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“My ADHD Was Hidden Beneath Layers of Success — Until It Wasn’t.”

I cannot believe it took me this long to find this out about myself. How could I have had the same brain my whole life and yet no major life complications until… every single life complication all at once with the volume cranked up? The first 75% of my life: swell. The next 8%: absolute crap. The most recent 17%: harnessing that crap for good.

I don’t twiddle my pencil. I’m not hyper. I don’t engage in reckless behaviors. I am a full-grown woman. And, yes, I have ADHD.

It took me 3 years to figure out I had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Actually 35, if you start from the very beginning. And then 6 more (and counting) to know what to do with it.

I’ll get right to it and start with the climax that marks the start of finding out I had ADHD, at last: I went nuts.

What I mean by nuts is that my mind, generally a pretty likable place where you might find birds chirping and lots of plants in brightly painted pots, became unrecognizable. It became a place I wanted to avoid – my birds silent, my plants putrid.

I became perpetually nervous, my heart beating rapidly in thew way hearts are only supposed to do at the starting (or finishing) line of a race. I was struggling to get through my workdays, uncertain of how much longer I’d be able to fake not being on the brink of losing it. My sleep was crap. Since my body was constantly worked up, my appetite waned; eating became forced.

[Self Test: ADHD Symptoms in Women and Girls]

My thoughts raced. Everything was hard. Even figuring out how to spend my time became this big goliath of a task. I was wilting and scared as hell about it. Scared as hell, specifically, that the men from the psychiatric ward, armed with gauze and a gurney, were going to show up at my doorstep any day to wheel me away from my life.

Now that you have a handle on the low that led to my ADHD diagnosis, I’m going to start at the beginning.

A child of the ‘80s and a first-born do-gooder, I was fortunate enough to thrive in the classic, straightforward classroom of my childhood. Because I liked learning and I liked gold stars and I liked all opportunities to socialize, there was never a moment for me when school felt dreadful. Luckily, my report cards revealed my school ease; I was an Honor Roll sort of gal.

In college it was more of the same, plus a new path to earn success: 11thhour victories. I became an epic procrastinator. During intended study sessions in the library, I almost always abandoned my work at first opportunity to socialize in whispers with fellow distractors. As a result, I relied almost entirely on charged bolts of inspiration under my dorm room desk lamp within hours of deadlines. And I almost always struck gold.

There were no problems, World.

I was still on track, competent, and confident.

After graduation, I was still rocking through life, except now — with my job charging me with lots of event planning and orchestration of details — I started feeling like I had half a brain. It was taking me way longer to do stuff than it seemed my co-workers would take to do the same stuff. I took a lot home. I worked more hours. I couldn’t help but feel wildly inefficient, even though I was paddling underwater twice as fast.

Then came the speeding tickets. Around the same time, on road trips to and from visits to my hometown, I got ticketed however many times it takes to be within an inch of having your license revoked. To slap my wrist prior to it getting to that, I earned a seat in a tutorial driving class. Except that I opted for the alternative self-guided option: they sent me an instructional DVD with a paper test. I got the test back to them; I had to pay for a replacement DVD (because I most certainly lost my copy).

I’ll spare the smaller details, but here are some other highlights:

  • Despite having graduated college with a degree in mathematics, my checkbook-balancing deficiencies had me pleading regularly with bank representatives to waive overdraft fees.
  • My go at serving tables at a restaurant was short-lived: I couldn’t answer questions about the menu under pressure and diners kept asking me for things while I was getting other diners’ things – the nerve.
  • I once paid to have my car, which wouldn’t start, towed to the mechanic only to find out that I had simply run out of gas.
  • The era of cell phones had begun and in pretty much every single situation when I had need to use mine, it was almost always reliably dead: remembering to charge things was way above my operating level.
  • I apologize to Mother Earth for the countless extra loads of laundry I did, necessary because of how soured my clothes would get left sitting in the washing machine for too many days.
  • More and more, simple communication would fail me — like there was a barrier between all my juicy intelligence and the words to share it. My fiancé and I developed language for this: When I got stuck, I’d just say, “I can’t find my words,” with a sigh.
  • My wedding weekend was an absolute miracle. To everyone who helped pull it off and might be reading this: Thanks. The planning sure as hell can’t be credited to me.
  • Speeding tickets. Did I mention speeding tickets?

So, while all of these realities were going on in the background, the foreground of my life had been very affirming: I was a woman who was educated, employed, married, and even keeping a small child alive. With flying colors, I might add.

When and why did I go nuts, then?

I mean, I suppose it was gradual. But if I had to pinpoint – in retrospect — I would say the trigger was the second kid and then definitely the third kid (and then most definitely the fourth). Doing the wife thing and the house management thing and the working thing and the one kid thing was what my neurological makeup could handle.

