Brain Things

At the beginning of 2020, I was formally diagnosed with ADHD, also known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

There we go. Now it’s out in the world.

Like many others, I’d always associated the term “ADHD” with the “H” part: hyperactive, uncontrollable, school-aged boys. The unfortunately specific “H” in the acronym has a lot to do with this, as well as the lack of research and understanding into the condition – not to mention how differently it presents in girls and women.

I’ve never been successful in a regular learning environment, where someone talks at you and you’re expected to remember what they said. Even though I love to read, it takes 2–3 (sometimes more) passes over a paragraph before I’m able to retain any of it. If I’m not deeply interested in something, it’s actually impossible for me to fake interest. I lose things all the time. My working memory is terrible. Oh, you want to talk to me for an hour about someone I’ve never met? Watch my eyes glaze over. I go elsewhere in my brain.

The first “D” in ADHD is also confusing. I don’t have a deficit of attention – I have too much of it, and I constantly struggle to figure out where to aim it. If I’m in a café and there’s a conversation at a nearby table, I can’t give my full attention to the person I’m supposed to be listening to, no matter how hard I try – my brain wants to listen to everyone in the room. The smallest things grab and hold on to my attention at the worst times – uncomfortable shoes, TV conversations, repetitive sounds, the bassline of music being played nearby.

It takes at least half an hour to get into a focused state, so workdays full of meetings generally shoot my productivity out the window. But once I’m focused on one thing – assuming I’m interested in the thing I’m focusing on – good luck trying to distract me! I totally lose track of time. A skewed experience of time is yet another symptom of ADHD, and it’s heightened when I’m in a flow state. It’s impossible to pull me away once I’m sucked in. I’ve been late to many meetings because I don’t even notice the reminder dinging loudly at me when I’m focused on something else.

Now, it’s true that these are all things that everyone experiences from time to time, but with ADHD, they’re far more severe, and happen consistently. I have to actively manage these symptoms. If I don’t, my relationships will suffer, and I’ll probably get fired from my job.

Since age 16 I’ve been on various medications for depression and anxiety. Over that period, I’ve learned how to manage my mental health reasonably well, both personally and professionally, but I still found it exhausting to deal with the acute, debilitating intensity of emotion that I frequently experience.

I’ve always known that I feel things more than others – and this is both good and bad. During a depressive episode, shit gets really dark. Like, really dark. But when I’m happy, it’s really hard to bring me down. I’m giddy. I become childlike in my enthusiasm. I frequently cry tears of joy. I can’t shut up once I start talking about something that I’m passionate about. And once I’m back to some kind of “normal”, I think about all the things I blurted out without a filter, and I cringe. I want to disappear. I retreat into a ball of anxiety all over again. I obsess over my own behavior, because sometimes my behavior feels outside of my control. I beat myself up, swear to never do it again – and then I do it all over again.

Lo and behold: these are all symptoms of ADHD, too. Depression and anxiety are very often symptoms of undiagnosed ADHD, especially in women. General emotional dysregulation is an almost universal symptom of ADHD, but isn’t discussed very much because it’s not part of the diagnostic criteria.

All of these things I’d struggled with, and lived with, have always been treatable – I’d just been treating the symptoms instead of the cause.

So, here I am, at 35 years old, being told that I’ve been treated and medicated for the wrong things for almost 20 years. And the more I research ADHD, the more I realize that I was overly focused on the emotional dysregulation. I would only seek out mental health support when severely depressed, and I wasn’t zooming out and looking at the whole picture. All of these little things that I had believed were just weaknesses, quirks of my personality, failings, or (occasionally) strengths? They’re all related. They’re all part of the way my brain works.

I thought I’d put the puzzle together – in reality, I was missing more than half of the pieces.

The diagnosis changed my life. I’m on the lowest dose of antidepressants that I’ve been on since I was initially prescribed. I’ve learned that daily exercise is non-negotiable. When it’s time to work out, I jokingly tell Jesse that it’s time for me to take my ADHD meds. When I’m feeling sick and can’t exercise, it’s a unique kind of hell. I can feel my brain getting more and more dysregulated.

I still have a long way to go. I’ve only now started working on managing my brain in a way that’s appropriate to the problem. I have a ton of work to do on my ability to sleep well without sedatives, and that needs to come first before I even consider ADHD medication. I’ve got an appointment with a therapist that specializes in ADHD, and I’m hoping to learn more about myself, acquire strategies for managing my condition, and amplify my strengths.

Here’s the thing I believe about ADHD: It’s not really a disorder. At least, I don’t think so. It’s just a different operating system for the brain, different wiring, a different experience of the world, and different ways of thinking and expressing ourselves. Imagine trying to bake a chocolate cake using apple pie ingredients – all it does is create more problems that pile up on each other the longer you keep following the cake instructions. It either ends in total disaster, or takes a lot of work to figure out what was wrong in the first place.

I also think there are a lot more of us than people realize.

When my last therapist gently mentioned that I must be sad about all the years I’ve spent with the wrong diagnoses, treating the wrong things, taking the wrong medication, I was unable to share her regret or sadness in the moment.

All I could feel was excitement, because suddenly, my future became bright, with endless possibilities.

I just need to find the right recipe. Once I do that, I’ll be unstoppable.