The Lost Girls of ADHD
Getting diagnosed as an adult hasn’t been the relief I thought it would be
There are three cups perched on my windowsill, one half filled with ripening tea, the soy milk congealing and fluffy. I know it’s time to cart them to the dishwasher, I can smell the sweet-bitter scent of mold. I think about doing it. I will myself to do it. I want to do it. I’m… probably not going to do it.
It feels like being trapped under sandbags, or at least, that’s how I describe it to a friend. It’s like I’m taking out the garbage after a very long week, but the bag breaks, and I hate myself, so I just give up and sit down in the pile of garbage because I’m garbage too. It’s like my mind is an annoying kid sister prodding at my exhausted body, and my body keeps saying “Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off.”
I’ve wasted my life telling my mind to fuck off.
Being diagnosed with ADHD at 32 years old has not been the welcome relief that one Bustle article promised me. I think it’s a diagnosis trope, that we all come out the other side rejuvenated through this new knowledge, like naming the thing takes away its power.
But ADHD isn’t Rumpelstiltskin — even if it does feel like it’s trying to rob me of my future — and so my reaction involved, in no particular order, resentment, eating a lot of chocolate, yelling at my parents, and grief. Lots and lots of grief.
I grieved for my childhood, my education, my relationships, my work, my family, my friendships, that class hamster I forgot to feed. I didn’t have a grip yet on what ADHD was exactly, but I knew that it came with effective treatments, ones that might have helped me in the past, when I needed them most, back when I was growing and learning and desperately trying to meet the expectations of everyone around me.
I wondered why no one recognized it, or suggested it, or took me to get help. That’s where the “yelling at my parents” came in.
When I was a kid, my mum’s screech could shatter glass when she saw the state of my bedroom. “It looks like a bomb hit it!” Through the lens of her strict Southern Baptist upbringing, my disorganization was a character flaw. I was the irresponsible layabout of the family, careless with my things. She didn’t give me the belt like her father might have. Instead, she gave me bitter overtures about her attempts to sort my clean underwear from my dirty ones, all inexplicably piled together on my floor. She would fall into her cat-scratched vinyl recliner like it was a fainting couch, tighten her lips, and look away.
I spent the hours after school within this blast radius, flipping through books and singing along to the few CDs that had survived the floor of my bedroom and the stomp of my feet. I’d scribble ideas for stories on scraps of paper and then lose those bits of genius under a dresser, or inside a shoe. Between work and cooking dinner, my dad would hammer at my closed door. “Are you doing your homework?”
“Yes!” I’d lie.
I had the freedoms and luxuries of a working-class, latchkey lifestyle. My loving parents were both born into the kind of poverty that pushes kids out of the school system and into work far too young. So when I shared my anger at their inattention, and my heartache at feeling left behind, their reaction was bewilderment.
Once, a woman I was talking to described observing a girl with ADHD from the outside like viewing a cyclone from space — at such a distance there’s a facade of serenity, but up close, it’s chaos.
They don’t remember my failures at the saturation level I do. They remember me as quiet, studious, and independent. To them, in spite of my “character flaws,” I’d done so well. I’d succeeded in things they’d never even had the opportunity to try.
Women, in particular, are often diagnosed later than their male peers, because our ADHD doesn’t always present itself as physical or outwardly disruptive, and also because of sexism. Like most mental health research, and health research in general, the majority of studies have focused on the ADHD symptoms of cisgender boys and men. I imagine scientists must have been very shocked when they learned women exist.
They call us “the lost generation.” An entire generation of women left behind.
They call us daydreamers or window-gazers, our minds wandering while we sit still. At a glance, we might seem neurotypical. Once, a woman I was talking to described observing a girl with ADHD from the outside like viewing a cyclone from space — at such a distance there’s a facade of serenity, but up close, it’s chaos. I would say it’s more like observing a cave from the outside, not realizing that inside, someone is fending off 10,000 bats with a tennis racket while also wrestling a bear.
