Hello, Readers! Welcome to my first ever blog series, The My Mental Health Series. My hope over the next five weeks is to educate, advocate, and to let people know that they are not alone in this world. For 38 years, I did not know or understand myself because I didn't have the knowledge that I needed. I have consumed vast amounts of research over the last couple of months, found an understanding of myself that I never thought I would have, and though I'm not an expert or a medical professional, I decided that I wanted to share what I've learned in the hopes that maybe I can help someone else recognize themselves in my words.
I’m going to be honest with you, I have been anxious about starting these posts and I want to tell you why. Being upfront about it seems like the best way to build trust between you, my readers, and me.
- Shame. I have been conditioned to believe that my behaviors and symptoms are shameful. I’ve carried the shame and guilt of that for all of my life. I now know that I have nothing to be ashamed of because I was (and am) living with uncontrolled brain disorders, but it’s hard to kick the old habits. Also, and this is a big one, there are gross parts to mental illness. People don’t talk about them much because of…well, shame.
- I’m afraid I won’t get it right. I want desperately to provide you with accurate, but also helpful, information. Last week, I got some unhelpful feedback from a stranger on one of my posts. Unfortunately, I let him get into my head. So listen up, ’cause this is important: I am not a mental health professional, I do not claim to be, and nothing that I write here should substitute information and advice from a competent medical professional. I am just a normal woman who has been living with these disorders for all of my life and I want to help other people who have been there or are currently there, in any way that I can. So, I write. That said, I will try to provide facts and information in the best way that I understand them, while also comparing that information with how it affects me in real life. Everyone’s experience is different, so please keep in mind that I am just one person.
- It’s an overwhelming topic. This is a lot of information. Some of these posts might be a bit longer than others. I feel overwhelmed when I look at my notes. That is on me partially…I’m an over-planner. Usually, I plan and I plan and then…I never follow through with the project (not this time, ADHD! Muahahaha!). It often just dies in one of my notebooks. Because I’m feeling overwhelmed with the idea of starting, I figured the best thing to do would just be…to start writing!
So, let’s do this thing!
What is ADHD?
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a complex brain disorder that affects both children and adults. It is a developmental impairment of the brain’s executive functions; it is not a behavior disorder, a learning disability, or a mental illness, but an impairment of the brain’s self-management system. Though scientists don’t quite know what causes ADHD, they do believe that there are genetics and heredity involved; 1 in 4 people with ADHD also have a parent with ADHD. It is rampant in my little family; I have ADHD-Inattentive, my husband has ADHD-Hyperactive, and my daughter has ADHD-Combined (thanks, Mom and Dad!).
Prevalent figures vary widely about how many people actually have ADHD; they can range anywhere between 1-20% of the population. It is hard to estimate the real number due to studies often only including people with hyperactivity or research being focused on children only. During my own research, I found so many different figures, that I do not feel comfortable committing to one here.
While boys are diagnosed more often than girls with ADHD, this doesn’t actually mean that girls are less likely to get it. In fact, girls are more likely to go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed because symptoms often present differently in females. And adult women are even more likely to be misdiagnosed and remain untreated.
What we know as ADHD today was introduced to the DSM IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 1994; I was 12 at that time and I was 3 years out from my first go-round with therapy (I was 9 the first time my parents took me for “behavioral issues”). The following year, I would end up in therapy again for the same behavioral issues, but ADHD was seen as a “boy’s disorder” back then, even among the medical community. It exists on a spectrum, meaning some people might deal with severe symptoms and others only vague symptoms. ADHD is affected by physiological and environmental factors, so no two people experience it in the same way.
3 Types of ADHD
There are 3 different types of ADHD:
- Inattentive type (ADHD-I, formerly known as ADD). This is the kind of ADHD that I have. Here are some of the symptoms of this type:
- overlooking details and making careless mistakes
- problems sustaining attention, in tasks and leisure
- seemingly not listening when spoken to directly
- not following through
- troubles following a sequence of tasks or detailed instructions
- disorganization and messiness
- trouble with deadlines
- avoiding tasks that require sustained mental effort
- losing things
- being distracted by unrelated thoughts/daydreaming
- exaggerated emotions
- executive disfunctions
2. Hyperactive type:
- fidgeting, squirming, or leaveing their seats when sitting is expected
- running and climbing when it is not appropriate (in children)
- restlessness in teens and adults
- inability to engage in play or hobbies in a quiet manner
- talking non-stop, blurting out answers, and interrupting
- impatience/hard time waiting their turn
3. Combined type:
- multiple symptoms of both other types
Ok, but what does that mean?
