“This one a long time have I watched. All his life he has looked away to the future…to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing!” –Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back”
I step into the kitchen and my mom asks, “Do you think it’s working?”
“I don’t think so. I just organized, vacuumed and dusted my entire room and bathroom, paid all my bills, and started a blog.” She smiles, waiting patiently for me to get the punchline. “Oh…I guess it’s working,” I admit sheepishly.
The “it” my mom was referring to is Adderall. The previous day I had been diagnosed with ADHD and that day is my first day of treatment. I’m experiencing unsurprising, mixed feelings about the diagnosis. On one hand, I’m elated. The things I’d struggled with my entire life weren’t all my fault and there were even potential solutions to some of my core issues! Could there really be a medication that would turn me into the bill-paying, house-cleaning, job-holding, together adult I’d always dreamed of being? On the other hand, I feel sad, both for my younger self and for the time I lost struggling with symptoms that I didn’t know were symptoms and which I therefore saw as personality traits or fatal flaws. At my mom’s suggestion, reading the list of symptoms hit me like a ton of bricks because they were uncanny descriptions of things that had plagued me my entire life:
Often makes careless mistakes and lacks attention to details.
I am 17. My algebra teacher cannot understand why I keep getting answers wrong when I understand the concepts. My handwriting is nearly illegible and this same teacher tells my English teacher that I must not be very smart and later tells me that I’m “a penguin in a class of eagles.”
Often seems to not listen when spoken to directly.
I am 23. I e-mail my boss, asking him to remind me of the answer to a question I already asked. I try to pass it off with a joke about the overhead fluorescent lights frying my brain. He responds, “All jokes aside, I need you to take your work more seriously.” I go to the women’s restroom so no one sees me cry.
Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities.
I am six. I cannot seem to understand how to tie my shoe. I wear Velcro sneakers. I am nine, finally riding a bike without training wheels for the first time. I am 21. I call my parents, crying because some drunk college guys threw a rock through my front window. I honestly cannot fathom how to clean up such a mess. By the time they’ve driven the 45 minutes to my apartment, I haven’t picked up a single shard of glass.
Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to participate in tasks requiring sustained mental effort, like preparing reports, completing forms, or reviewing lengthy papers.
Taxes. Spreadsheets. THE HORROR!
Often loses things like tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, and mobile phones.
I’m 10. I lose yet another lunchbox. My parents are baffled. I’m 28. I leave my entire purse at a restaurant. I lose my phone twice, my keys once, my debit card four times, my passport once, my driver’s license twice, my glasses pretty much once a week when I forget where I put them down.
Often easily distracted by other things, including unrelated thoughts.
I’m eight. It’s midnight and I tiptoe back and forth, making a clearing-my-throat noise, in front of my parents’ door. My mom (with her sixth sense) knows I’m there and calls me in with a mix of compassion and exasperation. “I’m just worried that Grandma’s going to die,” I tell them. They assure me it won’t happen that night, send me back to bed, and after months of such nights finally put a sign on their door: “Do not enter unless you are bleeding, vomiting, or on fire!” My grandma lives to age 101 and dies peacefully when I’m 28 years old.
Often forgetful in daily activities, such as running errands, returning calls, paying bills, and keeping appointments.
I’m 25. A collections agency keeps contacting me because of an unpaid medical bill.
I’m 29. I go to my job at a breakfast café in flip-flops even though I know I can’t legally work unless I wear closed-toed shoes. My boss looks at me like I’m a Martian and today is my first day on Earth.
Low frustration tolerance.
I’m seven. I go to one soccer practice. The other girls are mean and I struggle to even kick a ball. I never go back.
Frequent mood swings.
Criticism from authority figures=crying. If little things go wrong I become enraged. I cannot cope with disappointment. I hold grudges. But I feel elation and joy just as deeply.
Anxiety and depression
Check. And check.
Impulsive behaviors such as excessive spending.
I’m 26. I finish graduate school with nearly $9,000 in credit card debt on top of $70,000-plus in student loans. How did I roll up my card balance? Furniture for my apartment. Many, many, meals out (I hardly cooked the two years I live in Austin). Emergencies I couldn’t pay for outright because I lacked the amount in my checking account: car repairs, broken laptop, etc. I live in a constant state of stress and shame for the next three years before I finally take responsibility for my dire financial state.
