I'm smart, why can't I function?
Mapping the ADHD chasm between potential and actualization
This one is a bit longer than usual because I’m going through a massive shift in my understanding of myself. The short version is that being gifted enabled me to mask my ADHD my whole life, even to myself, and therefore I was living a disabled existence with no words for it. I am now processing and naming and mapping the chasm between what I always felt I was capable of (“my potential”) and my inexplicable inability to actualize it for my whole adult life. It’s a lot.
Two days ago it hit me that I am disabled. It happened when I was watching a How to ADHD video, and she suggested buying books written for teenagers, because teenagers have still-developing executive function. The Complete Cookbook for Teens taught her how to make an omelette and she still makes omelettes.
And literally yesterday I had settled on omelettes as being a really good breakfast food for me to master. The sense of pride I had this morning that I had made myself a Real Breakfast for two days in a row suddenly felt embarrassing. Great, I’m a 42-year old teenager.
A sense of shame washed over me that I have not felt consciously in a long time. But it’s always there under the surface, the thrumming baseline of my life: I’m smart, why can’t I function? I’m smart, why can’t I function?
Everything I was told about ADHD was a lie.
For most of my life, what I predominantly heard was, "ADHD is not real", "It's over-diagnosed", and "Kids just have a lot of energy, it’s wrong to medicate them". Nobody ever explained what ADHD actually is.
People with ADHD are motivated by interest, novelty, challenge, or urgency. They are not motivated by this is important, or this will be urgent in 2 months. And by motivated, I don't mean, wanting to do a thing. I mean, whatever comes right after that, where you actually do it.
It's a bizarre thing to convey. How can you want to do a thing, know it's important, know there are consequences if you don’t, and it’s not technically a “difficult” task…and yet still just not be able to do it? Not because you are depressed, or tired (although you often are, for no apparent reason), but just…because. Because your brain just won’t cooperate in this one particular way that makes the difference between it happening or not happening. Because the task requires more executive functioning1 than you have access to in that moment. Because the task doesn’t give you enough of the dopamine that your brain is lacking. So you do something else, that is easier and more immediately rewarding.
Making breakfast requires figuring something out. Here are cookies. They taste good! I shouldn’t eat them. Oh no, I’m eating them again! Mmm, cookies. What’s wrong with me?!
ADHD is like being the smartest, stupidest, most motivated, laziest person in the room, all at the same time. (How to ADHD)
I can handle being thought of as lazy. I have rejected the concept that my worth is tied to the value of my labor a long time ago, on the grounds of capitalism-is awful, rest is subversive, etc.
But being smart is my thing. It's always been my thing. It's how I coped and managed and figured out how to get by. It's what makes me impressive, interesting, and ultimately, acceptable. I can be weird and eccentric, because I have really great things to say, and I say them so well.
But now I’m realizing that being smart is what made it possible for me to always have a workaround and explanation for me not doing a thing, and never look at why I couldn't do it. Being smart helps me mask. It is my mask. I’m smart, so I’m fine. I’m from the generation of kids where being gifted meant being seen as having no problems. You’re smart, so you’re fine.
I have joked for decades about me “not being able to feed myself”, but I never really just sat down and said, Emma, honey. WHY is this actually so hard for you? What is going on here?
My whole life I thought I was standing still, but I was actually running on a treadmill and trying not to fall.
It has felt like life keeps happening to me at a speed I don’t understand because time is confusing, and I’m trying to do what I am supposed to do, and become who I am supposed to become, and I just couldn’t actually do it with the awareness and support I had available to me. I was trying to climb a sheer rock face with no climbing gear. And I just didn’t know that. I thought I was supposed to be able to do it. Everyone told me I was supposed to be able to do it. And I just couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried and how many workarounds I came up with.
And that produces shame. Being told you can do something that you actually can’t do produces shame. And it’s shame that you can’t really heal on your own, because it’s not coming from inside you. It’s coming from the gap between what you are expected to do and whether that is possible given your brain and the society you live in. Without accommodations and support and understanding how my brain works, I can’t be successful and well in a neurotypical world. I just can't. It’s not a choice, it’s not a moral failing, it’s a disability. That disability exists because of the mismatch between a society set up for neurotypical people, and my brain, which is not neurotypical. The conditions that produce the shame have, in some way, nothing to do with me, but they affect me intimately every day. If you are thinking, this sounds like a privilege-marginalization conversation, it very much is.
