ADHD and Me: One Lawyer’s Experience with ADHD
Written by Amanda Gaw, an attorney focused on family law, and shared with permission. Amanda participates in The Focused Lawyer Coaching Group.
A few years ago, I had the worst and best year I have ever had professionally. Personally, it has also been a real humdinger! I thought I knew myself, what I wanted, how to get what I wanted and my core principles very well. For me, 2018 has proven itself to be all about change, growth and adaptation.
In the fall of 2017, I found myself overwhelmed and unable to work as well as I always had. I was more forgetful than usual. I couldn’t recall information as quickly as I was used to doing. In fact, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t remember things. I tried everything that always worked for me and I simply could not work. I wasn’t leading my office; my office was leading me. I was falling behind and my staff wasleft adrift and I didn’t know how to fix it.
I think the situation in my office really created a tipping point which exacerbated my weaknesses, stretched my existing coping mechanisms to the breaking point, and increased my anxiety to levels which rendered me paralyzed.
I have always been a “busy” person. There was always something in my hands, I paced incessantly, I moved without reason and would alternate between staying up all night because I couldn’t sleep and sleeping for hours at a time because I was overwhelmed and needed to just shut my brain off.
I also overthink everything. And when I feel something, the feelings are so intense, I can’t breathe at times –especially if the feelings are centered in uncertainty, inadequacy, and perceived rejection. I feel as though my brain high-jacks me and I have zero control to stop this runaway train of thought. I need immediate resolution to the problem and if I’m not able to do so, I am thrown completely off. This inability to shut off my brain makes me feel desperate and causes me anxiety and insomnia regularly.
In November, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Throughout the process, I was also diagnosed as being “twice exceptional.” I have an eidetic memory –which is commonly referred to as “photographic” and I have a high Intelligence Quotient. This is what makes me “neuro-atypical” and is probably why I was never identified during my formal schooling because my ability to excel in school masked my ADHD symptoms.
I have always struggled with anxiety. In particular, I have horrible test taking anxiety. I hate sitting still for more than half an hour. I can’t ever recall a situation where I was not the first student to hand in my exam and leave the classroom. As soon as I sit down, I have an overwhelming desire to flee. I just want to escape the pressure. However, as a female, and a fairly well-behaved one at that, I would sit still in class –even though it killed me!
I struggled for years feeling as though my academic success was a fluke and outside of my control. How important a particular class or subject was to me, would impact my ability to think clearly and rationally and engage my natural process. And often I couldn’t predict my success on a test because my anxiety would creep up when I least expected it and take control of my broken brain and render me inoperable.
I have also struggled with self-esteem because my test taking success was consistently inconsistent. It wasn’t until Law School that I began to realize the strength of my analytical and academic abilities. This was largely on account of the fact that I was absolutely intrigued with law, was now an adult, had greater self-confidence and was a smidge more self-aware.
And yet, if it wasn’t for my processing speed, my memory, and my acute ability to recall detailed information quickly, I don’t think I would be able to have gotten through my undergraduate degrees, Law School, and my Masters in Law. Some specialists call ADHD a super power. Others debate this positive spin because for many, it is debilitating and has a negative impact upon their lives.
While my diagnosis explains why I do what I do, how I do it and why I am successful professionally, it also explains some of the personal struggles I face such as why I don’t always catch subtle social cues, why I am so sensitive emotionally and why I feel everything just so deeply. It explains why I have periods of extreme hyper-focus and periods of extremely unfocussed attention. It explains why I alternate between extreme periods of physical activity such as pacing and why I can also sit down at my computer for twelve hours straight and feel as though I have been there for a mere hour.
We are all imbued with different abilities and strengths. For example, I am completely overwhelmed and upset with my inability to complete routine tasks that many people do without thinking. It’s not that I am lazy –I simply don’t possess the basic executive function skills to complete these tasks. My keen attention to detail and desire for cleanliness and order interrupt my completion of the task because I get sidetracked, make the task over complicated and then become overwhelmed because I can’t do it “right.” I then become angry at my inability to do something somundane and “simple.” To me it’s not simple and I can’t organize the steps to complete the task. But I have learned to get help where I need it.
For example, to have the order and cleanliness that I want to have in my home, I have a wonderful housekeeperwho cleans and organizes my living space. I have a dog walker that helps me care for my beloved pets and ensures they get their daily exercise. I have a gentleman that takes care of my yard work and gardening. And more recently, I now order pre-made meals to have on hand so I can meet my nutritional goals and keep my kitchen smoke free.
