Guest Blogs

“I Shouldn’t Care About Your Expectations. But I Do.”

Dear outside world: ADHD is not a disease or dysfunction, no matter how ashamed we are made to feel. We don’t want to be cured. Or coddled. Or saved. We just want you to believe us when we tell you how hard we’re working to accommodate you, to keep you happy, to make you believe we’ve got it all handled.

I was talking with an ADHD coach the other day, describing the ways my attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD) manifested itself. I told him about the way I forget appointments, names, faces; how my car looks like a rolling garbage mobile; how it’s a desperate struggle, with two parents who have ADHD, to keep a house clean, and even when we do, it’s always, “Don’t look up there, we haven’t dusted that since the Obama Administration,” or “Don’t use the back bathroom, the shower has been broken for longer than I will ever care to tell you.”

He asked questions and listened patiently. Then, finally, he said, “How does all this stuff make you feel?”

Ashamed,” I blurted out.

“Why?” he asked.

But he knew why, and so do I.

A Crippling ADHD Symptom: Shame

As women with ADHD, we’re expected to fit ourselves into a neurotypical world. It may give lip service to our neurotypical difference — because that’s what ADHD is, a neurotypical difference; it’s not a disease or dysfunction, no matter how shamed we may be made to feel. But the reality of adult ADHD has not sunk into the culture.

ADHD remains, and perhaps always will remain, a kiddie problem, especially since one-third of kids may outgrow ADHD. So even if we are brave enough to come out with our adult ADHD, it’s often greeted with nothing more than shrugs. Or worse, squeals: “Oh my god, me, too! I am so ADHD! I can’t concentrate on anything!”

But there’s a hell of a lot more to adult ADHD than that. The casual blending of “I’m so ADHD” with the actual language of neurotypical difference has done us no favors. Now we’re not only space cadets, we’re histrionic as well — especially women. We’re exaggerating, asking for favors, demanding accommodations. All of them inconvenient, because neurotypical difference is nothing if not inconvenient to a neurotypical world.

[Self-Test: ADHD Symptoms in Women and Girls]

Our issues are not so cute when we have trouble following a conversation, when we blurt out ideas without regard to the talk going on around us, when we make plans and can’t follow through. This isn’t the “Look! A squirrel!” popular conception of our difference. It’s not cute. It’s annoying. We’re annoying.

And that makes us ashamed.

The ADHD Symptoms That Women Suffer Silently

The neurotypical world makes particular demands: punctuality, remembering things, neatness, certain social mores. We are often unable to make these demands. Punctuality is difficult for us: we lose track of time, and if we haven’t lost track of time, we’ve lost track of other things — wallets, keys, money, small children — that make it impossible to leave within our allotted time frame.

We also tend to have a warped sense of how long it will take us to do things. Time, for us, doesn’t flow the way it seems to for the neurotypical, but moves in fits and bursts. I am, for example, regularly either 15 minutes late or half an hour early. Either one is cause for laughter from so-called regular people; that laughter stings. Don’t you think I’d be on time if I could help it?! I want to shout. But instead, I force a goofy smile. I am the space cadet.

Memory, however, is perhaps the most embarrassing. Every case of ADHD manifests differently, and while I am fairly decent at keeping track of where I left things-not-my-cell-phone (my oldest son is the opposite), I am nearly face-blind. If I meet someone, I will not remember their name three minutes later. If reminded, I will not remember it an hour later. I will not remember their face once they leave my presence, which makes for some awkward re-introductions. Because society expects you to remember who people are, and if you can’t, you’re rude. You don’t care. You’re insinuating that these people are not important enough to have registered on your radar. Which is not the case; you just can’t remember them to save your own life and possibly your children’s. You can lead off with “I have adult ADHD, so I may have trouble remembering you, and it’s nothing personal,” but that’s seen as an unnecessary revelation of some messy “mental illness”: very “not done,” as TV’s John Watson would tell Sherlock. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The world does not make this easy.

[Free Handout: 3 Defining Features of ADHD That Everyone Overlooks]

My Crushing ADHD Messes

Then there’s the mess. In your car, in your house. If you’re unmedicated, or undermedicated, or possibly even fully medicated, you will have areas of your life in which clutter and mess prevail. This will freak you out to such a degree that you are paralyzed to begin fixing it, which just perpetuates the cycle. It means people will make fun of your messy car, all while you want to sink into the ground. You can’t have dinner parties like normal people, because you don’t want others to see how you live day to day.

People don’t get invites to your house, so you stop getting invites to theirs. It sucks. You can plead ADHD, explain the situation, but they hardly ever understand it. They say they don’t care. Then they see your house, which needs a good going-over from a maid service, and they think you’re a giant slob. It hurts.

