It might not be exactly what you think.
Let’s just get right to it, shall we? Here is a list of things that have happened to me, in no particular order:
- I spent an hour driving around looking for my lost phone. I asked restaurant employees to dig through their garbage and went to AT&T to find out what I still owed on it (a lot). I combed parking lots and dug through crevices in my car while I left my family waiting for me at the mall. My phone was in my purse the whole time.
- For two hours, I left my car running in a restaurant parking lot with the doors UNLOCKED (apparently, car thieves don’t like Toyotas).
- At 6 a.m., I locked myself out of the coffee shop I worked at with no phone, the sinks running at full blast and scones burning in the oven.
- I once spent over an hour wandering around in a parking ramp because I couldn’t find my fucking car.
- I struggled through a semester of Abnormal Psychology with a tyrant of a professor to end up with a hard-earned B. At the end of the semester, I found out I WASN’T EVEN REGISTERED FOR THE CLASS.
You’re probably wondering how I’ve survived to make it the age of 45. Trust me — I’ve wondered the same thing.
Anyway, these things aren’t anomalies. Any one of these could happen to me on any given day. Most mornings, I would wake up terrified about what the day would bring. Would I lose my wallet? Forget to pick my kid up from school? Get lost again driving to the same place I’ve been to a million times? Burn down a coffee shop?
Now you might be saying, “Well, Tara, everyone forgets shit sometimes. I forgot to thaw meat for dinner and now we’re eating peanut butter sandwiches!” With me, though, it’s not just as simple as not remembering. It’s that there are SO many things in my brain that I can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. It’s like I have a brain full of TVs, all turned to different stations (have you tried watching 16 television shows at once?). Thoughts cascade through my mind like clothes in a dryer — a thought won’t even complete itself before it tumbles and is replaced with another one.
I could be thinking all of these things in the time it takes to put socks on: What time is my meeting? I’m really thirsty. I wonder where my water bottle….ew, there’s hair on the floor. I need to hurry up and….where is that noise coming from? I need to look out the window when….wait, when did I change my oil last time? I wonder how the auto shop owner is. He’s a really nice guy. Shit, when are we going to the…did we ever really go to the moon? That’s such a weird conspiracy….what’s for lunch?
Having a sustained conversation with someone can be torture. I’m so focused on trying to remember what I want to say that I don’t hear the other person. Or I literally don’t hear what they say because there are cars driving by (look!) or my brain is so foggy that nothing registers. My replies are often full of non-sequiturs that make no sense to the listener. Maybe you’re telling me about your cat’s UTI and I reply with a story about the county fair. What the hell? Well, it’s because your cat made me think of my cousin who has a cat that looks like yours. Said cousin came to town a couple of years ago and we went to the fair and she puked on the Zipper.
Makes sense to me!
It took me seven years to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. College was filled with 4 a.m. papers and tests that I forgot to show up for. I dropped out close to the end of my first year and sat in my dorm room watching talk shows all day. They let me back in, but a condition of my return was that I had to take a study class. T notes and library carrels were my life for the rest of my college career.
I’ve had twenty-four jobs. I changed my college major three times. I went back to school for nursing and dropped out. I signed up for a college class, intending to return for education and dropped it. Most jobs I’ve had were because I knew someone who knew someone (applying for jobs is A LOT of work, man). I’ve never really had goals and spent most of my 20s at the bar looking for excitement (gotta get that dopamine somewhere!).
I never finish anything. I much prefer to see movies in a theater — there’s nowhere to go if I get distracted. For decades, people have been telling me to sit down and relax. I get so overwhelmed with all of my ideas and things that I want to do, that I don’t do any of them. Boredom has never been a thing for me, but being perceived as lazy has. When my mind is going at full capacity for hours at a time, it eventually shuts down. By around 3 p.m., I’m crying for a nap. (See? Needing to take a nap all of the time = lazy.)
Basically, life has been a shit show.
I’ve gotten through much of my life by the skin of my teeth, letting ‘er rip and hoping for the best. I’ve been saved by forgiving professors and bosses, loving friends and, most importantly, my sparkling personality. Having charisma and the ability to charm people are necessary for someone who can’t get their shit together.
My life has consisted of a lot of pretending. A lot of pretending that I could wait until the last minute to study for a test, hoping to pass on confidence alone. Pretending to know where I had set something down three seconds ago. Feigning confidence when my boss gave me instructions, even though I knew I would only understand ten percent of it an hour later. Faking a calm exterior, when really I’m super overwhelmed by the two things on my schedule.
But pretending is fucking exhausting. Instead of the calm, engaging, intelligent person I present myself to be, I’ve always felt like someone different. Someone who didn’t feel confident having conversations because paying attention is hard. Someone who had to make sure people knew that I cared about tasks, even though it seemed like I didn’t. It was a lot of catching up and a lot of worrying about future disasters. It was a lot of doing, without much to show for it.
