Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Paperwork & homework, anxiety & ADD: institutionalized and internalized ableism

The world has a tendency to view things as valid only if they are backed up by papers and documentation. This is true of history - documents in Latin and Greek are much preferred to oral histories - and to real people. Social security cards and birth certificates confirm we exist. Grades and diplomas confirm we're smart. Medical histories and proper insurance confirm that our bodies are worth care. And though I'm a writer, I've consistently failed to get official elements of myself on paper has always been a challenge I fail. Whether it's homework or paperwork, my ADD and anxiety make filling out the forms that determine my worth as a human a daunting, stressful task at best and avoided until near-disaster at worst.

When I was a teenager, I never ever did my homework. Ever. My parents encouraged, bribed, punished, diagnosed, medicated, but throughout junior high and high school, my grades never rose above a C. More than anything, I really wanted to get stuff right, and get good grades, but I couldn't. And much the way I hated myself for being too large and not sexy enough, I also hated myself for being too lazy and not smart enough .

Ignoring homework until I was about to fail was not a sign of poor work ethic - it was a sigh of a disability and internalizing ableism. I did very well in college and I work basically all the time now - I really like work, a lot, these days. I'm not lazy, though I constantly berated myself for laziness, even after I was diagnosed with ADD.*

Now past the days of homework, I'm over hating myself. But I'm not over my disabilities, and the paperwork at every junction of adult life is a challenge that often feel insurmountable. I cannot sustain my attention to finish up more than one page of paperwork at a time, so, I do it immediately or put it off. If I don't get it done immediately, my anxiety explodes and keeps me from looking at, thinking about, or working on it.

While I finally force myself to fill out my name, social security number, and other apparently relevant details,, I'm constantly berating myself: why didn't you get this done earlier how do you know that's right what if you make a mistake what if you lie what if you get in trouble what if what if what if. Filling out forms for anything - taxes, student loans, health insurance - becomes almost unbearable, something to be procrastinated as long as humanly possible no matter how crucial it is.

Adult life with official forms papers and documentation is not accessible or accommodating to my disabled self. I have little recourse, respite, or understanding. As with the homework I didn't do, my problems with paperwork are read not ad a societal fixation on over-documentation, but as a problem with me. Completing forms in a timely fashion is framed as a virtue, so difficulty completing such work is framed as a flaw. Paperwork's not too frustrating, encumbering, confusing: I'm too lazy, worthless, careless.


The tyranny of forms is not, of course, limited to this particular axis of disability: paperwork also works on behalf of cissexism and race and many other axes. It's a force of the kyriarchy in more than one way. Nor am I the first to point out the disabling effects of ADD/ADHD; this writing is particularly inspired by a couple of posts:
Whether or not you have a diagnosis, most neurotypicals will assume that your symptoms are a moral failure – that things don’t get done because you don’t care enough to get them done. That you forget things because you don’t care to remember them. That you get distracted from doing something because you don’t care to apply yourself to it. But these are all far from the truth. ADHDers do care, but wishing won’t change neurology. We can develop coping skills, but those only work so far. - Lisa Harney, ADHD Isn't Trivia
I never intend for things to get this way. I ignore something for one day, and pretty soon it's eighteen days later and I still haven't done it. Then my responsibilities become wrapped up in so much guilt and helplessness that I have to ignore them because I'd rather feel good about myself. -Allie Brosh, Procrastinator
Also check out Kinsey and Isabel on the topic.


Paperwork is a form of institutionalized ableism. Paperwork keeps folks who have issues with anxiety, ADD, and likely other disorders from living, from working, from getting the care we need to treat that which disables us. It makes paperwork a daunting, insurmountable task - and its incompletion perpetuates guilt and sends it further away from actually getting done.

Paperwork is to a certain extent necessary, and to advocate its end is not helpful. Society is, as always, very concerned with its own existence, and how to best document it. And so, I can't advocate for its ends - I can only explain how I experience it as problematic. Furthermore I must admit that I don't know how to accommodate this problem beyond simple suggestions - less complexity, more available and non-shaming assistance with forms.

I don't exactly know what to do. I just think that functioning should be less contingent on how well we fill in forms; I think our basic rights to exist and live and be healthy should be less dependent on whether we have our papers in order.

*Not ADHD - I've never had hyperactivity.


  1. I am so glad you wrote this. I've been talking about this exact topic a lot this past week. I hate paperwork sooo much.

  2. This comes at an interesting time for me as I've just started a new adult education course (finally given up on traditional academic college work as I'd rather not relapse into ED behaviors...) and I actually left the room and cried because of all the paperwork. I've never had an official written diagnosis of ADD, just "you probably have it but prescribing Ritalin would be medically immoral so it sucks to be you" and it could just as easily be due to my anxiety or due to nothing at all so I don't know if my inability re: paperwork IS a genuine problem or a "moral failing" :( but at least it gives me a perspective regarding teaching methods for the kids.

    Ahhhh sorry that got completely out of hand! Basic version - THIS IS A GOOD POST.

