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“Don’t be lazy!” That ADHD voice, plus the ADHD tax (Tony’s story)

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Tony Tran decided to get evaluated for ADHD during his last year of college, after starting a part-time IT job. His grades began to slip, and his brain would scream at him: “Don’t be lazy!” Then he realized that the fake scenarios he had to solve alone in class were boring compared to the real-life problems he collaborated on with his co-workers.

When Tony was a child, his family immigrated from Vietnam to Australia. Growing up, Tony’s ADHD symptoms were missed. But now his mom even sees ADHD in herself. After being diagnosed, Tony felt grief for lost time — time when he could have known why he felt like the “annoying weird kid.” Time when he could have held on to relationships that ended because of his trouble managing emotions. But that lost time led him to who he is today: A person with deeper understanding of ADHD and the strengths that can come with it.

Also in this episode: The “ADHD tax.” Listen in to see if you’ve paid a literal price as a result of ADHD behaviors.

Related resources

Episode transcript

Tony: I just had to, like, sit back and ask why am I failing all of a sudden? Because I always assumed I was lazy or couldn't do my work on time. But it didn't feel like that because this was right around the time where I got my first job in IT. And at the job, I really put 110% in. And I did everything. I learned super quickly. So I would just do my work instead, because it was much more interesting to me.

Laura: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "ADHD Aha!," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they or someone they know has ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I'm the editorial director here at Understood. And as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment, I'll be your host.

I'm so excited to be here today with Tony Tran, a 24-year-old recent college graduate — which we would call college in the United States. But Tony is in Australia. So we'll say university graduate, who was diagnosed with ADHD last year. Thank you so much for being here with me today, Tony.

Tony: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to talk about it.

Laura: And we say today, but there's that — we've been having some discussion about what "today" means because it's 9 a.m. where I am and it's midnight where you are. So we're not even sure if we're in the same day.

Tony: Saturday just started for me.

Laura: Yeah, there we go. So in addition to everything that I just said, you also are an "ADHD Aha!" listener who wrote in. And we are really compelled by your story, so we wanted to invite you on the show. So thank you for being a listener.

Tony: Thank you for making the show. It actually has helped me. A lot of symptoms that you and the guests talk about on the show aren't really covered — at least not as specific as the show is — online or anything. And it's just I've had like multiple "aha" moments listening to the show, where I'm like, oh, I do that.

Laura: I have "aha" moments recording these shows and talking with folks like you. So that makes me happy to hear. Thank you.

Well, when you wrote in to us, one of the things that you had said in your email was that last year, which was the year that you got diagnosed, you said that it was, and I'm quoting you, "a tumultuous, eye-opening year." So I'm thinking let's start with — explain to me what that was about.

Tony: So I got diagnosed in around March of last year. And immediately my first reaction was to ask a bunch of like "what if" questions. Like, what if I got diagnosed earlier? Like, what if I knew about this? Would I have not struggled have as much in the past?

I just had a lot of regret and grief about what I had gone through in the past. Like, for example, I've learned a lot about emotional dysregulation. And I spent a month kind of getting over the fact that it has had an effect on my life, and it led me to here.

But like now that I know how to deal with it, I can move forward. But in the past it has probably ruptured a lot of friendships and relationships. And just, I never did well in school, but I wasn't a bad student. I know my teachers liked me. It's just I — no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't do the right thing when it came to assignments.

You know, there's a phrase that's going around. Like "they understood the assignment." I don't think I ever understood an assignment, because I would like to venture off on my own adventure when I start them and just, like, completely missed the point or do, like, my own interpretation of it.

Laura: What was going on right before you decided to get evaluated for ADHD? What was your, I guess, tipping point or like maybe your big "aha" moment?

Tony: So, I realized that my grades at university were really slipping. I was starting to fail. And I just had to like, sit back and ask, why am I failing all of a sudden? Because I always assumed I was lazy or couldn't do my work on time. But it didn't feel like that.

Because this was right around the time where I got my first job in IT. And at the job, I really put 110% in. I did everything. I learned super quickly. And I realized that before, I could make myself do university work because I told myself that I was lazy. It's time to do something productive. Get on it, Tony. But at that time, it was more like you need to do something productive. So I would just do my work instead, because it was much more interesting to me.

Laura: Were you studying IT?

Tony: Yes, I was studying IT, and I landed a good internship that led into like a part-time job.

Laura: What was the difference to you? Like, what was motivating about doing the job versus doing the studies?

Tony: I found out that I'm very much a "working with other people" sort of person. I can't really learn much in a school context, because I just need to have like a good reason about why we're doing things. And I need to be working towards something greater than like a vague scenario.

