(Gracefully) Overwhelmed: How To Live Creatively with ADHD
Grace and poise? Overrated. When you’re an artist with ADHD, you have a lot more to offer than you might think.
Note: The terms ADHD and ADD are used interchangeably in this piece.
A Wild World of Labels.
Weird. Hyper. Quirky. Lazy. “God, you are so ADD.” Sound familiar? For those of us with ADHD or ADD, our external traits are often misunderstood. People see someone who can’t sit still, can’t stop talking or moderate their voice…someone who is always either Go! Go! Go! or totally deflated. For both parties, this can be frustrating. Internally, those of us with ADHD can often be summed up in one word — overwhelmed.
Officially, the National Institute for Mental Health reports that about of adults in the U.S. have ADHD. Realistically, this percentage is probably much higher. ADHD is often mixed in with other psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD, and this can make it difficult to diagnose, especially in adults. Even more specifically in adult women, as ADHD and ADD have traditionally been considered a “male disorder” due to the diagnostic criteria involved in identifying it.
Most of the studies used to back up qualifying symptoms only focus on male children, and this leaves many girls with ADD to suffer in silence. It’s easy to label yourself as dumb, lazy, or weird when there’s no one to tell you otherwise, and this is exactly how many young women with ADHD end up feeling. Symptoms like inattentiveness, disrupted sleep patterns, lack of self regulation, irregular or inappropriate emotional outbursts, and many others contribute to the idea that a girl is “weird” or otherwise different from her peers.
This can have a lasting effect on self-esteem.
When Fear & Failure Collide.
When I was younger, the two worst things I could hear were that I was either weird or annoying. I was extremely sensitive to criticism, and would often find myself reacting to slight changes in tone or other peoples’ moods in ways that were out of proportion to what was warranted. On the outside, I was chatty, eccentric, and bubbly — but on the inside I was often hurt, frustrated, or unsure of myself. I learned to cover these feelings in a variety of ways…but none of them really got to the root of the issue. I was evaluated for ADHD at six years of age and tested positive for most of the criteria. The psychologist never followed up with my parents, nor did the school I was attending. I did not receive a formal diagnosis until age 22.
Despite this, I did fairly well in school most of the time. When I was intrigued by something, I excelled, and my passions blossomed easily. Likewise, when something didn’t challenge me, or when I perceived that I “just wasn’t good at” something, I would drift away from it without any conscious intent. It was like a rollercoaster — I was either all or nothing.
This has been the case for many areas of my life, including personal relationships, big decisions, and anxieties. I never seem able to find the middle ground, but this isn’t always a bad thing. When I love something, I give myself to it fully. I once wrote a novel in three days, I can find indigenous artifacts in a pile of mud through pure determination, and I would do anything, and give anything, for the people I love. This has resulted in very strong, very deep friendships, as well as close relationships with my family. There are many beautiful, loveable parts of me, and many of them directly relate to my cognitive differences.
But I didn’t see the good in my ADD until I got older, and for a long time I assumed there was something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I remember important information, even when I desperately wanted to? Why couldn’t I take notes and listen to what my teachers were saying, when it seemed like everyone else could do it without any trouble? Why were my feelings always hurt, even when I knew I had no real reason to feel the way I did? It was hard not to internalize these questions and answer them with statements like “it’s because you’re lazy,” “you’re too sensitive,” or “you’re selfish.”
Learning to Play the Game.
Learning to mentally rephrase my often harsh self-criticisms has been a long process — and I’m still working on it every single day. Instead of calling myself lazy, I try to remember that I need to motivate myself differently than other people, and I need to work harder to find organizational methods that keep me on track.
Instead of labeling myself as overly sensitive, I think of how wonderful it is when I intuitively sense the needs and feelings of other people and respond without having to overthink it. And I’m not selfish, I’m just self-focused. I filter the world through a very bright lens, so it’s usually easier to think of everything in terms of my own experiences rather than risk being overwhelmed by other frames of reference.
I have been a better storyteller, a better friend, and a stronger woman thanks to who I am. I have enjoyed things more deeply, more truly, and more exuberantly because of my ADD, and I can be grateful for it, if I just stop and look at myself with kindness once in a while.
This is where I am now. How did I get here? Well, like so many people with ADHD, I don’t think of it as a linear process — more like a hopeful meandering that happened to take me exactly where I needed to go.
