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Focused Chaos

A journey toward understanding my neurodiverse brain

Jul 05, 2021 – by Elaine Hancock

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”

— Mary Shelley

I didn’t get diagnosed with ADHD until well into my thirties, and I wasn’t even looking for it.

I excelled in school from kindergarten through high school, and apart from some hiccups in college, my fairly smooth success followed me into my design career. I don’t say this to brag. While certain achievements have come without too much stress, I’ve consistently struggled with human relationships. I’m not sure why I never tried to figure out why that area of my life has been so much harder. 

I don’t remember a time I didn’t feel like an outsider; that I didn’t belong. I grew up in an upper-middle-class community plucked out of a John Hughes movie, but my family was proudly anti-materialistic and valued intellectual and creative pursuits over everything else. For a long time I thought I felt different because I wasn’t rich or thin, didn’t like boys, had glasses, and was loud and nerdy on top of it all.

photo of 5th grade kid in her bedroom
Me in my bedroom, circa 1988

Little did I know that my prefrontal cortex was my biggest inner saboteur. It’s the part of the brain responsible for thinking, regulating behavior and decision making. My experience is commonly shared by folks with ADHD because many of us struggle with focus, memory and impulsivity. I interrupt people without realizing it, get distracted by my surroundings, and am an incredibly non-linear communicator. I exhaust even myself sometimes, so I can’t imagine what it must feel like on the other side.

Beyond communication differences, the particular configuration of our brains can make us feel confused and overwhelmed at things that don’t trip others up. For me, an unorganized closet or making plans can send me into a week-long tailspin, but I’m laser focused for a client deadline or important presentation.

photo of tangled yarn

There is a common perception that ADHD is over diagnosed, but it should come as no surprise that children assigned female at birth are typically under diagnosed. The criteria is outdated and research has historically focused on symptoms seen in young people assigned male at birth, like fidgeting or hyperactivity. It tends to manifest in more subtle, internal ways for those of us assigned female at birth. For a deep dive into those nuances, ADDitude has a great article that reviews the less obvious symptoms that are often overlooked. 

My own diagnosis arrived in the middle of a couples therapy session. My ex and I didn’t make sense on an absurd number of levels, but we weren’t ready to end things. Our therapist unceremoniously began asking me a list of questions and I felt like she had cracked open my spaghetti bowl of a brain. After I enthusiastically answered yes to every single one, she generously told me that I *might* have ADHD. Thus began my journey towards understanding my magical, exhausting brain. 

periwinkle photo of a winding road

I began devouring information. I found all the websites and bought all the books. (I didn’t read most of the books.) I learned about synapses and neurotransmitters, and discovered that it all stems from a dysregulation of the dopamine system. 

I realized that everyone else’s brain doesn’t feel like a leaky roof. That some people can effortlessly start a task and see it through to the end. I also learned that I don’t actually have trouble being able to focus at all, but rather directing my focus where I need it to go, which explains why I don’t have trouble when challenged by something I’m genuinely interested in. 

I learned about stimulation. When I’m understimulated, I get bored and restless, which makes it hard to focus. When I’m overstimulated, the fog sets in and I can’t see my way from Point A to Point B — let alone Point A to Point Z.

I also learned what I was good at.

As a teenager I was obsessed with photography, and proceeded to fall deeply in love with graphic design while floundering in undergrad. It was the perfect match for my imaginative, mercurial mind. Thanks goddess for the grid! I had the structure that I craved. I could be expressive and choose to break rules when I wanted, but I had a foundation to keep me grounded. I feel so fortunate to have found a career that matched my skills and interests, and provided me some stability. I watched so many friends struggle to find their career footing, and I relished the fact that I had found design.

blue and tan hand drawn grid

I got my first salaried position in my twenties. It challenged me professionally and I welcomed the routine and stability of the in-house environment. I couldn’t manage to organize a damn thing in my personal life, but I found my way getting promoted twice within five years. I was proud of myself and I felt successful.” But on the flipside, I was so consistently late that my manager had me change my schedule to start an hour later than everyone else. I was mortified. There’s nothing like the walk of shame at your job. This was years before my diagnosis, and I didn’t understand why I had so much trouble managing my time in the mornings. 

After a decade of therapy and medication I’ve managed to be *less* late, but that feeling haunted me for a long time. I’m lucky that I had such a supportive boss, because I could have easily gotten let go and it would have devastated me.

brown and blue photo of moon phases

I recently shifted my career from design to strategy — from creating artifacts to wrangling ideas and crafting language. The challenge of this new medium has been incredibly rewarding and intimidating. I second guess myself all the time, but am wildly fulfilled when I start to deeply integrate my new knowledge and techniques. Working with the smartest, most clever team inspires me to level up project after project, and I get to immerse myself in new worlds with the bravest, badass clients. 

I can’t say what will get my neurons firing 20 years from now, but I know I’ll be that much closer to finding peace with my whole self. 

If this has spoken to you, consider reaching out to a therapist. Medication has done wonders for me but isn’t for everyone, and I take a holistic approach to finding balance:

  • You Mean I’m not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy?! (a classic)
  • A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD (a game changer)
  • Talk Therapy (an ADHD specialist if you can find one)
  • Medication (fordepression + anxiety, which are common comorbidities)
  • Yoga (helps me get out of my head and into my body)
  • Acupuncture (really helps with anxiety)
  • Meditation (I love TM)
  • Singing (so cathartic and it helps me feel connected to others)
  • CBD (I like these for anxiety and chilling out my noggin)
  • Swimming (my happy place)
  • My Wife (she’s a Capricorn, need I say more?)

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

— Sun Tzu