Another thing that I've noticed recently as well is I tend to lose interest if I'm not allowed to be creative in doing what I'm setting out to do. So with my studies, there was a lot of "here's the problem; we need you to solve in this specific way using this thing." Whereas if I was working, it was just the problem and I got to go off and like talk to different people, research a bunch of different methods I can like use, and like have different things to work with rather than just lecture slides of examples of what I can use.

Laura: Yeah, I hear you. Tell me about what would go through your brain. Like, what was your thought process when you needed to study, when you needed to do something to prepare for a test, for example. As opposed to, say, doing the job, which was interesting to you and you could focus on that.

Tony: It was a lot of self-deprecation. There was a lot of being really hard on myself. It did take getting really close to the deadline for me to actually do it. I would often pull all-nighters or do stuff the night before and then just have like a wave of regret that I didn't spend enough time doing it afterwards.

So it's a lot of telling myself, "You need to do this, don't be lazy." I think there was a lot of pressure of getting good grades so you get a job.

Laura: Yeah. I mean, not the kind of pressure that was motivating to you, though. It was more...

Tony: Yeah, it was not a good type of pressure. Before I did IT, I did study law for about two years. And I didn't do well in that field, because it was a lot of reading and I can't sit still and read. There was a very big notion of if you're not going to get this grade, drop out — it's not going to work out for you. So I carried that on into my IT degree.

Laura: So would you say that your "aha" moment — I'm going to make sure I understand the timeline — did it really come at that moment when you started working as opposed to studying?

Tony: Yeah, I think it's the moment where I was like, I need to figure this out. I've known for a very long time that there was something going on. I have actually chased a lot of different diagnoses before ADHD. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety, persistent depressive disorder. And I thought I had a lack of focus. So we did sleep tests, and it turned out I had sleep apnea as well. So I invested into a CPAP machine.

It was just a lot of things that didn't really solve it. It helped, but it wasn't life-changing as much as I thought it would be — until I got my ADHD diagnosis. And that's why I said it was like eye-opening. I felt like when I got it, the world lit up, like everything started making sense.

Laura: You got diagnosed with ADHD, and you worked with doctors. Did they say that you don't have those other diagnoses and that you had been misdiagnosed? Or is it that it's kind of all part of the puzzle?

Tony: We didn't really touch on it, but I do believe that it's all part of the puzzle.

Laura: I mean, yeah, there's so much co-morbidity or co-occurrence between, for example, anxiety and ADHD, and depression and ADHD. And then you pull in the sleep issues as well. And that can make things extra tricky, right? Because if you're struggling with sleep, sleep can also affect your attention and your focus. So yeah, it sounds like that was a lot too to parse through.

Tony: But yeah, once I did get diagnosed, it was this incredible feeling on like the first day where I'm like, oh, finally. It's something that could explain a lot. Like there was something off, I felt, in school. I was definitely the weird kid.

Laura: What do you mean by that?

Tony: Well, all the kids found me annoying. I vividly remember. "Annoying" was the word that they were using. So I started reflecting on that when I got my diagnoses. And I'd just think and remember, this is part of my impulsivity and hyperactivity as a kid. If someone told me not to do something, I'd feel compelled to do it just to see what would happen.

Laura: Can you give me an example, please?

Tony: Oh, like teachers told me not to bring toys to school. I brought toys to school the next day just to see what would happen. I needed that to not feel bored in school. Oh, this is a very good example. There was a specific rule for me and this girl that I was friends with back in school that we could never go near this table that was stone.

Laura: OK.

Tony: And what did I do? I climbed on the table and I broke it.

Laura: Oh, my gosh. But you broke a stone table. Doesn't sound like a very strong stone.

Tony: It was in two pieces. So when I sat on the edge, the top flipped over.

Laura: Oh, were you OK?

Tony: Oh, I was fine. But it was a lot of that where it felt like I had this curiosity that I couldn't control.

Laura: Did you get in trouble at school?

Tony: Oh, so much. So, when I was growing up, it was just Mom and I. And she was working a lot, so she never went to any of my teacher interviews. So when I was reading my report cards for the diagnoses and to give to the doctor, it was very clear that the teachers were trying to signal that I had ADHD. Because they used very textbook terms. It was a lot of "has trouble making friends in school," "has trouble staying on the task at hand," "needs to focus more in class." Yeah.

Laura: Yeah, that's really hard. Do you have any siblings?

Tony: I do. But when I was younger, we were immigrants, so it was just me and my mom at first. My sister came over to Australia years later.

