Ep. 4: ADHD, COVID-19, & Neurodiversity
For the fourth episode, career and mental health counselor Wesley Jackson Wade joins Bri and R for a discussion on neurodiversity as he shares both his professional and personal experiences with ADHD, as well as different approaches to substance use. We also talk about how we can push forward against a broken system during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Transcript (click to show/hide)
Bri: Hi everyone and welcome back to another episode of Queer Science! I’m one of your co-hosts, editor, and co-creator for this podcast…and I am a proud plant daddy!!
R: And I’m R, your other co-host, resident artist, co-creator, and here to put the “Funk in dysfunctional!”
Bri: Today we’re sitting down with Wesley Jackson Wade, a mental health and career counselor at North Carolina State University, where he is also pursuing a doctorate in counseling and counselor education.
R: Why Wes? as we’ve mentioned before, Queer Science! is about more than just LGBTQ+ people in STEM. Queer Science! is about making spaces welcoming for everyone, which includes discussing mental health and neurodiversity. Plus, there seems to be an overlap between queer experiences and those with the attention issues – as Bri can testify…
Bri: Yep, I’m hella chaotic AND hella queer!
Fun little tidbit, I actually got to know West through Dr. Jamila Simpson, who appeared on our very first episode, and he studies alongside Sam Simon, who was featured in our last two episodes… Basically, everyone here at queer science is connected somehow.
R: In this episode, our guest will share a bit about his experiences with ADHD, the impact Covid-19 has had on neuro-divergent folks like him, and the relationship between neuro diversity and substance abuse.
Wes: So, my name is Wesley Jackson Wade, and I am a career counselor at North Carolina State University in the career development center where I work with and serve students in the College of Sciences, from traditional first year students all the way through PHD. In addition, I do some work with military and veteran students. I am on the Advisory Council for the Black Male Initiative, which is a Living and Learning Village at NC State, and I’ve been doing that for about four years, give or take, and I also lead the students moving forward program that Dana Thomas and I co-created about four years ago, which is a career-focused program for autistic students, and in addition to that, I am a certified clinical mental health counselor and a licensed clinical mental health counselor and a Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist, and I am in the third year of my doctoral program and the counseling and counselor ed track at NC State.
R: That’s all? You’re not doing – you’re not scubadiving and sky diving and –
Bri: What about your podcast!?
Wes: Haha nah- I’m not going to talk about that haha…. and I have a podcast called “Peace Love Power” that I started in late 2019 and got a little sidetracked due to Covid… but it’s coming back! It’s definitely comingback!
Bri: Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is something that is often associated with children, however, ADHD is a condition that still occurs within adult populations, with 28% of adults diagnosed as having ADHD.
Wes: I have a brother, I only have one sibling, my younger brother, I love him very much, and he’s almost 10 years younger than me, and he got diagnosed around the time he was five with ADHD. When he had diagnosed… I was around 14 or 15, and I was like, I… I, I do this though…. So, when he got diagnosed, I paid attention to it. Like one of my other friends, one of my best friends, my brother from another mother, he’s the Godfather of my child and I am the Godfather of his children as well, and he’s a medical doctor, and he realized that he was ADHD and I was like, “Okay, my home boy is like I definitely have it too.” And so that was now, years ago, we were in undergrad or late high school at that point in time, so I’m like, “Okay, I’m aware of it, but here I am out here, abusing substances being while doing my thing and just doing enough so I can get through…”
But I’m also learning aspects of negotiation, I still got good grades and these things in my classes, ’cause I’m good at negotiating my grades with my professors and I have been my whole life, and so I knew that it was probably a thing – but I had developed own ways of doing things by trial and error and learning how my energy works, because sometimes ADHD can mimic aspects of bipolar disorder, like one or two, because there can be mood swings with things and I can be really moody as my partner knows – and some days I wake up and I’m just like, “Oh, God I can’t do this today,” and everything is terrible, and you’re depressed and… There’s a lot of different reasons why that comes about, some reasons is because you’re trying to- your brain works really well in certain areas, but not other ones, so my ability to manipulate numbers and go through numbers and all this stuff is not good, is on a low-end average or below average, but my verbal reasoning in my reading comprehension when I did some assessments from my ADHD is like 99% good at that.