When I’m interested in something I can focus for hours and forget to eat, sleep or pee. Obsessions delight and engulf me. As a kid I learn everything about NASA and the Space Race. I can still tell you everything about the Mercury 7, Apollo missions and Russian cosmonauts. I borrow my friend’s Star Wars VHS tapes so many times that her dad finally just gives them to me. Oh, did I just watch three seasons of Battlestar Galactica in two days? That’s not weird! Hell, there’s a Portlandia episode about it!
Hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, textures, etc.
I’m two. I choke on a waffle. For the next 11 years, everything made of or related to bread reminds me of that incident. I refuse to eat bread, waffles, pancakes, pizza, hamburger buns, etc. I’m seven. I can’t wear wool or shirts with tags because the tags torture me. I’m in college and house-sitting for my parents and the ticking clock on their bedroom wall is driving me insane. I can’t sleep until I take the clock off the wall, wrap it in several layers of fabric and bury it in a drawer in another room.
Difficult reading social cues, finds it difficult to make friends.
I’m 12. I don’t get along with girls. The nerdy boys I want to be friends with are way too immature and awkward to accept me into their group. I try to get in with my Star Wars knowledge and embarrassing forays into Dungeons and Dragons, disc golf, and cross-country running to no avail. I’m in college, drunk, and crying on the phone to my best friend. “Why do you even like me? Why would anyone want to be my friend?” As an adult I have two best friends whom I cherish beyond anything, who know all my secrets and faults and strengths and love me unconditionally. But I don’t have a group of friends and I spend a lot of time alone.
It’s not all melodrama. I recognize the positive aspects of ADHD in myself as well. ADHD individuals are described as creative, out of the box thinkers. Hyperfocus allowed me to write a 180-page graduate thesis on the post-9/11 politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. My struggles have made me resilient and brave, more likely to seek out the very things that scare and frustrate me in hopes of conquering them. My unconventional brain makes me a nurturing babysitter, camp counselor, and teacher who the shyest, most anxious kids are drawn to. I feel for and understand oddballs and outcasts. I am passionate about social justice and fair treatment.
Looking back, although these symptoms are glaringly obvious and present at every age (there’s no such thing as adult-onset ADHD), it’s not surprising that I wasn’t diagnosed earlier. Those closet to me always knew there was something different about me but didn’t have the precise definition. My mom used to tell me that my brain was just wired differently, that I wasn’t stupid or lazy or incapable of success. Something about the way my brain works was keeping me from being fully happy. Still, in conversation with my friends and family about my eventual diagnosis, the number one question that seemed to emerge was, “How did we all miss this?”
Picture a child who is smart, extremely verbal, an early reader, a sensitive empath adored by adults. She’s a little bit spacey, a little bit of a dreamer. Physical tasks, such as tying shoes and learning to ride a bike, are harder for her than other kids and she learns these skills much later (sometimes by years) than her peers. She gets frustrated easily and tends to give up if something feels “too hard.” Her parents force her to put down her book at the dinner table, when guests or over or while she’s trying to do something else; say, walk down the street.
Teachers comment on how bright the girl is but also on her struggles with math, organization and handwriting. Yet she adores school and succeeds easily in the areas where she’s strongest, such as reading and writing. She is impatient and stubborn. She forgets things constantly and her parents don’t understand how she could lose another lunchbox (sock, homework assignment, sweater, backpack, etc.). She can be impulsive. She calls her kindergarten teacher a “dirty trashcan.” In a legendary family anecdote, she became irate when asked to split a brownie with her younger sister and took off, shoving the brownie into her mouth while running away down the street.
This girl gets good grades, is liked by teachers and adults and a few select peers. She’s bright and creative, sweet and loving, precocious, funny, deeply sensitive and passionate about fairness and justice.
Would you immediately assume that child–who is obviously me, duh–has ADHD? Maybe not. And here are some reasons why:
- ADHD is often missed in girls and women, especially those who are smart, do well in school, and aren’t hyperactive. Girls are socialized to be nice and not rock the boat. Many girls with ADHD develop coping strategies to mask their symptoms. For example, they become people-pleasers because they live in fear of making a mistake or having anyone be critical of or angry with them. Or they become perfectionists, internalizing their struggles and labeling themselves as failures.
