by Penny Banks, submitted 27 April 2021
I had never considered myself to have ADHD as I thought it was something people grew out of, and at school I was a quiet dreamy girl always off in my own world, too nervous the teachers wouldn’t like me to do anything but be perfect in school, not a loud, violent, disruptive boy who got kicked out of lessons.
I have always felt there is something fundamentally different about the way my brain works compared to other people and struggled to make ongoing connections. People often think I don’t care for them, because I never message them or ask people to make plans one to one.
In general, the people I find I have the closest connections with are neurodivergent. At the age of 27 I have only just noticed that the people I would describe as my “best friends” overwhelmingly have ADHD and autism. The type of friendships where, when you meet them you wonder if you’re secretly siblings, because there’s just SOMETHING that is the same about you that you can’t put your finger on – they just seem to get me in a way that other people cannot. We poke fun at ourselves for the ways we are deficient adults together. They seem to understand how frustrating it is to simply not be able to do what other people seem to do with ease.
I didn’t really have many friends as a child and struggled with always feeling different and weird. I started feeling really overwhelmed when I hit 12/13 and the world became a lot bigger and much more distracting. When I got overwhelmed I would place the blame for my failings on myself and feel very upset. I would impulsively self harm because I could not process my feelings in such a loud world. School structure changed and coursework became a bigger part of my learning, which I could not keep up with. I knew I wasn’t stupid, all my teachers said I was very bright, and they didn’t understand how I wasn’t managing to do my coursework when they knew I had a firm grasp of the subject. The kinder teachers would extend deadlines for me because I was “troubled”. My books were filled with doodles and when they filled up I would draw all over my arms instead. I wrote an entire 40k word novel, complete with an entirely new language, at the age of 14, largely during school, because I was well behaved and well liked enough that the teachers would just let me do what I wanted as I wasn’t causing issues for others, just distracting myself, and my test results – where I would be pushed to perform under pressure, with a time limit – would always be pretty good. It was motivating, planning, and scheduling my work that I really struggled with, and this was the reason I dropped out of two colleges after 6 months; I suddenly found myself unable to concentrate or focus, and before I knew it I was swamped with undone assignments and the shame of not being able to do such simple things meant I simply stopped going. It was better not to try any more than to keep trying and failing, because it made me miserable.
Every time I failed at something that seemed like it should be easy, I turned it inwards and began to hate myself. I was told I was lazy, not trying hard enough, not paying enough attention, messy, I didn’t seem like I cared at all. And I was trying so, so hard, and nobody seemed to understand at all. I decided I must simply be flawed. I must be as lazy as I was being told, there was no other option. I didn’t actually care about the thing I was obsessed with two weeks ago at all, I just convinced myself I did. I learnt not to trust myself at all, because my motivations and interests were always in flux. I always felt I was missing something, that I couldn’t work out, this weird hole where I needed something to fill it – a sensation of hunger more than an emptiness. Risky sexual behaviour, impulsive shopping, drinking would temporarily help, but not for long. I spent tens of thousands of pounds trying to buy the thing that would finally satisfy that need and then hated myself when it didn’t.
After struggling with bouts of depression, low mood and suicidal thoughts, I had counselling for 6 months which was the first time I was really able to look at the bigger picture – I just never seemed to have enough time before! I realised even when I’m not depressed, I’m still easily distracted, scatterbrained, absent minded, clumsy, and find it absolutely impossible to keep myself and my things organised and looked after – but there’s no way I’ve been depressed my entire life, I don’t think that is possible. The things that I struggle with when I am depressed are still a struggle when I am feeling mentally stable and okay. My dysfunction isn’t a symptom of low mood or a personality quirk, this is something that I *am* as a person.
I considered I may have BPD for a while, because I could identify with the impulsive behaviours and emotional instability, but everything I read just never seemed to fit properly, especially the parts about unstable relationships, constant conflict, extreme mood swings and psychosis.
The most conflict I tend to have in my life is occasionally calling out a creepy bloke on twitter.
If I am super tired, frazzled and overwhelmed I can snap like anyone, but this is usually aimed towards a stranger in public, where I tend to feel most vulnerable due to trauma, maybe once or twice a year at max – and the rush of adrenaline makes me cry almost immediately.
My relationships (both romantic and personal) are stable and long lasting (multiple years) and disagreements of any kind are very rare; I feel like I have a below average amount of confrontations and arguments. The last “extreme” argument with a friend with consequences of the friendship ending, was nearly 2 years ago and was with someone I had known since I was 18 – we had already grown apart, mostly due to my lack of remembering her birthday, or to call, or seeming like I cared very much, when I did really care and was deeply hurt that she couldn’t see that I was really trying my best.
I do not insult, make threats, fly into violent rages, make dramatic declarations, or do dangerous things when I think my friends and partners are unhappy or hear criticism – I get sad and shut down because I think they hate me and avoid them, because I am worried they may be angry at me and don’t want to upset them more. If I feel anger, it is usually directed towards myself.
I am much more likely to cause issues in a relationship by not saying how I feel even when there is a serious issue, for fear the other person will actively dislike me for hurting their feelings. I am very concerned they will think I’m a mean person or be upset with me. I cannot deal with confrontation; even somebody shouting at someone else near me can frighten me and put me on edge – I default to flight mode, rather than fight. I turn inwards rather than outwards. When I perceive that someone is angry with me, I will usually focus on that – it’s all I can think about, for up to a full day, and I can’t concentrate and sometimes end up having to just curl up and be sad they hate me.