As I’ve said numerous times before, when I started researching ADHD, the vague lists from above were not that helpful. Some of them felt familiar, but I didn’t fully comprehend all the ways that it pertained to me. I have included an infographic that I adapted from information on the web that shows what is known as the ADHD iceberg. It shows perfectly that what you can see of ADHD is only the tip of the iceberg. What is happening on the inside is much more complex and complicated than you could ever understand unless you live every day with an ADHD brain.
What I want to do now is break down a list of ways that ADHD affects my brain, my life, and my behaviors. This is not an extensive list…I would have to do an entire blog series on ADHD to list them all. I hope that, in sharing this deeply personal information, I can educate people who don’t know about or understand ADHD, and that I can resonate with others who may be feeling alone, sad, and frustrated with their diagnosis. It is so important for us to feel some solidarity and validation and I often have been able to find that in other people’s personal experiences with the disorder. From this point forward, I will only be focusing on ADHD-I because that is where my personal experience lies. My daughter has combined type and my husband has hyperactive type, but I don’t live in their brains so I can’t give you the same insight. Let’s get started.
Attentional problems can more easily explained if you think of them as problems with the attention process. ADHD folk do not lack attention (not all of the time) but have issues regulating attention. The attentional functioning system is one aspect of executive functioning. The steps in the attentional process are choosing focus, sustaining focus, dividing focus, and shifting focus. When one or all of these are impaired, it results in a lack of attention. Attentional dysfunction can lead to workaholism, having a “one-track mind,” procrastination, boredom, and restlessness.
In my life, this translates in a lot of different ways. I often catch myself making careless mistakes at work because my mind starts to wander to other topics. I often feel like I’m in a type of mental free-fall and I cannot control or reel in my brain enough to focus. Honestly, it is excruciating and makes every second that I spend at work an anxiety-ridden, torturous experience. Our society, specifically the workforce, is not set up to accommodate people who are not neurotypical, in my opinion. I digress, we’ll discuss that in a later post.
It also affects the way that I communicate. If I am absorbed in something and someone starts talking to me, I genuinely don’t even realize that they exist. My husband often gets frustrated with me because I don’t even realize he’s talking until he’s halfway done and then I have to ask him to repeat it all. If you do finally manage to get my attention, often my mind often wanders during our conversations and I am unable to practice active listening skills. I frequently forget what I’m saying, while I’m saying it, even in important conversations. This aspect gets worse if my emotions are excited in any way.
Procrastination often sees me putting off tasks for days or even weeks. Something that I want to stress: procrastination is not always what you think it is. One of the tasks that I have a difficult time with is laundry. My husband washes and dries all the clothes and I fold them and put them up. I *hate* folding clothes, with a passion. So, I put it off. The clothes pile up in a chair or on the bed, then when I go to fold them, I get overwhelmed by the sheer number of clothes to fold. So I put it off some more and the pile gets bigger and bigger and I get more and more overwhelmed. It’s a vicious cycle.
Jessica McCabe from the How To ADHD YouTube channel (which I *highly* recommend for any ADHDer or loved one of an ADHDer who wants to learn more), uses the phrase “wall of awful.” With certain tasks, ADHD people hit a wall. Now, I don’t mean occasionally; I mean every, single time. Each time that you’re tasked with something behind the wall, you have to climb it. So when you see an ADHD person doing nothing when they are supposed to be doing something, they may well be mentally climbing their wall. Remember the iceberg diagram? What you see is rarely even close to the full picture of what is happening.
People with ADHD-I (ADD) can also have some aspects of hyperactivity, though they manifest a little differently than what is normally thought. It can manifest as hair-twirling, foot-tapping, leg-bouncing, excessive talking, fidgeting, etc. We seem to lack most of the physical aspects of it, and, instead, our *brains* are hyper. I present these in a few different ways. The most obvious: I talk. And talk. And talk. I talk a lot. I talk the same way that I think…fast and loud. If I’m passionate about something (good or bad), my voice changes pitch and it sounds like I’m upset or about to cry.
My brain never stops. ADHD minds are always going, and going fast, like cars on a racetrack. This can leave us physically and mentally exhausted, even when we haven’t done anything physical. It can cause us to burn out quickly and, as I mentioned before, an 8-hour workday can feel like torture, even causing almost physical pain.
