Being a grad student with ADHD: An ode to constant ontological uncertainty.

[Hi. I’m back. I’m digressing from my usual topics to get a little cathartic and personal for a bit. Don’t worry, for the next post we’ll be back to the drug stuff.]


Reading used to be fun.

Back when everything I read was by choice, I could curate my own reading lists that reflected the kind of narratives that kept me going, kept me hungering for more. They fed my imagination and honed my scattered brain into the hyperfocused reverse of itself.

Reading was delightful, relaxing, rewarding.

Now, reading is torture.

It’s the enemy I face off every day. Trying to wrangle sentences from social theorists into submission is the constant state of my being.

I hear my colleagues say it took them an hour to read an article that it took me an hour to get six pages into and I want to cry.

Should I be here?

Is this where I belong?

I pop another Dexedrine and stare at the orange bottle: the key that unlocked the door to academia for someone who by all rights, shouldn’t be here. This space is not built for me. It is hostile to the way my body and mind function. I should have dropped out years ago. I almost did, twice—once in high school and once in undergrad—before the fateful ‘diagnosis’ that turned my C’s into A+’s and miraculously gave me the ability to pursue my dream.

I wouldn’t be here, but for this little orange bottle. It contains my freedom. It’s my crutch.

Academic writing seems designed to keep people like me out. Its dialect is a barrier constructed to exclude those who don’t have the socioeconomic, cultural and linguistic capital to penetrate it. Whose minds have resisted all attempts, external and internal, to be moulded into a narrowly specific way of absorbing knowledge. Read this, we are told. The onus is on us to figure out how. We are at a disadvantage from literally page one.

It smells like bullshit, like there’s something not quite fair happening. But it feels like personal failure.

Sometimes I think maybe grad school is secretly just an insane don’t-ask-don’t-tell circus. Surely no one actually does all the readings? It seems impossible. I can’t make my brain slow down enough to grasp the words on these pages when they’re so incredibly dense and meandering and nonspecific and abstract. If there’s no narrative, no examples, no stories—I can’t follow it. I physically try to force myself, and I fail over and over again.

Then, the depression sets in. The self-loathing.

My relationship to the concept of disability is ambivalent. I certainly feel disabled when I’m trying to read, but identifying as such given all my objective advantages feels like appropriation somehow. I wish I had some sort of sociopolitical solidarity to rally around to argue why Western academic social science writing is exclusionary to people like me despite the fact that I was shaped entirely within it, the way it clearly is to people from other cultures and backgrounds and epistemologies. I am cis and white and middle-class, I am ostensibly who academia was designed for. This place is supposed to feel like second nature to me, I am told. But my type of people—those of us with reading disabilities, ADHD, or just those who process differently—can’t absorb information in the way everyone else around us seems to be able to. But I don’t know who my people are. I don’t know who else to rally to solidarity. We are invisible. We are weeded out early. We are not common in this line of work by default. All I have is a diagnosis that I don’t even fully subscribe to, but whose necessity becomes starkly clear whenever I stop taking the meds. But how can you medicalize a way of thinking and call it a ‘disorder’? I am not disordered. This pedagogy is disordered.

When an otherwise functional, stable, intelligent person has to be medicated to succeed within a system, there’s something wrong with the system.

Hello Foucault. It’s nice to meet you, I’ve heard so many wonderful things. I like your glasses, and also your scathing indictment of modern carceral systems. Listen, I have some questions for you. If your ideas are so necessary, so revolutionary, why are they so difficult for us, the intellectual proletariat, to grasp through your writing? Why are you getting away with helping to perpetuate the very structures of exclusion and power that you rail against? You are complicit in their maintenance and silent about that irony. Explain yourself.

