Your ADHD stories and strategies
October 29, 2012 3:31 PM   Subscribe

You have ADHD. You've made serious improvements and your life is better now. Tell me your story - not just the tools, but where you came from and where you are now. I need to believe this is possible.

I thought just getting diagnosed would fix everything, but surprise, I'm still me and I still struggle. Medication is helping somewhat. Therapy helps but my therapist doesn't specialize in ADHD so I feel it's up to me to ask for things that will help, except that I don't know what will help.

I'm 36 and at this point I'm so far behind my peers in terms of my career, my finances, my relationships, and just taking responsibility for my life. I'm really hoping that if I can learn how ADHD is affecting my ability to connect with others, to remember that I didn't pay that bill just last week but 2 months ago, to follow through on my commitments, and correct for that, I can get a lot closer to being the person I want to be. I'd love to hear your stories of how you made peace with ADHD - or beat the hell out of it.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Medication only took me so far and I was never satisfied with it. Two simple things helped me tremendously, but YMMV:

1. Exercise. Work out until you're just beat. Personally I cannot run on a treadmill or do any sort of cardio so instead I lift weights and do some boxing.

2. Limit caffeine. I used to drink coffee throughout the day. Now I only allow myself a single cup of coffee in the morning, and then it's herbal tea after that.

Also, I think a more varied and healthy diet increases focus. Eat more vegetables, less saturated fat, less starchy carb.
posted by brony at 3:48 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was undiagnosed for most of my life, because I'm fairly high-achieving, but I lost interest in things really easily. It wasn't until I was misdiagnosed as bipolar that the ADHD started to show itself.

I've learned a lot of coping skills through CBT (I'm not on medication, nor do I want to be at this time, but it's a great option for many), and I can now recognize the times when I get distracted, "lose the plot," and such, and I have learned ways of navigating through those times to be more effective.

I've also learned to stop beating myself up for a lot of things that I wrote off to "laziness" and "lack of motivation." Now that I know it's more a matter of the way my brain works, and not a character flaw, I find that I can accomplish more than I ever thought possible of myself.
posted by xingcat at 3:56 PM on October 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm 36 and at this point I'm so far behind my peers in terms of my career, my finances, my relationships...

This is more of a self esteem thing talking- lots of different people have different set points, and the only thing you really want to worry if you don't see it accumulating (and not at any particular rate, just improving) is emotional maturity. Otherwise you will waste a lot of time measuring yourself against people who are grandmothers by your age, or killed more people than you have smiled at, or are running multi-million dollar businesses, or whatever measure of success you want to use.
posted by Phalene at 4:00 PM on October 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm glad you posted this, as I've actually been thinking a lot about this lately. I am 44, and was diagnosed at the age of 21. Up until that date, I, like many young people with undiagnosed ADHD, struggled mightily with school, personal relationships, lack of follow through, the whole megillah. I knew for years that there was "something wrong with me", and bounced from therapist to therapist until I finally found the psychiatrist who made the diagnosis. Up to that point, I had endured all of the standard platitudes and pop psychology from friends and family; "You're just lazy.", "You're just depressed.", "You just need to CARE more!" The fact is, I was depressed. And frustrated, and angry, and self-hating, and even borderline suicidal at times.

So, I had the same reaction you did to diagnosis. "Finally I know what's wrong with me! Now I can fix everything!" The fact is, it took me another 15 years to really come to terms with it and learn how to live in my own head. And learning how to live in your own head is The Key. By that, I mean coming to accept yourself for the way you were born, and learning to organize your life in such a way as to maximize your possibilities of success. I have a few things which I consciously do every day in order to cope.

1) A place for everything and everything in its place. No joke here. This is critical. I literally could not function if I didn't put my [car keys/sun glasses/briefcase/wallet/wife/daughter] in the same spot every day. The days that I skip this step are mired in chaos. So I never skip this step.

2) Make lists. Of everything. On your smartphone, or calendar, or anywhere you're going to consistently check. Need to remember to take your meds? On the list. Need to remember to pick up your child? On the list. Need to remember to wipe your ass? On the list. I admit I don't do this as well as I'd like, but I do find my general level of anxiety is significantly lower the more stuff I've committed to my list.

