I am 33 years old, and I have ADHD. I was diagnosed at the beginning of December.
But we need to go a little further back than that.
When I left medicine, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do, but I was lucky to have the circumstances to be able to take some time and figure it out. What I settled on was this: I want to write and tell stories full time. And with any luck (and a whole lot of hard work), I’d manage to get published at some point. I wanted (want) to be an author.
So I threw myself into it at the tail end of 2017, reading craft books, figuring out metrics, setting up daily goals. I’d be able to do it consistently for a month, two months, and then there would be an emotional and mental slump that would last anywhere from a couple weeks to a stretch of months. A slump during which it was so hard to get started and put even one word on the page. I didn’t understand what was happening.
It must by my processes, I thought. My systems. After all, the shift from externally driven structure and goals to purely internally driven ones is a difficult one to make. I had a lot of learning to do.
So I read more books. I read process book after process book about hustling, about struggle, about passion and productivity. I heard over and over again, if you can’t do this every single day, you don’t actually want it. Because the flipside to the message “If you love something enough, you’ll just do it,” is that if you can’t, it’s your fault. You didn’t love it enough. You didn’t want it enough.
We don’t talk much about what is hidden in that “just.”
So I’d adopt these systems, slot them into place, get into a groove. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, I’d slide into a slump again. Everything would fall apart, and I didn’t understand why.
“Just sit down and start.” “Just turn off all the distractions.” “Just don’t let yourself do anything else during that time.”
Just. Just. Just.
And I’d try. I tried so fucking hard and constantly felt like I was getting nowhere. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t keep my eyes on my paper; I couldn’t keep my mind on the task in front of me. I couldn’t prioritize. I’d start writing and wander off and do something else. I’d start researching and end up down an internet rabbit hole. There were afternoons where it felt like I was watching myself from somewhere else in my brain, screaming at myself to “JUST DO THE THING” and… I couldn’t.
It’s not that I was unfamiliar with this feeling. I’ve always been bad at studying and prolonged, low-stim tasks (I am terrible at standardized testing), but I always assumed it was because I wasn’t interested in what I was doing (which wasn’t always true, but we tell ourselves all sorts of things). I coasted by on intelligence and alternating between minimal effort and last minute heroics, driven by a deep and abiding fear of disappointing people (particularly teachers or mentors). It worked until it didn’t.
I’ve heard the refrain. “We all have things we don’t want to do. You have to do them anyway.”
But now the kicker was, these were things I wanted very much to do. I wanted it so badly, and I still couldn’t.
It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced this kind of paralysis before. But it felt like I didn’t have a choice. It didn’t feel like I was choosing to be like this, to focus on other things, to be distracted. It didn’t feel like I was choosing to lose sight of the bigger picture, to be laid low by minor things, to be out of spoons at the end of every day.
(And who the fuck would choose that anyway?)
If someone could have shown me the switch labeled “just do the thing,” I would have flipped it in a heartbeat. But if there was one, I certainly couldn’t find it.
It felt impossible and impossibly overwhelming. And then I did what I always do, I turned that struggle into a lash that I applied to myself.
What the fuck is wrong with you? You are such a lazy, worthless, failure of a person. Look at your life. Look at how lucky you are. You are so fucking ungrateful. How can you be so selfish? Why can’t you just get your shit together?
And eventually, the self-hatred would be enough to motivate me to try again. To put those systems back together brick by brick. What else could I do? I didn’t want to give up.
This year, I felt like I finally had a little momentum. It started off well enough. I had some goals. I found some community. I was making progress. And then about five months in, everything fell apart again.
And in a bit of serendipity, I ran across this Twitter thread by Erynn Brook:
(For those that can’t see the embed: “Perhaps the most shared characteristic of undiagnosed adult ADHD that makes me go “GET THEE TO A DOCTOR!” is this: “What if I don’t have this? What if I’m just a shit person? What if I really am lazy/selfish/a failure?” My lovelies, has anyone ever asked: what if you’re not?”)
I cried. I fucking sobbed, weeping at my desk at the end of another frustrating, fruitless day that had felt like nothing but struggle. I felt like someone had taken my deepest fears, the things that I whisper to myself in the dark, and shone a light on them.
But there was still this voice in my head. What if you’re just looking for excuses? What if you actually are just lazy and terrible, and you just want justification for that? You’re just looking for an easy way out.
(Because it had been so easy up to this point, you know? The self-flagellating and self-recrimination and straight-up self-hatred. All of that is so fucking easy and fun to deal with, right?)
It was another few months before I started coming out of the slump. When I got some bandwidth back and wasn’t having to use all my energy to manage just the minimum day to day, I got mad. I have all these goddamned exhausting systems — I have three planners/calendars (since college), I have alarms and reminders set throughout the day (some to remind myself to eat), I have check-lists and lists and lists and lists and lists. I make agendas, I plan my fucking day, I work on routines. I think about and iterate on process and workflow all the fucking time.
I was angry because I did everything fucking right. This time, IT WASN’T MY FUCKING FAULT.
And then I remembered Erynn Brook. And I discovered Dani Donovan’s and Pina Varnel’s Twitter accounts. I did a deep dive into their threads and comics, and I saw myself reflected back in every single story.
I discovered ADDitude and started reading the articles there. I followed the ADHD Awareness Month (which is in October, FYI) hashtag on Twitter. I took a whole mess of ADHD screening tests and each of them came back wildly positive.
But I was still skeptical. What if I was just lying to myself?
I finally found a therapist. I cried. I told her how hard I was trying, how much I tried to hide the difficulties I had, and how much harder it was to hide now that I was doing stuff on my own. Every single thing just took so much effort. How was I failing at what everyone else seemed to be able to handle? Why has it always felt this way?
And she said, “I think you have ADHD. And you’ve been dealing with it your whole life.”
A couple months later, I finally managed to get in to see a psychiatrist. I was nervous. Despite the mounting evidence, there was a part of me that wasn’t going to believe it until it was confirmed by a specialist. I showed him the screening tests I had taken, and he asked me a lot of specific, detailed questions.
Then he sat back, looked me straight in the eyes, and said “You have ADHD.”
I can’t tell you how validating that was.
There has always been a gap between who I want to be (my understanding of myself, what my goals are) and what I was doing. And that gap has always been filled with this narrative: I’m lazy. I’m just not trying hard enough. I’m not living up to my potential. A narrative that I had been told over and over again throughout childhood, a narrative that I internalized deeply. But now, I’m recontextualizing my entire life. My self-perception is shifting.
I know it won’t be easy or instant; there is still a lot of work that I need to do, emotions I need to process, and things that I need to manage. But getting the diagnosis, having the words for it, gives me hope again. Hope that things can actually be different moving forward.
I have ADHD. I’m not broken, I’m different.* And that might be one of the best things that anyone has ever told me.
PS. I’m still learning a lot about ADHD and working through how it has impacted my life. A lot of thoughts and info didn’t quite make it into this post. So this will probably be the first part in a series of posts about ADHD while I’m processing my diagnosis. No timetables or promises, but you’ve been warned!