Happy World Mental Health week! And if you didn’t know it was this week, that’s okay because no one really knows.
So yes, this week is World Mental Health week and I found this out because my subscription box on Youtube was filled with Buzzfeed videos talking about people living with mental health issues, getting people to draw anxiety and my personal favourite, giving people the space to talk about their pill journeys.
So I thought it would be cool if today I did something I have never done before and tell you what it’s like to be on ADHD medication as well as what it is really like to live with ADHD.
So I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 10. I got diagnosed quite late actually because even though I was struggling like crazy with my schoolwork, I was also one of those invisible kinds of people who the teachers love simply because we shut up. So no one really suspected until about when I was about 9 I think.
When I was first diagnosed, I was put on 27mg of Concerta. I can still remember the very first day I took it. I remember how quiet the world became. It was very weird. My head is usually all over the place. My brain is very noisy and I find that I am always moving even when I don’t realise it. And sometimes, especially when I’m doing my school work, the noise becomes too much and I start to freak out a bit and I’ll have to walk away.
But with the Concerta, my brain noise was lowered like a switch and it became like background noise. I was suddenly hyper aware of the silence. I didn’t like it but for some reason it actually worked. I was quiet enough to do some work and it was actually okay. I spent that whole morning just waiting for the symptoms to kick in. My doctor had gone through the very impressive list of horrid side effects and I was wondering why I was okay.
Then came the afternoon and with it, the most painful headache I have ever experienced. My brain felt like it was being squeezed out of my ears. I had the worst nausea and I could barely sit up straight much less be productive.
I was 10 and I was alone in school. As far as I know, my teachers didn’t know what I was taking so really I was by myself. I remember that when I finally got home, I was feeling so horrid inside and I just wanted to curl up in a ball and die.
Dinner time rolled around and I noticed how un-hungry I was. I ate so little that day. And then bed time. I lay awake for absolutely ages. Concerta reduces your appetite and gives you insomnia.
I took Concerta all through that year and then only when I needed it for the next 3 years. I was kind of rebelling against it because I couldn’t take the side effects, which at that point, I couldn’t get used to simply because I wasn’t taking it regularly. So every time I took one, it felt just like the first time.
When I was in secondary 4, my O’Level year, my dosage was jacked up because technically 27 mg was a dose for children and I was no longer responding as well to it. I went up to 36mg on a daily basis and that slowly became 48mg. Every. Single. Day. If I thought the side effects of 27mg was bad, well this was incomparable to anything I’ve ever experienced. Because this was a daily thing, I started to get used to it and my body stopped fighting the medication. I managed to get rid of the nausea and headaches but the insomnia and the appetite thing remained.
So I simply had to find ways to deal with it. Concerta lasts for 12 hours from the moment you put it in your mouth. So I timed the taking of my pills very carefully. And that required me to completely listen to my body. I learnt a lot about my optimum studying time (which is in the morning) and so what I would do is only take the pill at about 12pm. That would mean that I would run on my optimum all morning and then when I started to burn out in the afternoon and evening, my Concerta pill will be there. It also helped me with my insomnia because once the pill let me go, I could sleep.
Being an ADHD kid on Concerta is an incredibly confusing experience. You are glad that you have it because it calms you down and makes you super duper productive. But at the same time, you hate it because it take away everything that makes you you. In particular, I hated how mellow it made me. I am usually smiley and cheerful. But the medication made me feel sallow and like I was on the verge of snapping constantly. I felt like a machine.
I thought of it this way. I was a puppet and my Concerta was the puppeteer holding my strings. Every time I fell to my knees, it would jerk me back up and force me to continue. So I began to resent it. I mean no one is going to tell you that they love their mental health medication. It takes a lot from you and it’s very hard. I remember that sometimes I would get so focused on my work that I would get super upset when my mum asked me to eat or when she begged me to go to sleep. To her credit, my mum was incredibly patient. She took whatever I threw at her that year because she knew how badly the Concerta affected me.
But the fact is that mental health medication is horrible. And sometimes it’s hard because you don’t want to tell people and because of that, they don’t understand why your personality has done a complete 360 degree turn. So they get annoyed with you and impatient.
Which is why I think it’s so important that we talk about it. Especially in Singapore. Having a learning disability or any type of mental health issue is generally frowned upon in Singapore. Our school system is very stringent and it makes very little allowance for someone with a learning disability. For example, when I was doing my O’Levels, I was given extra time on my papers and I was put in a separate room. This helped me a lot because I get so distracted sometimes and the silence drives me crazy. So I really need the space and time to be able to take a sort of ‘break’ during a paper. That was okay.
What was not okay was that when I got my certificate back, my official Cambridge O’Level certificate, I found that there were asterisks next to every single one of my subjects. Why? Simply because I had extra time and a separate room. So now for the rest of my life, potential employers will look at my certificate and they will not see the 8 points that I scored. They will not see how hard I pushed myself. They would not see the sleepless nights. They wouldn’t see how I pretty much collapsed after my first paper. No. They will look at my certificate a see a learning disability. Because apparently, there is something so wrong with having a brain that works differently. Apparently it’s so wrong that people feel the need to put it up front and center.
That is something that I very much want to see changed. Singapore prides itself on it’s education system and as someone who has been through it, I am so proud as well. I’m proud of how far we have come and I am proud that my country cares so much about our education. But I think that somewhere along our journey to become of the greatest countries in terms of education, we lost sight of the fact that we were dealing with actual people and not just numbers.
It’s very unfair that our advanced schools do not have a programme in place for kids like me. It’s unfair that instead of being put in a class with a trained teacher, we are shoved into extra classes and are thrown more worksheets. You aren’t solving the problem. You’re making it worse. The environment is not conducive for us. Plain and simple. It’s not fair to the student and even to the teacher when you have a student with a learning disability but a teacher that is untrained to deal with it.
So I want to see that change. I also want to tell people to stop saying that ADHD is a made up disability by people who are lazy. We are not lazy. Do you know that 1 hour of work for you take 2 for me? Do you know that I go home and convert lessons into pictures so that I can understand and remember better? Do you know how it feels to sit in a classroom and know that you are 10 steps behind your classmates and that you can run as hard as you can but you will still never catch up? No?
ADHD is as real as that cough you have. ADHD is as real as that scrape you got last week. ADHD is real. It is not made up.
I am now off my medication because I hate it so much. I do still need it but I try to do without it because I can’t stand feeling the way I used to. I am living with ADHD and even though it makes life 10 trillion times harder sometimes, I enjoy it.
My ADHD makes me who I am. I am not ashamed of that. If you are struggling with a learning disability, I urge you to try to talk about it. Don’t bottle it up like I did. It can be very hard to struggle on your own with this and it will really help the people around you because they will understand when you aren’t at your best.
If you don’t have a learning disability, remember that you have no right to criticise someone based on something that you do not understand. Be patient. Be caring. If you have a friend in school that is always asking you questions or for your help in solving a math problem, help them. Don’t get impatient. Sometimes it takes everything in us to ask for help and we are always afraid that we are bothering people. So be kind.
I would like to end by saying that people with ADHD aren’t stupid. We are just different. And that’s okay.
P.S. Visit Buzzfeed’s Youtube channel because they are releasing amazing mental health videos every day this week and its just so enlightening and amazing to watch.