Hi, my name is Alissa and I have ADHD.
Before I get too far in, I want to clarify who this post is for and who it is not for.
This post is for anyone out there who might be able to relate, who might be on or about to start the journey to understanding themselves in light of the knowledge humankind has so far about ADHD (which I, along with others, would argue is a different brain type not a disorder). I hope you feel less alone or less ashamed or more hopeful after reading my story. Maybe something will click about how to work with yourself as things began to click for me when I first learned about ADHD. Reading blogs by other people with ADHD brains, particularly women and/or introverts, did in my case. It meant the world to me.
This is not for people who know me in person but aren’t super close, who want to object I couldn’t possibly have ADHD because I seem organized or put together or productive, because I’m not the stereotypical class clown boy who disrupts class. Y’all have not seen the behind the scenes tears, shame, anxiety, panic attacks, meltdowns, and trial-and-error problem-solving that’s had to take place to get those thing done and to find a rhythm or some sort of efficiency!
The people who have been behind the scenes, like my parents and husband for example, reacted completely differently when I shared what I learned about ADHD and myself with them–it was more along the lines of, “Oh, yeah. That actually makes a lot of sense.”
Also, this not for people who want to argue with me about ADHD being made-up. Go away!!!! (Please)
The first time someone expressed to me they thought I had ADHD was a psychiatrist through the university I attended at the time. I wrote her off right away (we’ll get back to that later), forgot about it pretty soon after, and it didn’t return to my mind for at least a year. However, this was not the first time someone was concerned I had ADHD. Apparently (I didn’t know this until some time after that professional’s observation), my mom was concerned I had it as a young child and wanted to have me tested (ultimately my parents didn’t for their own reasons).
I’m sure if I pester her enough my mom would being willing to elaborate on why she thought so… if anyone is really that interested in my life, that is.
When I got to school, I didn’t have problems though, so my mom let it alone. I was painfully shy, got good grades, and was placed in the gifted program. Even in junior high and high school, I did very well grade-wise, honestly without much effort. Here’s the thing though: I was hardcore, on-another-planet-daydreaming at least 78% of the time. But I didn’t struggle to learn new things and developed an excellent “paying attention face” (as my husband would later label it).
Even in college, I was able to get mostly As, a few Bs, and one C by using my tried and true daydreaming in class and then teaching myself what I missed later method. It was more difficult and stressful than in high school, but I still got by. It didn’t help that I had the freedom to skip class. And did skip class. A ton.
I know skipping class is very common among college students so I’m not trying to say I’m unique for doing this. But if classes didn’t have an attendance policy, I would skip them, even if I genuinely liked the topic, simply because I couldn’t sit still and maintain focus. It was a nightmare to be trapped in a desk, only allowed the movement to doodle or try to discretely wiggle my legs, and I felt like a lazy piece of shit for not being as attentive and studious as people around me. I would forget my notebook or bring the wrong notebook or lose my pen somewhere along the way or notice someone chewing food and not being able to notice anything else. So I skipped. When it came time for an exam, I would teach myself enough of what I needed to know to pass the night before.
This worked pretty well until my 8 AM organic chemistry (the C I mentioned earlier. I got by with the C. I did wonder if I should just drop out of college since I couldn’t take it seriously but I had bigger mental health fish to fry (anxiety and depression–if you’ve been a reader for a while, you’re tired of hearing about it) so I pushed it away.
It wasn’t until my first big girl full-time job at a non-profit (started in my last semester of college which wasn’t the best idea) that my ADHD brain began to affect me in a way I truly cared about–because I cared a lot about doing well at my job and not letting my bosses, coworkers, or clients (or anyone for that matter) down ever in any way at all (I’m working on that trait).
