Living and Thriving with ADHD
Oftentimes in discussions of ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the conversation is dominated by concerns of over-medicated children, preemptive and half-hearted diagnoses, and college students abusing stimulants. The problem with this is that the truth is masked. The fact that 50-75% of adult women with ADHD go undiagnosed is completely beneath the general public’s radar.
Unfortunately, that is the truth. I was an adult when I was diagnosed, and I brushed off the diagnosis in the way that many do. It wasn’t until years later, when I worked with a few other nurses who were open about the disease and their management of it, that I realized how it truly affected my life, habits, and workflow. You see, ADHD presents differently for women than it does for men. When you think of ADHD, you’re probably picturing a child who can’t sit still, or who disrupts class on a frequent basis. I was a bit taken aback to learn that in girls, ADHD often manifests as inattentiveness rather than hyperactivity. They also tend to have lower self-esteem. This is the opposite of the class clown type of character we imagine as the poster child for ADHD; this is the girl who daydreams in class or doesn’t speak up because she isn’t sure of her answer. This is the girl who is alternately anxious and depressed for the duration of the years that are supposed to shape her as a person.
Knowing this, it is no wonder women often go undiagnosed. I was very interested to discover that some of my personal quirks that I had chalked up to be human flaws are actually symptoms. For example, I have a barely-functioning mental filter. I say what I am thinking, for the most part. I even warned my current boss about it when he interviewed me and asked what my weaknesses were. I’m much better about it than I was ten years ago, but it can cause problems. I’m late to social events (but never work), I avoid or procrastinate mentally challenging tasks, and I absolutely HATE being interrupted, but tend to interrupt people or finish their sentence for them. I lose things frequently; for example, I lost my keys more than a year ago and still have not found them. I also have a strange habit of wandering away in the middle of a conversation. All of these things that I perceive as embarrassing personal failures are actually neurobiological markers of the disease.
Over the last few years, I’ve been able to develop coping mechanisms to aid in controlling these and many more symptoms. For example, while at work, I write everything down. As an ICU nurse, this can mean a lot of information. I have a notebook, almost like a bullet journal, that I carry around with me, and every patient gets a dedicated few pages. There’s a space for everything on those pages, from history and diagnoses to a to-do list and an hourly table. It may seem odd that I can tell you exactly how much urine Mr. Smith peed at 1 PM on January 5th, or the last time his IV dressing was changed, but it’s a tactic that has worked for me for years. A nurse I work with uses post-it notes. Her work area is constantly covered in small pastel squares of important tidbits or reminders. It seems like chaos, but it works for her. This technique is applicable to planners and daily lists, which I also use.
I have also found that meditation helps. I have never felt that I was very good at meditating, but when I do it, I feel slightly more grounded afterward. I am able to slow down a little and focus on one thing at a time. Because that’s the issue: at any given moment during the day, I feel like I have a dozen TVs on in my brain, and they’re all tuned to different stations. Which one should I focus on, and for how long? It feels like a constant battle; there is an insidious and never-ending sense of not being able to “keep it together.” I meditate in the mornings as I prepare for the day. I use the time applying my make up to focus on the day ahead. I also try to set five minutes of my lunch break aside for meditation, though this happens less often. It helps me sleep, too. The trick I have found to help the most in meditation is to focus on breathing. When my thoughts inevitably wander to dinner plans, the off-kilter comment I made that morning, or the age-old question of dogs’ color blindness, I try to bring my attention back to breathing.
I am not ashamed to admit that therapy and medication are cornerstones in my functionality. The two combined have not only helped me and countless others live with ADHD, but thrive with ADHD. I am learning to master self-love and forgiving myself, although I have a very long way to go on both fronts.
On a daily basis, I try to be mindful of the silver linings of the grey matter in my skull. Yes, I have ADHD. Yes, it affects my life, my relationships, and my career. But it also makes me thankful for the things that my brain CAN do. I’m a whiz at dosage calculations, I can memorize dates and numbers easily, and I’m phenomenal gift-giver. I am also aware and so very grateful for the husband who knows he needs to repeat himself sometimes, for the friends who give me the chance to edit my unfiltered thoughts, and to the colleagues who function with high levels of ADHD and inspire me as role models.
As always, if you think you may have ADHD or feel like you might need help, contact your doctor as soon as possible.