I originally wrote this on medium, but the ADHD Hub seems like the place for it. I've made a few edits and updates since then.
A couple of months ago, something both terrible and wonderful happened. There was an amazing twitter thread about ADHD, and all the things that come with it. I read it with interest, because I wasn’t even really aware that adult ADHD was a thing, and I had so many misconceptions about it.
As I scrolled through the tweets in that thread, I started to cry. So many of what I considered to be my worst failings, traits and problems were being discussed by countless others, nodding in agreement, things that I’d never even connected. A whole self-loathing narrative I’d built for myself over the years about these perceived failings, (lazy, doesn’t care, forgetful, thoughtless, afraid of feedback), came crashing down and emotional flood gates opened.
I asked “Could I have ADHD?”
So I wrote my own thread. Not replying to the original … I was scared and nervous, and recounted my own experiences, that I felt this might be ADHD, and put it out there for my twitter friends to see. I was terrified, but people were accepting an supportive and so many people I knew I didn’t realise were dealing with this and had great suggestions and advice, and offers of support.
It’s been a time for throwing away a lot of my preconceived ideas about how my mind worked, and I now a month later, I’m writing this having reflected on things for a time.
“So much potential”
So many folks I’ve spoken to lament this one, and it was a common refrain during school for me.
I seemed to be a bright enough kid in school, but not necessarily the most productive one. I was the one that the teacher said marched to the sound of their own drum, the one that the teacher lamented “If only they’d apply themselves they could be so much more”.
My teachers thought that I was smart and perhaps I was in terms of brain smarts, but I soon became tired of the relentless protestations from them that I needed to try harder, to apply myself more, that I had so much potential. It was frustrating, because I wasn’t trying to skive off or coast through school, I was struggling!
I was trying, but it was so damned hard to keep focus. Reading texts was terrible exercise where I forced myself to keep my place with a ruler or bookmark, grudgingly feeding the words in whilst it felt like my eyes wanted to roll back in their sockets, and I became restless and twitchy. I was lucky if even 25% of it stuck, as soon as my attention moved on from one sentence it felt like it flitted away like a bird on a breeze. Absorbing information was terribly
hit and miss.
After a time, you learn to focus on meeting expectations, because apparently that’s all that matters in school. I worked towards what was needed in the moment to satisfy people, to force myself to work harder than I suspect the other kids were, to pretend like everything was normal, and I wasn’t struggling, when I was.
So often I found it so much easier to be “sick”, so that I could have a break from the constant struggle that school provided. I suspect people knew that I was faking it sometimes, but I didn’t know how else to deal, and if I was sick it gave me some breathing room, and perhaps an extension to get some work done in, and also removed some of the distraction.
I honestly really hated the class room with all the noise, and kids joking and laughing and not taking things seriously, while I was struggling just to tread water. I felt like they didn’t care and they had it easy.
The irony was my grades were OK for the subjects I enjoyed, and mediocre for others. At the end of high school, in spite of how bad I was feeling, I managed to get an OK score, by focusing in VCE on subjects that I was really interested in and carried additional weight to balance the poor ones. Luckily I generally did well in exams. Time pressure seems to help me perform.
I’d found other ways to make assignments interesting, but not without consequences. In English class, I was asked to write an essay on fame, so I put fame on trial in a court, with witnesses being called, one of which to my then enthusiasm was C64 Musician Jeroen Tel, whom I gave some wonderful enlightening dialogue about it’s perils and pitfalls. I idolized them at the time.
Unfortunately for me, the teacher thought it was a wonderful and inventive approach to storytelling, and made me read out the whole thing (all 8 pages) to the rest the class. I was mercilessly mocked by people for this, as you might imagine. At the time, in the moment, I was excited to write it and it showed, but it embarrassed me and I soon learnt to curb my enthusiasm somewhat.
“I have no plan, just a fire extinguisher and it’s now or never”
Assignments, tasks projects. Words I learnt to hate. A lot of things were just hard to figure out how to start, and that included studying, assignments and even personal tasks.
For an average run-of-the-mill neurotypical person, they can look at the pile of tasks, or a large task like writing an assignment, and can break it logically down to a sequence of things that need to be done. I am here, and I need to be there. Their brain spits out a series of directions like Google Maps, and says “Do A, then do B, and then arrive at C”.
My mind sometimes cannot literally figure out how to get started on something, instead seeing all of tasks as if they are equally important or not important at all. It feels like picking one is to the detriment of others, and I literally cannot prioritise them — they all need to be done now or never.
Sometimes I would force myself to pick something but it would be an illogical place to start, leading to the obvious (to others) critique “Why are you starting with that? It doesn’t make sense, you need X, Y, and Z first.”. Again, frustration that something so obvious to others eluded me. Head meet desk.
“Is that today? F…”
Often this resulted in me not starting at all, until a task either becomes less important to others (Yay!), or becomes a sudden terrible thing filling my world with dread. I suddenly have a task looming that is due, or worse, overdue, that my distracted brain has completely kicked to the curb, for want of knowing how to start.
