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I got a lot of questions about my ADHD journey on Instagram. On the surface, I’m far from the poster child of the Adderall generation. I’m a woman, for one, with a lot of balls in the air, making it look easy to juggle it all.
Let me tell you, dear reader, the only reason it looks easy is because I know my limits and I know my brain.
So today, I want to talk about ADHD and why it has been both a gift and a curse in my life. Most importantly, I’m hoping it can help some of you who are considering getting tested for ADHD yourselves.
When was I diagnosed with ADHD?
I was diagnosed with the learning disability Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in 2012. My therapist suggested I get tested at my second therapy session and I thought she was nuts. I did well in school, I was running a pretty successful side job with Wit & Delight, and I was always working hard at something. I wasn’t lazy! I didn’t procrastinate! I was a go-getter!
How did I know something was “wrong”?
I got above average grades in college but floundered in standardized testing. Once I launched my business, I couldn’t keep up with email, small tasks, scheduling, and finalizing details. It overwhelmed me to the point I almost closed down W&D in 2012.
A couple of things I listed out in a journal one night:
- I know something “isn’t right.”
- I’m struggling with reading—my mind will wander while I’m continuing to read.
- I couldn’t help but guess on multiple-choice tests.
- I’m really struggling with time and efficiency.
- I’m now having failures at work due to small, overlooked details.
- I’m trying SO HARD to keep life together, but I’m continually losing my keys, my purse, my rent check, my backpack.
How did I get tested?
I went to the recommended clinic for a 90-minute evaluation where I stared at a screen in a dark room, in a very comfortable chair, and clicked a button every time I was supposed to. For 45 minutes, I clicked if a black box appeared above a line, and didn’t if it appeared below a line.
I thought I passed with flying colors. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t.)
The specialist came in, lowered his glasses, and said, “So—you DID go to college? How did you do?”
I told him I graduated at the top of my class.
He said he asked because with scores like mine, they usually don’t see college graduates.
I burst into tears. Mostly because I’d known, in my gut, something was off. And this was it.
For the sake of time, let’s fast forward though my denial, refusal of treatment, and lots of self-sabatoge.
When I started to understand what was going on in my brain, things started to make a lot more sense. I’m hoping that by sharing this information with you, I can help you get a better understanding for yourself or for your loved one, because it is NOT EASY to be in a relationship with someone who has ADHD!
Let’s start with the clinical definition of ADHD
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has three core features: hyperactivity, impulsivity, and symptoms of inattention. The third area is often missed in kids and is diagnosed instead in adulthood, because they don’t have the hyperactivity component.
Signs of ADHD in adults
Disorganization, difficulty with details, difficulty remembering what you need to do, and difficulty doing things that bore you or are tedious. It is, at times, truly impossible to get your brain to activate enough to get it done.
ADHD is different than simply being easily distracted. Imaging scans show that physiologically, people with ADHD are different. The brains of people with ADHD develop differently than those who don’t have the disorder. We can’t see time into the future as we should.
The biggest misconception about people with ADHD
The most shaming word used to describe someone with ADHD is “lazy” because most of us are working 2-3x harder to do very simple things like remembering to put a check in the mail. The reason so many people don’t understand the struggle is that behaviorally, the struggle isn’t visible. It seems like it should be so simple to fix. Yes, there are a ton of basic organization tactics that work for people like us, but getting to the point where we can even use these tools is a huge undertaking.
The most shaming word used to describe someone with ADHD is “lazy” because most of us are working 2-3x harder to do very simple things like remembering to put a check in the mail. The reason so many people don’t understand the struggle is that behaviorally, the struggle isn’t visible. It seems like it should be so simple to fix.
This is because ADHD is primarily executive dysfunction. This area of the brain is the prefrontal cortex—the part responsible for planning, organizing, task initiation, and sustaining focus. It’s responsible for goal-oriented behavior and for part of our emotional self-regulation. With ADHD, when you have a long to-do list, it doesn’t register enough in your brain to take action.
Why so many people think they have ADHD
When you have ADHD and you hear someone say “Everyone has it,” it is invalidating to your experience. BUT it’s true that everyone has some of the features that are associated with the disorder, sometimes. The symptoms of ADHD can feel familiar to a lot of people who don’t have ADHD. We all have these issues to some extent, but how do they manifest differently for someone with ADHD?
The difference is that ADHD is not a sometimes disorder. For those of us who have it, the symptoms impact every domain of our lives and follow us everywhere, always.
How do I manage the disorder?
With healthy food, exercise, a lot of water, and a lot of sleep. And with an entire system of productivity tools including an Apple Watch to help me keep track of time throughout the day, our Stay on Track Notepad to help me prioritize tasks every week, and Atomic Habits by James Clear, the book that helped me completely shift my approach to work and life.
I was on Adderall on and off for a couple of years but found that building new habits around understanding how my brain worked did what no pill could ever promise.
Ok. Now that we have all the personal stuff out of the way….
ADHD is not an excuse
It’s not an excuse and you shouldn’t use it as an excuse, but you should use it as a place to start understanding how you can do things differently.
I’ve made some SERIOUS mistakes when I was responsible for lower-level, detail-oriented work. You have to own those mistakes. Having ADHD isn’t an excuse, and these mistakes are an opportunity to look for ways to work that help you.
For me, that means a couple of of things:
- Give yourself time.
- Create excitement and motivation. A lot of us like to procrastinate for this reason. Yet if your work or life gets too out of control, you won’t be able to finish the work without the fear of failing (not healthy).
- Make your environment work for you.
- Communicate and help others help you.
ADHD is both a gift and a burden
I was talking to an ADHD specialist about how “awesome” my fast brain is, and he paused to challenge me on it. He said, “If it is a gift then why would insurance reimburse for it?”
That got me thinking about my relationship with the diagnosis. I went from apologizing and shaming myself for it to saying it was the best thing in the world?
As it turns out, it is both.
People with ADHD have gifts. We also have to learn how to manage the disorder; how to manage where our gifts allow us to shine. We can easily go deep into our “zone of genius” and avoid doing the tasks necessary to make sure our work gets out into the world. My advice? Look at what you’re good at and try to drive toward it. When you have ADHD—or any disadvantage—you have to bend the world to you.
People with ADHD have gifts. We also have to learn how to manage the disorder; how to manage where our gifts allow us to shine. We can easily go deep into our “zone of genius” and avoid doing the tasks necessary to make sure our work gets out into the world.
My advice? Look at what you’re good at and try to drive toward it. When you have ADHD—or any disadvantage—you have to bend the world to you. You can’t just try harder. You have to create a life that works with your unique needs. This means advocating for yourself, re-parenting yourself, building new habits, and coming to both accept and understand how you are different.
Be sure to stay tuned for our interview with Dr. Anna Roth on ADHD this week, going live on Wednesday, October 23rd on The Wit & Delight Podcast. Subscribe on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to your podcasts!
Kate is currently learning to play the Ukulele, much to the despair of her husband, kids, and dog. Follow her on Instagram at @witanddelight_.