After layering in additional kiddos, my “engine – despite its strength – couldn’t pull the weight of life any longer with all those flat tires.” (Those are not my words. They are the words of the ADHD testing specialist responsible for diagnosing me. The engine is my brain. The flat tires are the challenges my ADHD puts before me. The weight is all my responsibilities, including needy babes.)

And for me, it wasn’t just that my vehicle’s speed slowed. And it wasn’t just that it was protesting with grunts, sputters, and grumbles.

It fully blew out.

My interior world went with it… to that overwhelmed, panicky, scary place. There was a growing disparity between what was required of me and what I was capable of, and fear was more than eager to fill the space. Not surprisingly, my feelings of competency, confidence, and self-reliance hit the road, too. I doubted myself more and more, trusted myself less and less, resorted to hiding more and more, and became smaller and smaller and smaller.

Except, and this is important to make clear, I didn’t have knowledge that that last paragraph was what was actually happening.

What I thought was happening: I was going nuts.

Now I’d like to point out that there are many different launch pads that can propel one to a place of impairing anxiety and bottomed-out wellness like mine at that time. And believe me, in the beginning a couple of therapists and I explored every single one. We poked around in my childhood for trauma, dabbled with the possibility of grief from some losses in my life, tried to make Acute Adjustment Disorder fit due to several cross-country moves in a short period of time, and thought we’d struck gold with much of what I was experiencing fitting post-partum symptoms.

It took a cunning ear from Therapist Number Three to hear the quiet whispers of ADHD through all my squabbling. It was she who suggested the ADHD testing, and – even though I was stubbornly resistant to this discovery of hers (“No way! I did great in school! I was never out of control! ADHD is the picture of someone else, NOT me!”) – that therapist stuck with it. She nudged me further and further away from denial and imprinted upon me that my neurological deficits might be exactly what was painting the dark picture of my days.

Fast-forward to now: Since that day in the ADHD testing office when the doc used car imagery to explain in layman’s terms that I had Inattentive ADHD (the kind without the H – that is to say without the hyperactivity – which is much more nuanced and difficult to uncover), I’ve committed to learning about it like a PhD student. I have books and articles all around my house (and I’d show you, if only I could find them). My brain and I have become incredibly well-acquainted. I’ve devised, executed, and abandoned at different times innumerable systems to organize better, time manage better, file better, decrease distractions better, meal plan better… you name it.

[Self Test: Do I Have Inattentive ADHD?]

I’ve tried ADHD medications. I’ve stopped medications. I’ve tried them again. I’ve sharpened the fine art of self-care, waxing and waning the frequency of my massages, naps, meditations, outsourced house cleanings, journaling, babysitters, and exercise based on how my engine is handling my tires. I’ve seen therapists and ADHD life coaches and attended local CHADD chapter meetings. And I’ve definitely prayed.

And I’m happy to say that I’m not worried about the loony bin anymore.

It’s also certainly not perfect. As my adult-ADHD-specialized psychiatrist recently said, “We’re not looking for a silver bullet here, but how about we aim for a bronze one?” Bronze for me is that I finally can place my anxiety and mood disorder and wilty, songless interior life – whenever they show up again – as byproducts of my cognitive challenges. I can see that I’m working too hard and my mind is bucking. And – pretty importantly – that I’m not nuts.

Most of all — and what I want to communicate with fervor here — I cannot believe it took me this long to find this out about myself. How could I have had the same brain my whole life and yet have no major life complications result from it until major complications started resulting from it? First 75% of my life: SWELL. Next 8%: WENT TO CRAP. Most recent 17%: HARNESSING THAT SHIT.

It certainly makes me want to be what Therapist Number Three was for me for other young women (inattentive ADHD is most common in females and, since it does not show up in behavioral or scholastic ways in school – at least in the beginning – is often overlooked). It makes me want to crack open every youngster’s head and help expose any invisible learning disabilities lingering in there. It makes me want to educate all teachers, parents, coaches, relatives about what signs might point to ADHD in the kids they hang with, even when nothing dramatic is yet going on.

Basically, I’d like for flat tires to be known entities by our young generation of vehicles… long before — like me — a blow-out does the revealing.

[Free Download: Your In-Depth Guide to Inattentive ADHD]

Updated on December 12, 2019

14 Related Links

  1. I’ve been reading, enjoying, following, benefiting-greatly-from ADDitude for about two years. I never officially registered or jumped in to a forum or watched a webinar when it was ACTUALLY streaming (“was that today??”). But THIS article sold me. Such great writing. Vulnerable, honest, strong, hilarious, helpful. Thank you, Tricia, for sharing a bit of your experience. It made me feel seen, validated, and encouraged. I also LOL’d. Quietly, Because my kids are still sleeping and I’m not caffeinated enough to deal with them yet. Keep up the great work!

