I’m a Lost Girl of ADHD
If I just tried harder, I’d be more successful.
If I could just figure out what’s wrong with me, maybe I could fix it.
Life seems so much easier for everyone else. I must be doing it wrong.
These harsh words were my inner voice, my unwelcome mantras, for decades. They were the fallout from hearing, over and over again throughout my adolescence, “You’re just not living up to your potential.” If only my teachers had known that I couldn’t claw my way to my “full potential” by sheer will alone. If only I’d had the words to tell them.
In elementary school, I’m labeled gifted. I win the school spelling bee in the fourth grade, out-spelling even the fifth graders. My favorite teacher presents me with a citizenship award. Already a book lover, I create a volunteer position for myself in my elementary school library. But the year I turn 11, everything changes. As my hips widen, my grades plummet.
“Your science teacher says you’re always looking around during class. Do you know what he means?” my dad asks me after a parent-teacher conference. I shake my head, stare at my feet. I don’t know why my mind roams like a stray dog during math and science or why segments of school have suddenly become hard. I don’t know about the floods of estrogen and progesterone that course through me, creating havoc.
I’m profoundly disorganized: my folders, my backpack, my locker, my bedroom all brim with chaos. My emotions feel like external events, fierce storms that descended upon me. I’m “too sensitive” — to light, to sounds, to criticism (real or perceived). My mind overflows with a million great ideas, but I can never seem to execute them.
I used to be smart, I think. I just need to try harder.
It will take decades to understand that it’s possible to be two things at once: Sharp and scattered. Creative and cluttered. Gifted and challenged.
When I’m 20, lounging on my gray futon in a cloud of marijuana smoke wondering when my life will actually begin, I catch an episode of Oprah about girls with ADHD. “Inattentive.” “Daydreamer.” “Disorganized.” The words are a poem that spells my name. I glance around my studio apartment as if for the first time: strewn with books and CDs and sweaters, slivers of paper holding the stunted rumblings of writing dreams that never quite lift off.
I pull my phone book from one of the piles and find a therapist with an office nearby.
“I don’t know if you have ADHD,” she tells me after I fill out a bunch of psychological paperwork, “but I do think you’re depressed.”
I move back to my parents’ house and start antidepressants. The hopelessness lifts, but life continues to feel like an uphill trudge.
Like many women who are diagnosed later in life with ADHD, motherhood is the role that tips my life into utter unmanageability. Moms can be the heartbeat of their households, the engine that powers the machine. With children, the love arrives out of nowhere, vast and inexplicable and fierce. But the rest of the costuming of motherhood — the ability to plan meals and come up with crafts and keep the house clean and regulate emotions — are all garbs I can’t seem to find no matter how hard I search.
Perhaps they lurk somewhere beneath the piles of dishes and dirty laundry. Or in some dusty corner of my mind, beneath the books I’ve yet to write, the mother I’ve yet to become, the streamlined life that glimmers on the horizon.
One afternoon while I’m giving my daughter a bath, I stumble on an article about women with ADHD. I possess nearly all the traits the author lists, from hypersensitivity to holiday overwhelm to career struggles. It’s like someone’s been spying on me and jotting down my struggles, all the loose threads of my life that never made sense, and wrapped them up and handed them to me in a single cohesive and glimmering package.
What if this isn’t all my fault? I wonder. What if there’s a way to make it better?
I think about the Oprah show I saw 20 years earlier. I gaze back at the scattered clues of my life. It took me nine years and four colleges to get my bachelor’s degree. Once I found a school where I could hyperfocus on my passion — creative writing — and ignore subjects I struggled with—like math and science — I excelled.
I lose my debit cards so often they almost never have a chance to expire. Overwhelm is the central, pulsing theme of my life, my constant companion. I’ve spent decades in therapy, yet I never progress enough to graduate. I’ve tried medication, meditation, 12-step programs, acupuncture, exercise, prayer, and professional organizers, but I never seem to reach “normal.”
The book I’ve been trying to write for 20 years is still not quite finished. There’s an alarming restlessness that haunts me. The disparate clues float and slide into formation. My mind sparks and shimmies. What if this isn’t all my fault? I wonder. What if there’s a way to make it better?
I hyperfocus on ADHD in the same way I hyperfocus on anything that catches my interest. I learn as much as I can — about the ties between ADHD and sensitivity. About the way the ebb and fall of estrogen affects ADHD. Stimulants, I discover, are the first course of treatment for many. And yet, I avoid trying them for several years because I worry they’ll exacerbate my anxiety.
Finally, at 45, a few years after my breakthrough during my daughter’s bath, I become desperate enough to seek treatment. I come home from my first appointment with a prescription for Ritalin. I feel guilty as if I’ve stuffed my pockets full of shortcuts. Like I’m a college kid cramming for midterms. I swallow half a pill and wait for my anxiety to spike.
I sometimes think about that younger version of me … who believed she just wasn’t trying hard enough.
What happens instead is something I never could’ve fathomed. Stimulants slow my brain down. They allow me to experience one thought at a time.
I no longer pepper my husband with (as many) questions during action movies. I no longer get overstimulated and have panic attacks when I’m driving on the highway. I can complete simple tasks that once eluded me. I’m learning, like a child, to prioritize and organize.
I feel… hope. Space. Drive.
And yet, I can’t help but mourn all the lost years. For the decades I spent thinking I just wasn’t trying hard enough, that I was lazy and unmotivated. For all the time I spent thinking there was something wrong with me. For the books I might’ve written by now. For my shitty self-esteem. For all the stress that chronic overwhelm unleashed upon my body. For all those years I believed I wasn’t trying hard enough, wasn’t ambitious enough. For all the conversations about my vaporous potential that should’ve instead been about dopamine receptors and executive function coaching.
It hurts and I’m healing. I’m learning to reframe my inner voice: It wasn’t your fault. We’re learning. Better late than never.
I sometimes think about that younger version of me — the one toppled by puberty, the one who believed the story that she just wasn’t trying hard enough. That she’d somehow wandered from brilliant to broken.
With time, with treatment, I’m learning to see that girl who has become this woman as she was and is — gifted and challenged. Stumbling and starlit. One hand grasping grief, the other glossed in gratitude.