A lot has happened since the last time I wrote a blog post. Well, a whole summer has happened, really, and it amazed me how difficult it was adjusting to a new camp or activity every week. And then, as I began learning more about ADHD to help my son, I began to realize that I, also, have ADHD–and like him, and like my father, my intelligence has been hiding it from me.
Unlike my son, I am not a whirling dervish of energy. In fact, the last few years I have struggled with chronic fatigue, and as I wrangled the food intolerances and medication side effects that caused most of the fatigue, my motivation to do almost anything that wasn’t urgent seemed to disappear. Also, unlike him, I’m not impulsive. I’ve hardly been able to act on any of my ideas (although I do seem to have a lot of them). I have excellent attention to detail. I’m very organized and live and die by my Outlook calendar. So how could I have ADHD?
ADHD is often comorbid with anxiety. And in me, anxiety fuels perfectionism. When you are secretly afraid that people you love might become depressed and die if you make a mistake, you force yourself to triple-check everything, and you follow the rules as much as you can.
The ADHD brain is filled with new ideas. If your brain is constantly coming up with new ideas, but you’re afraid ever to make a mistake, you don’t act on those ideas.You don’t do much.
People with ADHD have difficulty with executive functioning: making decisions, figuring out how to break down a project into manageable steps, getting started. If you’re not sure how to prioritize, you never get started on anything. The less you get done, the less motivated you feel.
I am also smart (and constantly beat myself up for not getting more done given how smart I am). Some of my intelligence has gone into designing organizational systems for myself that keep me on track. So I didn’t know I had ADHD because I was using my intelligence to compensate, but I didn’t feel intelligent because managing my ADHD takes up a lot of my brain power.
Reading books about ADHD was more helpful at first in dealing with my son than with myself. Understanding that it’s normal that he zones out sometimes when I talk to him, or that he forgets to do things, or that he is impulsive, helps me cut him a little slack when I see these things happening. When he gets angry at my gentle nagging, I try to point out what he’s good at so he remembers his gifts, too.
I have some bad mental habits when it comes to myself. I am not used to cutting myself slack. And of course it’s harder to have perspective on my foibles than on someone else’s.
For a couple of weeks, I walked around with my mind blown. So that’s why I’m bad at that, I’d think, or Shouldn’t I be bad at this, too? or Huh, I never noticed how hard it is for me to sit down and stay seated when I have an idea, or Am I really creative and innovative like they say? or What if I don’t actually have ADHD and I just think I do because it’s something new and shiny I’m learning about? (Oh, wait, being attracted to new and shiny things is basically a red flag for ADHD….)
Now I’m starting to be able to cut myself slack. I understand that the Chair of Doom (a chair in the living room that ends up holding a lot of crap because it’s near the door to the garage) is a common problem for women with ADHD. I accept that there will always be a pile of papers somewhere that I don’t quite know what to do with. I’m starting to design new systems to thwart my indecisiveness: open the mail all at once when I’m ready to deal with it; instantly recycle things that are unnecessary into a large bin I keep around for a while in case I need something in it; make sure I have boxes lying around to hold things I’ve decided to donate to Goodwill.
I’ve also started medication. After a couple of colossal failures with drugs that mostly just made me extremely tired, I’m now on a low dose of a stimulant. While I’m on it, my impulse-quashing anxiety fades, the anxiety that’s apparently been in the background of my mind my whole life, and suddenly I can do tasks that come to mind without worrying that I am doing the wrong thing or feeling overwhelmed about how complicated it all is or how many other damn things I also have to do. In other words, I can focus. I feel slightly more impulsive, which is a little strange, but it’s just because I’m not stifled by my own worries.
Unfortunately, when the medication wears off, I get a bit of a rebound, and the anxiety comes back a bit stronger. The first few days, after my medication wore off, I felt exhausted, like I had just borrowed energy and then had to give it back.
Even stranger to me was something I’d read a bit about in ADHD books but never fully understood until a couple of days into taking the stimulant. After it wore off, I noticed I felt blue. I felt I didn’t know my purpose in life, or what I’m good at. I felt like I didn’t quite fit in the world.
Here’s the thing: I have felt that same existential angst as long as I can remember, and in the past few years, it’s gotten worse. But while I was on the stimulant, that feeling disappeared. I felt, not euphoric, but okay. Normal, somehow. The angst I’ve always felt was gone, like it wasn’t even necessary.
It was quite disorienting the first few times I experienced this. Something I thought was a fundamental part of my personality, questioning my own existence and purpose… was perhaps just a malfunctioning biochemical switch in my brain? Who the hell am I, anyway? And where has this medication been all my life?!
Since starting the medication, I’ve been taking walks each morning in the parks near my house. I’ve been making lists of small annoying tasks that have been dogging me, and then doing them one by one. I’ve signed up for a writing class that I think will help me get back on track with my book. I’m still a bit scattered. I still get distracted. I still get sucked into video games a little more than I think is helpful. But I feel less overwhelmed, at least while the stimulant is in effect. (My psychiatrist has upped my prescription and changed my schedule of doses so we smooth out some of those peaks and valleys.) I feel hopeful and productive.
My son and I joke about how we like the new Mommy, the one with energy. I like being less of a mombie (a mom zombie), which has felt like my default state for the past several years. Change feels more possible because I am able to change a bit at a time, instead of falling into my previous narrative of Perfection or Death.
These are still very early days with this stimulant. But it’s already taught me some valuable lessons about who I am, who I’m not, and what it means to be myself.