My recent ADHD diagnosis came foremost as a relief. The alternative — that there was no exculpatory explanation for my many failures — was unappealing. Throughout my life I have been chaotic, impulsive, lazy, and disorganized to an extent which has caused me fairly significant problems: arrests, hospitalizations, substance abuse issues, getting fired from almost every job I’ve ever had. But it wasn’t until I started doing the kind of work where you have to stare at a laptop screen for eight hours a day that the possibility really occurred to me.
I’m not saying it’s unimportant whether you’d class this set of traits as a disposition, the product of environmental factors, or an innate neurological disorder — obviously each explanation comes with different implications — but I have arrived at the conclusion that I don’t really care, or at least not in relation to myself. I sought a diagnosis largely because I had found taking Ritalin helped to mitigate these traits and their consequences, and I got fed up with buying it from the dark web. I don’t want to invest any more in having a diagnosis than that, but I’m glad I got one.
But at the same time, I felt uneasy at being thrust into an online community which I’d long considered kind of annoying: What’s really striking is the extent to which a disorder associated with garrulousness and substance abuse has been captured so utterly by nerds. To what neurodivergent urges would I now be subjected? Would I be tempted to start drawing pastel-colored webcomics about buying too many notebooks or set up a TikTok account with my boyfriend in which he is assigned the role of baffled but tolerant neurotypical and I am essentially a child? Would I start claiming that innocuous behaviors like “Googling stuff,” “using emojis,” “being able to concentrate sometimes but not always,” and “watching cartoons” arise directly from my newly confirmed condition? Would I begin to construct elaborate metaphors along the lines of “ADHD is basically like having a poltergeist that follows you around and moves your stuff” or “ADHD is having a werewolf that lives inside your brain: the secret is not trying to control the werewolf, but fully embracing that you are this creature”?
I didn’t want to do any of those things, but I did start to consider what we are telling ourselves — and one another — about ADHD.
Alongside useful advice on how to manage symptoms, the online discussion around ADHD is often more concerned with endless taxonomies of traits and behaviors. In this sense, it more closely resembles astrology than psychology, and functions largely as fodder for mild observational humor and relatable memes. While these are often defended on the basis that they’re raising awareness among the undiagnosed, they mostly seem aimed at people who already have both too much awareness and a diagnosis, and instead seem to be catering to a widespread desire to inhabit a fully-fledged identity.
These taxonomies are mostly based on vibes and personal anecdotes, and are rarely supported by anything approaching evidence. When talking about how characteristics such as “being silly around animals” are attributable to ADHD, people might take care to add a caveat about how the condition presents differently for everyone. But these traits are still being positioned as related to the condition, rather than harmless and in many cases unremarkable idiosyncrasies. Once you get a diagnosis, you are encouraged to identify with it to the point where every facet of your personality can be explained through this one lens, usually to the exclusion of all other factors. This strikes me as a boring and reductive way of thinking about your life, because everyone is more complex than a single condition. I’d like to think that I am an annoying fuck-up due to a more expansive range of factors, and that ADHD doesn’t explain every bad thing I’ve ever done or else everything about me that’s likable.
In tandem with the memes about having ADHD, there has sprung up an ancillary market of products aimed at the ADHD community: books, planners (often with a fun twist!), life coaching services, and productivity apps. I regularly get targeted ads for one of these apps on Instagram, in which a smiling man holds a placard reading, “I’m a Silicon Valley CEO. and I have ADHD” — say what you like about Big Pharma, but they’re at least trying to sell me something that I want to buy. The focus on productivity is one of the most objectionable aspects to how ADHD is marketed. If there’s an ideology behind it, it’s the idea that a good life demands productivity, hard work, and fulfilling your potential. “Diagnosis and treatment could replace frustration and underachievement with success,” as ADHD advocate and psychiatrist Edward Halliwell put it.
If you look at the history of ADHD marketing, you’ll see time and time again the invocation of the brilliant but under-performing child, the recipient of poor grades whose parents just know they should be a straight-A student. When you apply this framework to adult ADHD, as the many “ADHD like a boss”-style life coaches on Instagram do, what’s being reified is the supreme importance of individual success. Jesse Meadows, a writer whose work concerns the politics of neurodivergence, has argued that these marketing tactics represent “a medicalized re-packaging of the American Dream — the belief that anyone can achieve success in the US if they just work hard enough, except in this case, it’s not your work ethic holding you back from your ‘true potential,’ it’s your broken brain.’”