Most people think of ADHD as a mental disorder. It’s even in the name, “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” However, it would be more accurate to call it a uniquely wired nervous system. Preliminary studies have shown that ADHD is linked to a deficiency in the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. As this neurotransmitter is directly linked to production of the so-called “pleasure hormone,” dopamine, it can cause a wide range of effects on the way people with ADHD process memories, emotions, and information. One of the most common expressions of this phenomenon is for people with ADHD to frequently seek out novel or unusual experiences.
Impulsivity, mind wandering, hobby-hopping, emotional intensity…I knew I possessed and often struggled with these facets of my personality.
And then I took my first writing class.
The Power of Passion.
Reading is something I’ve always excelled at. It’s one of the great passions of my life, and it’s one of the rare things I can focus on. Writing flowed naturally out of that love — I’ve been writing poetry my whole life, pretty much, but it never became a focus for me until I took classes centered on it in high school. Suddenly, my “weaknesses” were strengths. Impulsivity and hobby-hopping gave me lots of unique, fun life experiences. Emotional intensity and mind wandering gave rise to some of my most creative and unexpected ideas, which blossomed into stories and prose when I was given the guidance I needed.
School was structured and provided routine. This was extremely helpful for me — as someone who struggles with planning and prioritization, I needed a little extra push to develop these life skills. It took a lot of practice and failures, but eventually I did learn to implement them. Will I ever be a truly organized person? In most ways, absolutely not. But I can storyboard and lay out character sheets with uncanny precision. I simply needed to learn how to direct my passions in productive ways.
People with ADHD generally feel abnormal. We never quite fit in with non-ADHDers, and this can lead to a lot of loneliness. It’s rare to hear people talk about all the positives this “disorder” comes with. People with ADD are generally thought to have a than average, are empathetic, and often find unique ways to solve problems. When encouraged, those with this condition are often unusually , artistic individuals. Another trait I find especially advantageous (most of the time…) is something called hyperfocus. These are periods of “long-lasting, highly focused attention” centered around a particular task or activity (Abagis, Hupfield, & Shah, 2018).
These bursts of focus are abnormally intense, and can result in the creation of artistic masterpieces…or internet addiction. It’s notoriously difficult to control hyperfocus. However, I’ve found that the benefits of this symptom in my creative life far outweigh the disadvantages — in fact, I consider my ability to hyperfocus to be priceless.
When I embraced writing as the greatest love of my life, I began to see more and more positives to the way I am wired. Therapy and personal education have certainly helped me to frame my ADHD in ways that make sense of it and untangle the symptoms, and talking to a psychologist has guided me toward unlocking some of the self-esteem issues that have haunted me due to my strange brain and all of its quirks — quirks that society often seeks to punish.
The Facts of Being Female (And Having ADHD).
Women with ADD face challenges that men with the condition often don’t. We are socialized and expected to be quieter and more patient than men. We often are not allowed to roughhouse or be “hyper” the way boys are when we’re little, causing many of our ADHD symptoms to become internalized.
The hyperactive parts of us become anxious thoughts and manifest as a brain without any brakes. Our inability to focus is seen as inattentive daydreaming and other typical “spacey” behaviors. Our drifting minds translate into poor spatial awareness, which can become clumsiness (as any of my friends and family can tell you, this is a big part of how my attention deficit manifests!). Boys often become loud, boisterous, or aggressive due to ADHD, while girls tend to show later in life through things like anxiety, low self esteem, or depression. It’s easy to get stuck on the negatives.
However, I think that so many of our issues in life stem not from who or what we are, but rather from what we are expected to be.
A Better (And More Focused) Future.
What if girls who showed signs of ADHD or ADD early in life were encouraged to embrace who they are, rather than see their own personality traits as a disorder? What if they were taught to channel all that energy and passion into things that make the world better or more beautiful, rather than suppress them for the sake of fitting society’s ideals?
I believe that we could trigger a true renaissance in art, STEM, and the humanities by encouraging those with ADHD to work with their symptoms, hand in hand with people who have other strengths and weaknesses that are different from theirs.
When I think of what that future could look like, my mind starts spinning. And you know what? I think that’s pretty great.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Fem Word organization. Any content provided by our authors are of their opinion and is not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.
Originally published at https://www.thefemword.world on March 16, 2020.