  2. That first part about doing really well in school and then squeaking through university with last minute rushes to meet deadlines was like I’d written it myself, that is EXACTLY my experience.
    I’m in the totally burnt out phase right now and waiting for my assessment (two months to go -.-) but knowing that there’s maybe a light at the end of this tunnel is really reassuring
    Thank you!

  3. This is a well written article. Thanks for sharing your story! I don’t have add or adhd (my 10 year old daughter does); I am supposedly cognitively “normal”. But I have to say that I would never in a million years be able to handle a full time job, household responsibilities, a husband and 4 children. I think it’s a rare person, in fact, who could do all of that well. My point is that it might be a good strategy for people to lower their expectations a bit about what’s humanly possible, and about what’s really going to bring them happiness. I want my daughter, who is smart and creative and eager to succeed, to have a fulfilling and meaningful life, but I hope to help her make choices that are realistic for her. I feel like the meaning of “success” in American society needs to be reconsidered with an emphasis on the following question: “What feels good and right for you personally, independent of what society tells us that successful people look like”. That goes for both the cognitively normal and those with adhd.

  4. Wow, this is the first article I’ve read the fit my symptoms like a glove. I was diagnosed at 37, after my son was diagnosed – which I had to battle with everyone in my family to accept. My brother has ADHD, he was diagnosed at 9 in 1984. I was in high school. My brother was a severe case and would never have made it out of high school without Ritalin. My son, my daughter, and myself all have inattentive ADHD, and I missed my daughter’s until her freshman year in college. I still can’t believe it took us that long for my daughter considering my son, my brother, and myself. She, of coarse, was a straight A student graduating from high school with a 4.0. It wasn’t until I walked into her dormroom at the end of her freshman year, I felt like I had gone back in time 30 years to my dorm room. It was bad, and that’s when I had her tested. She was still getting A’s, but was depressed – as I had been depressed for 20 years before I was diagnosed. With females, ADHD is hard to diagnose, no small part being our American Society’s expectations of women. Thank you for your article! I feel validated!

  5. Thank you very much for sharing this – and maybe today this was the exactly right thing to read first thing in the day at work! Cannot tell you how much I can relate and yes I am still flogging myself for the time I feel I wasted in the early years of my family and career — I know I cannot get that time back and that I have to make the best of things moving forward but man!knowing what I know now…! Thank you again

  6. I have two questions – what was your best resource for finding an “ADHD specialist” and by evaluation do you mean Neuropsychological testing? (The blocks, pictures, listening, etc?) A lot of docs list ADD as something they treat, but I have yet to find a true “specialist”. I first came across this page in researching some info re: one of my (almost adult) children. I frequently read stories on here and think “OMG that is exaclty me”. And then I push it to the back burner in my mind (I’m 52). This article is effectively my life. Throw in a slew of other difficult life events and I can’t seem to come up for air. This is motivating me to do something. I, like you, have seen various doctors and therapists. I am hesitant to mention Inattentive ADD and they are hesitant to consider it an issue. Because, as you said, I have always managed to get along (externally) and with other life events such as divorce, ailing parents and breast cancer – it all gets lost under “life stress”. And I agree with the comment that perhaps our expectations as a society and of ourselves are just way too high. I would greatly appreciate a starting point to finding a good ADHD doc. Thanks.

  7. Wow! Thank you for that incredible article! I can totally relate.
    I went all of the way through law school and an additional degree beyond, got married and had a child. It wasn’t until he was diagnosed and I sat listening to my excellent pediatrician describe ADHD that I realized I had it. I was just starting my own practice and didn’t want to screw it up, so I started taking medicine for it. The medicine helped until I got to that same point that you did, where I started cratering that I needed further help. By then I was on my second husband, had started a new business and was trying to keep it all going plus save his “cratering” alcoholic, druggie ass (I didn’t know this at the time).
    Many years later (fast forward to present), I am trying to keep it all together while dealing with the fallout of his drinking himself to death by the age of 55. My son is grown and still having difficulties and has left college and living at home trying to get himself together as well as dealing with the child’s side of the fallout from the same. It may not fix our situation or make it better, but just knowing that very intelligent others are dealing with similar issues is helpful. Hang in there and Good luck. Thank you for sharing your struggles.

  8. My entire life has been a pretty eventful string of 11th hour victories. All I have to say is that it feels so damn good knowing I’m not alone. Thanks for sharing your breakdown point. It takes a lot.

  9. Have loved this site and was diagnosed after my kids as well, and still generally try to convince myself that I can’t really have it given how “successful” I have been. I reached a point where I kept internally saying I’ve risen to the level of my incompetence and what am I going to do now? I’m still trying to work that out myself, but I see myself so much in what you’ve written, I wish I could be in a support group for people like us!