If I’m lucky at this point, I can pull things out my ass and hit a deadline at the last moment, but often it’s driven by adrenaline, and the prospect that my failure to do so will create massive personal consequences — doing the thing becomes do or die, an emergency in the now to be dealt with. Usually this is a fear of embarrassment or failure which is it’s whole own can of worms I will talk about further below.
I spent many a day at university, starting at 3am writing a paper which was due 5pm that day, because it became the most urgent attention grabbing thing in my periphery, the dumpster fire most demanding of my attention. That I’d done nothing about it until the immediate urgency set in was something that perpetually frustrated me, and continues to frustrate me to this day, even in a work setting, as sometimes things literally have to be on fire for me to be able to focus on them.
“Sorry, I was just dealing with something important and lost track of time…”
That’s not to say I always lack focus, sometimes when something excites me so much, it’s the only thing I can see or do, and becomes a complete overriding fixation. When I’m like this, no amount of prodding is going to get me to shift my focus until I become bored or distracted with what I’m doing, or literally exhausted from putting all my focus and energy into it. So I leave a trail of abandoned half baked projects in my wake, that previously excited me but lost their lustre.
It’s amazingly easy for something new and novel to jump into my periphery like a demented squirrel and suddenly pow, I’m down some rabbit hole learning about an obscure topic, or completely engrossed in some task that my brain suddenly decided was interesting and important.
To me, interesting is the same as important.
That important thing can take many and varied forms; sometimes that might be the need to draw, or write poetry, or understand and learn about a fascinating topic, and at that moment it is the only thing my brain absolutely considers the most important thing.
A big consequence of this, when it happens, is that all of a sudden I’m completely oblivious to my previous obligations, plans or schedule (if I had them at all). Sometimes this was as simple as calling into a Video call to discuss something with a colleague. But all I have is now, and all I see is now, and not that meeting in 5 minutes I really, really, need to attend.
So suddenly I look at the clock, and it is ten minutes into a meeting that I haven’t joined, and I panic, feel stupid, dial in sheepishly, and apologise that I got waylaid on an important task. What I don’t want to say is “Sorry something else completely took over my focus, and it pushed your meeting out of my mind”. The task may not have really been important to anyone, except my brain in that moment, and it may never be important again.
“The most dependable non-dependable person I know…”
Given that my brain seems to only be able to focus on, and deal with the immediately urgent and pressing, I found an interesting conundrum. Whilst I was terrible at accomplishing planned and structured tasks, I was considered by my colleagues to be a great person to have in an emergency, someone who could think on their feet when it was necessary to solve problems in a pinch.
This lead me into the world of Ops for a time, where these were some useful skills to have. I was once told by my boss during an high severity incident, that they were glad I was on-call because I got things done when it mattered. Believe me the irony of this adulation was not lost on me one bit, since I failed at dealing with tasks that others would find trivial to accomplish.
Don’t rely on me to remember your birthday, but I will be there to pull your ass out of the flames. Reliable and unreliable at the same time, Schrodinger’s brain.
“Let’s ride the emotional roller coaster”
Those little tasks I was meant to be doing never really go away, and I’ve learned in adulthood that’s what waking up at 5am is for — thinking about all the things you need to do to keep your head above water.
During my last job doing full stack development on fast paced project, every am was spent lamenting the things not done, the obligations not fulfilled — push push push. I was pulled up for lacking sufficient velocity at one point during a particularly difficult time. This had the bonus effect of making me terrified and almost non-functional due to emotional stress and overload. I was terrified in my job, terrified of getting help, and drowning.
If all this sounds like a bit of a stressful way of living, you’d be right. I constantly live in fear of failure, being chastised and told off for messing up even when I might be doing a good job. I’ve learnt to fear feedback, to the point where I can become paralysed by what people might say or do, playing through several catastrophic scenarios in my mind. This has led me to fear soliciting feedback as, or even putting myself up for judgement.
This creates a feedback loop. Actively avoiding feedback, but prone to misinterpreting instructions, getting distracted and going off the reservation. I was avoiding the one thing that could help me stay on mission.
I’ve learnt this has a name, Rejection Sensitivity, and is pretty common in folks with ADHD.
If I forget to respond to a colleagues email, it can become almost impossible to do so as I fear consequences real or imagined that might result from the interaction. Of course like interest on a loan, it compounds, and the longer one goes not responding, the less likely I am to be able to respond. This feeling or perceived failure, an expectation of failure and foreboding came to colour my days and interactions.
Even reading too much into an email from a colleague, or a meeting request with no explanation. Does my colleague hate me because of something I did, or because of something I failed to do? Is that meeting because everyone realised I’m faking it through life, and I’m not competent to hold my position? I guarantee you I’ve played out every scenario, with every interaction you’ve ever had with me, and my brain always sees disaster, unless you make it clear that it’s not a bad thing.
