I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t feel fundamentally different from my peers. This is only slightly surprising to people who know me. Generally, when people describe me they use words like passionate, enthusiastic, creative, quirky, eclectic, colorful, and ambitious. But I also hear phrases like, “Is there anything you can’t do?” and “How do you it all” and “I just don’t know how you do it.” That’s never helped me much in feeling like one of the club. But then again, I don’t think I’d meet the criteria for said club.
Usually, I just say, “I don’t watch TV” or “I hate being bored.” But now, I have a little more of an answer. And that’s ADHD. But there are a lot more elements to the answer before I get to that part.
So, childhood. I was a very early reader and a highly enthusiastic student. Some of my first teacher feedback was, “Natania doesn’t need to raise her hand all the time, even if she knows all the answers.” That’s the thing, though. I loved school. I loved teachers. I loved learning so much. Not participating seemed ridiculous!
My parents describe me, even as a young child, as hesitant to hang out with kids but super excited to meet new adults. I was an old soul. And learning, especially the arts, was like a second language to me. Whether it was music, theatre, painting, or writing, my interests knew no bounds. I used to read encyclopedias for fun. Okay, I still kind of do, it’s just on the internet now. I loved reading so much that when I got stuck in a book, everything else around me failed to exist. In fifth grade I looked up from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (this was probably my sixth read through) to find the class had left for lunch, turned the lights off, and left me alone… because I hadn’t noticed.
I matured fast, and I turned to stories to comfort me, so I was a total dreamer. This is on account of a few things, not the least of which was growing up in a household with a chronically ill parent. The reality of life — of life and death, really — was very apparent to me beginning around the age of six. My dad went from a happy-go-lucky, pudgy big guy with black hair and thick glasses, to a rail-thin, silver-haired guy who could barely get off the couch in a matter of months. I saw my mom exhaust herself trying to keep him upright, literally, as they walked down the hallway. We lost our house, we lost our security, and at that oh so important age of 11, I had to move away from my childhood town and best friend, and start somewhere new.
That whole story is part of a longer piece, but it’s important to note that moving to a very small town in Western Massachusetts, shortly after we were essentially homeless for a few months, only cemented the fact that I was Not Like Other People. We were poor. We lived in an old rented house. My parents were unemployed. I spent my recess writing books in my ledger. It also didn’t help that I was also very tall for my age (hi, I haven’t grown an inch since I was eleven). I went from a school system steeped in arts and science, to one very much rooted in sports. And I felt so, so alone.
Even before the move, though, social situations freaked me out. Most of my friends came from Girl Scouts, which Mom enrolled me in, not natural connection. During the summers, I rarely hung out with my friends because… I just had a lot to do–like drawing comics and reading books and spending long hours trying to get to Narnia.
And, like, relationships are complicated. That feeling of unease around my peers went away. I got better at acting like I understood things, but I honestly wondered if there was just a book or a pamphlet out there that everyone had except for me. Why weren’t parties fun for me? Why did I hate dances and loud music? Even in college, I couldn’t stand big, drunken parties, and I struggled to find friend groups because the social dynamics just stressed me out. It was too much to keep in my head: who was mad at whom? Were they still talking? Who did he date last? I had one boyfriend through most of college, and that meant I could focus my attention elsewhere.
So my grades were never really an issue unless it was one subject: math. Because I excelled in all my other studies, I was placed in advanced math classes. And let me tell you, those were the single negative marks on my entire report card. I tried, sort of. But I never did much homework in my other classes. Lectures and reading were generally all I needed to pass tests. But math required study and practice and numbers, and I just wasn’t interested. I had a pre-calculus teacher shout at me once, “You really don’t get this, do you!?” For years, I harbored a lot of anger about that outburst; I was coming to her for help and she just snapped at me. Now, I realize the issue: I wasn’t interested. I couldn’t find a way into math that made sense to my brain. And if you know anything about ADHD, you’ll know that interests are a huge part of it.
