The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

Month: June 2016

Canaries in the coal mine

Sometimes, I don’t know if I’m managing my ADHD effectively. After all, the right type and dose of stimulant medication should feel pretty unobtrusive. It doesn’t make ADHD’ers feel drugged, hyped up, or otherwise not ourselves. Once the novelty wears off, we don’t sit around and say, “wow, things seem awfully normal around here!”

Those of us with supportive, ADHD-literate spouses can benefit from their outside perspective. Sometimes only they can tell us when our ADHD is out of control.

As medications, hormones, and life have evolved over the years, I’ve also improved my self-observation skills. It’s an advanced-level ability. Pre-diagnosis and treatment, I had zero self-awareness.

Now I’ve identified what I call my canaries in the coal mine: little indicators that reflect the overall success of my ADHD treatment.

canaries coal mine ADHD

Observe with detachment, not judgement.

Objectivity is key to spotting canaries: observing my own behavior with equanimity and pragmatism, and not getting carried away by emotion and judgement. This has required a lot of work. We late-diagnosis ADHD’ers reach adulthood without positive language to describe our struggles. It takes time, effort, and compassion to eliminate negative self-talk and start believing in ourselves. My default reaction to falling off the wagon used to be, “this was inevitable. I can’t sustain anything good. I’ll always fail eventually.”

Now, I try to approach my life like a scientist. I observe, I keep detailed notes (ADHD and motherhood have wrecked my memory), and I try to keep my own biases at bay. When a system begins to break down, that’s a clue. I’m becoming a detective in my own life — a problem-solver, not a basket case.

My canaries: more than a stressful week.

One of my canaries is my weekly review, an every-Monday ritual that keeps me on top of active projects and open loops. I once noticed myself skipping it for weeks in a row. I eventually ended up talking to my doctor about switching medications.

Likewise, when I haven’t even opened my to-do list for over a week, something isn’t right. When I keep looking at my list, but never find anything I feel like I can do, something isn’t right.

While some of life’s details can slide during a high-stress time, others indicate a bigger problem.

Staying organized is possible — if ADHD symptoms are under control.

Staying organized is possible with ADHD — when it’s well-managed. When something slips out of balance, my previously-airtight systems begin to collapse. ADHD makes it hard to notice it happening before it’s too late. I may not feel different right away, or I may wave off red flags with excuses about sleep or a busy week.

The key, for me, has been to disconnect my emotional reaction from the content of my observation. Put-downs and criticism, directed inward or outward, stop problem-solving before it begins. Rather than figuring out how to fix the problem, our brains fixate on the problem itself, and how big and awful it feels.

When a system malfunctions, I ask why, and figure out what adjustments will fix it. Sort of like a car: what’s going to keep it safe, running smoothly, and doing what I need it to do? I once had a car that sputtered out right after starting unless I gave it a very specific amount of gas. Once it settled into a good idle, it was fine. The next owner couldn’t figure this out and thought the car wouldn’t run at all. I probably could’ve gotten several more years out of it.

Now I apply this approach to my entire life. It’s how I knew my medication changed effectiveness after having a child, and I wasn’t just suffering from so-called “mommy brain.”

When I spot one of those canaries, the early warnings that tip me off before my entire life derails, I don’t make excuses. I recognize them as canaries, not black swans. The earlier I recognize a problem, the better my chance of minimizing the damage and getting back on track.

What are your canaries in the coal mine? Have you discovered any early warning signs of poorly-managed ADHD? What do you do when you spot one?


Guest Post: Women with ADHD — a letter to my younger self

About the author:

S.B.  Castañeda writes about the struggles of #ADHDwomen on her blog, Adulting With ADHD.

Dear Younger Self,

You aren’t feeling very good about life right now. In fact, if I recall correctly, between performance issues at work and losing those music festival tickets, you feel the very, very opposite of good.

Here’s the thing. And I’m not telling you this to let you off the hook (because girl, we need to do something about some of those mistakes you’ve been making), but…you’re not dumb and you’re not losing your mind. You’re living with undiagnosed ADHD.

dear younger self guest post

It slipped under the radar.

You know all that fun anxiety and depression you’re dealing with right now? You’re still going to have it, but once it reaches a manageable level, your doctor will get a clearer picture of what’s really going on. Then you’ll get even more help. And this will be huge.

