This was the brief conversation I had one morning with my husband. Short sweet and to the point which is what happens after many years spent with another human being. We were in the living room and I was reading an article in the Readers Digest about ADHD. With each paragraph I was more and more amazed. Yet oddly anxious. Could this be it? I mean I never thought there was anything wrong with me but I knew from a young age that I wasn’t like others. I had a eureka moment. An epiphany of sorts. I was excited yet a little afraid. So when I summoned up the courage to say to my husband “I think I might be ADHD”, his response was brief and to the point. “No shit!” And that was that. No discussion. No looking into it more deeply. Nothing. We went on with our lives.
And then my nephew was diagnosed. And my brother. I learned a little more about ADHD through conversations with my brother. Our coffee visits were a fountain of information and I was intrigued so I started to read more about these four letters which seemed to define my life to that point. Honestly it explained a lot about my life but the knowledge didn’t really change anything. I was still odd. I was still misunderstood and I was almost fourty years old. What were the chances that I would or even could “get better”? You see that’s the thing. You don’t get better. Because there isn’t anything wrong with you. You just don’t fit into the world. You know it and you try but it truly is hard.
As a child I was fortunate in many ways. I was the youngest so my parents were more relaxed when I came along. I liked to spend time alone and I read a lot. I wasn’t much trouble but I was a chatterbox. I still am. You see even though the H in ADHD stands for hyperactivity it isn’t just physical. I never was that way. But my brain? It is running a million miles a minute. I try to explain that it is like a pin ball game with thoughts racing around and around until you’re sure your head will explode. And frankly I couldn’t get my thoughts out fast enough. So I talked non stop. Even now I talk and talk and talk. My Dad used to offer me a dollar if I could not say a word for an hour. He never had to pay up. The runaway brain also leads to oversharing. I am not one to keep things to myself. I could be a politician because I don’t really have secrets. If you have just met me you will most likely know pretty much everything about me within ten minutes.
I did come to realize early on in life that the chatty part of me caused people to judge me intellectually. People think I am ditzy because I talk a lot. They assume I am not very bright. I had such a disconnect with this through my life. I always thought I was smart. I understood things. I did well in school until homework was introduced. Then the marks slipped because I just didn’t do homework. My parents would ask if I had homework and I just said no. I wouldn’t even bring it home from school. Tests and in class assignments were all done well. I realize now there were things I found boring and so I didn’t do them. That hasn’t changed. I remember in Social Studies class the teacher would pin ten news articles onto a bulletin board at the back of the room. We had a week to read them and every Friday we had a short quiz regarding the content of the clippings. I failed every quiz. Because I didn’t read the articles. I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t unintelligent. I just wasn’t interested. I was in grade six when the whole Watergate fiasco was uncovered in the United States and I remember it vividly. Why? Because the teacher would come in every day and tell us about the latest news. It was passive learning. Frankly as a lifelong cloak and dagger mystery lover the whole story was riveting for me.
Being disorganized and of course late for everything is the story of my life. My husband always thought I was just disrespectful. Turns out I have poor time management skills. That’s according to the professionals and any website you read regarding ADHD. Here is the reality though. I actually underestimate how long a task will take. That is part one of the problem. Part two is Instant gratification. Here is how my brain works. It is noon and I need to be somewhere at 2 pm. It will take ten minutes to have a shower. Makeup is five minutes. Hair is longer because I have to dry it and style it. Lets say fifteen minutes for that. Getting dressed is another five minutes. It is a ten minute drive to where I am going. That adds up to 45 minutes. So… in my mind I have to start getting ready at 1:15. I pour another cup of coffee and settle in to read my book for an hour. After all I have lots of time. Unfortunately there is no hot water because everyone had a shower before me. I give it a few minutes. My hair takes longer to dry so I try to curl it half damp. That doesn’t work. I use a headband to hold my hair back as I put on my make up which leaves odd flat parts in my hair so I have to restyle it. I have to leave in 2 minutes to I rush to get dressed, only… I hate everything. The outfit I had in mind has a missing button. I try on another dress. Too tight. Another one. The shoes I want to wear need polishing. Outfit after outfit is tossed aside on the bed until I finally settle on something to wear. It is now two pm and I can’t find my keys because when I come home I just drop them where I happen to be standing at the time. Its easier now because I skip the makeup, put my hair in a ponytail and wear whatever is clean. Being in my sixties is very freeing.