- In many of today’s high-discipline public and charter schools with their endless rules, rigid structures, and rigorous curriculum, a child with a learning difference immediately stands out. Luckily, until high school I was privileged to attend what I lovingly call “hippie schools.” My elementary school was a private school based on the British Primary model. It was a small, loving community with flexible routines, nurturing teachers and a lack of emphasis on obedience and conformity. Students weren’t required to walk in line, tuck in their shirts, sit in desks or take standardized tests. What better environment for an ADHD child than a school that has a daily two-hour block called “choice time?” where she can literally do whatever she wants? My middle school was an Outward Bound Expeditionary Learning charter school centered around experiential and project-based learning combined with regular outdoor adventures. There were camping trips twice a year and a myriad of other day trips, from snowshoeing to rock climbing to river rafting. If we were studying a topic, we learned about it through field trips instead of lectures. The emphasis was on a broad understanding of the world instead of rote memorization of facts. Projects required creativity, collaboration and hands-on experiences ranging from building our own society complete with currency and job roles, to holding a mock trial for Galileo. Again, this was a school that was suited to my strengths and even helped me succeed in areas where I’d had difficulties in the past. A proverbial “wimpy kid” who was taught rock climbing, canoeing, orienteering, campfire cooking and snowboarding, I became braver and more open to challenges and the unknown.
- I had loving, caring, involved, and attentive parents.I know, I know, sounds awful right? Actually, it’s wonderful. My parents are each sensitive, artistic, unconventional middle children: just like me. In my research I read that a calm, well-organized parent often compensates for a child with ADHD, and I was lucky enough to have two. My parents understood that my brain worked differently and tried consistently to make life easier for me while still pushing me in areas where I needed to be pushed. My mom and dad found my lost shoes, dropped off forgotten school projects, didn’t force me to stick with activities when I felt bored or anxious, and patiently coached me through everything from learning to ride a bike (at age nine) to grooming, dating and applying for jobs. They took their seven-year-old insomniac to biofeedback therapy and played mediation tapes for me at bedtime. When I failed backing and parking twice during driver’s ed, they took me to an occupational therapist who suggested activities to help coordinate the left and right hemispheres of my brain.In college and adulthood, whenever I was overwhelmed, ready to give up, broke, unemployed or heartbroken, they would come to my rescue. They allowed me to live with them during periods of depression and anxiety/unemployment at ages 19, 25, and 29, and always, always told me that I wasn’t a mess or a bad person or incapable of being happy.In a way, my parents were a protective barrier between me and the world. They filtered information for me to make things softer, easier, more comprehensible, less overwhelming. No parent wants her or his child to be lost, hurt or embarrassed. This shielding made me furious only once, when I learned at age 16 that I’d been incorrectly holding a fork my entire life. At the time, as my mom pointed out, a younger me would have taken such criticism to heart and probably never used a fork again.
- From the outside I was an accomplished, smart, successful, capable young woman with endless potential.Until college, I’d never had a grade lower than a B, intentionally skipped a class, smoked, taken drugs or kissed a boy (textbook late bloomer). In high school, I was on student council, senior editor of the literary magazine, a National Honor Society scholar, honors choir member and even my class’s commencement speaker. In college, I took overloaded schedules of 18-21 credit hours, sang in the holiday choir, wrote a senior thesis on post-9/11 science fiction films and learned Italian. Inside, though, I felt like a mess who always did the wrong thing, didn’t fit in socially and struggled with simple tasks that others seemed to master effortlessly (cooking, cleaning, socializing, laundry, paying bills, etc.). I was unable to see that I was passionate, clever, funny, easy to talk to and deeply loyal. All I saw were errors and that sinking feeling in my stomach when I realized I’d slept through class, forgotten a doctor’s appointment, missed paying my credit card bill for the second month in a row or started a project or job only to get bored or give up halfway through. But overall, I was functional. I wasn’t addicted to drugs or homeless. I was just, as Tim Gunn would say, a “hot mess.”
