Thanks for the memories: An essay on life with ADHD

By Irene Grey

In a moment…it’s gone. The fully-formed sentence sprung from nowhere; a perfect start to a story that might unfold over hundreds of pages. By the time I found my pen, all that remained was a faint memory. This is the downside of ADHD…falling in love with ideas, images, sounds, smells and half-formed thoughts several times within one minute.

My thoughts are almost within reach, then slip somewhere I can’t access.  As one thought slides away, it’s replaced by one, two or even three more, without order or sequence. The unease lingers.

As a self-employed adult woman recently diagnosed with ADHD, I consider myself moderately successful. I’ve started taking medication, which enables me to reach previously unknown levels of self-awareness. Medication has given me a fresh perspective. There’s no prescribed way to live or think; it all depends whom you ask. The difficulties with ADHD come when you feel and act wildly out-of-step with the majority of society and can’t keep pace.

What’s it like to have ADHD (for me):

I can relate to the impulsivity of the Road Runner cartoon. When the wolf runs off the cliff’s edge, his legs cycle rapidly while suspended mid-air. It’s only when he looks down and realizes the enormity of his situation, he plummets down the canyon. I’ve always empathized with him. Propelling myself forward, and never looking back, or down, probably saves me from descending permanently into my own canyon.

Having ADHD, energy, resourcefulness and optimism fuel me, but mental chaos can overwhelm me and I grind to a halt. Staring into space, dulled and unable to move without huge effort, the desire for order becomes as overwhelming as it is hopelessly unattainable. It can last a few minutes, or occasionally all day. I really wouldn’t want it hanging around longer, as the more prolonged times reveal a bleaker view of life. At least I can explain this now, after a lifetime of inarticulate thought. In the past, I’d try to rationalize what was happening, but if it didn’t make sense to me, what could I say?

I’d always assumed I was terrible at living a normal life. Teachers said, “Only boring people get bored.” They said a lot of other things which confirmed our suspicions I was rebellious, sweet, but slightly simple and hopelessly forgetful. I was eventually invited to leave school. The Girl Guides had extended the same invitation a couple of years prior. Friends say, “Remember when…?” I nod, but I don’t really remember. Everything moves too fast. It’s one reason why I fidget. Trying hard to remember or prevent something which is slipping away is taxing.

I’d like to focus, hold some memories, and have the chance to reflect. These are the big things, although not without drawbacks. Everyone has elements of their past they’d rather forget, but when you’ve never really learned from your mistakes, a glimpse in the rearview mirror at the mangled wreckage of destructive relationships, dreadful job experiences and reckless choices can be shocking.

I’ll shift my viewpoint now to say ADHD can be fantastic. Every day offers endless possibilities. Life without self-imposed limits means freedom to go anywhere and speak to anyone. It’s not so much fearlessness, as simply not considering possible consequences before plunging in. I’m constantly amazed by what I find out, and humbled by what people want to share. I’m trusted, probably because I’m non-threatening. Surrendering yourself, unwittingly or otherwise, to living in the moment attracts people who want to join in. The irony is I’ve always been shy, so attracting strangers creates a tension which I struggle to overcome. It’s like having an all-access pass for life; it’s a gift you’re not sure you want.

On relationships with others:

Friendships are easily formed and the tenacious ones survive. Constantly forgetting birthdays, meetings and dinners takes its toll. I always answer my texts, but often only in my head. It can lead people to think I don’t care about them or am shallow, selfish and unfeeling. It’s an understandable impression, but couldn’t be further from the truth.

‘I forgot’ is met with instructions to get a diary (planner), set alerts on my phone or find another way to get organised. After all, everyone forgets so you can, too; you just have to focus, plan ahead, and generally get a grip. How can you tell them you’ve lost your third diary (planner) and it’s only April, your replacement phone is also gone and you thought today was Tuesday instead of Thursday? Getting any kind of grip on the stuff sliding in and out of my head is quite tricky. So, to the people I’ve let down, I’d like to say it’s not you, it really is me.

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this” has been screamed at me more times than I could obviously hope to remember. The last time was half-way up a mountainside, sheltering in a pine forest from driving rain. It probably wasn’t the moment to confess that my car keys seemed to have gone. Everything would be ok, and if we just retraced the last 10 miles we’d definitely find them. I did find them, inside the unlocked car, so everything worked out well. To that particular friend, I’d like to say that you always complain about wanting more exercise and, as I pointed out at the time, human skin is waterproof, so can we please move on? I get blamed for quite a lot: when you’re the forgetful, accident-prone one, it comes with the territory. It can’t always be your fault, and small doses of support and understanding go a long way with those of us who think and operate a bit differently in the world.

