Since deciding to learn more about ADHD and investigate how it has affected my life, I have been thinking about a lot about how to distinguish between those aspects of the disorder that are neurobiological from those that I have control over. Part of my healing process has been to learn about different practices and strategies to get myself more organized, take control of my finances, combat procrastination, become more mindful, and make myself a better, more reliable friend. However, another part of my healing process has been to come to terms with the fact that many of my deficiencies have a genetic, neurobiological basis, and to accept that they are part of who I am, just as many of my innate positive qualities are. Simply put, I have been struggling with determining where the line between personal responsibility and self acceptance lies for someone with ADHD.
Those of you familiar with Alchoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs know the Serenity Prayer, written by American theologian Reinholt Niebuhr. The best known form is:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
I love this prayer because in three short lines it reveals several profound truths that are especially resonant for people with ADHD.
1.) Acceptance of those weaknesses we cannot change is not laziness, it is a key to our peace and serenity.
I am not a very mindful person. It’s part of how my brain is wired. In fact, my ADHD is classified as the “inattentive type,” the main symptoms of which are “missing details and becoming distracted easily,” “trouble focusing,” and “difficulty with organization.” If I were to beat myself up, as I often have, every time I lock myself out of my apartment or forget to take the lunch I made out of the refrigerator and bring it to work in the morning, that would be an incredible waste of energy. Just as I wouldn’t beat myself up for not being able to perform certain tasks if I had a physical disability, I shouldn’t for my neurobiological disability.
And that’s what ADHD is–a neurobiological disability with significant genetic links. In fact, a 2009 review of over 1,800 studies that have been published on the genetic factors that play a role in ADHD concluded that genetics account for 76 percent of the risk, and specific gene studies have produced good evidence linking certain genes to the disorder, particularly the dopamine D4 (DRD4) and dopamine D5 (DRD5) genes. Accepting that I will screw up from time to time due to my inattentiveness, which is at least partially outside of my control, is key to my peace and emotionally wellbeing.
2.) We are not victims of our ADHD. With courage we can improve many aspects of our lives.
While my acceptance of the mistakes I make due to my ADHD related inattentiveness is of paramount importance to my mental and emotional health, I am not a victim of the disorder. There are many actions I can take to improve my mindfulness, organization, and relationships. Just as someone with a physical disability can make physical changes in their home and work with an occupational therapist to give them greater access to physical tasks that are difficult for them, those of us with ADHD can set up systems in our homes and lives to mitigate some of the effects of our disorder.
For example, something as simple as keeping a spare key with a trusted neighbor or bringing in some extra microwaveable lunches to work for the days when I forget to bring my bagged lunch can help in making the “acceptance” of the occasional inattentive related screw up that much easier. All such actions require is the courage to admit to oneself that we have certain weaknesses and the foresight to prepare for the likely effects of those weaknesses.
Other actions I have taken to improve my life and mitigate some of the effects of my ADHD include seeing a therapist and initiating a daily meditation practice. And of course, going on medication for ADHD is another way many ADHDers have chosen to assert their agency and improve their lives, one that I may choose to eventually return to. All of these (therapy, meditation, and medication) are topics I will cover in much more depth in future posts.
3.) Wisdom lies in understanding ADHD and how it manifests in ourselves, and courageously responding accordingly.
For nearly 15 years after receiving my ADHD diagnosis I did little to understand the condition or how it was affecting my life. I was of the mind that ADHD was a made up condition created to push addictive pharmaceutical drugs on young, spirited children and out-of-the-box, creative adults. I believed that my shortcomings were the direct result of my sloth and unwillingness to “pull it together” and get organized, focus more, and work harder. I regarded my ADHD symptoms to be proof of a defect in my character rather than signs of a neurobiologically atypical brain.
Ironically, it is precisely this attitude which exacerbated my ADHD symptoms. Because I didn’t understand my ADHD mind, I lacked the knowledge and support to combat its detrimental effects on my life. Instead, I wasted untold amounts of energy repeating ugly, hateful thoughts about myself to myself. In retrospect, this lack of self-understanding and self-empathy feels almost tragic.
Just as self-knowledge is the path to wisdom and enlightenment in many different spiritual traditions, understanding ADHD and how it manifests in ourselves may be the ADHDers path to living a fulfilling, shame-free life. By acknowledging and understanding our ADHD as a real neurobiological disorder, embedded within our very DNA, we can come to accept our weaknesses as no more than symptoms of a condition we were born with rather than as our defining character flaws. Similarly, by taking informed, conscious action to mitigate those symptoms, we can work to improve those aspects of our lives that our ADHD affects. In that way our ADHD does not define us. Rather, the actions we take, and the grace we show ourselves, says a lot more about who we really are.
What do you think? How do you balance personal responsibility with self-acceptance as a grown woman with ADHD?