Report From Planet Squirrelbrain
This is the story I promised you guys about my experience of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, otherwise known as ADD or ADHD, otherwise known as The Dreaded Squirrelbrain, otherwise known as Yet Again I Have No Clue Where My Phone Is I’m Sorry I Know We’re Late I Know, I’m Sorry, Everyone Functions Differently, It's An Explanation Not An Excuse syndrome. I wrote this story for Mental Health Awareness Week. The perspicacious among you will point out that it is no longer Mental Health Awareness Week. I was planning to get this piece in on time, you see, but self-set deadlines have never been my forte, and nor has avoiding getting distracted by my ridiculous schedule the eight million other things I’m doing. This is because I have a diagnosis of ADHD.
Most people who know me in real life are surprised when they find out I got the diagnosis in 2015. Surprised, specifically, to find out that it took that long. They assumed I had worked it out years ago. I am the sort of person people write case studies about. Right now I have four separate projects on the go, and that is a manageably low number for me. Also right now, I’m living off cash because yet again I was dreaming on public transport and let my wallet get lifted from my pocket -at least I think that’s what happened, I could have just left it on the seat. This sort of thing isn’t cute. It causes real problems, and not just for me. Once, in the middle of a very important conversation with my then partner about our relationship, I tailed off in the middle of a sentence and walked away across the street. Not because I was upset. Not because I felt threatened. I walked away because I had seen a lovely little dog on the other side of the road and it was imperative that I pet it right that second. It is to my partner’s credit that he did not break up with me that day.
More, more, more. I’ve lived in over twenty-five places in the past ten years, and some of that was because I’m a precarious millennial, but that wasn’t the only reason. People have this condition, however you interpret it, to varying degrees, but mine happens to be visible from space. The first time I bit the bullet and bought a book for people wondering if they had ADHD, I lost it almost immediately, and found it a week later under a banana skin and a sock. I’m telling you the funny parts, but mostly it’s just a faff.
My understanding of ADHD is that it’s not, strictly speaking, a mental health disorder like any other. It’s not that you can’t concentrate - it’s that your concentration engine is off-kilter, so you’re either highly focused or hugely unfocused. In self-help terms,you have a problem with ‘executive functions.’ It often co-occurs with other issues like anxiety and depression, but it isn’t a mood disorder. The major debilitating symptoms are distractibility, forgetfulness, jumpiness, talking and thinking very fast, flakiness, very poor concentration, worse organisational skills, losing everything you own, and occasionally getting extremely overwhelmed. The upsides are that I’m a fast and creative thinker, I’m driven, I’m interested in and knowledgeable about a surprising number of topics and issues, I can do a lot of things at the same time pretty damn quickly, and when I do focus - usually on reading or writing - my mind is an immoveable lazer.
A small but not insignificant percentage of people have brains that work this way. It can be a superpower, if you manage it properly - or it can be a nightmare. I think of it as rather like having extremely curly hair. If you don’t know what to do with it, it’s a problem - and if you keep bashing at it trying to make it straight, you’ll break your hair and burn yourself - but if you take care of it properly, it’s beautiful and unusual and brilliant.
For the longest time, I assumed that everyone was like this. I assumed it was all normal, because most people in my family are like this- scatty, flaky, messy, fast-talking, disorganized, endlessly dynamic but allergic to basic paperwork, terminally unable to locate our most important possessions. I had no idea that there were people who didn't spent half an hour searching for their keys every morning, or who had the magic ability to show up to appointments on time with their pants on the right way round. I knew it was a problem, of course- I just assumed that everyone else lived like this, with eight million tabs constantly open in their brain, and most of them were simply better disciplined. I was lazy, dirty, probably a bad person and definitely a bad female person. I was convinced that if I just found the right organisation system, if I just pushed harder at being an attentive and reliable person, everything would magically become easier. I spent a lot of time beating myself up. A lot of time trying to straighten myself out. Time and again, I burned myself.
I had heard of ADHD, but I assumed, as a lot of people do, that ADHD was a made-up condition invented by doctors to flog drugs and keep little boys from acting up in class. I knew that it was being massively diagnosed in children. I did not know that it was also being underdiagnosed in adults- especially in young women.
Diagnosis is a tool, not a sentence. It is a description of a condition based on symptoms and set of predictions and recommendations grounded on best guesses. When it comes to knowing how the brain works, medical science is still at the level of Victorian surgery: we have some reasonable theories, and we can make observations, but fundamentally we're still chopping bits off because we've noticed that fewer people die when do than when you don't. With some exceptions- there may soon be genetic tests for schizophrenia, for example- we don't know for sure what makes people mentally ill, and what makes them well, in part because our very definition of 'mental illness' is socially determined.