The job, while it involved personal interactions with clients, had a lot of computer/paperwork/data tracking aspects to it. I’ll admit I had a larger than humanly possible workload, which was a stress factor, but I was struggling with more than just that. I was overwhelmed by any task I had because each task felt too big and complicated to start–even ones other people gave no thought to–and I didn’t know how to break them down, prioritize, or manage them. I chronically underestimated how long things would take me and even if I got 90% of the way done, I would be stuck on the last 10% for seemingly forever.
I would start one thing, then remember something else that needed to be done so start a second thing, but while doing the second thing would remember a third, and so on and so on. There were points where I would have 10 different projects/tasks/etc. on my desk halfway done and on my computer 10+ programs running and 40+ internet tabs open. It was insane. It was like everything I need to get done was swirling around my head. I would grab a task from the swirl and try to start it but the second I did, it would be swept by the tornado winds away from me again.
It seemed like I had no control over my focus after 10 am and trying to get anything done after 2 pm was excruciating. It felt like everything I did took way too long and was done inefficiently–not to mention the anxiety, stress, and shame that accompanied all of this. Despite all that, I couldn’t say no to additional responsibilities and would find a way to get it done, staying late, coming early, losing my mind. At times, I would find a burst of focus energy (now I know this is called “hyperfocusing”) and work on something I was obsessed with for two or more hours straight. The problem was, I would then be completely burned out with no energy for anything else the rest of the day, no matter how hard I tried.
So, I began an internet search on “how to stay focused at work.” The articles I related most to and the strategies I found most helpful were by/for people with ADHD. If you’re interested in what I implemented that made the biggest difference, let me know and I can whip that list up for you. I think this post will be long enough without those tips though. The point is I did implement them and while I was still having a hard time, they made a fairly big difference.
This got me thinking back to my appointment with the psychiatrist I mentioned earlier. I had laughed her off, but now that I had done my own reading about ADHD I was feeling bad for doing so and hungry to learn more so I could improve myself internally and externally.
I remember she listed off these statements and I was supposed tell her how frequently I did/experienced them. I forget most of them but ones that stood out were things like I lose personal belongings like my keys, phone, and wallet or I walk into rooms and forget why I walked in or I’m disorganized or I find it hard to focus on boring or tedious tasks or I start projects but don’t finish them.
These are things every person on earth can relate to, right? That’s why I thought this psychiatrist was diagnosis happy!
What I didn’t realize was this:
*While everyone can relate to losing their keys/phone/wallet at some point or another, not everyone loses their phone or wallet to the point they are not sure they will find them again multiple times a day. Most people aren’t in a crying rage at themselves, tearing their apartments apart, because they lost their keys and are going to be late for work/an appointment/a meeting three or four times a week. Not everyone has lost a set of keys for good. As in, I never found them and had to get new ones.*
*While everyone can relate to the act of walking into a room and forgetting why they did so, most people don’t do this an easy 75% of the time they walk into a room. (My former co-worker and ADHD buddy, Nadeem, would almost always forget what he needed whenever he would come to my office. And I wasn’t even fazed because I completely understood. We would laugh about it and he would sometimes remember halfway into our following [ALWAYS COMPLETELY WORK RELATED, OF COURSE] conversation.)*
*While everyone can relate to being disorganized or having a messy space at one point or another, not everyone feels intense shame about it, because they feel completely out of control and helpless and lazy despite knowing they need organization to thrive and having tried over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again to “get it together.”*
*While everyone hates boring tasks and get side-tracked, not everyone sabotages study sessions right before big exams with an endless supply of memes (sorry, Brandon–you still passed organic, right?) because they legitimately don’t know how to focus or break down studying and are afraid of looking–and, worse, feeling–stupid.*
*While everyone can relate to planning and starting a project then abandoning it, most people finish a good deal of the things they start. Not everyone will hyper focus to the point of not being able to think about anything else on producing the most intricate and amazing plan to create or do something. Not everyone will impulsively spend too much money on the equipment needed for whatever new hobby or project it is. Just to lose 100% interest in a couples week or very shortly after actually starting that thing.*
So even though I answered “frequently” to almost all her questions, including the ones above, I didn’t think anything of it. I thought when it came to most of the statements, I was either completely normal or just super lazy. I didn’t think I could have ADHD because I was a girl and I was introverted. I honestly thought she was a horrible psychiatrist for suggesting I had ADHD. I got the SSRI prescription I needed and ran (funny enough, while Zoloft significantly improved my anxiety and depression, it made my inattentive ADHD worse, particularly the working memory aspect).
