The Emotional Side

The Secrets That We Keep

Every day, I’m destined to take a misstep of one kind or another. These hiccups — no matter how brief or minor — get stuck like bubble gum on the bottom of my mental shoe. They fester and corrode my own self-image with time. They are invisible and impossible to explain, and just one of the many ADHD secrets I keep hidden from absolutely everyone.

What is ADHD like? A carousel spinning out of control.
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What is ADHD Like?

In my mind, the world is a carousel spinning by me so fast that I can’t jump on. The outside me seems poised to jump, but the inside me is paralyzed with fear.

Why? My ADHD symptoms have tripped and injured me before, and I know they’ll do it again — probably before sundown. My best defense (and often my only one) is to cloak the real me, to hide it under layers of posturing and lies and silence.

Here are the ADHD secrets I keep from everyone, sometimes even myself, and the reasons why I’ll take them to my grave.

What is ADHD like? A lone woman standing in a misty underground tunnel
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1. I am the great pretender.

What is ADHD like? I live in the shadows, obscured and muted for fear I’ll be exposed as an impostor — as someone pretending to be a person she is not. On the outside, my façade shows a hard-working, high-functioning go-getter. What no one sees is the hell I go through to become that strong, capable woman each day.

No one knows how hard I struggle to align the true, ‘inside me’ with the rhythm of the day. When the battles overwhelm me, I have to stop everything I’m doing, sit down, place my phone out of sight, and just breathe. Only then do I realize how fast my insides are quivering — how keeping up this charade drains me physically and emotionally.

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2. I am hyper, but you’ll never see it.

As a woman with ADHD, my hyperactivity doesn’t show. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t raging inside of me. That doesn’t mean I’m not experiencing real physiological stress — my heart beating fast with every negative thought that enters my mind.

No one can see the movie that’s playing inside my mind — the one that terrifies me into a state of panic. Uncontrollable thoughts are rapidly speeding through my mind. With invisible deflector shields, I fight off these unwanted, intrusive thoughts. You never see a thing, but I’m totally exhausted by it all.

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

A woman with ADHD hides under the covers when the world is too much.
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3. I’m a quitter who looks like a finisher.

Some days, the pain and suffering mounts and I feel like everything is just too much to handle. I quit. I’m done. I’m out of here. But then I re-adjust and remember my hard-wrought ADHD coping mechanisms.

I know I’m not really going to quit, even when I say I am. When I’m in the middle of a bombardment, I’m sure I will never be able to finish what I’m doing. But that’s when I picture myself far away, in another world void of this world’s problems and challenges. When I’m mentally ready, I return to get the job done.

A broken heart on a wooden background
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4. There’s no rock bottom.

A high tolerance for pain is good for many things in life. But when you have ADHD, a high tolerance for discomfort may mean accepting the unacceptable. When my survival instincts kick in, I dream up clever work-arounds, but never solutions to repair the initial (often irresponsible) problem fueling my heartache.

Something, maybe pride or fear, keeps me from asking for help — even for those whom I love. I stand by helplessly, watching my loved ones stumble, fall, and hurt themselves repeatedly. They don’t realize that one small choice could change the direction of their lives completely. A substance abuser knows the source of their harmful behavior; a person with ADHD usually doesn’t. It’s easier to get an addict to rehab than it is to convince someone with ADHD to get help.

A woman with ADHD sits and reads with a cat on her lap.
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5. I need time alone every day.

Sometimes the only way I can find a balance between my body and mind is to remove myself from other people. Please don’t take it personally. I need a private space to clear my mind.

As a teenager, I spent hours alone in my room, unable to deal with the stress of the world around me. As I’ve matured, I have built up a higher tolerance. But solitary time is still a necessary part of my day. I no longer feel selfish or guilty for taking this time for myself. I know that if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of anyone else. I know that healthy self-care is not an option; it is a requirement.

A lonely woman with ADHD sits alone in a coffee shop.
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6. I’m lonely because I’m different.

I’ve always known I was different. A weird feeling of separation comes from knowing that my thoughts never match those of anyone else — that I’m always on a different wavelength.

I listen and watch people socialize, and I can't figure out how they do it. What could they possibly be talking about? How could it be so interesting? I’m fine interacting in a close relationship that feels safe and secure. But when I'm in a group, I’m instantly bored by any conversation that isn’t profoundly philosophical — which is to say, I’m pretty much always bored to tears.

[Free Download: Get a Grip on Tough Emotions]

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7. Anxiety is easy to hide, but impossible to ignore.

Anxiety is my shadow. It follows me wherever I go. When I’m in panic mode, the people around me will not notice anything unusual — unless I’m hysterical (which has happened a few times). They’re clueless.

I make up lies and excuses, for example, to explain why I can’t drive an hour away to meet friends. For years, traveling anywhere was unthinkable. Even my closest friends don’t know why I sometimes hide behind closed doors. They don’t know that anxiety can keep me indoors for days, shielded from an overwhelming world that includes them.

Paper cutout family split apart on a paper heart - divorce concept
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8. I know what lurks on the inside, and it scares me.

I was once married to a nice, funny, kind-hearted guy. He’d help a stranger in a wheelchair cross a busy intersection. He once stayed by the side of a frightened elderly man who fell outside a restaurant. He made people laugh like a comedian in a stand-up club. Together, we made a sport-loving, athletic, fun-oriented family that loved tennis, bike rides, and walks on the beach.

Outside, he was a great dad. Inside was another story. I never knew which version of him would walk in the door after work. If it was a good day, I was safe. If not, I’d get out of the way and prepare myself for a dramatic, chaotic, and over-reactive stranger — and the rages that scared our kids into the fetal position under their covers.

