Why this is good news
Between mid-2018 to February 2020, my creative output paid off. After years of composing stories and essays that sat on my harddrive and not quite figuring out what I wanted to write or why, or how often, I found myself at a comfortable and steady pace. I was growing an audience. I was getting paid, regularly. Publishers and editors were approaching me to license my work.
My success was mild at best but those extra dollars each month really mattered. It made a huge difference in my confidence and assured me that I was clearly on the right path. It was by no means overnight success but the little rewards and signs of growth; increased royalties, better editing notes, or response from readers were all the motivation I needed to continue. Quitting or slowing down wasn’t even an option. Writing was (is) just a thing that I did, it was just a part of who I was—and it seemed those in my small corner of the world had taken notice.
Then came along that thing. You know, the thing. I won’t say its name (well, just this once: COVID-19). I’m by no means the only creative who has struggled to continue putting out work on a consistent basis.
Despite my efforts, I could not get anything back on track the way I had before. I chalked it up to our collective trauma in dealing with this pandemic and accepted this was a time to learn about myself and stop trying to put past-me into the shoes of present-me.
Recently though, I had the good fortune to change a significant aspect of my life that immediately and unmistakably illuminated something that had lurked in the shadows all my life.
The reason I could start projects but never finish them (though I’d continue to obsess), why my interests seemed so cyclical, and why I had developed some specific habits to manage my life all pointed to something I had never considered before: ADHD. To save time and a discussion for another day, I’ll focus less on my specific symptoms and instead focus on how I discovered it, how I feel about it, and what my next steps are.
Laziness doesn’t exist
I’ve known for a long time that laziness doesn’t actually exist and that our social drive to ascribe motivation to our value as individuals is misguided. Simply put: we’re motivated and energized to complete our goals and tasks when we feel safe enough to do so and have all of the resources we consciously and unconsciously need. When we don’t have those unconscious resources available: our ability to complete a specific task bottoms out even if our desire to doesn’t. Figuring out what exactly that resource is that we need is the hard part that we simply blame ourselves for not having.
I’m so thankful that this was something I understood before the pandemic hit. And when it did and many of us watched our routines, resolve, and confidence crumble, I would often spend considerable emotional and mental resources reassuring others around me that it really wasn’t them, it wasn’t their fault that they just could not manage to get the damn thing done, whatever it was for them.
I did this all long before I recognized it myself. Because I already knew that my lack of output was not a mark of my character or talent, just that I was missing something—and I supposed at some point that thing would show itself and I’d get back on track or find a new one.
The friends I had consoled when the guilt overwhelmed them did something I did not do: they wanted answers and sought help. As they started sharing their stories, expressing how so many things fell into place, how their providers pointed them in the right direction, how treatment had helped them, I felt so happy for my loved ones even as I related to their struggles. Look at them! I’d think. Look at them go.
I definitely noticed a lot of overlap between their symptoms, behaviors, and contributing factors with my own internal world and experience, but I simply chalked it up to other things we had in common.
Adaptive coping mechanisms
I recently moved into a new apartment. Completely solo, no roommates, no nothing. I haven’t lived without roommates since I was 21. It’s an understatement to say just how much I appreciate the peace and quiet.
Over the years I’ve not only had my fair share of roommates, but also harmful and toxic ones. I’ve roomed with active drug users and dealers, people who have overdosed, people who abused their loved ones, thiefs, misogynists, racists—many times these traits were not obvious until it was far too late and many overlapped, as they often do.
Some of my housemates weren’t always explicitly violent and dangerous; instead, they were simply manipulative and narcissistic—and in many ways, they had a far worse effect on me than the others.
Having grown up in a household that was governed by addiction, mental abuse, and sexual abuse, I learned critical coping skills early on in my childhood that continued to serve and protect me well into adulthood. Most importantly I developed hypervigilance: the “ability” to be so sensitive to my surroundings that I could detect a threat before someone had even issued it.
Hypervigilance is something that I do by instinct. When you get used to living with people who actively do not have your (or their own) best interests in mind and consistently act upon it, one starts to “predict” their next move for their own survival. For me, this showed up in ways that are often non-medical tools for ADHD people: making lists, sticking to them, activating hyperactivity (once I started cleaning, organizing, or a new project: that is all I would do for the day) and basically predicting not just my own needs but those of others around me for the immediate future.
