When I finally got diagnosed with ADHD, my entire outlook changed. But the journey that got me there was full of shame and anxiety.
Someone should have known something was up when I dropped out of college.
I’d been awarded a full academic scholarship, but I just couldn’t hack it. I’d sit down to study and stare blankly at my pile of flashcards, my usually hyper-imaginative brain reduced to television static.
By the end of my first semester, I was on academic probation.
No one else seemed to have this problem, with their cozy study groups and their neatly-printed notes and their always-showing-up-to-class-on-time.
I perpetually forgot to attend class, forgot to show up to tutor the football players in English, forgot where I’d put that printout, forgot my dorm key, forgot why I’d enrolled in stupid college in the first place.
I was always anxious, always despairing.
So I left.
Twenty years would pass before I’d be diagnosed with the inattentive type of ADHD.
It’s impossible to know how my life could have been different if I’d been diagnosed sooner. ADD had barely breached public awareness when I was a stringy-haired girl-kid in the 80’s—and folks who had heard of it thought it only applied to hyperactive little boys.
I was far from hyperactive.
“A daydreamer,” they called me: always lost in my own head, exploring vivid stories of my own imagination. My family loved to tease me for vanishing into the bathroom only to emerge an hour later, blissfully unaware of how much time had passed as I devoured my latest library book.
My hyperfocus was so intense, my legs would go numb as I read from my perch on the toilet, and I’d have to stomp them awake when I finally returned to reality—usually because someone was banging on the door.
“You’re part sloth,” my precious grandfather would joke lovingly as I meandered about. Other unrecognized signs of my chemical inattention included anxiety, depression, procrastination, impulsiveness, and utter befuddlement at mathematics.
As a little girl in a loving, hippie-esque family, I didn’t often experience my inattentive traits as shortcomings.
My mom homeschooled me and my siblings, adapting each kid’s curriculum to our unique needs, which softened the edges of my neurodivergence.
It was only when I left for college that I felt the full force of my focus failings, which exacerbated my symptoms. Through school and jobs and relationships, I fought myself to the point of exhaustion.
When I didn’t feel helpless and hopeless, I felt like a superhero.
There was no neutral territory in my brain. It was on or off, go big or go home, passionate enthusiasm or existential dread.
My own insatiable curiosity finally led me to the answer I didn’t even know I was seeking.
I’d more-or-less accepted that my life was a never-ending ride on the hot mess express. Then one late night, rolled into my covers, devotedly pursuing my internet degree in psychotherapy, I stumbled across a video series from Dr. Judy Ho and MedCircle, an online mental health resource:
As I absorbed Dr. Ho’s insights, my body literally tingled. Now THIS was stimulating.
Dr. Ho outlined the myriad ways ADHD shows up in adults—specifically adult women diagnosed with ADHD.
I was stunned.
Everything she said resonated with my own experiences, and, for the first time in my life, I felt like maybe I wasn’t hopelessly broken, after all.
I was already seeing a psychiatrist for intense anxiety, a condition that had raged out of control after my divorce.
“I think I might have ADHD,” I told her, a little hesitantly. Dr. Chhabra didn’t flinch. “Let’s find out,” she said.
In addition to being brilliant and beautiful, Dr. Hanita Chhabra is incredibly kind with a delightfully dry sense of humor.
“This is your superpower!” she said emphatically. “Once we rein in your more uncomfortable symptoms, I think you’ll discover that you’re a genius.”
Mensa’s high-IQ club has yet to claim me as one of their own, but Dr. Chhabra was right.
Newly diagnosed with ADHD, I adopted fresh coping skills and adapted to new medication—and I found myself actually getting sh*t done. Instead of swinging precariously between hyperfocus and absolutely-no-focus-whatsoever, I could settle. I knew what my brain was telling me, and I had the tools I needed to respond.
An ADDitude article summarizes, “People with ADHD excel at pushing past setbacks, adapting new strategies, and moving forward better than ever.”
In fact, I’ve learned that my ADHD brain is exceptionally adept at thinking “outside the box,” mostly because I don’t see the box in the first place.
My brain refuses to attach to non-stimulating information, which empowers me to bypass unhelpful conventional wisdom and dive directly into creative ideation.
Because my brain is constantly fiending for dopamine and norepinephrine, it’s easy for me to dream up solutions to boring, everyday problems. This process of problem-solving is innately stimulating, which serves me well as a freelancer.
I get immense joy from new discoveries.
This joy-seeking prompts me down more rabbit holes than I care to admit, but it also enables me to conquer just about any task I set my mind to.
Case in point: I built my website entirely by myself—and I’d never built a website before in my life.
Now that I know what’s happening in my head, I relish opportunities to adapt my environment to my unique neuroprocessing style.
To limit distractions, I learned that I work most successfully from home.
I splurge on nutritious pre-cut and pre-cooked foods that are easy to grab when I’m focused but need to eat.
Alarms help me remember everything from meetings times to meal times.
And I give myself permission to tackle every project in tiny steps so I don’t get overwhelmed and avoid the project altogether.
The best part about getting diagnosed with ADHD, however, has been actively practicing forgiveness any time I sway toward shame or guilt or self-loathing.
It can be easy to feel like I’m failing when I see other people doing X, Y, and Z, while I’m over here fixated on L, M, and N.
Now, I try to treat myself gently. Some days are better than others, sure; but isn’t that true for everyone?
As my days and months grow into years and decades, I don’t want to waste them berating myself for things I have little to no control over. I want to LIVE. And I want to enjoy that living for as long as it’s here to be enjoyed.
“Stop shoulding on yourself,” therapists say, and I’ve taken it to heart. Because the only person I can ever be—should ever be—is the beautifully broken superhero I already am.
Cover photo by Abyan Athif