Its very difficult for me to write anything that isn’t a simple, linear story – my brain jumps around so quickly from thought to thought before I can write it all down that I miss and then immediately forget things. At the time of writing this, there are least 8 fragments of sentences and various jumbled thoughts on the page in no apparent order in between full paragraphs, because I know my mind will wander onto the next thing and if I don’t write it down it’s gone forever. This is the same with dates and appointments, birthdays, names, addressees and directions – “it goes in one ear and out the other” is something I have heard throughout my whole life. There is so much going on, that just trying to listen to each thought with all the din in the background of my head is very hard. A friend today described conversations with me as “Its like you get notifications in your head that are pop-ups blocking the main convo you are on or task, and you have to acknowledge them to press the x and get them out the way” – if I have a thought, I must express it immediately, or it is gone forever.
My partner suggested I might have ADHD last year and I thought it was weird because I had never considered it or even bothered reading up on it, why would I bother reading about something that is ALWAYS picked up in childhood because its diagnosed when parents are at the end of their tether after their son has terrorised all his teachers and classmates?
I started reading a symptom list and thought, oh this is interesting I guess, but everyone does these things and feels this way, don’t they? Then I thought, this is actually very familiar to me, I should probably take some notes. Within an hour or two, I had 3 pages of notes.
When I started reading things actually written by adult women diagnosed with ADHD and my blood went cold. It felt like it had been written by me. Other people were able to put into words what I had struggled to pinpoint my entire life, the constant feeling of – why can’t I do things that other people can without any effort? How come on my absolute best days, I am only just managing to achieve what any normal person would consider basic? I suddenly stopped feeling like I was the only person in the world who struggled like this. I found some hope.
I decided I would read up on ADHD specific time/chore management, organisational and general “get things actually done” tips to see if they helped. I have spent the last nine months using techniques like setting timers and physically having a to do list that reminds me to shower, brush my teeth, drink water and eat something before 6pm. I noticed that some things were suggested that I was already doing – like only shopping online because I had noticed I always forgot things in physical shops, going digital wherever possible because pieces of paper WILL get lost – coping mechanisms I had already taught myself. This is the most together I have ever felt in my life. I am starting to feel like I am learning what works for me, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after years of trying to find new ways to organise myself, the things that are finally working are recommended for people with ADHD.
Now I am self employed, I am spending a lot more time with myself without the distraction of a commute, other people, and everything else that comes with a hectic work environment. I am happier, in general, than I have ever been, and my home life is very relaxed now compared to anything else I’ve experienced for such a lengthy period, which gives me much more emotional space to reflect on myself. I feel very in tune with myself and aware of what my biggest challenges are.
Previously, I’ve been told by doctors that I just take too much on and spread myself too thin – that anyone would feel overwhelmed with the amount I was doing. But anyone else with a better sense of impulse control and the mental room to think about what else they have planned that week, what else they need to get done, seems to be able to say “sorry, I can’t make that” with ease – I intuitively say yes to every plan, every meet up, often double booking myself and then having to cancel on someone who doesn’t understand why I didn’t care about them enough to remember I had plans with them.
At the moment, I’m not running events and spinning many plates – I have one job where I work from home, and go out maybe once a week, so how do I spend all my time at home and it’s still a mess? How is it that I don’t find the time to cook dinner? My partner will come home and ask what I did that day – and immediately I feel anxious admitting how little I achieved, how can I give him such a short list, that’s only an hour’s worth of work and I haven’t even done any cleaning – what have I DONE all day? I have to estimate tasks to be twice as long as a rule because everything just seems to….take longer than it should. I have to account for the fact that I will get up and wander around midway through a task, and often will completely forget about the original task.
I still get a new obsession every week or three. My flat is full of barely-started projects, unpainted furniture, and impulse buys. I will find a new topic of interest, open up 30 tabs and spend 4 hours reading about it with no sense of how much time has passed. I live in a constant state of “oh fuck I have so much to do, why can’t I just get it done?” induced panic. I keep meaning to do the washing up, but I’ve accidentally left it in the sink for 4 days. I didn’t mean to stay up til 3am, I just got distracted by a new topic and forgot that I was planning to sleep. I didn’t mean to lose weight, I just stopped remembering to eat during the day when I no longer had a structured work day with a set lunch break. I struggle to prioritise things like basic self care over the latest thing that has caught my interest. When I have to rely on myself for structure and routine, I flail. I have struggled with my identity for a long time because my interests, hobbies and habits change so often I feel like I have no idea who my true self is.
I originally sought an assessment in November 2019. I needed a blood test first; a simple, short appointment.
I forgot that I had booked the appointment and had to cancel. Multiple times. Then I just kept meaning to rebook, but I never seemed to have the time, even though it would only take two minutes? I wasn’t scared of the appointment, so why did it take me the best part of a year to get round to it? I didn’t forget that I needed the assessment, it was written on my to do list, but the writing just blended into the background after I saw it a few times.
This is the story of my life. Every single day, I suddenly remember something incredibly important that I was not able to prioritise until it is absolutely urgent – things like eye and dentist appointments are pushed to the back of my mind because I need to learn about the history of Macanese cuisine or listen to three hours of a podcast about lesbian fanfiction, and then when I realise how long I have pushed it back for, I feel like a failure.
I don’t struggle with this stuff because I have depression. I get depressed because I struggle with this stuff, and no matter what I do, the world feels like it simply isn’t made for the way my brain works. I get fatigued because of how hard I try to manage the craziness in my head and present as a normal, capable individual, and then when it’s unbearable I totally shut down because I’m too tired to even process why I feel so sad and alone. When you try your absolute best and nothing ever seems to stick, of course you will begin to feel absolutely hopeless and can’t imagine living past 25 because the future seems so bleak. I feel like I have always set myself up to fail, because I have always tried to match the standards set by neurotypical people instead of understanding my own limits. I feel like I have finally begun to begin to get to know myself.
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