What I want you to know about living with adult ADHD, more than anything, is how hard I try.
If you’re exploring a diagnosis or living through one, you can glean a good amount of information from a Google search — enough “aha!” moments to give you a brief, but profound sense of understanding and hope. You can learn about the short attention spans, the difficulty focusing, the impulsivity, the difficulty completing tasks. You can read about trouble with transitions or how hard it is to wake up in the morning or about the influx of passions, ideas, and interests that all fizzle out when the initial rush of discovery wears off. But what you can’t read about ADHD, what you can’t experience unless you’ve been there with your head in your hands at the end of a particularly frustrating day, is how how much work it takes to accomplish what seems like so little.
I know this feeling very well. Let me take you through a bad brain day:
Once I wake up and get going (the first 20 minutes of being awake is the worst — it’s like being next in line to get your teeth pulled without anesthesia), I take my place at the bottom of a giant pile of good intentions. I start the day with goals in mind and with the enthusiasm and drive that usually accompanies the first day at your new dream job. The day feels so full of possibility. I feel excited. I feel like “this is the day that I do great things.” I feel lucky to have this new, blank canvas.
All day long, I’m aware of what I need to do and what I want to do. I make lists, I organize them, I start big important projects. I try to make each day productive so I can feel like I contribute to society. So I can feel like I use my talents to do good in the world.
I work hard. I try hard. I am constantly moving, constantly tasking, constantly thinking. I work so hard that I have to set reminders in my phone to eat and to take breaks. I work so hard that at the end of my day, I’m absolutely mentally and physically exhausted. I work so hard that my fingernails are chipped and I have a headache. Only the main difference between me and someone without ADHD is that when I look back at what I’ve accomplished, I’m shocked and saddened by how little it actually is.
On a bad brain day, I look at all the items left unchecked on my To-do list. I survey the day’s projects — dozens of great ideas meticulously planned out, new skills researched, quarter-drafts of writing projects started, piles of good intentions. I look at them and I want to cry. The amount of time I spend actually doing these projects seems like hours but the output of work doesn’t support that much effort. It’s brutally unfair.
Sometimes I am aware that this is happening, and sometimes I seem to blink my eye and make some kind of time-eating magic. I literally have no idea how I just spent 3 hours doing research when it felt like 15 minutes, tops. I can’t fathom where the day has gone. It just started! I need more time. And I haven’t even cleaned the house or made dinner yet.
After a particularly bad brain day, I worry that I am a waste of potential. A brilliant, creative brain lost in itself. I worry that I will never accomplish my goals, no matter how hard I try.
When I have too many of these days in a row, it starts to look like I’m wasting my life. I start to hear things from people around me like “I don’t understand what you do with your time” and that really stings. It stings because I work so hard. I try all day long. That’s what I do with my time.
On a good brain day — and I have more of these than bad days, thankfully, I’m creative, driven and productive. Sometimes I accomplish more in one day than in the entire previous week. My work — it’s good. I’m proud of it. My clients love me. I’m resourceful. I think outside of the box. I’m on fire. I have a million ideas and most of them are great. It’s wonderful and I attribute all of those moments to the gifts ADHD brings to my life. But I still have to work harder than I’d like and I still, even on good days, lose bits of time and fall prey to too much planning, daydreaming and organization and not enough feet-on-the-ground work. I still struggle with the amount of work produced vs the amount of time spent producing it. I still have to set reminders to eat and take breaks. I still have to push through the heavy curtain of my brain that creeps closed every so often when I let my guard down. I still use my brain so much that it could probably power a small country.
What I want you to know is that I’m not lazy, even when it seems like I haven’t accomplished anything in days. I want you to know that I don’t intentionally waste my time. I want you to know that I don’t lack motivation. I’m not a waste of potential. I do know that my goals are just half-accomplished. I realize what it must look like from the outside looking in. It does bother me.
I want you to know that if I could just try harder, I would.
I want you to know that even on my good days, I feel guilty about what I haven’t accomplished, even if it’s just the tiniest twinge from way deep down.
I want you to know how incredibly frustrating this disorder can be. I want you to know that even though it looks like I just spent all day doing what would take you an hour — surfing the web or cooking one meal or running one errand or writing one page — that those tasks were actually the result of hours of related tasks. Dozens of subtasks. Hundreds of thoughts. A lot of toil.
Good day or bad, I start each day at the bottom of a hill, behind a giant boulder, and I push that boulder uphill all day. Most days I get that rock over the hill, but some days I don’t. Either way, I never stop pushing it. I never stop trying.
I never stop trying.