An ADHD diagnosis has reframed years of not understanding myself

There are about a hundred ways to tell a South Asian woman that she’s too much, and I have heard them all.

There’s the way men tell me I’m “super loud for an Asian girl.” Or the way my bosses tell me I’m “entitled” for asking why the men in my department are paid more than me. Or the way relatives tell me I’m “scary” when I set boundaries in a quiet, even voice.

Although I’ve long recognized these accusations as the racist, misogynistic trash they are, they still hurt. They also still happen, even though I’ve mastered the art of turning my personality up or down to meet whatever expectations the moment demands.

After four decades of hypervigilance, I turned so far outward that I turned completely away from myself — or, more specifically, the part of myself that whispered that, when you peeled away the racist misogyny, these accusations were, actually, rooted in truth.

The truth is that I’ve always felt like a lot. I talk fast and think faster. I’m prone to interrupting, oversharing and perseverating. I laugh loudly, cry easily, swing between euphoria and depression multiple times a day. I live with a perpetual stomach-churning anxiety that frequently blossoms into migraines, inflammation, acid reflux and insomnia, and traps me in a constant state of exhaustion.

These physical symptoms, in particular, should have been warning signals. Instead, I took them as a sign to work harder, and to mask better. In other words, I was so caught up in stymying my tendency to overwhelm our racist, sexist society that I ignored a deeper, more important question: What if, instead of being too much for everybody else, I was too much for myself?

In 2020, avoidance stopped being an option. That year, the twin cyclones of perimenopause and the pandemic spun me into a depression that knocked me to my knees. Even after eliminating caffeine and sugar, finding a therapist, starting a daily exercise and meditation routine and taking up yoga, I was lower than I’d ever been. Unable to parent, write or simply maintain a conversation, I made an appointment with a psychiatric nurse practitioner (NP) to beg for antidepressants.

Over Zoom, she asked: “Do you have trouble concentrating?”

“Well, yeah,” I laughed. “It’s the pandemic. Doesn’t everyone?”

When I answered, I could almost see a lightbulb materialize over her head. Her questions became faster and more specific. Was my insomnia because of physical issues or racing thoughts? (Racing thoughts.) Was I irritable? (Constantly.) Had I ever had disordered eating, intense mood swings or sensory overwhelm? (Yes, yes, and oh my God, YES.)

“I think,” she said, after an hour of increasingly specific diagnostic questions, “you may have ADHD.”

Internally, I scoffed. I write books! I thought. Attention is not my problem.

Externally, though, I kept my face neutral, nodding when she explained that most antidepressants took months to be effective and often had intense side effects. In contrast, she said, ADHD medication often gave patients who did have the diagnosis immediate relief. She ended up prescribing me Adderall and asked me to check in later that same week, after taking three to four 10-milligram doses.

“If you don’t see a difference,” she said, “we’ll try other options.”

Grudgingly, I agreed, thinking that doing so was the quickest way to eliminate this diagnosis and move closer to whatever was actually wrong with me. The next morning, too agitated to drive, I power-walked the mile and a half to my local Walgreens, and I gulped down my first dose of stimulants, my hands trembling with unspent energy.

On the walk home, I braced myself for the gut-wrenching terror I’d heard anxiety patients experience on Adderall. But instead of terror, I experienced the opposite: My body settled into a profound peace. Everything was slower, quieter, safer. My muscles unknotted. My chest expanded. The world felt less terrifying, my brain less violent.

For the first time in my life, none of it — none of me — felt like too much.

Although I’d always reduced ADHD to an obstacle to time management and academic achievement, I soon learned that it is also a mood disorder that affects sensory processing and is routinely misdiagnosed as anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder and bipolar disorder. This is because the condition leads to intense mood swings, overstimulation and racing thoughts, which often lead to anxiety. And, according to almost every internet forum I read, it often results in patients — especially women — being labeled as “too much.”

Just because I saw my symptoms in the literature — which was, admittedly, a relief — didn’t mean that I saw myself. Because while I’ve found research that focuses on either the gendered or racial manifestations of ADHD, I’ve yet to find anything that imagines a patient like me, who lives life at the intersection of the two.

The erasure fills me with tenderness for my undiagnosed self, whose rage and sadness and fear were written off as the behavior of a crazy, angry Brown woman, rather than signs of real, tangible distress. What if, I wonder, the same people who found me overwhelming instead saw me as someone who might be in pain? What if, instead of assigning me a label of “too much,” they recognized I needed help? Would my diagnosis have come earlier? I think it might have.

My grief about how others treated me, though, pales in comparison to the grief I feel about how I treated myself. I was so caught up in surviving that I focused all my attention on what others wanted from me, rather than what I needed. This meant that I muscled through life, never complaining or asking for what I needed, convinced that doing so would force all my colleagues and family and friends to retract their negative assessments of me. Instead of seeing me as too much, I thought, they’d see me as polished, buttoned up, and — in my wildest fantasies — perfect.

Although there is no way to change the past, my diagnosis has motivated me to rewrite my future. Medication has been a huge part of that: Since starting on Adderall, I no longer live with incessant irritability and indigestion, I don’t wake up frozen with overwhelm, and I haven’t had a stress dream in weeks.

I don’t know enough ADHD patients to understand if this total turnaround is typical, nor do I know if this prescription and dose will work for me forever. So far, though, my improvement has been immediate and undeniable.

Other than taking medication, though, my biggest change has been the way I treat myself. I no longer force myself to hide who I am or try to justify the way I move through the world. If people imply that I’m too much, I let them: I just don’t care. How can I?

I’ve learned that the only person who has to live with myself — my whole, overwhelming, overstimulated self — is me.

Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D., is the author of the PEN/Faulkner-nominated novel “A People’s History of Heaven.”

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