Divergent: Part Two

As I mentioned in my last post, the term “neurodivergent” is one that resonates with me, and that I identify with. I wrote about my thoughts on neurodiversity, and how I experience it in my own life. For me, ADHD is a label I have embraced as a way of better understanding myself and the way my brain works. 

Before I get into it, I want to reemphasize that I am not diagnosed with ADHD. I have no interest in being diagnosed, and I have no interest in seeking treatment. I also don’t have the classic presentation of ADHD that many people think of, which includes difficulty with focus and attention, and hyperactivity. Those traits are in the name (ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder); but personally, I don’t see those things in myself as clearly as they usually are in people diagnosed with ADHD. Instead, I have many other traits that have been identified as common symptoms of ADHD. 

I can identify at least 21 specific ways that ADHD affects me, and there are probably more that I haven’t learned about or recognized yet. I see these differences as more of strengths than weaknesses, or at the very least they’re things I would consider quirks and part of my personality, rather than detriments. 

The more I learn about it, the more I realize that so many of my life choices have been affected by my brain working in a different way. Realizing this has given me a more positive view of myself and my life choices, both of which have been misunderstood by others more than a few times. Even if people around me don’t always understand my choices, that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. Thinking and seeing the world and life differently isn’t inherently bad. Being different isn’t bad—that’s the spirit of the term neurodivergent, after all. 

I work hard to be a person who makes the world better, not worse; someone who is competent, caring, and considerate. So even if I choose paths in life that seem foolish or crazy or strange to others, I know that I am smart and sane and kind, and that I’m making the best choices I can– for reasons that make sense to me and my life— and that’s all that matters.

So, with that out of the way, I can now get into the details of what ADHD looks like in my life, and how it affects me.      

First off, ADHD is most likely the reason I tend to be a quitter. I have a history of quitting things when they start to feel too hard or scary, or I lose interest– even if I know that those feelings are likely temporary, and that there are benefits to continuing the thing that I want to quit. 

This quitting tendency includes hobbies or activities that I briefly participated in, like dance club, martial arts, or cheerleading. It includes volunteering opportunities that I was excited about for a while, but then decided to stop. It includes jobs I have had, the shortest being for only a few months and the longest for just over a year. It includes career paths I’ve tried to follow and businesses I’ve tried to start. It includes relationships, such as friendships that become too difficult or are giving me anxiety. It even includes pets– but more about that later. 

Basically, if I don’t like doing something, I quit it. There are pros and cons to that characteristic, in my opinion. I think it’s a good thing that I feel free to follow my instincts and focus on doing things I enjoy in life. But, it also means that I sometimes give up on things before I really should, and then I end up wishing I hadn’t. 

Socially, ADHD causes additional challenges for me. I have a high level of rejection sensitivity, and a tendency to over-analyze and dwell on negative or awkward social interactions. I kid you not– I am still haunted by that one time 12 years ago when I excitedly told my pastor he had the same Tupperware as me, and he looked at me with patronizing disinterest. (Why am I so weird?) I also have difficulty making and maintaining friendships, in part because of that rejection sensitivity, and in part because of social anxiety and being an introvert. I am also extremely sensitive in general. My feelings can get hurt quite easily, and I tend to be very hard on myself when I make mistakes or do something wrong. 

ADHD can cause people to have a low frustration tolerance, which is one thing I can very much relate to. I get overly upset when frustrated by things that others may feel are minor setbacks. A big example is when I can’t find something that I need; I tend to get way more upset than seems reasonable, and I can’t seem to control it. And while I do feel that I have a lot of patience usually (which becomes very necessary when you have five kids), I can also have a short fuse when overstimulated, overwhelmed, stressed, or frustrated. Sensory overload is something I experience very frequently, especially with noise and messes/clutter. These stimuli often cause emotional dysregulation for me, usually manifesting in anger explosions or shutting down and withdrawing from others. 

I am aware that I have anger issues, and I have known this about myself for a long time; but only recently have I realized that these problems likely stem from ADHD. They are a result of my brain working differently, rather than just me being a bad person. That means I can find tools and techniques to adapt, which gives me hope! 

There are so many things I can do to improve my emotional regulation challenges that come with ADHD. I can plan ahead for potentially frustrating situations and make changes to set myself up for success. I can designate easy-to-remember places for things and be strict about putting them where they belong, so that they don’t get lost. I can use noise-dampening ear plugs when things are getting too loud. I can build small chunks of time to decompress into my daily routines. I can set aside time to tidy up the house before bed (but keep it reasonable, so I don’t end up staying up too late and missing more sleep). I can also actively remind myself that the goal is never perfection, but improvement. 

Focus and attention are the more well-known problems that people with ADHD struggle with, and on the surface it never seemed to me as if this described me. But I have learned that there are many ways that ADHD can affect a person’s focus, and they aren’t all as obvious as being easily distractible. For example, I find it very difficult to switch tasks before I’m finished with whatever I’m currently working on, and I often feel an unproportional level of frustration or anger when I’m forced to do so. 

