Part II: Playing Pretend – ADHD and Creative Living

Neon sign on vines that says breathe

We left off at the beginning of a very dark chapter.

In 2016, I spent a solid four months on the couch. My depression had progressed to a point of catatonic. I had given up. Expectations piled up around me, and I simply slept them away. I could avoid everyone’s judgement and the extreme guilt of not being able to function at a basic level by slipping into a beautiful, quiet sleep. 

I had quit my day job to pursue my photography business full-time – which was exciting, for the first week. And then the burden of basic daily functional requirements set in. I struggled to get up in the morning without a physical office to go to (and the lack of external accountability), which fueled fights with my at-the-time husband, and desperate pleading with him to believe that I could do this. I had ideas falling out of my head like popcorn – I had the tools, and the technique, but I couldn’t sit down for more than 15-minutes to do any of the work. So I slept. And slept more. And I missed out on a full season of my life, believing that I was simply useless.

This was a period of situational chaos going on behind the scenes that would only make sense in years to come. Looking back, I had no idea that ADHD was a constant fuel keeping my depression burning. From what I’ve read, depression and anxiety are incredibly common alongside ADHD, as there is so much shame and guilt tied to being unable to execute basic day-to-day tasks, leading to a build up of emotions and mental anguish that has nowhere to go.

By mid-2017, I had separated from my husband, moved back in with my parents for six months, and literally went back to basics. I was working a part-time job alongside my full-time business, where the environment was uplifting and generally low-stress. I had gone back to my naturopath and General Practitioner (GP) to take control of my health and well-being. I became reconnected with friends and family. I had taken a trip to Portland, OR, alone, and met friends that would become pillars of strength across the continent. 

It was as if the lights had turned back on – very slowly, not all at once, but as if a dimmer switch had been pulled upward. Curiously, I still hadn’t come to terms with my ADHD diagnosis – it wasn’t even on my radar. My only priority was feeling whole again. Recovering from severe depression is such a slippery slope, but day by day, I slowly gained back some confidence and strength. I like to consider depression a life long friend that lives across the country. They will visit, sometimes for weeks at a time, but not all the time. And when they visit, you try to welcome them and accept them for what they are. And wish them well when they leave.

When I met my now partner Jon, I remember opening up to him about my depression and anxiety. He had sisters that had gone through their own seasons of struggle and he could relate. He had never had depression or anxiety himself, but he could empathize with what I had been struggling with.

It would take another year, but it was as if one day I simply woke up, and remembered that day with my naturopath so many years ago. Like an echo of a memory that forced its way to the front of the crowd. I began to research adult ADHD in women, specifically, knowing that symptoms and treatment are different based on age and sex. 

And more lights came on. 

The feeling of validation and understanding you get when you realize you are not alone? I couldn’t get enough of it. The more I read, the more I smile-cried, and the more I realized the years of my life that had passed by with such struggle had a reason. The struggle had a name. And what’s better, it had a plan to fight back. I began to create a toolkit of knowledge with each article I read, and soon, I had locked in a piece of my persona that had been under question my entire life. My diagnosis was a blessing. My diagnosis was release.

Before opting to medicate, I’m arming myself with holistic and logistical tactics. It’s so interesting to notice the coping mechanisms I’ve put in place over the years, not realizing that without them, I’d be completely sunk. 

For starters, my calendar is a non-negotiable. If an appointment or reminder isn’t in my calendar, it’s simply not happening. Colour coding, repetition and notifications are all key to force-function my brain into action. The number one struggle for those with ADHD is the lack of executive function execution. Essentially, the triggers to your brain that those without ADHD have; the triggers to tell them to brush their teeth, pick up their clothes, take their vitamins, brush their hair; these cues don’t come as easily for those with ADHD, if at all. 

I’ve been known to put reminders into my calendar to brush my teeth, if I know that I’m going to have a very busy week with late nights. It’s not that I don’t take hygiene as a priority – it’s that my brain sometimes forgets the trigger to remind me to actually do the thing

I also work incredibly hard to predict my downfalls before they happen and mitigate accordingly. Setting out items the night before to ensure they get packed. Marking bills in my calendar a week before they’re due, just in case. 

Asking close friends to remind me about an event or hangout so it’s on my radar long before the, “Oh shit, I forgot,” phase. Setting timers for tasks I know I hate, so that I have a reward of a coffee or an episode of Parks and Rec after completing the task. It’s a giant game of tricking my brain into getting shit done.

One of the biggest tactics I’ve learned, beyond all efficiency hacks and procrastination preventions, is to practice patience. In myself, and in others. And with patience comes vulnerability and asking for help. I am very quick to communicate needs to my loved ones when I’m in a hurricane of overwhelm. Sometimes, just vocalizing the stress allows for everything to seem a bit clearer. Life feels simply easier with support by your side. Patience takes practice, but it’s the only way to get through the day unscathed.

While it’s harder for me than others to get some things done, any weakness comes with its strengths. I am creative and a “big idea” factory. I have learned to write down ideas to look at later, rather than falling down every new rabbit hole that pops up. I frequently find myself hyper-focusing when a task requires a lot of specific attention or detail, such as photo editing or reading a book I just can’t put down. 

I can multitask like a beast, and I work incredibly well in a crisis – the more stimulation, the better. I’m working on channeling the feeling of being, “too much,” into a feeling of being, “just enough” – using my mouth to make others laugh and tell stories. 

I talk a lot; it’s who I am. And I’m learning that ADHD is just as much a part of my character as the colour of my eyes. It’s all about turning a struggle into a superpower. Taking one day at a time, and having patience with myself and others. 

When I leave a half eaten muffin inside the hall closet, know that I was clearly on a thought-high that distracted me from completing that task. When I take an hour to get back to your text message, know that it’s most likely because I responded mentally right away – but apparently you can’t read minds, and that’s fine. 

There is a piece of me that will always feel shame and guilt for not living up to the expectations of others. But at some point, when I surround myself with friends and family who could care less about my mess and more about my heart, the light shines brighter than the shadows.

The only expectations I need to meet are my own. And I am so okay with that.

Photo of Hilary Spencer wearing a grey t-shirt and sweater, with dark rimmed eye glasses. She is turned to face the right side of the frame, smiling towards the top right corner, with her eyes closed.
Photo by: Hilary Spencer

Written by Hilary Spencer, wedding and portrait photographer hanging out in Toronto.

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