I'm About to Turn 35. And I Just Got Diagnosed with ADHD. What the Hell am I Gonna Do Now?
In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been off social media, and by proxy the internet, for a while. Roughly since February/Marchish, so that puts us at what, five or six months? Anyway, there’s been a lot going on in my life, and I made the decision to step back for a while to deal with it, and to figure out what the hell I wanted my voice to sound like when it came to the internet.
So what I’m writing here is gonna be partially a stream-of-conscience summation of the past few months, as well as a statement of intention with regards to the things I want to write and how I want to speak over the course of the next few months, and hell, maybe for the indefinite future.
Here goes...a couple months ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD. Like severe ADHD. To the point where when my symptoms are at their worst, my brain’s functioning ability falls under the first percentile of “normal” brains.
I went through a battery of tests, including the TOVA test and CAARS scale, among others, along with an in-office evaluation with my doctor. I include that information as preamble because, as I was learning about ADHD and coming to terms with the fact that I might have it, one of my greatest fears was telling someone and then having them react with a pat on the head and a patronizing “oh sure, that’s totally what you have. I’m sure that’s a real thing…” And to their credit, most everyone that I’ve told has been incredibly supportive and even curious to learn more. But there have been a few people who’ve reacted as I feared and treated me like I was just another entitled millennial looking for a reason to excuse my laziness. So all of this to say, there’s hard science behind what I’m telling you. Please believe me, and please listen, because you or someone you love might be going through something similar.
And one more note that I feel like I should include here: I’m not an expert. If your reaction to what I’m writing is, “Wait, you’re wrong, that’s not accurate,” you’re probably right. I’m three months into this thing and doing everything I can to educate myself about it as quickly as I can. But I’m not an expert by any means, and I almost certainly will get something wrong. I’m largely going to be writing about my experience, but if I get something wrong, whether we’re talking about ADHD, anxiety, mental health, or hell, the details of a particular episode of Parks & Rec that I happened to quote, feel free to shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to correct it and learn from it. At the end of the day, I’m just a guy who writes poop jokes for a living who’s trying to understand what’s going on in my brain better.
Anyway, for the last few years, I’ve been having trouble getting work done. I’ve felt like a failure, a fraud, and a fuck-up for a long time now, and it feels like, no matter how hard I try, it keeps getting worse. I guess I should preface (yes, one more fucking preface! I’m sorry!) that I’ve been running my own company for the last six years, an animation studio in Los Angeles. That’s not to brag, it’s just to explain that I’ve been able to make my own hours, and haven’t had a boss hanging over me, forcing me to get my work done. There have been more days than I can count when I’ve gone into the office with a mile-long to-do list and walked out at the end of the day having accomplished nothing. It’s weird, I felt busy, I felt like I was working, but it was like I was just running in place. I’d occupy my time, telling myself things like, “Just let me check Twitter real quick, and then I’ll start.” Inevitably, I’d check Twitter, then my attention would get pulled away by something else, and then something else, and then something else, and before I knew it, the day was over, and I couldn’t help but feel resentful at myself for wasting an entire day. Now granted, this wasn’t my experience every day. Some days, I’d have pockets of productivity. Or some days, I’d have a hard deadline that I’d have to meet and that would propel me to get work done. I mean, while I was dealing with all of this, I was somehow still able to run an animation studio, write a couple of TV pilots, write a feature film, and lead what probably looked like a pretty normal life. But on the inside, I knew something wasn’t right. On a couple of occasions, I had some pretty intense panic attacks and came close to a complete nervous breakdown.
I started going to therapy, thinking that what I was dealing with was some combination of anxiety and burnout. The therapy, honestly, helped a lot. Being able to talk openly about what I was experiencing helped alleviate a lot of the fear and shame I had around it. And getting the help and advice of a trained professional proved immensely beneficial. I started to develop habits and practices to deal with my “anxiety.” Things like establishing a “no screens in bed” rule for the house and giving myself a set time that I woke up every morning. In the coming weeks and months, I want to write about a lot of these practices because I think that they’re beneficial to anyone living in our modern world, whether or not you have ADHD. Little did I know that on some level, these practices were helping to treat my ADHD. But my therapist wasn’t able to pick up on what was actually going on in my brain. And real change wasn’t going to take place until I understood and began treating the problem that was at the root of everything: my ADHD.
