Bookish Thoughts: The Year My Brain Unraveled

Bookish Thoughts are essays where I get personal about books that have had a strong impact on my life. They’re not reviews, just ruminations.

This essay was originally published on Medium.

A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD, by Sari Solden and Michelle Frank
(Affiliate link to Bookshop.org, a great site helping support independent bookstores.)

The Great Unraveling

Shortly after the birth of my second child, my brain finally started unraveling. This, I now see, had been a long time coming; the hormonal upheaval brought on by pregnancy and childbirth only served to give it a final push, and uncover what had always been there. I had spiraled into postpartum depression without anyone noticing, and while I had never been a great sleeper, motherhood had only made the bone-deep exhaustion worse. If I was barely holding it together before, now life seemed to be falling apart around me.

But let’s back up a bit, because as the saying goes, hindsight is twenty-twenty.

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A Master of Disguises

Even though I didn’t have a term for it back then (ADD, as it was then known, was only associated with young boys), I knew as far back as my early teens that something was wrong. No matter how interested I was in a subject, I could never apply myself fully to it. Reading was a wonderful part of my life, but literature coursework always felt overwhelming. How could I explain to my teachers that I often couldn’t move beyond a single page, that I’d read the same sentence repeatedly and feel its meaning drift just out of reach? I did many things to compensate. A favorite tactic was to pick one aspect of the reading that I felt I had managed to absorb, and focus on it in a hyper-detailed analysis. My instructors thought I was brilliant; I felt like a total fraud.

Science courses were a different matter, because I wasn’t as interested in the first place, and much of it baffled me. Numbers especially appeared to me as signs in an alien language; I would look at a 4 or a 32 and it would mean nothing. But I was great at copying sets of notes over and over (it was a comforting kind of repetition), and I had a photographic memory. So even if I didn’t fully understand what I was supposed to have learned, I could clearly visualize the piece of paper where I had written it down and write the correct answer. Of course, the information would vanish from my mind the moment I handed in my test paper.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis in a single night (it was the first and last time I ever took caffeine pills). I translated it during a second frantic evening a few days later (I was doing a double major, and had convinced my supervisors to let me do a comparative study that I would present in both languages). I changed the topic of my doctoral dissertation halfway through my graduate studies, going from Medieval manuscript edition to contemporary short stories.

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My Brain Is a Radio

What does ADHD feel like for me? Like there are ten different channels playing — one might be blasting techno music, while another could be a scholarly discussion on linguistics, and yet another a slew of Monty Python quotes. I can hear them all clearly, but I can’t modulate the volume or turn any of them off. In other words, my brain never shuts up, even when the rest of me is exhausted and trying to sleep. That embarrassing social situation I found myself in three years ago? Welcome to my brain at two in the morning, as it replays the awkwardness in an unending loop of highlights.

This has not always been a bad thing. During my graduate studies, I worked a brief stint as a simultaneous interpreter at conferences held by my university. I had no formal training, and my only qualification (or so I thought at the time) was the fact that I was fully bilingual and had an extensive vocabulary thanks to years of language studies and a lifetime of reading. As I worked, I thought nothing of the fact that I had one language pouring in through my ears, and another spouting out of my mouth. Consecutive translation — where I had to listen for a minute or two before rephrasing into the second language — was more of a challenge, since my brain would routinely tune out.

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You Have So Much Potential, What Happened?

I’m not really sure, was my usual answer.

Why didn’t I try to publish my doctoral thesis? Why didn’t I push for a tenure-track teaching position? Why was I hopping from one job to the next? The questions only brought about shame and guilt. Had I squandered time and money on graduate studies? (The answer, I know now, is a resounding no. I did learn some self-management; I also learned that I did not want to be in academia).

My biggest fear has been that there’s someplace much better I’m meant to be — professionally, personally — but that I’ll never get there. That all the education, passion, and past work has been for nothing. That I have failed as a human being. The shame that came from thoughts like these felt crippling, and kept me from seeking help. After all, this was all my fault and I needed to fix it (whatever “it” was) on my own.

My teaching contracts dried out around the time of my first pregnancy, and I decided to strike out on my own as a freelancer. I felt like I needed to work alone, without distractions; social anxiety made the decision even easier.

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The Fog Begins to Lift

A couple of years ago, during one of my forays into online distraction reading, I came across an article discussing how ADHD routinely goes undetected in girls and women. The hyperactive element is often missing for us (at least in the purely physical sense; I’ve always maintained that my brain is hyperactive), which means that the stereotypical attributes of ADHD — cue the image of a little boy running in circles — might be absent.

A list of characteristics in that article gave me pause: forgetfulness, disorganization, a mind that drifts in and out of focus, and the ensuing anxiety and depression that come from feeling like one is barely (if at all) keeping it together. Moreover, women often show their symptoms later on in life, especially during big hormonal changes like the ones that occur at puberty and childbirth.

I think that there’s also the fact that women are expected to be natural multitaskers: we have to be wives, mothers, students, working women, athletes, and more, all at once. This means that no red flags come up when a woman flits from one activity to the next. “Oh, you’ve got so many interests, how wonderful!” “You’re such a strong, capable woman! I wouldn’t be able to juggle half of what you do!” In my case, the juggling felt more like an act of survival than a choice.

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Counting Backwards

After years of hiding and pretending, of feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my skin and start over on another planet, I decided to seek help. I remember trying to be casual about it: “Hey honey, I think I might have ADHD. Maybe I should get tested?” By then, I was an anxious mess, and my family was noticing my mood swings and forgetfulness. Getting their support turned out to be the easiest part.

I cried my way through six hours of neuropsychological testing, and I don’t regret a single one of those hours or tears. I had to put shapes together in ways that seemed to make no sense; I had to remember a list of words while counting backwards in intervals of three; I had to organize tasks and read maps.

The diagnosis — ADHD with a side order of chronic anxiety — came as such a relief that I cried at that too. My intellectual faculties were high, but my ability to manage them was compromised by a serotonin imbalance. And that’s what it’s about: As Solden and Frank write, “ADHD is a lifelong, neurobehavioral, genetic syndrome that leads to structural, chemical, communication, and arousal differences in the brain that subsequently impact what is called the ‘executive functioning’ system of the brain.”

I wasn’t dumb, or a fraud, or lazy. Once shame and guilt loosened their grip on me, I was free to move forwards.

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Postscript

I write this one month into medication. My brain still jumps around, but now I give it permission to; I let it bounce off something for a few minutes (as I write these words, it’s an article on book collecting). Eventually, I rein it back in and focus on the task at hand. And there’s never just one task at hand, but that’s how I need to work, and it’s okay.

I’m unspeakably proud of the fact that I’ve managed to write this article, and that I want to write more. The gate is open, and there is a beautiful clear road ahead.

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