Turns Out I’m Not “Bad” At Being An Adult — I Just Have ADHD
People with ADHD work harder than anyone else I know — often depleting themselves to tackle tasks that a neurotypical person can do with ease.
I remember what it felt like to finally have my “dream job.” I called my mom first (as usual), excited to prove to her that my so-called “useless” liberal arts degrees had actually amounted to something.
I savored this “I told you so” moment — with my parents, there’s not a whole lot of them.
I had already taken some serious risks: I had left behind my sleepy midwestern suburb for the greener (and warmer) pastures of Northern California — with very little money and a sublet for the month. Once there, I dropped out of my master’s program partway through with the gut feeling that I could make it in the online publishing industry if I put my mind to it.
I was a little foolish (okay, a lot foolish), but remarkably determined.
When I was offered my first full-time editing gig, it felt like a triumph. Against the odds, I had secured a job in a competitive industry at a widely respected publication. And I did it on my own merits, confirming for myself that maybe the risks I had taken had all been worth it.
It took me about a year of struggling to finally step down from that position, after asking myself at least a thousand times, “This should be easy — so why is this job kicking my ass?”
As it turns out, it wasn’t the job kicking my ass. It was ADHD.
For the longest time, I always thought that I sucked at being an adult, or put another way, I just couldn’t “get my shit together.”
I’d miss the little details, no matter how many times I looked at something (not ideal when you’re an editor for a living). I could never hold my focus on something for very long, no matter how hard I tried. I was terrible at managing my tasks and staying organized. I’d avoid anything — assignments, projects, even movies — that required a big investment of my time.
I tapped my feet constantly, much to the annoyance of those around me. I couldn’t sit at a desk for long chunks of time. I never knew how to relax. Even as a kid, my teachers used to complain on every report card about how I never paid attention — instead, I was chatting up the kid next to me throughout the lessons.
I tried everything to get focused and organized. I changed the lighting, I played different sounds in the background, I bought all varieties of planners. I tried different chairs, different desks, different cafes. I organized my email inbox a thousand different ways — starred first, unread first, and every kind of folder system you can think of. There’s not a task management app on Earth I haven’t downloaded at some point or another.
It didn’t seem to matter. Everything seemed to slip through my grasp, no matter how desperately I tried to hold on.
I later told my clinician that my life had felt like a puzzle — and no matter how many ways I arranged the pieces, nothing seemed to fit together.
The more I struggled, the more anxiety and depression I felt around my work. And the more intense my emotions became, the more I avoided the work altogether. I started to brace myself for criticism, waiting for my colleagues or boss to point out my failures. Every new email or unexpected meeting sent me into a panic.
My dream job became something I started to dread, and after too much dread, it became something I hated. It was a perpetual reminder that I’d failed to live up to my potential — that I was actually a fraud who didn’t deserve the job in the first place. And I became convinced that everyone around me thought less of me because of it.
Like many people with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD, I thought I was a failure — everyone else seemed to function with so much ease, so I figured I must’ve missed the memo on how to be a grownup. I must be lazy, or inept, or unqualified. My self-esteem crumbled.
Instead of asking for help, I took up drinking a few too many glasses of wine to deal with the spiraling at the end of the day. And after one too many missed deadlines, I decided that I wasn’t cut out for this whole “adulthood” thing. When my boss suggested I step away from the position to take care of my mental health, I gave up my dream job and sunk into a deep depression.
I was distressed. On paper, I was more than qualified for the job. I had all the necessary skills. I had the experience, the passion, the smarts. So why did something so straightforward become such a complicated mess?
When I finally confided in a mental-health clinician, I was shocked to learn that not only was my story a common one for folks dealing with ADHD, but that my clinician had been diagnosed with ADHD, too! As she shared her experiences and her fears, I could immediately recognize the similarities in our experiences.
It wasn’t just me.
I can’t describe how validating it was to realize that I wasn’t “bad” at being an adult. My struggles over the years with concentration, organization, and hyperactivity were all connected to a disability – one that I’d likely been dealing with since childhood – and it had nothing to do with a personal failing.
Looking back, I can remember the dissonance between knowing I was capable of doing something, but constantly feeling robbed of my potential by some force I couldn’t explain. It would take years before I could name exactly what it was.
Nowadays, I’m employed again at a new publication — this time as the new, improved, and best version of myself. I’m back to doing the work that I love with the support of my clinicians and loved ones. Medication and therapy have given me a second chance, and it’s one that I don’t take for granted.
Assignments that used to take days or even weeks take a few hours at most; I can read a book, write an article and stay engaged in ways that I was never able to before. I can enjoy the process, and dig deeper with better concentration and confidence. Best of all, I know that I’m in my element, now living up to the potential I had only previously imagined.
We live in a culture that says if we fail to meet deadlines or otherwise be “productive” adults, we just aren’t trying hard enough. It was this kind of mentality that not only destroyed my self-esteem, but made me ashamed to ask for help when I needed it.
But in actuality, people with ADHD (and folks with disabilities generally) work harder than anyone else I know — often depleting themselves to tackle tasks that a neurotypical person can do with ease.
Despite all this effort, they wind up feeling like failures because they can’t reach a standard that was never set with them in mind. They’re saddled with unfair expectations, and often without the coping skills they need to adapt to the work.
I’m no longer ashamed of my struggles with ADHD. It was never about whether or not I was a “bad” adult — millions of other people in this country alone fight an uphill battle with ADHD, and those struggles say nothing about our value as people.
It’s not our fault. And if you can relate, let me be the first to assure you that it was never your fault, either.
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