Conversely, I’ll often find that I’ve moved on to a new task before finishing the current one, which can happen for a variety of reasons; either I did the main bulk of the task and subconsciously considered it done before actually finishing the final parts, or I got caught in a chain reaction. As an example, I could be going to do the laundry but the washer is full, and the dryer is also full, and the basket is also full, so I need to fold the clean laundry first. But as I’m working on that, I will notice that the linen closet needs to be organized before I can put the clean laundry away, and then I end up organizing and tidying up the surrounding area as well. Before I know it, I’m being called away to do an entirely different task by one of my family members, and the laundry remains unfinished. 

Another subtle way that difficulty focusing can show up for me is being prone to clumsiness or accidentally injuring myself. I have realized that this happens because my brain is already moving on to the next task before I’ve physically finished the previous one, which leads to rushing or not paying attention to what my body is doing. (Just for laughs, I will share that the day I started writing this post, I got a cardboard paper cut underneath my fingernail, and later while eating a hamburger I was able to somehow flick a crumb into my eye– which didn’t hurt, per se, but it also didn’t feel good.)

People with ADHD can often struggle with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. The reasons for this aren’t completely understood, but the result can be someone like me who oscillates between having too much mental energy, and having too little. These two ends of the spectrum are essentially my very boiled-down descriptions of anxiety and depression. When I’m feeling anxious, I’m like a shark who needs to keep moving so I don’t die. When I’m feeling depressed, I’m like a sad panda who is just trying to get through the day. Both stages tend to come and go fairly rapidly for me, lasting anywhere between a few hours to a few months. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and it’s quite possible that ADHD is what fuels the ride. 

Insomnia is a symptom of ADHD, anxiety, and depression, so it should come as no surprise that I struggle with it. Sometimes I just can’t fall asleep until 3 AM, even though I’m tired, because my brain won’t rest or it simply decides to malfunction and forget how to sleep. Other times I’m in the midst of a bout of depression, and staying up late into the night gives me some level of feeling in control and at peace, or at least time to ruminate on all of my swirling emotions. Fortunately, (I guess?) years of sleep deprivation as a mom have conditioned me well to function on little or poor sleep. 

The biggest way that ADHD affects me is my need for novelty in life. This is thought to be a dopamine-seeking behavior common in people with ADHD. It’s also tied into other characteristics like hyperfixations, boredom, and impulsivity. What it looks like in my life is a very strong drive for making changes—often, the bigger the better. Combine that with my proclivity for quitting, and my anxiety and depression, and what you get is quite a concoction. 

I have a history of moving fairly often. I love rearranging, buying new things, and starting new systems or habits. I love taking things that are messy and making them clean, neat, and organized; that kind of change is so evident and satisfying! I enjoy redefining and refreshing my perspectives in life. I loved when I had a polyamorous lifestyle, because it meant there was always something shiny and new in my life. New flirtations, crushes, first dates, first kisses—talk about an abundant source for those dopamine hits I crave so much!

It’s also quite possible that I love having babies so much because of the constant change that they bring. There’s always a new stage to move on to, a new milestone, or a new parenting challenge to defeat. Plus, the very act of caregiving can be dopamine-boosting.  

But, the most visible and obvious manifestation of my ADHD-fueled need for change is something that’s caused me to build quite a reputation… as a crazy pet person. The number of pets that have come and gone in my life, even just as an adult, is astounding. Not including family/childhood pets, I’ve had eleven dogs (three currently), ten cats not including the three foster kittens I didn’t adopt, (I have seven cats currently), seven guinea pigs (none currently), five bunnies (none currently), seven rodents (four currently), six birds (two currently), three horses (one currently), and countless fish (none currently or hopefully ever again). That’s over 40 pets in the past 13 years! 

Now, I do have 17 pets as of this post, but you may be wondering what happened to the other 23+ animals that were at some point in my care over the past decade. Well, all of the fish died despite my best efforts, and 12 of the other animals passed away from old age (one dog, three rodents), illness (two dogs, one cat, one guinea pig), or accident (three guinea pigs); my dog Macy had to be put to sleep for severe and unpredictable aggression issues. The remaining 12 pets I had were rehomed, for a variety of reasons. 

Personally, I don’t believe that rehoming pets is wrong, or a negative thing when done right. I’ve always ensured that my rehomed pets went to new owners who would meet or exceed the level of care I gave them—which was always very high. I’ve never had a pet who seemed traumatized by being rehomed; that is to say, the pets I rehomed didn’t seem to suffer emotionally from transitioning to new owners, and they all ended up arguably happier in their new homes. I’ve always checked in on them afterwards to ensure they transitioned well, and I’ve always told the new owners that I would take the animal back if they ever needed to rehome them again. Basically, all of that to say that I have taken rehoming seriously and done it responsibly and with care. To me, the possibility of needing or wanting to rehome an animal in the future doesn’t make me afraid of adopting new pets, because I know there’s a net positive even when that happens. 