Laura: Where's your family from? You mentioned that you are immigrants.

Tony: My family's from Vietnam. And the culture in Vietnam — we don't even have a word for ADHD or anything surrounding that. I was very fortunate to find like a translated Wikipedia article to send to my mom. And everything I've learned from the past year, I've passed onto her. And we found that she also has ADHD, and a lot of my family members has it as well.

My mom went through this phase with me where she was panicking, because she thought she had like early-onset Alzheimer's. Because she kept forgetting things in like an ADHD way where she would like have very low active memory.

Laura: So was your mom open to the idea of ADHD? Did she get diagnosed?

Tony: No, no, no. She doesn't think it's worth it now because she's retired. But she was open to it, and it explained a lot to her as well. Particularly one thing was when she was working, she was kind of known as the dragon lady.

Laura: Why?

Tony: Because — so, she worked as a nail tech. So a lot of her job, like she would hyperfocus on doing what she was doing. And if anyone so much as like, spoke to her or touched or broke her out of that hyperfocus, she would snap. She would get angry.

Laura: I understand that. Yeah, well, it sounds like you have a really nice relationship with your mom.

Tony: Yeah, I think it's really good that she's open and I can talk to her about what's going on. And, yeah, we're still discovering new things about it. I have to say that my nephew probably also has it, and we're looking at getting him tested a little bit early. Because he's 11 years old right now, so it could help him with his school.

Laura: How does that make you feel? I know that you have grieved lost time before being diagnosed. So how does it make you feel to talk about that?

Tony: I am a bit jealous of him for being in a more aware environment now. But yeah, I'm happy that he gets this opportunity to sort of have more time to work on it — and work on it when there's no adult pressures.

Laura: I totally understand the grieving of lost time. But wow, what a great gift that you can give by bringing this awareness to your family and helping your nephew maybe have more support than you got.

Tony: Yeah. Even if he feels like he's not crazy growing up — perfect. Because I felt like I was insane growing up.

Laura: Oh, I have a little tear in my eye, Tony. I'm really grateful to you and for bringing that light and awareness to your family. You briefly mentioned before some friendships that — I don't know if you said burnt out or they ended. Tell me about that.

Tony: Looking back, I do have a lot of regret about this. But with the symptom of emotional dysregulation, my biggest thing was rejection sensitivity. So a lot of the time before I even realized it, if someone had like a party or like went to something and I didn't know about it, I would think that they didn't invite me on purpose. And I would just have this like snowball in my head of like, oh, they don't actually like me. And I would find it very easy to cut people out. And I've lost really good friends, I think, from that.

And it's a lot of like being really sensitive to negative reactions from people. If they said something that was slightly offensive, I don't know. I would like have this train of thought in my head that would not stop and it would eventually always lead me to saying, oh, they're not worth it, I'm just gonna move on.

For example, there was this one time where a group of friends of mine were getting together for drinks on a Saturday night. And I was doing something beforehand, but I told them I'll be there like an hour late. It's on at 7, I'll be there at 8. And when 8:00 rolled around, I sent a message, like, "Hey, guys, where you guys at? I'm on my way."

And this was on Messenger, so you can see if people have seen the message. And I think some of them have and they didn't respond. So immediately I thought, oh my God, they don't want me there all of a sudden. These guys are being weird. It's not worth my time. I shouldn't. And it just kept snowballing, snowballing until I just stopped talking to them.

And this train of thought happened in front of someone — my roommate at the time. And he had to sit me down the next day. It was like, whoa, that was really intense. Like, they probably just forgot to respond or they were checking — they saw it and they forgot to respond or something.

Laura: I feel like I've been there a thousand times. And it's interesting to hear just because it's different than my reaction that you would kind of like just stop the friendship and be OK, that's — I guess it's just not worth it.

My reaction was almost the opposite. And there's no better or worse reaction. But it was just — I would kind of grip really hard on the friendship and be like, hey, is everything OK? Is everything OK? Is everything OK? And then be kind of totally overbearing, like cringily overbearing with the friendship to make sure that, like, you still like me, right? Everything's OK? And it was just really awkward. And that's not — that's not healthy either. How do you cope with that now? Do you still experience that?

Tony: I do, but I have learned to be very up-front. If something did happen, I can just be like, hey, just checking in. Is everything good? Most of my friends know I have ADHD now, and I've talked a lot about my symptoms. So I can just flag them if something is happening.

Laura: Oh, cool. Can you pretend like I'm one of your friends? I'm interested to hear how you talk about your diagnosis and your symptoms to them.

