Welcome, reader. What lies below will feed your curiosity and open your mind to the tales of those with fantastical yet atypical brain chemistry.
Previously on Atypical Tales #1…
In the first issue of Atypical Tales, catastrophe blew over the world. An uncompromising threat spread from person to person in the form of a virus known as COVID-19. To halt the spread of the viral invaders, Winnipeg closed large public areas. Among the targeted public spaces were educational institutions. Students in their fashionable and sociable college alter-egos hung their capes at home. This transformed many into sweatpants-wearing, ragamuffin versions of Clark Kent. Although the lockdown slowed the virus, for me, it also meant confronting mental demons.
Atypical Tales # 2 – Disorganization
The college structure had kept me unaware of my, then undiagnosed, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Before the viral invasion, each day my 6:00 AM alarm prepared me for the thirty-minute drive into the city. Hot showers and fresh clothes gave me the level-up I needed to conquer my first semester and my Peter Parker-level angst. Every class started and ended at the same time and I’d immediately move on to the next. This kept everything strict and structured for me. Red River College’s Creative Communications (CreComm) program curated the true Peter Parker experience. Journalism class gave me two hours to find news, write a story, take a photograph, and finish it all by the end of class for the head honcho J. Jonah Jameson. And that was only one class out of seven. It felt like an artistic super-soldier program that turned me into a media professional Captain America. At home, I took the creative uniform off and relaxed. Focus issues were only occasional because I was a new, aspiring student. I was excited, so my brain increased my dopamine to Hulk-sized levels.
Late in my second semester, virtual education began, and I faced my kryptonite. I no longer felt like putting on the CreComm cape and cowl. I jumped into the conflict as a weak, baggy-eyed Bruce Banner. Managing projects and deadlines became difficult because of the criminal supervillain and chaotic menace known as Email-Man. When on campus, I’d get an assignment at the end of every class, every day. But now, Email-Man rained hellfire and brimstone with notifications pouring down at any given time. I was outmatched.
I searched for counsel and it led me to the real heroes — the medical professionals. My doctor had diagnosed me with ADHD early in semester two. Hammill Institute on Disabilities says people with ADHD are less likely to graduate and maintain consistent grades. Worrisome thoughts of failure seeped into my brain. I am making it this far with good grades in my specialty areas, but only passing grades in others. Maybe I am not living up to my potential.
Most people bounce back after their initial fight with Email-Man. With ADHD, the blow hits hard — like when Doomsday killed Superman. Superman later came back to life, but someone with ADHD must continue the battle every day. It destabilizes your confidence, motivation, and organization. It can take days, even weeks to rejuvenate your mind. CreComm’s massive volume of assignments and quick due dates flooded my inbox. I never missed a deadline, but it often came down to the final hour.
I stressed over my diagnosis. No, it couldn’t be ADHD. I thought ADHD makes you jumpy and antsy, web-swinging from wall to wall. I did some research and found out it’s not true for all people with ADHD. ADHD has three distinct types: inattentive, hyperactive, and a hybrid of the first two. People with hyperactivity have issues with patience, interruption, and mood swings. Inattentive people experience more silent symptoms. They may appear calm and understanding, but they struggle with short-term memory, attention, motivation, and focus.
Hyperactive people aren’t always hyper. Inattentive people aren’t always inattentive. However, either form of ADHD takes a major toll on their ability to manage their lives. It’s called executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction causes a disruption in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Without proper function in the prefrontal cortex, the brain has trouble with memory, motivation, decision-making, and time-management. The prefrontal cortex provides the body with behavioural, emotional, and attentional regulation using the chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. Your brain releases dopamine when it’s expecting a reward, so you feel amped up. Your brain releases norepinephrine to give you the agency and energy you need to focus and perform certain actions. So, like kryptonite draining Superman’s abilities, ADHD drains the brain of dopamine and norepinephrine causing those chemicals to release less often.
Meanwhile, in my basement of solitude, I was near the end of my second semester. My hyper-focus was weakening along with my mental health. I got three critical errors in a row. In CreComm, critical errors occur when you misspell proper nouns like YouTube. Just typing that felt riskier than the Flash channelling the Speed Force to time-travel. But unlike risking Earth’s timeline, I risk 50 per cent of my mark.
