It seems fitting that I’m finally writing a post so long after my last one. I definitely need to invest more time in blogging since it’s both therapeutic and provides a means to remember the fun adventures we’ve experienced!
Today isn’t about a family adventure however.
Today’s post is twenty years plus in the making.
If you haven’t yet guessed, as a child I experienced more than my fair share of trauma and mental illness. It’s impacted me long into life, but I’m grateful for the strength I’ve gained from it. I’m the person I am today, the person my friends, family and husband love in spite of or because of it.
For over twenty years, I’ve been told that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and depression. Let’s say my primary care physicians have told me that since I was eight, which means it’s been 28 years of believing that’s what was wrong with me.
Twenty-eight years of not understanding why it’s hard for me to read a book unless it’s in one sitting or super interesting to me. Twenty-eight years of getting in trouble for not being able to finish (or even start) menial tasks. Twenty-eight years of being told I was lazy, unmotivated and irresponsible. Twenty-eight years of believing that about myself.
As a child, I was diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder. Why they didn’t see then what they see now is anyone’s guess – though it’s probably because the early 80s were a time of rapid growth, confusion and appropriate concern for over-diagnosis as well as inappropriate disbelief in many mental health conditions.
What further masked the real problem was the fact that I was very successful in school. I was a child of trauma, divorce, and more than I have time to write about today. So, why would anyone think it was anything other than a stressful childhood – that I was anything less or more than a child experiencing constant, drastic change and emotional upheaval.
And, to counteract the potential diagnosis (or so I thought), I was terrific during a crisis. Steadfast, able, focused. I might get stressed, but I could pull off a successful event, policy push, or political campaign press conference with excitement and ease.
So, here we are. In 2017. And I’ve decided that I can no longer live with a multitude of issues that have plagued my physical and mental health for, well, forever. For one, I got a breast reduction (post on that to come), which ended decades of muscle relaxant prescriptions for my neck. I also finally asked the doc for anti-acne cream after 25 years. Acne, GONE.
As a solo parent for the last year and a half, and well, pretty much since my daughter was born, I’ve struggled. Initially, it was postpartum depression and anxiety, which I’ve written about here. But, as time’s gone on, the pain and exhaustion of PPD have subsided, so I asked my doc to come off the anti-depressant SSRI that I was on. Instead of immediately agreeing, she sent me to meet with the in-house psychologist. (By-the-way, every single primary care office should have a psychologist or psychiatrist on staff, period.)
During that meeting, we discussed my challenges: I can’t handle interruption. Yet, I always interrupt. I can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. I don’t like talking on the phone. I often forget things – okay, I always forget things. I cannot half-ass anything (or otherwise known as I notice every single little issue and can’t ignore them unless I ignore the whole). I’m perpetually procrastinating. And I suffer from perfect perfectionism.
We talked about my impulsive actions and their long-term consequences. We talked about how hard it is for me to keep in contact with friends and family. We also talked about relationship issues, especially as they relate to external consequences.
I explained how sounds irritate me, or how irritable I become by minor distractions (like the fact that the crowd in a video game are wearing t-shirts when the ground is covered in snow). I explained how my checklists are over 500 items long, with things such as “take a shower” and “charge phone.”
We discussed how these issues impacted my life. And how other issues that I had thought were unrelated, like falling asleep in boring classes or while driving long distances, and how much more tired I become when my daughter is home and requires my full, albeit boring, attention.
There were many questions I answered, but you get the gist.
Leaving the office, I didn’t think much of what she said. I’m not a hyperactive kid running circles around the room, so how would this apply to me? Plus I was busy that week so I didn’t think much of it.
Returning to the office with surveys in hand, I thought perhaps I fit the definition a bit more than expected, but was still unsure. She wasn’t sure either. My own personal responses were so far off from my mother’s that it didn’t make any sense. I also answered questions differently that day than the week before. Dramatically differently in fact, and they were questions about my childhood, so history hadn’t really changed.
We agreed that I would go off the SSRI and follow-up. Coming off Zoloft was easy, thankfully, but also irritating. Why? Oh, well, didn’t you know that half my issues with parenting were caused by the drug itself? Apathy, irritability, overwhelming exhaustion. Sure, there were plenty of other symptoms that did not go away (and never, ever have with any anti-depressant – except Wellbutrin… Wellbutrin gives me about a 10-15% improvement of my motivation issues). But the fact that I felt lifted from a miserable, dark fog was frustrating. How long did I suffer that way needlessly?
