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ADHD doesn’t go away. Dr. Johnathan Flowers, who specializes in the philosophy of disability, got that message loud and clear when he hit a wall in grad school.
Johnathan had been diagnosed with ADHD in grade school. As a child, he had a complex journey with ADHD medication and teachers who didn’t understand his behavior or how to support him. As a young adult, Johnathan thought maybe he’d “gotten over ADHD,” but then he hit that wall. So he got re-evaluated for ADHD.
Also in this episode: How Johnathan’s mom, who’s a special education teacher, advocated for him at school. Plus, what it’s like to be a professor with ADHD.
Johnathan: When I was in my PhD program, I was struggling to read a text that I'd read several times before. I had to reread a page four or five times, and I realized that this experience was identical to some of the experiences I had as a child with ADHD except magnified. I hadn't overcome my ADHD. It hadn't gotten better. It had just changed.
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 here today with Dr. Johnathan Flowers. I'm so excited to be here with you today, Johnathan. And I actually want to hand it over to you to introduce yourself and share with our listeners what your work is, because it's just really fascinating and I want to hear it in your words.
Johnathan: Sure. So, I am Dr. Johnathan Flowers. I'm an assistant professor of philosophy at California State University Northridge, where I specialize in a variety of things, including philosophy of disability, philosophy of gender, philosophy of race, East Asian philosophy. In that vein, my two most recent publications explore different aspects of disability through a variety of philosophical frameworks, including my own personal experience of being a disabled academic in philosophy.
Laura: We are definitely going to talk about that, what it's like to be a professor with ADHD. Johnathan, you were diagnosed with ADHD as a child. Can you tell me about that and how that came to happen?
Johnathan: Well, my mother was a special education teacher, and so when I was diagnosed, ADHD didn't have the "H" in the acronym. And the testing criteria wasn't as robust as it is today. So, my mother noticed particular behavioral symptoms. And so, she took me to my pediatrician who confirmed the diagnosis and then had me put on Ritalin. And then when I was 13 or 14, that was when there was a lot of social pushback against the idea of ADHD. And because I had been medicated and been doing OK as a young person with ADHD, there was a decision that was made that I did not need the kinds of medicinal supports that I was receiving, and so those were pulled back with predictable results.
Laura: Talking about childhood to start, being diagnosed as a kid and your mom is a special education teacher — it's great that she was advocating for you — what were the specific diagnostic criteria that she was seeing at that time?
Johnathan: The specific kinds of diagnostic criteria that she was seeing were inattentiveness and hyperactivity, and an inability to remain still or to take turns when speaking. I'd often like blurt out answers or would be unable to engage in just general turn-taking. I'd often finish a reading or writing task well in advance of when we were supposed to finish it and then move on to something that I would find more enjoyable and the teachers in my environment would find this troubling.
Laura: Did you face any stigma in grade school and middle school and high school as a result of your ADHD or anything else?
Johnathan: So, in grade school, I think the more specific kinds of stigma came from the outward manifestation of my ADHD symptoms, mostly because the ways in which those manifested and were perceived by adults and other authority figures was in line with certain racialized ideologies about Black students in a classroom, right? At that time, there was an assumption that a majority of young Black men in education settings had what was called oppositional defiant disorder...
Johnathan: ...where they would be inherently defiant of social structures, things like that. And that actually wasn't the case with me. It was the case that I had completed some task well in advance, or I simply could not focus on the task, and thus various problems came about.
Laura: Did you get in trouble as a result?
Johnathan: Oh yeah, I got in trouble for that all of the time. Yeah. When I was like, we had a reading task in our English class, but it was presumed that it would take the entire class period to finish it, and I finished it in 15, 20 minutes. So, I had an entire 40-minute period where I literally had to sit and do nothing.
Laura: Oh my God.
Johnathan: Which anyone with ADHD knows that that's a nightmare.
Laura: Right. You might as well pull off your fingernails or something. Oh, that's a terrible image. But yes.
Johnathan: So, my response to that was like, I was done with it. I'd done the writing task that had come along with it. And so I pulled out a, you know, I think it was a Star Trek novel and just read for the remaining 40 minutes. And like every 20 or so minutes, my teacher would catch me and tell me to put the book away. And, you know, me being ADHD, I'm like, "This book is way more interesting than just sitting here." So, I pulled the book out and started reading it. And, eventually, the teacher gave me detention and my parents were called and it was a big to do. And the teacher essentially said "Johnathan refused to do his work." And so, my parents essentially had to vouch for the fact that I completed the work task without cheating or what have you. The teacher made me recite certain elements from the text because she didn't believe me. I did all of this fairly well. And my mother, I think, actually told off the teacher and it was never an issue again.
Laura: I'm smiling really big right now. Nobody can see me, but I like hearing that. Yeah, I love teachers, but I love, I also love hearing about parents advocating for their kids.
Johnathan: Oh, yeah.
