Ah, 2020, the year in which I really almost started to believe my ‘joke’ theory that we are all characters in a Sim City game, and the person playing it is drunk, it is 2am and they have no idea what they are doing anymore.
Whether this theory is right or not (I’m still waiting for Keanu to appear and rescue us all from The Matrix, so have long accepted the idea that this life isn’t real), it has certainly been a surreal and traumatising year for so many of us, with more challenges inevitably on their way for us to contend with.
I am acutely aware that I have much to be grateful for, and have been in a very privileged position in many, many ways through these pandemic months. But I must confess that I have struggled a great deal with the situation, and what has happened in my head because of it.
Having been formally diagnosed with ADHD just a few months before we went into lockdown, I was struggling to come to terms with my new understanding of myself. I had worked it out about 18 months previously, and had read a few books about it, and seen how it had impacted on my life. But the recognition that I have ADHD, and have had it all my life, gave validation to pretty much every time I had ‘fucked up’ in life, offering an explanation for all the foibles, inconsistencies, erratic passions and catastrophic scattiness that had come to define how I and others saw me. The diagnosis was so clear, so definite that I knew that there was no way I could have been anything other who I had been, my brain wouldn’t have allowed it.
So I felt validated and seen for who I was at last, by the psychiatrist who diagnosed me at least.
And it broke my heart.
At first, I was delighted to have the diagnosis and the medication that would hopefully help me stabilise my wild brain. I was not a failure of a human being, despite the trail of chaos I have left in my wake throughout my life. I was not a ‘messy person’, a ‘hopeless case’, a ‘fucking idiot’ (my most common self-criticism), or a ‘lost cause’ (I actually had an elderly aunt who once told me she regularly prayed to St Jude, patron saint of lost causes, on my behalf. Cheers Aunty R!)
But once the initial joy at knowing for sure WHY I am the way I am had passed, I fell into a dark place. A place of grief, resentment, depression and hopelessness.
Every new discovery I made left me with such a sense of ‘If only I had known that this wasn’t my fault’ it was almost physically painful. Finding a reason for the actions I had spent years and years mentally cursing myself for, and being negatively judged by others for. I was heartbroken for the little girl I was, who grew up believing that she simply wasn’t good enough. I wept at the thought of the young adult I was, so devoted to living down to the terrible impression she had of herself. I believed I was worthless and a failure, and I went to a lot of trouble to prove it to myself.
I spent a painful amount of time at the end of 2019 and the start of 2020 grieving for the life I could have had if I and those around me had known the truth.
While those who saw me in those first few months wouldn’t have seen it (people with ADHD become VERY good as ‘masking’ and presenting a more acceptable face to the world), in my moments of solitude, I was mentally freefalling.
And then COVID 19 hit, and we went into forced isolation, the very worst thing that could have happened for me in that moment.
The overwhelm of suddenly being a full-time single Mum, ‘homeschooling’ and trying to work part-time in a new job I was still finding my way in, was so strong it was almost painful.
One of the traits of ADHD is extremes of emotion. So while everyone was feeling some discombobulation, I was totally swamped and overwhelmed by my emotions.
Because of my ADHD brain, my go-to method to deal with the discomfort of overwhelm is to find something new and exciting to work on, so I launched into learning to play the violin, trying to grow my own veg, starting ANOTHER new business venture, throwing myself into exercise and trying to write daily.
It was exhausting, and in about May, I hit a mental wall, and stopped doing many of those things.
After a lot of reflection, it dawned on me that I was avoiding doing the one thing I really needed to do, and had needed to do since getting my diagnosis. Instead of trying to do ALL THE THINGS to distract myself from the emotional tsunami of 2020, I needed to rebuild my relationship with, and perception of myself in the light of my new knowledge about my ADHD brain. I needed to stop focussing on the pain of the ‘If only I had known sooner’ which was all I had done until that moment, and move onto ‘so who am I and what CAN I do with that knowledge?’.
That is what I have done.
I was, and am, a person with ADHD. This means I am not defective or inadequate. It means my brain works in a different way than the norm. A way that is deemed ‘defective’ in a society built for people with brains that work in the ‘neurotypical’ way.
And yet, my whole life I have been defined by myself and others by those traits. Criticised for behaviours that are traits of the condition, and told I was a bad person for them. Choices I have made, opportunities I have lost, devastating mistakes I have made, friendships I have lost, all started to look very different in the light of my growing understanding of what makes me so different from the norm.