The biggest misunderstanding that I’ve had about ADHD is this: ADHD isn’t just the inability to sit still or short attention spans. I’m not bouncing off of walls and acting like a spazz. In my case, it’s about feeling overwhelmed constantly and having a brain that operates at a frantic pace. The time spent covering for my frantic brain has been half the battle. It’s like a million competing thoughts in my head at the same time, all of the time: I need to call this client, but I also need to remember to put the clothes in the dryer and buy that one kind of salsa and clean the litterbox and OMG, I CAN’T BELIEVE I TALKED TO THAT GUY WITH A CHICKEN WING ON MY FACE TEN YEARS AGO. Also, I need to pay attention to where I put my keys. With ADHD, I am always preparing my brain for something I will probably forget.
Staying ahead of the game is nearly impossible when you can’t even pay attention to the game.
So, technically speaking, what is going on here? Researchers have found that ADHD brains are wired differently and have difficulty engaging those parts of the brain that are necessary for focusing and sustaining attention (ADDitude.com, Feb. 2020). Basically, my type of brain has no clue what to do and when to do it. The part of the brain that modulates a sort of rest period (daydreaming, contemplation), doesn’t work correctly. It’s why I can be focused on a task, but yet look like I’m spacing out. Both the active and resting parts of my brain are on full speed, all the time.
There are several neurotransmitters involved in the development of ADHD, primarily dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Depending on the type of ADHD, the symptoms will be a result of a variation in the amount of transmitters in a person’s brain. This is why stimulants calm an ADHD person down. When dopamine levels rise, brain activity is more effective (Verywellmind.com, Sept. 2020) and we don’t have to pretend so hard to be normal people.
I don’t remember what the breaking point was, but this summer I finally brought it up to my doctor. I was embarrassed and felt totally ridiculous. Like, come on. Couldn’t I just grow up and get it together? I knew that I couldn’t, however. I felt that I was slowly being crushed under the giant rolling snowball of mistakes that I made on a daily basis. It was fueling my depression and I didn’t see any way out.
I didn’t have any reason to be embarrassed or scared — I love my doctor and completely trust her. She’s treated my whole family for a decade and knows about all of the times I was convinced that I had a brain tumor or limped in with sciatica. She’s the furthest thing from being dismissive, but every ounce of shame I’ve felt over the years came powering back like a rocket.
It turns out I didn’t need to be worried, after all. After some idle chit-chat, I finally blurted out, “I think I might have ADHD or something.” To my relief, she looked at me and said, “Well, you know what? That doesn’t really surprise me — you’ve kind of always been all over the place.”
I immediately burst into tears.
The assessment process was lengthy. I met with a psychologist three times, filled out a million questionnaires and had my aunt do the same. I made the appointment in September and finally received my official diagnosis in February: Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, inattentive type. She labeled it as “severe” and said that my symptoms fell into the 99% percentile. As we closed out, my assessor made a point of telling me that she was really pulling for me. I said, “Really? Am I that much of a mess?” and then she laughed. And then I laughed, because, DUH.
I was so worried that I was going to be told that I was making it all up, that I just needed to grow up or, worse, that it was just anxiety. In fact, she told me that what I’ve thought was anxiety for the past 27 years has really been ADHD. It was mind-blowing, upsetting, and an enormous relief, all at the same time.
I now had the opportunity for a midlife do-over.
I started Adderall the following week and I could tell the difference immediately. Relief looks like being able to put my socks on in silence. My energy has evened out due to my brain literally taking a chill pill. I can cook a recipe with fifteen ingredients and multiple steps without spazzing out, overflowing the boiling water and creating a fucking mess. I can get a bill in the mail and pay it immediately. My boss noticed that I’m more pro-active. My biggest breakthrough? I can finally take an unprotected left turn (yes, you read that right). My mind no longer burns with fear that a car that I didn’t see is going to smash into my car and kill us all.
I’m trying to embrace the positives about this new ADHD diagnosis. I’m pretty flexible, I can have super laser focus on things that interest me and I am creative at work. I can always be counted on to come up with ways to streamline processes. Also, I’m great in a crisis. A suicidal man walked into my office building one day and I jumped in and managed the situation calmly and effectively. Not many people want to dive into something like that, but me? Let’s go!
I’m still learning and I’m trying to cut myself some slack after beating myself up for so long. After years of thinking that I’m lazy, irresponsible, and blasé to the responsibilities of life, I’ve found that the labels aren’t true. It’s been difficult, and a little sad, to unwind all of these beliefs, but I can’t look backwards. Shoulda, woulda, couldas are not going to be helpful.
Right now, I’m just going to be grateful that I finally know what in the hell is going on with me. I’m going to take my meds, learn some things and create the me that I was always supposed to be.