Tony: So I'm very late — a lot. I don't show up to things on time. And my friend, her name is Jing, she experiences that a lot. And at first, I think she would get annoyed. But then eventually, I kept telling them like, hey, I can't tell the time. I don't feel time passing as you do. So I am sorry if I'm late. I'm trying my best. But this is my best.

Laura: That's great.

Tony: And she understands. I've caught her setting times earlier now, just for that. And I appreciate it. But she doesn't do it all the time just because she likes to keep me on my toes.

Laura: Wow. That's a really good technique. I like that a lot. Good job, Jing. That's a great idea.

Tony: But yeah, I think it's really good to not be ashamed of having ADHD. And if I'm able to be up-front about it and explain to people what's going on in my head, it's a lot better for everyone.

Laura: So the last time we chatted, you mentioned the ADHD tax — this idea that there's a price, like a literal price, that you pay as a result of ADHD symptoms like impulsivity and procrastination. And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about your perception of the ADHD tax and how it's affected you in your life.

Tony: Probably the most expensive thing that I spent for ADHD tax is my university bills.

Laura: Right?

Tony: Just picking up courses, realizing I don't like them, and dropping them. Or like not handing in an assignment. Sometimes I fail them and have to do them again. That's probably the biggest one.

But the most common one I would say is I cook a lot. Before my job now, I was a part-time cook.

Laura: You have so many talents, Tony.

Tony: Thank you.

Laura: A lawyer, IT, cook. I love it.

Tony: Well, I wouldn't say, Laura, I wasn't very good at that.

Laura: But I'm giving it to you. You spent — you put in the effort.

Tony: But yeah, I still cook a lot. And the big thing is I would over-make everything that I eat. Like I have like an inspiration one weekend to meal prep for the next week. And then I'll have the meal once and then I get sick of it. And then I just leave it in the fridge and I procrastinate, eating that one meal, and it just goes to waste.

Laura: I love cooking. I get so stressed out about grocery shopping, because I know I'm going to do the exact same thing. I've got like three meals that are about to expire if I don't cook them soon, downstairs in my fridge.

But I think when we chatted I told you about the most recent example of how the ADHD tax was affecting me. Which was that I had forgotten that I had bought my kids new winter coats.

Tony: Oh, right. Yeah.

Laura: And so I was like, oh man, I need to get my kids new winter coats. And then I ordered my son like a coat and my daughter a coat. And the coats arrived, and I realized that I had already bought them two winter coats that I hadn't even taken out of storage yet. Like I had bought them when they were on sale the previous year or something like that. And I couldn't return half of — I don't know, it was just a big mess. And I ended up spending all this money on coats that I didn't need, so I donated them.

But nonetheless, like I was just like, oh my gosh, this is exactly what Tony is talking about.

Tony: It's a lot of like, if it's not in — if I can't see it, I forgot about it.

Laura: Yeah, exactly. But I think the university bill is, you know, that's a big one. I know that's — you've talked about that, you know, in this interview and we talked when we talked previously about your feelings around taking longer than your peers. Which I don't think is very uncommon, and I think it's totally fine. But it's expensive, to your point.

Tony: Yeah. And it just feels bad when everyone's graduating and you see pictures and it's sort of like, oh. So before I got diagnosed, it happened. And like another part of what happened last year was just thinking that could've been me if I had found this out sooner. Yeah, it was just grieving over lost time.

Laura: Do you feel like there's anything that was gained, though, during that quote-unquote lost time?

Tony: So I'm in a place now where I can very much appreciate my ADHD. I try not to think about the lost time, because it kind of led me to where I am now. But I am able to now think very positively about it.

One thing that I have been praised on a lot is I can process information very quickly. For example, when I was learning how to cook in the restaurant setting, it was in a physical environment. So I can use my hands, I can — I also had validation from the head chef. So what would take people two weeks to learn, I learned in about four days. Because I learned that how my brain works is I can quickly recognize like points and act on them very quickly, and just get this dopamine rush that keeps me going. So I like to say that I'm not a fast learner. I'm a very fast improver.

Laura: I love that. "I'm not a fast learner. I'm a very fast improver." That's great.

Tony: So I would get it wrong. But as soon as someone highlights where I got wrong? Fixed.

Laura: Cool. What's next for you on your ADHD journey, Tony? What are you trying to tackle or cope with or enjoy?

Tony: So, there's that ADHD tax issue that I'm working on. But one thing that I'm almost there — I'm so close to mastering it — is being so much of a yes man when someone asks me to do something. I get a lot of FOMO. Fear of missing out. So no matter how tired or how busy I am, if someone asked me if I would want to do something, I just forget that I have that feeling and I'm in the middle of something. And I would say yes, let's do it. And I've done it a lot. I have to backtrack like five minutes later. Like, I'm so sorry. I actually can't.

