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Living with ADHD: Untangling the Shame

A person who is seeking therapy from ADHD struggles in Colorado.

Laughter is a great path to some acceptance in people who live with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Joking or making fun of ourselves isn’t always about acceptance though. A painful side surrounds ADHD that many do not understand or share. So many, ADHDers try to hide the best parts of themselves or shame themselves wondering, “Why can’t I be like other people.”

Deep-rooted self-criticism and shame encircles someone with ADHD, usually starting at a very early age. Without treatment, the shame spiral weighs people down into the depths of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, failed relationships, failed financial security, underemployment, speeding tickets or traffic violations, and overall low self-esteem.

ADHD is not just a neurodevelopmental disorder. ADHD is not just anything. ADHD is everything to a person who is diagnosed. By sharing the personal pain points of this disorder, I hope to help others understand that ADHD impacts every facet of a person's life. I want people to know that they do not have to go through the pain alone. Here is a part of my story:

With ADHD, Noticing Details is Difficult

A person who has ADHD and is seeking therapy in Colorado.

I swear–I read the stupid bouncing place invitation 5 times, just to be sure that I got it right because I know the embarrassment that can ensue if not meticulously reading and re-reading invitations! Yet, here I was again. Standing with my 5-year-old daughter in a party room at the bouncy place, about to set down our gift on the gift table, when I look around and notice that I do not recognize any of the faces, and a few parents are staring at me.

I nonchalantly glance at the name on the cake and see that we are definitely at the wrong party. In a panic, I desperately dig through my purse, finding the very crumbled invitation to see that the location of the bouncy place was in a different suburb of the city. I hadn’t even thought to look at the details of the address because, in my mind, this bouncy place was the closest location to the school, so it made sense to not bother myself with extra details of the actual location, since my brain hates details.

Of course, we were already ½ hour late for the 2-hour party, and it was another ½ hour to get there. Of course, my daughter was crying, saying “Now I’ll never get to see my friends.” Shame, frustration, and 100 degrees of self-directed anger circle around me as I gently try to guide her back to the car.

Creating Systems to Support Living with ADHD

Fast forward three years, we are pulling up to another birthday party, and I notice that there are no cars in the driveway. Fear and panic, and again that familiar anger, as I realize we have arrived at the party 1 day early. My tears fall this time, as I drive away in complete defeat. By then, I had set up several systems to help me read and remember invitation information: take a picture, have someone else read it and check if I have it right (which is humiliating in itself), and set it immediately in my calendar with reminders.

Systems. Systems. Systems. ADHDers continuously and painstakingly try to create systems that often end up failing, or work for a while then are forgotten because another stressor moves in, or they are too difficult to implement. I am sure my system did help us make it to several birthday parties on time, on the right day, and at the right location, but there were several more times that the system failed.

The worst times were when we arrived a day late. By the time my daughter was 8, at the early arrival of this particular birthday party, when I realize no cars in the driveway doesn’t actually mean that–I’m on time and everyone else is late–she leans to me and says with a positive, bright, happy little face, “It’s okay mama! We’ll just go to the party tomorrow.”

Transitions are Overwhelming for People with ADHD

A woman who has ADHD who is seeking therapy in Colorado.

My most recent painful moment happened last year with my son on his first day of middle school. The start of children's school years are so overwhelming in general for everyone, especially ADHD’ers. All of the emails about school supplies, ice cream socials, meet the teacher's day, school bus schedule and after-hours care are overwhelming.

So many new systems, transitions, websites, passwords, lists, and scheduling concerns create a stressful state. Again, I read the email 4 times and was sure that I gave my 11-year-old the correct information. I decided it was easier for me to drop him off at school (only 12 tardies throughout the year), and he rode the bus to his father's house after school. “Take bus 19 to your dad’s house,” I told him confidently. Yes…you guessed it…wrong bus.

I was only one number off it turns out, he needed to get on bus 20. The bus he actually got on took him to the high school. My introverted son, who was fearful of starting middle school in general, later told me the story of how he had to go into his high school and couldn’t find the office or adults to talk to. Someone pointed him in the direction of the office, but he got lost.

Once he finally found support, the school tried phoning me, but of course, I had lost my phone somewhere in the house and didn’t respond for over an hour. Meanwhile, he is sitting in the office as they decide how to get him home. I wanted to peel my skin off on some part of my body (called excoriation which can be a thing with ADHD) to induce suffering for being so “stupid” to make him suffer.

My Journey with ADHD

If I were to diagram my journey with ADHD it would be a big tangled ball of yarn with some straight pieces of yarn that start to fray and then link to another big tangled ball of yarn, with the same pattern repeating. The more “work” I do, I notice the balls of yarn begin to get smaller and not as tight. I’m finding more straight pieces of yarn in connection to more openness about my own ADHD experiences.

The work with ADHD is constant. If I were to diagram all the methods that help bring more light into the darkness of ADHD it would also be a beautifully drawn imperfect circular ball of colors that find a rhythm, almost a forward movement, when becoming less entwined, tight, and static.

The ball would include:

  • Balancing critical thoughts

  • Acceptance when one helpful system fails

  • Creating new systems with color and hope that this one will work for a while (acceptance that one new stressor can throw off the whole system and that’s okay)

  • Learning to lean into the strengths of ADHD

  • Finding my tribe

  • Getting direct help through a trained therapist and support groups

  • Allowing fun and creativity to have enough space in my life

  • Bringing variety into my career

  • Making my life flavorful, and

  • Connecting with friends more

What a ball, right?

Many times have I said, “I’m a f*ing therapist, I should know how to navigate through ADHD”. But, just like you, I am continuously learning. I have to work for patience, grace, and self-compassion to be a part of my life like everyone else. I know those inevitable ADHD mishaps could be around every corner, and my ball of yarn might start to tighten and fray.

I share this story to help others understand that you are not alone, and do not need to hide in the shame of living with ADHD. Shame loves to keep people in dark corners. The more we share about living with ADHD, we can create more space for enlightened, untangled days.

If you are newly diagnosed with ADHD as an adult and looking for additional support, check out our online ADHD Support Group - meet with others just like you who are looking for a supportive place to just be yourself.

How We Can Help

Interested in ADHD therapy with kristen? Schedule a free 20-minute phone consultation!

If you are looking for continued ADHD support, or if you would like to talk to someone more about how we can help you, follow these simple steps:

  1. Begin your journey towards a calmer, more relaxed life

Other Therapy Services Available at Catalyss Counseling:

Author Biography

Kristen Dammer is an LCSW specializing in women's issues and postpartum depression.

Kristen Dammer believes in addressing the whole health needs of you as a person, and her dedication, creativity, and flexibility as a therapist are her greatest strengths. Her holistic approach to anxiety, grief and trauma helps you feel in control and creates a welcoming environment for you to share your vulnerabilities, fears, and experiences. She is trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and uses it to treat anxiety and trauma. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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