ADHD is like a cake. It comes in layers.
The first layer is the direct symptoms of ADHD themselves. Inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and everything that comes with that.
The second is how those symptoms make you feel. This layer includes the emotional effects of living with ADHD, and the way ADHD has affected your self-image.
The icing is people telling you that ADHD doesn’t even exist.
When you have ADHD, you get blamed for a lot of stuff. You get blamed for your inattentive mistakes, for your hyperactivity, your disorganization, your inability to self-motivate, and everything else that comes with ADHD. In short, you get blamed for your ADHD.
Generally, this blame starts when you’re young, before you’ve even heard of ADHD. And it continues after you’ve been diagnosed, because other people don’t necessarily know enough to put your behaviors in the context of a mental health condition, so they’ll assume you’re being lazy or that you don’t care.
So much for the blame. The internalized part comes when you start to blame yourself.
If everyone tells you that you aren’t trying enough, that you’re a failure, or that there’s something wrong with you, it’s easy to start agreeing with them after a while. Children are especially vulnerable to this, but adults with ADHD also have their self-blame reinforced when their symptoms cause them problems at school, at work or in relationships.
This line of thinking leads to the unhappy destination of blaming yourself for your ADHD symptoms. It’s a place that many ADHDers don’t need a map for because they know it well.
The question then becomes, how can one start to unwind self-blame? In my experience, there are two concrete things that help.
The first is therapy. Meds and coping strategies can help with ADHD symptoms, the first layer of the cake, but the second layer of the cake needs to be cut into with a different utensil. Working with a psychotherapist can help untangle the emotional effects of growing up and living with ADHD, and the unhealthy coping mechanisms that go with them.
It’s also important to learn about ADHD. Knowledge is power. The more you understand ADHD, the more you understand that certain lifelong behaviors you’ve had are ADHD symptoms. They are documented in the scientific literature, they originate in how your brain works, and they aren’t caused by some mysterious moral failing. You can’t get rid of these symptoms, but you can work with them and hone your coping skills to find a way of living that fits with your brain.
Internalized blame can become lodged deep in the way we think about ourselves, without us even being aware of it. But knowledge, therapy, and time all help shave down the lies we sometimes tell ourselves about ADHD symptoms being our fault.
Image: Flickr/周小逸 Ian