Laura: Is your mom a Black woman?
Johnathan: Mm hmm.
Laura: And did they take her seriously? I know that at times there is tension there of not taking Black parents seriously.
Johnathan: They took her seriously because she was an education professional, and they knew that she was an education professional. And then eventually she started teaching in the same school district that I was attending. And so, as a result, they couldn't very well doubt one of their colleagues, particularly one of their colleagues who was discussing the needs of their own children. So, had she not been an educational professional, I think it would have been much harder for her to advocate in the ways that she did.
Laura: We haven't yet talked about an "aha" moment. First of all, Johnathan, because I'm taking your childhood diagnosis not as your "aha" moment, but maybe as your mom's "aha" moment about you. But before we get to that, let's talk about high school. Let's talk about you stopped taking the medication. Did that feel like a victory to be able to stop? Were you scared? Were you mad? How did you feel?
Johnathan: So, other people framed it as a victory. I recall it being a moment of profound confusion for me because, one, I didn't quite understand why I wasn't taking the medication anymore. It was just framed as I no longer need it. And two, while I didn't have the language for it, I could feel the difference between when I was medicated and when I wasn't medicated, particularly insofar as it was a struggle to focus on anything that wasn't particularly interesting. And so, as a result, like my grades slipped in a number of areas that I just simply did not care about, math, certain sciences, which raised questions among the faculty in high school. For example, like I would do really well in English and writing and literature classes. I went through the entire English curriculum at my high school, and by my junior year I was out of English classes to take.
And so, like things like math, I remember I had to go to summer school to ensure that I pass the math requirement for the state of Illinois, which produced a bunch of confusion among the faculty because my grades were wildly dichotomous, right? It would reflect like a fairly high capacity to do work in some areas, but like be in need of remedial help and others. And there was no way they could make sense of the inconsistency.
Laura: So, you are taken off, which in some ways is presented as a badge of honor because you no longer need it. But in reality, you've been stripped of one of the tools that was helping you thrive.
Johnathan: That's about right. And one of the things that I think is most problematic about that is it happened at a moment of transition in my life. And like all the research shows that if you suddenly take away the support structures that an ADHD person is relying on at a moment of extreme transition in their life, everything just goes to pieces. Looking back now, I can see why my first two years of high school were such a struggle.
Laura: And then you moved on to college and grad school and you didn't have those supports anymore.
Johnathan: Yeah, I had a diagnosis, but I didn't, it wasn't carried through from high school into college, so I was essentially having to navigate four years of undergraduate and two years of graduate school without any ADHD supports, which is reflected in my undergraduate career. So, I started off as a journalism major and then added an English education major, and then changed that to an English literature major. And I ended up having enough of a course load to get both a degree in English and a degree in journalism without really having any plan for what to use those degrees for afterwards.
And then one of my roommates read my capstone project for my English literature degree and said, This isn't an English paper, this is a paper for philosophy. And I submitted it to the Department of Philosophy; the faculty member who would become my master's advisor and my PhD dissertation advisor had one look at the document and is like, "Yeah, this is a piece of philosophy. You belong in the Department of Philosophy," and it's only by the grace of being incredibly interested in philosophy as a discipline that I managed to get through my master's program.
Laura: What an interesting journey. I'm hearing two things. On the one hand, that sounds like an expensive journey. A lot of around and around. I'm hearing the ADHD tax perhaps, but then also the ADHD hyperfocus bringing you into this realm. How did ADHD reemerge as a major force in your life that you were very aware of? What was your ADHD "aha" moment in grad school?
Johnathan: My ADHD "aha" moment in grad school was after I completed my master's thesis and applied to PhD programs and got into the PhD program at my alma mater. I realized that I simply was unable to focus on anything. There was a moment where I was reading a text that I was interested in, and I had to read the same page like four times in order to retain anything. And my thinking about it was, this is an experience that is familiar to me from childhood when I could barely focus on anything, but the increased kind of cognitive load that comes with studying philosophy at the PhD level really kicked that up to 11. In addition to the additional responsibilities that came with it.
And so, I went to the student health center, I was like, "Hey, I have this previous diagnosis of ADHD and my symptoms are just getting too much for me to manage and I need some kind of support." By this point, I knew what it was, right? I had the language for it. And I had been coping by drinking large amounts of energy drinks to give me that effect of like stimulant medication.
Laura: Right. But not enough anymore. Yeah.
Johnathan: Right. It simply was not enough. And the "aha" moment was literally the moment when everything that I was trying to do to manage my ADHD symptoms on my own just collapsed like a house of cards. And I'm like," I'm going to have to go get help."
Laura: Yeah, you just hit a wall.
Johnathan: Yeah, pretty much.
Laura: Tell me about the emotions that you were feeling. Was there any relief in like, "Oh, I've been here before." Nostalgia even. Or like, "Oh, this actually is still a big deal."
