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By June Silny
Why is it that my hidden, silent struggles with ADHD are so often dismissed? Condemned? Ridiculed? The daily challenges are real, and really depleting when it feels like the whole world is wagging its finger.
My ADHD brain is like a never-purged, always-running hard drive. Without any overarching folder system, all input is met with grueling, exhaustive analysis. I fill my days trying to categorize the tsunami of thoughts, ideas, worries, and possibilities that overwhelm me. I overthink every event, every conversation, every decision. And then, inevitably, my overwhelmed brain crashes. And no one has any idea except me — the worsted operator — because ADHD is invisible. Much like my suffering.
Here are the ways I crash my brain on a daily basis, and what I’d like the rest of the world to know about why, how, and where it happens — despite my best intentions and daily worries.
I am blind to time. This is not a metaphor; I quite literally don’t compute the passage or estimation of time accurately. I also never learn to resist daily temptations to squeeze in "just one more thing." As a result, I’m always frantically rushing to catch up. I’m late to wake up (hitting snooze four times), late for work, late to finish last-minute projects, late paying bills, late filling out forms, and late making doctors’ appointments. Everything is last minute. Even when I’m on time, there’s a last-minute fumble: Where’s my phone? The papers I need? My sunglasses? And then, when finally I’m locking the door, my smoothie spills on my skirt and I have to go back and change clothes.
What about the person waiting for me on the other end? I feel bad, do it anyway, and then feel worse. It’s the only way I know; I’m not proud of it.
It’s embarrassing to admit how many hours I waste trying to make decisions. The smallest, simple things drain away all of my time and stress reserves: compiling a to-do list, deciding what to eat or which outfit to wear, choosing a route or a time to leave the house, or weighing what to say in an email or text. Forget about big decisions! Those are the ones that re-appear at 3 a.m. for weeks, even after I’ve made a decision. Still, I ruminate and second guess myself. It’s mental torture. I’m never at peace. Choices are black holes that suck me in and won’t let go. Decisions become an abyss.
My internal energy flow is unstable at best, untamed and destructive at worst. I can’t predict when bursts of energy or whole-system shutdowns are going to happen, but I do know it’s usually one or the other. I’m all in or all out — either hyperfocused or staring frozen at my to-do list. When energy bursts come, I align with them, push myself as hard as I can; and then collapse when they pass. Either that or I wipe out big time. I’ve got to learn how to surf the big waves that might pull me under and try to ride the small ones that don’t take me anywhere as well. Some days, the flow is so low that I just can’t muster the strength to paddle. Staying afloat is hard enough.
I’m an obsessive email checker. I’m not sure what I expect to find in my inbox, but checking it excites me as if I were a wide-eyed child anticipating Christmas. Finally, I took the email off my phone because I couldn’t restrain myself. With the fiery urge of a gambler at a roulette table, I fight daily to resist food, drinks, purchases, and words. Nothing is ever enough; I always want more cookies, chips, clothes, shoes, and purses. Controlling my impulses is a daily battle — one that I feel I never win. I take on more than I should and end up causing myself, and others, unnecessary stress.
Cleaning up is not rocket science. So why is it so hard to take off a shirt and hang it up or walk 10 steps to the hamper? I honestly don’t know, but here is what happens: Looking at the clothes in my hand, I tell myself I’ll hang them up later. Somehow “later” never comes because there’s always something more important to worry about. Clothes, papers, mail are quiet; they can wait. It’s not that I don’t have enough clothes; it’s that they’re all piled up on a chair. If laundry gets washed, it doesn’t get put away. Laundry baskets, couches, or chairs become drawers. I hear myself thinking, It takes too much time to put it away properly. That’s why my piles of paper get so high. Ironically, I can find anything I need when the time comes. But the clutter affects my home and my sanity.
The silent suffering that is perhaps most painful — and hidden — is that caused by the repetitive rambling thoughts as they continuously run through my brain. Like wild horses on a rampage, my thoughts consume me involuntarily and unexpectedly. While I’m creating unrealistic scenarios; I tell myself not to listen. These thoughts are not real. But the pictures I see are vivid and clear in my mind; imagination becomes reality. If you ask me what’s wrong, I’ll tell you I’m fine rather than put words to the visions. I struggle to regain serenity with breathing, yoga, nature walks, positive reframing, and spiritual mantras. That’s an effort requiring concentration, isolation, and strength: three traits that don’t come easily.
I’m a mature adult, at least on the outside. But inside I’m too often a five-year-old child screaming, Stop telling me what to do! You’re not the boss of me! When these oppositional defiant responses slip out, I hang my head in shame or try to hide behind a tough exterior. Passive-aggressive is my middle name and I know that’s not healthy, so I beat myself up asking, Why is it so hard to be nice? What is the matter with me? I’m not a bad person but I feel like one. It’s hard to control my sadness, anger, fear, and worries. It all happens so fast, and then I’m left with guilt, shame, and regret for hurting the people I love.
I have associative brain disorder. That’s not a clinical diagnosis; it’s a name I created to reflect the stream-of-consciousness, no-brakes, no-boundaries way my brain works. Wide open to receive and process any and every thought, my mind feels like dominoes dropping one after the other. One thought leads to another, then another, and click-clack they fall all day. Without any organized compartments for my ideas, my brain gets overloaded and defensively shuts down. At times, this is a heavy burden to bear; when my thoughts are scary and the ideas come so fast, I feel powerless. Nothing gets accomplished.
Caring for and about other people is an admirable trait. I take pride and joy in my empathy and compassion. But thanks to my ADHD, compassion sometimes takes my mind, body, and thoughts hostage. At times, I become engulfed in experiencing my loved ones’ feelings. My worry and anxiety grow stronger until I become so paralyzed I can’t concentrate, communicate, or function. When it comes to helping others, I have to go slowly and take time to carefully examine the situation because my desire to help, give, and do for others overrules my good judgment. I often ask myself: Am I people-pleasing or enabling? Or am I sincerely helping my loved ones move forward?
Everything in moderation, right? In theory maybe. But when I try to balance my workload, relationships, and personal endeavors — equally distributing time for exercise, meals, work, family, and friends — I never get anything but frustrated. When I start cooking, exercising, socializing, or working I can’t stop. I know productivity is achieved through balance, but when I go in, I go in deep. I can’t stop the flow. Nor do I want to. “In the flow” is my favorite place to be. But not knowing how to break that hyperfocus can harm my productivity, relationships, and health.
Completely exhausted at the end of the day, I follow my 30-minute bathroom routine before checking Facebook and Instagram one last time and letting my head hit the pillows. I close my eyes and take a few breaths. And then it happens: every negative thought that flitted through my mind that day comes back to the surface. As I lie there, watching the movie in my mind, it's hard to settle my thoughts and fall asleep. I’m exhausted but I can’t rest and I can’t escape the monster keeping me awake.
ADHD is real, yet skeptics outnumber believers. Everyone is distracted nowadays, people say. I understand that people feel stressed, busy, and overloaded. I feel that way, too, but with a greater intensity and frequency than most people can comprehend. Everyone else, it seems, gets a break from their overwhelm; I don’t. ADHD is forever.