October is ADHD Awareness Month in Canada. 1 in 3 children have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and 1 in 4 adults have the disorder. Many misconceptions still abound regarding what ADHD/ADD is and its causes. I am one of the 4% of adults who live with this disorder. I have chosen to share my story in honour of ADHD Awareness Month and hope that it may educate others about some of the struggles and blessings that ADHD creates and to inspire others to seek treatment.
This has been both the worst and best year, I have ever had professionally. Personally, it has also been a real humdinger! I thought I knew myself, what I wanted, how to get what I wanted and my core principles very well. Hang onto your hats, 2018 has taught me that just when you think you’ve got it figured out, life has other plans for you. For me, 2018 has proven itself to be all about change, growth and adaptation. And I have struggled – oooooohhhh have I struggled!
In the fall of 2017, I found myself, overwhelmed and unable to work as well as I always had. I was more forgetful that usual. I couldn’t recall information as quickly as I was used to doing. In fact, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t remember things. I tried everything that always worked for me and I simply could not work. I wasn’t leading my office, my office was leading me. I was falling behind and my staff was left adrift and I didn’t know how to fix it.
I think the situation in my office really created a tipping point which exacerbated my weaknesses, stretched my existing coping mechanisms to the breaking point and increased my anxiety to levels which rendered me paralyzed.
I have always been a “busy” person. My Dad was perpetually frustrated with me and deemed me a “fiddler”. I drove him crazy and he had no hesitation in expressing that to me. There was always something in my hands, I paced incessantly, I moved seemingly without reason and would alternate between staying up all night because I couldn’t sleep and sleeping for hours at a time because I was overwhelmed and needed to just shut my brain off. My ever positive and patient mother thought “…that’s just Mandy…” as she ran continued interference between my father and I.
I. Overthink. Everything. And when I feel something distressing or joyful, the feelings are so intense, I can’t think of anything else. If the feelings are centred in uncertainty, inadequacy and perceived rejection, I feel as though my brain high-jacks me and I have zero control to stop this runaway train of thought. I need immediate resolution to the problem and if I’m not able to do so, I am thrown completely off. This inability to shut off my brain makes me feel desperate and causes me anxiety and insomnia regularly.
I always knew I was kind of different. When I think, I think in pictures. It’s as if the main idea I am ruminating over is a big bright orange ball and shooting out from the ball are bolts of lightning which are the different pieces of information related to the main idea. And I can see it all at once and assimilate it. And when this is happening, I am rendered deaf and completely oblivious to whatever else is happening at that time. Sometimes, I lose words to explain what I am thinking (aphasia).
In November, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I say diagnosed but really it was re-diagnosed. Apparently when I was four, the doctor “suggested” to my parents I was “hyper” and prescribed Ritalin. My mom gave it to me for about six months and then decided that my symptoms subsided and I was never prescribed stimulant medication again until now…
Throughout this process, I was also diagnosed as being “twice exceptional”. I have an eidetic memory – which is commonly referred to as “photographic” and I have a high Intelligence Quotient. This is what makes me “neuro-atypical” and is probably why I was never identified during my formal schooling because my ability to excel in school masked my ADHD symptoms.
I have an undergraduate degree in Psychology matched with a deep appreciation, understanding and empathy for psychological and neurological anomalies. However, to be diagnosed with something that has had such an effect on my professional and personal life, and to have had zero knowledge or appreciation that I possessed an impairment and the huge impact it has had on my daily life, simply blew me away.
In elementary and high school, I would lose marks on mathematics tests because, although I got the right answer to complex equations, I was unable to show my work and explain how I got the answer. In high school chemistry, I could see the covalent and ionic bonds in three-dimensional detail in my mind but I couldn’t reduce what I saw to writing, nor could I explain how I knew the answer. Traditional evaluation methods didn’t necessarily work for me in science and mathematics and as such, my marks were all over the map and I shied away from these studies in my post-secondary education.
I have always struggled with anxiety. In particular, I have horrible test taking anxiety. I hate sitting still for more than half an hour. I can’t ever recall a situation where I was not the first student to hand in my exam and leave the classroom. As soon as I sit down, I have an overwhelming desire to flee. I just want to escape the pressure. However, as a female and a fairly, well behaved one at that, I was able to muster the ability to sit still in class – even though it killed me!
As a result of the recent testing, I now have independent proof that I process information extremely quickly. I can read anything in seconds and understand and recall what I have read. I can process the answer to a problem in minutes and I can record the answer on paper just as quickly – when not stressed. Conversely, I do not consistently and reliably process oral information as well. I have to be careful not to interrupt others when they are taking too long to get the point, lest I appear rude. Often, I fail to hear what they are saying because I am already three steps ahead of them and analyzing the next logical step.
