Talking About ADHD

Portrait of an All-or-Nothing Adult with ADHD

Forget balanced emotions – for those of us who have ADHD, life is hot or cold, never lukewarm.

A man with anxiety leans against the wall in a storage area with his eyes closed.
A man with anxiety leans against the wall in a storage area with his eyes closed.

One night back in college, I was painting with oils on a blank canvas. I don’t normally paint, but that night, and for weeks previous, I was so full of angst that I was willing to try anything to release it. I was not in balance: I was carrying a heavy school and internship load, and was dealing with a boyfriend who was a handful. Did I mention that I partied every night except Mondays? In any case, cutting off my ear was going to be next on my list, if painting didn’t work.

As I sat in front of the canvas, I was overwhelmed at the amount of undiagnosed ADHD chaos that needed to burst out of me, and my brain skidded to a stop. I was paralyzed in my own misery. I glanced over at my boyfriend and his friends sitting on the couch. They were playing video games, smoking marijuana, laughing, and enjoying life. How can they be so carefree?

They were the honey badgers of existence. They didn’t give a bleep about their purpose, which was so maddening to me because finding my purpose, and gracefully honoring my existence, is what drives and tortures my thoughts. I was angry that they led such carefree lives. I struggled sometimes to not drive my car into a tree to get a break from wanting to understand how I fit in with it all.

Emotions can be confusing, gut-wrenching, beautiful, and painful, but they are vital to personal growth. Embracing the pain and beauty of life, instead of turning away from what’s raw and hard, means you are really, truly living. I used my anger to ignite my creative fire, and I began painting. Soon, I fell into the beautiful space of flow where time doesn’t exist. I was so engrossed in acknowledging all areas of my tortured, ADHD existence by putting them to canvas, I never participated in the overall plan of what it would look like when it was completed.

When I felt as though I had given proper respect to my angst, I walked back to take a look at my work and almost fell over. You think I’m going to say that my personal turmoil allowed me to discover a hidden talent, don’t you? Nope. I thought it would look like Picasso; it looked like it was painted by a four-year-old with a paper bag over her head.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Emotional Hyperarousal?]

There were six or seven different scenes on the canvas, depicting different areas of struggle. All bad. I amazed myself with my own bad work. It was so poor that my perfectionistic self laughed and patted my Picasso self on the head, feeling kind of sorry for her. I knew the only way to remedy the situation was to take a big hit off the bong, and write introspective descriptions right next to the connect-the-dot pictures I had painted on the canvas. Then it would look like art.

After I completed my creative prep-work, I started writing with a marker on the painting. I made note of particular thoughts that embodied my pain next to the corresponding picture. I came up with one insight that I carry with me to this day: “It’s either hot or cold for me; there’s no lukewarm.”

It’s so true, and it’s prevalent in every area of my life — what I’m interested in, my moods, how much energy I have, how much patience I practice, I could go on and on. People with ADHD are notoriously “all or nothing.” We don’t really hang out in that neutral, nicely balanced section, which isn’t to say it’s a bad thing. We just have to know how to keep ourselves in balance.

When you live in a state of all or nothing, achieving balance resembles a person running from one end of a teeter-totter to the other. There’s not much balance in there. Maybe a little bit right when you hit the center of the teeter-totter, but as people with ADHD, that’s not what we’re looking for. The trick is to never stay on one side for too long before you change directions. As long as you know when to take off for the other side, you are successfully practicing the art of balance, which keeps angst to a minimum and a sight-deprived four-year-old’s artwork safely off the streets.

[Free Download: Get a Grip on Tough Emotions]