‘Make sure she takes it every morning, please.’ I stood back, absolutely mortified. I was the weirdo kid who had to take medication.’: Woman shares life with ADHD

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“ADHD—Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder—it’s misleading. There isn’t a deficit of attention but rather an attention regulation problem. If I find it interesting, I can give it all of my attention. In fact, I can give it so much attention that I neglect all the other things going on and have a hard time being pulled away. The other end of that, though, is that if I don’t find it interesting, devoting any attention to it feels like asking my brain to complete a mental triathlon.

My sisters and I all have ADHD, and my mom knew it from when we were really young. She tried everything to help us, often with the patience of a saint. Walking us through things step by step, different diets, different daily structures, and routines, therapy, more exercise, trying to make the mundane more stimulating, encouraging constant play and imagination. She really, really tried.

My room constantly looked like a bomb went off and then a tornado followed it. I just couldn’t keep anything in place. I would constantly lose things and feel frustrated at myself for it. I couldn’t make myself clean either. Nothing was stimulating about that—I would try to clean and end up sitting on my floor crying in frustration. My mom would come up to my room and sit on my bed and for hours would direct me to do things, making sure I had the skills to clean and organize on my own—she wouldn’t do it for me.

girl with ADHD and her three siblings
Courtesy of Penelope Cavender

‘Okay, pick up all your pants.’ I would sort through the piles of things and put all my pants in the laundry shoot.

‘Okay, now let’s get all your books on the shelves,’ and it would go on like this for a long time. One category at a time until my floor appeared out from under the mountains. All the while, I knew my classmates didn’t have to clean their rooms like this. They could just do it. Why did I struggle so much with something this stupid?

Toddler wearing a pink floral dress waves at camera
Courtesy of Penelope Cavender

Until about seventh grade, I would still get my letters mixed up. My teachers were puzzled because the content was good while my writing looked like I was still in first or second grade. I also loved reading. I went through chapter books far above my classmate’s reading levels on the regular. Dyslexia often stops people from reading, so it wasn’t that—what was it?

Years later, I learned the word for it. I was struggling with dysgraphia—something that can accompany ADHD. I had a hard time with spelling and handwriting, writing many of my letters backward for years. This also connected to me not knowing my right and left until much later in life. The trick where you hold your pointer finger and thumb out and your left hand makes an L isn’t helpful when both ways the L faces look correct. Honestly, I don’t think I would have ever learned it if I had not broken my left arm in fifth grade. A bright green over the elbow cast with the word LEFT scrawled across the top in Sharpie for two months was the best way I could have learned.

I was constantly knocking things over and bumping into everything. I was constantly losing things. I was often too emotional for what the situation called for. I couldn’t handle tags on my clothes or seams in socks. I would do my homework and then forget to turn it in. I would daydream in class. I would forget what the beginning of your question was by the time you were done asking.

Sometime in middle school, after years of trying everything else, my mom took me to see a psychiatrist who formally diagnosed me with ADHD. Something she already knew, but with this, we could finally do something about it in my chart. A whole new arsenal of tools was unlocked.

Woman with ADHD stands next to man in pirate costume
Courtesy of Penelope Cavender

I started taking Strattera, a non-stimulant ADHD medication. I resented it deeply. I thought that ADHD meant I was a super hyper kid who couldn’t stop moving. I loved to run around and play—and sure, I was fidgety sometimes but not any more than most of my other classmates. I didn’t want to be the weird kid. A label and a pill every day.

Every morning my mom would wake me up with a glass of water in one hand, a little white and brown capsule in the other. She wouldn’t leave until I could prove that I hadn’t hidden it under my tongue. When I would go for sleepovers or overnight field trips, my mom would hand a little zip lock bag with a pill to my friend’s mom or the teachers on the trip. ‘Make sure she takes it every morning, pleas.’ I stood back, absolutely mortified that now other people knew I had a label. I was a weirdo kid who had to take medication to control myself. The shame was so real and so deep. After a few months, I started to get good at hiding the pills in my cheek when my mom would give them to me in the morning. I systematically took myself off of it. I’m sure my mom knew what I was doing, but you can’t help someone who refuses to be helped.

In the months when I did take it, things changed for the better. My teachers asked my mom what she had done. I was a whole new student. Papers were in on time, I paid attention, I got along with my classmates better, and I was more organized. Things looked like they were really looking up for me.

Woman stands on a wooden structure out in the forest
Courtesy of Penelope Cavender

But it didn’t last. I didn’t need to be told that there was shame in taking medication. Even as a child, I could feel the stigma permeate into my brain from the surrounding culture. It came in books and TV shows. I knew this made me weird. If I wasn’t so lazy, so bad, I could be like everyone else if I just tried harder. They were all managing all the same things I was, so I would manage them one day too.

