I graduated two days ago. After five years of undergraduate study in what feels like a thousand different programs (let’s be honest, it was four), the university that I moved across country to attend approved my request to graduate and gave me a diploma. It’s got a shiny seal on it, and my full name, and proclaims to the world that I put in the time and effort to receive a BA in archaeology. As I crossed the stage, feeling like a confused and ungainly deer in headlights, the Chancellor shook my hand, congratulated me on convocation, and asked “What’s next?!”
I don’t know this man. I know he asked because he felt he had to say something to each and every student, and I appreciate his feigned concern for my future plans. But I had no answer for him beyond an awkward laugh and “We’ll see!”
My honest answer might have been “Sandwiches!” I was just trying to get across the stage without my heels falling off. At that moment, getting back to my seat in one piece was “what’s next.”
The thing is, I’ve never known what’s next in terms of the so-called Big Picture. At one point during the Chancellor’s address, he said “It is time to live life on purpose – not by accident, but on purpose.” I am really, really, really bad at this. I have been for as long as I can remember. It’s not my fault, but it is part of who I am. Learning to accept that has been one of the most valuable lessons I have worked through in university.
I have ADHD. I wasn’t diagnosed until the summer before my last year of university, at which point I was tired of giving up on things and losing interest in everything that I thought I enjoyed, and growing increasingly anxious about living in a world that wants everyone to have a plan and follow through on it.
I’m lucky. All my life I have been one of the “smart” kids. I finished my schoolwork so quickly and correctly that I could just move on to whatever else I wanted. I had a 3.8 GPA when I moved to Calgary for my fourth year of university, even though I’d only ever done the minimum courses in my specified major each year and had changed my major annually.
But I couldn’t keep it up. I had reached the point where my answer to an innocent (but condescending) “What are you going to do with your degree?” or the similarly awful “Are there actually any jobs in that?” was a disgusted look and a request that the questioner go to hell. It wasn’t a real answer, but I didn’t have anything better.
“I don’t know; I haven’t looked into it. I’m just getting this degree so that I have a degree. I don’t care what it’s in. This was interesting for 3 classes and I’m sick of changing my mind and being in school forever.” That was my honest answer, but it wasn’t usually what people wanted to hear.
I didn’t like admitting it, either. I didn’t like thinking that I’d forever be in this cycle of hyper-focusing on one facet of education and then tiring after two weeks and doing it over and over again. I was realizing that diving head-first with limbs flailing into an academic pursuit wasn’t going to get me anywhere. First, I needed to learn how to swim back to shore – or, at the very least, tread water.
For a while, I was in kind of rough shape. I saw career counsellors who helped me decide on zero career paths; instead, my sessions turned into Coping with Anxiety and Insomnia 101. When my counsellor had to move and I was reassigned to another woman, she interrupted my ramblings to ask if I’d ever been tested for ADHD. After my initial raised-eyebrow reaction at her interrupting me to ask if I had attention issues, I realized that she might actually have a point.
My counsellor directed me to the DRC – which I automatically thought meant the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but quickly learned was the Disability Resource Centre. I went through the necessary steps (and there are so many steps!) of having a psychoeducational assessment. The verdict was that I have Combined Type ADHD, which (for me) means that I can be loud; I have difficulty staying on task, remembering what I’m doing, and maintaining focus and goals; I fidget; I get frustrated and might throw a tantrum; and I can’t sit through most movies.
I don’t bounce off the walls, I don’t scream for unknown reasons, and I do have manners; these are the outdated and narrow minded views of ADHD which my parents tend to harbour, which is one reason why I was never tested and diagnosed as a child. I also have opted not to seek treatment through drugs. For many people drugs are the right choice, but given my mild ADHD and a combination of other factors, they’re not for me.
My counsellors and doctors and I have worked out a semi-successful system of behavioural therapy to deal with my overactive mind, but I fail sometimes. That is okay. It is okay to make mistakes. I am okay.
Along with the diagnosis of ADHD, I got some perks from the DRC. The people working there are absolutely wonderful. They actually take time to get to know you and help you do your absolute best with the tools that you have. I was allowed to have a calculator for all of my math- related tests, I got to write my exams in my own private room where I could walk around and talk to myself, I was given breaks during my exams and tests, and I had a vaguely worded letter for my profs that gave me an excuse to briefly leave class when I just couldn’t sit there anymore. And it really helped. My test scores were better, my professors were more understanding, and my anxiety lessened.
Now, having graduated, I’m not in that environment anymore. I don’t have a professor giving me something to work toward every month, be it a test or a paper or a class presentation. But I still have ADHD.
I still don’t know what I am going to do with my life. I don’t even know what I’m going to do this afternoon. I still go to the washroom to pee, get there and see an errant bobby pin which reminds me that I had laundry to transfer to the dryer, get halfway to the dryer and see the fridge which is short on margarine, then go to the grocery store with a full bladder and damp clothing that will just have to wait to be dry until my boyfriend gets home. I’ll inevitably come home without the margarine, too. I still get caught up in the thrill of watching an episode of “Say Yes to the Dress” while sewing four different projects and convincing myself that opening a bridal boutique is a viable career option. And I’ll teach people how to bake while they’re there … and play the ukulele … and we can colour!
Is there such a thing as a bridal boutique daycare? Because that, my friends, is my freakin’ niche.
I went to university because it’s what other people told me to do, because I was smart. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know who I was or what plans I had. I was there to help myself figure out who I am, to learn how to do whatever it was that I decided I wanted to do, and to get a degree mostly just to say that I could do it.
I don’t regret my five years of university, but I do wish that I’d found ways to turn it into a tool to prepare me for life outside of school. Instead, I let it just be something I was doing, one test at a time, until it was over. I know I’m not alone in experiencing university that way. There are lots of reasons why recent graduates in today’s economy have no idea where to work and are grateful for any job they can land; I’m sure one of the reasons is that universities make it hard to navigate the full range of job options that are available.
People with ADHD are expected to work to fit into society. I think that it’s something that society needs to recognize doesn’t fit, and that not-fitting is okay. My years at school gave me wonderful experiences, the greatest friends, undying support from my family, and two pieces of paper. One is a diploma that says I know some theory of digging and past cultures. The other is a psychologist’s report that says I have ADHD. I want the latter to be seen as an asset too. Drowning in the “Post-Grad Real World” isn’t fun.
Feeling like nobody will toss you a rope because they don’t trust you to hold on long enough is even less fun.