My road to a diagnosis started in earnest around February of this year. In November of 2018, the lease was up on our animation studio, and I made the decision to start working out of the house. It did not go well. Without the structure of an office to go into every day, I found myself floundering even more than before. My to-do lists were piling up, almost taunting me, and the resentment I had for myself and my ineffectiveness was growing. Something wasn’t right. No matter how hard I tried to motivate myself, nothing seemed to work. I begin to have an inkling that this might be more than just anxiety and a lack of motivation. But I didn’t know where to begin. I went on a spree of adding a bunch of books on productivity and creativity to my Amazon cart. (Even a couple on ADHD, coincidentally enough.) But they all just sat in my cart collecting e-dust. (Which I think was that weird company that Mark Cuban tried to make a thing a few years ago, right?)
Then one night in February, “ADHD” started trending on Twitter. I was curious why. There wasn’t any kind of event that led to it- apparently a bunch of people on Twitter just started talking about their own experiences with ADHD, and that begat more conversation, until lo and behold, it started trending. As I started looking through the posts, I stumbled on this thread by Yashar Ali.
“Holy shit, this is it. This is exactly what I feel like. This is exactly what I experience.” Well, not “exactly”, because as Yashar points out, everyone’s experience with ADHD is different and it can manifest itself in very different ways for different people. But reading this thread, I felt like somebody had reached into my brain and felt everything that it was feeling. All of the struggle, all of the pain, all of the trying to climb up the hill only to eventually roll back down. That thread then led me to this thread by Dani Donovan, and by the time I was done going through it, my jaw was on the floor, and all I could think was, “Holy shit, they actually have a name for all of this shit that I’ve been going through that I think was just me being weird and lazy and a fuck-up?” I felt found, and I felt heard for the first time in a long time, even though I hadn’t said a thing.
So I started to come to terms with the fact that “ok, maybe I have ADHD.” I started reading articles, writing about in my journal, learning everything I could about it. I even clicked “Buy Now” on one of those books sitting in my cart. I began recognizing different moments in my life when I had been able to “hyperfocus”, times when my “anxiety” was actually a textbook symptom of ADHD, and practices that I’d been putting in place that had actually been the perfect treatments for ADHD. All that being said though, I wasn’t ready to accept my condition as a fact until I got an actual diagnosis from a doctor.
And then it happened. I finally went in to meet with a psychologist to see if all of these hunches were right. If there actually was a term for all this shit I’ve been dealing with for my entire life. I went through that battery of tests that I mentioned before. I’m so grateful that the tests were as exhaustive as they were, because it completely obliterated any and all doubts in my mind of “oh well maybe they just say everyone who comes in has ADHD” or “oh well maybe I just happened to say the right thing to get diagnosed with something I don’t actually have.” After everything that went into that process, I knew that whatever result came back was going to be the correct one, and I’d be better off than when I came in. A week later, the doctor set up an appointment for a follow-up to give me my results. And sure enough, she told me, I had ADHD. “Not a doubt in my mind, she said.” I nearly broke down multiple times during that conversation.
Eh, fuck that. Why am I still trying to look cool? I did break down. I did cry. I was embarrassed. I tried to hold it in and I couldn’t. And I’m glad that I didn’t. Because this was one of the defining moments of my life. And I was right to feel the weight of that moment.
Finally, there was a name to what was I feeling. I’m not weird. I’m not broken. This is an actual thing that exists in the world, and more importantly, there’s a way forward.
As we spoke, she went over my results with me. Basically, when I am engaged in an activity, my brain can function at an incredibly high level. This is why I was valedictorian in high school, why I consistently scored highly on standardized tests, and why I was able to accomplish the things I’ve been able to accomplish throughout my career. In fact, if the pressure amps up, and more stimuli are being thrown at me, I actually get better. Whereas most people shut down, my focus gets sharper and I’m at my best. I thrive when I’m close to a deadline, and the pressure’s on.