Hyperactivity can also manifest as boredom, impatience, and restlessness. I have periods between projects when I can’t start a new project. No matter how hard I try, my brain cannot get focused on anything. These periods are awful. The boredom and restlessness know no bounds. These periods sometimes last for days, sometimes even months and are common among the ADHD community.
Impulsivity is saying and doing things without thinking about them first and it can look like a lot of things; ranging from extreme behaviors to mild. My impulsivity usually comes through in the form of impulsive spending. Shopping gives me a dopamine boost (we lack dopamine), so my brain rushes to that feeling, even when I probably shouldn’t be spending any money.
I also sometimes do or say awkward or loud things that I almost always regret immediately. My brain just doesn’t think it through and blurt things out or act awkwardly. Also, I curse. Like, a lot. Yep, that’s right! Cussing is impulsive behavior.
My behaviors are generally not dangerous or reckless (besides the financial aspects of it), but that is mainly because other brain disorders like anxiety and C-PTSD make me too scared or nervous to engage in those types of activities. I’ve never been the daredevil kind of lady. I’d rather just stay home and read a book or watch scary movies…get my kicks through the fake kind of scary.
Lack of Focus
As I said before, ADHD people have issues with their attentional center, so they have issues regulating attention. “Choosing focus” is sort of deceiving in that you don’t consciously choose focus…your brain chooses before you even realize it. People with ADHD have interest-based brains. That does not mean that we purposefully only focus on the things that we’re interested in; it means that our brains decide themselves what to focus on.
My lack of focus affects me deeply when I’m working, no matter how hard I try to stay on course. It is extremely distressing and causes a lot of anxiety and stress. I also have a hard time focusing through multiple kinds of loud noises; it feels like static inside my brain and I find I can no longer hear myself think. I have a hard time switching focus, especially at work where I have to do this often, and if I am pulled away from a task it seems almost impossible to get back on track. Let’s go back to the laundry…I can’t just fold a little bit each day until I am finished. If I do some and then put it off until the next day, I won’t go back to it and then the cycle will start again, with the pile growing more and more every day.
Poor Time Management. ADHD can cause many issues with time management. One of these is know as time blindness. I have a hard time gauging how much time has gone by, which makes me lose track of time often. I also have difficulty ascertaining how much time a task or activity will take to accomplish. This causes me to become overwhelmed at just the thought of how long something might take, even if it will actually only take a few minutes, my brain tells me it will take much longer. I specifically have a hard time with commute times. I will leave an hour early for an appointment that is 10 minutes away in light traffic, but then leave 30 minutes before I need to be at something that is a 45-minute drive in the middle of rush hour. I am almost always either very early or very late.
Exaggerated Emotions. Emotional dysregulation is when emotions are heightened, sometimes to an inappropriate level, and swing wildly within a small window of time. People with ADHD sometimes cannot properly manage their emotional responses.
I have mood swings that often change several times a day, seemingly on a dime. This doesn’t mean that I’m just super grumpy all the time; they aren’t always those kind of mood swings. I can be excited and optimistic and ready to change the world in the morning,and by bedtime I am distressed and distraught with no hope for the future. I also often “forget” that I am angry. I use quotes because the anger is usually still there, I’ve just suppressed it in an unhealthy way. This sometimes causes me to let big things slide and I often get used as a doormat. I am working on learning how to set boundaries. I also tend to weep a lot. Not always in a sad way; I cry when I am touched, happy, excited, etc.
I cry when I get angry. If we are in an argument and things are heated and I start crying? You are in danger. It means that you have pushed way too far and I am about to lose my shit. On the flip side of this coin, sometimes I start laughing and I can’t stop. I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is frustrating. I will be in hysterics long after something stops being funny and I desperately want to stop, but my brain absolutely will not hit the switch. I have literally been laughing and crying at the same time because I became frustrated that I couldn’t stop.
Hyperfocus is an intense form of focus that can sometimes last for hours. It can become so intense that breaking away can be uncomfortable and frustrating. Unfortunately, it often results in neglecting other responsibilities meaning it can be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on what you are hyperfocused on. Our friendships, kids, homes, and spouses may all suffer because of our hyperfocus. On the other hand, it can also feel like a superpower when you have the extra time to spend on something. For me, it can often be so intense that I forget to eat or use the bathroom for hours on end; I am so focused that my brain doesn’t register my growling stomach or the urge to urinate. I tend to hyperfocus on books, journaling and art, current events, and various other hobbies.
