“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.
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.
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.