And so, when I’m doing things and I’m reading these problems or things and I’m like, I don’t get it, it causes frustration, and a lot going on in your head and it can just lead to mood swings or you get interrupted and all this other stuff. And so, I was aware of that. I didn’t know what that… Well, I didn’t attribute that to that, but I knew that I had that, and I didn’t know that was the area of ADHD, and so I’m like, Okay, I’m here, and then I go from my life and all that other stuff and do a career change now and then my master’s program, I learn about the DSM and all this stuff, and I’m like, Oh, I definitely have this.
Like I’m studying the DSM… I am a licensed clinician, I can diagnose people. So I’m like, Oh yeah, yeah, I meet all of these criteria. ’cause you have to… I don’t remember what it is, but there’s different sets of criteria and you have to meet a certain number of those criteria within each set for a certain period of time and all this sort of stuff, and I’m like, I meet all of these criteria for all my life. So I was like, Okay, I definitely have this. And then, when I was in my private practice, we partnered with a physician’s assistance for a year and worked with a lot of people who had substance abuse issues, mostly heroin and opioids- they were on Methadone and Suboxone and things along those lines- and so I did also have some younger adolescents who had some anxiety and things like that too, maybe some ADHD, some other stuff, and I had a session with a psychiatrist that came in to talk about different medications that he was using for ADHD and what the “typical profile” of his young male clients looked like of ADHD…I thought I was having a joke played on me, like he read my life…
I legit thought they were playing a joke on me- I thought some bootleg version of Ashton Kutcher was gonna come out and be like “GOTCHAAA” and I was- like I’m not lying at all, this was at… whatever that barbecue place was in downtown Raleigh. It was a little room over there, and I was like “they are messing with me right now!”No, they weren’t – And I was like, This is more serious. I thought in that moment, I was like, this is way more pronounced, than I realized…
Then I had a really horrible incident in my doc program that reminded me- in Spring of 2020- that reminded me of horrible experiences I had in my academic career in undergrad, in high school, in middle school. We had this test, it was for this research design class I was talking- about 50 question test. So three-hour class, 50 short answer questions. Okay, 49 of those questions are short answer and are things like, “Here’s the research study we had to use,” and you have to understand like what’s the external validity and what could you do to improve the external validity- and what was the internal validity, and alpha cronbach and all this stuff that I still barely know.
And then for question 50, you had to write a four-page double-spaced review of a critique of this journal article, and I’m like… I’m a good writer, I write well. I write in my own approach under my own time, the amount of time that it takes me to write is not an indicator of my knowledge of this topic or how well I can communicate. This, this is honestly a discriminatory exam for people who are neurodivergent and I am… struggling… like, I am struggling. Five of us didn’t finish the exam, one of those people, their laptop broke, so they get a pass, right. And then out of the four left who didn’t finish, I was the worst, I had a page done of question 50, and I was… you know I don’t dislike the professor, he’s a nice guy, but I was like, I was so pissed! I was like, I’m never letting this bull shit happen to me ever again, I’m going to go get my diagnosis right now you’re not… nobody puts baby in a corner! It was just like, you’re not gonna do this…
Bri: The thing about ADHD is that the mechanisms and chemical pathways are fundamentally the same regardless of our gender, race, sexual orientation, etcetera, but the way symptoms present vary based on things like societal expectations. Women are typically under-diagnosed or aren’t diagnosed until later in life and tend to show more of the inattentive rather than the hyperactive aspects of ADHD due to social pressures. Black and Latinx children are not only diagnosed less than children who are white, but often times are less likely to receive treatment as well.
