A few years ago, I was going off on a tangent at a party when a man interrupted me, seeming relieved to have discovered me: “You’re like a tube of information, you can’t filter out irrelevant things, so you think everything simultaneously. ”. His comment hurt; I wasn’t wrong. Having difficulty prioritizing information is part of the ADHD I was diagnosed with at age 15.
In 2005, the acronym conjured up the image of a hyperactive child spinning around before someone force-fed him a Ritalin pill. One teacher referred to it as attention seeking disorder. It has historically been underdiagnosed in women because symptoms tend to manifest as daydreaming, forgetfulness, and anxiety, which are less socially disruptive.
But in the last two years, social media has raised awareness and an increasing number of people have been referred to specialists or self-diagnosed. It would be stingy to envy others the diagnosis that changed my life, but I want people to understand that it is only the beginning of learning to manage symptoms. Sometimes, I have a knee-jerk reaction similar to a growl: When I was your age, we had to walk 10 miles to school in the snow!
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. People who have it don’t have lower IQs, but we do have lower EF. Executive function is what allows you to plan, develop, adapt, and generally get things done. There is still not much understanding of what it is like to live with a disorder that distorts your concept of time and space. Navigating professional tasks and social engagements is a logistical nightmare. Picking a time and place to meet up with a friend can take half a day. To function, I write detailed lists (daily, weekly) with precise hourly schedules.
I have lost count of how many people have asked to try my medicine. The way people think about ADHD tends to be influenced by the neurotypical experience of amphetamines in that they are stimulants, not suppressants. Kerouac wrote On the Road about benzedrine. Didion wrote with Dexedrine and gin. But the amphetamine that brings me to a normal level of concentration will get someone else high. I don’t have down because I don’t go up. Some people describe ADHD as having hundreds of browser tabs open at once. I still remember the dial-up tone, so let’s just say it’s like living in a room with seven radios, five TVs, and a boom box playing, only to discover there’s a switch that lets you hear the words to a song.
The diagnosis is an explanation, but not an excuse. I take medication, but I also have systems. I plan meals. I put the medicine in an egg cup the night before. I keep packing lists on my phone and my Google calendar looks like a school schedule. Sleeping has always been difficult. My calves ache constantly because at night I kick like I’m wearing fins. Without medication, I lose my possessions, I am paralyzed by small decisions, I am pathologically late, restless, overwhelmed and full of self-loathing. Fifty percent of adults with ADHD have an anxiety disorder, and we are four times more likely to have depression. Impulsivity is not as sexy as it seems. Mine is about eating and drinking everything, oversharing, and turning over enough new leaves to fill a tree. Then cutting down the tree.
Learning to function with ADHD is great training for writing a novel. Wild Pets spans from 2016 to 2018, is written primarily in the present tense, and is timed to the exact dates of global political events. It follows Iris, a writer in New York, her boyfriend who is on tour with her band, and Nance, who is doing a Ph.D. at Oxford. Scheduling calls across time zones requires serious planning. I had several color-coded spreadsheets: one with columns titled ‘section’, ‘weather’, ‘historical event’, ‘climate’, etc. Structures Wild Pets is organized into four sections, each covering a period of several months. Within these are short self-contained chapters, like TV episodes, structured around things like WhatsApp messages, playlists, and email exchanges.
Part of ADHD is dopamine inefficiency, which makes one more prone to procrastination. Dopamine kicks in when you’re about to miss your deadline, so I fire up my synapses creating a sense of urgency. Neurotypical people do not need to take medication because dopamine motivates them to act according to what they deem important. When writing the novel, I fixed my reward system by dividing my time into mode A (work) and mode B that I had to earn (let off steam). I set deadlines and shared them with my bossier friends. My self-imposed one-year term kept me in a glorious state of managed crisis. I had rituals. As I walked home from my office job, thoughts crowded and I took note of my voice. Sharing a house with five people, I was interrupted shortly after returning. To keep things interesting, I made it into a game. The conversations are time-stamped because my characters are in their early twenties and literate, but also because the retouching kept me busy.
My attention mode is not broken, but it is inconsistent. The advantage of this is hyperfocus, which can feel like “flow”. But where the flow is creative and expansive, hyperfocus is more about intensity than quality and makes shifting attention to other tasks awkward. I typed with no lights on except for the glow of my screen. I wore noise-canceling headphones and listened to the same three-track playlist. Writing gave me permission to hyperfocus because I knew, for once, that it was the most important thing in my life.
ADHD is not a “superpower,” but its symptoms can be turned into energy and displayed well. Take emotional dysregulation or feeling emotionally “swamped”: I’ve always kept journals. Feelings that are agony in the moment, then make powerful prose. No pain is wasted. The attention I pay to the rhythm of the conversation, because I try not to interrupt, helps me write dialogue. Since information retention is considered intelligence, having a poor memory affects your confidence. Part of ADHD is “rejection sensitive dysphoria,” an overwhelming response to real or perceived criticism. In life, I’m used to feeling stupid, which helps me block out my inner critic while writing.
For a long time, I agonized: What point of view? What time? What if ideas kept multiplying? Afraid of creating a mess I couldn’t fix, I tricked myself into writing by leaving my laptop open. I threw a lot of sibilant attacks, but kept the momentum going. In the words of Elissa Schappell, my teacher and the first woman with ADHD I met: ‘Puke up, then clean up.’ She taught me that it was okay to throw out metaphors and stir up the emotional climate, but that without learning how to ruthlessly edit myself, my work would never coalesce into a novel. My draft of this piece was 3,000 words.
Wild Pets has just been published in paperback by Faber & Faber