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The exquisite exhaustion of reconfiguring your identity
Reconceptualizing myself as a neurodivergent artist
I am working through two major identity-level re-orientations right now, that both leveled up this week.
The first arrived gently, as just the right words to describe a shift I've been making over the past month with this very newsletter. It is the shift from thinking of myself as a personal growth educator to an inner-work artist.As shifts go, it felt gracious, kind, and comforting; like swapping out an ill-fitting sweater for one that fits just right. Oh, right. That's who I am.
OK, I’m probably under-selling it a bit. I still have some boxes to unpack there, but I’m talking in comparison here, because…
The second was more like a freight train running through my living room, operated by a maniacal clown loudly cackling and screaming, "You thought you knew who you were, did you!?! HAHAHAHAHAAA".
It’s a train I've been hearing in the distance for awhile, but I thought for sure it was going to miss my house. Nope, 'fraid not.
I wrote about the actual shift at length on my blog: I guess I have ADHD after all. It's about ADHD as a neurotype, rather than a disorder, and how that concept shifted everything in terms of how I saw myself in it—and suddenly I couldn’t stop seeing it in myself.
I’ve spent the last week re-evaluating everything I thought I understood about myself, as well as everything I thought I knew about ADHD.
For example, tests that say, "Do you forget your keys a lot?" don't help if you've trained yourself to not forget that ONE thing out of necessity, but you forget literally everything else all day long.
It became the water I swam in my whole life, so it didn’t occur to me to call it a problem until I stepped back and asked myself: but is my life typical? And the answer is a big fat nope, not in any way whatsoever.
I have designed my life so I could feel normal in it, but it’s not a “normal” life. It’s the life of someone who is self-accommodating being, in every way, not normal. (And by normal, I mean neurotypical). And I just called that being weird. I had my own labels and names for it, and I thought I was fine.
I was not fine.
Learn to listen to the stress you are pretending you don’t feel.
There are things that I deeply struggle with, that I always thought I was going to heal any day now. Things like feeding myself something other than hot cocoa and jelly beans, and keeping my house clean. It often just feels like life is just hard for me, for no clear reason. I’m smart, I’m capable, I’m creative…and I’m 42 years old, why can’t I feed myself?!?
I had lots of explanations that didn’t really help. I struggle with self-care because of CPTSD. I was raised feral. I didn’t get taught these things. Sure, yes, those are true, but I have healed and healed and healed my CPTSD, and I’ve made huge progress on things like emotional dysregulation, boundaries, codependence, and the level of self-care that is like, I matter, I deserve self-care. But that didn’t motivate me to vacuum my rug or wash the dishes.
Healing and inner work helped some things immensely, some things a little bit, and some things not-at-all.
What eventually helped me do the dishes was doing it in small increments, while waiting for something else I was highly motivated to complete, namely, making myself hot cocoa, which takes about 4 minutes for my fancy milk frother to finish. In those 4 minutes, I had nothing better to do, so I started washing the dishes.
It was a small, discrete task: wash whatever was in the sink. If I had extra time, I would wipe the counters and put away dishes. Then once I got in the habit, it became easier to do a little bit of it every time I happened to be in the kitchen. Then once I got used to having a cleaner kitchen, it got easier to maintain. In other words, it took less executive function to do it. And executive function is one of the main issues with ADHD.
CPTSD does also cause executive function issues, but it’s more related to how dysregulated you feel in any given moment based on whatever triggers or sense of threat is going on. Your mind will always prioritize survival, so if you are in survival mode, you are not going to care about the dishes. Also, if you were conditioned to focus on others to survive, you might not notice your own needs or feel safe prioritizing yourself.
On the other hand, ADHD feels like just a permanent de-buff to executive function across the board. Which makes forming habits absolutely fucking essential, because habits don’t require executive function. But forming them does, so you have to go slowly, and learn how to do it.
