First off, I’ve never been more mortified yet stoked to have an illness that automatically turns my name into a pun. My life has been building to this moment from the very first time someone asked if my name was short for Adderall – maybe he saw something in me.
I’m 30, and I’ve recently started medication for inattentive ADHD*. I have a hard time saying I was “diagnosed” because all that happened was my doctor listened to me, and agreed to try something that could help. I guess I feel like I cheated and jumped the queue by discovering the information on my own and not opting not to spend a few hundred dollars on a psychiatrist, but society tends to make you feel that way.
I’m not going to say my life was a terrible struggle with undiagnosed ADHD for 30 years – I did well in school, I remembered appointments – hell, I managed a business for the better part of three years. On the surface, everything went pretty well; even a bit below the surface, I had some pretty decent runs (with a fair share of luck). I guess the only way to phrase it is that I felt like I was bad at being a human being. It felt like things that the majority of people could handle – holding down a job, paying bills on time, waking up in the morning – were things that I had to work twice as hard at, while achieving half the results. During my three years running my freelance business, I was far from Dragon’s Den material. I worked just enough hours to get by, knowing full well that if I just *tried* harder, I could work more hours, and make a lot more money… but I couldn’t. With no one to keep me in line but myself and the lingering threat of homelessness, I had nothing to motivate me to do anything beyond the bare minimum.
I would beat myself up for not being able to maintain a schedule, for falling behind, for running late, for having no drive, for constantly feeling overwhelmed and failing under pressure as a result. Even second-nature functions like sleeping and showering seemed like arduous tasks. I could never make sense of why I spent the first 18 years of my life getting out of bed and going to school with no problem, but the moment I had a shred of independence, I stayed up until 3am, slept until noon, and panicked to do all my work the night before it was due. It felt like life needed me to spin five plates, but I had only ever managed to spin three; the second I had to worry about that fourth plate, the first would come crashing down.
The stereotypical case of ADHD conjures images of a hyperactive little boy causing a ruckus and running around the classroom, but it’s different for women. The majority of female ADHD cases are classified as “inattentive”, which means that rather than running around the classroom and getting the attention of concerned schoolteachers everywhere, she would be staring out the window and tuning out anything that didn’t hold her interest. For this reason, a lot of female cases aren’t diagnosed until adulthood when we find ourselves unable to spin the right number of plates in life. I for one never considered this a possibility until I read Buffering by Hannah Hart when she described her feeling of ADHD, and something sounded familiar…
“Through years of failing to perform, though sometimes excelling despite this, [people with ADHD] feel a constant state of underachievement.”
“… I just always feel like I have all these great ideas and things I want to do, but I just don’t do them! I just can’t do them!”
It wasn’t a smoking gun, but it nagged the back of my mind that entire day. Reading this article felt like reading a description of myself, and soon I found myself in my doctor’s office, wondering how on earth I was going to bring this up without looking like a drug seeker. (Turns out he had a poster in his office talking about how ADHD is often not diagnosed until adulthood – score!)
I felt fraudulent when I started to explore this diagnosis. No one had ever suggested this possibility to me, and if this was really impeding my life as much as I claim it did, then why didn’t I tell someone? Perhaps this is true, but who was I going to tell? “I feel like a failure who is pretending to be an adult” didn’t feel like a sentence that my doctor would need to hear, and why would I go around bragging about what a failure I am anyway? I’m trying to blend in here, not admit to being a lazy fuckup. Part of me thought everyone felt this way, part of me thought I was just a lazy human being, and part of me just wanted to hide all of those feelings from the world as I tried to act normal.
The only thing that ever held me together was structure. I hate routine, but I can’t deny that it’s the only thing that keeps me in line. I felt unemployable in any typical work setting so anything other than freelance never seem attainable, but it’s worked out well for me in the right environment. I’ve learned to see how my behaviour is related to my symptoms and connecting the dots with how things that had been happening for years were actually clues. Forgetting what I was just about to say or why I walked into a room, losing things with black-out-like recollection, tuning people out, getting overwhelmed with too much noise, and even being dangerously clutzy were all part of my personality while also lighting up a big, bright marquee that screamed ADHD.
So, do the meds help?
Kind of. I now feel like I can get up in the morning, and if I need to clean the bathroom, I actually stand a chance in hell of doing it. I’m no longer mentally exhausted trying to keep my thoughts in line, so when I come home from work I can actually wash dishes instead of collapsing on the couch. My emotions are a bit better regulated, so mood swings are less frequent. Some ADHD people describe meds as life-changing, but I’d describe it as making life a bit more doable while giving the flurry of thoughts the chance to get in order (not that they always do). I’m not a machine of focus and efficiency like many would assume with meds, but my slider is edging closer to “average” on the scale of executive function.
I would say the biggest change is in my anxiety – some people experience more anxiety on stimulants, but from my generalized anxiety to my social anxiety, it’s all around BETTER.
My only major problem comes from something I never expected – internalized stigma. As someone who has always thought that if it helps you then you should take it, I’m really surprised to admit that every morning, I battle with the idea of taking a “drug”. I’ve taken everything from pain killers to anti-depressants without a single problem, but the difference is that stimulants are much more like a “drug”. I take it, it kicks in, and after a set amount of time, I come down and would have to take another to get the same results (not that I do because I enjoy sleep). It doesn’t improve me over time, it simply makes me feel and act a certain way within a specified time frame, which I’ve been taught is only the case with “drugs” you shouldn’t take. This wasn’t helped by the fact that my first day on this new medication was 100% side effects; hyperactive, heart racing, panic and sweating followed by a 3pm crash and a zombie-like state through the night. That was a fun day at work.
Between coming to terms with my diagnosis, adjusting to meds, figuring out how they work, and dealing with the stigma of it all, finding out that this is a thing about me has been almost a relief of an explanation, but it’s going to take some time and exploration to get used to seeing my behaviour in this new way.