This Is What It's Like Being A Parent With ADHD

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Christopher Broadbent

I feel like I’m lying to you right now. I feel like you won’t believe me. Because even with my doctor’s diagnosis in hand, even with my two prescribed ADHD medications rattling around in my cabinet, I can’t believe that I actually have ADHD.

See, I spent a lifetime with my parents, friends, and neighbors calling me spacey, saying I talked too much, saying I needed to get it together, that I had no common sense. My hair darkened out to brown, but before that, I was called a dumb blonde more times than I can count.

I had all the symptoms in childhood, but everyone attributed them to personality flaws. This is typical of high-functioning ADHD sufferers, especially women. I spent most of my time in class daydreaming, but no one noticed, because I got all A’s — but low A’s because I made careless mistakes constantly, like adding where I should subtract or mixing up the names of two characters.

By the time I got to the point that I couldn’t daydream, I’d learned to take notes, and by writing everything down, I was able to focus enough to learn new material. I had to write down every assignment and test date, a habit learned in Catholic middle school. This saved me in high school and later in college. It couldn’t save me in doctoral school when the workload got too heavy. You can’t skim Heidegger’s Being and Time. So I dropped out.

And socially, there were obvious problems. I talked too much. According to Kathleen Nadeau, director of the Chesapeake Center for ADHD, “Girls with ADHD often struggle to decode the myriad of social subtleties of girl-world: what to wear, what to say, how to talk, when to be comforting, when to be mean.” I was unable to fit in and became a target for mean girls (and boys) which led to a spiral of depression that started at age 7 and continued for two decades.

This is also — unfortunately — common for women with ADHD. According to CHADD, “Compared to women without ADHD, women diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood are more likely to have depressive symptoms, are more stressed and anxious.” They also have lower self-esteem.

Before I was treated, my high-functioning ADHD meant I got shit done — sort of. I was always the mom forgetting to restock the diaper bag with diapers, wipes, or an extra paci. My van was a rolling garbage dump, a repository of fast-food detritus, kids’ clothing, kids’ toys, umbrellas and pacis and hats and coats and pens and lost library books covered in apple juice. I’d spend two hours cleaning it, get it detailed, and swear I’d never let it get messy again. Two weeks later, we’d roll up to a playdate and a Zaxby’s cup would tumble out.

And my house. Sweet baby Buddha, my house. I had piles of (clean) laundry baskets in the kitchen, piles of books next to overstuffed shelves, dead plants on the table, dead flowers on the side table, messy bathroom counters, a sink (and counter) full of dishes, dust everywhere. My carport was a nightmare of stuff to go into the attic, kids’ toys, bikes, and kayaks and all their assorted accoutrements of helmets and pads and life jackets and booties and gloves. My dining room was a no-fly zone. I could not have visitors. (This would have been resolved earlier, or perhaps precipitated a Come-to-Jesus marital conversation, except my husband also has ADHD.)

But I was, in a way, so together. I got my writing done every single morning, starting at 6 a.m., before the kids woke up. We did homeschool in a subject order that never varied, starting at 9 a.m. I always dressed up and applied makeup — no yoga pants for this lady. Makeup was my moment of Zen. So basically, I just looked like a total slob who couldn’t keep it all together. That’s what high-functioning ADHD is like. You’ve got everything and nothing together all at once.

Then there are the social issues. You double-book yourself for playdates and lessons. You forget everyone’s names, and their kids’ names, and how old they are, and what you talked about last. This is wildly embarrassing. You cannot remember birthdays, and even when Facebook reminds you, you didn’t send a card or a present. This makes you look like a thoughtless asshole. You feel like a thoughtless asshole too.

It’s also likely that money terrifies you. I couldn’t open the mail without a (legally prescribed) Xanax because then I’d see the bills. I couldn’t look at checking account statements, and depositing checks sent me into a frenzy of fear. Money basically scared the shit out of me, and I just prayed my debit card worked every time I swiped it through the checkout at Target.

But medication has turned a lot of this around. This is the thing that cuts through my imposter syndrome and lets me know I’m not faking it. I may have been highly successful in some areas, but rubbish in others, and medication has stopped that. Medication (for me, Adderall) doesn’t make me high or give me foggy feelings. It makes me productive. It makes me remember things. I have the normal human impulse to pick up things when I enter the room or take trash out of my car when I park.

I’m still not stellar at remembering names and dates, but I remembered what saved me in high school and bought a planner. The inside may look like a tinfoil-hat wall, what with all the arrows and lines and cross-outs and rewrites, but it works. I seldom double-book now. My laundry gets done when it’s dirty. The drugs have given my a new life: one of cleanliness and order.

Obviously, drugs aren’t for everyone. But high-functioning ADHD is hard. If you’re making it, but barely, or you’re doing well, but struggling to keep your head above water, and you meet the criteria for ADHD, it’s worth an evaluation.

You’re not spacey. You’re not stupid. You’re not all those voices from your childhood. You have a brain difference. And it’s worth doing something now because ADHD is highly heritable — I have at least two munchkins rocking the same inattentive version my husband and I have. You’ll need all your resources to help them. And that may include a good therapist, an ADHD coach, or medication, or all of the above.

But don’t sweat it because you will tackle this head-on. You already know what to do because you’ve done it.

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