Most jobs didn’t last long. It was always someone else’s fault. The boss was a jerk. The company didn’t know what they were doing. He knew a better way. As much as I begged him, he wouldn’t agree to get the help we needed to save our marriage. After years of begging, it was finally over.

An illustration of a brain with a tornado inside: what it feels like to have ADHD
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9. I struggle to calm a persistent tornado of irritability.

Inside of me churns an invisible friction — an internal disturbance that tosses and twists my emotions like the inside of a washing machine. I know this about myself and I take extreme care to settle down when the churning begins.

Some days I’m mindful through yoga, long walks, or sitting quietly in nature. And other times, I sit mindlessly watching TV. If I don’t spend enough quiet time alone, the agitation grows. When I get too wound up, I can’t calm down.

A woman with ADHD carries a huge pile of laundry to the ironing board.
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10. I can’t see what’s right in front of me.

Squinting, blinking, I try hard to focus. Still, I often can’t see the things right in front of me. It's distressing, disturbing, and, at times, scary. Whether it’s the words on a page, apps on my phone, or laundry that needs to be put away — I know it’s there, but it doesn’t register in my brain.

As a result, little messes pile up all around me — hampers of clothes, stacks of paper, baskets of receipts and coupons, and probably bills to pay — but I don't see them. My piles used to be bigger, but ADHD coaching has helped me become more aware of what gets in my way. I'm slowly working to clear my environment, pay attention to problem areas, and broaden my visual field.

A woman with ADHD hides her face behind her hands in embarassment
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11. I’d rather not talk, thank you very much.

I’m afraid to speak. I can’t count how many times I've hurt people's feelings when I thought I was being funny, cute, or witty. How did they misperceive my sense of humor?

I never intend to hurt anyone. I always think they’ll laugh, too. But things have gone so wrong so many times that I’m now afraid to be myself. Maybe being myself isn't such a great thing to be, I think. I don't trust my own thoughts or words. I hold back and avoid situations where I might say something hurtful again.

A woman with ADHD reaches toward the sun.
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12. I get stuck in an infinite loop.

Every day, I’m destined to take a misstep of one kind or another. These hiccups — no matter how brief or minor — get stuck like bubble gum on the bottom of my mental shoe.

I cannot remove the emotional gunk stuck to my brain. Unresolved conflicts fester and eat away at me. I shouldn’t have done that. Why did he say that? If harsh words were spoken — whether mine or someone else’s — an agonizing discomfort lingers until I find a way to reframe the situation. That’s when I have no choice but to let it all go. I take a deep breath and connect to my other self— the me who doesn't appreciate and love herself enough.

[How to Banish Negative Thoughts & Feelings]

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      1. I have said almost all of these things at one time or another. Most days I wish I could just stop the merry go round from spinning so I can jump off. I often feel like I’m a fraud or pretending that I have my act together. However, on most days I’m sure that it will become evident to everyone that I shouldn’t be trusted to manage a business. I’m in the process of opening a satellite office that will cost about six million dollars, and the stress of dropping the ball or screwing it up is enough to make me physically ill. At home, the “Welcome” sign on my front door mocks me because as much as I’d love to welcome guests to my house, it’s a hot mess. I’m terrified you will show up unannounced. My family deserves better; my employer deserves better. I’m trying my hardest, but more often than not, I feel like a giant failure.

  1. Sounds just like my life, but at least I know that it has an actual name instead of going year after year not knowing exactly what was going on with me. I can especially relate to calmness on the inside and feeling lonely a lot.

  2. Thank you for sharing ! I have never before read such a detailed and clear description that mirrors almost totally what I too experience. I have and still at age 68 feel guilt for wanting to be alone to regroup and recharge. I am planning on sharing your insights with my family and close friends with the hope that they gain a better understanding of my inner life in the world of hyperactivity. Thank you again.

  3. Oh dear…. I feel exactly the same in every letter of what you said but with an aggravating: after 2 pregnancies in a row and being on maternity leave for a while I’m finding extremely difficult to get my brain back to work and all these symptoms described by you get so much worse in my every day at work… I wanna know where my mojo has gone…

  4. Sugar me..this is me..i never intend to hurt anyone in my family. I dont want to a burden to anyone, i want to contribute the best may i can.why feel think so much..i have so much drive but..inside is the fear of myself quitting. Why so hard..i have childreni need to focus on, i also want some self fullfillment, i want everyone around me happy. Am i being unrealistic? I make sure my dreams align to what is possible plus hardwork and commitment. Im my own worst enemy.

  5. Aaaand, this is why anxiety (as well as depression) are the two most common co-disorders of ADDH. Learning how to cope with ADHD is one thing. Learning how to cope with the Anxiety (or depression) is a whole different ball game that many docs don’t seem to deal with. Or worse, they treat anxiety and not the ADHD.

  6. Dang! I hit the “Enter” key before I was ready!

    June, You are the BEST at describing those inner thoughts and feelings. Talk about feeling like a fake! I have been an attorney for 20 years and I used to be afraid of people finding out. I have come to a point where I don’t care if people know about my ADHD. Not long ago, I was about 15 minutes late for court. I had at least had the presence of mind to phone ahead and tell the judge’s judicial assistant that I was running late.

    When I finally got to court, the judge said, “Mr. Sullivan, Why are you late?”

    I said, “Your Honor, I don’t have a good excuse – ADHD.”

    He said, “We all have that nowadays.” Of course, he probably thought that I was just being funny. However, he didn’t chew me out.

    I have told many of my colleagues about my ADHD. Most of them at least look at me like they understand, but many times, I can tell that they don’t. They think that I’m just giving an excuse for my scatter-brained ways.

    I can’t advise everyone to be as open as I am about their ADHD. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. But at my age (59 years old), I’ve just found that truthfulness works for me.

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