It resulted in me walking on a lot of eggshells to prevent further manipulation and abuse from those around me. I was incredibly organized, but not motivated because I was emotionally and mentally exhausted from managing others’ emotions and environment.
Once I no longer had to do that and only needed to worry about my own space physically and metaphorically, everything changed: I suddenly had a surplus of emotional and mental energy, but absolutely no mental organization at all even though I remained physically organized.
I was cooking full meals again—something I could not do at my last place—sharing food and gifts with neighbors, making sure I got out of the house daily to get fresh air and run errands, and overall making so much more room for just me in my life. But other things immediately floundered that I had never dropped the ball on before: I was missing work meetings and deadlines as if they never existed and completely unable to establish any sort of self-care routine.
But I was creating again. Abundantly. Daily. Making moves to create foundations again in my life. I knew that part of the struggle before had been because I had no emotional capacity to do it and now I suddenly did because I no longer had to manage anyone else’s feelings or mental capacity but my own. My hypervigilance in this context was no longer needed. Referring back to how laziness doesn’t exist: the resource I needed for myself was the mental energy.
Thankful for the present
There are several other more classic and less-obvious symptoms of adult ADHD that I have shown for years that I will share for a future essay. As I figured out the connection between my inability to complete projects, being consistent emotionally, and how my physical organization of my environment and schedule was a way to cope with my mental disorganization and chaos, I did not feel shame, sadness, or even a sense of loss that adults sometimes feel with a diagnosis.
I feel so free and motivated. I feel like I have answers—even if I am not 100% there yet.
I have worked hard on my emotional and mental health for several years. Processing and healing trauma, learning how to attach securely, regulating emotions… these are all things I have had to put considerable effort and training into and it has paid off. I’m so thankful for having that foundation before I figured out this missing piece. There is no guilt or sense of loss, like I have wasted time or potential.
Something I have practiced often in the past several years is the concept of radical acceptance. It doesn’t mean we don’t try for a better outcome in a situation when we can affect it, just that once the hammer falls or things out of our control occur, we don’t fret over it and just choose based on the things we do have choice and control over. Figuring out that I (likely) have ADHD with the ability to accept it, radically, makes this a much easier process.
In short, having worked so hard on other aspects of my mental and emotional health prepared me for understanding that this is a strong possibility: there’s no guilt, just a simple fact and evaluation. I’m glad I no longer shame myself for inaction. I have learned how to examine and not personalize my own feelings. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel remorse if I do something wrong, just that I know when it’s appropriate and how to be constructive with it and not self-flagellate.
I’m sure that down the road I will have to face some grief and loss. I expect it. There is a strong background of my childhood involving the unhelpful gifted child programs and how they actually harm kids and its effect on me going into young adulthood and real life that has always been in the back of my mind. Now that I might have the final puzzle piece to this, it’s something I’ll be ready to talk about soon. But knowing that it can dig up some painful memories and feelings, to me, is a good thing because I look forward to being able to heal it once and for all.
But in the moment I feel joy and relief.
My current action plan
As I have mentioned, I have not actually been diagnosed yet. At the time of this writing, I have discussed this with my therapist and we both agree that a medical evaluation is the next step, so that is currently pending. She suggested that while it looks and sounds a lot like ADHD, there are a few other possibilities based on my specific symptoms and behaviors and so I am open to that as well. The only way to find out is to talk to my doctor.
This is a process that can take a little while, so in the meantime I am focusing on honing the organizational skills I had before. Now that I am doing them for my own well-being and not survival, I have developed a system that I think will work really well for me and help me manage all of my projects, passions, and responsibilities. I’m fortunate that I already have a well-stocked arsenal of emotional and mental health tools (and established good habits) to keep me in check and on track while I refine this process.
While I’m doing all of that, I’m going to start reading and studying this more. Not to the point of obsession, but namely follow up on the “Huh? Interesting…” moments I had in the back of my mind when my friends shared their own stories and experiences. There’s a good chance that some nuggets of helpful information are in there for me and I intend to find them.
And most importantly: I plan to accept the process fully. Even if ADHD is not the actual answer—though it seems quite likely—I know I am on my way toward one, and that is already so impactful for me that I am already seeing immediate positive changes as I explore this. I feel like I am “me,” not just again—but fully.