Living with adult ADHD in a neurotypical world is hard. We don’t want a cure: If I could wave a magic wand and make my ADHD go away, I’d snap that wand in half. ADHD is part of who I am, part of how my brain is wired. I don’t think it makes me defective, deficient, or in need of a cure. It makes me in need of acceptance, though. Of space. Of some kindness and understanding. Yes, we’re different. No, we sometimes don’t adhere to your norms, and that’s hard for us. But all we’re asking is that you help us live with that. Give us space. Give us time. Give us grace. Above all, give us acceptance.

We spend all our days thinking about you — about accommodating you, about keeping you happy. Spend a teensy bit of time thinking about us, trying to understand us. It’s all we ask. It’s all we want. That small gesture could make our lives so much easier.

[Quiz: Could You Have Emotional Hyperarousal?]

11 Related Links

    1. I think the vast majority of these apply to men as well as to women. I think the reception is different — a woman interrupting is seen as different than a man interrupting, for example. A woman who can’t keep her car clean is a housekeeping failure, where a man might just be brushed off as a slob. It’s a subtle moral different, but an important difference nonetheless that speaks more to the patriarchy than to the manifestations of our brain difference.

      — Elizabeth Broadbent

      1. I do get the idea that the shame is different, but believe me, the pain of the shame is no less real for a man being called a slob if he is trying not to be. Sure, he may be able to shrug it off easier in social situations since it’s a little more socially acceptable for a guy. But deep down, it still hurts.

        As far as interrupting in the middle of a conversation…oh WOW do we get ourselves in so much trouble this way! Ask any guy who has blurted out (or yelled) something to his boss/wife/girlfriend/son/daughter/friend that he desperately wishes he could take back. The loss of control…the feelings of regret…It can be absolutely paralyzing.

        Not trying to one-up the ladies here. My point is that we are with you. Please don’t feel alone.

  1. Doesnt sound like it to me except for a tinnitus i have developed that threatens to cut off my meds/drug supply .I have discovered that singing in groups is a wonderful way to self infuse your brain with Dopamine and serotonin. So I sing with three orgs several times a week to top up the supply. This together with a Serotonin/Norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor does wonders for the reward system the feel good not guilty but not much for losing things or arriving on time.
    Unfortunately tinnitus causes you to lose hearing,and sing louder. If I dont find a cure it will lead to retiring from the musical chorus i sing with.and i will be back to accomodating everyones needs but mine.

  2. Sooner or later we will be recognized for the physical existence of this condition instead of not overcoming its debilitating results. 1/3 of children dont “grow out of it”? They adopt systems of behavior that eliminate enough of the condition to flunk the screening test. They may be left with 2/3 of the problems and that leaves them with many of our peccadillos , but absolutely none of the supports. Pity the child ADHDer who becomes the adult who only answers 4 of the screening test. Questions. To not qualify.

  3. I can identify with every single point you made here, except one – I would take that magic wand and wave the crap out of it if it meant I didn’t have to struggle every single day to do the simplest things. It’s exhausting, I’m exhausted.

    The only way the neurotypical world will EVER afford us the three things you mentioned -acceptance, kindness and understanding – is when the world is educated to the degree of impairment that can be caused by ADHD. One way would be to show people the similarities between traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and ADHD. If you put the symptoms side by side it’s actually kind of scary!– how similar they are. Some types of strokes – depending on the area of the brain affected – can also share very similar symptoms as ADHD. If you could find a way to show people how it feels to live in our brains for a day that could be very powerful. It reminds me of what we did in nursing school to see how it felt to be blind. We were blindfolded and had to try to eat a meal without stabbing ourselves and walk across a room without running into anything or falling. That was a much more powerful lesson than anything we had read in our books up until that point.

    It also doesn’t help that in addition to most people not understanding what ADHD really is, it’s also an invisible disorder (or disability or difference ) – however you want to label it. Invisible maladies are always going to be harder for people to understand than a physical one they can actually see.

    Think about it – if people knew you had a brain injury or a stroke – don’t you think they would be a bit more understanding than if you told them you had ADHD ???

    Here is an example from my own experience at work many years ago:
    My boss called me into her office to inform me that several of my colleagues were very frustrated and upset with my productivity compared to theirs. They felt that I was being a slacker, spent too much time talking to patients, staff, and students and not taking the job seriously. By picking up my slack they ultimately saw more patients than I was. I found out that 2 of my colleagues had been keeping track of how many patients I saw each day and gave that info to our manager each week. One of them was actually trying to get me fired.

