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Pushing boundaries, breaking norms, and the ADHD brain (Casey McQuiston’s story)

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Casey McQuiston, best-selling author of Red, White and Royal Blue, grew up in a neurodivergent family and was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age. Still, they had trouble coping, and in high school, English teachers gave them an intervention for “not trying hard enough.”

Casey is the author of multiple books in the queer romance genre. Casey chats with Laura about how ADHD influences their writing. They also share a sneak peek of their upcoming book The Pairing, coming out August 2024.

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Episode transcript

Casey: My ADHD "aha" moment happened for me when I was a senior in high school and all four of my previous English teachers, Avengers assembled to intervene for me and explained to me that if I did not start turning assignments in on time, I would never reach my true potential as a brilliant writer.

Laura: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "ADHD aha," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they or someone they know has ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I'm the editorial director here at Understood, and as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment, I'll be your host.

I am here today with New York Times best-selling author Casey McQuiston. Casey is the author of "One Last Stop," "I Kissed Sara Wheeler," and "Red, White, and Royal Blue," which was turned into a movie that came out in 2023. Congratulations on all of the above. It's so great to have you here, Casey.

Casey: Thank you so much. I am so excited to be here to talk about literally, maybe my favorite topic to talk about.

Laura: So, Casey, I kind of threw you a curveball because in true ADHD fashion, I emailed you this morning because I had just realized I would love for you to read an excerpt from one of your books, particularly an excerpt that reflects how your ADHD brain impacts your writing style. So, did you have enough time to find an excerpt? If not, all good.

Casey: Yeah. I mean, I feel like I went a little bit literal with the prompt, and I immediately thought of a passage that was me writing about the experience of executive dysfunction.

Laura: Love that.

Casey: In a way, my ADHD is affecting my writing style and that it is kind of informing the interior life of a character. Even if they're not explicitly talking about ADHD, they're talking about managing their life and how they've had to figure that out.

Laura: And what, is it from one of your books or…

Casey: It's from an unreleased book. So very, you heard it here first. Very exclusive excerpt. This is from "The Pairing," which comes out in August.

Laura: So excited.

Casey: This is from the point of view of a character named Theo, who I would say is someone who kind of flew under the radar as a person with ADHD for most of their life and then as an adult, started to piece together that the things that are going on have a name and that their brain is not going to one day magically snap into a neurotypical way to be.

Laura: Sounds familiar?

Casey: Yeah. So, they're they're navigating that. For context, Theo is on, a three-week European tour, and they are having a bit of a lull between stops. They're on the bus and they're like, this is a great time to catch up on my 5 million notifications that I've allowed to pile up while I was busy doing other things. This is at the very end of them going through and checking off all their boxes.

"My endurance is fading, so I grind out a few cocktail pitches and lock my phone, so I should wait until my brain isn't so hot. I press the cool glass of the screen to my cheek and breathe out slowly, soothed by the expansive French countryside rolling past the window. The funny skinny trees with puffs of leaves bursting from their tops like dandelions.

Sometimes it's embarrassing that this is peak performance for me, and that I spent the last few years kicking my own ass to achieve 20 minutes of executive function and a fear my life will collapse if I breathe wrong. But most days, I'm proud of how far I've come. Everything up to age 25 with a series of small to medium fuck ups until I decided to get my shit together."

Laura: Wow.

Casey: And so, this is kind of something I find really relatable, which is I can kind of sprint through knocking things off my mental. I like to picture it as like a cave of bats and like, all of the things that are hanging over my head are just like little bats in a cave. And I can kind of sprint through that cave, and I can just kind of like, knock the bats down, you know?

But at some point, you know, a sprint is not a marathon and you have to stop and you have to sit down and catch your breath. And I feel like this is that moment that I was writing for Theo, when it's a moment that I find myself experiencing probably at least every other day.

Laura: Wow.

Casey: And yeah, so I wanted to put that in.

Laura: Thank you. That was really beautiful. I feel honored to get a sneak peek of the new book. There are a few things in that passage that struck me that something about a hot brain. Did I catch that?