Side note: I hate when I have to scroll back up and reread part of my writing to remember where the hell I was going with it! brb
Oh yeah, so I was thinking back to my psychiatrist meeting with an enlightened perspective and was hungry to improve my life. I decided to find a counselor who specialized in ADHD for some help problem-solving in a personalized way.
If there was any doubt in my mind I had ADHD before I met with the ADHD counselor, it melted away completely in the first session. My shame and sense of helplessness began to shrink as well. He really helped me understand how ADHD brains are just different (I’m not going to get into the science of all that, because this post is long enough and others are already doing so way better than I ever could) not bad, are just existing in an non ADHD world. He helped me see that improving myself was all about understanding why certain things were hard for my brain to complete or compute and creating an external system to make up for it (again, if you’re interested, I can make another post). The system might look different than other people’s, but there is no shame in that. There should be pride in the strength it takes to problem-solve the best way for you personally to function.
He also helped me see that ADHD was not just affecting my work life, but my personal life as well. See, even though I was beginning to see my work struggles as ADHD related, I still thought of myself as lazy and childish for struggling with things at home–things like my messiness, hobby starting and quickly stopping, letting chores pile up, forgetting bills or to-do’s, losing or dropping my phone/keys/wallet, etc. My feelings of inadequacy and failure when it came to these things were amplified when I got married, because my husband doesn’t have ADHD and generally speaking doesn’t share these struggles.
At the time, I compared myself to how good Type-A Evan (the hubs) was at “being an adult” and he did too. He wasn’t mean about it, but he did express frustration and didn’t understand why I was the way I was (and not to overuse this word, but I felt deep shame because I didn’t understand either). His frustration, while typically justified, has mostly been replaced with graciousness since we both started to learn about ADHD. That’s part of why I’m writing. When you understand ADHD, you’re able to extend grace while taking effective steps to a better way of life for yourself or with your loved one.
I only attended this counselor 2-3 times because it was expensive. As you can tell, though, it totally changed my mindset and approach. I continue to educate myself about ADHD and how it affects different aspects of my life. In doing so, I’m able to use my creativity to find solutions and systems that work for me. I’m able to play to my strengths instead of trying to force myself to do things the way non ADHD people do them and then berating myself for failing once again. (I feel sad it took me so long to realize the problem wasn’t me. The problem wasn’t that I lacked the will to do something but was the way I was trying to do it.)
I’m far from where I want to be, but more often than not, I have replaced my feelings of inadequacy with a sense of resiliency. I’ve seen how I’ve grown and am proud of myself for continually trying new approaches to grown-up tasks that I’m struggling with. And I hope if you’ve seen yourself somewhere in my experience, you’ve gotten something out of it or have some wisdom to share with me.
A final thought: don’t get scared off by the label of ADHD. For a long time, I hesitated with using the term, because a diagnosis wasn’t important to me; what was important was finding solutions and all I knew was I found them in the ADHD self-help world. I was scared of being diagnosis happy or that people wouldn’t take my self-assessment seriously (I’m still scared of the second one, but I’m sharing my story anyway).
After a certain point, though, I came to the point of feeling comfortable and confident saying the shoe fits. That might not be your case, but you can reject the ADHD diagnosis and still find ADHD-centered problem-solving approaches helpful. Because the struggles people with ADHD face are not unique to people with ADHD; they’re just more pronounced/frequent/bigger in people with ADHD and therefore interfere with their ability to be successful to a much, much higher degree. And the strategies that help people with ADHD function can be useful for anyone; people with ADHD just can’t function well without them. Does that make sense?
