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Depression, relationships, and the myth of the ADHD “superpower” (Max’s story)

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Max Willey, an expat living in Norway, often found himself overwhelmed by complex tasks as a kid. There were too many moving parts, and his brain was always racing too fast. A teacher thought he might have ADHD.

But it wasn’t until adulthood that Max was diagnosed “by accident.” He was feeling depressed and was struggling with some relationships. When he sought treatment, he was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and depression all at once. 

Max felt relieved. And he’s come to see ADHD as a “glorious curse.” It has its downsides — but also allows him to feel and do wonderful things.  

Listen in as Laura and Max unpack this and more.

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Episode transcript

Jessamine: Hi, everybody. This is "ADHD Aha!" producer Jessamine. Before we get into the episode, I wanted to give you a heads-up that our guest, Max, shares his experience with depression. And there is a brief reference to suicidal ideation. Max's telling of his journey back from that dark period is important to his story, and we hope you will find it as insightful as we did.

Max: Just recently, the realization that came to me was that I don't need to turn everything up to 11 in order for it to count. Sometimes it just needs to be showing up. These little things — they count. More than the gigantic, titanic, Herculean efforts. And with that, it's very liberating.

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 Max Willey. Max is a content and video producer and expat living in Oslo, Norway. Max is also a listener who wrote in. And one of the things that stuck out to me in the letter that he sent in to our "ADHD Aha!" email address was that he referred to ADHD as a glorious curse. Welcome, Max. Thanks for being here today.

Max: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

Laura: Let's get started with when were you diagnosed with ADHD? What was going on?

Max: The official diagnosis occurred when I was 31.

Laura: So that was a few years ago.

Max: A few years ago. Unofficially, my first-grade elementary school teacher picked up on some unattentiveness, inability to complete tasks. And that was brought forth to my parents, but nothing was really done.

Laura: Tell me more about what led you to get diagnosed when you were 31.

Max: Well, let's see. The childhood symptoms were, I mean, a touch of hyperactivity. The main thing I remembered from kindergarten was just that complex instructions were very difficult, and I lost interest very quickly.

But at the same time, I felt that everyone around me was going so slowly. Like, if it was something that interested me, then I just soaked it up like a sponge. If it was animals or planets or facts about UFOs, I just ate that up.

But if it was following through on complex things, then I was hopeless. I still remember the very first project I didn't complete. It was the, you know, those little hand printed — like you traced your hand for the turkeys for Thanksgiving?

Laura: Yeah.

Max: There were just too many moving parts for me to really wrap my head around. I was like four and a half, five years old at that time. And I just remember having this uncompleted turkey on my desk for a week. It just sat there and it was this constant reminder of my first failure.

Laura: Wow. That's kind of amazing how vividly you remember that.

Max: It just stuck out to me. Perhaps because, like, I've gone back in my mind so many times, I've ruminated so many times about these things and just been like, that was a sign and I should have seen it.

I remember reading comprehension and math were also big issues because it just felt like everyone was running circles around me. I just completely did not get it. Until I was put in — this was in third grade — I was put in remedial reading and math. And they just took everything at a snail's pace. And I just remember, wow, this is fun. I can do this.

Laura: I wonder if there was a struggle with reading and math, or if it was the effort that needed to go into learning — the kind of, the ADHD symptoms around that? Or maybe a combination of both. Have you struggled with forgetfulness?

Max: Oh, yes. That was one of the things that drove my mom crazy in particular. It has been a specter over my life — forgetfulness. And like it just built up to such a state where, like, sometimes I would forget a piece of paper. I'd forget a piece of homework. I would forget to do this thing, or I would forget that. I mean, all throughout my childhood.

And it drove my mother crazy. She would ask me, "Why did you do this?" or "What happened?" I would tell her "I forgot." And she would either mock me and say "I forgot! I forgot!" like that, or say, "Max, I'm going to get you a tombstone. And it's going to say 'Max Willey, I forgot' on it."

The problem was, I thought it was normal for parents to do that to their kids. It's been a point of contention for not just me and her, but me and other people. Forgetfulness is a big issue that I've had to tackle.