Having completed a series of psychological tests, I now know that my pre-frontal cortex is highly impaired. This area of the brain is responsible for impulse control,judgment, attention, and emotional regulation. It was explained to me, that if you compare a “regular” prefrontal cortex to a sparkly and glittering Christmas tree, my prefrontal cortex Christmas tree only has one or two lights on several strings of lights that are working.
My ADHD diagnosis helps me look back and understand certain patterns in my life. Since I was a very young child, I would leave all of my assignments to the very last minute because only with that extreme time pressure and my desire tosucceed and please my parents and teachers, could I manage to harness my runaway focus and attention to complete the task at hand.
I think I now know why I was hot to trot to get to Tigers’ Opening Day when my 30-page thesis on “Youth in Conflict with the Law” was due the next day and I had not yet started. I also now know why I would initiate late night dance routines to Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and why I would skip class to hang out with the Langdon Hall boys. It also explains why I was very much like a groundhog in the Leddy Library at the University of Windsor, popping up out of my study carrel to see who was near as soon as I heard anyone walking by my study station. In retrospect, this diagnosis explains a lot...
As I rose through higher academic levels, I refined my technique such that I knew, in order to write a research paper, I would have to complete the actual research sometime the week before a paper was due. I would check out books, print off journal articles, and acquire all the resource materials necessary to complete the paper. Two days before –and candidly, on many occasions, only the day before –the paper was due, I would take twelve hours and read every last bit of material. The night before the paper was due–and again, if I was entirely honest, often the day of –I would begin writing the paper. In the days before email submissions, I would triple the speed limit to get to the university, double park my car, screech into the Criminology department, and drop the finished product off with the department secretary at 4:29 p.m. –one minute prior to the office closing for the day to meet the deadline. And more often than not, I would secure an “A.”
This pattern persisted throughout Law School –only we often had 100% final exams. Again, I refined my technique, such that the day before the exam, I would sit down with my text book, my case law, and any notes that my classmates and I traded and I would read every last page. I would write the exam and I would regurgitate every last bit of information onto the page and achieve the marks I wanted.
As a litigator, I do the same. I read all of my client notes, all of the pleadings and when it is my turn for oral submissions in Court, I know my case inside and out andcan answer the questions without reference to my file.
My high intelligence quotient, my fairly decent social skills, and my eidetic memory masked the symptoms of my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder throughout the entirety of my academic career. Essentially, I produced and I produced at a top level.
Upon starting the stimulants, my ability to focus is slowly returning. My memory is coming back. And I have a wonderful new staff complement with whom I have shared my unique working style and who are committed to working with me to optimize my production.
I am only now just realizing that I am one of the lucky ones who have this disorder. My ADHD is a blessing more than a curse. For me it allows me to work crazy and long hours without becoming tired. I have more energy than most people. I can work all day and night or work all day and socialize all night and get up the next day for work with a smile on my face.
The diagnosis has had an unintended benefit where, perhaps, for the first time in my life, I am more accepting of who I am. Now that I have an explanation which I can cognitively understand and have identified why I do, what I do, I have learned new techniques to manage my forgetfulness. I don’t berate myself as much because I understandthat to some degree, it isn’t my fault.
I have been blessed with professionals who have been nothing short of fantastic to me this year. My fantastic and brilliant physician has worked with me to adjust my medication dose, provide me with the appropriate referrals to manage my care and has listened to me drone on and at a very rapid speed about where I am in my journey.
My caring, exceptional and patient counsellor has worked with me to help me develop self-care, cognitive behavioural techniques to manage my ADHD and RSD (Rejection SensitivityDysphoria) and compassion for myself.
My office manager is so loyal to me and has been glued to my side and is always willing to try something new to help me improve my productivity, to pick me up when I am overwhelmed and to say to me “you got this” when I’m not certain I do.
For the first time in my life, I know I am not crazy –I just have a broken brain –so to speak. And yet my broken brain is perhaps one of my greatest strengths. For the first time in my life, I feel somewhat at peace with myself. I have answers to some of the questions that haunted me for so long and I no longer beat myself up because I don’t work like “others”, I don’t “feel” like others and I appreciate my uniqueness and how it permits me to... well just be me.
This article has been edited for length. Please visit Amanda Gaw Family Law for the complete blog post. Click here for more information about The Focused Lawyer Coaching Group.