Reader’s Question

I am a 44-year-old woman and a mother of a three-year-old. I have a low self esteem even though people tell me I am very smart and capable. I always feel I cannot learn and keep the information. I have struggled in every school to keep my attention (focus) and have not succeeded. I always wanted to have a profession but I struggle not knowing what I want and what I am good for. I am a student at NYU and I struggle to get an average C grade. When someone is talking with me I work very hard to keep focus. I have difficulty understanding the concept of an article or the viewpoint of a book or an article, also a point of view in a conversation. Lately it has been even worse. I cannot remember anything I put away. I misplace things all the time — receipts, checks, house keys, etc. I am going to a very expensive cooking school, and I cannot get myself organized to start the hands-on cooking session every day. I am good when I start, but I struggle with the instructions, mostly because I cannot remember it. Something has just been said to me five minutes ago, but when start getting things together to start my task, I do not remember all the steps.

I also try very hard to show that I am not stupid. I am extremely open about myself, and I hate that. I want to be more private about myself and my life, and next thing I know I have already told a total stranger about my son, my husband’s business and so on. Then after a few minutes I feel totally uncomfortable and embarrassed for sharing so much. I have worked so hard on keeping private and I fail every time. My memory is shot and I feel that is starting to affect me at my job, despite the fact that I am very good at what I do. I also have an awful problem of leaving things to the last minute. If I have two hours to do something, I end up distracted with other things and find myself rushing and stressing to get things done. What is wrong with me? I am considered very intelligent, but in my true heart I feel I am really stupid and cannot get ahead because I have some type of learning disorder and attention disorder for sure.

Psychologist’s Reply

You don’t have a clear pattern of behavior that would suggest ADHD — including both the hyperactive and inattentive type. However, at 44 years of age, parent of a three-year-old, and returning to the university setting after many years — you are most likely very stressed. Stress produces most of the symptoms you mention including inattention, poor memory, inability to focus, being disorganized and even talking too much about your personal life. Under stress, many people exhibit performance anxiety — the intense need to be successful, get good grades, impress people, and prove that we’re something positive such as intelligent, educated, etc. In normal conversations, we develop anxiety followed by what I often call “anxious chatter”. We tell a stranger our entire life history or spend ten minutes discussing coming to school that morning. Our anxiety makes us talk more.

In your situation, this may not be a learning disorder — but it certainly is a learning hindrance. Anxiety will impair your ability to focus, organize, and complete your school assignments.

NYU and other colleges and universities have both counseling centers and learning programs. I’d look into both. The counseling centers often have programs to help new or first-time students improve their studies and learning strategies. Learning improvement programs help improve focus, organizing your homework and assignments, and organiizing your time. The counseling programs also provide individual counseling to build self-esteem and include recommendations for stress reduction and anxiety management.

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Attending college and universities involves learning how to learn. At this point, you are an inefficient learner — not learning disabled. You need to learn to focus, organize your activities, develop strategies for improving classroom performance, and develop social skills for classroom use (such as not revealing personal information so readily). Look to your school counseling center. They may also have recommendations for off-campus programs that might be helpful.

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