Laura: I think a lot of times when we talk about people with ADHD and we talk about forgetfulness, I think what we're really talking about is trouble with working memory, which is related to executive functioning issues. People with ADHD, their brain makes it harder for them to have strong working memory.

So you've been carrying around this information that you had been identified as potentially having ADHD when you were a kid. You remember these struggles. So what led you to get evaluated for ADHD as an adult? What was the turning point there?

Max: Well, it happened actually by accident. Because I was originally being treated for depression. There was a period between 2016 and 2019 where I had a serious personal decline. I was stretching myself thin with freelance work. I was working with someone who was very cynical and exploitative, working for them almost every day, on top of working nearly full time at a part-time job. And also starting a master's degree, which I didn't finish.

It was a lot. And throw in multiple failed personal relationships into the mix. That pushed me over the edge. But it was a slow decline, I would say, from the early 2010s. And I just got to a point where I was showing all the classic signs of depression. Lack of interest in things, rumination, ideation of suicide, poor sleeping habits, poor eating habits, not exercising. It all just balled into one.

And I was just like — I was in such a hole that I was just like, I can't keep going on like this. I need to get help. And so I went to the doctors. My general practitioner told them what was happening and they immediately fast-tracked me to a therapist's office. I was screened for different symptoms, and they identified ADHD. Plus generalized anxiety and depression.

Laura: How did it feel? That's a lot of diagnoses to receive at one time. How did that feel?

Max: I felt actually relieved. As crappy as I was still feeling, I was happy that I was getting help. I have this range of like mood from like 100 being like, you're living your most ideal, perfect life. It's heaven. Zero? Dead. You're gone. You don't exist. Like I went from 40% to at the end of the treatment, around 70%. So far, more stable. Still a long road ahead.

I went through group therapy for ADHD. I actually met some people that I knew that I was surprised that they were there. I was like, What, you're here? You're one of the best people in your class. Like, that's a surprise. And they're like, Yeah, like, likewise. You know, I just. I didn't expect you to be here. It was fun to have that kind of camaraderie. And it was very nice to know that a lot of the symptoms that I was having were quite normal.

Laura: Right. And to see them and people, it sounds like, who you admired or were in your eyes high achieving. Probably a good reminder that you can thrive with ADHD.

So one thing I remember, Max, when we had our initial interview, you were like, my view of ADHD isn't all sunshine and roses, right? I remember you talked about the glorious curse, which I guess isn't totally a negative thing because you've got this word "glorious" there. I want to hear you articulate what you mean by ADHD as a glorious curse.

Max: Absolutely. In my research of ADHD, I have heard more people than I can count call it a superpower. And the term just seems so saccharine sweet and just so like Oh, we're going to have fun. Whee! You know, just like — and I just was like, it's not a superpower. I mean, it's a curse.

Because here's the thing. The glorious part is it opens up vistas of creativity and energy and dynamism that people just don't understand. Like when you are fired up, you get fired up. You just can do all the things. You feel like you have divine inspiration. The gods have just shone down a light upon you, and you are at the very center of what you were meant to be. It shows you that, off in the distance, off on the horizon. This glorious city in the clouds.

But between you and that is a deep valley of sharp rocks and obstacles that you have to get through to get there. It's like the ADHD part oftentimes makes it impossible — or not impossible, but just very, very difficult and tedious to get there. So that's where the curse part comes in.

It's glorious in that you can see the potential of who you can be, or even just things that just light your heart on fire. Brings out the best in you. But at the same time, it's like trying to sprint up a mountain with the ball and chain. So that's how I feel about that.

Laura: Very — really beautiful imagery that you use to describe that, too. It really resonates with me. I feel like a good manifestation of this glorious curse is something that you described to me when we originally talked, which you actually had mentioned as being a big "aha" moment for you: writing your thesis.

Max: Yes. I took my very first bachelor in humanities at the University of Oslo. And usually you have a year and a half to do your thesis. They clear your schedule and they just say, Just do that. And I took almost three years to get it done, because it was all of the things that hamper completing a task through — following it through.