But my achilles heel is my consistency. If I’m not engaged in an activity, my mind goes everywhere. I end up constantly re-correcting myself. Losing myself, then reminding myself, “No, focus! No, focus!” Just as my brain can achieve incredible, unthinkable highs when it’s engaged, it can also hit unbelievably low valleys when it’s not engaged. (Less than the 1st percentile of brains.) This is why something like folding laundry feels like climbing a mountain a lot of times for me. And I know how it sounds, ok? “Oh, poor boy, you only want to do things that are fun for you. You don’t like being bored? What a shocker. Nobody does.” But it goes so far beyond that. It’s not just that I don’t like being bored. It’s that my brain literally shuts down, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s why I put work off until the very last minute. It’s why I have to have a deadline I’m working toward. It’s why I can’t finish anything ahead of time. It’s why staying focused on someone in a crowded restaurant is so freaking hard for me. The doctor explained that if I was ever to go back to school, I’d qualify for every 504 accommodation, meaning I’d be eligible for extra time on exams and other aids.
The other big thing that she explained to me was that because this ADHD has gone undiagnosed for so long, I’ve developed a pattern of extremely negative self-talk. I’ve got this internal narrative going that I am indeed a fuck-up of the highest order, no matter what I’ve accomplished or what anyone else tells me. I know the truth. And the truth is that I’ve failed time and again, and it’s my fault, and it’ll keep happening over and over again. This is the narrative that says “yeah, go ahead and start that project, we all know you’re never gonna finish it.” It’s the narrative that second-guesses the weird ideas that pop up in my head and cuts them off at the knees before they can become fully formed. You know, the kind of ideas that could eventually turn into something like Most Popular Girls in School. It’s the narrative that stifles my dreams, forces me to doubt my instincts, and ultimately has caused me to fucking hate myself. There’s a version of me out there that I want to be. A version of me who’s healthy, has his shit together, brightens the lives of those around me, helps others believe in themselves, and writes movies and TV shows that change people’s lives for the better. But according to this narrative, that’s a person that will always just exist in my head. And it’s entirely my fault.
This diagnosis has exposed that narrative as bullshit.
For 34 years, I’ve been operating with one hand tied behind my back. And I’ve been beating the shit out of myself for it. The temptation now is to pity myself. To look back at the past 34 years and wonder what could have been. To look back on the first part of my life and feel like I got a raw deal. To wonder what if. Would I have finished that application to my dream college? Would I have gotten in? Would I have been able to take better care of my finances? Would I not be staring down the mountain of debt I am today? Would I have written that script? Would I have taken the notes that my agent gave me when I wrote my first book instead of letting it die in a drawer? I can spend the rest of my life asking myself these questions and wondering what my life would have been like if someone had caught this when I was a kid. That option’s staring me dead in the face right now.
But fuck that.
I choose the other option. For 34 years, I’ve been operating with one hand tied behind my back, and I was able to accomplish a whole hell of a lot. I created work that I’m proud of, and I created work that brought that joy to others. It was hard, and I did it anyway, even though I had no idea how hard it actually was when I was doing it. I gave jobs to artists, I went after my dream, I was able to quit my side job and make a living doing comedy. All without any idea about the battle that was raging in my brain the whole time. How much more can I accomplish now? For me, this diagnosis isn’t a curse, it’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received in my entire life. It’s presented a new world to me, a world alive with possibility and potential.
So what now? Well, that’s a good question. I’ve started medication, and it’s helped immensely. My doctor has me taking a drug called Evekeo, and I feel like it’s made a world of difference. The analogy I’ve been using a lot is that before, it felt like my brain was one giant mess of paperwork just scattered everywhere. Pages were crumpled up under each other, some were dog-eared, others were still in envelopes, and everything was a big giant jumble. Every time I had to find something, whether it was a thought, a task, or the conversation that I was currently in, I had to rummage through all those “papers” to find what I was looking for. Sometimes, I’d find it right away, and sometimes I’d give up completely.