Executive functioning is a form of cognitive control that involves planning, prioritizing, impulse control, and other forms of cognition. It is the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember detailed instructions and steps, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.
When researching, I found the information on Executive Dysfunction to be especially vague and I have learned more through other’s personal experiences than I did from my research. It can affect everything from your ability to tend to your hygiene and clean your house to effectively planning virtually anything. I have severe executive dysfunction (when my medicine is finally correct it should help me get a better handle on this), so I want to give you a few examples of how this affects me.
First, I cannot set goals and do not have (and have never really had) any type of daily routine in my life. Even when logging into work; I log in and out at specific times, but I have no routine or structure inside of my workday. I am currently working on this in therapy. This next thing is embarrassing and hard to share, but I think it’s really important because I don’t think we talk about these parts of mental disorder enough; it has affected my ability to shower and brush my teeth; go get my hair cut or shave my legs. I am also often late due to poor planning (and time blindness). I am not the best housekeeper or cook; I’m messy and my brain sometimes doesn’t “see” the mess and I burn things often because I get distracted and forget that I am cooking. Also, when cooking, it is impossible for me to cook things in order and in a way where all the items will finish cooking around the same time (lack of planning).
Working Memory (Short-term Memory) Issues
Working memory is also known as short-term memory. ADHD folk have working memory deficits. A low-level overview of the working memory process is as such:
- Information is funneled into the brain from the attention center.
- The information is then encoded (this is what causes you to remember things) and manipulated for use by the brain.
- Information is then shifted into long-term memory.
Working memory is finite and you only have so much of it use. It’s what helps you form an internal plan (harkening back to the cooking scenario). When one of these processes is impaired, it causes working memory issues. This affects everything from taking a shower to going to the grocery to long-term planning. I sometimes spend several hours a week just looking for things because I often misplace them. I forget to call the pharmacy or the doctor, sometimes for days or weeks on end or until my issue gets so bad that I have no other choice but to call. Also, I forget what I am saying while I am saying it, even in work meetings. Everyone always laughs it off, but it is embarrassing and frustrating when it happens so often.
Long-term memory is not generally affected by ADHD, except in that memories are not always filtered and sorted correctly, so they get stored in the brain in the wrong order and I can’t remember when things happened or what order they happened in; generally I can only remember a timeframe (i.e. that happened sometime in elementary school).
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
Those are just a few of the ways that ADHD affects my brain and my behavior. Please note the amount of times that certain behaviors and issues were listed withing several different symptoms. This is also true of my other disorders; they share co-occurring symptoms with ADHD. It often feels like your getting a double or triple dose of some of them and it can be hard to get them in check.
There were several symptoms and behaviors that I wanted to discuss in this blog, but decided to leave out because you couldn’t possibly list them all. They include feelings of overwhelm, affects in decision paralysis, brain overload and shutdown, and spatial issues. Maybe eventually I’ll make a part II of this post because there really are other important things that I would love to share with you.
So, guys…this has been A LOT, I know. This is only a glimpse into the life of someone with ADHD. Don’t forget, ADHD is an iceberg. What lies beneath, I would have to write a book to tell you about. Who knows? Once I tame this beast, maybe I will.
In conclusion, I leave you with this thought. ADHD is inextricable from who we are as people. I hate the phrase, “Your disorders do not define you.” It’s not really completely true, and it seems dismissive of my brain. Disordered or not, it’s pretty spectacular. ADHD and my other disorders are not solely who I am, no. But they all very much plays a role in defining me, especially ADHD. It is my brain, how can it possibly fail to be a defining feature of who I am? I have been ashamed of that my entire life and I will not spend one more second feeling bad about it. And neither should you.
Thanks for sticking in there with me. If you enjoy the blog, please subscribe by email so that you don’t miss a post. Also, be sure to follow us on social media. Links for both are in the sidebar.
Stayed tuned for next week’s post My Mental Health: Persistent Depressive Disorder, where I will be PDD and depression, in general. I will be posting a new installment every Tuesday night at 8:00 PM, Central Time. I hope to see you there!
Love and light. Keep fighting the good fight!💜💜
Writing about living with ADHD and mental illness and my journey down a thriving path forward. Breaking stigmas and creating community, one post at a time.