I keep hearing people say, “oh, it’s worth it once you slog through [X impenetrable author] for the brilliance.” And yes, I have found that to be the case for some authors. But look, some of us just don’t have the fucking time. I’m not saying I’m too busy doing other things. I’m a student, this is my job. All I do is read, and I try very hard to slog through these authors every single day. I’m saying I literally cannot physically read fast enough in a given allotted time to properly digest an entire book by those impenetrable authors. Or even most of it. Or half. The time-spent-to-intellectual-benefit ratio is completely skewed for this type of dense, convoluted writing. I can learn so much more from a podcast or documentary or narrative ethnography about a similar topic. Hell, in terms of time spent relative to benefits, I’ve absorbed a lot more from following Black, Indigenous and decolonial feminist anthropologists on Twitter than from trying and failing to read Donna Haraway.

So yeah. Maybe academia isn’t for me.

Except… I’m here somehow. They let me into a top-tier anthropology PhD program with full funding. I have a Master’s degree; I’ve been told my thesis was good, very good even. I’ve made it here despite ignoring all the Big-Cheese Social Theorists and relying entirely on the little guys, the Comprehensibles, the ones I can and do read, who mix theory in with stories–Bourgois, Agar, Moore, Singer, Garcia. What does it mean? Am I a fraud or are all those French sociologists frauds?

I’ve swum around them, these giant mysterious intellectual whales in a sea of friendly little ethnographer fish. Most of the fish know the whales’ songs, and at their register I can actually hear them. So fuck the whales, I think. I don’t need them. I’m a product of the Internet age. Wikipedia and YouTube have been my shortcuts through a world of writing I can’t penetrate to crack open the sweet sticky centre of the ideas inside that writing, which in the end are all that matter. All along, there’s an uneasy feeling I can’t shake that this isn’t right, that I’m missing something, that I’m cheating. That my inabilities, my disability, my patched-together and selective reading history will catch up with me someday. That I’ll be exposed for the illiterate goon I am and unceremoniously booted out of this discipline I love so much.

And yet, somehow, I seem to get by. I get good grades, I’ve been told that I express my ideas coherently in classes and am an above-average public speaker, even if I don’t quite believe it. People regularly tell me they like my work and my public outreach (blog posts and Twitter) has been very rewarding. I love everything else about grad school and about anthropology–research, teaching, listening, learning, thinking, experiencing. The stuff I can read, I am absolutely fascinated by. I’ve gotten funding and scholarships–I am being given money to think and write about stuff. I feel like I have things to say, a perspective that would benefit from being heard in my discipline. I have concrete things to point to when I’m feeling particularly useless.

But none of this makes me feel any better when I’m staring at words swimming on a page. Instead I walk endlessly back and forth on a scale between self-hatred and bitter rage at the people I’m reading.

Right now, for example, I need to write a response paper about a very famous book by a very famous man named Bruno Latour. I don’t understand the first fucking paragraph and that fact is all I want to talk about:

…For real? Is this a joke? Are we really all just gonna pretend that this kind of writing is an ACCEPTABLE WAY TO COMMUNICATE?

My internal thought process while reading goes something like this:

Okay, stating something simply, I like it, what’s next… Okay so I had to read the next couple sentences five times each because my brain kept showing me pictures of antique boats and my dad when he had a moustache and what I had for breakfast and Jon Stewart dressed as Donald Trump all set to the tune of that Talib Kweli song I can’t get out of my head mixed with the humming from my computer, but eventually I got there… Wait, hang on now. Slow down there compadre. What do you mean by ‘material’? You haven’t quite defined that and the way you seem to be using it in a way is diverging from my own understanding of the potential uses of that word and so I’m already lost. No, don’t try to blame the translator. I’m going through the repertoire of what you might mean by ‘material’ and nothing seems to quite make it work. I am also not familiar with a world in which the word ‘social’ can be productively equated with the word ‘wooden’ or ‘steely.’ It is not because I lack imagination. It is because you lack communication skills. Am I supposed to just buy this and move on? Why should I let you get away with this shit? Convince me. I am a skeptic. You are not winning me over with this attitude. …Or maybe I really am not cut out for this. I don’t know. Why can’t I remember more than the first two lines of this Talib Kweli song? Back to Latour. Focus. Wait, now it’s a ‘movement’? When did that happen? ‘Ingredient’? What? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?! I hear your ideas are important, what are they?! Give me your secrets, Latour! I want to understand! TALIB WILL YOU PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE FOR FIVE MINUTES I’M TRYING TO CONCENTRATE!

