Being Neurodivergent In PT School

I have bipolar disorder, ADHD, and anxiety. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder back in 2012. I’ve had anxiety since I was a child. And I received an ADHD diagnosis in January, with the idea that I’ve most likely had ADHD since childhood. I am in my second term of physical therapy school, and luckily my bipolar disorder only reared its ugly head once and it was a mild depressive episode that was very easy to power through until I cycled back to baseline. But undiagnosed ADHD coupled with untreated anxiety (because my anxiety is more of a thing that is triggered) made my first term a horrendous ordeal.

I developed the shakes, something I never had before. I even had the shakes during my first soft tissue practical, which thankfully did not affect my ability to do soft tissue interventions. I have had anxiety attacks. I even shut down several times throughout the term due to my brain no longer being able to tolerate the amount of anxiety assaulting it. I was overall numb.

I hated my first term. I found very few enjoyable moments. They say your first term is the hardest because it is a big adjustment period in terms of work load, but I knew there was something more going on. I knew that what I was experiencing couldn’t just be anxiety. I constantly felt beat up by the end of the day. I would go to bed thinking the next day would be easier in terms of getting my work/studying done in a decent amount of time, only to wake up and struggle trying to keep my focus without being pulled in fifty million directions by distracting things. If the internet didn’t exist, I would likely be distracted by something else, so the internet wasn’t the issue. Plus, I needed the internet to do all of my assignments. I then thought about how if I were placed in an empty room with nothing, how would my mind be? I then realized I’d start screaming from abject boredom. It’s known those with ADHD have a low tolerance for boredom because our dopamine levels are low to begin with. We’re constantly seeking out things that raise dopamine levels, which is why we always have to be doing something.

I started considering the possibility of ADHD. My brother has it, so it’d make sense to consider it. But I didn’t tell my psychiatrist about it right away. Even I was falling prey to the stigma attached to ADHD. I just kept thinking I needed more willpower. But it got to the point where I realized willpower was not the issue. No amount of my feeling determined to get through the day without issue made it so. I started relying on coffee to give me some focus. It worked. I was actually able to get through five finals without feeling numb and burnt out. Of course, I knew medication would likely be a lot better than coffee, but I just didn’t know how to bring it up. So I sat on this possible diagnosis and used some of my Christmas break to take every screen I could find on the internet. They all pointed to me having combined ADHD (inattentive and hyperactive).

Fast forward to today, and I have been on a non-stimulant medication called Strattera for five weeks.

I feel like focus is a superpower that I am finally privy to. I can wake up, tell myself I’m going to answer ten questions for gross anatomy or whatever, then have a break, and actually be able to do it without taking three hours to do ten questions because I spend so much time messing around. I’ve even been able to write this blog post without going to Facebook, then Twitter, and going to Google to search something unrelated that I’m curious about.

My executive functioning also seems to be improving. I picked up all the trash in my room and bagged it. All I have left to do is organize the stuff on my floor–but at least it’s not trash! And because my focus is better, my memory seems to be improving, which I found so problematic last term. I had to do so much repetition because it took an absurd amount of time for things to stick. Prior to my medication working, I almost felt the creeping fingers of burnout while studying for midterms and sucking down caffeine. Then I started to notice my medication dusting off the cobwebs of my mind. I let go of the caffeine, and I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to power through the rest of my midterms–even though I still couldn’t wait for them to be over with. I didn’t have as much time to study for my second patho exam as I did my first, but I did not freak out like I normally would. Instead, I used the power of focus. Even though I studied less, I felt it was more quality thanks to a clearer mind.

Unfortunately, I think my anxiety is still largely a separate thing, though it is better now because Strattera is doing a good job at dusting. I lost my mind during a midterm when I started having problems with Respondus (there’s a whole story behind why I flipped out that is connected to the fact that we originally used ProctorU). Of course, it was me jumping to conclusions; everyone had the exact same problem I did. Even so, I think parts of my anxiety are more under control now that the ADHD is settling down.

I am now enjoying this term more and feeling more confident that this is something I can manage, that I am capable of doing this, that I will not fail or drop any classes. I am looking more toward the future now instead of feeling trapped in the present, taking things one day at a time. You’d think that’d be a good thing, taking everything a day at a time, but sometimes being too present can feel stifling. Sometimes not looking toward the future means you are uncertain about whether or not you’re even going to have a future. Now I am doing research into a specialty that I would ultimately like to obtain within the decade after graduating PT school, one I’m very much excited about because I didn’t know of its existence. I have TMD, and physical therapists can help with that, and so I want to specialize in that area. I still want to specialize in the low back, but I’ll probably go after the McKenzie specialty first since it may count toward being able to be certified in the craniofacial and cervical spine through PTBCCT.

Overall, my passion for PT has been renewed thanks to finally being treated for ADHD.