My attention span is non existent. On the other hand when I am involved in a project that needs my attention I can hyper focus. If I get up to get something in the kitchen during a commercial break quite often I will forget to go back and watch whatever show was on. Because I forget what I was doing. I see something by the stairs that belongs in the basement. I bring it down. Then I open the dryer. Fold some clothes. See an album cover beside the shelf and take out the record and play it. I reorganize the album titles by artists last name even though six months ago I did it by first name. I go to the washroom and notice the toilet needs cleaning. I decide to clean the bathroom. I take the bath rug into the laundry room to wash it. I notice the clothes I folded earlier. I bring some upstairs as I can’t carry them all. I know the rest will stay on top of the dryer until the next time I put something in the washer. That is when I pass the TV room and realize I had been watching a show. I ask my hubby what happened and he rolls his eyes. There is a down side to hyperfocusing. When someone is telling you a story and you can relate it often seems like we will jump in and make it all about us. People don’t like that. In fact, the reason we do it is because we are hyper focused on what you are saying, and it reminds us of something similar in our own life. We are excited to share it because in our minds we have found a bonding moment with another person. It gives us a dopamine rush. We fit. We can relate to someone. Hurray! We are somewhat normal. But then we see the other person is annoyed or bothered because we interrupt. So we try to shut up but then our entire focus is on not talking and we don’t hear a word they say.
On the other hand, when I am in the middle of a project I can’t leave until I am finished. When I am doing our taxes I will stay up for 48 hours straight if that’s what it takes. However, after the fact all my stuff just stays where I left it for a month. Usually the dining room table. Piles and piles of paper sit all alone and ready to file. If anyone touches it I lose my mind. The piles all have an order of some sort and one day I just sit down and file it all away. Usually if I have something else I need to get done.
A few years ago I met a gal from boarding school, for lunch. It had been many years since we had connected as we live three hours apart. We decided to meet in the middle. A ninety minute drive for both of us. It was fun to catch up and learn about her kids and husband. As we reminisced about our school days she made a comment which startled me. “We never knew what you were up to or where you were.” As she explained I was brought back in time. I got it. I knew what she meant. As friendships were formed, plans were made. I was the outlier though. Because I lived life on the fly. Even though I was included in everything my pals knew I wasn’t to be counted on. My friend gave an example. Sometimes when a group of gals were gathered in a dorm room chatting and drinking tea, someone would leave. Go get something from their own room. Go to the kitchen. Whatever. Then they came back. But I never came back. I would pass through the lounge and someone would ask if I wanted to play backgammon. So I would sit down and play. For hours. I felt bad during that lunch. And I told my friend. She shrugged her shoulders and told me that they all understood. That was just Cindy.
It did really fit in with my own thoughts though. I always felt like I was on the sidelines in life. Not in a bad way. Just more a watcher. My naturopath says I live too much in my head. He feels I need to be more social. And yet, social activities often cause me anxiety. I am good for a bit and then the panic hits me. Right in the face and I have to escape. I was in a book club years ago and a few times in the middle of the meeting I would just stand up and say I have to go. I struggle in situations where there are crowds even if I am having fun. Concerts or sporting events. The sheer volume of energy causes me to short out. We had Football seasons tickets for years and I would cry all the way home from the games. I was just so overwhelmed. I remember being at parties as a teen and needing to escape. Once, my boyfriend found me in the living room of a friends house sitting in the dark. I did that often. I also spent a lot of time in bathrooms at house parties. I loved giant outdoor parties because it was easy to slip away.