My doctor prescribed me Concerta for my ADHD. With medication, my attention and motivation increased faster than a speeding bullet. I was spending too many hours on minute-details. I was obsessive. These powers felt out-of-control and I quit the medicine. This brought me back down to my comfort zone. It also meant returning to my forgetful and unmotivated self. It took this disorganization in my life to help me understand how to begin re-organizing it. I needed to know how other students with ADHD were living with an offline mind in an online world. Was their school helping them?
Atypical Tales # 3 – Poor Focus
The term ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) limits the layman’s understanding of ADHD. Rather than deficient attention, think of it as unregulated attention and dopamine deficiency. Dopamine’s superpowers include motivation, focus, and good mood. When ADHD prevents a regular dopamine release, the brain becomes a junkie that lost its drugs. When priorities shoot toward you, the pressure for dopamine increases. But the brain doesn’t release anything. For neurotypicals, you may find yourself often distracted and unfocused too. Your brain can’t produce unlimited dopamine. So, you’ll stress or sleep your way through it and your funk dissipates. With ADHD, the funk happens every day and can last for weeks, even months.
“I think it’s tied in with shame,” said Red River College (RRC) grad Kaeleigh Ayre. “Shame of missing out, of letting someone down, of having to ask what was missed, people-pleasing and what will others think.”
Ayre, 32, was diagnosed with ADHD in August 2020. Living with this new understanding, her perspective on life changed.
“I try to be conscious of decisions and set myself up for success knowing what I know now,” said Ayre.
This mentality caused Ayre to put a pause on her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree. She knew online structures were her kryptonite and chose to take time away from school for a while. During the time off, Ayre is planning on researching some practices and routines to assist with virtual learning should she decide to go back.
Ayre gave me the inspiration to take a step back occasionally to reflect and rehabilitate. I empathize with Ayre’s thoughts on shame. I have felt shame over losing focus, especially in the middle of someone’s sentence. Involuntary loss of focus feels like your mind shuts off for a couple of seconds. And when you come to, you wonder where you were.
I also felt shame in asking for help. Teachers and classmates have offered to help before, but everything was still new to me, and I didn’t want to risk the chance of becoming someone else’s burden. Shame feels like a constant battle within yourself.
But every superhero gets up again even after their defeat (or at least, resurrects after death).
Atypical Tales # 4 – Hyper-focus
ADHD can make you feel like a mutant from the X-Men. An outlier burdened with an unnatural “gift” that everybody struggles to understand. The times you do focus can lead to a phenomenon called hyper-focus. Our unregulated dopamine eventually surfaces and gives our brain a little boost.
Everyone experiences hyper-focus. A study published in the Research in Developmental Disabilities says people with ADHD feel hyper-focus neither more, nor less than neurotypicals. But it benefits people with ADHD more because it dials up a lack of focus into a laser-focused fixation. Hyper-focus leads to so much specific focus that everything else disappears. Priorities become less important or even forgotten. And what are you supposed to say to others? You finally focused on something and enjoyed it, but you were too focused elsewhere to pay attention to them? So, you’re either too unfocused to focus, or too focused to focus elsewhere. The same study found people with ADHD are less likely to hyper-focus during stressful, educational, and social activities. Thank you, college.
I decided to aim my focus at finding a “Professor X” — someone responsible for helping people like me.
Lori Walkow, Director of Student Accessibility Services (SAS) at RRC said the transition to online course delivery was difficult for people with ADHD given the self-directed nature of the course work.
In Walkow’s experience, the biggest obstacles for students with ADHD revolve around the increased and varied use of the online education platform, LEARN.
Some of RRC’s methods over the transition to online learning include:
- Instructors record and post concurrent live lectures on LEARN.
- Students with ADHD can request an extended time for online tests/exams taking place in LEARN, but students are responsible for reducing distractions at home.
- Accessibility Services counsellors provide students with tips on creating an appropriate study and test-taking environment.
- Students with ADHD can still meet with a tutor or academic coach, but sessions occur virtually.