(Fun drinking game where you take a shot every time I said ADHD in this post).
Scroll down for some links to resources I keep coming back to and some bonus content I couldn’t figure out how to add above without disrupting the flow of things.
Luh you, bye.
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Just a few resources I personally recommend by people with ADHD:
Attention Talk Radio (YouTube channel; videos are short and very practical)
Swimming With Goldfish (Blog; educational)
Coach Alyssa Shaw (Blog; by an ADHD coach)
Maddi_Kay_Allen (Instagram; her captions are amazing; not an ADHD specific account anymore, but she has ADHD and is a mother and is totally honest about what it’s like)
ADD Diva (Blog; by an ADHD coach; this was actually the first ADHD blog I read and made me understand women can have ADHD too)
Distraction (Podcast; tips/strategies and interviews)
And if you think you might have ADHD and want a good laugh: The Unofficial ADHD Test for Adults (I watched it at 1.5x speed because I saw how long it was…do I get a point for that?) My husband found the one about wishing everyone would get on with the point when you can seem to get on with the point one especially funny and applicable to myself. 🙂
Like I said above, these are a couple things I wanted to say but couldn’t find a way to fit in.
“Cookie-ing” – I heard this term on a podcast recently. It’s based on the book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” I haven’t read this book for years, but basically the book says if you give a mouse a cookie, then he will ask for milk, and if you give him milk, then he’ll ask for a straw, and so on. The couple on the podcast used the term to describe a type of behavior that’s very typical for myself and people with ADHD. I think I can best explain through an example:
I go downstairs to get something from my vehicle in the garage. On the way, I see the washer and dryer and am reminded I need to do laundry. So, I immediately go upstairs to get the dirty clothes from our bedroom. As I’m picking up my dirty clothes that never made it to the hamper 2 feet away, I notice mail on the floor that I meant to put in our mail basket but got distracted. So, I sit down to the sort the mail. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of paperwork that needs to be shredded or scanned and I’ve been meaning to get to that, so I go get all the paperwork and dump in on the floor to sort. I find a bill I forgot to pay. I grab my phone, abandoning the pile of papers, to pay the bill before whatever it was gets shut off. While I’m on my phone, I remember I need to email someone back. I start to write the email, forgetting about the bill. Then I’m like, “Oh, yeah, the laundry.” Despite the email still being a draft, I grab the dirty clothes and take them downstairs. When I open the lid I see another load of laundry that I forgot to move to the dryer a week ago. Whoops. It smells bad. So I rewash that load. While I’m waiting, I decide to de-clutter the kitchen. Half-way through, I remember I was about to get something from my vehicle. What was it? I can’t for the love of all that is good remember. Oh well (it was mail from that day). I get ready for bed making a mental note to move the laundry to the dryer when I wake up. I forget to.
It’s funny to read, but this is me EVERY TIME I try to get something done and it’s FRUSTRATING. Knowing I do it and now having a term to identify it with helps. I can laugh at what I’m doing and steer myself back on track. Can you relate at all?
“Can you repeat the question?”
I don’t think there was a weekly small group session in college without me asking this question at least once. I tried to play it off with a laugh (haha I was paying attention, but…) and it was almost a goofy Alissa trademark, but I actually found it very embarrassing.
It was embarrassing because I really was paying attention and invested in the topic; I didn’t want anyone to think otherwise, but… I knew how it looked. The problem was if the question was long or if another person who answered it before me started getting off topic in their response, I immediately lost that question completely as if it never existed in my mind. I now know this is because as someone with an ADHD brain my working memory isn’t the best. The working memory problem is also why I walk into rooms and forget why.
As always, I have more things to say but for now:
THE (for real and abrupt) END.