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I am writing this article at the very, very last minute. This is in no way the first time I have left something to collect dust on my to-do list, and, my God, do I know that it won’t be the last.
Like everything I do—we’re talking everything from brushing my teeth to paying rent, from crawling out of bed to meet up with a friend to leaving the house for a doctor’s appointment, from buying plane tickets to even opening a blank document to begin my bachelor’s dissertation (six days before the deadline, my friends, six days)—I’ve kept this task at the back of my hectic, traffic-jammed, dopamine-deprived mind.
Or maybe it wasn’t at the back of my mind. Maybe it was somewhere in the middle, a little to the left, next to where I abandoned “call bank and ask about credit score” a few months ago.
Shit, I definitely still need to call my bank.
A year ago, at the age of 24, I was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Or, rather, I was diagnosed with extremely severe depression, extremely severe anxiety, severe stress, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, inattentive type. It’s a delightful cocktail that at once made everything both crystal-clear and unfathomably muddy. Sure, it made some sense of the perturbed, panicky pandemonium that controls my psyche, but it also left me with immense sadness and sympathy for my younger, my present, and, most of all, my future self.
Receiving these diagnoses—receiving them, or being forced to bear them?—was like being given an instruction manual to my brain. Upon closer inspection, however, I’ve noticed that half of the pages have been ripped out, a quarter are out of order, and the rest are in a language I forgot to learn. And, somehow, this haphazard mess is my fault. Perhaps I was too distracted to listen.
First came the diagnoses, then a vexed question: “We can’t treat everything at once, so which would you like to start with?”
I think this is what they call “empowering the patient.”
My psychiatrist and I decided on an ADHD medication—and nothing changed. A few futile months passed until we tried a different ADHD medication—and nothing changed. It turns out that’s me too, not the drugs. For the past 20 years, my brain has been under such severe strain trying to mask the symptoms of my neurodivergence that it has roasted the ends of the neuroreceptors meant to absorb the dopamine from the medication.
That’s right, roasted. If my ADHD had been diagnosed earlier, my psychiatrist explained, the medication would have worked. Instead, until I eventually gave up, it was completely disregarded by my overburdened brain. Eventually, we decided to treat my depression instead. After weeks of mind-boggling nightmares, incessant sweating, and persistent shaking, it became obvious that the first contenders were more pernicious than propitious. Eventually, we found a good-enough antidepressant match.
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the medicinal life vest keeping me afloat in the treacherous, self-destructive waters of my own brain. But amidst the barrage of seemingly unconnected thoughts flooding my consciousness every minute, one in particular remains steadfast and strong in the deluge: Could things have been different? It’s frustrating to imagine that had I, and my teachers, parents, and peers, been aware of the symptoms that I was—and am—exhibiting earlier, I wouldn’t have to make do with a meager life vest. Instead, I would have had the intact, functioning neuroreceptors to inflate a lifeboat.
But alas, it was not. I am left to my own dodgy, dubious devices to cope with my impulsivity, disorganization, lack of social filter, and brain-chemistry-engraved inability to just call my bloody bank.
Being diagnosed with anything in the twenty-first century brings its own set of consequences: hours of Googling symptoms, treatments, coping mechanisms, and communities of other sufferers. It’s information overload, even if your brain is less chaotic than mine.
Ostensibly, I am part of a proliferating group of young women diagnosed with ADHD as adults. Only in recent years has science turned its scrupulous eye away from 4-year-old boys screaming out of boredom in 30-second increments to look at people like me. Women aren’t going to bed neurotypical and waking up with a concoction of neurological disorders—we’ve had them all along. But the symptoms of the (often female) inattentive type of ADHD are less recognizable because girls are, consciously or not, taught to control and internalize their impulses. Females embody their ADHD in less physical, more subtle ways.
That was me: your classic extracurricular-accumulating, homework-loving, straight-A-collecting, and praise-saturated-report-card-receiving overachiever throughout my schooling. No one ever suspected that there was something wrong. Nor did anyone, least of all me, see the strain it produced in me.
I still find it perplexing to ponder whether giving my struggles a name has helped me or not. Previously, I appreciated the relief I felt when reading about the similarities between how I and other anxiety-ridden, persistently depressed people endured daily life. I expected a comparable sense of communal identification from scouring online testimonials from fellow adult female ADHD sufferers.
However, a pattern quickly emerged. Every woman’s declaration that “everything made sense after being diagnosed” and “I completely understand myself now” was followed by a surging, stinging sensation of shame within me. Their new-found self-assurance was miles away from my continuing self-doubt. Sure, it’s comforting to recognize that my abominable time-blindness, crippling sensitivity to what I imagine to be rejection, and ruinous and all-too-literal addiction to the dopamine hit of online shopping are all inextricable from my biology and not just me being lazy.
But it doesn’t change anything.
Here’s an analogy. If your entire life has been spent with the conviction that your foot is sore because you were too ignorant, lethargic, and negligent to walk conventionally, then being told abruptly that your foot is, in fact, congenitally and irreparably broken won’t make moving any less agonizing.
Not knowing how to navigate adult life is exhaustingly humiliating. The inner torment of realizing that your lack of control is due to your brain and yours alone is a suffocatingly alarming position to find yourself in—day in, day out. Being able to tell myself to “get my fucking ass up and work” (thanks, Kim Kardashian) was almost easier before I knew the truth behind why it was so, so difficult to do just that.
I have spent a decade telling myself that my childhood must have been too privileged, too easy, and that I had been foolish to ever believe that my mortifyingly moronic self could stand on her own. My now-rationalized body is still stained with self-hatred, chagrin, and a complete absence of trust in my own impulses. Try as I might, those spots and blotches aren’t easy to shed.
A diagnosis is also not the end of the line. Being given the key to unlock the door into my consciousness was less like unearthing the holy grail and far more like unlatching Pandora’s box. A hurricane of tenacious worries and rumination, all perpetually imprisoned in the confines of my already tempestuous mind, surged out to plague me.
Today, armed with an understanding of why my brain stubbornly zigzags when others’ go dutifully straight, I’m still missing the tools to find a sense of compassion, acceptance, and dignity for who I am. Looking back, it seems that ignorance was, indeed, bliss.
Josephine Houman is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research and Public Seminar editorial intern.