R: But it’s more than that, as we explained.
Wes: And ADHD presents- often differently- in people with different genders! It doesn’t always present the same, it doesn’t always present the same in men, it presents in a multitude of ways, there’s some core components, but there’s different expressions of it, and it can look differently and a lot of times it can look differently in women. I don’t think… I can’t think of any studies I’ve seen where it’s even looked at people who identify as non-binary or outside of male or female, so that’s a whole other area to even explore, get into… You talk about women of color and Black women, Indigenous women, and non-binary folks and like everyone- and it’s just like greater marginalization. And those issues- and unfortunately, you have a lot of people who are in these areas who are clinicians or physicians or nurse practitioners or whoever, they just add to this, they’re not helping in this area, and they’re doubling down on these things that just aren’t true, and there’s no real science to support that- and it’s horrible and that…
For Black men, and when I was a boy, it was… We’re either over-diagnosed or we’re under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed, and a lot of oppositional defiant disorder because we don’t agree with someone saying something racist to us right- and it’s not… mental health, and the DSM, is not math. And then my math student’s are like, “Well, there’s theoretical math.” Okay, alright, whatever. Math to like the rest of the normal population.
Like you know, two plus two is four. As far as I know, it’s always four, haha. And so it’s not like that all the time, it’s mental health, and we’re still trying to understand these things and then cover these things and define them, and that’s why there’s different editions of the DSM and we update it and that’s why Asperger’s went away and it’s an autism spectrum now, and that’s why it’s not ADD anymore, it’s ADHD and all this things change and more people get into these fields are and are like, “No, we can’t address it like this… No, autism is not a medical condition, it’s a normal variant of the human brain, and it’s always existed, and these people have amazing skills just like other people do, and weaknesses just like other people do, and when we really respect that and take away these systemic neurotypical barriers they do amazing things in their area because they can approach problems in different ways,” and that’s what it is…
R: So Wes mentioned the word “neurotypical,” maybe you’ve heard of this, maybe you haven’t. Neurodiversity describes the variation in human brains, literally the diversity in types of thinking. To be neurotypical means you process stimuli like most other people, anything that doesn’t quite fit into the mold of the majority, may be called atypical or neurodivergent- another important word Wes uses. These words are simply descriptors of how a person’s brain works in comparison to others, it’s neither good nor bad.
Wes: Like a lot of ADHD folks or neurodivergent folks- specifically like ADHD because… Well, I say specifically folks who are ADHD and allistic, and “allistic” just means not autistic, and so the reason why I say that is because the majority of the way that I communicate still aligns with neurotypical culture, and so neurotypical culture as in people who have the most… normally- or most frequently found variant of the human brain within society. And that goes into all these other power structures and stuff, and so… ADHD, I ramble and all this other stuff, and that is a component. It is ’cause there’s 50 million things floating in my head and I have a very hard time taking one of those out, but I still know how to talk through those paradigms and all that, my processing is not quite the same as someone who is autistic. I’m not saying that a pejorative way, it’s just a difference in how our brains are wired. And there’s strengths and weaknesses… Just like there’s strengths and weaknesses of being neurotypical.
And… so, through my work with Students Moving Forward, that Dana Thomas and I co-founded at NC state, which is like a career focus group for NC State students who are autistic, and just learning more about what it means to be autistic and just… I didn’t know a whole lot before that, I just saw that our students were autistic, and have an issue with trying to get employment because people were just basically misunderstanding them, and I was like, “This isn’t right.” We gotta do something. And so Dana and I just did something and- it wasn’t perfect, but we’ve made it work and we’ve changed it and have grown, and we’re still growing, we’re still wiring some things out, but then I realized that identity… it’s not really a medical issue, and it’s all these other things, you can be autistic and have an intellectual disability, you can be autistic and not have intellectual disability. You can be neurotypical and have an intellectual disability! These are two separate things. And so, I was like, man, this is really deep.
