I suspect it’s unusual to react to a medical diagnosis with joy, feeling at last vindicated for nearly every failure you’d committed in your life up to that moment. But that was how it went for me.
When the doctor gave my condition a name, a stadium-sized cheer erupted from deep within the recesses of my soul. The innumerable struggles I’d experienced my entire life flooded back to me freshly illuminated by the revelation. I imagined I heard a faint, collective groan of remorse issuing from every schoolyard bully, ex-boyfriend, and Catholic school nun who’d ever harassed, harangued, or stigmatized me for my inability to meet their approval.
I’d just learned that I possessed a neurodevelopmental abnormality that afflicts 4% of adults in America. My undiagnosed Inattentive Type Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder was likely the underlying factor behind a lot of heartache and suffering I’d encountered pretty much as far back as I can remember, in too many manifestations to recount.
Nearly every character who played a major role in my life story had misinterpreted the symptoms as flaws I’d cultivated myself and that I alone should take charge of fixing. I deemed myself unfit to inhabit a world I was doomed to stumble through while everyone around me seemed to glide by effortlessly. Immediately following my diagnosis, I can see now how obviously the signposts along my life’s path glared: Warning! ADHD! But I grew up at a time when no one knew how to read those signs. It was the 80s. She’s a daydreamer, they’d say with a shrug and a sigh. Case closed.
Sign #1: Born to run
I was a colicky baby miserable at finding herself flung into life as a human being on planet earth. I made that misery apparent via incessant crying, sleep habits bordering on nonexistent, and a stubborn refusal to allow anyone other than my mother to even glance in my direction.
Luckily, my mother loved me despite all that and kept me alive long enough that I learned to walk. Having gained mobility, my misery abated somewhat because it was swapped out for wanderlust. I fled home on foot at every opportunity, devising escape hatches from my crib or playroom, and had a knack for finding a door or window I could jimmy open.
No matter the weather or the death-defying acrobatics required, I’d inevitably succeed in getting outside, whereupon I’d strip down naked and run like hell through the fields until my father got hip to the jailbreak and, glimpsing a blur of pale skin bounding through the alfalfa, apprehended me on his tractor. To this day, he contends I had a spanking-per-day streak that went unbroken for three solid years.
While the threat of corporeal punishment ultimately dissuaded me from running away, I learned that no one could prevent me from romping buck naked through the fields of my own imagination.
And it was in that fictitious field where I eventually dwelled for the majority of my childhood, only emerging when dragged out by force.
Sign #2: When the going gets tough, retreat into an alternate reality
I was lodged dead center between three older and eventually three younger siblings, and our teeming household crackled with discord. But as a middle child with a strong imagination and few responsibilities, I could retreat easily from the tumult, and, for the most part, remember the afternoons of my childhood as languidly paced and full of interior delights.
Outside the mind, life was flung akimbo. We caravanned across the country as dairy farm tenants, moving an average of once a year. My mom had an embroidery circle framed and hung up in our many kitchens of my childhood that featured these words of wisdom: “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going.” It was our reigning philosophy.
We packed up and got going for any location that offered my optimistic father the promise of better lodgings or better returns on the dairy goods he produced. He was a man enamored with his work, a perfectionist who never half-assed a single chore and still hasn’t to this day. He was wildly ambitious for a diary farmer, though, and followed impulses with nary a second thought. He, too, was diagnosed ADHD later on in life.
Eager optimism doesn’t always get its reward, and so the going indeed got tough. At one location, my dad chopped and fed wood into a stove to heat the house in winter; at another, my mom boiled stock pots full of water for baths. We sub-let part of one farmhouse to a young hippie couple who churned their own butter and cooked up great vats of tie-dyed shirts. Our own clothes we procured from older cousins twice a year when we’d make the trek to visit family in Michigan.
No matter what the location, farmhouses were uncannily similar with regard to their invaders: Spiders, mice, and sometimes rats. In Arizona, scorpions menaced the dooryard while massive cockroaches presided over the kitchen. Food sources originating beyond our own livestock and garden were so rare, we took to stealing. My sisters ran two miles to the nearest neighbor’s house to sneak popsicles from the deep freeze in their garage, and I took to shoplifting candy any time we visited town.
My father, too, was a scarcity. When he did appear, weary and raw from work and elements, he was a sleeping bear we tiptoed around lest we get bitten. After devouring his dinner, he’d usually perked up long enough to fool around with his rambunctious litter of kids, but by nightfall the bear would often reawaken. And when that happened, my parents growled and roared during vicious arguments lasting half the night. They divorced by the time I was nine.
My pack of siblings teemed with all the appeal of a mosquito swarm. Older siblings built complicated power structures among themselves involving chore duties, privacy, and competition for parental affection. Younger siblings yowled noisily, yanked my hair, broke my toys. I retreated from them to seek out quiet places: A rooftop, a cupboard, an unoccupied corner of a chicken coop. There I’d enter the intricate, enchanting world in my head where an endless stream of stories shook past like freight trains. All I had to do was arrive at the edge of the tracks, find a handhold, and hurl myself aboard. Then off I’d go into the Dreamland.