You cannot heal yourself to good habits. You have to learn how habits work and slowly, incrementally, build them, with lots of self-encouragement and self-compassion. It’s a different skill than healing. Related, in that both involve self-love, but different.
Healing involves re-writing your software; ADHD is a hardware issue.
I’ve invested a huge amount of my life energy and identity in rewiring my brain. And it has paid off bigly. I’m fucking awesome at it.
But ADHD is an entirely different ballgame. You can’t rewire the hardware; you have to work with what you’ve got.
And that is exciting to learn, but also overwhelming to come to terms with.
It’s exciting because there’s a whole new world of content and strategies that just opened up. Like, smooth brown noise, where have you been all my life? It’s helping me focus right now.
And low executive function foods, that is so exactly what I need and had never imagined I could just Google that.
But it’s also disorienting. I thought I was near the top of a mountain, and it turns out I’m at the base of an entirely different mountain. As in, I thought I was doing super great at healing CPTSD, and actually I’m just barely functioning with ADHD.
Ok, it’s not that bad. What I learned from healing and the improvement in my emotional health is definitely an asset when it comes to dealing with ADHD and life in general. But this is the kind of inner turmoil and constantly-shifting-frames that make identity recalibration difficult. It feels like being suddenly yanked from one (familiar) place to another (completely new) place. I was slowly connecting the dots, one at a time, and then suddenly bam, I was transported to a whole new reality. It’s a lot.
On top of that, accepting a stigmatized identity that I didn’t choose always involves an adjustment period and grief, and grief is exhausting. And having ADHD is, if I haven’t made that clear, also exhausting. At least, it is when you have no idea you have it or how to take care of yourself, and you’re just cobbling together makeshift strategies and pretending you’re fine.
But at least now I have more clarity on why I’ve felt so exhausted, and what direction to go in next.
Now let’s talk about the exquisite part.
I feel more innocent, and more alive.
There is a way where when you try and try and try to fix something, and you fail, you start to feel like a failure, even if you are trying so hard to not feel that way. I have learned to love myself so damn much after everything I’ve been through, but there was still a layer of internalized shame that felt like it was just out of reach, because it was tied to me not having my shit together.
Dear Reader, I so would like to be a person who has their shit together. I would simply adore that. And I do in some ways—but I really don’t in other ways. And I try so hard to just present the parts that are shiny and hide the parts that aren’t, and I didn’t realize how much of a toll that really takes on me. It makes me feel like I don’t really get to be part of the human race. It hurts. It’s not friendly to myself.
And that’s really the third identity shift that I’ve been trying to make with this newsletter—to just be a human being. And that really is exquisite. Because trying to be superhuman—trying to act and present beyond my actual capacities and interests and lived reality—it’s not necessary. I thought it was. It felt necessary. But it’s not. And that’s such a relief to learn. I feel lighter, freer, and less lonely. 🦋
These words were lovingly delivered within my friend Sarah's latest newsletter. If you enjoy my writing, I'm confident you will enjoy hers as well!
Come to think of it, that’s the same thing I did with artist. I’m just a creative weirdo, not an artist. But the reality is, educating people doesn’t feed me. Listening to my inner voice and translating that into form does. And that’s what an artist is.
God, I love footnotes so much. I can go off on a tangent, and not lose the flow of my writing! Footnotes were invented for ADHD! Party hats for everyone! 🥳
It’s this one. I love it so much. I recommend putting hot water in your cup and microwaving it for 2 mins to heat up the cup while your milk froths, it really helps keep your hot cocoa toasty. Otherwise a lot of the heat will be dissipated into the cold cup.
Atomic Habits is the Bible of how-to-habit. If you don’t have bandwidth to read a book (I didn’t), you can have ChatGPT summarize it for you and help you apply it to your life. He posits that a habit is a loop that goes: cue, craving, response, reward. You can hack your habits by setting up your environment to cue you to do the habit. He also discusses it on his blog.