I thought this way for too long. For years, I let this way of thinking drag me lower and lower, tanking my self-esteem and self-worth. I stayed in a mentally abusive relationship for years because I thought I was being treated how I deserved to be. I thought if I tried harder and improved myself, it would make us both happier. As I lost jobs, lost friends, lost control, it was all just confirmation of what I thought was a moral failing on my part.

Eventually, I was able to leave that relationship and started dating my husband. When I messed up, I would shower him with apologies and explain why I was the worst, but time and time again, he made it clear that I was valuable in the ways he spoke and acted with me. I never felt unloved, unworthy. He showed me endless love and compassion, and patience. I was his person, and he was going to do everything to help me. My mom told him I had ADHD and gave him a book about being in a relationship with a neurodivergent brain. He started learning more and more about the nuances of my inner workings.

Woman with her partner lying in a car
Courtesy of Penelope Cavender

A few months into being married, he discovered a youtube channel called How To ADHD. The host talked about her own struggles with ADHD and how it impacted her jobs, relationships, finances, school, and everything else. This was the first time I learned that I didn’t have this huge moral failing. My brain put up barriers that other people weren’t experiencing. It wasn’t that I just couldn’t try hard enough. It’s that the other people around me weren’t facing most of the barriers I was. She spoke with such compassion and empathy. It felt like seeing all the things in my life clearly for the first time.

There’s so much more to all this than I ever imagined. Time blindness, hyper-focus, poor executive function, impulsivity, poor sleep, rejection sensitivity, sensory overload, having a poor mental map of your body are all symptoms of this disorder, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All this, and society chalks it up to hyper kids? How is that even possible?

Shortly after this revelation, I talked with my psychiatrist, and I was put back on the same medication from my childhood—but this time armed with more knowledge and self-worth. I take it every single morning happily. My husband saw the difference in just a few short weeks. I saw it shortly after. My self-esteem and confidence began to grow.

Medication that was given to woman for ADHD
Courtesy of Penelope Cavender

Not to say that medication is the cure. There is no cure. But there are tools. Medication is the start. I have also learned many tricks to managing the things that get in my way. I often write down notes while talking to people because I might otherwise forget that thought by the end of what they’re saying. There are sticky notes everywhere of things I need to do because having a visual reminder is extremely helpful. I meet myself where I’m at, and I give myself grace when I mess up.

Now I’m living a much better and fuller life. I’m more attentive to the people around me. I’m on time for work. I can shift my attention to where it needs to be much easier. I sleep a lot better. I remember where things are. I can follow one thought all the way through to the end without it splintering off into twelve other thoughts.

Now I’m embracing all the best sides of my brain. My ADHD gives me more creativity that has helped me begin working towards being my own boss. In January 2022, I’ll be starting my own podcast to explore one of my passions, and so far, it’s been extremely fulfilling.

I’ve always loved to travel, but now my travel is much more organized and feels easier to plan. I used to be impulsive about it. One time I drove cross-country to find out the place I was going to was almost entirely closed due to wildfire. I would splurge on random things that met my whimsy without thinking about it. I always wanted to go it alone, afraid that having to compromise with someone would make my trip less enjoyable. But now, I can put some research into it and get where I want to go on the budget I have. Best of all is my husband comes with me on many of my adventures, and he’s the best partner I could have asked for.

Woman and her partner outside on a hill
Courtesy of Penelope Cavender

Someone once told me that one of the perks of ADHD is our creative problem-solving abilities. When we were getting ready to move to Montana (pre-pandemic), we struggled to find somewhere we could afford because rent was so high. Instead of throwing away money on rent, I thought we should invest in a home of our own. We’re now renovating a 1974 Airstream into our full-time home that we’ll take on the road next summer. A house of our own that we can always take with us.

I don’t just dance to the beat of my own drum now. I make my own drum out of whatever makes me happiest. From how we planned our wedding to our first home to creating a career for myself, everything I do now is with a full embrace of who I am—leaving all the shame in the past.

Woman and husband in front of vehicle smiling together
Courtesy of Penelope Cavender

I refuse to feel shame for taking medication. I refuse to feel shame for having ADHD in the first place. I now actively talk about it frequently on my Instagram because every time I do, someone will tell me that they were experiencing the same thing, but they had no idea that it was normal or that anyone else felt that way. More than one has come back and told me they received their own diagnosis and are happier. They, too, are receiving the help and tools they need to coexist with ADHD and thrive.”

woman with ADHD marries man in canyon
Courtesy of Cedar and Pines Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Penelope Cavender of Chicago.  Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more stories like this:

‘She’s just shy,’ they said. ‘She’ll grow out of it.’ All my life I felt like a misfit.’: Mom diagnosed with autism after son’s diagnosis

‘She flatly told us his ‘problem.’ One phone call changed my understanding as to what was happening in the school walls.’: Son diagnosed with ADHD, mom talks about how proud she is he made it through school

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