But I didn’t know any of this. I was just trying to make my life work, with no idea why it wasn’t working. And I was trying to cover up what wasn’t working, and ignore the shame and stress that had just become a background hum that I tried not to feel.
I was trying so hard to be impressive and smart to distract everyone (and myself) from how inexplicably hard basic living tasks are for me, that it didn’t dawn on me that maybe I have a disability.
My yard looks like the house is abandoned and has the whole 9 years I’ve lived here. I'm sure it is a fire hazard. I know my neighbors are Not Pleased. But the degree of motivation I have for mowing the lawn, or dealing with the fact that plants inexplicably keep growing even when I’d rather they not is negative one million.
But I didn’t know why. So I just kept trying. I bought a lawn mower that was electric and didn’t require messing about with gas. Nope. Then I bought a more expensive lawn mower that ran on batteries, and didn’t require messing about with a cord. This helped a little bit. But my lawn still feels like a boss fight I don’t have the character stats to win. And the thought, I can’t even mow my own lawn just feels bad, and that bad feeling depletes my already-limited dopamine supply.
I was trying to make giftedness and ADHD cancel each other out, and it just doesn’t work that way.
There were so many things growing up that I was gifted at, until I wasn't. I could sight-read music, until it got harder and required practice, and I couldn't get myself to do that. Sitting there and failing over and over for an hour: not a lot of dopamine in that. I could pass most tests without studying, until I got to college and I couldn't. I couldn't make myself sit in lectures and I couldn't make myself study, so I would try to learn as much as I could right before the test (urgency). And I got a psychology degree, because it was the intersection of most interesting and fewest required classes. And I hunted through the class catalog desperately to try to find anything that would sustain my attention for 10 whole weeks.
But when the professor of one of the few classes that was actually interesting to me and I never missed wanted to talk to me about grad school, I was like forcing myself to participate in institutional learning makes me want to die actually, so I’m gonna pass.
As a kid, I was the kind of smart where I was constantly being told about my potential. But nobody gave me what I actually needed to reach it. So I just got more and more scared and depressed and emotionally dysregulated and overwhelmed as life went on.
I’ve spent the last 20 years doggedly pursuing the path to becoming self-regulated and happy and emotionally OK2. But no matter how happy and wise I became, I still couldn't get myself to do the things that other people do as a matter of course. And I just didn't know why.
It's not exactly that I was in denial, because I had a complete misunderstanding of what ADHD is. If I had understood it as I understand it now, I would have been like wow, yeah, obviously that is what is going on. But I didn’t know.
I had seen a few other people with ADHD, and they struggled with things that I didn't struggle with, so I was like OK, I must not have that. But I was focusing on a few tasks I can do well, and ignoring all the others that are monumentally more difficult for me than they are for other people. Yes, I pay my taxes, I don't lose my keys, and I'm not late to appointments. But I also exempt myself from 90% of life because I don't trust myself to not become emotionally dysregulated under stress, or to be able to keep a commitment if my interest level changes, which it does constantly. And I’m only not late to appointments because I barely schedule any, and I make lots of alerts and reminders.
I was looking at the results and thinking, “I’m doing OK”, when I should have been looking at the amount of effort I was putting in, and realized that I was struggling in ways others don’t struggle.
A huge part of how I have learned to accommodate the stress that I feel repeatedly trying and failing, is to just not try at the things I anticipate will be hard for me. And that sucks so much, because it makes my world incredibly small, when I have a heart and soul that longs to be expansive and fly everywhere. I want to soar, and yet I find myself saying “no” to so many things because I anticipate failure. And it’s not some irrational fear: I have failed, because I didn’t know what I needed to succeed.
How do you say "yes" to anything, when your brain might say, "never mind" after two weeks?
When I said "Yes" to this newsletter, it felt like an adventure. But as I internally committed to sending it regularly, the fact that it goes out to a list of real people has started to mean more and more to me. Because it's the exact kind of commitment I've always been afraid to make—to myself, to my readers, to anyone. I have been afraid of my own lack of follow through, because the ghosts of all the things I thought I was enthusiastic enough about to keep doing still haunt me. All the gyms I joined with the best of intentions. All the websites I've made and then abandoned. All the blogs I've started and not kept up with. I’ve gotten really excited about a lot of things in my life and then had that excitement just…evaporate.
