How My ADHD/OCD Fueled My Geekiness—and Why It Took Decades for Me to Get Help
Content note for talk of self-harm.
Broadly recently published an article about how many women with ADHD or other mental disorders aren’t taken seriously because they’re women. They think they’re dumb, or just crazy, whereas boys with ADHD get taken more seriously (or, worse, just excused as being “hyperactive boys”):
In 2013, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 6.4 million children between the ages of 4 and 17 had received an ADHD diagnosis at some point in their lives, up 16 percent since 2007. This is, understandably, terrifying, and has colored the coverage of ADHD in the media, where the current line is that kids (read: boys) are being over-diagnosed and over-medicated. Early clinical studies in the 1970s focused on hyperactive white boys, which shaped the diagnostic criteria we still use today, making it very difficult for girls—let alone women—to get diagnosed if they don’t behave like hyperactive white boys.
The author also goes on to say, rightfully so, that ADHD appears differently in girls than it does in boys: “think less running around a classroom throwing Cheez-Its and more having a nervous breakdown because you lost your passport somewhere in your laundry basket, which is really just a trash bag at the bottom of your closet.”
I can relate to this because for so many years, until I got a proper diagnosis and started to figure myself out, I thought I was crazy, stupid, or just plain “not good enough.” I have ADHD (inattentive type), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder (mild depression). This is what it feels like to live in my brain.
Until I was diagnosed with ADHD at eleven, I thought I was an idiot, because I couldn’t concentrate and I went in and out of detention for not doing my homework. I wasn’t diagnosed with the rest of my disorders until, literally, a week ago. I’m 31. I’ve been dealing with this crap for 31 years.
I have never known a time in which I wasn’t scared of something, or tried to control myself to stop being scared. I’ve been scared of being made fun of. Scared of the dark. Scared a friend was mad at me. Scared a lover would leave me. At my very happiest I still vibrate with a thrum of anticipation that could very easily turn into throttling panic.
When I was a kid I struggled with interacting with the other students in my classes. I was socially awkward, with glasses and hair that rarely got brushed, and the only classes I excelled at were English and music. When I liked something, I liked it a lot. As in, I couldn’t stop looking at, reading, or watching whatever it was that I adored.
I was also obsessed with patterns and rhythms. When I went up the stairs in my house I made sure to always land on my right foot when I reached landing. I tied my right shoe first. I would listen to the same song or read the same book over and over. Not because something horrible would happen if I didn’t, but because it made me feel accomplished. Like a routine.
This is my OCD and how it presents: hyperfocus. It’s not about washing my hands or lining up my clothes. It’s about zoning in on one thing, one activity, one person, or one situation, until it is literally all I think about.
Sometimes, this is really helpful for a young girl geek. When I was twelve, I found a copy of The Princess Bride by William Goldman in my class library and I carried it around with me for a full 6 months, reading it over and over again. I can still recite some of the best lines from that book, verbatim. (If you haven’t read the book, do so. Now.)
A few years later, I found online role-playing games. With that came a new obsession. I became so utterly involved, it was at the expense of most of my class work freshman year of college. I do not regret this addiction at all, because I met some women through those groups that are still a few of my best friends to this day, and we still do fiction tags together.
Sometimes, though, the addiction isn’t about fun giggly conversations over roleplay avatars. When I was in my mid-twenties, my OCD showed up as bodily punishment in the form of disordered eating. I could only focus on going to the gym and putting calories in and out of my system for an entire year. I became frail and brittle. It wasn’t until I started graduate school and started dating someone that the eating disorder faded away, replaced by a new obsession. (This is not, normally, how eating disorders work. Usually people aren’t able to just stop their disordered patterns. The ED for me was a symptom of my OCD, and I stopped it when I found something else I was addicted to.)
When my routines break, that’s when the compulsive thoughts and the extreme anxiety kick in. I feel terrible. Or like something truly awful is just about to happen. Or I’ll die. People would tell me “Just turn off your brain!” To which I would yell “But how?!”
When the OCD and anxiety reach a fever pitch, that’s when I crash. I don’t want to do anything. I just want to sleep and eat chocolate covered potato chips or read fan fiction.
This year, due to various personal things and the overall stressful position of our country with the election and everything, I started getting impulsive thoughts that weren’t just about doing dumb things. They were terrifying. What if I took all of those pills? What if I swerved my car off this bridge? What if I cut my wrists with this knife? What if I just dropped dead?
Immediately after having those thoughts I would be terrified because I didn’t actually want to do those things. But my OCD, combined with the ADHD, kept me on a continuous loop. Hurt yourself. Do it.
I finally made an appointment with a psychiatrist who gave me those aforementioned diagnoses. I was relieved when she told me the intrusive thoughts were a symptom of my OCD, not a sign that I was in any immediate danger. She prescribed me an SSRI, with the promise that we could adjust the dose or switch to something else if this particular one didn’t work. So far, I’ve been responding pretty well to the medication, but it’ll take another week or so to see the full results.
If you’re a woman, it’s easy to dismiss your mental health as just something else in the laundry list of things society tells you is wrong with you. But I’m here to tell you: I did everything you’re “supposed to do” with a mental disorder in order to soothe the symptoms. Worked out. Went to a therapist. Ate right. Meditated. Practiced yoga. Took supplements. Nothing worked. Getting a diagnosis and medical care from a doctor? That’s starting to work.
All of this being said, my ADHD and other mental disorders do not make me stupid or crazy. They simply make me me. I wouldn’t really be me without this brain, this beautiful, ridiculous brain that works too fast and thinks about everything at a thousand miles an hour. I still have impulse control, and I hyperfocus on things a bit too much. But if anything, those things make me passionate about the geeky things I’m into and it can lead me into making really great discoveries. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t obsess over the fun stuff! This summer, I saw Captain America: Civil War and fell hard for Sebastian Stan, which led me to watch most of his filmography. I ended up finding a lot of underappreciated movies and TV shows that I loved; I highly recommend the cancelled-way-too-soon Kings and the recent movie The Bronze.
This isn’t just about finding a new person to obsess over. It can also be about finding common ground with others who share your own issues. Stan has talked publicly about his own struggles with panic and anxiety; in a recent interview at Wizard World Comic Con in Austin, TX, Stan discussed his own mental health: “We’re all crazy, anxious people. It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting here, or you’re there. I get awkward, I get panic attacks, depression. It’s important at the end of the day that we all know that we’re the same, and I just want to help out a little bit.” His Captain America costar Chris Evans has also spoken about his struggles with anxiety, and seeing these types of people in the spotlight share their stories makes me feel a heck of a lot less alone.
That being said, it can be a lot harder as a woman to disclose that you are struggling with mental illness or even just a noisy brain that’s difficult to turn off. It’s a tricky process, especially because as women, we’re so easily seen as just being “over emotional” or “hysterical” or, even, “PMS-ing.” If you feel like you can’t control or trust your own mind, don’t excuse it as being overly sensitive. Talk to a therapist. Make an appointment with a psychiatrist. See if there are avenues out there that can help you. Never be afraid of asking for help. It might drastically improve the quality of your life.
(featured image via Shutterstock)
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Alysa Auriemma is a teacher, writer, activist, geek, cosplayer, and her friend group’s feminist killjoy. Her blog, The Curious Ally Cat, has seen notice by newspapers such as the Hartford Courant and the New York Times. She is in the process of writing a series of fantasy novels for self-publication. In her spare time, she enjoys participating in community theater, solo trips to the city to see Broadway shows, really good Mexican food, and arguing with friends about which Mighty Ducks movie is the best (D2).
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