by Jess Chadd, submitted 14 July 2021
First publication https://jess-chadd.medium.com/finding-out-why-im-not-fitting-in-a5b2876270f3
Today I finally got an appointment confirmed with a psychiatrist and I’m so damn excited about it.
I know, what? It sounds a bit weird and scary. Am i ok? Mostly, yes. Is there something going on with my brain? Probably, yes.
My life has overall been pretty fantastic. I remember saying to friends a couple of years ago, if I died today, I’d actually be pretty happy (don’t worry I’m not dying). I have many privileges, great health, wonderful family, work, things I’m passionate about.
But I have always felt a bit different… not your typical ‘girl’, a bit chaotic, like no-one really understands my brain, and like I’ve never met my potential.
I’ve always coped. Handed in school assignments just in time, remembered everything by constantly thinking through my to-do list, getting the minimum possible entrance score to my undergraduate degree, finishing my honours thesis on the morning it was due.
My favourite times of my life are a whirlwind in my memory — so many things happening that I was both wired and exhausted but achieving a lot and procrastinating very little. I’ve always had the means to ‘be myself’ which meant I never seriously questioned anything.
I started to feel more like I had a ‘problem’ around halfway through my PhD. I was disorganised, stressed, unmotivated and extremely frustrated with myself. I was spending weeks on my computer all day, but getting nothing done. I felt like the people around me could tell I was struggling but didn’t know how to help. Shame and embarrassment really kicked in. What was wrong with me? why couldn’t I just put my head down and get sh*t done?
I blamed my environment. The lab culture was toxic, my supervisor was critical rather than caring, I was poor and couldn’t afford to properly look after myself. During my PhD my lab also suddenly ‘moved’ from Melbourne Uni to Monash (Clayton). I seriously injured my back and couldn’t stand up for long periods for 3–4 months. I had a concussion that affected me for weeks. A friend committed suicide. Some pretty crappy things that meant, in some ways, it made sense that I wasn’t coping well.
and i blamed myself.
“I’m just lazy”… “i procrastinate because I’m a perfectionist and i can’t handle rejection”… “i overthink everything because I’m actually just incompetent”
Meanwhile I had actually completed my research, published a couple of decent papers, done a bunch of teaching and written half my thesis.
I had watched every TED talk on ‘Leadership and Organisational change’ and every self help book on ‘How to be productive’ but nothing seemed to be the answer.
For a while I thought… maybe I’m just depressed and anxious, my identity is tied to this PhD and I need a break. So I found myself giving up on my thesis for a while, on centrelink for 3 months so I could afford to eat and pay rent. I managed to find a job but not before having to get financial help from parents and applying for jobs like door knocking because I was so desperate. Luckily the job I did get was great, but eventually, despite having money, a supportive boss and a job I loved, I started to struggle again with feeling unmotivated and underperforming.
So then i thought… maybe I have aspergers… did some research, probably not.
Maybe I have hypothyroidism… Had a blood test… not that. Iron supplements helped a little.
A while after that I thought… maybe I suffered terrible trauma as a child that I don’t remember
Bought some books about that, seemed like I was overthinking it.
And a while after that I thought… maybe I’m aromantic and asexual and also polyamorous so just confused and weird. But then… why is it affecting my whole life?
Then a few weeks ago a friend, female, my age, who is going through the process of getting diagnosed with ADHD shared this article on facebook. I read it and my stomach sank… that sounded a LOT like me. After a fair bit more reading and a fair bit more crying I felt pretty confident that this could be something going on for me.
I started mentioning it to people in my life… turns out it’s VERY common for women to go undiagnosed until their adult life when things start to get difficult or go wrong because they’re so overwhelmed. It also turns out ADHD is the most treatable psychiatric condition that exists — with options for both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions, most diagnosed people experience improvements in their life. Part of me is worried I’m making this all up, part of me is angry that none of my teachers or counsellors ever knew to consider it as a reason why I struggled, and part of me is SO glad I might be able to get some help.
Classically ADHD looks like naughty young boy disrupting class and struggling to focus. But – it’s actually equally common in women and men as adults (approx 5% of individuals!!), and it can be the ‘hyperactive’ type which tends to be more physically disruptive (not really me), or it can be the ‘inattentive’ type which tends to be dreamy, disorganised and distractible (more like me). The other big myth about ADHD is that people who have it struggle in school, turns out a lot of ‘ADHDers’ do REALLY well academically and end up masking their symptoms until later in life. Even more confusingly for women, symptoms can fluctuate with menstrual cycle hormones and so one week things can feel manageable and the next like an absolute nightmare.
