“Everywhere is loud and everything is a blur”
What university feels like for a student with ADHD as she navigates her studies and friendships.
Imagine you have a quiz on Friday and decide to prepare for it in advance. But every time you sit down to study, a strange sound, like the crackling of a record player, echoes through your head. The sound grows louder and louder until you cannot focus anymore. You sleep three to four hours a night, studying late because your brain shuts down during the day from the scratchy noises. When the morning comes, you wake up early to revise. Instead, you end up scrolling on your phone for hours to take away the stress.
“People would always tell my mother ‘She is so smart, but if only she could focus better,’” says Rola Fawzy, reflecting on her early suspicions of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She is a third-year student double majoring in Communications, Culture, Information, and Technology and Professional Writing and Communication at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). Fawzy loves spending time with her friends, engaging in club activities on campus, writing in her journal, and dancing to relax after school. But Fawzy is also a struggling student who has a hard time paying attention in class, remembering her appointments, and turning in her assignments before their deadlines.
After two years at UTM, Fawzy was diagnosed with ADHD. “I knew it by then,” she admits. “I’ve seen it a lot in my immediate family. But because my sister has ADHD, my parents were always like, ‘No, not another child.’”
ADHD is among the most common neurodevelopmental disorders. It causes inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Scientists do not fully know the risk factors for ADHD, but current research shows that genetics plays an important role.
Children with this diagnosis usually have trouble paying attention and controlling impulsive behaviour. They talk too much, forget and lose things, and struggle to make friends. When they grow up and become teenagers and adults, they often fail to get their work done, or form long-lasting relationships with other people.
For many young women like Fawzy, ADHD is the reason they find university extremely difficult. Because ADHD manifests differently in girls compared to boys, it is more complicated to diagnose. In the end, young women often do not realize why they are struggling so much.
Luckily, because of Fawzy’s sister, the diagnosis did not come as a surprise. Right away, she began making changes to her lifestyle. Now, Fawzy has curfews for all her electronics and social media apps. For the first two hours of her day, she tries not to go on her phone and meditates instead. “I feel like my brain just doesn’t like it if I don’t meditate for an hour every morning,” she says. “Otherwise, everything becomes a blur. And you’re like, ‘When did I start watching TikToks? How has it been an hour and a half?’”
Fawzy zones out like this often. It took her time to realize that asking countless questions would help her stay focused during lectures. And yet, some UTM professors see it as interference. She says that even after registering with UTM’s Accessibility Services, teaching assistants sometimes argue with her about extensions on assignments and tests, claiming that all students should have equal deadlines.
Every day, she continues to learn how to address the blur in her head. But sometimes, Fawzy’s anxiety is triggered by small things, like losing a U-Pass right before class. “There is no quick fix for ADHD,” she explains.
According to clinical psychologist Arthur Anastopoulos, university freshmen diagnosed with ADHD have more emotional difficulties than their peers without the diagnosis. They are less prepared to enter the independent, and sometimes isolating, facets of student life. They achieve less academically and tend to receive poor support in their friendships. Students with ADHD have fewer close friends they can open up to because not everyone can sympathize with what they deal with daily.
“I’ve disappointed an immense amount of friends in my life. I tell people that I’ll be somewhere at a certain time, and then I forget or misplace appointments,” says Fawzy. “Some people see me and think I’m too much for them with all my emotions. And that’s not a bad thing, because this way I can easily find out if they’re ‘my people’ or not.”
Fawzy refuses to see herself as a victim anymore, because when she did, she ended up hating herself. She has accepted that sometimes she takes longer to finish assignments and cannot wait for her turn to answer a question in class. “I should take accountability for when I get things wrong. But I also believe that it’s better to learn how to use my ADHD in a proper way,” she shares.
She says that the creativity that often comes with ADHD has healing power. It is Fawzy’s bursting emotions that make her writing so vibrant and relatable. Disassociating from reality bothers her during lectures but also helps her generate ideas that others might never think of. She says writing, therapy, and a good cry from time to time help her overcome her anxiety and restlessness the most.
“U of T tends to accentuate the hustle culture. Don’t do that. It’s never worked for me and many of my friends with ADHD. Don’t force things and take your time. Also, use your 20 free sessions with a counsellor,” she states.
Fawzy’s final advice for new coming students to UTM who have ADHD is to never think that the world is ending even when everything seems bad. Only through multiple failures and heartbreaks is it possible to develop insights that can help accept the diagnosis and learn to love it.
Associate Features Editor (Volume 49) — Olga is a second-year student studying Professional Writing and Communications and completing a double minor in French and Environmental Management. She joined The Medium this year as an Associate Features Editor and is excited to start connecting with many interesting people for her interviews. In her spare time, you can find her taking long mental-health walks around UTM's campus and listening to Harry Styles’ latest album. Olga hopes the students of UTM will be able to see themselves in her articles and relate to the stories of her interviewees.