I didn’t suffer from bad grades or bad behavior in high school or college, which is generally where folks with ADHD (usually boys) are seen as lacking (there are in fact, three kinds of ADHD — I would be considered inattentive). What I did have was overwhelming anxiety, panic attacks, and absolute self-loathing. I always felt there was some other level of understanding that I couldn’t get, some other level of achievement. So I pushed and pushed myself. I learned to mask because I took theatre classes and figured out how to cloak myself. Amidst bullying and misery in about 9th grade, I decided I was done caring what other people thought. And I did. I just… stopped caring. I started focusing on myself and low-maintenance friends who shared (you guessed it) common interests, like music and theatre and art. I knew I would move on, and I did.
After college, things went fast. I got married. I had our first child in 2006. I graduated with my MA in English in 2008. I started working in content marketing, started publishing online, and eventually released my first book in 2011 (because I had promised myself I’d publish my first novel by 30).
Then came postpartum depression. And then came our son’s autism diagnosis. And honestly, though I’ve been trying to do my best over the last 14 years or so, my own mental health took a back seat. Liam qualifies for ADHD, as well as Autism. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I had it and just laughed. How could I have it? Me? I have an amazing job! I fly all over the world! I publish books! I don’t know how to stop!
I’ve struggled over the last 14 years to find the right anti-anxiety medicine. I’ve told my doctors, time and again, that my anxiety doesn’t seem to stem from anything. It feels more like the water bubbling over, or a valve opening. This is also true for my panic attacks, though those seem to happen most frequently at grocery stores. And depression? That bone-deep exhaustion that just pulls me down like a lead weight? It’s like I’m unplugged. Useless. Spent.
Things did not improve for me once I stopped traveling. My job, which once required coordination of events and trips all around the world, became a work-from-home-stay-at-home situation. No trips. No new faces. No new cities. Even my interests could no longer keep me going.
And, as I tend to do, I started to notice patterns in my days of misery. By about 3 o’clock I was spent. So spent that I’d have to nap, or sit in a dark room. I was getting migraines. I was struggling to sleep. But it was all very predictable. The more Zoom meetings and visual stimulation I was getting, the worse I felt. And Zoom calls with like 30 or 40 people? Forget it. The exhaustion was limitless.
Enter TikTok. My daughter is 8, so of course she loves TikTok dances. I’m never one to get panicked about new apps, but I did want to make sure I was aware of what she was doing and what was out there. So I made my own account. TikTok has an eerie way of getting to know you, let’s just say. And within a few weeks I was following some neurodivergent women who were talking about ADHD in ways I’ve never heard. One said the second D should be for “distraction”. Another said that they were glossed over their diagnosis because they never struggled with grades. Yet another explained that she had clutter blindness. And finally, discussions about “people permanence” — this idea that if people aren’t immediately around you, you struggle to think about them (which immediately reminded me of summertime when I went into hermit mode as a child).
So, like any lover of knowledge would, I started digging and researching, trying to figure out if this might be me. I mean, my husband has ADHD… my dad has ADD… my son has ADHD…
(Just as a side note, as I’ve gone through this process and started telling people, not a single person has said, “You? Really? ADHD?” So maybe it’s not so shocking if you live outside of my head.)
I took (medically reviewed) assessments and spoke to my psychiatrist, who I’d just started meeting with because my GP was like, “Your meds are just boggling us in terms of helping you… let’s get an expert.” And after screening me for bipolar disorder, she agreed that I had many of the signs of ADHD and starting me on something that would help with dopamine transmission might be the key to help.
(Once I’m a few more weeks into my meds, I’ll keep you posted, but for now I can only say this: you have no idea how distracted you are by EVERYTHING until you’re not.)
That’s the thing. Many women with ADHD handle it… until they don’t. We put huge amounts of pressure on ourselves because we know we have the capacity for high-performance. But it comes at a cost. I was feeling so overwhelmed with everything, so buried in the idea of work, that I was just falling apart.
In a nutshell, here are some of my features that brought me to my diagnosis:
- DISTRACTION: My new medicine has showed me just how distracted I was in everything. My focus felt absolutely fragmented, shot through with shrapnel. Even when I was having fun, my mind was rarely present. And the days of IMs and emails just made it even worse. Add to that social media and phone notifications? Ugh.