In the lifting of the fog, I started to research ADHD. I read this one article that made more sense to me than anything I’ve ever read about depression and anxiety. I read more and more and more. I watched video after video. I listened to podcasts. I borrowed book after book from the Navy library (a great resource if you’re an active duty family). I was obsessed. I was hyperfocused. I spent time that I didn’t have up until wee hours of the morning reading, watching, listening, and then engaging in support groups on Facebook, Smart Patients, and elsewhere.
Then, I cried. No, I cried pretty much everyday at pretty much every article. Whether or not I had or have ADHD, I had found my tribe. I had connected with others who understood in a way that none of my fellow depression or anxiety support group members did. I listened to their stories. I substituted my name for theirs since I could. It felt like reading my own autobiography, authored by someone who knows me better than I know myself.
I went through all the emotions (and am still reeling as things progress). I’m not alone. In fact, seventy-five percent of adults with ADHD do not know that they have it. It’s this weird experience when it all clicks: extreme relief, overwhelming frustration, growing hope, and… Suddenly, you can look in the mirror and see yourself for the first time.
I find myself wanting to email old friends, family, and colleagues to apologize for my behavior. I also find myself starting to forgive my past, my actions, my struggles. For almost three decades, I had been told that I had anxiety disorder and depression – disorders that are both biological and environmental. It leaves some space for self-loathing and blame. But now, understanding that ADHD is biological, though certainly influenced by the environment, takes the onus off my back. Like the phrase I keep hearing, my brain works at Ferrari speed with bicycle brakes.
I also started examining GAD and depression. Looking at the questionnaire for depression, I found myself generally “not at all” in several categories. I have interest and pleasure in doing things. I am generally not depressed or hopeless. I do have trouble with sleep, but it has to do more with the quality. I will say that I’m tired. All. The. Time. I don’t particularly feel bad about myself, any more than would be expected for a solo parent. I do have trouble concentrating of course. Duh. But the rest? If you consider that the “everyday” symptoms are also perfectly ADHD, I’m in the minimal depression category.
When it comes to GAD, it’s a similar story. Looking at the screen, I do feel on edge often, but not nervous. I don’t have uncontrollable or excessive worry. I do have trouble relaxing, and sometimes can be incredibly restless mentally. I’m easily annoyed and irritable, but not afraid. Yet again, minimal anxiety considering the symptoms of ADHD.
Even if I inflated either to say they’re not symptoms of ADHD and the diagnosis is wrong, well, I’m still on the short side of mild. And, unfortunately, I don’t seem to fit into the various depression and anxiety support groups.
I know depression. Lord knows that I know depression. But the majority of my life hasn’t exhibited those experiences. And, I know anxiety like it’s my bestest friend. Uncontrollable thoughts. Fast-racing brain. Paralyzing inability to get started on menial projects. Irritatingly difficult (and unfortunately destructive) need to address everything that comes my way immediately and with emotion. Oh, wait, are we talking about anxiety or ADHD here? Lord knows, you can have both.
I’m a couple months out from my first psychiatrist appointment, but I’ve already started implementing some of the suggested coping techniques for ADHD and – low and behold – they’re actually working. Not perfectly, not everyday, but there’s some improvement in a way that no coping technique has ever, ever helped me.
I’ve also discovered this thing called “coaching.” I guarantee the psychiatrist will say it’s just therapy without credentials, but no way Jose. Why do I say that? Because I’ve had six therapists over seventeen years. And in no case have any of them given me practical, focused suggestions on addressing everyday challenges. Sure, it comes up here and there, but the majority of our time is spent discussing the issue, why I feel the way I do, why I react the way I do, and how I can be better. That’s a great thing. Don’t get me wrong. CBT is tremendously effective and something I advocate for anyone managing mental, emotional, relationship concerns. But, a coach helping you figure out how to manage your to-do list and other issues that are focused more on biological obstacles is a concept that not only excites me, but gives me tremendous hope.
You see, even if by some stretch the psychiatrist disagrees with the assessment I’ve had and says it’s not ADHD. Well, then, I’ll still be following the treatment protocols for ADHD because it’s what works, and it’s what makes complete and absolute clarity of every challenge I’ve faced in my life. Maya Bolton summed it up perfectly here:
And I can’t say ADD isn’t a fad diagnosis. But to tell you the truth, in my case the treatment was so liberating that I don’t really care.
Oh, and if you like those little drawings, the link is here and it’s awesome.