- The Assistive Technologist meets with students virtually to discuss assistive technology.
Some of the assistive technologies include text-to-speech learning software like Kurzweil 3000 as well as organizational apps such as Pomodoro Timer, Productivity Owl, and Trello. But students need to download and use these tools themselves.
I wondered if RRC’s services included volunteers to help students with ADHD. Walkow said Accessibility Services steers away from volunteer note-takers or tutors because different note-taking styles confused some students with ADHD. They also found volunteers were often unreliable and students generally gravitated to staff tutors instead.
Walkow said these supports help students with ADHD develop and maintain study schedules, stay on top of assignment due dates, and help reinforce the online structure.
RRC’s Accessibility Services relies too much on the individual student to take charge in my opinion. Persevering through the villainous online barrier and finding these services can be difficult for people with ADHD. Walkow mentioned they advertise the services through student news updates online, but there weren’t any online presentations or seminars promoting resources for students with ADHD.
“I’d say it’s been a little harder throughout quarantine,” said RRC student Rebecca Kehler.
Kehler, 20, was also diagnosed with ADHD last year before the pandemic. Kehler uses her intellectual superpowers to study in the Administrative Assistant program which consists of business computing, accounting, and event planning.
“I find myself zoning out during lectures more frequently because I’m just staring at a screen.”
When Kehler sought extra-help or clarification, outside of class, it took longer for instructors to respond through e-mail. With Kehler’s infrequent motivation and focus, she needed clarification sooner rather than later.
Yet, she praised her instructors’ help when they did respond.
“[The instructors] helped me with motivation and extra help to the point of not needing tutors or counsellors,” said Kehler.
“I learned about the Pomodoro Technique for studying and that actually helped me stay focused.”
The Pomodoro Technique requires separating work into 25-minute intervals with short breaks in-between. To me, the word “Pomodoro” sounds like a fighting-style the Iron Fist would use, but the term refers to the Pomodoro kitchen timer that’s shaped like a tomato. The timer ticks off like a bomb and rings when your work interval is complete. The shorter time between working and relaxing, the stronger the incentive becomes to finish the task. Like a proper supervillain, an ADHD brain requires much more incentive for reward than a neurotypical brain. The method helps to prevent prolonged hyper-focus and allows for a moment of tranquillity. The method could somewhat train your hyper-focus abilities, but the spontaneity of ADHD can make your training difficult.
Kehler said that the Pomodoro technique, combined with medication, drastically improved her work ethic in school. Her grades shape-shifted from low Ds to high As. She was a prime example of a superhero rising above the circumstances. This gave me some hope that there were ways to help myself by learning from others.
Atypical Tales # 5 – Forgetfulness and Stress
ADHD causes a strange ability to stress over tiny things and forget other things almost the second you hear them. It can make you forget where you placed your cellphone and stress over it for thirty minutes. Until you find your phone on the bookshelf.
Why the hell did I place it there?
At least the lack of focus comes with moments of hyper-focus. Forgetting and stressing have no real alternatives. Sure, relaxation could help, but with ADHD, you may end up avoiding and ignoring important things.
I couldn’t help but take my curiosity to other post-secondary institutions. I flew up, up, and away to see what was going on at the University of Manitoba (U of M).
Director Carolyn Christie of U of M’s Student Accessibility Services said some students are enjoying the online format and others are not.
U of M uses Kurzweil 3000 and Grammarly-esque programs like WordQ. But unlike RRC, the university differs by interacting with students in a more direct way.
Christie and her team reach out to students every two weeks by email with a newsletter about their services. They also hold multiple orientation sessions for both fall and winter terms.
U of M has plans for a mentorship program organized by student mentors with disabilities to support other students with disabilities.
“We are hoping to get a new web chat feature up and running soon, and our student mentors will be available to answer questions for students,” said Christie.
For now, the U of M uses a volunteer notetaking program. The program uses an online database for uploading classmates’ notes. A student with ADHD can then access those notes incognito.
RRC is still missing U of M’s sense of community for neuro-divergent people. No one should feel alone in their struggle. And despite these services, some still feel cast out.