Casey: Yeah, yeah. One of my best friends always describes her brain as a, she's like, "My brain feels like a hot laptop right now," where it's just like, it's running too fast and the fan can't keep up. I feel like that's such a real ADHD feeling.

Laura: Yeah, and then that, like blasting through your cave of bats or that peak performance for what you say, 20 minutes and then, yeah.

Casey: Yeah. Very that.

Laura: Yeah, very that that audible sigh. Well, we will talk more about your work as we move through this interview. But let's go back to the beginning. Let's start at the very beginning. That's, sorry, "The Sound of Music" is that "The Sound of Music?"

Casey: I think it is. I don't know, you see, I didn't know I would be tested on musical theater. I would have studied.

Laura: My bad.

Casey: Well, yeah.

Laura: Your story is different than many guests, especially recent guests who've been on the show because you were diagnosed early in life.

Casey: Yeah. So, my mom is a licensed social worker, and so she was — in the 80s before a lot of people were aware of it — she was aware of things like learning disabilities, processing disorders, things like that. At the time, she was diagnosed with ADD, and so and she also was really aware of, you know, the genetic predisposition for it. And so, she was always kind of looking for the signs.

And me and my sisters — I have two older sisters — both of my older sisters. Basically, we all have ADHD. Every single person in my family is very, very prevalent in our DNA. And both of my older sisters are also dyslexic.

Laura: Oh, wow. Are you?

Casey: No, actually, I was the human spellcheck in our house. I was the only one who wasn't dyslexic. And so, like, literally, my sisters would be, who are like five and eight years older than me, I would be like, spell checking their homework for them.

Laura: Oh, I love that.

Casey: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, we're all in it together. But, so my mom, I think, was always looking for the signs. Was getting us tested too early, like my sisters did, like occupational therapy. And, you know, we're treated for their dyslexia growing up. My oldest sister, who was severely dyslexic, became a voracious reader, and I think is the one I owe my career to because so much of my interest in books and writing was just from wanting to be like her.

So, definitely a success story for occupational therapy there. So, I was tested, and this is again a time when we were differentiating between ADD and ADHD. And I had like big capital H hyperactivity as a kid. I was the kid who was like always in the emergency room because I was like throwing myself off of stuff, you know.

Laura: Sorry to laugh at that.

Casey: No, no, you should, you should. But so, yeah, I was tested early, and I was diagnosed early. I was diagnosed in first grade and immediately was medicated from an early age. And I think the wonderful thing about being diagnosed young and being in a family where we were all, we all had it, and I mean, you know, not to say it was like a perfectly informed, perfect environment for ADHD, but it was a space where it was completely open and talked about and not stigmatized, and it was never questioned whether or not it was a thing.

We all had this understanding that, like, our brains are just different from other peoples in these ways, but they're the same as each other's in these ways. And that, I think, was such an important part in me being able to be so open about this stuff as an adult. So, that was my journey, and now I am 33 years old, and I think kind of entering my adult relationship with my ADHD. And that's a whole different beast.

Laura: Sticking with you in first grade or into grade school as a kid, essentially, that unique, like understanding of your brain because of your family experience with ADHD. Did you carry that into school? Were you able to advocate for yourself because you had more of this understanding?

Casey: I feel like yes and no. I feel like this is such like an eyeroll term these days. But like former gifted kids, I feel like can relate to this experience where, like, I was a very precocious reader. I like, taught myself to read when I was like three at home, just from like, memorization. So, by the time I got to kindergarten, I just remember the teachers being, like, annoyed that I could read already because I learned the wrong way.

Laura: OK.

Casey: And writing too. I taught myself to write, and I remember being so mad in kindergarten because they would give you those, like, worksheets to teach you how to write letters, and they're telling you, like, "Trace it in this order," like, and it has little arrows. It shows you which way to put your pen.

And I'm like, "That's not how I do it." And the teacher's being like, "Well, you have to do it this way because this is the way it's done." And I'm like, "But I do it already. These kids don't even know what they're doing. I know what I'm doing. How are you going to tell me I'm wrong? I've been doing this for, like two years, longer than anyone else here."