And then I have realized… ahhh I laugh, but it was really not funny… then I realized that I was doing something really bad, right. In like the first year, maybe around the second year when I realized- I was like, okay, we’re gonna change this. Here I am having this group for autistic students, led by no one that’s autistic, having no involvement by anyone that’s autistic, and I’m like… I would not want to go to anything for Black folks, that was not led by anyone Black, right? I can’t believe that I just did that… And so I was like, okay, I need autistic adults who are professionals, who can come here, and who can help to give me some advice, who can help the work of our students and all the like- I’m not gonna contribute to things like this, and so it’s been great, and I firmly believe in the concept of iron sharpens iron.
And I have been sharpened by my students and the professional advisory board who contributes to this and it hit me, I was like, you know what? They own this, this is who they are. So, they use the hashtag #openlyautistic and #actuallyautistic, which is something that only people who are part of the autistic community should use. And I was like, I need to own this. I didn’t really… This whole area of neuro diversity, which is a socio-political construct, it’s a movement, but it’s also an aspect of diversity, and then the neuro-divergent community… I’m like, I’m part of this community. And my experience as a Black male has a lot of value within this community, especially one who’s a clinician, especially one who’s working on a doctorate, I need to own this.
R: Wes makes an important point of owning identity and letting people speak for themselves. Instead of assuming what’s best for autistic students, he found a way for people with autism to advocate for themselves. Everyone has different needs, which is why we wanna take a look at how we do science and restructure things. Only each person is best poised to tell their own story, remember, there’s more to each story than you might think.
Bri: Circling back to our conversation around ADHD, we also wanna talk a little bit about the ways in which ADHD is connected to increase use of drugs, alcohol and other substances, and different ways we can approach the topic of substance abuse.
Wes: So, I had a lot of substance abuse issues and it’s very common with ADHD- it’s a co-occurring dynamic with a lot of other things, and there’s a socio-political elements to how we approach the use of substances within the US, and one of my favorite researchers is a brother named Dr. Carl Hart, who has an amazing book that he wrote, one of my favorite books, and it is called “A High Price” and there’s a subtitle I don’t remember, but… it’s awesome. I love the stuff that he does, but he talks about the actual pharmacology and drugs and all these sorts of things and like, yeah, they can hurt us when we have other issues that are going on, and it’s component within that and all this sort of stuff. And so, he’s not like a big disease, he’s not a disease model person at all, because there’s the disease model and then there’s the, I guess, medical model, I can’t think of the word for it now, but the disease model is basically like substance abuse is a disease of the brain, that’s like what 12 step programs follow and stuff, and I don’t… I do and I don’t subsribe to that.
If it works for you, that’s okay. And I have people in my family who are sober and have been sober for a long time, my mom and other people, and those people follow a disease model, and that’s great. I’m never gonna tell them that, that’s wrong- does that help them to get to a point that they need it? And then I know people who don’t use that model, so anyway, but there’s some really cool elements of that and the way that we address substance abuse and we just make it this character flaw like, “Oh, you’re just bad and you’re just not doing well,” and that’s not true. People have been using substances since the beginning of time, and it’s just… It’s an aspect of our culture and… Well, the way that we use it in the United States is really a reflection of the culture.
We’re in a high-stress culture, we have all of these underlying things that really aren’t that underlying- that caused a lot of additional anxieties, so a lot of times people hear about a study that they just know, I don’t even know who made it, or when, but it’s like, yeah, there was a study and there was a rat and it was in a cage and they put a lever and that lever had heroin and it just kept hitting that lever and died of overdose. There you go. It’s addictive.