  3. This is a damn good post and I'm also glad you posted this. As a person who has always dealt with anxiety (general and social) since I was very young, I've always had the worst time with school papers and people. My anxiety with people has lessened over time, but my anxiety with anything like school papers, homework, or anything that has a due date has always screwed me over because I would procrastinate a lot (I'm easily distracted and working with any kind of foreign noise in the background does not work for me, I need silence) and when I would actually finally get to doing work, I'd start doubting if stuff is good enough, or if I'm doing something correctly, or I would get incredibly frustrated if I didn't understand the work to the point where I would have panic attacks and wouldn't sleep until I could get myself together. During high school (when I had a bigger work load), my anxiety/lack of sleep got so bad that I contemplated and attempted suicide quite often up until my senior year of high school where I had a complete meltdown and had to take a temporary leave of absence from school (after being hospitalized) so I can get myself together and figure out what to do. While my dad didn't handle it well (he got pissed, blamed me, and made jokes about it), my mom was pretty supportive and I don't think I could have gotten out of that experience without her.

    Anyways, thanks a lot for posting this. Out of curiosity, how did you deal with all the homework and projects in college? I'm in college now and I still have a bit of trouble with my anxiety and with doing work. Any tips?

  4. Thanks a ton for writing this. My stress levels over my seeming inability to do lab reports and fill out paperwork have been skyrocketing as of late. It's always reassuring to know that I am not alone. Also, should you have the time, I too would like to know if you have any tips. My ADD is crippling me these days, and I have to write those lab reports sometime.

  5. Thanks, all, for the kinds comments. This is the first time I've addressed this disability on here - I actually denied I had it until about this summer.

    As for tips, I'm not really sure what to say. I'm a little reticent to describe my experience as anything to emulate, but I will share how I functioned in college...

    The only thing that has ever REALLY helped was getting jobs and taking classes and writing things I was/am interested in. As I said, I work all the time - but that's because I like all of the kinds of work that I do.

    Keeping busy always helps me - I wasn't a club person, but I always had at least two jobs plus an active social life plus boyfriend plus ongoing hobbies plus (in college) two majors and accompanying honors theses. My majors, English and PoliSci, allowed a wide lattitude for procrastination and bullshitting as long as I went to class, spoke up, and handed in stellar papers. Pulling all-nighters saved my ass constantly.

    I'd be happy to hear how other people deal with ADD in college and otherwise, with one caveat - no passing judgment on other people's coping methods. People are individual, and not to be shamed for their work habits.

  6. Hey - here via Feministe. Can't stress enough how much this resonates with me. I am putting off going to the doctor for really, really necessary tests because I can't find my insurance card and I think it was stolen when I got my wallet stolen and OMG I might have to find out how to get another card and possibly make some calls and find some old paperwork and on and on and..........

    I put off getting the tests done again. It's really fucked up that this is coming between my and my health, even though I know I'm lucky to have insurance at all.

  7. My problem with paperwork is fatigue, not ADD, but in any case my smartphone and keeping as much as possible in the "cloud" (I use the Cozi calendar and Dropbox, lots of people like the Google calendar and Google Docs, etc.) are very helpful to me in keeping up with it. Lost my insurance card? I bring it up with my insurance company's iphone app. That kind of thing.

  8. I've struggled with this my whole life and still do. I find that I really do well if I can find someone who will help me fill them out, even just sit there with me, until I fill them out, so I'm not allowed to switch my focus, or not complete them, or is there if I start going through anxiety attacks around them, from information overload. However, it's not always easy to find someone willing to sit with you. If you're highly intelligent, and many of us are, folks refuse to believe you need help with something so "simple" as filling out a form. As the years go by, the frustration grows, because one can't help think to oneself, "If only people would just HELP me, with the things I tell them I need help with, instead of always trying to convince me I don't need help, that its a self esteem issue, or saying No, then, I would have gotten so much farther in my life."

    What's also problematic is the sexism that so many women with ADD/HD struggle with. I mean, how many men have wives, sisters, girlfriends and secretaries in particular, who ALL help them fill out forms. "Ha, Ha, Ha! He's such a boy at heart! What would he do without us?"

    I always find it frustrating that I am many times labeled as "being dependent," for asking for help like filling out forms, things that secretaries and the such REGULARLY do for me, whether they even have a Neuro Diversity or not. Simply because men are not supposed to be detail orientated, and so, "can't help themselves." *rolls eyes*

  9. How did you manage to do well in college? I'm finishing up my first semster of my freshman year and am STILL having homework anxiety. I have been seeing a therapist for two years for many reasons including depression and have been on lexapro for a little over a year. I've had issues with schoolwork as long as i can remember and have had tutors who thought i was lazy and teachers who get very frustrated at my very high standardized test scores and seemingly low commitment to school. I internally berate myself every second that i am not doing homework or other paperwork errands yet still can't manage to just do it. I genuinely enjoy classes, class discussion, talking to teachers(aside from the shame) and reading about academic subjects outside of homework. I'm desperate to prove myself. what can i do?

  10. This post means the world to me. I go through exactly what everyone has described here on a daily business and even after receiving clinical diagnoses of general anxiety and ADD, I was convinced I was a lazy-ass idiot and still frequently experience panic attacks because of this thought. I have to continually find an equilibrium between blaming everything on my disorders and realizing that I'm just being lazy, but it might be the former more often than I realize. Being only a high school student, I'm faced with hours of daunting homework nightly and none of my classmates or teachers understand why I can't bring myself to simply complete assignments. I've been moved to tears by the realization that I'm not alone, and I really appreciate it! I have to go attempt to complete a few solid hours of work before leaving for school in seven hours, but I am highly interested in reading more posts and comments regarding this matter. Thank you everyone, from the bottom of my heart!


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