And so, it was like, in some ways, it was good because I knew that my brain was different. I also knew that I was smart, and I knew that just because they said I was doing it wrong did not mean I was stupid. So like, that was the way that I think having an early diagnosis protected me.

But at the same time, it was really frustrating because I didn't feel like any of my teachers understood it. Like I wanted them to look at me and be like, "Wow, it's so amazing you can already read," you know, "It's so amazing you can already write. Gold Star 100, we love you. Like you can go sit over here and play with blocks while I teach these kids how to do vowels."

And instead, I felt almost like it was like a problem that had to be solved. Like I had to be re-taught and kind of like re-disciplined into writing my E with the pen going in the right direction. And not to get too like in the weeds of like intellectual trauma or whatever you want to call it, but I do think there's something really formative about being told that the way you learn to do one of the first things you ever learn to do to communicate your thoughts and feelings is wrong.

There's something really like enduring in a very formative way, for a teacher to look at a five-year-old and be like, "It doesn't matter that you can write and read. What matters is that you're not doing it by the method that is approved by me." I do think that's damaging to a kid. And I think, like I think about that a lot when I try to figure out where does some of these feelings I have as an adult go back to? I think about that kid.

Laura: Yeah, I was going to ask, do you carry that around? Like, can you give me an example of how that experience pops up for you?

Casey: Oh my God. I look back on my life so much and try to understand, like, I think that when you like a queer or trans or both adult, you will at some point spend some time unpacking shame, whatever inherent shame you carry with you, and you try to figure out like what is like the foundational wound of this, and where does this come from for me?

And is there some kind of internalized stuff that I have yet to unpack? And I've done a lot of that work in therapy as an adult, and there are a lot of things that directly relate to my, like, queer and trans identities. But I really think the deepest wound that I have is being neurodivergent.

Laura: Oh, wow.

Casey: Yeah, I think the feeling of being in the world and looking around and just having an awareness that everyone's having a completely different experience navigating the world than you are. That is the thing that most of all makes you feel like an alien. You know, it makes you feel out of place and makes you feel ashamed that you cannot be like everyone else.

And I think that feeling creates this little channel that then, you know, internalized every other kind of self-hate or shame can then rest inside of. And I think, I don't know, I mean, I'm not going to say that that was started by handwriting worksheets in kindergarten, but I don't think it helped.

Laura: Give me an example of just that feeling of not fitting in as a neurodivergent person. Like, how do you perceive what the neurotypical experience may be versus what you're experiencing?

Casey: I feel like I keep going back to academic settings, first and foremost, because I think about the homework planners that, you know, you get handed out to you as a kid at the beginning of every grade. And I remember watching everyone else in my class use their homework planners and just looking at mine and it's just blank, week after week after week. I probably filled it in for the first week of school because I was like, "How exciting! A new planner, and then I never...

Laura: The novelty of it all.

Casey: Yes, and then I never touched it again and I couldn't remember any of my assignments. And then I just would look around and wonder when my brain was going to magically, like, firm up and become that kind of brain.

Laura: What kind of brain? Like an organized brain?

Casey: Yeah. An organized brain or what I saw is like a normal brain, because it was what most people around me were doing, and I kept waiting for it to be something that I could do easily and that I wanted to do, and that just like happened. And it never was.

And I know that sounds so small, but it's just like, I just felt like every classmate I had was just living in like, a different plane of existence than me, where that was just what was done. And I just kept waiting to one day wake up on that plane, and it just never happened. And I think that was a really alienating feeling.

Laura: It might sound basic or simple, these tasks that you're talking about, but they add up and they make life so stressful. I was scrolling through the ADHD and women Reddit, subreddit. I don't know the right terminology. I'm sorry. But there's just so much great conversation happening there. And I was scrolling around, I was like, yes, yes, yes, the whole time. But things like they don't seem like huge problems, but like, I couldn't really relate to them. For instance, some, one woman had said "I had to reschedule my hair appointment and I had a complete meltdown."