- VISUAL OVERSTIMULATION: I’ve suspected this one for a long time. I know my son struggles with it. Sounds are a close second, but one of the reasons I hate grocery stores so much is because there’s TOO MUCH TO LOOK AT. There are 13 kinds of ketchup and 40 kinds of cookies. And they’re all designed to make me want them. In so many colors and shapes. And the lighting is horrible. And there are people everywhere.
- CLUTTER BLINDNESS: I’m sorry to everyone who knows me. It’s not that I don’t know the mess is there. It’s that when I’m thinking of stuff, dreaming of stuff, or trying to focus on stuff, I somehow miss the obvious. It becomes part of the scenery.
- SOCIAL AWKWARD: The people I keep closest are the most low-drama humans on earth. My best friend knows that I can go a month without talking to her and it’s NOT PERSONAL. But not everyone is as calming. I don’t have big friend groups. I don’t have many friends from college, and even fewer from high school. What I laughed off as a struggle with drama, I’ve realized is real social anxiety. I’m more comfortable with people online than I am in person because words are a comfort for me. Heck, I fell in love with my husband online before I even met him. As I said, I’ve learned to mask it really well. But history speaks for itself. I’d like to say it’s gotten better as a mom and an adult, but that’s just a blatant lie.
- HYPER FOCUS: This one is like a superpower. I get shit done when I want to get shit done. I write big books. I make paintings. I learn new instruments. I crochet blankets. I make complicated meals. I read huge tomes and delve for hours into medieval manuscripts. When I’m in the flow, it’s like magic. In my childhood, this could be a bit annoying, like when I was into the Coreys for two straight years, or when I was so obsessed with the Ninja Turtles that I learned all the movies and recited them by rote with my sister. But I have since learned to channel that… ahem, enthusiasm.
- FIXING BROKEN THINGS: My son loves to take apart broken iPhones and put them back together again. I love finding problems and fixing them, in work, and in fun. I’ve said, on many occasions in my work life, that I’m much more interested in fixing problems than I am with anything else. This article put it best: “I like building order from chaos, breaking down complex systems into more manageable pieces. I derive great pleasure from intersecting disciplines, discovering new ways to look at mundane problems.”
- THE INVISIBLE WALL: Or, as this video calls it, “The Wall of Awful.” My husband shared this with me a few weeks ago, and what struck me was that it made sense to me. There are just barriers, in my brain, for so many things. The mental gymnastics needed to accomplish what might seem simple (clean your desk off) take up the whole room.
- ENERGY FUELED BY ANXIETY: Since being on my new medication, I’ve felt like for the first time in ages my energy isn’t constantly edging toward anxiety (and then, panic). It’s energy that is sustainable. I go until I fall apart, mentally or physically, and that’s just not something I can do for the rest of my life without some kind of medicinal supplement.
There are a lot more, really. I’m almost 40, and even though it was staring me right in the face for years, I was totally blind to it. I have to admit, it’s a strange mix of grief and joy. It totally makes sense in a dozen different ways. I fully embraced being eccentric a long time ago. And I’m okay with being neurodivergent. But I do feel for that little girl who never got the extra help she needed because learning was her interest. Because she wasn’t disruptive. Because she grew into the woman who put everything on her shoulders.
The timing on this is a bit odd. My son is currently on his 9th day waiting for a psychiatric hospital bed, his fifth hospital stay. I have been painting a great deal, which makes a lot of sense to me. I started with a paintbrush, before I could play an instrument or write a sentence. The colors, the textures, the escape, they’ve proven to be some of the best therapy out there.
My greatest hope, though, is that I can sail through this with a renewed understanding of my own capabilities. The last few days I’ve been able to catch up on things, at home, and at work, that just a month ago felt insurmountable. I’m grateful for a doctor and a psychiatrist who was willing to talk with me and see through my performances. I’m grateful for my friends. I’m also grateful for my friends who also have ADHD, and for the fact that we’ve all found each other. I’ve seen this phenomenon with my son, and I’m not surprised I do it, too. In some ways, as different as we are, I am seeing him in a new light now, and that’s pretty remarkable.
And I’m grateful for my interests. I’m grateful that I never stopped being curious.