Contrary to the idea that ADHD is an obstacle preventing us from becoming Silicon Valley CEOs, there is an attendant narrative that having ADHD is a good news diagnosis. The line “ADHD is a superpower” has now, for the most part, been rejected by the online communities dedicated to the subject. But it’s still regularly deployed by Addidude magazine, a website run by the leading ADHD advocacy and lobbying group in the US. Even though the catchphrase itself is now largely seen as reductive, it’s still common to see the idea expressed with a little more subtlety. As a recent article published in The Guardian put it, “The heart of the ADHD positivity movement is about creating a shift away from seeing neurodivergence as a problem that needs curing, to seeing it as an asset.”
The most common benefit attributed to ADHD is outsize creativity, and it has become a truism that people with the condition are able to concentrate just fine as long as they’re interested in what they’re doing, but this isn’t true for everyone. It hasn’t been my experience: in fact, struggling to focus on things which I do enjoy and find meaningful is one of the reasons why I sought a diagnosis in the first place. It’s clearly the case that for many people the associated traits actually stand in the way of realizing their creative ambitions.
People are keen to stress that ADHD has a diverse range of symptoms and presents differently depending on the individual, yet sites like Additude take is as self-evident that we are all, “bright, creative and funny,” with the good fortune of possessing a “sparkling personality” and “a sense of humility and self-respect”. As one Instagram life coach puts it, we should stop associating ourselves with problems like being unable to focus (i.e the actual symptoms associated with the condition), and instead start realizing that we are “passionate, creative, strategic, and awesome.” Needless to say, there is little evidence for any of these claims — the “awesomeness” of people with ADHD remaining a sorely under-researched area. But some of us, surely, must be boring and bad at making art, and risk being excluded in the prevailing discourse. Apart from anything, most of it just comes across as profoundly patronizing.
As is the case with just about any online social justice movement, the people with the biggest platforms to talk about ADHD tend to be middle-class and upwards; freelance creatives, business owners, PhD students at elite universities; people who have the disposable income to spend thousands on equipment for hobbies they never pursue and imagine this is a relatable foible. Coupled with the insistence on the cognitive benefits, it creates the impression that it’s a disorder which mostly affects people who are successful, wealthy, and singularly gifted, but a little bit scatty. There is research which shows a high correlation between ADHD and all manner of adverse life outcomes, such as addiction and unemployment. A lot of these studies have been funded or promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, and should therefore be read with a little skepticism, but it’s not remotely implausible that people with the associated traits would find themselves in trouble.
This is a side you rarely see on social media, where the public face of the condition is likelier to be a college graduate struggling to finish their novel than a kitchen porter getting fired due to poor time-keeping (what’s more, children from low-income backgrounds are more likely to be diagnosed, and later to become trapped in a cycle of poverty.) It’s not “elite capture,” exactly, as there aren’t really any principles to be hi-jacked, but the overriding air of bourgeois whimsy makes it easier to dismiss. The people struggling in low-income, precarious work are mostly absent from the discussion.
Of course, nobody should be using the fact that some people who have ADHD are annoying online as an excuse to be cruel about everyone with the condition. The crucial point: these people are not annoying because they have ADHD, they’re annoying because they’re TikTokers. The uncharitable thing to say would be that by being corny — lip-syncing along to audio tracks of toddlers and drawing saccharine cartoons — they do more to perpetuate stigma than anyone else. But the internet is flooded with annoying people. It should be easy to figure out that they are not representative, and it’s unfair to write off a largely disparate group based on its most insufferable representatives.
Even if you think ADHD is a made-up diagnosis or really a symptom of neoliberal malaise, surely it just stands to reason that people who have difficulties with impulsivity and concentration, whatever the underlying reason, would have a hard time in economies like Britain and the U.S. Hostility and suspicion towards pharmaceutical companies should be a given, and it’s worth bearing in mind that many of these influencers are pushing the exact same lines, from “taking meds is like wearing glasses for the first time” to the erroneous idea that you can’t get addicted if you have a legitimate diagnosis.
But it’s hard to conceive of a progressive framework that would justify not treating regular people who have — or think they have — ADHD with compassion. Two principles come into play here: it’s good to take people at face value when they say they’re struggling, and you shouldn’t shape your worldview based on whoever you find irritating on social media. As for me, I just need to find a middle ground between the stern refuseniks insisting I’m a drug-seeking inadequate and the TikTokers telling me that I’m a precious, delicate baby and probably a creative genius.
James Greig writes about culture and society.