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Before my ADHD diagnosis, I was alive but not living

facts & arguments

Why couldn't I get my life together?

Before my ADHD diagnosis, I was alive but not living, I survived but did not thrive, Michelle Baril-Price writes

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

When I saw The Nature of Things documentary, ADHD: Not Just for Kids, I was in tears after 20 minutes, the stories being told sounded much like my own.

The next day, I researched everything I could about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But I spent several months wavering between complete denial and acceptance before I called the doctor to get assessed. I must have sounded desperate on the phone; they took me right away.

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Good for you, you might be thinking, congratulations. But here's the thing, I'm in my 40s, I read everything there is to read that's new in health and science and I had no idea that the symptoms I had experienced all of my life were not the norm. How had I missed this? How had the doctors missed this?

Once I started researching ADHD, it became clear that my misconceptions and ignorance about the disorder had misled me. A million thoughts, a million regrets. I felt ripped off. Finally, I told myself I couldn't change the past, but I could share the fact that ADHD can look much different from the hyperactive child practising back flips off of a chair.

This is what ADHD looked like for me: I was a young girl, quietly sitting at my school desk, pretending to listen to the teacher. Meanwhile, I'm watching and drawing the robin that has landed in the tree outside. I'm writing poetry in my notebooks. And, I'm rereading entire chapters of my textbooks and taking extensive notes because I can't remember what I've just read because I'm thinking of the robin I saw earlier. I was the child who would shoot up her hand when the teacher asked for help. The highlight of my school days were walking down the hallway to the art closet where I'd lose myself in the paints and colourful papers.

Here's another picture: I'm a university student who spent hours lost in the library stacks, reading everything there is to know about whatever I'm not studying. I have no deficit of attention, I have it in spades. Apparently, I should consider changing what I'm studying. I'd be changing every few months if I could. Eventually, I'm diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I'm unable to explain that part of what's causing my distress is that I can't seem to "get it together" like my peers. I'm unable to articulate the fact that I spend most of my time listening to competing thoughts that bounce around in my head, the noise and chaos unrelenting, exhausting me to the point where I'm unable to stay connected with others. All I want to do is sleep, but even there, I find no peace. I use drawing and writing as my creative outlet. I don't understand how others jump from one stepping stone to the next, moving on with life, while I get left behind. I'm smart, I think, I should be able to do this, but I can't.

Later in life, I'd sit at the kitchen table, staring out the picture window. There are trees and birds, maybe even a robin, tall grasses swaying. I don't know how long I've been sitting here. There's an empty weight within me that prevents me from moving. I sit for minutes, hours, staring at the same tree, my physical, emotional and intellectual selves at odds with one another. Suddenly, thoughts rush in from yesterday, today and tomorrow. Thoughts, memories, dialogue, faces, feelings, worries, clips of things I should be doing, swirl, inundate and threaten to drown me in frustration in overwhelming fashion. I need to change the laundry, make dinner, take the dog for a walk, finish the book I've been writing for seven years, the kids will be home soon, make dinner, paint the walls … But I can't move. I know that I should, but I can't.

I fear others will see me as lazy, incompetent and undeserving of the life I've managed to piece together. Just try a little harder, suck it up, everyone has mundane things to do, life is hard, just do it. However, as I stare out the window, the part of my brain that is supposed to tell me to get up is stuck in the off position and I'm relegated to sitting here until it turns back on. There's no telling how long it will take. Sometimes it's a thought, sometimes it's something I see or hear that snaps me out of it. Until then, I sit, maybe tapping my fingers or my feet, thoughts doing back flips in my head, my hyperactivity almost imperceptible to others. Afterward, I berate myself, unable to understand why I didn't get up, why I wasted so much precious time, so much of my life doing nothing, it seems. And so the cycle goes.

ADHD does not take vacations. In many cases, if left untreated, it is pervasive, debilitating and devastating. Before diagnosis and treatment, days and years went by where I was alive, but not living, where I survived, but did not thrive. Occasionally, when the fog thinned, I would find myself wondering why I had no goals, why I hadn't tried harder, why I seemed to quit everything, why I never got anywhere. I wondered what was wrong with me.

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Since being treated, I have an inner calmness that is new to me. Apparently, not every pothole is a crater, and not every hill is a mountain. I do not have to do everything on my "To Do" list at once and I do not have to fill every silence with the sound of my voice. Medication doesn't organize my day, it doesn't remind me to pick up the kids or walk the dog. However, it allows me some patience that I did not have before. It allows me to move when I've been staring out the window for too long.

Without treatment, I wouldn't have been able to finish this article. Instead, I would have tweaked it for the next five years, transforming it into something unintelligible. I now feel as if I have the choice to join the game if I want to. Maybe I'll finish that book I was writing. Maybe I'll start a new one. I promise it won't be short.

Michelle Baril-Price lives in St. Albert, Alta.

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