I’m good at adventures and spontaneous decisions. I’m open to anything, because I have few defenses, although I generally believe what I’m told, which has got me into trouble. Keeping secrets comes easily, but hiding my own is hard. I’m a magnet for children and animals, and try to cherish and look after everyone around me. Visitors are well-fed and listened to. I’m known for giving good, at times unorthodox, advice, and cocoon those in need of understanding. The problem comes when transferring this care to myself, or recognizing when I should ask for help. I’m not invincible, but the irrational, hopeful side still can’t quite shake the belief that I just might be. Why not? I’ve been tremendously lucky so far.

On seeking treatment and disclosing my diagnosis:

I could continue living in the moment without planning ahead, forgetting most of it, then starting over the next day. It’s often great, but I’m tired of reacting and acting impulsively, searching for new ways to keep boredom at bay. I’m weary of losing track of time, thoughts, and people. I want to build something solid that I can keep going back to. Seeing each day as a clean slate has got me this far, and it’s fascinating, if chaotic.

Endless curiosity feeds the cycle, but it’s all so temporary. I want to pick up where I left off. These are the reasons why I wanted treatment. A bit of control over my rapid impulses, combined with the chance to focus and untangle the constant, shifting thoughts has shown it to be the right decision for me.

I’ve told three of my closest friends about the diagnosis, and no-one has been surprised, despite having the good grace to pretend otherwise. It seems each one suspected something wasn’t quite ‘right’ at times. Realizing I’ve been quietly understood and cared for over the years is touching but also difficult to accept – especially as I like to believe I’m invincible. My abrupt disappearances are par for the course and those who know me well no longer expect an explanation. Instead, they gently inquire and don’t take it personally.  

Like my diary (planner) and phone, I misplace my loved ones sometimes. They’ve all said they need me to stay the way I am, for the adventures and sheer living in the moment thing, although I’ve always hidden the worst of it from them by retreating, I’ve reassured them I wouldn’t take medication. It’s dishonest, but I didn’t want them to start preparing to miss the old me. What if I become unrecognizable, stunned into submission by a chemical taser?

The great news is they haven’t noticed anything different, although I have. I’m more focused, and my energy levels are now steady. I no longer feel the sudden need to run down the street — something that can be alarming to other pedestrians, especially when you’re a grown woman in high heels. (It looks like you’re being chased.) The sudden development of a verbal filter is a welcome relief after years of unintentionally insulting people who ask for an opinion. It turns out diplomacy doesn’t mean lying, it’s more choosing words carefully that don’t eviscerate friends, family or complete strangers. “But you asked me,” isn’t a reasonable defense after all, especially for the many times they didn’t ask.

Sleeping well in bed is a new treat. Funnily enough, for me, slipping into unconsciousness in cinemas, theatres, and on all forms of public transport was never a problem. Most welcome of all the improvements is my memory. I’m forgetting less and thinking more clearly.

I’ll always be more flawed, impulsive wolf than perfect, predictable roadrunner, but that’s okay now.

Recently I was gripped by a sudden fear that controlling my symptoms would mean the saturated technicolour that life can be would drain into a perfectly pleasant, slightly dull, black and white. Like a rainy-day film without much pace or plot.

Fortunately, finding a balance between the extremes of falling in love with everything, or disconnecting completely, leaves scope. Depending on when in the day you ask, I might say that ADHD has been a constant, invasive shadow, falling across every aspect of my life.

Ask me again and I might say it’s been a brilliantly illuminating shaft of sunlight, throwing everything it hits into stark relief. It can be blinding, but more often reveals the perfect, glorious detail that might have been missed. Life is enhanced, elevated and made rather lovely. It depends on your perspective. Who wouldn’t want a little bit of that?

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    • Kathy Stafford
    • August 10, 2016

    Wishing I could share this family members! Hearing with sensitive ears of even the unspoken word, sends me in self defeating thoughts. Some of my high achieving family can’t understand all that I go though to be heard or being ignored feels.
    This is my battle at this time.
    My understanding is that many of us suffering with ADHD also have Dislexia which I experience as well of being Ambedextrious, with Major Depression.
    Thank you for this article, it that the wrong out of my life, even if a few understand!

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