ADHD, Daily Life, and Missed Opportunities: I’m Not Actually an Introvert or Antisocial

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I realized I haven’t done much writing about how ADHD impacts my daily life and all the simple, little ways it causes some serious heartache. To be honest, I’m just becoming conscious of it, myself. Or rather, there are things I used to beat myself up for or just accept as how things are, but I’m finally learning that it doesn’t have to be this way.

This week, I had to schedule two meetings (one phone call and one either a phone call or in-person meeting). They’re meetings for things I’m REALLY passionate about and eager to be a part of. One is an opportunity I’ve been wanting to go after for at least a decade (volunteering with the Red Cross Disaster Response Team), and the other is a potentially amazing project that I’m excited and flattered to be a part of. But no matter how much excitement I have for anything, I often get stopped short when it’s time to be on the phone or meet people. I’ve ruined or let many chances pass me by with my fear and inability to pick up the phone or deal with the prospect of making a concrete plan and setting aside time.

When we met, my husband loved that I was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of girl and never tried to plan his weekends out for him. I was (am) spontaneous and up for just about anything if it’s in that exact moment. But the dark side of it is that I rarely stick to things and have trouble making plans when necessary. (Ask him how many tickets we’ve purchased for things I couldn’t rouse myself for when the time came. Everything  sounds like a good idea at the moment! And if I could do it at that moment, it would happen. But I can’t force concerts and people and events and festivals to bend around my mercurial desires, can I?) The dark side of my spontaneity is that I can only be spontaneous, otherwise I have time to rethink and overthink everything and change my mind. Of course, often the things you initially love about your partner in the beginning become the things that make you crazy as you settle in. He thought my spontaneity was refreshing at first… I’m spontaneous, constantly searching for “new” and “novel”, I seek excitement, and if I come up against something that doesn’t work, my attitude is, “Let’s burn it all down and start over!” I think it’s fun! But it turns out that HIS issues are on the completely opposite end of the spectrum. He craves stability and routine. He likes plans, he likes to know what’s going to happen, he has a really hard time changing course, and if something doesn’t work or makes him unhappy, he’s more likely to just accept it until he’s forced to do otherwise because change makes him anxious. It’s an interesting dynamic—I could definitely stand to be more reliable, and though my ADHD brain detests routine, it also craves it. I’m working hard to create more structure and routine in my days because I see how much better off I’d be. Conversely, he can see the benefit in being more flexible and learning to go with the flow.

But as I was saying, I had to schedule a couple things this week, and that’s no small feat for me. If you don’t have ADHD, you’re probably thinking, “So what’s the big deal? Just make a decision to pick up the phone or make a plan.” My brain doesn’t work like that. I get really anxious about sending the emails to solidify plans. It’s HARD. Moving forward is hard, making plans for an unforeseeable future (even if only days away) is hard, and knowing that those plans involve a form of socializing and talking to new people is even harder. I’ll tell you honestly–under normal (old) circumstances, I probably would have flaked or avoided scheduling for so long that the other people would have given up on me. It’s paralyzing. (I still sometimes dodge meetings with people I know, but if I know you, then I have the additional anxiety of making you angry. The latter is bigger, so I show up.) But this time, I was able to send the emails about scheduling because I have help. I sent the emails early in the morning before my ADHD medication kicked in because I knew that when the time came to follow through, my medication would give me the support and boost that I need to get up and go when it’s time. I’ll still need to set an alarm to get me moving–my avoidance tactics and old habits are deeply embedded. But the meds quell the racing thoughts, which in turn quell my social anxiety (and overall anxiety), and give me the focus to climb the hurdles and move forward. It pains me to see all the misinformation out there about stimulant medication for ADHD. The Adderall XR has been a miracle for me. It fills a deficit. The medication itself isn’t changing my life and making me super focused, it’s simply a tool to lift me up to the level of “normal” people who are trying to make changes in their life. I have a fighting chance now.