3) Most important: Cut yourself some slack! I look in the mirror every morning and remind myself to give me a break. I have ADHD. I'm not going to remember everything. I'm not always going to follow up. My mind is going to wander during meetings and conference calls. But that's OK. I try to surround myself with, and rely upon, people who are good at those things. People like you and I are not good at those things. But we are good at other things. Most people with ADHD are very creative thinkers. They tend to see patterns and relationships and interdependencies where others do not. And the ability to shift from task to task without missing a beat can be a real advantage.

Find your own strengths, and put yourself in situations which play to them. Know your limits and accept them for what they are. Our brains will never work the way other people's do, and the more we try to force them to, the unhappier we are. I know this probably doesn't sound very helpful when you're in the midst of the struggle, but over time, I hope it will. Start with accepting yourself and build from there.

Good luck to you.
posted by JeffK at 4:31 PM on October 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

I was diagnosed with ADD/ADHD when I was a young child, but my mother didn't want me to be medicated. I was smart in subjects that I was interested in like math and science, but I had peculiar habits like doodling all over assignments and daydreaming.

I was adamant that ADD/ADHD was a bunch of baloney for years. I thought it was an excuse for laziness, but that all changed when I began trying to forge a career in sports writing. For three years, I wrote extensively about specific sports on one of the most popular sports blogs on the Internet. In classic fashion, I burned out quickly and grew bored, something that always occurred in almost every pursuit of mine except my career in web development. Then I realized that my mind seemed clouded at times while at others... the words just flowed and the beauty of the written word was exposed for all of my mind to see.

Why was there a difference? I began to somewhat consciously see all of the signs. I would drift off and get majorly distracted when I was supposed to be writing. I began seeing other classic symptoms that I never attributed to ADHD, just thought it was a quirk of my personality or mind.

I'm forgetful, and not just a little bit forgetful... so forgetful that I will forget something I was told 5 seconds ago if it had no interest to me. This happens daily. It's very hard for me to focus, I get bored instantly with some tasks, hardly ever listen, somewhat slow to understand information that is given to me, ramble on when explaining things to people, the list goes on and on. Here's some tips:

1. Don't act like ADHD is a debilitating condition. For all the trouble it has caused me, ADHD also has benefits. When you're interested in something, the hyperfocus that it can give you is amazing. I have also noticed that when you truly care, it isn't superficial, but deep and meaningful.

2. As JeffK said... a place for everything is a smart idea. I don't actually follow this and I'm fairly disorganized, so I can see why this would be something I should do as well.

3. Lists. I just started making lists for everything at work, and I also use Google Tasks on my phone. Lifesaver, especially when you can set reminders to alert you.

4. Exercise is a must. I actually gained about 40 lbs. last winter, so I needed to shed some weight anyways. Added benefit was that my mind was much clearer after working out, and I actually solved some of my most difficult programming issues from work while working out. I could literally feel my mind opening up and relieving itself of any blocks I had.
posted by MMALR at 4:45 PM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I eat a lot of protein, which sure helps me, as does exercise. I also use Manilla to help me figure out when bills are do, Google Calendar with alerts, and I carry a notebook to make lists. Online banking, too.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:53 PM on October 29, 2012

Computers don't forget things. So Mint, Quickbooks and auto bill pay on accounts. Seriously have an organized friend sit down with you and take a weekend day or two and sort that shit out.

My story:
troubled kid, suspended a lot (worst punishment, "I hate it here" "well then you can't come back!)
near high-school fail-out, (I was rocking a 1.4 GPA at one point)
awkwardly stumbled into a liberal arts degree with tons of help
bounced around until from job to job.
got married
had a kid
started my own business (need a hundred things to do? entrepreneurship is good for that)
make a lot of money being a responsible business guy

totally doable.

The important thing for me is to accept my limitations but never make them external excuses. Because while I need to be careful with myself and not let things get me down, other people simply do not care 98% of the time.

I Outsource whenever possible and get help: a slightly more expensive version of something that requires me to not remember something? I'm paying for that. Admitting that I'd screw it up and wind up paying more anyhow, before I'm in that situation.

I find I often I need help, to stop digging as the first step to get out of a hole.
posted by French Fry at 4:57 PM on October 29, 2012

Everything has it's place is the single most important thing. Important items such as cell get places in plain sight or where they will be in your way. (Put keys in the lock after you come home and lock yourself in - no way you forget your keys when you leave, for example.)