Yeah. That’s paragraph one.

I’m supposed to read 140 pages.

I don’t know. Maybe I really don’t belong here. Or maybe you can get a PhD with Google and reflexive feminist ethnography and theory-by-proxy. Maybe the calls for valuing clear, jargon-free writing in academia will become something more than lip service in time to save me. Maybe all those intelligible, narrative-oriented authors I can actually read are on the rise, and they will revolt and overthrow the opaque obfuscatocracy and take over, freeing us lowly idiots from our intellectual subjugation. My supervisor is one of those legible authors, that’s for damn sure. She knows how to write. I devoured her book in three days because she has enough respect for her audience to tell a story while she analyses. Why isn’t she the head of [whatever fancy French program somewhere that Latour sits on top of in a building that will be named after him someday, drinking wine and laughing at us peasants with brain disorders as we struggle to comprehend his revered words]?


What can I do? I’m far too obsessive and determined to just convince myself that I don’t need the big whales at all. If I haven’t given up now, it’s not going to happen.

So. I put on some Talib Kweli, drink some water, and steel myself. On to paragraph two.

Note: I receive more emails and messages about this post than all my other writing combined. I love hearing from other students who relate to this experience! It’s clearly a systemic problem. However, if you message me and I don’t reply, I’m sorry, I get overwhelmed–and now that I’m a full-time mom AND PhD student, my ability to respond to messages has been all but wiped out. But please know that I hear you and value you. You aren’t alone. You are amazing for getting as far as you have. Believe me when I say this: it’s not you, it’s them. ❤

If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War–every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

14 thoughts on “Being a grad student with ADHD: An ode to constant ontological uncertainty.

  1. ❤ Ahhhhh!!!! Sending you a big cyber hug. So stressful!!!!! I can definitely relate. When I was in university, I truly did want to do all my readings, but it simply was not possible. In addition to the essays, annotated bibliographies, research projects, group work etc., not to mention the pressure of extra curriculars/working to afford being there at all, there was no way I could absorb these giant boring articles written in that foreign language. I smoked a sickening amount of weed to try to calm my anxiety. You're definitely not alone. It's not you – it's the entire structure of acedemia that's flawed. I know you know this… I just couldn't help but share some support. The way I see it, despite these giant walls that you are facing, the institution needs people like you! Use the contemporary internet loopholes to your advantage and stay on your path. Google "budddy in a nutshell" etc. You know in your soul what you are here to do. Focus on that. Thanks for sharing<3

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Hilary! Hang in there. I miss you. Your post reminded me of the same flavor of a post I wrote in September.
    No where near as in depth, complex or articulate as your post (I find writing posts not cathartic for me… in fact they just instill more self doubt) and as far as I know I don’t have ADHD but I do have dysthymia and general anxiety disorder.

    I’ve been doing this for close to 4 complete years and 1 left to go and writing is much slower than I expected it to be… My issue is trying to put complex thoughts / issues on paper – unraveling the rhizome and trying to sound like I have something to say is easier said than done. The other


    • The other issue I have is I don’t play the game very well and as a result my research doesn’t get the publicity it deserves. Do people really give a fuck?Even if I advocate, there is so much propaganda out there, stigma and preconcieved notions that any thing which shifts the narrtive is threatening… Which makes me feel worse.


  3. Hi Hilary!

    I just stumbled upon this post/your blog, while simultaneously freaking out & procrastinating over my own PhD studies to-do list, my adderall have worn off about 3 hours ago…Your post truly hit home with my own experiences; you are the only fellow doctoral, or even grad student, I have ever heard of with AD/HD. It gets really lonely and at times I have found it totally disheartening to realize that, on both an interpersonal level and in the context of its implications as to the continual reinforcement of academic hegemonies of power, knowledge, pedagogies, curricula, ways of learning, etc.