Even before I was diagnosed, I was making changes based on the way I knew my brain worked. I realized pretty quickly, after attempting to hang on to several of them, that I will never be able to make a success of any job that requires me to spend nine hours a day in an office, let alone give the semblance of being a socially functional human being while I'm there.
So for the past eight years- since I was 22- most of my professional efforts have been poured into finding a way of supporting myself that would mean I could also work odd hours, make a schedule that suited my brain's bursts of intensity, and occasionally spend a few hours in the middle of the day hiding under blankets being very worried and overwhelmed by the world.
What the diagnosis has done for me is allowed me to give myself a break, stop beating myself up, and try to get just a tiny bit better at things that are harder for me than they might be for others. I know I'm often late because I get distracted on the way to meetings; knowing that means I can plan to start getting ready to leave the house earlier. I'm late far less often these days. I know I find it unbelievably, maddeningly boring to do my share of the washing up- but if I put on a philosophy podcast or something else that's interesting, I can get through it in no time. I know that I lack the capacity to properly take care of things my friends lend me, so unless circumstances are extreme, I just don't borrow things anymore. I know that if someone asks me on Monday to do them a favour on Thursday, I'll forget- so I ask them to remind me again on the day, if they can. I know I always leave things to the last minute- so now I make sure I have all the prep work in place before that last minute, and spend the time in between doing other things, or resting, rather than sitting at my desk dicking about. I know a regular self-defined commitment like updating this Patreon is hard for me without an editor shouting at me to do it, so I use it as a staged procrastination tool- that's a trick that always works. My brain always wants to switch to the other thing, so I make sure the other thing is also something I need to do. Often I'll write here when I'm avoiding writing about something else, and vice versa; right now I'm meant to be working on a feature for Wired which is due in 24 hours. Will it be a mad rush? Yes. Will I get it done? Absolutely.
Now, ADHD is, if you want it to be, a great excuse for being a superflake. I'm just naturally rude and careless- it's not my fault! I try not to be the sort of person who makes those excuses, ever. I have always tried to live by the principle that mental health challenges can often be reasons for bad behavior, but they're almost never excuses. Learning about has given me a far better understanding of how to deal with my mental health, and other people's, more responsibly. Because whilst ADHD isn't as much of a problem for me, it's far more of a daily issue for my friends, colleagues and people I love.
My perennially scattered, careening brain makes it far harder for me to do a lot of the things that translate to good manners- arriving on time, arriving at all, remembering people's birthdays and allergies, not losing that thing you lent me, doing you that favour you asked me about a few weeks ago, pitching in for the boring chores, not interrupting or blurting things out in conversation, staying off my damn phone when you're trying to tell me something important about your broken heart. I assumed I couldn't do these things because I was, when you got down to it, an arsehole. This is not true. It turns out I genuinely find concentration, patient attention and day to day organizing a lot harder than a lot of people do.
But if I try, I can be a bit better. Medication helps, but awareness and strategic thinking help more. It’s all about little tics. When I notice myself wanting to blurt out random facts and interrupt people, I can stop. I now check the seats before I get off public transport, and until last week, when I was jet-lagged and unbelievably confused, I hadn’t lost a wallet or a phone in over a year - a new record. I may never be a clean, punctual and absolutely reliable person who never procrastinates or leaves things to the last minute but I am, at least, slightly less of a flake than I used to be. Twenty years of giving myself a hard time about it didn't work. With the right support and a charitable attitude towards my own quirks, I'm actually getting a bit better.
For a Type A Princess like me, 'a bit better' is hard to stomach. I don't want to just be a bit less awful at something- I want perfection. What's the point of trying to get organized if you know you'll never ever be able to keep a Pinterest-worthy appointment journal or, half the time, remember where your damn spectacles are? What's the point of trying to get more done unless you can mold yourself into a kick-ass life-hacking genius who never wastes a single second? Accepting limitations is galling when you were raised by a culture that prizes not just success, a culture where 'I'd just like to be a bit less shit at this' is somehow less acceptable than ‘I must and shall be the best organised, most punctual person in the world.’
Slowly, gradually, I'm starting to take the same approach to the other, more debilitating mental health challenges I've got rummaging around in this slightly strange mind I have. Mental health issues are not excuses for being a human wreck; they are challenges and, sometimes, they are explanations. Awareness by itself is not enough. With support, understanding and a certain amount of self-care, many of them can be met. It will never be easy, but it will be easier than it is today. There’s a lot more to say, and because I’m a person with ADHD, I find it very difficult to stick to one topic - but I’ll leave the rest for another story, on another day.
Love to all of you, and thanks for listening.