I don’t like talking on the telephone because I can’t read the other person’s facial expressions and I miss some of the information being provided. If I had a nickel for every time a close friend or family member is exasperated with me on the phone and asks if I am paying attention or what else I am simultaneously doing, I could have retired ten years ago!
As well, in my personal relationships, I can make up mind about issues quickly and am able to determine how I feel about something, what I want and the reasons for my decisions. It is sometimes very difficult for me to understand why other people require time and space to process their own feelings or are confused or hesitant to make a decision when it seems so clear to me. I remember begging my prior physician to prescribe me “…anything that will just slow me down.”
I struggled for years feeling as though my academic success was a fluke and outside of my control. How important a particular class or subject was to me, could also impact my ability to think clearly and rationally and engage my natural process. And often I couldn’t predict my success on a test because my anxiety would creep up when I least expected it and take control of my broken brain and render me inoperable.
I have struggled with self esteem because my test taking success was consistently inconsistent. I would either achieve near perfect scores or bare passes. I can remember very early on in my scholastic career, wanting to raise my hand to answer the teacher’s question but not doing so because I was too afraid to be wrong and yet when the answer was revealed, nine times out of ten, I was right.
It wasn’t until Law School that I began to realize the strength of my analytical and academic abilities. This was largely on account of the fact that I was absolutely intrigued with law, was now an adult, had greater self confidence and was a smidge more self aware.
More importantly, I was surrounded by wonderful law school teachers that encouraged me and praised me such as Professor Leigh West, Professor Brian Etherington, the Honourable Mr. Justice Douglas Phillips and Master Mary Jo Nolan (as she then was – later the Honourable Madam Justice Nolan). These professors recognized my abilities, encouraged me and demanded nothing less than my very best and I was able to give it to them in an environment where I felt supported. It was only during this period of time, I realized that just maybe, I wasn’t a fluke. GO WINDSOR LAW!
And yet, if it wasn’t for my processing speed, my memory and my acute ability to recall detailed information quickly, I don’t think I would be able to have gotten through my undergraduate degrees, Law School and my Masters in Law. Some specialists call ADHD a super power. Others debate this positive spin because for many, it is debilitating and has a negative impact upon their lives.
While my diagnosis explains why I do what I do, how I do it and why I am successful professionally, it also explained some of the personal struggles I face such as why I don’t always catch subtle social cues, why I am so sensitive emotionally and why I feel everything just so deeply. It explains why I have periods of extreme hyper-focus and periods of extremely unfocussed attention. It explains why I alternate between extreme periods of physical activity such as pacing and why I can also sit down at my computer for twelve hours straight and feel as though I have been there for a mere hour.
We are all imbued with different abilities and strengths. For example, I am completely overwhelmed and unable to complete routine tasks that many people do without thinking. It’s not that I am lazy - I simply don’t possess the basic executive function skills to complete these tasks. My keen attention to detail and desire for cleanliness and order, interrupt my completion of the task because I get sidetracked, make the task over complicated and then become overwhelmed because I can’t do it “right”. I then become angry and frustrated at my inability to do something so mundane and “simple” but to me it’s not simple and I can’t organize the steps to complete the task.
I suspect the amount of money I have wasted in food and ruined cookware would amount to thousands of dollars. I start to cook for myself, wander off and two hours later am completely stunned to – again - smell burning food which has the consistency of charcoal. I chastise and berate myself and can’t believe I have been so stupid. And yet, I would repeat the same cycle on a weekly basis. This is but one example of many of daily and routine tasks that I screw up. Let’s not even discuss my driving abilities…
In order, to have the order and cleanliness that I have to have in my home, I have a wonderful housekeeper who cleans and organizes my living space. I have a dog walker that helps me care for my beloved pets and ensures they get their daily exercise. I have a gentleman that takes care of my yard work and gardening. And more recently, I now order pre-made meals to have on hand so I can meet my nutritional goals and keep my kitchen smoke free.
One of my closest friends and business partner, Josh, initially shook his head at me, suggested I was just lazy and loved to point out how much money I waste on these services. When he moved three doors down from me, I think he gained a unique perspective on my inability to transcend these routine tasks, as characterized by his comment “I have no idea how you tie your own shoes.” Spoiler alert - I wear slip-ons asshole. This sentiment was also shared - and shared often - by my former partner, John, who proclaimed “You are the most brilliant person I have ever met and the dumbest person I have ever met. It’s mind boggling.” Ya, I gotta agree with you, a super duper mind boggler is the fact that I ever thought you and me was a good idea. Insert eye roll and Taylor Swift’s “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” All kidding aside, he will always be one of my favourite people and someone I deeply care and have affection for. :)
Having completed a series of psychological tests, I now know that my pre-frontal cortex is highly impaired. This area of the brain is responsible for impulse control, judgment, attention, and emotional regulation. It was explained to me, that if you compare a “regular” prefrontal cortex to a sparkly and glittering Christmas tree, my prefrontal cortex Christmas tree only has one or two lights on several strings of lights that are working.