Casey: Yeah. Oh my God, yeah.

Laura: And it's like, it derails you for the whole day.

Casey: Yes.

Laura: Or I've been fired four times because I get to work late three days a week or because I can't manage my time, that kind of thing.

Casey: Completely. And I think, like — not to like, derails us too much into, like the social ripple effect of ADHD — but while I don't identify as a woman now, I was raised as a girl in the South with the expectations that I would one day be like a mother and a wife.

And in that context, there are so many things that are kind of pressed upon you that like, you need to be able to manage a household and you need to be able to, like, anticipate the needs of others, and you need to be as small as possible and take up as little space as possible. And don't interrupt people and like, hold yourself back and manage yourself in all of these ways.

So many things that are completely antithetical to having ADHD and all of the things that you're hearing are telling you. Like, if you are not these ways, you will not be loved and your life will not be fulfilled. And what is your worth, even if you cannot perform in these ways? And I think that in itself, in that specific environment, is a way that ADHD really can lead to so much deep shame and guilt and feelings of displacement and feelings of isolation.

Laura: Casey, would you say that that, the homework planner thing, it sounds like that was a really formative moment for you. Would you consider that an "aha" moment?

Casey: I think like my "aha" moment would be, I was taking AP English and like I'm a writer, there's on paper absolutely no reason I should struggle with a class like AP English. You know, I should be setting the world on fire in AP English. And I was turning in, and I was turning in good work, but I can very vividly remember having a day where — for the listeners at home, if you ever take an AP English like trigger warning for major work status sheets — but we'd have these things called major work status sheets, where it's literally just like the most boring thing you could ask an ADHD person to do, which is to break a book down into like basically an itemized sheet of what's in it.

And I remember putting them off and putting them off and putting them off, and it got to the point where I had to, like, skip a class so I could go to the library and write my major work status sheet before my English class. And there was one day that my English teacher, like, walked into the library and caught me doing it and was so obviously disappointed in me because she had seen my work. She had read the essays I could write. She knew I was very talented and thoughtful and a good reader and all of these things.

But here I was, skipping a class to do a homework assignment that was already late, and that I think was like a pretty big "aha" moment for me because I became aware that this was something that, for better or for worse, other people saw as like an emergency that needed to be addressed, you know, because like that teacher, then let me crack open like one of the worst experiences of my teenage years.

Laura: Tell me. I love this. We just met for the second time, tell me about the worst experiences of your life. Yeah.

Casey: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. I feel like though, I feel like that is like the experience of meeting somebody else with ADHD is like, "Oh my God, what's like the worst thing that's ever happened to you?" But I mean, and this is going to sound so silly, but it was just such a humiliating moment in like, such a tender spot for me because English was my best subject.

English, just like, representative of what I wanted to do with my life. And this was like probably senior year. And I remember that teacher called like a parent-teacher conference that was literally was like, she even, like, Avengers assembled all of the past English teachers I had in high school. And so, I go into a classroom with my mom, and it is all four of my English teachers having an intervention, basically for me.

Laura: Whoa whoa whoa.

Casey: Yeah, this really happened. This really happened. It's me and it's my mom. And it is all four of my English teachers. It's literally basically an intervention where they're like," Casey, you are one of the, like, the brightest students we've ever had. We think you're so smart, such a brilliant writer. But you cannot manage your work and you are consistently late with everything you turn in."

And I feel like the tone of it was like, "You don't try and you don't apply yourself and you don't care. And if you would simply try and care and apply yourself, you could be just next level. You are basically getting in your own way and like blocking your own excellent work from getting the recognition it deserves because you cannot turn it in on time." And like, talk about, like speaking into my deepest insecurities, you know, and the things that I was always afraid that people were thinking of me, which is, "Wow, Casey is so smart. It's such a shame that they're such a fuck up."

Laura: Right. Like, this is willful behavior on your part.