Sign #3: Present in body only
If I was unaware that the real world carried on around me, my mother was hyper aware of my physicality as I stumbled blindly through it. She was a mother to many, but devoted an especially attentive eye to my whereabouts. Wandering the ruts, rafters, and stalls of farms was, in itself, a risky habit. But doing so while in a trance was to practically court death. I had many close calls, in fact, and scars still visible today with their origins in daydream wandering. My earliest memory of waking from such a trance wasn’t one of those brushes with death, but it may as well have been, if judged by the speed of my mother’s reaction.
I remember with an almost disturbing clarity the day we moved into a new farmhouse in Maryland, although I couldn’t have been more than four years old. Busy as the day must have been for her, my mother’s well-trained ear nevertheless pricked up at the faraway sound of me sobbing. Whatever she’d been doing – unwrapping glasses in the kitchen or nursing my baby sister or ferreting out something for dinner – she abandoned it and dashed immediately toward the sound of my cries.
Compared to the boxy ranch home we’d just left in Arizona, the Maryland house loomed gigantic. It was a colonial with towering white columns bearing a second story wraparound porch, and when I stood beneath that regal canopy on the front steps of our new home, I saw it as a castle-like structure, so it was easy for me to slip into a story with a royal kingdom as its setting.
I call it a story but, in my mind, the tale I imagined was very real, and I was the actor at its epicenter. My father, the king, had been in the midst of battle when an enemy succeeded in landing a sword between his ribs, piercing his heart and ending his life in an instant. Back at the castle, a messenger delivered me news of his death, and I fell to my knees in a pile of eviscerated nerves, my own heart pierced by grief’s sharp blade. His death meant I would ascend at once to the throne. Wracked by pained sobs, I took the weight of the crown on my head and stood high on the steps above my subjects to address them as their new queen. I hoped my words would stoke confidence in my strength as a ruler, but inside I was a scared little girl standing at the precipice of an abyss. I was so caught up in this pretend world that I wailed loudly in the real one. The anguished cry escaped my lips in a way you’ll recognize if you’ve ever woken from a nightmare to the sound of your own frightened screams.
My mother sprinted, rounded the corner of the house, and found me with arms raised in the manner of royal address, a pilfered sheet draped around my shoulders, wailing to an audience of hens. Tears streamed down my face, making clean lines through days of road dirt from our cross-country moving trip. My eyes squeezed shut against the thing I’d imagined and the idea of a family member—a parent—dying. At such a young age, death was no doubt an entirely new concept.
Mother shook me until my eyes popped open in confusion, and after discerning I wasn’t hurt, she pulled me onto her lap to comfort me and figure out what her oddly melodramatic daughter was carrying on about this time. She guessed that I was missing our old life in Buckeye—the friends we’d left behind, our church, potlucks with MaryAnn and Sam on Sunday afternoons, the rim of gray mountains on the horizon that seemed to cradle the town in its embrace. I realize now this was probably my mother’s way of articulating her own suffering. I adopted it as my own, telling her that, yes, I’d been crying because I was homesick for the old life we’d left behind.
When my mother ruptured that convincing daydream, I felt a reflex of shame that I’d been caught wearing the queen’s royal cloak. It obviously didn’t belong to me. In reality, I’d only been wearing a sheet or a thin blanket plucked from an open box in the hallway, but I’d really felt the queen’s cloak on me, its luxurious weight, the brush of its fur collar on my neck. I saw its velvet folds ripple down the steps and spill onto the edge of the lawn.
This was one of the first times I can clearly recall that the unnamed place in my head overlapped the place in my present and left its remnants so physically. I felt the cloth but could no longer see it. My mother had never seen it to begin with, and I knew by then there was no use trying to explain, or maybe I didn’t have the words yet. I hadn’t known how to write or read. It wasn’t until much later that I could use drawings, then words, to preserve parts of my pretend world so they could co-exist in reality.
So I wept on, no longer channeling the queen’s grief. I cried from frustration at having been violently amputated from my dreamlike world into this boring insistent one with its distant scratchy radio noise, tractor noise, noise of an open barn door clapping open and shut in the wind, sibling fighting noise drifting from a second story window, all noise that perpetually screeched Pay attention! Get your head out of the clouds! I tried to pay attention, but found that the present offered no handle to grab onto like the enticing freight trains of my daydreams.
Sign #4: Adult impersonation
Three decades passed between that moment on the steps of the Maryland farmhouse and the diagnosis that is so obvious to me now. Each passing year brought new responsibilities and I’d run in the opposite direction to hide inside fantasies. At school, teachers had to clap and stomp to jolt me back to the present, where I’d find myself suddenly surrounded by classmates eyeing me with undisguised disdain. My family moved into town, broke apart, moved again—to Chicago, a living daydream—when my ambitious father landed a white collar job with a dairy chemical manufacturer. I stumbled along. Until only recently, my condition was described as dreamy. Head-in-a-cloud. Hopeless. Bookish. Standoffish. Rebellious. Got-no-common sense. Emotionally unreachable. Easily overwhelmed. Clueless. Gullible. Flaky, forgetful, and flighty. Talented but directionless. About as easy to steer as a herd of cats.