I'm not on meds (yet) and drink insane amounts of caffeine, but that varies from person to person. For me, it has a calming effect and helps me to sleep better. Without 2 Red Bull, I'll stare in the dark and wonder about random things and eventually get up to google them. With caffeine, I fall asleep better and get up after exactly 8 hours. It's magical, but obviously doesn't work for everyone.

I fail big time at making lists, but luckily, you can have others make lists for you. The daily mails from Flylady helped me to get a routine for household stuff. The mails are cheesy and some things don't apply to all households, but if you take it as "reminder - do something in room x", it gets you started.

Again, it's a matter of personal preference: I got rid of all the trinkets and dust catching deco items in my living and working area. Without the sight of a million distractions, it's easier to stay focussed on whatever you try to do. I don't have pictures, posters or any decorations in my work space; just empty walls and what I need for my task. All distracting things (books, DVDs,...) are in closed shelves or other rooms. Minimalism isn't for everyone though.

Make hyperfocus your friend. Make "If I stick with this for 5 more minutes, 5 hours will have passed and the result will be awesome" your mantra.

Find things where it is an advantage to have your mind all over the place. For example, I have an easier time learning languages because my mind is comparing unknown words with a lot more known words and assocciations than other people. There are many other hobbies and professions where "thinking outside the box/in 278 boxes at once" is a big advantage.
posted by MinusCelsius at 5:18 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was diagnosed as a young child, and medicated for most of my life, with the exception of a six-year-long No Good Very Bad Relationship.

During the time that I was *not* medicated, I did hold down a job but it was hard, and more importantly I wasn't really able to make the changes in my life necessary to get out of the No Good Very Bad Relationship. I finally got back on medication when I went back to school and realized just how hard a time I was having _just sitting still_ to write a two page paper in English class (I used a belt to tie myself to my chair for the final paper). That made a big, big difference. You say you're on medication and it's helping, somewhat, and I wonder if you might try a different medication. I took Vyvanse for three days and my mind felt like a LASER BEAM and then I crashed, hard, and it was awful. I take plain old generic adderall (regular release) now, and a tiny dose of Zoloft. It's perfect. Chemicals for brain disorders often need fine-tuning. Get a doc who will help you get on the right meds for you.

Lately, one of the things that I do that has made my life SO FREAKING MUCH BETTER is I set an alarm for very early in the morning, it goes off, I take my meds, and I got back to sleep for an hour. Then I wake up a full four hours before I have to be at work, and this gives me all the time in the world to futz around, misplace things, dither over what I'll wear--- and also do yoga, and catch up on homework or other stuff I didn't get done yesterday. I'm at my most productive in the morning when my meds first hit, so I make sure I take advantage of that time. I don't plan active work after 2:30 pm, and I know I won't get anything done after 7:30. I take plenty of time for myself to just veg out and do nothing in the evening, and I am able to feel like I earned the veg out time because I got so much done before 8am.

Remember that developing the coping mechanisms takes time, and that the hardest thing you have to do is unlearning a lot of coping mechanisms that won't help anymore, that you developed to try and deal with things. The biggest one for me, and I suspect for most ADHD folks, is that inner bully that yells and screams at you to stop being so lazy and to get off your ass and to be better at things. You started doing that to yourself because you were trying to manage yourself, and it worked, maybe, to a point. But now, with the right medication, your brain will have the dopamine levels it needs to stay on task and get stuff done, and the screaming voice in the background is only going to get in the way. It takes time to learn how to stop screaming at yourself and let yourself just go.

My most secret coping mechanism of all, which I will share with Metafilter because I love you guys, is my Dragon Puppet Self-Esteem. I put this guy on my hand and I tell him how I feel and then I have him say to me the things I need to hear. It's silly, it's ridiculous, it works for me when nothing else will. (His voice sounds like the guy from the Five Hour Energy commercials. "Look at you go!")

I'm now in a PhD program and doing just fine. I've definitely made peace with ADHD, and I've disclosed to students and friends when doing so seemed helpful for them. It's a disability, but it's one that I know how to live with, and it doesn't cause me any grief anymore.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 6:22 PM on October 29, 2012 [12 favorites]

I was diagnosed at 19. I was on Ritalin for most of the next 13 years, with occasional forays into other ADD meds and occasionally also Wellbutrin. I'm med-free now (well, except for coffee) and have been for 6 years. I'm 38.