And yet, the constant change in my pet-life has been, at times, problematic. It caused a great deal of conflict with my ex-husband, and his lack of understanding and support for my choices when it came to pets was actually one of the “last straw” reasons for ending our marriage, as crazy as that sounds. I began to feel like a child who had to convince my “parent” that I was responsible enough for a new pet. I wanted to feel like an adult, who can be trusted to make my own life choices, for better or for worse. Not to mention that I wanted to feel like an equal partner, whose feelings and desires mattered just as much as my husband’s mattered to me. 

With my husband now, it has also caused conflict on numerous occasions. My pet obsession has been something that RJ, for the most post, understands, supports, and to some degree even shares with me. But, his biggest form of neurodivergence is arguably anxiety (although ADHD is a very close second, in my opinion). So at times, the idea of adding another pet or rehoming one has triggered an extremely unpleasant reaction in him, and caused some emotionally traumatic fights for us. Some of our fights about pets have left me feeling as if I have ended up in the same dynamic that I was in with my ex– the main thing I was trying to escape! Which of course, has been disheartening. Fortunately, we are actively working on these issues and have made great progress.

Even aside from the pet thing, I’ve observed that with both Cory and RJ, my need for novelty and my struggle with depression and anxiety has at times been misinterpreted as dissatisfaction with my life, or with my partner. 

I’ve been accused of “always wanting more” and “never being satisfied.” I’ve been told that I should work on myself to learn how to be content. I’ve been accused of steamrolling and manipulating my partner into decisions they don’t want. I’ve been told that I’m not “compatible” with my partner because I want things that they don’t. I’ve been told that nothing is ever enough for me. These are words that have wounded me deeply, and will take years to heal from. 

But, the truth that I often have to remind myself of is that I am not broken. I am not too much. I add far more positive things to the lives of my loved ones than negative ones. I am a good partner. I’m thoughtful and loving and empathetic—and imperfect. And that’s okay. 

So, yes. ADHD may have negative effects in my life. But I also recognize that many of the struggles I have are only struggles because society says they’re bad. Being a “quitter” is seen as a bad thing, but it also could be reframed as being adept at letting go of things that no longer serve me. Being someone who constantly seeks novelty and change could be seen as being impulsive and careless–or, it could be reframed as being adventurous and adaptable. 

Aside from the differences I’ve already described, ADHD also gives me more obvious strengths and advantages. I can hyper-focus on tasks, getting a ton done in relatively little time without running out of steam. When I procrastinate, I almost always do it productively; in other words, I may not always do the tasks I need to as soon as I should (hello, mountain of laundry), but at least I will be doing something productive (like reorganizing the pantry). 

My food fixations (common with ADHD) make things simple when it comes to meal-planning. As long as I have my 3-4 staple foods (whatever they may be at the time), I’m good to go. Variety isn’t really necessary for me, in the food department, so I’m easy to feed.   

One interesting aspect of ADHD is that it can cause caffeine to affect people differently. So, rather than wiring me, coffee actually helps me feel calm and improves my ability to sleep at night. This means I can drink a delicious latte every night before bed, if I so choose! Fortunately, coffee still gives me a much-needed energy boost in the morning, which means I also get to start my day with a routine that I look forward to. 

Another interesting and benign effect of ADHD is that I am prone to (harmless) binges and obsessions; this has given me a wide variety of specific knowledge, but also it’s just fun. If I can find great joy in baking ten dozen cookies in a day, then why not? It’s the simple things in life.

As with many people who have ADHD, I’m level-headed in crisis. I tend to be more calm and confident when I’m thrown into chaos, which is a great advantage when you have five kids and 17 pets. 

While having insomnia is a challenge, and I’d really like to be able to sleep when I need to, the other side of that coin is that I’m naturally a night owl (like many other people with ADHD). I like staying up late, and I can get so much done after everyone else is in bed. Often, the time I have at night is the only time I have to get chores done without constant interruptions, and if I’m lucky sometimes even a little bit of time to do things I enjoy, like writing. 

Last but not least, my need for novelty means that I’m good with change—in fact, I crave it! This can be seen as an advantage considering that life is full of changes. Most people fear them, but not me! It also means that life with me is never dull.

Ultimately, whether ADHD is considered a negative or a positive largely depends on one’s perspective. I feel that these things are all just part of who I am, and while some of them can be challenging at times, overall I do believe that they aren’t problems that need to be fixed. The world is not built for neurodivergent people, but that doesn’t mean that we need fixing. I think we can all agree that the world is very much in need of fixing.

And so, I’m going to keep being me–the gloriously chaotic, go-with-the-flow, productive, interesting, ever-changing phoenix that I am.