So yes, I forget things like my keys, my laundry, my sense of time. I’ve handed in assignments three weeks late with no excuse. I’ve lost my car for a whole day, just by forgetting where I parked. I’ve lost friendships, just by forgetting to text back, a few… hundred or so times.
It’s like we’re a motley crew of underdog superheroes, and the power that binds us is running late.
If at this point you’re wondering if you might have ADHD, here are some symptoms other than inattention: depression, anxiety, problems regulating emotion, extreme procrastination, impulsive behaviors, hyperfocusing, chronic stress, difficulties holding down jobs, relationships, and friendships, feeling constantly overwhelmed, inescapable feelings of failure, and not being able to reach the end of this list without checking your phone at least once.
ADHD can present itself in unusual and sometimes contradictory ways. In university, my severe procrastination saw tutors chasing me down the hall with furrowed brows that said “wasted potential,” or scowls that said, “I don’t get paid enough for this shit.” And yet, my ability to hyperfocus enabled me to lose myself in a 20,000-word honors thesis, forgetting to shower, brush my teeth, or even text my distressed boyfriend back. I finished in under two weeks, with a high distinction and a break up.
But ADHD can present differently in different people. It’s like we’re a motley crew of underdog superheroes, and the power that binds us is running late.
I visited a psychiatrist after reading a piece much like this one, by a woman my age describing what it’s like to have ADHD. I’d never considered it in regard to myself, and, even as I sat there, startled by how much her piece resonated, even as I booked my first appointment, even during my seventh session, even after my diagnosis, I still thought, Maybe I’m just lazy. Maybe I’m just thoughtless. Maybe I’m a bad friend, a bad daughter, a bad person. Maybe I wanted to kill the class hamster. (For the record, Mum insists the hamster didn’t die, and that she fed him for me.)
I’m good at spiraling. I’ve been in a love triangle with depression and anxiety for a long time, a Three’s Company sitcom with a cry-track. It’s comfortable to sit in the familiar embrace of depression, the meme-worthy, relatable reminders that anyone can develop depression or anxiety. I might call depression and anxiety the common colds of mental health—if they weren’t still so stigmatized and deadly. But there is a feeling that they are common, and the sense of community around them is reassuring, for me at least. ADHD isn’t like that. Or at least, not yet.
In some ways being diagnosed with ADHD felt like stepping back in time, to when I was a child and depressed and LiveJournal hadn’t been invented yet, so I had no clue what depression was. I felt alone. I felt lost. I read a lot of Anne Rice novels.
But, right now, there are three cups perched on my windowsill, one half-filled with ripening tea. I finally take them to the kitchen, pouring a moldy glob of something down the sink. I think, Maybe I shouldn’t have poured that down the sink.
I stuff the cups into an already crammed dishwasher and I hear an alarm sound from the other room. I swallow my meds with a glass of water and leave the glass on the kitchen bench and forget about it for two days. There’s no “cure” for ADHD. But there are treatments — medicinal and otherwise — that can make it easier to manage.
I still don’t feel a sense of relief, but I do appreciate that things are changing. I print out a comic for my parents about the ADHD burnout cycle, in an attempt to help them understand. They stick it to their fridge next to a grandkid’s drawing, which at once makes me feel like I’m regressing, and like I’m being heard.
I talk to my friends over coffee about how great it is to be out of the house drinking coffee with friends. I tell them, caffeine’s good for the ADHD brain, apparently. Weed, not so much.
When I finish this, I’ll go water the kitchen herbs that I’ve kept alive for more than three months, except for the basil, but I’ve been told basil is a real bitch. It’s a record, for me.
So, yes, things are changing. Mostly for the better, too. It’s a big cave, it’s dark, and there are a lot of bats and an angry bear, but I’m finding my way. I may not feel relief just yet, but I do feel hope.