- DENIAL.When you struggle with the same things over and over, eventually you get sick of it. Pretending not to care about something is much easier than admitting you lack the skills or focus to cope with them. I always saw my difficulties with organization, grooming, budgeting, cleaning, making friends, keeping a job or finding a romantic partner as indications that I was merely unconventional or far too brilliant to bother with the banalities of everyday life. Not understanding how to apply makeup, choose a matching outfit or tame my thick and unruly eyebrows, I told anyone who would listen that I was actually rebelling against societal expectations of femininity. Racking up credit card debt and rapidly changing careers, I thought I was just “different than other people” and didn’t need the constraints of an office job or budget. When a roommate or family member looked at my messy room with a mixture of shock and disgust, my response was usually, “I just don’t care about this stuff.” I refused to use a planner or write things down out of pride, not realizing I was opening more room for error and private humiliation in my already overloaded brain. I had no idea that many of my issues were classic ADHD symptoms. For example, I never really learned to cook. Most of what I made turned out badly and differently from the recipe. I hated waiting for things to bake or boil. I had no idea how to time meal prep, so that everything was hot and cooked properly. I ate A LOT of pasta. Recipes with more than four ingredients were rejected. Did I take the time to practice, ask for help or take a cooking class? Fuck no! I stopped trying. I became a person who “just doesn’t cook.” Late at night, given my glaring shortcomings, I worried that no one would ever want to marry me or I would become the mom who doesn’t know how to feed her kids (unlike my own mom who always had a healthy meal on the dinner table and lunches packed for school). Mostly, though, I reached a stage of acceptance. I accepted that I was just a person who didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t: fill in the blank (cook a meal, have a long-term relationship, succeed in a career, get out of debt, etc.). That acceptance, or ambivalence, kept my life more unfulfilling, frustrating, small and lonely at times than I felt somehow deserved. In so many ways, I’m having an amazing life; happy childhood and parents who are still in love after thirty years married. I’ve been able to travel, publish articles, serve in Americorps, experience incredible moments of joy and enlightenment, fall in love, learn unexpected skills like rock-climbing and fixing computers and have wonderful friendships. But still, parts of my life left much to be desired. Only at 29, recently fired from a teaching job, ten pounds overweight, unemployed and having moved back in with my parents again was I finally ready to accept the idea that A) things needed to change and B) things actually could change.
My first reaction to my diagnosis, as I said at the start, was sadness. Sadness for my younger self, sadness for the time I lost to frustration and fear, sadness for the roommates, friends, siblings and parents who I burdened with my bad habits, overwhelming emotions and poor decisions. Sadness for the bosses who thought I was simply not paying attention or didn’t care about the quality of my work. Sadness for my former students who saw me scattered, panicked, frustrated and overwhelmed to the point of yelling or, worse, crying.
Then, quickly (within a day) and boosted by my first doses of medication, that sadness faded. I felt filled with love and compassion–for myself, for my parents, for that lost little girl and teenager that I was and for others with the same struggles. I realized how proud I should be of everything that I accomplished in spite of my imbalanced brain chemistry. Instead of regret, I feel excitement about the future. I feel hopeful about the ways the rest of my life could feel different. And best of all, I can finally look back at some of the pain with a sense of humor…which brings me to the name of this blog.
At my college graduation party, drunk and crying because the guy I’d been in love with for the past three years didn’t want to date me, I told my gathered (and horrified) family, “I’m a SCHMIDIOT!” I’m not sure exactly what a schmidiot is, but it’s worse than an idiot and maybe part shmuck. Schmidiot became a kind of code in my family for when anyone made a silly mistake or had a strong emotional reaction. Lost your phone? Schmidiot. Crying at a laundry commercial? Schmidiot. Say “You’re welcome” to a waiter instead of “Thank you”? Schmidiot. But spoken with love, shmidiot is an acknowledgement of the everyday, embarrassing human errors that always seem worse to you than to anyone looking on.
A schmidiot is also a brilliant, funny, eccentric, loveable, loving, wonderful weirdo. A schmidiot cares about things and people and isn’t afraid to admit it. A schmidiot feels everything deeply and sees the world as a kaleidoscopic tapestry of colors, feelings and ideas. I’m ready to own the term schmidiot. I don’t think Adderall is a magic pill that will cure every fault, bad mood or career mistake. I don’t think I will magically become an obsessive cleaner with a perfectly organized purse and a robust emergency fund. But I am ready to enjoy the feeling of life being just a little bit easier.
To be continued…
2 thoughts on “Autobiography of a “Schmidiot””
Oh, Nat. You are the most magnificent Schmidiot I have ever known. I read every word, blubbering and grinning. Keep writing. Keep sharing. Keep blooming. Much love to you, dear heart.
I worked at shadow theatre. I don’t know if you remember me. Your DAd knows me. Anyway God led me to read your blog. My heart was saddened and my mind was opened as I read your story. I know a person who has addHd. I would get frustrated with her. She is brilliant but always struggled to fit in. I am going to call her tomorrow to say I am sorry for being impatient and judgemental. Thank you . Continue to walk in the beauty of who God called you to be. You are amazing andGod wants you to touch and teach others. Tell your Father I said hello.