Meds helped, especially at first and especially when I was in college/grad school because I was also working full-time, but I found that I could never force myself to take med holidays, which I really needed to keep from forming a tolerance, so I kept taking more and more Ritalin until I was sometimes taking 80-100 mg/day and I hated it. I developed a heart arrhythmia at 32 from the meds and cut way down, then got a job that required a drug test and stopped taking my meds completely at that point (both because I had a friend who was denied a job due to his -- entirely legal -- positive test for amphetamines, and also because I didn't find a doctor to keep prescribing after a long-distance move to take the job. And I guess also because I was thinking about having a baby and didn't want to be on drugs while pregnant).

I actually think I handle my ADD better -- most of the time -- now that I'm off meds than I ever did while on them, because I'm forced to rely entirely on behavioral solutions and forming good habits. I still have days that I feel very unfocused and don't get anything done, but my bills are always paid and my laundry and dishes don't pile up and I get my work done mostly on time.

So here are the things that I absolutely depend on to keep my life from spinning out of control, in order of importance:

1. Calendar calendar calendar. Every little damn thing goes into my calendar, IMMEDIATELY. I use Google Calendar so I can access it online and from my phone and iPad so I am never without my calendar. I take full advantage of reminders -- sometimes I set more than one reminder. Recurring things, like taking out the trash, working out, regular work meetings, and the kid's music lessons are on there as well as one-off things like meetings and appointments. EVERYTHING I have to do in any given day is on there.

2. Daily exercise. This is so, so, SO important. I had a baby a couple of years ago, so I stopped exercising for a long time and just recently got back to it, and it is really night and day. I have been working out for 45 minutes every workday for the past month, and my productivity, which had been at its lowest point ever, absolutely skyrocketed. I had "forgotten" how much of a difference it made in my life. I arrange things so it's actually more inconvenient to not exercise than to just do my workouts, to force myself to do it, because I really, literally can't function properly without it.

3. Financial software. I use an app on my iPhone that I plugged all my recurring payments into, and my salary, and it's basically a check register in electronic form. I schedule a one-hour block of time (on my calendar! with a reminder set! recurring with no end date!) to pay everything on the first day of the month, which is right after I get paid, so payments are never late. I enter payments into my app as I make them, so I always know exactly how much money I have. I balance this e-register against my actual checking account during my payment session on the first.

4. Healthy, varied diet with lots of protein and minimal sugar/simple carbs. I confess I am not doing quite as well with this one right now, again because of the new kid, but I do know that when I'm eating "clean" with lots of veggies, whole grains, and good proteins, it really helps with keeping my mind clear, particularly in the afternoons.

Don't get me wrong, I probably couldn't have gotten where I am today professionally without taking meds at first, but the behaviors and habits I've developed feel like a more sustainable long-term solution to me, which seems like what you're looking for, so there you go. I have a lot of things going on in my life but they all seem manageable and not overwhelming. Of course there are times when I just can't deal with things, but I have a system which makes sure that the really important stuff gets done no matter what, and that keeps me from getting too far off-track.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:28 AM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I guess I should also add:

5. ENOUGH SLEEP. If I didn't get enough sleep the night before, no amount of exercise or good diet will counteract it, and I'm just an unproductive mess. Though I still have my calendar, so everything that needs to get done still gets (maybe badly, but still) done.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:59 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I'm just now realizing that you want stories of how it was and how it is now. Haha, missed that, thanks ADD.

One of my doctors said I was the worst case of ADD he'd ever seen (GP, not psychiatrist). Got in trouble all through school for talking in class, not paying attention, not doing assigned work. In 6th grade I got kicked out of the Academically Gifted Program for not doing a project that required planning and sustained effort. Got kicked out of college for academic deficiency (GPA 1.3) though I knew -- everyone knew -- I was plenty smart enough. I just had NO skills at all for dealing with college, because I WAS smart enough to get through high school without having to actually apply myself -- I'd do homework 5 minutes before class and I would get good grades. Had terrible credit in my twenties because I had no idea how to manage money or pay bills or make phone calls to deal with it.