“I feel alone,” said U of M student Eliza Haraldson. “I don’t know anyone else there that has ADHD, if they do they aren’t open about it.”
Haraldson, 27, figured everyone could make themselves focus if they tried hard enough, so why couldn’t she? Her post-secondary origin story began in 2017 as a 23-year-old math major in the university’s faculty of science. With education getting increasingly more complex, her symptoms got worse.
“I got in a feedback loop of feeling awful about myself,” said Haraldson. “After diagnosis, I felt better because I knew I wasn’t lazy or incapable, I just had ADHD.”
Haraldson still had trouble coping but improved after she started using counselling services in 2019. Like a proper superhero, she understood her powers and weaknesses — then improved upon them. She can now recognize the difference between her general fatigue and her ADHD.
At this point, I took a break from writing this article and tried the Pomodoro Technique. I took 30 to 45-minute breaks for every hour or two of work. It helped cease the worst of my hyper-focus and helped eliminate potential distractions. It didn’t work every time, but with a mental barrier, you must enjoy even the fleeting moments of progress.
My curiosity took me to the University of Winnipeg (U of W).
“It isn’t like if you have this disability, online is bad for you,” said Accessibility Coordinator Lara Coombs. “It’s obviously, you know, each individual basis.”
Coombs says students with ADHD use Manitoba’s student aid more often than they did before the pandemic. Manitoba Student Aid allows them to lessen course work to 40 per cent and still register as a full-time student.
U of W’s noteworthy method is a weekly meeting on Zoom called “Wednesday webinars.”
Wednesday webinars provide students with an opportunity to link in and receive information for things like counselling services or academic advising.
“We’re always telling students [about the webinars] because they aren’t walking around campus anymore and can’t visit my department or even student central services.”
Coombs also praised the instructors for their understanding and accommodations.
“I’m not saying that things are easier for the students, but we are noticing a lot of instructors going ‘sure, no problem’ whereas in the past on campus, they probably wouldn’t have.”
Atypical Tales # 6 – Impulsiveness
When people think of impulsiveness with ADHD, they often think of hyperactivity. I was always shy and rarely interrupted people. However, my brain always reacted one step behind my actions. For example, I’ve been in four car accidents…all of which were my own fault…and all of which involved hitting inanimate objects (if I were a superhero, I wouldn’t have the Nick-Mobile).
But impulsiveness can be positive. Superman acts on impulse to save people from harm. I married the love of my life by eloping in Las Vegas at the age of 21. The impulse came from love. Everyone can act on a good impulse when it’s for a worthy cause.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of psychotherapy focusing on embracing mental health barriers instead of fighting them. A study in the USA from several health institutions and universities delivered abridged versions of ACT to adults with ADHD over the phone and through video conferencing. The study found this was an effective method for supporting adults with ADHD during future lockdowns. In the big picture, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority could organize an open-source version of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, online through emails, online conference calls, and phone calls.
On the academic front, I think RRC, U of M, and U of W should all provide an open community for people with mental health problems. The schools can co-organize it with people who have mental health issues. I think more people with ADHD would feel welcomed into a safe environment with perspectives from students, teachers, and councillors alike. As a student with ADHD, Haraldson says the stigma with ADHD needs to end.
“I think schools should be more open about ADHD,” said Haraldson. “Like, I’ve heard people say that universities shouldn’t cater to people with ADHD — that if they can’t make it in academia without accommodations they don’t belong.”
Unlike most movies, superheroes shouldn’t feel forced to act alone.
In the smaller picture, you can act on a positive impulse by donating to local foundations for ADHD like the Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba and Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada. I believe real change begins with a community helping local innovators do the work everybody else doesn’t need to.
Finally, you can act on impulse by asking someone how their mental health is affecting them lately. When someone acknowledges my ADHD and shows concern for how I’m coping, it makes me feel seen, not as a faulty human, but as a human with a divergent, yet functioning brain. I wrote this article with a style encompassing my love for comic books and creativity, but I don’t want to pretend mental disorders are superpowers. Like Batman said, “it’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
I want to define myself as someone who powers through his ADHD and helps others with their mental health issues.