“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.
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.
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.
Updated on January 24, 2020