Johnathan: So, there was a bit of frustration that I couldn't do a task that previously had come easily to me. And in that frustration there was a bit of shame because one of the things that I had kind of internalized was that I had gotten over it, right? I mean, I've got two bachelor's degrees. I got a master's degree, and I didn't need any kind of particular supports to do that. And so, I was under the impression that I had gotten over it in scare quotes.
And in the field of philosophy, there's a persistent kind of stigma against disability broadly that argues that if you have a particular kind of disability, be it mental health issues, be it neurodevelopmental, be it physical, that your disability is a sign that you simply cannot be as good a philosopher as your able-bodied colleagues. And so, there was that kind of messaging from within the discipline that I had to kind of push back against and get over.
And to be clear, I got over that really quickly because I'm like, "Well, regardless of what the field thinks, if I simply cannot do this work without help, then either the field isn't designed for people with disabilities or they're just wrong." And so I, I hadn't internalized those kinds of ableist messages to the point where I didn't think I couldn't do it, but I was just rebellious enough to think that the field was wrong. It's not me that's the problem. It's the field that's the problem. And I should go seek help anyway.
Laura: In April, you tweeted something, Johnathan. You tweeted, "I feel like everyone I know with ADHD is clinging to their mental health for dear life." Tell me what you are referring to and what that means to you.
Johnathan: I'm generally referring to the ways that, like one, there was a massive global transition in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot of — at least in higher education — extreme sort of teething pains with that transition. And I was noticing a lot of my colleagues and a lot of my students with ADHD simply struggling with the ways that COVID disrupted higher education by going remote and then coming back in person and then going remote again. The inconsistency, I think, was providing a huge amount of disruption.
And also the tweet in April came on the heels of me being in my like, tenure track position for maybe six months at that point. And again, one of the things that, like all of the research shows is that transitions to different levels in life are especially challenging for folks with ADHD because these transitions often either are accompanied by the loss of support structures or require a change in the kinds of support structures that an ADHD person relies on.
And so as a brand new tenure track faculty, right? Which essentially means permanent employment, I figured it was time for me to test out other kinds of stimulant medications to figure out which ones would work best, which probably not the best thing to do during a major life transition, and in the middle of a shortage of ADHD medications.
Laura: Oh, it's been brutal.
Johnathan: And so, I felt as though I was like literally clinging to my mental health with like bloody fingernails. And one of the reasons I tweeted that out was because I'm fairly open about my ADHD in academia, and I felt it would be valuable for other folks to be seen in that way, for folks to recognize that if they're struggling in that way in the academy, they're literally not alone.
Laura: What's it like being a professor with ADHD?
Johnathan: Hard. It's hard, hard, extra hard, right? So, one of the interesting things about that is, as graduate students, we're trained to be faculty, but the context is we are graduate training, and graduate teaching as grad students with ADHD is in a context where we have institutional support structures, right? When you become a faculty member, those support structures vanish. In my experience, there is no way to accommodate ADHD as a faculty member unless you build it.
So, it's not like you can request extra time for grading when you're a faculty member with ADHD in the same ways that you can request extra time for examinations as a graduate student. And so as an ADHD academic, it's brutal. It's crushing in some ways, particularly because we become responsible for all of the things that we had environmental supports to do. And that was, I think, the hardest thing for me to learn. And I'm still learning it given the kinds of transitions I've been through.
And the other thing is, as an academic, typically you have to go from precarious position to precarious position before you finally land a tenure track job. Given the nature of the job market and the organization of the field, which means that if you say you land a position that is a like a two-year position, right? You have two years of stability — well, two years of relative stability — and then you have to go find another job and rebuild those support structures. And if you have to find a new job after, say, every year, it becomes harder and harder to find and develop those support structures because your environment keeps changing, your social group keeps changing. All of these kinds of things.
And so given the ways that I was struggling and given the ways that I didn't really find any resources to like help me with that struggle, I figured there were only two possibilities. One, either nobody in academia has ADHD, which I knew was a complete lie. Or two, there is something in academia that prevents people from talking about it. And so, I decided to be a bit actually, I decided to be incredibly vocal about my own struggles, about my own experience as an academic, as a philosopher with ADHD. I decided to use my experience with ADHD in my philosophizing, in my engagements with the field, because one of the things that I honestly kind of believe is that if we remain silent about these things, we condemn everybody else to suffer in ways that they should not have to. And while I might not have the answers, one of the things about my decision to be more visible about not. Is ADHD. But disability in academia in general is that it shows people that, yes, it is possible for you to become a professor with ADHD.
Laura: I love that. And it sounds like based on that, that you do tell your students that you are very itchy, which yay! So, thank you so much, Johnathan, for being here. I feel like we could talk for hours. Maybe we'll schedule another one because I'm really interested in hearing about all of your specializations and all the good work that you're doing.
Johnathan: Yeah, no, thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.
Laura: 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 as 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.