Resilience and adaptability are not just skills on a resume. They are our way of life.
Those of us diagnosed with ADHD are all familiar with brilliant sparks of insight, random and off-the-wall observations on life and the people in it. Often the observations are trivial, but sometimes they’re the seeds of big ideas. They can be the difference between an average endeavor and an amazing project. They can be the beginning of something positive, something productive, and, at the very least, something interesting.
I got these sparks all the time, and I loved those moments because of what could be. I was undiagnosed and convinced that my secretly brilliant brain was about to leap out and surprise everyone. After all, this Idea could be the one! But then, after a few indulgent seconds of ego stroking, came the dread.
Do I have a pen? Where’s my pen? I need paper, any paper will do, I’ll settle for my arm if I have to. Does a pencil work on skin? Why isn’t this pen working? Why do I always come up with these things when I’m away from my laptop, taking a break from work?
Finally, clutching an aging receipt and a crayon, I’d freeze. I couldn’t remember the words. I couldn’t remember the topic. Honestly, it didn’t sound so great anymore. This became a frequent and devastating cycle for me. Eventually, I stopped reaching for my pen and started associating those creative insights with a vague, nameless disappointment that permeated the rest of my day.
This went on for years until something small clicked. In the middle of my usual moping, I had a new thought: Oh, well. I’ll probably think of something better later.
That simple thought opened to a realization. I frequently forgot the wonderful things I thought of, but, despite a decade of depression, anxiety, and “failure,” I continued to think. Something in me wanted to make connections and feel inspired, even though I was unable to follow through and expand on the ideas that floated in my mind.
My diagnosis came seven years, and two degrees, into my professional development. For a long time afterward, I found myself doing a lot of narrative correction — whenever I remembered something unpleasant, I’d rewrite and embellish the memory with my new knowledge of the effects of ADHD.
Freshly diagnosed, I did this hourly.
Wow, of course I couldn’t hack it at that lab. That work would have been challenging for anyone, let alone someone like me. I never had a chance. Crap, all these job postings are about management and administration. How am I going to make this work? I can’t think of anything that doesn’t need to be organized. Oh, my god, I’ll never be able to handle kids.
This hopelessness stemmed from a basic frustration I’d internalized for years living with an unaddressed cognitive impairment. Even when I was able to harness and develop an insight, I usually forgot it, found that it had become impractical, lost interest in it, or presented it to unaccommodating and dismissive supervisors. What’s the point in trying if it never works out?
In reframing my life’s regrets like this, I was missing the most important part. In that moment of groundless panic, staring at the metaphorical ruins of what could have been, ground zero was always the same: This isn’t working. I have to try something else, something better.
This is a trait I see in a lot of people with ADHD. We are experts in starting over. We have honed our ability to look at what’s in front of us, realize it’s disagreeable or unworkable, and adjust. Our rapid cycle of “attempt, fail, attempt better” is an evolutionary dream. We will always be faced with a chance to improve and change, and after some time, we become less attached to old habits. It becomes part of our nature to let go, take stock of what’s left, and invent a new approach.
At its best, ADHD means reinventing ourselves frequently, losing things that don’t work, and keeping things that do. It means getting help when we need it and educating the people in our lives. It means humility and compassion for others and their invisible struggles. Resilience and adaptability are not just skills on a resumé; they’re our way of life.
I’m proud of what we’ve done.