People with ADHD do whatever they can to fix themselves. This is probably the saddest thing I have ever written. Because we aren’t broken. The world thinks we are. And we believe them. Any medical website that talks about ADHD usually refers to it as a neurological disorder. A mental health condition. They list symptoms for various age groups as it changes as we age. They then list some of the consequences that happen when people are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Of course some of the most dire warnings can scare the crap out of people. Of course they do list how you can get help be it behaviour therapy or medication. Basically the news is good as you can be fixed. Not my words. The troubling part of this is that the starting point in the entire discussion is flawed. Whether you are a child, teen or adult when you are diagnosed, the bottom line is you don’t fit. You are different. And it bothers everyone around you. You make them uncomfortable. A child who is overly active or inattentive struggles in school or at home. They fidget, are restless, can’t focus or pay attention. They are loud, disruptive and have way too much energy. So we medicate them so life is calm in the classroom and at home. As the child becomes a teen the symptoms change. Partly because teenagers just naturally become lazier and they also have more autonomy so they have learned to cope better with their undesirable side. The new symptoms all have to do with being bored. Not finishing tasks or homework. Not focusing. Which leads to poor grades which leads to feelings of shame, depression and anxiety. They retreat from parents and teachers and seem defiant because they just can’t seem to fix themselves. Adults who are diagnosed have different issues yet in reality they are quite similar. In many ways the only thing that changes is not having your parents and teachers hovering over you. We are still unable to focus. Clearly lacking in time management. But the more severe problems stem from this. Drug or alcohol abuse, depression, low self esteem and frankly social issues. From a medical standpoint the symptoms change. From a personal issue, how we are forced to cope, changes. Through meds or behavioural classes we learn how to fit in.
Lets pretend things are different. In a whacky wonderful world, lets just for a moment see the world through the eyes of someone who is ADHD. Who we are in our natural environment and who we become when we try to assimilate as well as the consequences of our coping mechanisms. In our world we refer to ourselves as neurodivergent. This is a non medical term. It replaces the words “not normal” which is pretty yucky. My husband referred to it as “driving left of centre”. Doing things different. Not wrong. Perhaps just a little spicier. Oxford dictionary describes it as “showing patterns of thought or behaviour that are different from those of most people, though still part of the normal range in humans”. It covers a host of things like autism, ADHD, tourettes, dyslexia and can relate to many medical disorders that cause our brains to do things differently.
As a child we daydream to remove ourselves from the current situation. Something we find unpleasant or boring. It is a way to combat anxiety. We tend to hyperfocus so it is hard for us to snap out of it. This causes issues in school. Teachers become frustrated with us and we are always in trouble. And yet our ability to hyperfocus means we will see projects through to the end. In order to keep ourselves from daydreaming we stim. Stimming is something we do to calm ourselves or help us to focus or reduce anxiety from the excess energy in our environment. It is a repetitive action like tapping or humming. It is a coping mechanism to help us fit. However it can disrupt those around us so children are again in trouble. They need to behave and sit still. All the while inside their bodies and brains they are about to explode yet feel unhappy because they can’t control themselves. Yet they know if they don’t stop the behaviour they will invite negative reactions from those around them. My family noticed that when I am on the phone I walk around the house from one room to another. Or I go outside. Walking around and around. This is a form of stimming as it helps me focus on the caller. Phone conversations are traumatic for me. Overstimulating but there is also a good chance I will blurt out something inappropriate. Texting saves me. It helps me mask. Masking is also something we do as we get older. We learn from a young age that we are different and we also know those differences often cause issues. So we learn to mask. Masking is when we do things to appear neurotypical in order to cover our natural tendencies. We spend excessive amounts of energy to put forth a personality that is acceptable but it is exhausting and soul destroying. We hide the true us because we have learned that person upsets the world around us. You know what they say. Fake it ’til ya make it. Unfortunately, we never make it, so life becomes one big journey of fake. Sadness. Feeling misunderstood. We tend to turn to drugs as we age to control ourselves. Marijuana slows my brain down. Helps me to focus on one thought at a time. It has a calming effect. We also tend to mirror other people. Be a chameleon. We know that if we copy the behaviour of others, they will be more accepting. I once read a quote about ADHD. “Oh, you like my personality? Of course, you do. Because I am copying you.”
