A Day in the Work Life With ADHD

Growing up, all I knew of ADHD was the stereotype of someone who is easily distracted by squirrels and disruptive in class. That didn’t fit what I was going through. I didn’t care much one way or the other about squirrels and I was too busy either daydreaming or ditching school entirely to be disruptive in class.

Instead of squirrels and restlessness, it just felt like there was a wall in my head blocking me from doing what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was be Rory Gilmore: read every book, ace every class, and have healthy relationships with friends and family. I even wanted to go to an Ivy league and become a journalist.

But there was this big, dumb wall that wouldn’t budge and it meant that I could only go so far. I could only work if I was working in a panic. I could only focus if it was a subject I was interested in. Even then, I could only do so if there was enough pressure to keep me on task. And even then, my interests shifted constantly so I couldn’t always rely on them.

By sophomore year of high school, instead of being admitted to a prep school like Rory, I was being sent to an alternative school for problem kids. I still didn’t know what was wrong with me. My life just kept looking less and less like the one that I wanted.

It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I would finally receive the right diagnosis. But once I did, all the symptoms I’d been struggling with my whole life clicked into place. When I started medication, it felt like there wasn’t any resistance anymore. I could see a task on my list and just do it. The wall had come down.

This is what one day in the life with ADHD looks like for me.

ADHD Diaries

6:45 A.M.: My alarm goes off. I hit snooze and go back to sleep. I set my alarm for 6:45 A.M. because I want to wake up earlier to have more time for myself in the morning. Instead, I've developed a new routine of hitting snooze and waking up for real hours later.

8:16 A.M.: I wake up for real and make coffee. While it brews, I water the first and only plant I've been able to keep alive for more than a few months.

I chose the begonia specifically because I read that it's adapted to long spells without rain. "It's vulnerable to root rot if it gets too much water," a website told me. "So it's better to underwater it than overwater it." That sounded like a good match for my unreliable and sporadic motivation to maintain even the simplest routines.

I usually manage to water it at least once a week, two to three times on a good week, zero times on bad weeks. But that inconsistent and completely unpredictable schedule has kept its roots rot-free and alive for almost three years now.

9:24 A.M.: I sit down at my desk to start work. The plan was to start at 8:30. But I woke up to two text messages that I couldn't answer until I'd had some coffee. But then I started scrolling through Twitter while I drank my coffee, waiting for it to kick in so I could answer texts. Nearly an hour passed before I looked at the clock. It only felt like five minutes.

9:38 A.M.: I’m about 15 minutes into “starting work” and still haven’t been able to actually start working because I have four assignments that I need to make progress on today and I can't figure out which one to start with.

I still haven't replied to the texts, and I woke up too late to go for a morning run and give myself time to read a book like I've been planning for months. I've only been awake for an hour and a half and the undone tasks of the day are already snowballing dangerously fast toward an amount that will leave me feeling paralyzed with indecision.

I finally settle on editing an article, because it’s less labor-intensive than starting a brand new one, so I should be able to get it done easily and shrink my to-do list.

11:09 A.M.: My 10-minute notice alarm went off at 9:50 to remind me that I have a meeting at 10:00 A.M. today. I turned it off and then thought I'd get a little more editing done for those last few minutes instead of just setting up the Zoom call and waiting like I usually do. I didn't notice the time again until 11:09 A.M.

I've only been awake for an hour and a half and the undone tasks of the day are already snowballing dangerously fast toward an amount that will leave me feeling paralyzed with indecision.

I decide it’s time to take meds. Most days, I try to do at least some work in the mornings without them. I worry that tolerance may build to the Adderall and that the solution to combat that is to increase the dose. But with increased doses come increased side effects.

3:27 P.M.: After taking medication, I was able to get about four solid hours of work in so I decide to take a break to go for a run and have something to eat (since the meds took my appetite away and I worked through lunch).

My to-do list feels less insurmountable but I'm still behind where I should be. I'll need to take a second dose after the run, even though my doctor recommends not taking it after 4:00 P.M. because it can interfere with sleep. Without it, though, I won't be able to catch up on the rest of my work for the day and it will spill over into tomorrow. And that will mean I'm liable to wake up already feeling overwhelmed and unable to get anything done.

4:12 P.M.: I try to respond to the texts from this morning while eating my late lunch but get too overwhelmed by the task.

Between rejection sensitivity and perfectionism, crafting even a simple text message can take 15-30 minutes.And after I finish, the other person will often respond within seconds or minutes, meaning I barely even have a chance to feel the relief of completing a task before a new task pops up in its place.

But I don't know how to express this to people without it sounding like some variation of "conversations with you are a chore." So I typically end up avoiding texts for days or weeks (which makes the problem worse). My New Year's resolution this year was to respond to texts within 24 hours. Two weeks in, I modified it to "within the week." So far, I haven't even been able to stick to that one.

7:02 P.M.: I was able to get another two hours of work done and while I'm still a little behind on what I needed to get done today, I'm feeling so mentally exhausted that the wall is back up. Instead of finishing, I go for a walk to get some air and a change of scenery before settling in for the night to veg out in front of the TV.

7:15 P.M.: On my walk, I start to feel the guilt and worry set in about leaving work unfinished. It’s a familiar feeling, honed over years of failing to “live up to my potential” in school, followed by years of falling short of my own ambitions in my career. I can count the number of days that I’ve actually finished all the work scheduled for that day on one hand.

Even though today is yet another “unfinished day,” I have to admit that it’s a major improvement. Before treatment, I'd be lucky to get more than two hours of work done across the whole day so even though I didn't finish everything, getting six hours of work done is still a feat. I try to remind myself of that.

7:37 P.M.: After returning from my walk, I reheat some leftovers for dinner and then sit down at my desk with the hope of tricking myself into getting a little more work done. But the wall is still up. I resolve once again to just turn off my computer and give myself permission to rest.

It's still hard to take breaks without those breaks becoming paralysis episodes of ruminating on all the tasks I'm not doing in that moment. I’ve spent so many years feeling lazy, unambitious, and unproductive that I’ve come to associate any period of not working with procrastination and guilt.

In that state, the break isn’t much of a break at all, just a stressful period of stagnation—the difference between sleeping through the night and lying in bed, staring at the ceiling for eight hours. They might look similar, but only one is actually restorative and helpful.

I’m practicing, though, and slowly, my breaks are approaching something more like actual rest.

In Closing

My days still usually don’t look like the plans I make for them, but one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since my diagnosis is that mental health is equal parts working to be better and accepting your own limitations.

In the first few months of treatment, I was so overjoyed to have finally found something that could take down the wall, I started overbooking myself, trying to make up for lost time. I increased my workload, started taking classes on the side, and just tried to become the Rory Gilmore I’d always wanted to be.

Soon, I was working too much and commitments started slipping through the cracks. Only this time, it wasn’t because I was beating my head against a wall. It was because I simply had too much on my plate.

My days still usually don’t look like the plans I make for them, but one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since my diagnosis is that mental health is equal parts working to be better and accepting your own limitations.

Since then, I’ve been trying to find the balance: making room for my work and goals while still acknowledging that I’m human and that medication is not a silver bullet. Bad days still happen and when they do, even with medication, I’m not able to be as productive as I hoped. I try to see those bad days, not as “bad,” but as a sign that I need to rest. I haven’t fully convinced myself of that yet, but I’m working on it.

If you or a loved one are struggling with ADHD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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