    Please, as it sounds like you are fairly new to your program, let me say/commiserate a few things with you. I am ABD, and I am so excited to finally talk to someone else in my shoes that I can’t help but give you unsolicited mentorship (my apologies if you hate that).

    First, you’re right, you’ve made it this far, so as long as you want to, you’ll totally make it to graduation! You have what it takes, so don’t worry about that! Never worry about that. Simply by means of being as self-aware of your learning, challenges and all, as you demonstrate in this post, you’ve got the metacognitive awareness to adjust your learning habits to get you through your program. I only add “as long as you want to,” because it is true that some people decide partway through a program that they simply don’t want a PhD afterall, and that’s OK, and very different than dropping out because you can’t hack it.

    Second, speaking of metacognitive awareness, although I know you probably already had to turn in your reflection on it, I’d advise you that sometimes, it’s ok, and even important, for you to turn in something to the extent of what you wrote here, as a means of resisting while also responding to the academic status quo. IT ALSO HELPS YOU KEEP YOUR SANITY, to provide an actual human critique of an absurdly pompous-ass or otherwise difficult to read article. Plus, if you’re lucky, your professor might also take it as an opportunity to go over the reading in a more articulate way or, maybe even pick a different reading for next year! You are right, that the reading was horrible. Maybe assigning 140 pages of that is s like some kind of academic hazing ritual?

    Third, again, let me reiterate my commiseration with all that you’ve said here. Even in my social-justice centered PhD in education/anthro of education program, not one class included any planned readings or discussion of learning disabilities, let alone how some (or all?) of them might be socially constructed or in any way be related to social injustices, perpetuating existing power structures or other hegemonies, or inequities…WTF?! I had to force every reading or conversation that did end up happening, mainly by embracing the idea that I had somehow “snuck in” to a program that hadn’t anticipated someone with an invisible, learning, disability getting in and really speaking up and calling professors out on their sh*t when they talked about the importance of diverse experiences, voices, and inclusion, but left out currently-defined learning disabilities. Like you say, people like you and me get weeded out early, which means that you and I are, whether we like it or not (or contest a diagnosis and/or the frame it tries to set for us–I hear you there, too), inadvertent minority-reps, with different experiences of the education system than others might assume just by looking at us, and it is important, not only for people like us, but for people unlike us, to hear about and be forced to consider how the system as it currently exists affects us differently, in ways they have probably never considered. Nothing will ever get changed if we don’t speak up, and plus, I have generally found my peers and professors to be surprisingly supportive when I do make my case. Also, it sounds like sharing these experiences might be kind of relevant to the topic of your program, so don’t let your department off the hook. Hold them accountable to dealing with diversity in a positive and inclusive way.

    Finally, some less philosophical advice: first, if you are at a U.S. institution, always, ALWAYS, register with your campus office for students with disabilities, even if you don’t plan to take advantage of the accommodations they offer you. It gives you legal leverage and advocacy if any unforeseen problems arise, and it’s the only way people with invisible disabilities get any kind of representation or appear in a census of higher education demographics. Also, you might meet someone on your campus who can emphathize or help you. I have been in school to some degree forever–two masters and now ABD–and I just learned 2 years ago that there is a national honor club for students with disabilities! I cried when I found out, first because it could be so inspiring to other students and maybe improve their likelihood of going to grad school, and second, because they told me I was the only grad student on a campus of over 23k students who was registered as having a disability of any kind. So I know you may not like the label, but it’s important to take it and roll with it, if only for the sake of others.

    And lastly, I know it sounds lame, but you might want to check out a book on speed-reading. I had a friend who was a really slow reader and wanted to drop out when she first started grad school, due to the overwhelming amount of reading, and she read a book on speed reading and said it helped her ALOT. Not everybody reads all of all the readings, but that’s a dangerous habit to start with, and can really get you in trouble, so I don’t want to encourage it. But I think maybe if can hone your “speed reading” skills while retaining content understanding, it could amount to the same thing for you.