And let me stop you right there if you’re mentally running through a list of things I should try or some version of I should “just try harder.” Or my favorite, “If you wanted it badly enough, you’d do it.” That’s simply not true. And when you say these things to someone with ADHD, you reinforce negative messaging about them being lazy and unmotivated.  I chose medication because I have tried everything else. I’ve been trying my entire life, and nothing has worked. Ironically, I’m incredible at finding creative solutions for things. My motto is, “I’ll figure it out!” If someone needs something from me, when the pressure pushes me to act, there is nothing that I can’t do. I love problems and challenges. But this? Motivating myself to do things without pressure and chaos? Following through? Climbing over my social anxiety to accomplish things for myself? I’ve attacked it from every angle. I’ve even paid large amounts of money to take yoga-style life coach workshops that help you slowly create new habits over ten weeks. That workshop pissed me off and made me feel even worse about myself—the other people in the group were raving about all the changes they were making and how helpful the course was. I kept thinking, “You people are full of shit—this isn’t helping anyone!” I didn’t understand how everyone else was having so much success with each of the steps. I thought they were being disingenuous or imagining things. It was just another thing I blew money on and felt like I failed at.

The thing with ADHD is that you’re mostly motivated by things like fear and stress. I do really good work for people, because I have deadlines or emails asking me when it will be done. I graduated from the University of Washington Magna cum Laude by writing ten-page papers the night before they were due. I’m amaaaaaaaaaazing under pressure. When I work with someone, they generally love me. I’m responsible, conscientious, hard-working, creative, and a perfectionist. I can be like that because I become anxious, am afraid of failing, afraid of doing a bad job, or realize that the deadline is an hour away, and I better get my ass in gear. The problem is that I’m not capable of nor know how to make decisions or get things done without chaos, and that means I don’t know how to do things for myself. It also means that I struggle with putting myself out there to GET more work.

People think I’m far more confident and put together than I am—though I joke about it, I’m not really a hermit and introverted and antisocial, but I’ve cultivated this outward appearance to hide the mess, so to speak. In my “resting state,” I talk at the speed of light, and I talk a lot. I get excited and go off, and since everything reminds me of something else, I can change topics ten times in ten minutes and eventually circle right back around to where I started. I used to say I was an open book, but really, I just get too personal and say things I should probably filter.

In the past couple weeks of taking the Adderall, I’ve been doing things that seemed really uncharacteristic of me. I’ve been less anxious and hypervigilant of myself, which means I’ve been pretty chatty and social… and, as I told my husband, “I’ve been talking people’s ears off, and I just don’t give a shit.” When I say, “I don’t give a shit,” I don’t mean that in a rude way towards the other people—what I mean is I’ve been relaxed enough to just engage without my brain going, “Shut up shut up shut up shut up, Nikki.” I’ve voluntarily spoken to strangers during my walks in the woods! I’ve smiled at cashiers’ chatter without secretly wishing I could staple their lips together. I was unusually patient with the crowds on Halloween. It’s really hard to focus and be relaxed when there are five hundred channels blasting in your head at once. The Adderall turns off 99 percent of those channels so that I can focus, stay in the moment, and not rage at everyone for causing sensory overload.

The Adderall is, in many ways, allowing me to be “me” again. I remembered that I used to be very “bubbly,” and if you know me now, this is kind of funny to imagine, right? But I was! I used to be bubbly and outgoing and social and seriously extroverted. An ex-boyfriend credited me with helping to grow his business because when I started networking with him, I talked to everyone, and he suddenly seemed approachable. (No exaggeration. Many of our friends told me outright that they used to think he was an asshole, but then I showed up and helped everyone get to know him. Their first assessment was right though, he was an asshole. “LOL,” as they say.)