I grew inevitably into an adult but did a horrible job of playing the part. I neglected to open my bills, then arrived home on occasion puzzled to find the electricity out. I drove on empty, then drove on fumes, then wondered why my car had ceased to drive. I took up jobs but quickly abandoned them. I took up college and got a degree after five years of nose-to-the-grindstone, rigorous effort. When I cared deeply enough about a thing—a college course, an affinity for poetry, a fruitful series of books, occasional brushes with romance—I fell into the thing feverishly. The obsession-du-jour pulled me into its vortex like water to a drain until I was birthed out finally, sputtering and gasping for air on the other side.
At age 35, at the official screening, the doctor joked that she could tell I had ADHD by glancing at the questionnaire I’d filled out, never mind examining my actual answers. I’d riddled it with scribbles, second guesses, arrows pointing to explanatory notes in the margins. It reminded me of how once, in kindergarten, a teacher instructed me to put a ring around each correct answer on a worksheet. I’d dutifully circled the answers with beautiful golden rings featuring cut gems, their shine indicated in radiating strokes of yellow crayon. When I was put in a corner for being a “smart aleck,” I was utterly confused. What had I done wrong?
The diagnosis was a turning point. It empowered me to exert control over my chaotic world through strategies puzzled out by neurologists, psychologists, and fellow daydreamers devoted to making Attention Deficit Disorder less … disorderly. I was initially scared to take medication because I thought it would dampen my brain’s ability to generate stories. But with the first tentative dose I learned that fear was unfounded. Many know the experience of getting diagnosed ADHD and tend to describe it using the same timeworn terms, but there really is no other way to describe it: Epiphany. Immediate, monumental clarity. A fog lifting. Realizing suddenly that this is what normal feels like. No wonder everyone else in the world seemed to coast while I lived a Sisyphean existence.
With treatment, life was still a steep hill, but I no longer had a heavy boulder to push on my way to its summit. I tackled tasks and responsibilities diligently. I gathered up the frayed ends of my adult existence and smoothed them into place. I discovered new wellsprings for exploring creative avenues that had previously seemed frustratingly unattainable. I maintain calendars, to-do lists, grocery lists, reminders. I still find these things insufferably boring and wish I didn’t have to do them, but I now regard them as unavoidable obstacles to overcome before arriving at a clearing where the reliable freight trains of my imagination await, beckoning me to adventure.
Sign #5: Residual daydreams
While it might appear that I have this adult thing under control, under my skin I’m the kid with a dirty face and her head in the clouds. I slip up. My imagined calendar might overlap my actual calendar and I miss a deadline. I become discouraged when I make it to the bottom of a pile of mundane tasks only to find them accumulating again as quickly as I’d cleared them. I stay up too late writing or making art, playing in that other world, and suffer the consequences the following morning. I give myself too fully to things that matter little in the wider equation. I still allow pleasure its parade far too often.
I do a lot of writing, some of that being work-oriented writing, which can sometimes be as pleasurable as creative writing with the added bonus of getting paid for it. For me, making art and writing stories will always be like taking a dip in a welcoming ocean that conceals a potentially dangerous undercurrent.
When I finish typing these words, I will force myself to wade out, though. It isn’t too often these days that I drift off and lose track of the shore. After I’ve stopped writing, I’ll take care of a few things I ought to do in my life as a teacher, a mother, a payer-of-bills. I can see better now how the present lays claim to my physical body and how my life in this moment is a point on a continuum between the past and the future. My participation in reality is required so the future can continue to unfold.
Reality is a necessary evil but there’s beauty in it, too. It’s the reality I share with my children, and one I’m determined to make as comfortable as possible for them so they’ll never feel pushed to escape. Where they find delight in fantasy, I hope it’s merely an appendix to the delight they find in reality.
Tomorrow I’ll pick up my son from school and take him to a doctor’s appointment. He’s nine and lives often in an enchanted world made of pixels, lines of code, blocks he manipulates into mere armatures of the grandiose worlds he imagines. He’s so consumed by his personal visual that he struggles to find speech again when I’ve lobbed him from that place. The kid’s a daydreamer. Sometimes I have to clap my hands together to activate his ears.
Tomorrow he’ll half-listen when the doctor questions him to determine if his tendency to drift away can be given a proper name. He’ll wiggle on the exam table paper until it’s a geological map of his frenetic synapses and I nearly snap, frazzled to bits by the noise. But I won’t snap. I will stay in the moment.
On the drive home, we’ll talk about the things we’re always forgetting to tell each other, then adventure separately along the complex railways of our minds. Catching a glimpse of his face in the rearview mirror, perhaps I’ll recognize a faraway look in my son’s eyes, proof he’s hitched a ride to that distant world of his own creation.
I’ve got the wheel, though, and plenty of gas to get home where the utilities are paid up and the fridge contains the ingredients I’ll need to make dinner. His backpack might have a homework sheet or two that will require his full attention later on. Until then, I’ll let him go wander his fields. Once he’s safely asleep, I’ll go once again to wander through mine.