    OK, I’ll shut up now. It was really, really great to learn I’m not the only one, and I hope I shared some things that help you or anyone else struggling with grad school. Take care, and remember that you totally deserve to be where you are in school, you’re not alone, and that everyone else in your program is probably just as stressed as you are.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hey Hilary, I just stumbled upon your blog and was wondering if I could contact you via email? I have an MA in Anthropology and Ethnology and I’m just preparing my research proposal for a PhD program, would love to ask you a couple of questions and some advice 🙂 … I see that the social media links you have posted don’t work anymore, is the email address still active?


  5. Hi there! I’m writing just to say “thank you” for sharing so much stuff about your academic journey. It is nice when we see people talking (so rare) about some academy’s dogmas and about their own way to deal with that. It seems to give us some strength.
    I am not an ADHD person, but I felt your comments fit how I feel. It is hard to cope with the pressure without feeling that the problem is with us. It seems that personal effort and meritocracy are the answer to success, but I don’t agree. The truth is that the educational model is made to be non-inclusive and open only to a specific kind of students. Although I am pretty far from Canada, in my university in Brazil, I feel this. Although we speak Portuguese, for example, the anthropology degree program requires students to have fluency in English and French. So here you would probably have to read some old anthropologists in French! That is of course a huge barrier to our demand of quick reading and understanding – supposing you have this fluency, most people would assimilate arguments easier in their own language. Without mentioning that few Brazilians are able to be fluent in English and French, so the own demand of fluency in foreign languages is also a barrier to be in a PhD program.
    Oh and the part that you send greetings to Foucault it is marvelous – I laughed loud! 😛
    Hope you have time to write more posts. : D

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I am so glad that I found this. I feel like you broke into my thoughts and spilled them all out onto the internet. I was diagnosed with adhd halfway through my masters degree. I would watch my husband complete his assignments days before I could even finish reading a paragraph of an article. Just remember that you have gotten this far, and you are your own worst enemy. You have proven to everyone else that you are capable of accomplishing great things, you need to start believing this about yourself now. Take a deep breath, relax, and don’t worry about how fast (or not fast) you are doing something. Turn that voice inside of your head telling you that you can’t do this or that you are too slow, into your own personal cheerleader because you can and you will do great things! I know you posted this over a year ago, but know that you are not alone and there are other adhder’s out here that are rooting for you!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Boston University masters student, here; religion and science, theology, anthropology, history.

    These lines :

    “All along, there’s an uneasy feeling I can’t shake that this isn’t right, that I’m missing something, that I’m cheating. That my inabilities, my disability, my patched-together and selective reading history will catch up with me someday. That I’ll be exposed for the illiterate goon I am and unceremoniously booted out of this discipline I love so much.”

    I resonated so much with this article and these lines. Having been on and off Adhd meds since age 6, having dumped them down a toilet after a neuroscience class in undergrad, I have felt lonely in my pursuit because of these same feelings and experiences.

    I feel like a phony everytime I read a big whale- “am I supposed to be writing like this ?, how do I get these big ideas out like this guy did ?, are my sentences supposed to make as little sense as this ?, what’s the point !!!!”

    We can be in solidarity with each other ❤ God knows I need it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have tears in my eyes. Even if I don’t know anything about anthropology.

    “I don’t know. Maybe I really don’t belong here. Or maybe you can get a PhD with Google and reflexive feminist ethnography and theory-by-proxy.”

    Maybe you can get a PhD in chemistry by building a short-cycle ultrafast gas chromatograph from scavenged components from the previous century and without having had to read through all the maze mobile phases, all trivially different, described in “The HPLC of Acyl Lipids”.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This is me everyday. And at my ‘not so young anymore; age I cannot help but wonder if I’m trying to enter a field where I will inevitably fail. Like I’ve failed at so many worldly things thanks to a brain that seems wrongly wired, and persistent guilt that can’t help but blame it on my laziness. Inadequacy is my state of existence.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Oh my goodness! an incredible article dude. Thanks Nevertheless I’m experiencing difficulty with ur rss . Don抰 know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anybody getting equivalent rss drawback? Anybody who knows kindly respond. Thnkx


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