It was just the task was a bit complex. I was doing it by myself. And the longer I went without contacting my advisor, the more pressure I felt to deliver. And also fear of his wrath that was just building exponentially with every week, with every unanswered email. I just felt the pressure increase. And so I delayed. And I finished it and handed it in four minutes before the deadline. And that was my last chance.

And one of the biggest symptoms, one of the biggest things that stood out to me was — aside from the things I mentioned, where the putting the pressure on myself and expectations from my advisor and just this pressure to deliver this perfectionism — was it again boiled down to my reading comprehension was too slow for my brain. And it — just like sitting there in a quiet environment, just like reading sentence after sentence. And then just my brain felt like I was holding my breath underwater. And you know that feeling when you just try practicing holding your breath for as long as you can, and it starts burning in your lungs? That's what it felt like in my brain.

So it was frustrating. It was very, very difficult. It was a topic that I loved, too. And it was it was just so interesting. But the thing is that when you get into the nuts and bolts of it — doing the actual work — that's when the passion can evaporate. That's when you'd be like, I have to set up a schedule to actually do these things. I have to write two pages a night. It turns into work. It goes from being a passion and an interest to being an obligation.

You know, a lot of people can say like, Oh, that's childish. Then you're not serious enough. Or you know, grow up, which I've heard before. But it's like that's the point for a lot of people where they fall off. And then it's like, I can't do this. I'm giving up.

Laura: This race to the finish line. Handing in your thesis four minutes before it's due. I mean, that to me is exactly what you described with the glorious curse. You're sprinting up a mountain with a ball and chain. All of this was happening during what you called that decline time period that led up to your ADHD diagnosis, right?

Max: Just before, I would say. Like it was this in-between phase where I graduated from my second bachelor, in media and communication studies. It started around there where one personal relationship ended very badly. And then I just had a string of bad relationships. And it really affected me because I had a lot of guilt.

But the depression part — one of the main like points where I've ruminated on in that dark period was just like, You never follow through. You never complete tasks. You're never going to be anything. You are going to be surrounded by a graveyard of dreams. And that's essentially what I was feeling at the darkest points. It was like being awake at three in the morning. So tired but my brain is just on. And I was just thinking of all the points in my past where I could have changed things. Or thinking about how I'm never going to amount to anything because I never complete anything.

Laura: Wow, that's really powerful. So you've got anxiety and depression kind of feeding off of and ruminating on what are essentially ADHD symptoms. So you're ruminating about your difficulty with these kind of every day.

Max: Yes.

Laura: Executive function skills, completing tasks.

Max: And even up until that point, before my diagnosis, I just thought it was a personal failing. I just thought it was me. I had notes dating back to like 2011. Like "goals for my life" type thing. One of which was "Learn to be consistent. Follow through on tasks." Like on sticky notes I would have on my chalkboard.

Laura: Oh my gosh, I did the exact same thing.

Max: Yeah. God, why are we like this?

Laura: Well, these like, giant ideas I've evolved from, you know, sticky notes to, like, emailing them to myself because that doesn't put any pressure on you to have an email to yourself that says, "Figure out next five years." Or like, "Get better at focusing" or whatever. It's like kind of this all-or-nothing approach, right? Where it's like we're not allowing ourselves — maybe because it's so difficult to break down tasks — we're not allowing ourselves to take these things in chunks. And instead it just looks like this big, giant gray cloud of things we will never get to.

Max: The I think most destructive aspect of it, from what I've experienced, is like the older you get, the more that you rely on friends, on your financial stability, your health. And all of these things needs to be maintained. So I mean, that has always been a challenge for me.

And like especially in the last few years when I was diagnosed with depression, you know, there are times where you just want to vent to a friend. You just want to meet up with someone that you feel safe with. And you just want to talk about everything that's on your mind, talk about what's in your heart.