    They felt they were working harder than I was yet we were all getting paid the same and had the same benefits. They resented me for that and swore there was NO WAY it could be explained but just ADHD. They truly thought it was more of a lazy work ethic / a personality flaw or disorder, that I was just manipulative. I mean they were downright nasty for many years. And they even kept track of what time I came in every day (bc of course I am always a few minutes late wherever I go!) to build their case against me.

    I think I cried for like a month after my manager told me this. Eventually that sadness and depression morphed into an internal anger that gave me the courage to start educating my fellow coworkers and colleagues (we are nurse practitioners) about ADHD and how it affects the brain. I would bring in articles and highlight the pertinent points as I knew they were busy. I remember the day I brought in a list I had made comparing similarities between TBI and ADHD. The NP who had been out to get me the most made a face I will never forget as she read through that list. I was trying so hard not to smile I thought I was going to burst. I realized they were finally starting to get it.

    I also spent years soliciting feedback from my colleagues when they see me doing something that could be derailing me to please let me know. I subsequently would come up with strategies to implement to prevent that from happening in the future. I have always been open to new ideas on how to be more efficient. I also contribute to the office in other ways to make up for the difference in my productivity. Like the typical ADHD’er I am creative, able to think out of the box and always brimming with ideas on how to improve our department. So I routinely lead the way when it comes to trying out new ideas to implement in the office – and I enjoy it!

    Now 15 years later I am actually very well liked and one of the most respected NP’s in our office – by my colleagues, students, and our attendings. They finally realized that I do work as hard as they do and although they will likely always see a patient or 2 more than me – we are all working just as hard. My therapist told me I likely suffer from PTSD from everything I went through to keep my job and essentially prove my worth (in addition to fighting for my son and his needs at school over the years).

    I think we need public campaigns and education about ADHD just like we have seen with things like HIV, breast cancer, smoking,head injuries in football players and even autism. Right now it seems like the only time you hear people talk about ADHD is when they are telling a joke about how they did something stupid – ‘wow that was such an ADHD moment I just had!!! ‘

    1. QUOTE: “…several of my colleagues were very frustrated and upset with my productivity compared to theirs. They felt that I was being a slacker, spent too much time talking to patients, staff, and students…”

      You gotta love “productivity”. Speaking from the patient’s or the student’s point of view (especially the patient’s), you can be certain that those people appreciated the fact that you took that time to talk to them, while none of your allegedly “productive” colleagues would (indeed, they were too busy being “productive”).

      Something I learned about myself that I believe is directly related to ADhD neurology is that people characterized by what is called ADhD tend to be more aware of what is genuinely important, rather than simply urgent (a distinction often emphasized by the renown business and success author Steven Covey, by the way). People who ‘have’ ADhD tend to be guided more internally than externally, and while ‘neurotypical’ people are buzzing around, parroting, and loudly advancing things that the world insists are the things to focus attention on, ADhD-typical people tend to be seeing and thinking about things that are much bigger and ultimately more meaningful, even if they may not be consciously aware of it.

      I cannot help but wonder to what extent ADhD ought to be considered a “disease of civilization,” like so many others that are characteristic of the man-made world we live in. Those who struggle with ADhD the most appear to be those who never fit well in the industrialized Western ‘world system’ to begin with, usually since childhood (remember how well you did in school? —not!), and their family heritage often reflects the same, generations into the past.

      This is an area of ADhD that is not talked about or researched enough, but I think it is an essential point for genuine understanding of what the DSM calls a “disorder”. Clearly what is labeled ‘ADhD’ is a different way of seeing, thinking, and being in the world, but that does not make it a ‘disorder’ or a ‘disease’. Somehow, by this point in human history, we are now equating that which cannot be quantified as disease.

      JH.Boise

    2. I’m so sorry for the hell you went through. It’s awful and inexcusable.
      When I say that, basically, I wouldn’t change my ADHD, what I’m saying is that it’s become such an inextricable part of my identity that changing it would be changing a fundamental part of myself, and I wouldn’t want to do that. Despite the struggles. Despite the misunderstandings.
      I may feel differently were I not in a flexible job, with an understanding — all also ADHD — family.

    3. I’m with you. I’d wave the hell outa that wand! Spending 7 years being told that I’m just not getting enough done even though my quality is through the roof… Let’s just say that my self worth in that area has taken a hit and made looking for another job even more difficult.

  4. I just want to thank you for this article. It explains everything I can’t always put into words. From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU.

  5. I posted this on Facebook with a request that my family and close friends take the time to read it. My dad responded with the following. I just want to scream and pull my hair out at how much he DOESN’T get it at all!

    “Read and understood. So, what’s your plan? Life has to be lived no matter what. I think your best asset is YOU! :). What would [3rd grade teacher] tell you to do?”

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