Like most people, I always thought attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was for unruly schoolboys who couldn’t sit still. That was until I was tasked with writing a blog post about ADHD for work in 2017, and for the first time ever, everything (and by everything, I mean the whole internally chaotic, isolating experience of my existence thus far) made absolute, beautiful, thirst-quenching, mind-blowing sense.
ADHD is an impairment bought about by crossed wires in the right prefrontal cortex, which mainly affects emotional regulation. The ‘hyperactivity’ portion of the name is a bit misleading, and so is the ‘disorder’ bit. ADHD is an impairment, not a disorder, and it doesn’t always manifest as physical hyperactivity. For many people – especially girls, this characteristic restlessness is internalised and hidden from a young age .
I daydreamed and doodled my way through school. I was a ‘good’ child (keen to please, curious to learn, afraid of being told off) but I was always in trouble for defacing my school books with mad doodles, forgetting my PE kit, not listening in class, turning up late, or missing my bus to school. I still now, as a 31-year-old, have an amazing ability to leave the physical realm and spend hours lost in internal fantasies (it’s probably why I’m a writer).
Sometimes it’s a struggle to stay focused when people are talking because there is so much distracting me, like their body language, or my own self-consciousness, or parts of what they say that send my mind wandering off a different avenue of thought. I go temporarily deaf in these moments and have to claw my way back to the conversation without making it obvious I switched off. It is annoying for me because it means I miss jokes, or opportunities to pitch in with a sharp comment, or really engage with that person in the way I’d like to.
Imagine that your whole world is in darkness, apart from a spotlight which can only shine on one thing at a time. That’s how I experience life. Anything beyond that spotlight simply doesn’t exist. My friends, my family – if they’re not in front of me, sending me messages, or connecting in some strong way with my emotions, I forget them. It sounds terrible but it’s true. And it doesn’t mean I don’t care – far from it. I am a very sensitive, empathetic, caring person who is interested in other people’s lives and always wishing the best for people. As soon as my spotlight is on a person, I feel all the feelings: it’s just a case of moving it where it needs to go.
But I can’t seem to control the spotlight. A lot of the time it shines inwards – to the realm of speculation and fantasy, so even the things happening in real life right in front of me don’t register. All my life I’ve battled with this blindness. It’s led to losing countless sets of house keys, bank cards, leaving my bag/coat/phone behind in restaurants etc. To other people it looks like laziness, carelessness, self-absorption – but I assure you it’s just as annoying for me, if not more so because it often means missing events or spending time cancelling accounts and ordering replacements for things that have fallen out of my hand. It also undermines my credibility and reliability as a person. I want to be trustworthy and capable, but time and time again I let myself down.
My concept of time is child-like. If something isn’t happening right now, it’s happening some time in the vague infiniteness of the future and I won’t think about it until it’s upon me, which of course usually makes me late or ill-prepared – or in some cases I’ll forget about the event all together.
Because everything seems to take ages to compute, it leaves me feeling very separate to the world, as though everybody else is part of a club that I’m not, or I’m floating just a few cm behind my actual body. I’m hyper-sensitive to non-verbal cues, constantly looking for signs of people’s emotional states, and yet absolutely hopeless at interpreting them correctly. This means I often make social faux-pas and feel frequently embarrassed, which over time has shaped my quiet, reserved personality and created within me a feeling of deep shame about who I am – and an unhappy desperation to be heard and understood by others, which of course has affected my personal relationships profoundly.
Once I had the epiphany that I might have ADHD, I did absolutely nothing about it. I basically forgot about it, which is typical really.
Then three years later, ADHD cropped up in a counselling session.
My counsellor made the suggestion that I may be neurodivergent (neurodivergence is a huge spectrum) and I told her yes, I think I might have ADHD.
It gives me a huge sense of relief to know that there is a reason for the chaos. That I’m not a bad person – I just have an impairment where most other people do not. This helps me to be softer on myself. A lot of the negative behaviours associated with ADHD actually come from self-blame and shame, so a more compassionate approach must contribute to my healing.
Over the years I have taught myself various coping mechanisms so I don’t drop the ball (dropping the ball when you have a job and a mortgage isn’t really an option). I know where my blind spots are and what I need to improve. But the biggest lesson I face is forgiving myself and seeing the positive aspects of ADHD – like creativity, playfulness, empathy and perception.
It’s not about making excuses, or falling into victimhood. We’re all a bit fucked up in our own special ways, and being able to pinpoint your behaviours and triggers means you can mitigate the negative impacts on yourself and other people, and learn more about your weird and wonderful ways with a sense of intrigue and compassion.