But for me, that was difficult because I realized that I have not maintained friendships, because I was under the presumption that if you get along with someone, you know, that connection will be there. Right? And I mean, at least in my twenties, I never really considered that maintaining friendships required effort. I always was under the presumption, very naive presumption, that like, oh, we've got chemistry. It'll come back like that. No.

And that really was a bitter awakening in the last few years, just wanting to talk to someone who isn't your therapist, who isn't your significant other, who is not your parents, and just dump all of the stuff out on a table. And not just like talking about your problems, but also growing, you know, becoming an adult parallel with your friends. That's something that, you know, is very, very important, I think. And no one tells you that you have to maintain friendships. Growing up, at least no one told me. So that's — that was one of the things that really hit me in the teeth.

If you find people of value in your life, you do need to touch base with them often. It's just I've never been good at consistency. So it's more of just the repetition of that effort has always been difficult, because then that falls into the routine. It's less novel and interesting, and it just kind of falls into the routine. Like the thought of maintaining something is just like, ugh, work. It's automatically in a work category and then it no longer becomes fun. I mean, this limiting mindset, that's kind of how I approached friendships for a while.

One of the things that I realized just very recently, and this has been in due part to therapy, is that the reason why I was so averse to things like maintaining effort, maintaining fitness, or maintaining financial health or, you know, maintaining friendships, is that my presumption of what it takes to do that work has always been skewed. It has been contaminated by a perfectionist mindset, an all-or-nothing mindset, that any effort that you do has to be turned up to 111 in order for it to count.

And with that corrupted mindset, every time I thought of doing work to maintain these things, I immediately was just like, I'm too tired. I cannot do this. Because I assumed that the effort it took was this monumental effort. But something that my therapist told me was that — it was more of a rhetorical question. She asked me, like, with those things, those assignments at work or the effort it requires to maintain certain habits or hobbies. Could you have done any better there and then with the knowledge that you had? And I was like, obviously not. I mean, I did the best I could. And she's like, There you go. You did the best you could with the knowledge you had.

And that changed my mind is that maintaining things, half of the battle is showing up. And just recently, the realization that came to me was that I don't need to turn everything up to 11 in order for it to count. Sometimes it just needs to be showing up. Or sending a message to a friend. Sending them a funny meme or gif or saying, Hey, what's up? You know, just like what's new in your life? These little things, they count more than the gigantic, titanic, Herculean efforts. And with that, it's very liberating. And with that, it's more hopeful, I think.

Laura: So, Max, you're here talking with me now, which means that you have a level of self-awareness. You're aware of your diagnoses. You're aware of what you're struggling with. I know that you've got coping strategies in place now. And am I right that you even can joke about some of this now?

Max: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I mean, that's the best part is just like my girlfriend. We've been together for five years, and she knows better than most the struggles, but also the humor. And we joke constantly about it. Early in our relationship I told her that, like, I envision my ADHD as a tiny baboon in a control center. He's watching stuff on his phone or got like 20 tabs open. And he's just like going from one thing to the next. He pushes a button here and there. Or he gets hyperfocused on one thing and just like lets the whole thing just melt down.

It's easier sometimes to laugh at it — only if you are trying to fix it. Like if you're trying to actually deal with it, then yeah, sure, you can laugh. That's the thing. Like now I'm a grown-ass man, you know, it's on me to fix this.

Laura: Do you need to fix it, or do you need to cope?

Max: Well, I mean, yeah, maybe a little bit of both. You know, find strategies that work.

Laura: I like that better, Max. You use the language that you want, but I like that better. I'm just telling you.

Max: Yeah, OK. Healthier.

Laura: Max, it's been really nice to talk with you today. I really appreciate your perspective. I love the imagery, the beautiful images that you use. And I appreciate your realism. I think it's necessary.

Max: Thank you for this opportunity to talk with you. Just one parting point I think I'd like to make is just that life can be very beautiful with ADHD. I'm not trying to have this like, "oh, poor me" type mentality, you know. And it can be a very powerful tool if wielded correctly.

My hope for other people is that they do have an opportunity to find a balance between the gloriousness of the curse so that they can actually get to those perfect vistas that they envision for themselves.

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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