Casey: Right. I think I forgot that happened until a few years ago. And then, like, suddenly something made me like, like, trigger that repressed memory, and I was like, "Oh, my God, that happened." But it was just like, I wouldn't call that a moment, because it was a moment where I realized not only did I have ADHD, but I had such an intense and persistent problem with coping with it, and that it was affecting my life in such a deep way that, like the people who I looked up to most and who I wanted most to appreciate me and recognize me, were seeing that it was a problem. And that was tough. It was really tough.

Laura: Yeah, that sounds so painful. Casey. I'm sorry.

Casey: Well. Thank you. You'll be happy to know I have worked through it in therapy.

Laura: Therapy is wonderful.

Casey: Yeah.

Laura: So four English... Yeah, because that's, it's such an important part of your life. Is you're writing and words and, yeah, OK.

Casey: Yeah. Well guess what? All four of you, I am now a published author. So, now what?

Laura: Have you reached out to these teachers? They know, obviously, they must know. You're a famous former student there.

Casey: I mean, I have a lot to say to them because first of all, I know at least one of them has said to my mom that, like, I'm a good writer, but it's a shame what the content of my books is because I write queer romance. And I attended a evangelical Christian school for 13 years, so I have not reached out to any of those teachers because my books are gay and I get so jealous of people whose like English teachers go to their book readings and stuff.

And like, not to like whatever, but like it's an interesting feeling of like, I don't really get to have that victory lap because of the content of my books, and I don't really want to create opportunities for those people to say shit to me.

But I mean, if I could say something to them right now, I would say, "A of all: They're good books, and I think you'd have a fun time if you could, like, get over yourself, and B of all: It turns out that all of the ways that my brain is different, that made me struggle in school, are the exact same ways that make me a really good author and really good at my job now. And I hope that you know that there's more than one way to be a brilliant student and a brilliant person, and they don't all look like turning in your major work status sheet on time."

Laura: That B of all message, I think is — sure, for your former teachers — but for all young people out there.

Casey: Oh, for sure.

Laura: Who are doing wonderful work but can't get it in their backpack in time to take it to school, right?

Casey: Yeah.

Laura: For instance.

Casey: Oh my God. Well, I couldn't even get my work in my backpack because there were five bag lunches crammed down to the bottom that I had forgotten about for about five weeks, and they all were full of like, rotting bananas.

Laura: I was just going to ask, is it full of rotting bananas? It's always a banana.

Casey: Why is it always a banana?

Laura: It's always a banana. And they get the gnarliest. They're so gross.

Casey: Yes. Oh my God, yeah. No, I was like literally like one of those, like Garbage Pail Kids, like the little cars. It's so funny, I guess people will think I'm cool because I'm like an author now and I'm like, I just want you to picture me 12 years old with like, a giant backpack full of rotting bananas.

Laura: Casey, tell us about the new book.

Casey: Yeah.

Laura: Tell us about when the book comes out and tell us what do we need to know about it?

Casey: OK. So, my new book, it is called "The Pairing." And for anyone watching the video, here is the cover and the like, elevator pitch is it's about two bisexual exes who accidentally find themselves reunited on a three-week food and wine tour through France, Spain, and Italy. And to prove how completely over each other they are, they challenge each other to see who can hook up with the most hot Europeans along the way.

Now, I think it is a little more complex than that. It's a, I think it's a, as we say, a rich text. It is about art and food and decadence and hedonism, and it's about casual intimacy and the transformative and affirming and sort of transcendent qualities of queer sex. And it is about pleasure and being a hot mess.

And it's also about finding your way back to that one person who is always going to be home for you, and how time apart has kind of made these two people into even better matches for each other. And some of that comes through the form of like gender exploration or learning more about themselves through intimacy or things like that. So it's really, I like to say it's like my lowest stakes book.

Laura: Why is that?

Casey: Well, so my first three books feel like really high-stakes romances. You know, my first one is about global politics. My second one is about time and space. I mean, my third one is about like being an annoying teenage girl at a evangelical Christian school, which clearly has nothing to do with my own life. But that one still feels really high stakes for the characters, because being a teenager just feels high stakes.