Most websites list ways you can control your behaviour. Set alarms, buy daytimers, organizers, make lists, seek behavioural help. On and on and on the helpful advice isn’t all that helpful. Seeking help means going to the Doctor, making appointments, being referred to specialists, more appointments. On and on we do things we aren’t good at or that cause anxiety just to be diagnosed with something we already know we have. So professionals can fix us. I have daytimers and organizers which are empty spanning back 25 or thirty years. I faked it through my life and I had the bad marks to prove it. Early in my marriage interactions with my in-laws led me to a dark place. It seemed everything I did was wrong Or stupid. I never felt stupid before marriage. I was labelled lazy, talkative, odd but never stupid. In fact I knew I was intelligent. I had received a few IQ tests throughout my life and I was always told how advanced and bright I was. The fact that it never translated to my report card in Junior high made sense. There was a disconnect on how the world saw me and what I saw in myself. So as a young wife and mother I arranged to have IQ testing done. The first result was an IQ of 152. Changing a line in a song, I wasn’t stupid I just looked that way. Frankly University was easier as I was able to choose my classes. Less boredom. I also found I did better in classes I knew nothing about because I was interested. Things like Math were difficult because I thought I knew everything, so I didn’t try.
There are some very wonderful traits that neurodivergent people bring to the table. Quite often we are intelligent. We let our minds wander and are then quite innovative. We tend to think outside the box. We don’t ponder and ponder… We just do. We react quickly without really thinking so often we are better in a crisis. We take longer to do things when there are time constraints and sometimes, we work best from 9 pm until 9 am. But we are often like dogs with a bone. We can’t let go of a problem until it is fixed. And yet we start hobbies and lose interest quickly. We are always “into” something new. Until we are bored. We are curious and want to learn everything. We research things to death. In my working life I started each job eager to learn. Then within a month or two I was anxious to streamline the job. Make it more efficient. I dug deep into how things were done and why and then I made them better. Within 6 months I would know the job inside out but because it took less time I was bored. We are often very in tune with our environment, so we see cues that others miss because we are always on in social situations. We can’t tune out the cacauphony around us as others can. We then become more perceptive. We can go with the flow easier because we are used to messing up and starting over many times. So, its normal to just change direction on a whim. I prefer a life led on the fly. Nothing is wrong and I am never late. Even if we seem socially inept, we are actually all about laying it all on the table. Get stuff out and then deal with it. Not easy when you are married to someone who buries feelings. By and large we tend to be very honest and real which again can be a problem. Which is why we learn to mask. We size up the crowd to figure out if it is safe and we can be ourselves or if we need to pretend to fit in. While we seem out of control and all over the map, we are incredible multi-taskers as our minds are going a mile a minute anyways.
Instagram has brought a whole lot of other ADHD’ers into my home. Some share cute anecdotes. Others offer advice on how to cope. Many have very sad stories. Quite a number are waiting to be diagnosed. For so many this is the end all be all. Because then they can start meds and to them, they feel this will solve so many problems. But it doesn’t. It may help you focus more but it also causes sleep disturbances. It causes excessive sweating which is embarrassing. Adderall is what my son takes which is an amphetamine. A stimulant. Basically, it is Speed. There are many types of meds used to control the undesirable ADHD traits but mainly they affect our norepinephrine and dopamine levels. Norepinephrine gets us going and dopamine is our feel-good chemical. More than that dopamine helps regulate how we weigh the pros and cons of an action based on our perceived result of the action. I was never medicated because I found out late in life and by that time, I had developed many coping skills. I just continue to self-medicate. Like having a few puffs on a one hitter before going into any social get together. It keeps me quiet, it makes me filter better and it slows the racing thoughts. It helps me to fit in. Or at the very least it keeps me from talking too much.