And so, this was not Carl Harts, Dr. Carl Harts’ study, but he talks about it in that book. And the book is awesome, I love it. As a scientist he said, Okay, well, let’s like look at that study, a rat’s natural environment is not a cage, rats are not isolated animals, they are communal animals. So they built this giant terrarium that was the size of the entire room, it had tunnels and plants and other things and areas to hide, and there was a bunch of other rats in there too, and then they still had levers for different substances they could use, none of the rats died of substance abuse, some of them took a couple of hits and had fun and did their thing! And so, we see that environmental stressors greatly impact our bodies need to find a coping mechanism, and we don’t do a lot of education around mental health and accurate depictions of what substances do to you, like meth mouth is not a thing- that is not a pharmacological impact or effect of meth… A lot of times people who take meth and are in lower income areas and rural areas, they already had poor dental hygiene anyway, and now they’re taking this drug that gives them a lot of energy, and honestly, there’s not a big difference between Adderall and crystal meth, chemically there is not a big difference at all.
So it gives you all this energy and suppresses your appetite and all this stuff, so they just stop taking care of your teeth. People will say like, “Oh, you use smoke crack and you get all skinny and all this sort of stuff” did you see what… and he’s dead now, he’s been dead for years, but Rob Ford, he was like a governor of some province in Canada, and he was smoking crack, and he was actually apparently a good governor! And he was not skinny, he was a large guy. So we have all these social political ideas about what drugs do and why they’re bad, and all this stuff is wrapped in privilege and patriarchy and racism and all this other stuff. So you had that, first of all, going on, it doesn’t mean that… It doesn’t negatively impact people when they’re using it though, right. You still need to get help, I’m not advocating for people to just willy nilly, toke up all day long, just do it like… No, I’m talking about a whole different paradigm shift of education and the actual chemical structures of these drugs and stuff like that…
Bri: A paradigm shift sounds complicated and costly. Some people may ask, why we need to change anything? Science still works. Society still functions, culture keeps going and the world keeps turning. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
R: Well, things aren’t functional for everyone as this recent pandemic has shown…
I guess going back to the very start of all of this, that Covid has pretty much made trauma and conflict unavoidable, all of the cracks that were there in the foundation of things, it was just sort of under this constant stress of- like you had mentioned, you don’t have daily business to sort of distract you from things, you don’t have the daily commute, you don’t have talking with co-workers, you don’t have that structure and that routine that it’s sort of like all of these cracks and the foundation are finally pushed to their limits, and so you’re… Part of me is like, this could be a chance for that real permanent change because it’s like your house is collapsing, either you decide to address it and you rebuild it stronger, or you let it fall and you’re homeless, those are the two kind of outcomes, and I’m hoping that everything will be structured or re-structured in a way that supports everyone, instead of it just being like, we’re gonna leave the crack in the foundation in that corner, it’s fine if that bedroom falls off the cliff. It’s good, it doesn’t matter…
Like how do you make a solid support system for everyone? I really hope that it comes like this is a chance to rebuild stronger in terms of culture and society, but I’m not optimistic enough to fully believe that- if that makes sense? Like that bit of like, “Yeah, change can happen and it’s good. We can do this,” and then there’s also like, this has been going on for how long in collective human society… It could be the final like point that gets us to a real lasting change, or could you just be another flash in the pan kind of thing? But I do think Covid and the general collective human anxiety about everything and having people that essentially shelter in place for such an extended amount of time, you don’t have the option to avoid certain things, like if you’re having domestic issues while you’re at home all the time, so you have to address it, you can’t just turn off the TV if you’re at home and avoid protests. It’s there, it’s constant, it’s… For a lot of people, that’s just how life is anyways, but it’s sort of like everyone’s adjusting and seeing what other people are going through in a way that you can just sort of be like, “No, put the blinders on and avoid it.”
It becomes a thing of like; you have to look at it. Whether you like it or not. I had this image of someone- like the annoying like toddler, that’s always there and keeps asking “Why?” constantly of like essentially, if you could make culture into a person’s body and have them sit down with the toddler and just being like, they’re constantly being asked for, “Why? Well, why? Well, why can’t we do this? Why can’t we do that?” Like this constant, not nagging force, but just sort of like this bit of agitation that keeps pushing you and pushing you and pushing you, and you can either snap and be like, Okay, yeah, sure. Let’s finally do that. What you’ve been saying, Let me address this, or it’s like, I’m gonna go so far in denial that… You just fall apart.