What happened? Before I met my husband, I was with that particular ex-boyfriend and then a rebound relationship, both in Prague. My ex was emotionally abusive (lying, cheating, the whole kaboodle), and it culminated in him throwing me down and choking me. I could write an entire novel about the nervous breakdown I had during my last eighteen months living in Prague. My life was a shit-show. It only got worse when I leapt into a rebound relationship with a Czech military policeman that also turned abusive. He called me names, said things about how my parents must be so angry and disappointed to have such a crazy daughter like me, and cornered me to stop me from leaving the apartment several times. Once, he sat on me to pin me down and steal my phone in order to cut me off from friends and get my father’s phone number. It was ugly and yeah, I’m in a place now where I can see how it traumatic it was. But there was always a part of me—and there still is—that felt it was all my fault. I grew up being told that I was “too much,” “too sensitive,” “too intense.” My emotions have always been BIG.  (This is also an aspect of ADHD. Our executive function is impaired, and there’s weaker function and structure of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is a big player in regulating emotions.) So I believed that it was my fault, and that I caused the men in my life to act like this. (I’m sure these particular ones still do believe that. Though I’ve since come to terms with the fact that I seek out these familiar patterns. I don’t cause them to act like that, but I do seek out people who act like that.)

So once I left Prague, got married, and had my son, I was determined to do things differently. I couldn’t blow up my life again.  So I shut down and closed myself off. My social anxiety soared, and I obsessively monitored myself. It’s exhausting, so I suddenly found myself declaring that I was an introvert and liked being shut away at home away from people. I thought this was me. It was easy to forget that it wasn’t. Over the last decade, I’ve worked hard in therapy to process the trauma of my past (which goes far beyond those two relationships), but the anxiety and patterns have stuck.

I used to be a networking star. I could talk to anyone about anything and be genuinely interested in what they were saying. People liked me, and that’s how I found work. I was never at a loss for connections and job offers in those days. In person is where I shine, but in the past several years I’ve been stuck sending out resumes and filling out impersonal job applications, and I just suck at that. I do! And that’s ok. But because I’ve shut myself down and don’t network or make new connections regularly, I have had an embarrassingly hard time finding more work. It’s a vicious cycle—the difficulty has been yet another blow to my self-esteem, which makes it even harder still to get out there and do what I do best.

I want to work more. I need to work more. I crave structure and deadlines and challenges and projects and more social time with teams and clients. Nothing I’ve tried has helped me get over this hump…

Until now. Since starting the Adderall XR, I’ve been chattier and friendlier in emails to recruiters. I can see them responding to me differently. I’m less afraid of and more amicable to phone calls. I have the ability to focus long enough to fill out lengthy profiles and applications and the clarity to begin redoing my “work(ish)” website. My husband has said that I seem “lighter.” I’m better able to regulate my emotions and respond after a lifetime of just reacting to everything. I can see clearly. My prefrontal cortex is in charge. I feel myself opening up again and returning to the person I really feel that I am. I’m less afraid, socially, and back to being someone who can charge in and make my case and not worry about  making a fool of myself.

And yeah. I’m like this on the medication. I will always need to be on the medication to focus and get things done if there’s no external pressure driving me. But learning to regulate and be less afraid (and more me) while  on the medication creates new neural pathways and teaches me to do the same when I’m not on the medication.

I know how hard it is to wrap your mind around it all if you don’t have ADHD or live with someone who does. Believe me, it’s been really hard for me to understand why I can’t just do things I want to do. Luckily, I studied neurobiology for a while and I understand the mechanics. It’s frustrating when people dismiss this because they don’t understand it. Here’s the deal: your brain doesn’t run on willpower. It’s a complex system of neurotransmitters combined with communication and activity across all your lobes. Free will is… well, that’s a debate we could have for hours, but even if you believe in free will entirely, it still has its limits. You don’t go to sleep and wake up just be deciding to do so; it’s a process that’s tightly controlled by hormones and several moving parts (including the sun!). It’s like telling someone who’s depressed to just look on the bright side. That’s not how brains and people and emotions work.

So while I’m excited to be able to tackle some big ideas, thanks to ADHD medication, that’s not the biggest or most exciting part. I chose to take it because it helps me function in the day-to-day. It helps with all the mundane parts of life that most people take for granted. The  medication is helping to clear away all the clutter and noise so that I can really be “me” again.

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