Now that I’m on medication, it feels like my brain is a well-ordered filing cabinet. If a thought enters in, I can organize it and prioritize it. When I’m writing an email, my brain might blurt out, “Hey, what’s going on on Twitter right now? We should check!” In the past, I would feel almost compelled to immediately open a new tab and see what was happening on Twitter. Even if I’d literally checked it five minutes before. Now if that thought pops in my head, my brain can file it away. “No, we don’t need to check Twitter right now. We’re writing this email, and it’s a pretty simple task, so our best course of action is to finish writing it and then send it off. Then it’s one less thing on our to-do list. After that, maybe we’ll take a look at Twitter. Or maybe not. It’s really not that important.”
So with that in mind, I want to start talking more openly about this thing that I’m going through. Talking more openly in public about ADHD and mental health in general. I feel like I have a voice and a perspective to share. So fuck it, I’m going to share it. I might not be the most articulate, I’m certainly not the most educated, but I believe there’s something that I can bring to the conversation. After all, if Yashar Ali and Danni Donovan hadn’t spoken up, I wouldn’t be writing this today. So maybe I can be that for somebody else. At this moment, I think that’s going to take the form of articles (or blogs or whatever you want to call it) like this one, articles where I talk about what I’m going through and different practices I’ve developed to address the symptoms of anxiety, ADHD, and the world in general in 2019. I’m also going to start posting on social media again, and start posting a lot more about mental health. To be candid, I’m scared. I’m terrified. As I told my life coach, (also I have a life coach, and I’m terrified right now that you’re judging me for having a life coach), I’m scared of being basic. I’m scared of being perceived as one of those douchebags on Instagram posting self-help quotes on top of a picture of a mountain that they found on Adobe Spark. I’m scared of being lumped in with the pretty white ladies who host their own self-help podcasts with the thumbnails where they’re posed in a garden doing prayer hands. In the same way that I was scared to write this and tell people about what I’m going through, I’m scared of being vulnerable and being laughed at for it. But whatever. I feel that fear, and I’ll do it anyways. For now, it’ll be articles like this, along with posts and conversations on social media. It may eventually evolve into videos, podcasts, and live events in the future, but that’s for the future to worry about. (See?! Now I’m able to prioritize current and future tasks properly! What a world!) I’ll also be continuing to write TV and movie scripts. And yes, that does mean more MPGIS. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say right now, but if you’re a fan, rest assured, Most Popular Girls is far from dead.
So here’s my request. In the Youtube world (and I guess in most media worlds), we refer to it as a call-to-action. If you read any of this, and it resonated with you. If you found yourself saying, “Holy shit, that’s me,” or “I’ve been there”, do what I did. Dig deeper. If you think you might have ADHD, talk to a doctor. Get tested. Maybe you have it, maybe you don’t, but do yourself that favor. Be kind to yourself in that way. You deserve to know. You deserve to know what’s going on in your brain, and the best way to work with it.
Not the best way to “fix” it.
Because you’re not broken.
The best way to work with it.
Because it’s a gift, you just have to learn how to best a) accept that gift and b) make use of that gift. Trust me, it truly has the potential to change your life.
And my other request would be, if this article (or blog or post or whatever the fuck you want to call it) affected you in any way, please reach out and talk to me. I want to know. Putting myself out here like this is really hard, and I had many many second thoughts about it. But if it helped one person make their lives just one percent better, then it was more than worth it. If you have questions, ask me. I want to talk. I want to have a conversation. If you want to know more about my diagnosis, just ask me. I’m happy to share and happy to talk about it. The more we stop acting like this stuff makes us weird and makes us broken, and stop acting like it’s something we should be ashamed of, the better we’ll be. We’re all in this together.
And finally, if you’re feeling like I felt for a long time- like you’re a fuck-up, like you’re broken, and like you’re not deserving of good in your life, I’m here to tell you, it’s not true. We are not broken. We are not fuck-ups. We are whole. We are exactly who we should be, and we can succeed in life. In fact, we can make our wildest dreams come true and become the people we’ve always known we could be. There are others like us, and we will look out for each other. And you and I, we do deserve good in our lives. So let’s go find some of it.