it, too. Like hyper-focusing, bursts of energy near deadlines, exploring my creativity.” Jennifer expects to finish her degree in three years and knows she will be able to pursue her other interests then. In the meantime, she is managing and is genuinely happy.
Jennifer’s story resonated with me. I came from nearby Detroit, not a foreign land, and I had a very different set of life circumstances. But like her, I struggled with ADHD in a difficult course of study. Grad school required more passion and commitment than I could manage. Looking back, I can see the fingerprints of adult ADHD all over it. Things were great when everything was new and exciting. But as time went on, we were learning more and more about less and less and I found it increasingly difficult to focus on details. At the same time, I was struggling with the demands of a young family.
Maybe it just wasn't a good fit for me and nothing would have helped. Or maybe that is merely a rationalization to ease the disappointment. I can’t help but reflect back on that time with what I now know about my ADHD and wonder what might have been. I'll never know how profoundly it impacted my academic career. Perhaps I could have made it work if I had the medication, therapy and coaching that Jennifer now has. I'll never know. Part of me, the part that dares to dream big, died with that failure. I have bounced from interest to interest since then with limited results—nothing approaching the potential for success I once believed in for myself.
I am grateful that today people, like Jennifer, who has tremendous potential, can still achieve great things by managing their ADHD. Lately, especially after hearing stories like this, I find myself starting to believe it’s time to take a chance and dare to dream again. I can learn from the past but the future is where I need to invest my energy.
Douglas Harris is an ADHD Coach in Saline, Michigan. He works with intellectually gifted people struggling with ADHD. With coaching, clients discover how to tap into the full potential of their extraordinary minds and put in place the ADHD-friendly strategies to make those dreams a reality. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.