My self esteem has been pummelled over the decades by being told I was wrong because I couldn’t operate in the world the way the world expected me to. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s meant that no one would have ever considered ADHD, although looking back there are so many traits clearly evident in the child I was. I was just WRONG and over the years, I clearly internalised that.
Research has shown that children with ADHD receive 20,000 more negative messages before they reach 12 years old than their neurotypical peers. The things we are told as children, particularly by parents and teachers, about who and what we are, become how we see ourselves. That is a lot of shame and criticism for a growing mind to take on board. We don’t even question it, we just accept it. This is who I am, everyone tells me so, so that must be true.
Recognising the harm this has caused to me over the years was (and is, I am still processing it) so hard to come to terms with. Although the diagnosis allowed me to release a lot of the shame I had been conditioned to feel about myself, and to forgive myself for the behaviours I had no control over, at the same time, I started to lose my sense of ME. The more I learned about ADHD, the more I started to question if I was me, or if I was simply a walking manifestation of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD.
I had found, thankfully, a fantastic Facebook group that helps me to get through the dark days of coming to terms with ADHD. Tracy Otsuka, the group leader and host of the wonderful ADHD for Smart Ass Women podcast (check out the episode I was on here), is passionate about the brilliance and strengths that are inherent in the ADHD brain, that once we learn to see the potential within us, and find workarounds to overcome the challenges, we can shine bright in the world. Tracy helped me to overcome the distress I felt at feeling like I was losing myself, by pointing out that ADHD is not separate from me, it is how my brain works, and is therefore the root of my personality, just as the non ADHD brain is the root of a non ADHD person’s personality.
ADHD is classed as a disorder, and a mental illness, because ADHD brains do not conform to the norm, and struggle to adapt to a world designed for the norm. This gives people the feeling that there is something ‘wrong’ with the ADHD brain.
And yet, our world has been shaped by it. As Tracy reminds us at the start of every podcast episode, the world changers, such as Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Walt Disney all either have, or are believed to have had, ADHD. Would we say that there was something ‘wrong’ with the way they lived, with the things their brains led them to? Almost certainly not – our world would be a very different, and much less colourful place without them. And yet, had Mozart with all his wild energy, been in a modern classroom, he would have been labelled disruptive, told he was ‘bad’, and been put on medication to make him more like the ‘normal’ kids in his class.
ADHD is only seen as a disorder because the world we live in creates boxes that ADHD brains can’t fit into. Thom Hartmann has postulated a theory, seemingly backed up by recent genetic discoveries, that the traits of ADHD are remnants of our ‘hunter gatherer‘ ancestry. These traits – hyperfocus, distractability, multi tasking, thrill seeking, recklessness, impulsivity and more were essential traits for survival in our past. The development of agriculture required different, pretty much opposite skills, and human brains developed into the ‘farmer’ mould that is the ‘neurotypical’ brain’.
Life with a hunter brain is creative, energetic, exciting, and so much more. While there are behaviours I wish I didn’t exhibit, they do not define me. And I wouldn’t change the positive aspects of myself for all the world. I can find workarounds to change the behaviours that make life challenging.
Practices such as Yoga asana, pranayama, aerobic exercise, walking in nature, writing, and sitting quietly focusing on my breath help me to channel my energy, release tension, calm and focus my mind, and process my emotions.
Self care practices such as making sure I take my medication and supplements, get enough sleep, eat well and keep hydrated ensure that my body and mind are healthy and able to support me and my fluctuating mental and physical energy throughout the day.
External tools such as Focusmate.com, Erin Chamberlain’s writing accountability group, the support I get within Tracy Otsuka’s Facebook group are invaluable at keeping me accountable, helping me accomplish tasks, and feel accepted and supported. I am currently taking Tracy’s ‘Your ADHD Brain is A-OK‘ course, which has been nothing short of transformational. I will write more about this soon, we are on week 5 of 6 this week, so I will share a full review of it once we have finished.
Life with ADHD in the modern world is challenging, there is no denying this. But with the right support, tools and a commitment to self awareness and growth, it can be a wonderful thing indeed.
Steve Jobs summed it up perfectly when he said
Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.
I’m happy to be a misfit. Are you?