Feeling Different: My ADHD Story
I always knew I was different, and, well, so did everyone else. I was voted “most unique” in high school–one of those backhanded compliment awards. I accepted it with pride, wearing my signature mismatched socks, a look I had turned into a fashion choice due to my inability to keep a pair of socks together.
Growing up, I was constantly chastised for not having a filter and embarrassing my parents in public by saying the things I saw. “But it’s true,” I would declare, confused by the backlash. Never quite understanding that the lady with the hole in her back pocket doesn’t need me to tell her I can see her underwear.
Even though I found classrooms physically painful and broke records with my absenteeism, I still did great in school. I was smart, liked learning and developed some pretty advanced coping skills. Sure, I couldn't distinguish the letter b from d’s or p’s until late in third grade– but I was holding my own otherwise.
Every now and then, a teacher would want to address my chattiness or borderline dysgraphia. My 6th-grade teacher turned it into a game of shame and would make me stay back after class to do pages and pages of cursive, repeating the letter “h.” My hand cramping, frustrated by the fact nobody even used cursive anymore, I’d then take my frustrations out in the classroom.
I’ve learned that this vague style of punishment is a common thread among girls with undiagnosed ADHD. These interactions always left me with a lingering dose of negativity, dripping into my soul and eating away at my self-assured nature. Am I bad? Am I defective?
Lisa has a problem
“Lisa has an attitude problem” was the consensus among a few school staff. I was a bit of a puzzle to the other teachers. I skipped class, spent a lot of time doodling, missed key details but always managed to get really good grades. I was even a favorite pupil for a few teachers that liked low-maintenance students who sometimes asked really weird questions. That officially made me “not a real problem.”
During high school, I convinced myself that whatever was wrong with me would be fixed in university. I’d find like-minded people, fit in, stop daydreaming and keep one notebook for each class. I also heard that class attendance didn’t matter, and you could mostly learn on your own. What a relief!
I did enjoy my undergrad. I loved the freedom to pick my courses and learn at my own pace. Although, it didn’t really fix things. I changed majors three times, took courses year-round to make up for my “accidental classes that didn’t count toward my degree,” struggled with disorganization and depression, but I did the thing. I finished. Then I got accepted into a master’s program in another country where I would be learning neuropsychological assessments– combining my favorite topics of neuroscience and psychology.
No Longer Under the Radar
It wasn’t long into my small graduate program surrounded by neuropsychologists that my issues began to pop up. The advanced masking skills I had developed were nothing compared to their watchful eyes. “Lisa, we need to talk,” my supervisor told me one day. I went to her office with that old “punch in the gut” feeling and awaited my fate. I knew I was struggling in her course, but I couldn’t figure out why. I loved the work, I understood it, but I kept making so many silly mistakes.
I sat down across from her in the cool grey room. “Lisa, you’re in danger of failing my class. What’s going on?”
I was shocked. I hadn’t really failed anything before, other than gymnastics (cartwheels are impossible for my body type, ok?). “I don’t know,” I proclaimed, unloading my anxious energy over her shiny laminate desk. “Do you have any limitations you’d like to discuss? Because we can accommodate you.”
I looked at her and began to think about all my limitations. I suck at cursive, I‘m broke, my socks don’t match, I need to email myself 12 times to remember dentist appointments, I can’t do cartwheels… “Not that I know of?” I said, slightly pleading. “Have you ever been tested for ADHD?” She asked, holding up the practice cognitive assessment I had turned in earlier that day covered in red marks outlining my errors “you have some patterns consistent with ADHD.”
But, I’m not a milkasaurus!
I thought about the ADHD kids I knew, the kid Adam who spits chocolate milk at people and proclaims he’s a milkasaurus or my friend’s son Gavin who pretends he’s a car alarm whenever she’s on the phone. I knew the criteria for ADHD because I was studying clinical psychology, but the image of ADHD in my mind was very much a young, rambunctious boy wreaking havoc on his mother’s peace of mind.
I didn’t have medical insurance and she couldn’t assess me, but what she did was place the label on my radar. She also worked with me to build coping mechanisms and new skills. She taught me about using color to track sections, utilizing a ruler while scoring advanced reports so I wouldn’t get lost sequencing and the importance of finding a clear, quiet space to work. She also mentioned I should try sleeping more than 4 hours a night, but I was iffy about that one. She helped me approach it as problems that I needed to solve rather than deficiencies. It was nice.
Finding my way through ADHD
I spent ample time researching ADHD. I found tests to take and had classmates do their practice assessments on me. There was no denying I met the criteria for ADHD but there wasn’t much info at the time for adult women just getting a diagnosis. Although my official “on paper” diagnosis didn’t come until I moved back to Canada and saw a specialist, the realization that I had a name for what I was experiencing was a massive relief.
I didn’t lose every key, phone or wallet I ever owned because I was “careless.” I didn’t ignore people to write stories in my head or stare at birds because I was a “space case.” I didn’t have to send myself 12 reminders for any appointment, birthday or event because I “didn’t care.” I didn’t tell people exactly what I was thinking because I was “rude.” There’s still no evidence that ADHD reduces the ability to do cartwheels so that one is still on me, I guess.
The more I learned about the disorder the more that feeling of forever swimming upstream made sense. I looked at the various areas of my life that were constantly on the verge of disaster and thought of all the friendships I’d ruined and people I’d inadvertently hurt by speaking my thoughts at the wrong time. The “ah-ha” moments kept rolling in. Understanding this condition gave me back some power and most importantly, introduced the allowance of self-forgiveness.
Focusing on the good
Navigating ADHD in my adult life is humbling. I use medication when needed but haven’t felt like I needed it for a couple of years now. Stimulant meds were instrumental for me finishing my PhD and getting the most out of behavioral therapy. I’ll definitely consider them again in the future.
The thing about ADHD is that it doesn’t go away. I take all the latest supplements, I have a good sleep routine (that one was tough), I exercise, eat right and do my best to practice self-compassion. I also accidentally book my family on a flight to Bermuda when we’re meant to go to Barbados (we realized at the gate–whoops!). I regularly lose keys, interrupt people, and just yesterday, I had a dramatic mental breakdown because I lost a book. So it goes.
The important shift for me has been the awareness that this is my brain, it functions in a different way, but it’s my brain. In learning to accept the challenging parts of my disorder, I’ve also been able to focus on the good parts. So many of my favorite life experiences have come from impulsive decisions and beautiful messes. I am truly a jack-of-all-trades because of the way my mind hyperfixates on topics or projects– then abandons it for a new one. ADHD has also helped me form compassion throughout my life for people who don’t fit in. The feeling of being different from everyone else can be a heavy load, and we all need allies in this journey.
Today I have an eclectic and successful career, an array of hobbies and a colorful life that brings joy to the little misfit ADHD child inside of me. Keeping that inner child happy is pretty important.
How do I succeed with ADHD?
The first step is reaching out for help. Learning more about people’s lived experiences with ADHD, talking to specialists and, for some people, getting medications. Feeling seen, heard and accepted is a wonderful feeling that we all deserve to experience, some of us just have to dig a little harder to find it.
Other than that, the most important change I’ve made is leaning into my strengths. You don’t have to force yourself into a square if you’re a circle (or a rhombicosidodecahedron). ADHD is a complicated disorder, and finding your path forward can be a challenging experience. Trust your joys, your passions, and the things that make you feel “you.” Because you are beautiful, unique and worthy of finding your peace and happiness. Just keep in mind–you’ll likely lose some keys and cause a few disruptions along the way.