I think my answer above has a lot of the after, but basically, I now work full-time in a professional position which requires a masters degree, I have a toddler and a stable marriage, and I mostly have my finances under control (I still sometimes have trouble with impulsive spending and sticking to a budget). I still do a lot of ADD things -- like multitasking, like reading Metafilter when I should be working (what I wouldn't give to be able to install an Internet timer/blocker on my work computer, it would make me so much more productive) -- but I feel like I am pretty successful at life now. Probably some of it was growing up, but a lot of it was trying things to see if they helped or not, until I had a system set up that works for me. And honestly, there is momentum to it, too -- once you're rocking your finances, or rocking your career, or whatever and you know what it's like, you don't want to go back to feeling overwhelmed. Or at least I didn't.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:51 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

n-thing everything upthread. My story goes like this:

Was diagnosed around the time I turned 40. Put on a nice methylphenidate n' Prozac cocktail which worked wonders, because as we all know, you don't just get the ADHD you also get the freaky-deaky social side also. I'd get so socially anxious sometimes my answers in conversation would come out like word salad or wood blocks.

Growing up, I didn't even know there WAS something like ADHD. I just thought I had an "artist's temperament", and chalked up all the underachieving grades, forgotten dates, and half-finished everything as "just my usual spaceshot flaky artist self."

The day I got on my meds was like waking up in an alternate reality. I could FINISH SIMPLE TASKS. Read an entire magazine. Remember where my car keys were. Yadda yadda.

The trick is to USE your dysfunction. Get into improv theater. Go find places where lightning-quick mental responses are VALUED rather than discouraged. I love my ADHD sometimes - it's like you can instantly turn on a dime in your head and be endlessly responsive and creative.

You CAN own it and live well with it - therapy and meds definitely help. Don't beat yourself up - just know that you're wired differently than the other subway riders and USE it to your advantage. Most people in this world sleepwalk through endless iterations of SAMESSAMESAME - isn't it kind of cool to always be changing?

I believe in you. Now go kick ass.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 5:13 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Posting this on behalf of my brother, who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult but has since gone on to get an engineering degree from the University of Waterloo:

"1) So you've got ADHD. The same thing that causes you trouble when you want to focus is the exact same thing that allows you to think outside the box with an ease that average folk will never know. It's your super power so go use it for good.

2) Don't bother with regular self help stuff. That's not your problem and almost none of it will work for you. Looking through ADHD help tips is a good place to start. It's also amusing to experiment with your environment eg. noise level, time of day (when you do the activity), diet, exercise, and watch how your performance changes.

3) There's a good chance that you'll go way above and beyond for a little morsel of approval. Everybody else with ADHD is the same way, deal with it. If you're in the work force, communicate to your employer that any kind of negative reinforcement or punishment is going to have a detrimental effect on your performance. Positive reinforcement on the other hand is like crack cocaine.

4) Willpower is bull. You don't have any which is fine cause nobody has as much as they think. I don't have a link to the peer reviewed journal article but it's fact that everyone overestimates how much willpower they have. Find other ways to motivate yourself, like gratitude. If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you've got quite a lot to be grateful for. Got a task that's hard to do or it really sucks? Be grateful that you're not dying of starvation in a 3rd world country and that you have the opportunity to do it and learn from it. Working from the perspective of gratefulness makes things much easier to do.

5) For myself personally, I had the resources to be able to hire a lifecoach. Think about it, every pro athlete has a coach, why shouldn't you? I was fortunate enough to land one that suited me perfectly on my first try, you may have to try out more than one. I moved to a different province and so I switched coaches and ended up reversing some of the gains I'd made. I started skyping the first coach and got back on track.

6) Your brain is probably awesome at zeroing in on everything you've done wrong.. ever. Try focusing on the things you did right today instead. Make a list of all the things that you're good at. Make another list of all the things in your life that you like. Add a few items to that second list every day. Think about your day. If you're not dead, then you did something right today. There was probably something you did that made you proud of yourself. This is good. Dwell on it. Doesn't matter how big or small the thing you did right was, wallow in your pit of awesome. Revel in that sensation of having done good. When you do something that makes you proud, write it down. Look that list over at the end of the day and again at the end of the week. See that, you're pretty awesome."
posted by Monster_Zero at 8:28 AM on October 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't have a personal story, but things that helped an ADHD person in my life tremendously at some point were:
- The Feingold diet
- Daily exercise
- Mindfulness. (Exercises in, meditations, yoga, music, alone time, whatever does it for you.)
- No caffeine.
- Using aps on the phone to set alarms and reminders for various things.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 8:59 AM on November 2, 2012

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