Imagine for a moment that it’s a winter night in 2008. Back home for the holidays, you're getting ready to meet two high school BFFs for tapas. So far, this has involved 20 minutes of standing in your underwear in your childhood bathroom, tilting the enormous grosgrain bow in your hair juuuust a little to the left, then forward, then to the left again. (Blair Waldorf: so hot right now.)
Next you want to curl your hair, so here is what you do: Plug in the curling iron, press “on,” wander into your bedroom to turn up Vampire Weekend, gaze approvingly at the après-Constance Billiard outfit you’ve laid out on the bed, pull on some sheer black tights, try to put on the ruffled silk top, realize you can't because the bow is impeding your progress (and why in God's name did you put it on first anyway?), take the bow off, go back to the bathroom, curl half of the hair on your head, decide you'd rather be listening to Arcade Fire than “Oxford Comma,” wander back into your room, wake up your laptop to switch the song, and see that you were supposed to be at the restaurant 10 minutes ago.
Execute Disaster Sequence. (You are always Executing Disaster Sequence.) Sprint back to the curling iron, cursing as you singe your neck. Leap downstairs, belting your Upper East Sidiest winter coat as you yell out, “CAR KEY! CAR KEY! CAR KEY!” hoping that somehow the key will respond.
Thank God: The key isn’t in the garbage again. It’s right there on the living room floor. Grabbing it, you dash three more times up and down the stairs -- you forgot the hair bow, the curling iron is still on, where is your phone -- before finally diving into you mobile Diet Coke can depository and screeching your way to the restaurant.
Only after you’ve hugged your friends -- when you open your coat, and a strange cloud comes over the face of the maitre d’ -- do you look down and realize you forgot to put on fucking pants.
Yes, Virginia: when I was 23, I went to a restaurant without pants on. It was not the first time I'd lived out a common human nightmare, so my brain, well-prepared, immediately sent in the clowns. Along with my friends, I laughed myself to the edge of respiratory arrest. It wasn’t until the three of us had downed a carafe of sangria, me wrapped tightly in my winter coat, that those clowns cleared the stage for the longtime crooner in my cranial revue: dread. Crushing, crushing dread. Sooomething is so, so wrooong with meee. What am I going to dooo?
At various times in my life, I’d been certain I knew what was the matter. In 9th grade, it was the Sin of Sloth (and I’m not even a Catholic). In my master’s program, I was sure it was diabetes, because unless I hopped myself up on Jelly Babies and Diet Coke, I would last 15 minutes max in the library before succumbing to the irresistible -- frighteningly irresistible -- urge to sleep.
After a doctor told me I definitely didn’t have diabetes, I went home and looked up “narcolepsy” on WebMD. Then I tried "depression," because if getting out of bed is the most difficult thing you do all day -- every day -- how could the implications not be existential?
Many loved ones through the years have found names for my problem too: Slothy Slothiness. Another Day in the Life of Disaster Girl. The Anna Show, Where the Rest of Us Can Only be Extras. Subconscious Animosity. Subconscious Disrespect. Laziness. Selfishness. Cruelty. Bob O'Reilly (that one is a long story).
And then there was the dance teacher whose cheerful, simple way of speaking to me was -- I realized to my horror -- not the one she used with everyone, but because she actually believed my intellect equaled my ability to learn the hand jive from "Grease."
The actual name for what I had was, ta-da, ADHD. Four or five percent of the adult population has it (like really has it, as opposed to lying-for-Adderall has it). Almost all of us have spent a lifetime dealing with its symptoms. The condition strikes men and women equally -- or so most researchers believe, according to a little Googling I did on sites like NIMH.gov and Scholastic.com -- but you wouldn’t know that from looking at medical records. Three times as many men as women are diagnosed.
Why is that the case? The answer, it seems, is depressingly Reviving Ophelia: Boys act out, girls internalize. Boys get dragged to the school psychologist; girls cry themselves to sleep. Most affected girls have what’s known as “inattentive-type” ADHD: they’re not blurty or twitchy so much as spacey and sleepy. So their problems go unnoticed.
Back when I was in elementary school, the only diagnosed ADHD-er I knew would interrupt math class, wait for the teacher to ask him if he was “done,” then yell “Done like a piece of steak! HAHAHAHA!” while bouncing up and down in his chair. That’s the kind of behavior that gets you a ride on the Ritalin train. It’s also not what my symptoms looked like -- ever.
Recently, I’ve read a lot of commentary about the rising popularity of ADHD diagnoses and stimulant meds. Are stimulants dangerous? Uh, yes, they can be, and I’m glad I didn’t take them was I was a kid. My case is relatively mild, so I found ways to improvise. Though I have to say it was a shock the first time I tried Adderall at a Ladytron concert. It made me feel so normal. It was like the day 10 years ago when I walked out of the optometrist's wearing my first pair of eyeglasses and gasped, realizing that this whole time everyone else could see LEAVES on the trees.
Drugs are not always the answer, of course, but for many overlooked ADHD women, an explanation feels pretty freaking great. When a doctor handed it to me, I almost cried from the relief. I had spent years feeling childish and incompetent. Since I couldn’t contain those feelings in the box of a diagnosis, they spread across my whole life, tainting my confidence even in my strengths.
If I couldn’t remember to show up places on time and with pants on, could my writing really be any good? Was I ever going to be able to handle a high-level job? What about marriage? Motherhood? The road ahead seemed paved with land mines.
My diagnosis opened the door to so many helpful things: community, support, Dexedrine, tips on nutrition and exercise, and most importantly, the perspective to be confident that I am great at a few things. Pub quizzes are one of them. My career is another; it turns out the higher levels aren't a problem, as long as the intern can do the filing.
Also, there's my coping ability; I did well in school, like many ADHD girls, because I am awesome at blazing adrenaline-fueled rash-causing stressful new trails to accomplishment. (Again, my ADHD is mild. I’m not trying to say, “Just wing it silly!!” to the people who really can’t do that.) If I could solve a math problem through trial and error, I solved it, which served me just fine until the going got Calculus and the heavens echoed with my screams. If I couldn’t wow my humanities teachers with abstract analysis, I could certainly impress them with bitchin’ lateral comparisons.
Treatment has also clued me in to how fascinating ADHD is. Women who find out they have it might find that the condition explains some truly random things about you. For me, that’s Gary Johnson, lack of shame when photographing celebrities, at least three of my romantic choices, love of the way books smell, hatred of the way high-waisted skirts feel, identification with the character Jinny from "The Waves" -- I could go on and on.
With everything we’re hearing now about overdiagnoses and epidemics and stimulant shortages, I just wanted to say that being labeled was one of the best things that ever happened to me.