Remember all those problems in grade school? Nope, you weren’t the loudmouth or class clown. You were a daydreamer, remember? And you had some weird emotional stuff going on.

So here’s the thing: because you were all shy and awkward and would rather die than have attention paid your way, the diagnosis slipped past everybody.

Enter middle and high school. You’ve always been really book-smart and high-functioning. You stayed out of everyone’s way and kept your nose to the ground. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with your learning abilities! Then, away you went — congrats on that college acceptance! At this point, you were aware of ADD and Ritalin, but to you (and nearly everybody else) it was a little boy’s issue. Nothing to concern yourself with.

You were right — something was wrong.

But you know that sneaking feeling you’d get once in a while? It would happen in your quietest moments. It was the feeling that you weren’t meeting your full potential. You managed to graduate college with an average GPA and have an average first career, but you always knew you were above-average. Yet your life was anything but.

And some of the mistakes you’re making are supremely mind-boggling. Remember the moment when all that joking about being senile or having Alzheimer’s stopped being funny? Remember when you actually started wondering what the hell was wrong with you with an unprecedented sense of urgency?

It gets SO much better.

None of this makes sense right now. Even if it did, you wouldn’t believe it. But you’re going to get better. And you’re going to excel in ways you can’t wrap your mind around right now. Just hang in there and keep working on your issues. You’re going to make it to the other side of this, and the view is marvelous.

Hang in there,


Unfortunately, every parenting win springs from impulse control.

Parents with AdultADHDAn interaction I had with my three-year-old a couple months ago blew me away. I should’ve been delighted. Instead, I felt deeply sad. And I knew I couldn’t say a thing.

We’d talked about his books before. He had too many to fit on his shelves. One day, he looked at me and said, “Mommy, I want to give Little Critter Snowball Soup away.”

I was flabbergasted. This was one of his favorite stories, one we’d read over and over and over again. He hadn’t asked for it lately, but I was still shocked he’d get rid of it. We talked more. He understood what he was saying: he didn’t enjoy the book anymore and wanted someone else to love it as much as he’d loved it. It needed to become someone else’s favorite.

Then he started pulling more books from the shelf, saying “I only wanted to read this one five times,” and “I don’t enjoy this one anymore.”

Our children mirror us.

As anyone who knows me will attest, my son did only what I taught him to do. I’m an aspiring minimalist, and I believe minimalism has special benefits for people with ADHD. I also believe self-efficacy is the most important gift I can give my child.

My son is generous, thoughtful, and capable of making his own choices. He’s learning to part with material things — even old favorites — that he no longer enjoys.

He needs a mom with impulse control. A mom who knows how to keep her mouth shut and let him do his thing. I haven’t always been that person, but I’m working at it every day.

We don’t start out choosing our reactions.

My core values as a parent, homemaker, and person demand a pretty high level of impulse control. This is something I totally lacked at the beginning of my ADHD journey. Before I started learning about and medicating my ADHD, I didn’t choose my reactions to people and events in life. I didn’t know a choice existed. I thought what happened inside also happened outside — for everyone.

During my first week on stimulant medication, I described in my journal this gap that had opened up between stimulus and response. I felt like I’d discovered a time warp. I gained a few critical seconds (maybe even milliseconds) to notice what I was feeling and attempt to control how I expressed it.

Kids need parents who stay out of the way

Getting out of the way: tough for any parent, tougher for ADHD parents.

Plenty of parenting books warn against emotional reactions when we’re angry. What about when we’re bittersweet, or when we doubt our child’s choices? It broke my heart to part with some of those books. I desperately wanted to intervene, even though intervening would question his judgement (you’re getting rid of that one?) and undermine his generosity (what if I just hold onto these on my bookshelf?).

I didn’t intervene. He wanted to wish the books well on their journey to someone else. I was as proud of myself as I was of him. My ability to keep my mouth shut empowered him to make his own choice and stand behind it. He felt capable of solving a problem on his own, and I got out of his way. I trusted him. He gained confidence in himself.

This would be hard for anyone, but for someone with a clinically diagnosable deficiency in shutting up? Let’s just say, I never thought I’d see the day. I gave myself time to mourn the books, but after my son was asleep. Burdening him with my complicated emotions — at least in this context — wouldn’t benefit him at all.

Be quiet and leave space for others.

Sometimes, keeping quiet and leaving space for others in our relationships is the most supportive, loving thing we can do.