The biology of ADHD is linked to dopamine levels in the brain which tend to be lower and thus drive constant dopamine seeking behaviour = STIMULATION!!!
A great analogy I heard to describe having ADHD is that it’s like having a brain with a sportscar engine but bicycle brakes. It literally races constantly and stopping it or steering it is incredibly exhausting.
Or it’s like everyone in the world has a giant trolley of tennis balls that they wheel around but your trolley doesn’t have sides so the tennis balls keep falling off and you spend all your energy trying to just keep the balls in your trolley and wondering why other people can just walk through life without dropping all theirs.
For me ADHD looks like
- Loving novelty — trying new things, being impulsive, music festivals, coffee, anything stimulating
- Having the ability to achieve a LOT when I’m passionate, I can focus so hard I forget to eat
- Knowing I can be very creative, come up with new ideas and make connections that others miss
- Knowing I have plenty to be doing but finding it impossibly hard to just start one thing
- Having a constant to-do list running through my head so I don’t forget things
- Finding it easier to live in busyness and chaos than to have free time to ‘relax’
- Leaving objects out, on surfaces so I remember to deal with them — looks very messy
- Always being a night owl and constantly struggling to get up in the morning, made worse by depression/anxiety
- Feeling like I regularly go through waves of extreme excitement about various things — starting a business, writing a book, a new album and then a few weeks later feeling entirely ambivalent or even disappointed that I ‘wasted time’ caring
- Struggling to do anything menial and boring — posting a letter or putting away a random thing takes weeks
- Pulling all nighters at least once a week to prepare for important presentations or meetings during my PhD
- Forgetting things exist when I can’t see them so buying new ones — clothes, food, implements etc.
- Struggling to make decisions about ‘stuff’ — it might be useful one day, where does it even belong?
- Wanting to read only non fiction books and watch movies only where I can learn something new and be surprised
- Constantly having a messy room as a kid, getting told to tidy it and spending 48hrs straight ‘sorting’ everything, only to have it messy again a week later
- Feeling frustrated and lost when I sense confusion, a lack of structure or general bad vibes in my work life, and then letting that affect my work
- Being hyper sensitive to others moods and words — being able to hear what people aren’t saying — some might call this being an empath
- Having a million ideas and not knowing which ones are great and which ones are absurd
- Knowing I am competent and capable and yet never finished my PhD, and have struggled to achieve anything of significance
- Being comfortable with uncertainty — disasters don’t phase me, they almost feel inevitable
- Thinking back to school where I was both bored and also underachieved in class — have always been frustrated with teachers who didn’t challenge me, but also hated and avoided having high expectations placed upon me
- Wanting to be overly honest and constantly biting my tongue so as not to cross socially imposed lines
- A few body focused repetitive behaviours — picking skin off my lip, pulling out rough hairs
- Always being 15 minutes late but also telling myself that 15 minutes basically doesn’t count as time
- Not being great at keeping in touch with friends if I’m not ‘feeling like chatting’
Enjoying the affects of alcohol and other substances in order to have fun
- Constantly imagining criticism from important people in my life
- Being worried that others are disappointed, annoyed or just don’t like me so spending a lot of time justifying to myself why I am a decent person and my behaviour is at least acceptable
- Wanting to not live with a partner because I just want a LOT of my own space — feeling like I need space just to cope
- Need to exercise regularly and need to be in team sports or paid classes for accountability
As a child always wanting to write down my ideas and thoughts but feeling like my brain would go 10x faster than i could write or type so finding it hard to keep track and then giving up
- Thinking that people are generally predictable, and almost never being surprised by anyone
I know… a bunch of these might be relatable to you reading this, (ever considered whether you might have ADHD??) but also, they probably are because most of these things are normal in small doses (i think?), it’s only when they start to add up that they can really spiral into *not coping*.
Some things that I already do that I find help me function which are coincidentally recommended for ADHDers:
Eat well including plenty of fish
Consume lots of coffee
Sit on a wobbly stool and listen to music while working
Things I’m not yet doing but considering
So I thought it was worth putting this out there because I might have other adult friends who want to explore this as a possibility or might know someone who is struggling and doesn’t know why. I want to TALK about it. Lack of awareness about what ADHD really looks like is partly why people end up reaching adulthood without realising that life doesn’t need to be SO hard. I have a lot of resources ready to share and whether I end up being officially ‘diagnosed’ or not, I really quite like my brain, even though it has weaknesses it also has superpowers and I’ve now learned far more about how it works and how to support myself in a way that feels like a new found freedom.