Welcome to my brain circus!
It’s Disability Awareness Month, and I’m a writer with Attention Deficit Disorder. That makes this as good a time as any to share my experience of learning late in life that I’m neurodivergent, how my diagnosis has shifted my self-image, and how adjusting my brain chemicals has brought new ease to my writing process.
After seeking answers for over a year, I finally got assessed for ADD/ADHD at the beginning of 2022. My assessment results shocked me. Strangely, it felt validating to see it right there in black and white: my symptoms were “severe.” Certain things like my winding career path, my eternal late-blooming, and my unreasonable caffeine habit made a lot more sense all of a sudden.
Last month, I started treatment, and my life changed in unexpected ways. I wrote about some of those in this Twitter thread.
As usual when writing about disability stuff, I’m a little nervous to address it. Publishing, like every other industry, is deeply ableist. And ADHD is categorized as a developmental disorder, a term that my internalized ableism associates with group homes and lack of independence. I received some messages that were less than kind after I tweeted about my diagnosis, so I know from experience that discussing it isn’t without risk.
But I find that when I feel a little bit of fear around a topic, it usually means it’s exactly the one I should tackle. So here goes.
My brain is different.
I’ve had suspicions that I was neurodivergent for a long time. I remember wondering if I had a learning disability as a kid. No one around me agreed, because I was demonstrably smart: a voracious reader with an outsized vocabulary and a perfectionist streak a mile wide. (When you’re hypersensitive to criticism, getting it right the first time feels like a matter of life or death.)
Even as late as 2020, more than one doctor told me I was “too smart” to have ADHD, as if people with ADHD can’t get college degrees or have a professional career. This, to be clear, is also ableism.
I have now learned my experience can be described as “twice exceptional.” “Gifted” neurodivergent people can mask our gaps in ability with our strengths. We don’t even know we’re doing it. Our struggles often go unnoticed—sometimes even by ourselves.
Sure, math, non-theoretical science, and any task that required keeping track of small details frustrated and confused me. Numbers in particular overwhelmed me (they still do). In one memorable instance from my childhood, I melted down over long division and wept as I tore a practice worksheet to shreds. But I was a girl in the 80s and 90s. No one expected me to be good at math.
Like many AFAB people, my symptoms are more inattentive than hyperactive, which means fewer “problem” behaviors. I also had a non-traditional primary education via home schooling, which left me free to hyperfocus on the things that interested me. Ideal for me at the time, perhaps, but costly later.
As an adult, things got a lot harder. Professors and employers wondered why I didn’t live up to my potential and why I completed projects so slowly. Tasks that seemed easy or negligible to others, like sorting mail, paying bills, and keeping up with household chores, seemed nearly insurmountable for me.
I carried a lot of shame with me for that. I hid my messes and often costly mistakes, figuring they were personal failings of carelessness or laziness. Impatient and quickly frustrated, I hopped between jobs, hobbies, passions, and professions regularly. This repeatedly reset my career back to entry level and rote work that bored me, creating a vicious cycle.
ADHD creativity & understanding my brain
The truth is, I get bored easily. I grow weary of everyday details quickly. I miss the details. I resent the details.
Last year, I almost quit the best job I’ve ever had because of this. My day job gives me unusual flexibility, pays me well to do advocacy work I’m passionate about, and allows me to speak my mind unfiltered. But I was ready to leave all that behind because I was bored to the point of psychological distress with the daily grind of it.
Boredom for me isn’t a neutral state. It brings on an intolerable level of agitation. It’s a chew my limb off, change my name, and join the circus to get away situation. Problem is, even the circus would probably bore me after a while.
But inside my head, in my own world, I’m never bored. There’s always something going on there, usually multiple things at once. I don’t just have a mind palace, but a mind kingdom. I owe much of my creativity to that multicolored clamor of ideas and images and words. But 95% of the time what happens inside my head absorbs me more easily than the “real” world, i.e. the world where I have to survive, function, and translate my experience outward.