Since I was a very young child, I would leave all of my assignments to the very last minute because only with that extreme time pressure and my desire to succeed and please my parents and teachers, could I manage to harness my runaway focus and attention to complete the task at hand.
My oldest childhood friend, Mike has always spoken lovingly of my “spontaneity”. I now recall how I thought nothing of skipping school in high school to go shopping in London with my friend, Samia. This seems to explain why my childhood best friend and university roommate Julie Anne and I were kicked out of the high school library for disrupting our peers, during exam time due to excessive giggling as a result of my impressions of our biology teacher – when we should have been studying. Or how on a Saturday, I will go out to get groceries in Sarnia and find myself at Somerset Mall in Troy, Michigan.
To my university roommates, Sarah, Julie Anne and Lisa, I think we now know why I was more concerned with attending the Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day when my 30 page thesis on “Youth in Conflict with the Law” was due the next day and I had not yet started. I think we know why I would initiate late night dance routines to Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and why I would skip class to hang out with the Langdon Hall boys – Pete, Lorenzo, Tony, Steve and Scott – spending the day in an intensely boisterous and competitive card tournament of “Asshole”. It also explains why I was very much like a groundhog in the Leddy Library at the University of Windsor, popping up out of my study carrel to see who was near as soon as I heard anyone walking by my study station. In retrospect, this diagnosis explains a lot…
As I rose through higher academic levels, I refined my technique such that I knew, in order to write a research paper, I would have to complete the actual research sometime the week before a paper was due. I would check out books, print off journal articles and acquire all the resource materials necessary to complete the paper. Two days before – and candidly, on many occasions, only the day before - the paper was due - I would take twelve hours and read every last bit of material. The night before the paper was due - and again, if I was entirely honest often the day of – I would begin writing the paper. In the days before email submissions, I would triple the speed limit to get to the university, double park my car, screech into the Criminology department and drop the finished product off with the department secretary at 4:29 p.m. – one minute prior to the office closing for the day to meet the deadline. And more often than not, I would secure an “A”.
This pattern persisted throughout Law School - only we often had 100% final exams. Again, I refined my technique, such that the day before the exam, I would sit down with my text book, my case law and any notes that my classmates and I traded and I would read every last page. I would write the exam and I would regurgitate every last bit of information onto the page and achieve the marks I wanted.
As a litigator, I do the same. I read all of my client notes, all of the pleadings and when it is my turn for oral submissions in Court, I generally know my case inside and out and can answer the questions without reference to my file.
My high intelligence quotient, my fairly decent social skills and my eidetic memory masked the symptoms of my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder throughout the entirety of my academic career. Essentially, I produced and I produced at a top level.
Upon starting the stimulants, my ability to focus is slowly returning. My memory is coming back. And I have a wonderful new staff complement with whom I have shared my unique working style and who are committed to working with me to optimize my production.
I am only now just realizing that I am one of the lucky ones who have this disorder. My ADHD is a blessing more than a curse. For me it allows me to work crazy and long hours without becoming tired. I have more energy than most people. I can work all day and night or work all day and socialize all night and get up the next day for work with a smile on my face and ready to roll up my sleeves and dive into the day.
The diagnosis has had an unintended benefit where, perhaps, for the first time in my life, I am more accepting of who I am. Now that I have an explanation which I can cognitively understand and have identified why I do, what I do, I have learned new techniques to manage my forgetfulness. I don’t berate myself as much because I understand that to some degree, it isn’t my fault.
I have been blessed with professionals who have been nothing short of fantastic to me this year. My fabulously brilliant physician, Dr. Helen Rockwell has worked with me to adjust my medication dose, provide me with the appropriate referrals to manage my care and has listened to me drone on and at a very rapid speed.
My caring, exceptional and patient counsellor, Laura Pageau has worked with me to help me develop self care routines, cognitive behavioural techniques to manage my ADHD and RSD (Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria) and compassion for myself.
My office manager, Andrea Murphy who is so loyal to me, has been glued to my side and is always willing to try something new to help me improve my productivity, to pick me up when I am overwhelmed and to say to me “you got this” when I’m not certain I do.
My close circle of friends, Carole, Josh and Keith have laughed with me, listened to me cry and kicked me in the ass when I needed it most. And my Momma… the first person who ever loved me and my biggest champion who just accepts me and my crazy.
For the first time in my life, I know I am not crazy – I just have a broken brain – so to speak. And yet my broken brain is perhaps one of my greatest strengths. For the first time in my life, I feel somewhat at peace with myself. I have answers to some of the questions that haunted me for so long and I no longer beat myself up because I don’t work like “others” and I don’t “feel” like others. I am learning to appreciate my uniqueness and how it permits me to... well just be me.
This is but one of the lessons I have learned in 2018. Stay tuned for Part Two – Expect the Unexpected!
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