Most people have a dial from 1-10 that they use to regulate their attention. People with ADHD have two settings: Random and 15. And they can't control which setting they're on. - Eric Peterson
Of course it’s OK to change your mind. But it’s different if you don’t feel you actually get to choose to start or finish. I often feel compelled to start a thing, and then I’m left with a sudden lack of compulsion to keep doing the thing. And then I try to push myself to do it with willpower, and just end up getting into a war with myself trying to prove I can do it, and then I lose that war.
I didn't want to lose motivation. I just did. I didn’t want to get absurdly excited about something that was never a good idea to begin with. I just did. I didn’t want to get overwhelmed when something started getting a tiny bit successful and then pull the plug because the idea of people having expectations of me made me feel like anxious-crying. I just did. And then I felt shitty about myself for years because I didn’t understand why.
I’m smart, why can’t I function?
This isn’t a new problem. I don't remember a lot from my childhood, but I remember my own constant refrain: I'm bored, I'm bored, I'm bored. And my Dad's constant refrain: Emma, stop screaming.
I realize now that I've always had ADHD, and for 42 years, nobody noticed. I learned to be so self-reliant that nobody ever asks if I'm OK. I try to make it the last thing anyone ever would ask me. Because my CPTSD makes it hard to trust people, and because I got so tired of being treated like I was fragile just because I cry at the drop of a hat.
But I cry like children cry, meaning I'll be OK in a few minutes, and it will be like it never happened. I just need it to be OK that I'm not OK for a minute. I don't need to be treated like a fragile doll. I want to be seen as capable, even if I'm not always capable of everything.
ADHD is like if the CEO of your brain never grew up.
The responsibilities of being an adult feel exactly like they would feel to a child: overwhelming and confusing and terrible. I don't wanna do all that, I just wanna play. And play to me is: writing stuff, learning stuff, making stuff, and hanging out with my friends.
The part of me in charge of planning, deciding, co-ordinating, and setting the direction of my life doesn't want responsibility because it can't handle it, because it has the capacity of a child.
But at the same time, I'm an adult in other ways. I have dreams. I have ambition. I have talent. I love the way I write. I have developed so many brilliant ways of working with my emotions. I’m awesome at breaking down concepts and explaining them to people. I want so badly to contribute. But I have felt this fundamental lack of the ability to do anything with my gifts, because everything involved in doing things requires executive function and I get stuck as soon as I start.
I hadn't realized the extent to which I had internalized this fear of responsibility and commitment as a sense of incompetence. Yes, I have something inside me that is awesome and amazing, but I also don't have the something else that lets people turn that first thing into something real in the world that matters. So I just hide in the shadows, and try to find a way to survive, and pretend I'm fine, and vow to myself that I'll figure it out one day.
My Dad would always say that I could do anything once I set my mind to it. And that's true. But I have not felt in control of whether I could set my mind to something. It just becomes set, and then unset, and there is nothing I can do about it. The ferocity of my motivation when the dial is set to 15 doesn’t do anything about how often it just randomly clicks itself off.3
I also remember my Dad saying that he was not going to get invested in my latest obsession, because he knew I would just be on to something else in a few weeks. And that was true too. I've always been like this.
I have learned, very very slowly, to take more time and think through decisions. But I still have over 50 domain names for projects that I started and abandoned4. And it's so hard to let them go, because it's not a failure if you might come back to it one day. I have also gotten rid of things, only to later have that switch flip back on, and wish I still had the thing. It's not under my control and that sucks.
But I'm committed to this newsletter anyway. Because it is the most really-the-real-me thing I've ever done. It's the most vulnerable and honest I've ever been with the general public. And I need that. I need to stop hiding and being scared. I need to believe that I can rise to a challenge (with help) instead of giving up in frustration and just doing something easier, simpler, and less meaningful to me.
I need to stop living in the shadows of my own life. And now that I understand what the problem really has been all this time, that finally feels possible.
Executive function is involved in self-awareness, inhibition, working memory (required for multi-step processes and multi-tasking which is involved in cooking anything), emotional regulation, self-motivation, planning, and problem solving. ADHD is more an executive function deficit than an attention deficit. Source.
While having several disastrous relationships, but that's the CPTSD and attachment and codependency side of the story. I’m still working out how these intersect, and reconceptualizing some (but not all) of what I thought of as CPTSD as actually being ADHD-related-stress.
I’m realizing now it’s not entirely random. There is actually a lot I can do to influence it. But it has felt random in the past, which led me not to trust it. Wanting to be able to trust my muse was how this whole newsletter started, and like magic, the answer keeps unfolding. ✨