My husband was much kinder and accepting once our son was diagnosed. He suddenly understood more about why I was the way I was. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. I am more and more grateful for my upbringing now. I had to be prodded along but for the most part I wasn’t berated. I was left to my own devices and allowed to just play. I came to realize that this is a hereditary thing and my Mom was definitely ADHD. I met a young woman this summer while babysitting my Grandkids. Her comments about her ADHD child made me very sad. I knew she didn’t understand the girl and I tried to explain how her daughter felt. Thankfully, she was not offended but rather grateful for the insight. Neurodivergent children need advocates. So many people like to say “Oh we are all a little ADHD sometimes”. Not really. We are all somewhat forgetful or disorganized at times. But does it paralyze you? Do you cry daily in private because you try so hard but still can’t do anything right? Do you sometimes feel comfortable talking to someone, so you let your guard down. Be real, only to see that subtle shift. The energy changes. You make them uncomfortable. So you pull back.
As a young working Mom, I felt I disappointed everyone. I struggled to get all the kids ready and to the day-home. I was often berated by the babysitter because I forgot something. I couldn’t drop the kids off until 7 a.m. yet I had to be in my office by 7:30. Hanging up the kid’s coats, driving to the train, getting downtown and then walking a few blocks to my building. I WAS ALWAYS LATE! I was a consultant yet there was always someone commenting on my arrival. Rushing to pick up the kids was hard. Feed them, get them to whatever activity they had. Rush, rush, rush. My house in disarray. My mother-in-law liked to discuss my housekeeping habits. Or lack there-of. Life was out of control, and I wasn’t equipped to do it all. The pressure to do better personally and professionally was overwhelming and I often felt my head was underwater. Not because I couldn’t swim but because someone was holding me down. That someone came in the form of societal pressure. The anti-dote came when my infant son died. All of a sudden nothing mattered much, and I started to rebel in my life. It was liberating. It was freeing. And it caused more upheaval in my life than ever before. Because the world we live in is always striving for the status quo. Periods of homeostasis. When you spend years trying to conform, even if it doesn’t work out, it is preferable that you try and follow the rules. Rebellion isn’t comfortable for those around you and often they will punish you. For trying to live your life in what you believe is an authentic manner.
The bottom line is this. There is a large portion of the population that does not respond well to generally accepted rules of society. It starts in childhood when they don’t fit into the classroom setting. In adulthood we don’t often fit into the work world either. Because all of the organized events in our lives revolve around time, conforming, quiet and stillness. And frankly if all of these things are hard, life will be as well. So here is my advice. If you think your child is ADHD or has some other neurodivergent diagnoses… Do some research. Learn a bit about how your child see’s the world. Most importantly, try not to yell at them when they act in a way that doesn’t suit your agenda. If they don’t answer when you call, they aren’t trying to ignore you. They might be hyper-focused on an activity. Change how you try and get their attention. If they are hard to motivate, perhaps they aren’t interested in your plan. So, leave them be. If homework is a trial and a fighting match, don’t push it. Explain to the teacher they are over-run and homework has to suffer. Neurodivergent’s are typically pretty bright. If they are interested in something they will learn everything there is to know about the subject. They may not be on the honour roll but through the years they will learn plenty. And there is more to life than be held up to a yardstick that favours a very small percentage of kids.
Life is hard out there in the world so home should be a safe place. Advocate for your children. Be on their side. They are such unique little people. I have always felt that freedom was the ultimate gift my parents gave me. I truly believe it was the one act that kept me married. But I fought for it. When you give children the ability to make decisions you are giving them the most important tools for life. They can win or lose based on their own choices and learn valuable lessons from either outcome. I live quite well in my ADHD world. But I am retired. It is easier. Being undiagnosed was hard but the lesson’s I learned were invaluable. There is nothing wrong with me. I am a pretty cool cat. I have done some wonderful things in my life, and I will do many more. And to those who find me odd… you’re right I guess. But that’s your issue Not mine. I am good with me. That is all that matters.