This is inattentive ADHD, which is a bit of a misnomer. I am paying attention…to the syncopated beat of my own drum. Which no one else can hear.
Executive dysfunction and writer’s block
Writing is the one hobby that has stuck with me all these years. Words have always been my element and writing gives me a way of translating the freewheeling chaos in my brain into linear thought. It’s one of the few things I do that feels easy.
Most of the time. Well, some of the time. Actually, it can sometimes feel easy once I get myself started. But starting is the hardest part of all.
All writers suffer from writer’s block at times, of course. I’m not saying that’s a direct function of ADHD. But my squirrelly brain has an impact on my productivity. Every single day I have to wrestle it into compliance and point it in the direction of my goals.
ADHD causes executive dysfunction and makes task initiation difficult. The difficulty arises in the gap between knowing what you want to do and actually doing it. For neurotypical folks, they may not even notice that there is a gap there. For me, it can echo like the Grand Canyon.
In the past, I’ve depended on hard deadlines to motivate myself. Coming up from behind is familiar territory for me, whether it’s winning NaNoWriMo or turning in my college papers on time, with the pages still warm from the printer after an all-nighter. It’s the way I’ve always done things, fueling my willpower with the panic sparked by looming failure.
With meds, I often still struggle to focus during writing time, but I can take the steps needed to start writing more quickly. I still get distracted easily, so those steps include turning on the “nuclear option” in StayFocusd so I can’t check Twitter every two minutes.
Everything takes less time than it used to, now, because I’m wasting less time getting to the gate. It’s strange and fascinating. And I admit that it makes me a little mad that I waited so long to get treatment.
Outlining is interesting now?!
For most of my writing life, I have identified as a natural pantser. I despised outlining and writing from an outline. The activity of planning a story bored me, and once I had the whole story laid out, I typically lost interest. What’s the fun in writing a novel if you already knew the ending, right? Discovery writing was the only way to go.
I did realize that this is not the most efficient or effective way to create a coherent plot, especially if I want to spend less than five years writing and revising a single book. Over the last few years, I’ve tried to train myself to outline more prior to starting my projects, with minimal success.
Then I started ADHD treatment and…created a scene by scene outline of my latest project in less than a week.
What the ACTUAL fuck?!
What’s more, when I finished, I didn’t feel inexpressibly bored by the prospect of writing the scenes I planned out. I felt excited about it! And once I started drafting, I discovered that even while following the outline, I could still surprise myself.
The ability to plan without feeling overwhelmed or losing interest seems like a superpower to me. It reminds me of when, at sixteen, I got glasses for the first time and realized that everyone else could see sharp outlines of leaves on trees instead of a big green blur.
It’s a bit disorienting but also wondrous, and people who never needed corrective lenses might wonder why it’s such a big deal. I guess some writers have been doing this naturally all this time while I muddled along tricking my brain into staying tuned for the next episode. I get it now, but also, seems fake!
Again, I’m not saying all or even most discovery writers are like me, or that all ADHD folks are pantsers. I know some of you depend on your outlines and that’s valid! For myself, I actively wanted to utilize planning techniques pre-draft before I got treatment—I just couldn’t. As far as I know, I might also have gained more ease when discovery writing, but planning is more salient to me right now because I happen to be working with an outline on my current project.
Feedback, edits, and rejection sensitive dysphoria
I have been called “oversensitive” my whole life. The term is harmful and dismissive, but I do in fact have a highly sensitive personality. Criticism or indeed any non-positive feedback can absolutely derail me emotionally. Over time, I’ve learned to mostly control my outward expression of this, but it means doing a lot of emotional self-management before I can process feedback.
It took me a long time to realize that this reactivity matches up with another ADD/ADHD characteristic known as rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). The emotional experiences associated with ADHD don’t get as much attention from medical professionals as the “problem” behavioral symptoms, so it wasn’t until I started spending time in neurodivergent spaces that I started learning about RSD.
