Being different is an attribute that creative people take seriously in forming their identity. Without question, in New York City (and among other cities that are full of creative and ambitious individuals) being different is a “freak flag” most people wave in plain sight, undeterred and uninhibited by others’ judgments and opinions. This is one of the main reasons I knew I belonged in New York City.
Years later, after struggling to graduate college and committing to a “career” path, I found out the hard way that my type of “different” bleeds much further than being creative and curious. I had always had an excruciatingly hard time focusing and knew I somehow have been underachieving my whole adult life despite my greatest efforts. Activities I loved were seemingly impossible and daunting to the point of mental paralysis. It felt as if there was an invisible roadblock. Other times that roadblock came in the form of a leprechaun dancing, taunting me, ”You’re stuck.” I needed to do something I was passionate about but my mind was constantly performing a dark, mental circus making it feel impossible to start or finish anything. I could see all of this, but no one else could. I was visibly sensitive and easily over stimulated. Explaining all these feelings to others, especially those who knew me best, was sometimes difficult. There was one thing they could understand about me: I had unclaimed potential, things were harder for me and I was an inadvertent flake.
I was first diagnosed with Generalized Depression. Depression is a pervasive feeling of sadness and loss of interest in daily life. It is an everyday interference and can wreak havoc on your self-esteem. I was prescribed Prozac by my psychiatrist and continued to see my therapist once a week. I was much less depressed and made a lot of strides with my self-esteem and anxiety issues, but I wasn’t any more focused, organized, patient or successful. I switched my psychiatrist recently because I felt that there was a piece missing from my diagnosis. I didn’t necessarily think it was a misdiagnosis, but I felt I required more answers or a better explanation.
I sat down fidgety with nervousness when I first walked in to my new psychiatrist. There’s something about psychiatrists… They are competent, intelligent, and shrewd… but much less personal than a psychologist, specifically mine with whom I have a close relationship. This made it difficult for me to answer his questions at first. I loosened up eventually and even found myself sharing details of my life and holding his eye contact. He redirected the conversation a couple of times when I would stray too far off topic.
After an understood break in the conversation he sat in silence as he wrote his final notes without ever looking up from his notebook. I waited patiently and tried to disguise that I was riddled with fear, dread and anxiety. He looked up after what seemed like hours and said in a calm, even tone, “I am 85% sure that you are dealing with ADHD.” I sat there without saying anything. That was probably the last diagnosis that I suspected. I even dabbled with the idea I was somewhere on the autism spectrum or had a mild case of schizophrenia (left handers are more susceptible to mental illness, schizophrenia in particular, and my aunt is also schizophrenic).
He continued to say that most people’s idea and perception of what ADHD is in adults or children is inaccurate, as it doesn’t always manifest itself as hyperactivity and the inability to focus. Often times, it means an individual becomes lost in daydreams and isolates from the world, unable to focus on the right things. Other symptoms include: forgetfulness, disorganization (the state of my tote purse didn’t help my case), distracted or tangential thinking or speech, irritability, restlessness, inability to start and finish tasks, anxiety, a high level of sensitivity, impulsivity, and underachievement. Then I remembered that I had bought a book three months prior called, Fast Minds How to Thrive if you Have ADHD (Or Think You Might). Reading the beginning gave me an “Aha!” moment, but I wrote it off as a symptom of my depression and anxiety. Maybe I was on to something back then. I brought my focus back to the psychiatrist as he began discussing a course of action. I was nervous, but optimistic.
This is what I have learned during my journey through mental illness and my recent diagnosis with adult ADHD:
1. The world becomes “clear”
Medication doesn’t change who you are. It simply allows you to be who you are. Upon taking medication, the world seemed much more vibrant. Before taking medication, I was constantly turned inward, to the point where I didn’t realize that I’d forgotten how it felt like to be “outside” of my head, to be engaged in each step, breath, smell and sight. Most people assume that Adderall and Ritalin will give you a “high” similar to cocaine or an “upper”, but people who actually need to be medicated will feel the same, but focused and with a mind less noisy and scattered.
