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I’m an Ambitious 31-Year-Old Woman. I’m Not What ADHD Is ‘Supposed’ to Look Like.

As a neurotic, overachieving teenager, I never got in trouble. Except…

…for when it came to the state of my bedroom.

While my peers were being grounded for missing curfews or bringing home poor report cards, I was being reprimanded for the fire hazard that served as my sleeping quarters. On most days, it was difficult to walk through between the piles of clothes, seltzer cans, granola bar wrappers, highlighters, glue sticks, textbooks and flash cards (my preferred studying method) strewn across the floor. An empty bag of microwave popcorn that was once a midnight snack could sit on my nightstand for days. The messier it became, the more overwhelming it felt to try to clean it.

For my 16th birthday, I was given a beautiful, large desk made of oak. The idea was that it would help me to be more organized. I would no longer have to sit hunched over in bed (among popcorn kernels) to study. If my desk could remain spotless and pristine, maybe my brain could learn to be the same way.

My new desk remained tidy for a few days, but then quickly became a piece of furniture that I could fling discarded clothes onto. The drawers, their contents once sparse, became so full that they could barely close. In exasperation, my parents wondered, How can she get straight As but still be unable to do the simple task of keeping her bedroom clean?

To them, it was laziness. A sign of disrespect. For me, it was just my brain. It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I realized it was also ADHD.

When my psychiatrist told me that I had the symptoms of ADHD, it felt like emerging from a heated sauna and taking that first step into the cool, crisp air: relief. I wasn’t crazy. It wasn’t all in my head. My diagnosis wasn’t an excuse for my behavior, but rather, a reason why my brain acts the way that it does.

When you think about a person having ADHD, that person likely does not look like me. In fact, ADHD among women and young girls is frequently overlooked; their symptoms misdiagnosed as a mood disorder or just seen as being “spacey” or “dumb.” The reality is that women with ADHD tend to be less hyperactive, but more “disorganized, scattered, forgetful and introverted” than men.

Looking back, the signs were always there, but I shoved them away the same way I shoved clutter into a drawer when friends would visit. I was good at hiding the messy, disorganized version of myself. But the shame didn’t begin to manifest until adulthood when I started to compare myself to my peers. How did my friends maintain such spotless, Instagram-worthy apartments? Why were my colleagues and I at the office the same number of hours but they managed to produce twice as much? I started coming into work hours before my team members in the attempt to “get ahead” because I knew there would be fewer distractions.

For me, ADHD feels like sitting down at your computer to start a research paper about the Revolutionary War and somehow, you’ve managed to find yourself on the “Personal Life” section of Bobby Cannavale’s Wikipedia page. I’m not sure how I got there, but all I know is that many hours have passed and I’m still staring at a blank Google doc. It feels like having 50 Internet browser tabs open on a screen and none of them are related to each other. It’s a vicious cycle of being distracted by something small, becoming increasingly unfocused and then spiraling into a state of paralysis because I’m so overwhelmed from the task that lies before me.

It didn’t help that as I progressed in my career, my anxiety climbed as I acquired new stresses and responsibilities. Putting away clothes was still torture and cleaning my room was an all-day marathon, but I’d also forget to pay bills or show up for a doctor’s appointment. Once, at midnight, while packing for a cross-country flight that departed the following morning, I remembered that my wallet was sitting at the nail salon a block away. I have been 30,000 feet in the air somewhere over Pennsylvania only to realize that my laptop was still in a bin at JFK security.

“Phone, keys, wallet,” my therapist told me, as I sat on the couch across from her after my trip. “Repeat that to yourself every time you leave your apartment.”

Sometimes, I think, If I can barely keep up with myself, how will I ever take care of kids one day? Why can’t I bring myself to make that phone call or wash those dishes or finish writing that book? How much more could I accomplish if I didn’t get in my own way?

Every day, I take small steps to get out of my own way. I set phone reminders to meditate. My desk is mildly disheveled (to put it generously), but I put away my laundry today and crossed menial tasks off my to-do list. Sometimes I’ll pour myself a glass of seltzer and accidentally leave the bottle on the counter, but my boyfriend will generously put it back in the refrigerator without comment. I have 23,493 unread emails in my inbox and I’ve accepted that I’ll never be an “inbox zero” person. Pre-pandemic, I kept a neon sticky note on my door that reminded me to bring my water bottle to hot yoga. In class, while my limbs were twisted into pretzels and I was sweating from every pore, my teacher would say, “Being a human is hard.” And when she told us it’s not about having the perfect pose; that it’s okay to wobble or even fall, I believed her.

Just as I no longer strive to achieve that perfect Warrior III, I no longer strive to have a “perfect” brain. I’ve accepted that my ADHD is a part of who I am, just like my anxiety, humor and ability to give impeccable manicures. My ADHD isn’t good or bad — it just is. I’m now gentler with myself. I tell myself that my self worth is not my productivity; that I am not defined by the chaos that is in my bedroom or my brain. And so I move forward and pick up another pair of pants off the floor.

Taylor Trudon is a journalist based in Brooklyn. She frequently writes (and tweets) about youth culture through the lens of social media, identity, politics and wellness.

Thank you so much, Taylor!

P.S. How to help stop anxiety, and the Grand Canyon trick.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)

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