In the past, when I received constructive criticism on my writing, I had to give it considerable time to simmer. My first internal reaction to edits would almost always be charged and defensive. I had to wait out those flooding emotions until I could see the feedback as intended: helpful suggestions, not an attack.
When I began treatment for ADHD, this change was one of the first things I noticed. I do a lot of writing in my day job as well, and the day after I started meds, I received notes from my coworkers on a document I’d drafted. Previously, I might have avoided looking at that feedback for a while or resented it even while I worked on it. But this time, I found myself typing back an instant response thanking them for the helpful input. (Another thing that is easier with meds: replying to emails!)
And I meant it! I was genuinely grateful because I knew the edits would make my draft better. This did not feel normal, but it did feel amazing. At this point, I’m sure my coworkers are wondering where I got my personality transplant. Better living through chemistry, y’all.
Later that same night, I got notes back about my book. I was able to look at the feedback, open the manuscript, and see what I needed to change. It didn’t feel overwhelming or upsetting. The exhausting emotional work of just processing the critique was drastically reduced.
All this time, I blamed myself for not having a thicker skin no matter how hard I tried to grow one. Now, it turns out that my brain chemicals wouldn’t let me grow one. Though the end result of applying feedback hasn’t changed, the ease of doing so and my self-perception about that process has undergone a sea-change as a result of treatment.
The more things change…
One of the worries I had about ADHD treatment was that I would lose some of the things I like about my brain, like my creative energy, ability to hyperfocus, or sense of humor. This was fueled especially by “expert” opinions I happened upon in my research, which called medication a “neurological restraint” that ruins neurodivergent minds.
Now, on the other side, I can see how untrue that is, at least for me. I didn’t lose my creativity or my individuality. Getting treated just made things easier for me that were difficult before, like planning, prioritizing, and focusing on activities that don’t naturally interest me. It lets me hold one thought in my head at a time and tune out some of the noise.
It didn’t change who I am, but it helps me use my time more effectively toward my goals. It probably makes me more pleasant to work with. I no longer have to drink dangerous amounts of caffeine every morning to achieve a basic level of function. I’m less impatient with people who take their time to get to the point in meetings, and I have an easier time processing what I hear. All of these are good things, not mind-ruining things.
I can now point the brain weasels in the direction I want them to gallop (most of the time). I can still engage my hyperfocus drive, though I’m less likely to forget to eat until 3 pm. I can still spin up worlds and wordplay in my head to entertain myself.
On the other hand, it didn’t solve all my problems either. I had terrible sleep before, and my sleep is still terrible, although I have found it easier to put my phone down rather than stay up until 2:30 am playing puzzle games. I can still nap like a champ in the middle of the afternoon. I procrastinate less, but I’m still behind on my word count goals for the month. I folded my laundry twice in two weeks (!!) but my office is still a shambles.
The nice thing is, I’m finding my perfectionism doesn’t shout quite as loud when it’s not convinced I’m forgetting something important.
It’s a work in progress.
As I write this, I’m still feeling my way through these discoveries. It’s no small undertaking to reframe my entire life experience in the light of this new perspective. I also still have moments of self-doubt, wondering whether I’m just fooling myself and using my diagnosis as a way to excuse those “personal failings.” But overall, recognizing my functional challenges as part of the way my brain operates differently has helped me understand myself better and ultimately, taught me to grant myself more kindness.
One thing I do know for sure, though: if it hadn’t been for other ND folks openly sharing their experiences on the internet, I wouldn’t have had context for my own. That’s why I’m writing this, I think: in case it gives someone else helpful context for “how brain workles” too. Or, for those concerned about the effects of treatment, to ease some of those worries about losing what makes you, you. Medication is just another tool, one that might help you use your other tools more effectively.
I love hearing from you! Let me know if this resonated and leave me your thoughts or questions in the comments. I gotta go turn on my focus assist now so I can get some drafting done. 😆