But this one was one I wanted to write as sort of like this rumination on pleasure and connection. All of the conflict is internal between these two characters, and everything outside of them is just like eating and drinking and seeing beautiful things and experiencing beautiful sensations. And so, I like to think of it as sort of like, I mean, I feel like vacation read sounds too flippant, but it is kind of like it's a vacation read in the sense that reading it is the vacation, you know.

Laura: It sounds fun, but it also sounds complex, and it sounds beautiful.

Casey: Yeah.

Laura: And there's a character with ADHD.

Casey: Yes. So, it's like split POVs. So there's two POV characters, and one of them is Theo, who is like 28, non-binary, figuring out life. And they kind of, I jokingly call them an unsuccessful Nepo baby, but that's kind of what they are. And they come from like a Hollywood family, but they're really determined to prove themselves outside of the family business and keep failing at that, because they have all of these big dreams and these big visions that they get really excited about chasing down. But the follow through and the minutia of managing it all is really difficult for them to keep straight.

Laura: It's very relatable.

Casey: Yeah. Yes. And I think I want Theo to feel a little frustrating to read because Theo frustrates themself all the time, and I feel like so much of the ADHD experience for me up until like, I mean, even now, but especially for like, you know, the first like 30 years of my life was just this deep frustration with myself that I couldn't just like the way Theo describes it is like getting their shit together. And I just wanted to get my shit together and I never could.

And I think Theo has convinced themselves that they have done that now. But what they really haven't done yet is figure out how to work with their brain instead of against it. And that's kind of what their journey in this book is about, is learning that, like, it's okay to not be able to do things the way that other people do things, because you get to do things in a completely different way that other people can't do.

Laura: I can't wait to read it. And we got to hear an excerpt earlier on the show. That's so exciting. Can people pre-order it now?

Casey: Yeah, you can preorder it now anywhere that books are sold and it comes out August 6th. And I do think you should preorder it because the first printing has these, like beautiful, like lavender stenciled edges. And they're really, it's really cute. It's like a nice little package.

Laura: Well, congratulations, Casey. And thank you so much for coming on the show today. I've had a great time.

Casey: Yeah. No, thank you so much. And if I can just say one more thing just to kind of like tie off my, like, journey where I am right now with my ADHD, I feel like is actually a really cool and beautiful place because I am entering an era of working with my brain instead of against it, and kind of finding all the things that are amazing and magical and superpowery about all the things my brain does.

And some of those things are being really good at this, like intense emotional connection that I do every time I sign books and I meet people, and being able to switch between projects and then lock in and get like really intensely into something and just knock it out in a few days. And there are so many things about my brain that felt like hindrances that are actually just like kind of the underside of a superpower, you know what I mean?

Laura: Yeah.

Casey: And so, for anybody who, like, wants to be a writer or wants to have, you know, a creative career, but you feel like your ADHD is really getting in the way of it, or making it impossible to sustain and like a career type of way. I would just encourage you to find the things that your ADHD makes you good at and make those the load-bearing columns of your life.

And then for everything else, find the ways to navigate it in ways that work with your brain and not against it. Because all you will get is more frustration trying to make your brain do something that it just won't do. And there are a million and one other ways to do things, and you just have to figure out what those are for you. So that's my two cents, but this is lovely. I'm so glad this podcast exists. I'm like a new listener, but I'm a big podcast person. I'm gonna be listening lots.

Laura: Well, we appreciate that. And we're so grateful that you came on the show. Everybody check out "The Pairing" and you can pre-order it now. Get the lilac border. Is that right, lavender or lilac? We'll accept either.

Casey: I mean, pick your poison, I think both sound lovely.

Laura: You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDaha@understood.org. I'd love to hear from you. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

"ADHD Aha!" is produced by Jessamine Molli. Say hi, Jessamine!

Jessamine: Hi everyone.

Laura: Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, Seth Melnick is our executive producer, and I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.

Host

  • Laura Key

    is executive director of editorial at Understood and host of the “ADHD Aha!” podcast.

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