Laura: Yeah.

Tony: But it's a lot of that impulsive need to say yes to everything. And like that, emotional disregulation still comes up every now and then. Most recently, like during New Year's when, like, different people were going to different parties and I was like, oh, I wasn't invited to those. Hello. And then first taking it really personally. And then realizing that other people have different friends that they just hang out with. And it's just that — it's not that they hate me and they don't want to hang out with me. It's that they already said yes to something beforehand.

Laura: Your stories are making me weirdly nostalgic. And — because I remember this as someone with ADHD, I remember a lot of these feelings. And then there's this magical thing that happens when you have kids. You're too tired to worry about anything, and you just go to bed. Like I was asleep at 9:30 on New Year's Eve.

Tony: You said you were tired. Do you ever have this feeling where as soon as you lie down, you just get a second wind of energy?

Laura: Yes.

Tony: Yeah. That's a big problem for me. Yeah. I actually experienced a lot of sleep paralysis, and I think it happens because my body is falling asleep, but my brain is still widely awake. And one thing that I've done to deal with that is I need something to listen to that I don't really care about.

Laura: Yes.

Tony: And it just eases my brain into like sleeping. But if I don't have that, I can feel myself falling asleep. And it's just like heavy weight on my chest. And it's just...

Laura: Totally. You are so on top of the game because I was — right before you said "something to listen to," I was going to recommend something. And it was actually — I'm not trying to just plug other podcasts that we have. But this was on another show that we have called "In It." But they did an episode on ADHD and sleep, and the expert that they interviewed on the show recommended like put on something that you — like I put on a TV show that I've seen a million times, but like just the sound of it. And I cannot fall asleep until that is just playing in the background. And then it's like I'm out. But if it's just silence or just sound machine, it's not enough for me.

Tony: Because you start overthinking, right?

Laura: Oh, yeah. And then I'm like, oh, I have to get up at this time. And every minute that passes is another minute that I'm not getting...

Tony: And your brain remains just so active. Sorry. I'm — another symptom. I'm interrupting you in the middle of your sentence.

Laura: No, not at all. I think you've been extremely polite.

Tony: I interrupt people in the mid-sentence a lot, and immediately I catch myself. I'm like, oh, my God, I'm so sorry. I have ADHD. I don't know when you're done talking. So I'll just stay quiet and you just give me, like, a literal signal when you're done.

Laura: Yeah. Oh, that's great. Tony, like, OK, so I have to say this. You — you're 24. I know that you feel like you lost a lot of time, and I guess, you know, it's all relative. But you at 24 have so many more coping techniques, and you are so much better at advocating for yourself.

I didn't even get diagnosed till I was 30. So this is just — I don't know. I feel like you're ahead of the game. So just keep that in mind. It's really all about perspective, you know?

Tony: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, jeez, That must've been hard. Did your world feel like it kind of flipped completely?

Laura: Completely. But you know what? If it hadn't happened later in life, if I hadn't had the "aha" moment that I had, then I wouldn't get to be here talking with you, having the show. So.

Tony: And I really appreciate that. I have a few people at work who think that they have ADHD as well, and I refer them to the show. Just because for me, specifically, it's a lot better than looking up symptoms and asking yourself oh, do I experience this? Do I experience that? Just hearing it from other people and what they have experienced and just pinpointing different scenarios was really good.

Laura: Well, that's what we wanted to do. So thank you for saying that and for referring the show to other people. I agree. I think it's in hearing the totality in the context of a symptom, it actually puts a spotlight on it in a different way. It provides like the nuances of it.

And I'm just really grateful to you for being here today. And I think you're fantastic. And you're bringing so much awareness and to your family and to friends. And I'm just so grateful that you're a listener and that you were here to talk with me today, Tony. Thank you so much.

Tony: I was really excited about being on the show, because I feel like it kind of wrapped a bow on my last year. It was like the last year has been a character arc and this was like the big milestone at the end where I can finally reflect on what happened in the past year and share my story and sort of tell other people about it.

Laura: I'm getting so emotional. Oh, my God, that's so beautiful.

You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDAha@understood.org. I'd love to hear from you.

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

"ADHD Aha" is produced by Jessamine Molli. Say hi, Jessamine.

Jessamine: Hi everyone.

Laura: Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, Seth Melnick is our executive producer, and I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.

Host

  • Laura Key

    is executive director of editorial at Understood and host of the “ADHD Aha!” podcast.

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