Wes: Yeah, it’s so accurate. I love that analogy you have… If it’s like your house is collapsing and either you’re just going to let it collapse or you’re going to get some help and try to figure out what you can do about this thing. Like can we rebuild a new house, can I share a space with someone else? What can I do to not be crushed under this… And it’s a really hard balance. When we talk about any aspect of our mental health, because we live in such of a rugged individualistic society that… there’s pros and cons to individualism, there’s pros and cons to collectivism, but there’s something to be said when you are valuing one on a pedestal, when you were valuing individualism on the pedestal, and just say the other one is not valid… Right, there was something destructive about that, woven deeply into… I didn’t wanna say woven deeply into the fabric of our country, ’cause everyone says that, and I hate using cliches, but that is the reality of it, and so you don’t… I hate telling people like, “Yeah, man, you gotta do something! You gotta get up!” ’cause I don’t wanna give that… pull yourself up from your bootstraps thing, and we have a lot of resilience as people and the more marginalized identities you have… you’re reslient out to yin yang.
And so, just saying that to people doesn’t help, you have every right to acknowledge the depth of the emotion and the pain and the hurt of the things that you have experienced and what that has done to you. It’s okay and necessary to take the time to sit in that space and unpack it and understand what it has meant for you, because when you do that, you understand that despite all of those horrible things, you’ve learned some things from that too. You’ve become stronger in some areas of those, and that doesn’t invalidate the negative experience and the pain, it is very real, and at the same time, it’s also like, “okay, take your time and process this now that we’ve processed it, so let’s start thinking about what some of the strengths are that you’ve gotten out of that time…” Right, what are some of the wounds that are gonna stick with you for a while, how do you take both of those things, all of those things and move forward, and that’s really what counseling is, and your neuro-identity is an aspect of that, because if you’re not neurotypical, if you’re dyslexic or ADHD or autistic, or you have dyspraxia or whatever it is, there’s… the odds are stacked against you and you have experienced something at some point in time that has been like traumatic- and it’s in its own way. And so I love that analogy, because even within that short few words you said all of that…
Bri: In this episode, we touched on quite a few things, what neurodiversity means, Wes’ experiences with ADHD and how these experiences might be shaped by social norms, ways to approach substance use outside of just completely abstaining from them, and how Covid-19 is impacting neuro-divergent individuals. And this is only a start. These topics certainly deserve more than just one episode.
R: The key thing is that neurodiversity is an important factor to consider in STEM because not everyone thinks the same way, that’s the beauty of being different. Conditions like ADHD can provide new ways to interpret situations, solve problems and expand our understanding of the world, but can also have its challenges, especially when we as a culture try to force people into one way of being. In order for science and society to truly be inclusive, we need to recognize that ADHD, autism and other unique ways of thinking are intrinsically valuable and worth respecting. A global pandemic has amplified the conversation about neurodiversity, we just need to keep it going.
Bri: For more information regarding what we discussed in this episode, please be sure to check out our show notes. A transcript of this episode can be found on our website at queerscience.show. If you liked this episode, you can tell us why by tweeting at us at queer_science, you can also find us on Facebook as Queer Science or follow us on Instagram at queer_sci. We’re even on Tik-Tok too and you can find us at queerscience. The Queer Science! Team believes that educational content should be accessible to all – and we are a small team of 20 somethings working to bring this podcast to our audience for free. If you like our work, consider giving the cohosts a tip by supporting us at patrion.com/queer science. You can also donate to our GoFundMe, which allows for us to afford microphones, recording software and website upkeep. We also have merch featuring the Queer Science! logo and more original designs by our cohost R. Want to support us? You can find out more by checking out our website at queerscience.show.