You see, I’m dealing with feelings of failure before I’ve even set my mind to the task you’ve given me. When these feelings overtake me, I can’t think, can barely breath with a knot in my chest and all I can do is turn it all over and over and over in my mind, around and around, feeling trapped and helpless.
Heaven help me if I asked you something in an email, and you responded with “OK.” Just “OK.”. Is that angry “OK”, or happy “OK”. Did you use caps because I was late with that patching report? Was there something else I did to solicit “OK”
Last month I was so far into avoiding emails due to stress/RSD, that I completely missed our gas bill.
“Drink from the fire-hose of excitement if you dare”
I feel other things strongly too, that’s the flip side. I mentioned the enthusiasm and excitement I threw into that essay. Sometimes I can become so thrilled and excited by something that I bail people up and talk endlessly about it, gesticulate wildly as your eyes slowly glaze over, and you look at your watch, and say “Oh, that’s interesting … is that the time, got to dash”. Sometimes, if something has captured my interest, it is everything and I really think you should know about it.
You’re missing out, if you only knew!
After the fact, I always feel so down after I do this and I’ve realised, I feel like I overstep boundaries, and make people feel uncomfortable. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, but you know by now I’m going to think I did.
I can also get fixated and excited at times by people themselves, and that can be weird as well, and I never want to be that creepy person on the internet. It’s not intentional, it’s just me. People can be the subject of interest as well to my brain, and that’s kinda weird. I will get excited, make some excited remark or gesture, and realise that my impulse control has failed me and you think I have two heads.
Sorry if I’ve done this to you, I can honestly say I feel terrible when I realise. Constantly fearing if you are overstepping bounds can make it difficult to make lasting friends.
“I’m always saying sorry, and it never seems like I mean it. But I do.”
I say sorry so much to people, I feel like I’m always apologising, for doing things, for not doing things, for making impulsive decisions, for being weird.
I wish I didn’t need to apologise though. You see, I’m doing my best to accept that my brain just behaves differently to other peoples. I have different driving forces, and it responds differently to stimuli.
I’m not necessarily being lazy if I don’t start a task — Sometimes I don’t know how to start, sometimes I’m terrified to ask, and sometimes I got completely sidetracked by the shiny thing that my brain found more interesting.
To the cherished people and colleagues in my life: I’m not ignoring you as you speak to me — sometimes dozens of thoughts and ideas are all jostling about inside my mind, sometimes something you said triggers me to think about other things. So I might respond to you with something that seems completely out of left field, but I assure you to my mind that it is related to what you said in a round a bout sort of way.
And sometimes I just can’t hold onto what you said — it’s just gone like a little bird, flitting away. Sometimes all I have is fog of too many thoughts and ideas, not seeing any of them clearly. It’s hard to keep a thought nailed to the wall sometimes.
I will put things down and lose them, even if they are right in front of me. I’ll forget about bills, and to call the doctor for you, unless I do it right away. My life is held together with a series of reminder post it notes and hope. I’ve installed a habit tracker app to try and train myself to do things, basic but important things.
I wish I wasn’t this way a lot of the time, and at the same time, those moments where I become so enamoured with a thought or an idea, or discover something new can be amazing. I feel good emotions so strongly in wonderful ways — it’s not all negative, you know?
I don’t think I’d be into art and poetry with the same fervour if it wasn’t for how my brain worked, and I love those things. But they come when they come, and when they come, they’re there till they are gone. I could be writing instead of doing something I’m meant to be doing.
I love the creative aspects of my brain so much. Even in work, give me a duck, some duct tape, a hairpin, and that duck over there and I’ll fly you to the moon.
Sometimes I draw geese in meetings — drawing seems to act as a focus aid when I listen to others. Maybe it keeps part of my brain occupied, who knows?
I’m unpredictable and unreliable and I make mistakes easily, and I assure you that I’m doing my best to mitigate the negatives and accentuate the positives, but it’s a learning experience. I’ve started talking to people about this, folks who have been where I am now, trying to understand their brains, and cope with ADHD.
I don’t have a formal diagnosis yet (life and the pandemic really doesn’t help), even that plays into my feelings that I’m somehow an impostor (hello RS), but it explains so many things, and right now all I can do is act on that assumption, learn coping strategies and try to manage this as best as I can. I've recently taken a paid cognitive assessment of particular functions associated with ADHD (not a diagnosis!) and it's clear I really need to see someone and be assessed as soon as I can, as it's highly suggestive of ADHD-C. I did get some sessions with a psych here, who was not qualified to diagnose me, but agreed with my assessment and suggested I seek out a proper diagnosis - some small validation. We are moving to Canada soon, so it's a thread I will have to pick up then.
In the meantime...
I am trying, and learning, and understanding as I go along, and it’s all I can really do. Someone on twitter suggested that they were a series of coping strategies in a trench coat, and some days that couldn’t feel truer. But I'm determined to understand myself, and work with my brain and not against it.
It's never too late to start.
PS. Sorry for all the words, I kind of got excited by telling my story.