  10. Wow. I’m not sure I’ve ever commented (or even finished an article here) but I really could have written (most of) this. I’m still floundering, still trying to blame it on other things, still afraid “I’m going crazy.” Sadly I did land myself in the hospital last year before we really knew what was happening. What I would love to hear from you, Trisha, is what has helped you. What tools, groups, sites, interventions, jedi mind tricks, do you use? Being someone who resonates SO much with YOUR story, I’d really appreciate hearing more. Because it’s hard. Life is hard. And I have dark moments that I don’t enjoy returning to. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Your ADD experience, this description, sounds almost like mine. I didn’t struggle in school, plenty of success etc etc. But then… under all the pressure I developed unbelievable anxiety and I thought I was. My fiance made me sell my tiny fiat because I was driving like a maniac in it, and yes some speeding tickets too. Thanks for writing this article…

  12. Oh my. Are you in my head?? I am in a coffee shop trying not to sob. I was diagnosed at 44 – 4 yrs ago now. I had a very successful career (star employee – the go-to person) before permanently becoming a stay-at-home mom at 39 after my second child. And then things started to unravel. So hard to get dinner on the table. So hard to stay on top of everything. But things really started coming apart at the seams when, at the same time, my one daughter was being tested/diagnosed with ADD (inattentive) and my younger daughter suddenly started struggling with generalized anxiety disorder on a daily basis. Life got immensely complicated. Fast. Through the course of getting my younger daughter help, I was tested. Was shocked to be diagnosed with ADD. My friends didn’t believe it – in fact I have a couple that get mad at the doctors and think they’re crazy. But I am now on medication and life seems somewhat normal. Its not perfect (re: speeding tickets, messy house, etc) but at least my brain doesn’t feel like a computer with too many apps open and its going to crash.

  13. Wow! Well said! I have lived most of the same life! Thanks for writing this for all the Inattentive’s living out here in the shadows of the H’s and the Neurotyps. Here’s my hope that the world we live and work in will catch on and catch up to us! We need a different strategy to work and study and succeed than others! For all those who wonder IF they might have ADD, or doubt they do, but know it is truth, I have found after 10 years of living it and fighting it, that accepting it and making it work FOR me is the only path forward. Find the right combination of medications and cognitive behavioral strategies to change yourself and change your life! Good luck to all!

  14. Hi All! WOW, I hadn’t checked in to view comments until this morning and, thanks to all your amazing voices and story-sharing, my daughter looked like a homeless person for preschool 🙂 I was so entranced reading your heartfelt words that I derailed (SHOCKER!) from my morning jobs. THANK YOU THANK YOU for being so open and vulnerable!

    I wanted to pop on to respond to a couple specific comments/inquiries:

    1) YES to the comments about how at least a quarter of the battle is lowering our own expectations – as women, as Americans, as house/calendar/activity managers (if that fits). I think ALL women in our society, neurotypical included, would raise their hands in agreement here. It’s just that we ADHDers have to double down on the lesson of lowering our personal standards, since meeting “expectation” is twice as hard for us. SO, YES YES YES!

    2) There was a question about finding the right person to conduct the neuropsych eval. I came by my recommendation via my therapist, who – as I mention in the essay – was convinced way before I was that I had ADHD. She had a psychologist she liked who did neuropsych evals, so I didn’t shop around. What I will say – coming off of recently finding the right person to do a neuropsych for my son – is this: these folks are accustomed to being “interviewed” and I’ve found respond really well to direct lines of questioning. I would shop and interview a few, asking about their experience with ADHD and, specifically Inattentive ADHD, if that’s what you suspect of yourself.

    3) Roberts6604 asked about my specific tips and tricks. I have two very broadstroke rules of thumb: First, I’ve learned to do everything within my control to avoid entering into an ADHD fog / anxiety spiral. Basically, this means maintaining a high level of support (offloading and outsourcing stuff that’s hard for me) and self care (babysitting, massage, meditation, exercise, free time, hobbies, etc) LIKE IT’S MY JOB. Secondly, I’ve learned how to get OUT of an ADHD fog/ anxiety spiral once in one. I’ve actually written a piece on this very subject to be featured on ADDitude’s guest blog page in days to come. Spoiler: Sharing with trusted peeps, reading ADHD resources so I don’t feel alone, dropping all hard work by not adding organizational strategies, headphones and a mantra, doubling down on support/self-care, and smiling (SENSE OF HUMOR IS CLUTCH!) as often as I can. Oh, and medication adjustments… definitely important, if you are on an ADHD and/or anxiety medication regiment, to check in with your psychiatrist about that area.

    While I’m on a roll, I’ll say that I was introduced to mindfulness years ago through the book “The Mindful Way Through Depression” and daily mindful meditation has been CLUTCH as my primary self-care activity. It’s wildly helpful for anyone and especially for those of us with such active/busy minds.

    Mucho good wishes. I’m so very pleased to get to connect!

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