2. Being engaged takes on a new meaning
I sat down to play a game of Scrabble. I usually have a book or two nearby, my phone as a resource oto look up information that shoots into my head sporadically. This time, I sat and watched each person draw their tiles from the felt bag and set them on their letter easel. I discussed the words on the board. I stayed focused the entirety of the game. I was connected mentally and physically. I was also genuinely enjoying being engaged in an activity, it felt easy and effortless.
3. You are able to say sorry and reflect objectively
I have definitely inflicted pain and destruction to myself and to others. Struggling with undiagnosed ADHD and being highly sensitive exasperated my ability to control incoming emotions; which is something I now take full ownership of. I hurt others that didn’t deserve to be a victim of my behaviors, whether or not they were symptoms of ADHD. I now have created a mental distance from some of those behaviors. I see them as symptoms to a larger problem and not as self-defining characteristics. I know I am not hot-tempered by nature, it is symptomatic of a struggle with emotional regulation and communication when my brain is on overload. I have taken responsibility and try to put those mistakes behind me. Most importantly, I am able to forgive myself, relinquishing me of the guilt and shame I had been carrying.
4. Goal setting becomes a viable concept for personal growth
I am not saying that I never set goals pre-diagnosis, because I did. However, I set goals that were unattainable or unreasonable for where I was mentally. I had low-self esteem and was feeling lost, unable to set reasonable goals that I could attain, or a feasible end goal. Becoming truly self-aware now I am able to access my strengths and weaknesses and navigate my life more meaningfully. The first attempt at pursuing a passion may fail but that doesn’t mean I am a failure, it means I need to try a different approach that works for me. I now make systems for managing my struggles and manage my personal growth in a attainable, positive way.
5. Getting out of a rut was much easier
Success didn’t come right away with any of my creative hobbies and various interests, and often times, feeling stifled by my inability to be immediately successful, the pressure to succeed NOW and prove my worth by doing something that is lucrative. The problem is, I am a useless employee somewhere I am inputting data or being relied on for organization. I need to do work that I am both passionate about and allows for some flexibility. I struggle with being a little impulsive and needing to express my opinion and a more corporate environment hasn’t worked for me. I was able to pinpoint what I needed from work and what I wanted from life and how to make that a targetable goal.
6. Your relationships with loved ones will strengthen (this translates further into your professional life)
To be able to be honest and forgiving with yourself clears the way for you to communicate more effectively with the people you’re closest with. For my partner it has been tremendously helpful to be able to explain how I process things, and how to respond to me in a productive way. I am able to recognize that my fear of rejection and continuing self-esteem issues, I am extremely sensitive to anything perceived to me as criticism. I have told him I would respond to suggestions better. I and say, “This isn’t about you and I am sorry that you’re experiencing it… can you give me a moment to come to a better place?” This type of communication has to go both ways. You can’t always expect the people in your life to have the “right” reaction and it is your responsibility to communicate and when a reaction towards them is unfair.
7. Acceptance breeds stronger self-identity
Once you accept and take ownership that it’s a part of your life, you are able to start seeing the components of ADHD that make you special. The ability to problem solve because your brain is filled with random information, constantly connecting memories, mental photos, and experiences into a viable solution. This doesn’t take any mental energy; it feels natural to unleash your brain and allow it to “squeeze its juices.” Being empathetic is who you are, everyone has potential and has something to offer to the world, and you’re fixed on understanding them on a deeper level. You’re interested in a wide variety of hobbies. My closets consist of: ski gear, yoga mat, tripod, clay, tempera paint mixture, woodcarver, running shoes, and camping gear… the list of interests I have is extensive, and I am always eager to try new things. I am incredibly ambitious, and when I am focused, I feel limitless.
ADHD, mentall illness, or not, everyone is blessed with their own unique talents and abilities. I have accepted that mental illness doesn’t define who I am. I don’t have to continue to be depressed to be a better writer or artist; abstaining from medication doesn’t make me “stronger.” I am stronger now because I am managing my illness and I have control of my mind. I will continually be faced with struggles and life doesn’t stop happening,, but I am confident that I have an answer and with that, I can equip myself through this life a lot less fearful.
Almost everyone struggles with a form of mental illness at some point in his or her life. If you or someone you are close to is struggling, don’t be afraid to get help. Who you truly are is waiting on the other side, and it’s a painful but beautiful revelation.