Living with ADHD taught me how to be perfectly imperfect

As told to Nicole Audrey Spector

October is ADHD Awareness Month.

Growing up, I was always praised for my intelligence. I went to a magnet school for the gifted and went to a top university in Florida.

So imagine my surprise when a few years ago, in my mid-thirties, and as the ultimate career woman I knew was destined to be, I started to feel… not so smart. The problem is that I would forget things. Not just any old stuff, but some of the most important things of all: words.

For example, let’s say someone asked me, “Where’s the trash?” I’d like to answer, “It’s under the sink.” Except that instead of saying “countertop,” I would go completely blank and let the phrase hang. Or, even weirder, I’d say something like, “In the fridge,” and immediately know that what I said was wrong.

Stunned and a little concerned, I went to my GP, who gave me quizzes to test my memory and rule out something really serious, such as a brain tumor, stroke or aphasia. She determined that what was wrong with me was probably unrelated to a serious physical health condition. She seemed unconcerned and suspected it could all be a result of stress.

And that was the end of the conversation.

I went back to my life as best I could, but my symptoms worsened. Soon it wasn’t so much the problem with word recall (although that was still an issue), but more with my energy and focus. No matter how hard I tried, I could hardly bring myself to get out of bed and start my day. I just couldn’t bring myself to worry about the tasks ahead.

I live with depression and have been on medication and therapy to treat it for a long time, but this felt different. I didn’t really feel sad or hopeless or even anxious. I just felt, frankly, that I couldn’t get my act together.

This is when things started to get bad. I lost my job because I couldn’t get anything done. Then I lost another one. And another.

The most frustrating part of all of this was that late at night, around 8pm, I had a surge of energy. My ability to get up and do things would come back into place.

But then there was the deeper, almost existential pain. I had always been the glittering image of success. Now I suddenly failed in my career. Fantastic and repeatedly. And for no apparent reason.

I’m an open book about mental health and everything else in my life, so I leaned heavily on my friends to vent about what I was going through. One day my friend, who is a high school teacher, listened to me and kept going, stopping to ask me if I had ever been tested for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“I’m Gifted!” I exclaimed. “It’s impossible that I have ADHD. I would never have done so well in school!”

My friend laughed at me.

“Girl,” she said, “lots of gifted people have ADHD.”

At the time, I had a very limited understanding of ADHD and only knew that it manifested as an inability to stay focused.

I didn’t know ADHD could affect memory or present as a lack of motivation.

I tried to meet with a psychiatrist, but no one was available to see me. So I went to a neurologist, who was stuck with a completely different diagnosis: sleep apnea. But tests for sleep apnea showed I didn’t. So I quickly got back to it.

Natalie Chambers will receive her master's degree in legal studies, 2022. Natalie Chambers will receive her master’s degree in legal studies, 2022.

Finally I found a psychiatrist who could see me. He gave me some tests to determine if I had ADHD. And let me tell you, I got just about every answer right for an ADHD diagnosis. Finally I succeeded in something!

I was downright pumped – not just because it meant I would finally have an answer and a path to treatment, but because it meant my whole problem was solved, right? wrong.

Living with ADHD is a lot like living with depression (it’s no wonder they often coexist). You can take all the drugs and do all the therapy in the world to tame the symptoms, but to really get out of the clutches of ADHD, you have to do your best.

For me, the job involves being super organized by making lists of what to do the next day. These lists cover the most basic tasks. For example, I write “Get out of bed” and “Take a shower.” Everything has to be broken out very neatly, otherwise it’s like my brain gets stuck and I can’t do anything about it.

Women are notoriously underdiagnosed and undertreated for ADHD, and I feel lucky that I was able to persevere and get the right answers from the right medical professionals. I encourage any other woman who suspects she has ADHD to do the same.

In some obvious ways, ADHD has made my life more challenging, but it has also somehow made it easier. All the pressures I put on myself – pressures made up of the expectations of others and society of me – have started to melt away.

Everyone says there is no such thing as perfection. But do they ever really believe it? Do many of us, especially women who have been essentially challenged by the patriarchy to do everything or be nothing at all, secretly believe that we will be the one to score an A+ in life?

I once thought that way, but now I’ve let it go. I am no longer the gifted child, I am now the gifted woman. And so many of my gifts – such as the gift of grace – are those that only I can give to myself.

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