For adults — and especially parents — with ADHD, it’s also the hardest thing. Our emotions overwhelm us, our reptile brains take over, and we often stop to think long after we’ve already spoken.

But the rewards make it worth it to keep trying, and to take good care of myself and my brain. Because I owe it to my kid, who’s already a better person than I am.


ADHD awareness helped me heal — and gave me my brother back

About the author:

Michelle Diaz-Nanasca wrote theater and movie reviews for local newspapers while in high school. She majored in Literatures of the World at the University of California, San Diego. Since college, she has worked as an academic tutor and as a church secretary. Michelle is currently working on a children’s novel. Besides writing, she loves singing in her church’s choir, playing guitar, and playing board games with her husband of seven years, Ariel. The two of them run a YouTube channel called The Board Game Tutors, which features instructional videos on hobby board games.

It’s hard to believe, but a year ago, I knew almost nothing about ADHD. Discovering its presence in my life has led to an incredible amount of positive change.

ADHD-awareness-healing-brotherI’d suffered from anxiety off and on throughout my twenty-seven years. It was often social anxiety: worrying about how people perceived me, whether I seemed kind enough, whether I was a good enough friend. I also worried about stressful events that might happen in the future, and how I would handle them. Halfway  through 2015, I noticed my anxiety becoming more debilitating.

Then something amazing happened. I decided to text my brother. I’d heard that he’d struggled with anxiety, and made progress in coping with it. He’s only three years old than I, but it’d been years since I’d tried to have a close relationship with him. We grew up in a chaotic environment where it was difficult to develop a healthy relationship with anyone.

I didn’t feel like things had changed much between us. I was rather hesitant to share my emotional state with him, but I was running out of ideas.

Anxiety & ADHD: it runs in the family

My brother responded to my text right away with some quick, temporary advice. It was late in the evening, and we agreed to talk on the phone the next day.

The following afternoon, I told him about how tense I’d being feeling. I talked about my emotional sensitivity: if anyone corrected me, even in the most minor way, I would feel ultra-self-conscious. I’d be plagued by insecure thoughts for the remainder of the day, or even week.

He sympathized with me, and then he asked me questions. Whether I had many thoughts at once, and whether I had difficulty transitioning from one task or environment to the next. I said yes, absolutely. I had recently been thinking about the fact that I would have less anxiety if only I didn’t think so much.

Upon careful study, I’d observed that I was usually thinking about at least four things simultaneously: what I was doing now, some event that had happened earlier, something I thought might happen later, and whatever song was currently running through my head. It did seem rather odd that I could think about so many things at once, but how was I to know this wasn’t how everyone thought?

As for transitions, it was excruciating for me to give up an activity I was enjoying and move on to something else. I experienced this every Sunday when it was time to go home from church, knowing I would not return until the following weekend, which always felt like an eternity on Sunday afternoon.

My brother started telling me about ADHD, and how it can manifest much differently in girls. He said my mental hyperactivity was a strong indicator for ADHD, and that girls who did well in school, as I always had, often went undiagnosed because of subtle symptoms. He’d learned that his anxiety was closely linked to his previously-undiagnosed ADHD. He was thinking that I might have anxiety stemming from ADHD, too.

What he was explaining made sense, and perhaps even more convincing was his manner. He seemed so calm and mature—so changed. I could easily recognize how his journey into ADHD awareness had led to healing for him. He told me about exercising, eating healthily, meditating (especially), and looking into medication for ADHD. He also recommended a book for anxiety: When Panic Attacks, by cognitive-behavioral therapy pioneer David Burns.

Education & diagnosis bring hope

Greatly encouraged by discovering an explanation that drew my many struggles together, I began my own study of ADHD and how it affects my life. At the same time, with the help of When Panic Attacks, I began to get my anxiety under control. The book was an incredibly eye-opening read full of simple solutions and common sense. I would recommend its cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques to anyone who has struggled with anxiety or any emotional challenge.

It took several months to get approval for a psychiatric appointment, but, in late 2015, I was officially diagnosed with ADHD.

I’m so thankful to have learned about ADHD for two major reasons: First, because knowing the source of my challenges allows me to learn healthy ways to cope with them. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I am so thankful that ADHD awareness led to a relationship with my brother. He has become one of my best friends, something I never would have expected, and it came about because of our shared experience of learning to manage ADHD.

What about you? How has learning more about ADHD changed your life? Please share in the comments!


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