Messy but Not Lazy: ADHD Story
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Kids and adults with ADHD can have a hard time keeping things tidy. That’s true of Jeannie Ferguson, a plus model in Brooklyn who describes herself as “messy.” Jeannie was diagnosed with ADHD in college — and her wife, Tash, also has ADHD. 

Jeannie describes in detail what goes on in her brain when she tries to tidy and clean up her home. She shares what led to her ADHD diagnosis, and why as a Black woman she hesitated to get evaluated. And she answers a burning question: What’s it like when two people with ADHD get married?

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Episode transcript

Jeannie: I was in college, and I come across a finance professor and he actually recommended that I go and get tested for ADHD, because I would zone out in his class. I would be writing the grocery list. I would be doing homework from another class. I had no interest in his class. However, him speaking to another professor and, you know, the three of us talking and having a laugh, he asked that professor, what were her grades in your classes? And she said, she'd get A's and A-pluses. But he said, well, she has failed my class for sure. I definitely think you need to go. And I had my reservations about going, because, in the African American community back then during that time, that's not something that you spoke about. And I didn't want that stigma on me that I was crazy, or I was slow, that I didn't know what I was doing or what have you. I put it off for a little while and I finally went and, yeah, the diagnosis was definitely a positive one.

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'm here today with Jeannie Ferguson. Jeannie is a plus model who lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her wife, Tash, who also has ADHD. Welcome, Jeannie.

Jeannie: Thank you for having me, Laura.

Laura: So, Jeannie, you used the word "mess." I think you said, "I'm a mess." Tell me what you mean by that. What does that word mean to you, and how does that relate to your ADHD?

Jeannie: So I can never get my home clean all at one time, in a certain amount of time. So I have to start in my bedroom. I'll go, I'll make up my bed. I'll put my shoes back in the box. I'll put all of my clothes, I'll hang them back up, whatever it is, perfume, if it's sitting out or whatever, anything, just putting it in order. I'm dusting, wiping things down. 

If I step out of my bedroom and go into the bathroom, I know it's time for me to clean the bathroom. So now I am turning on the shower with Ajax in the tub, and I'm taking stuff off of the cabinet. Cause now we're going to clean the cabinet. So now my bedroom is not complete. Because I need to now take the clothes off the bed, even though I made it. But now the clothes that was on the chair is on the bed and has to be put away. I haven't done that yet. I've walked out.

My phone may ring. It may not be near me. It may be in the living room. Now I'm in the damn living room. And I'm like, oh, OK, so now I know I have to sweep the carpet. I don't like the vacuum. I like to sweep. I'm going to sweep the carpet. I'm going to polish the wooden table. OK, so I'll start with that. I'll answer the phone, but now that I'm talking, I put it on speaker. Now I'm cleaning that. The bathtub is still running. Let's not forget the bathtub is still running. The clothes are still on the bed, but I've started in the living room. So now the living room is half clean, because I hung up, but now I'm like, oh, I have to go to the bathroom. Now I go to the bathroom. I use the restroom. I'm now moving everything around. I'm washing my hands. Oh, let me clean the tub.

The clothes are still there. The living room, I haven't finished sweeping. There are six different piles of dirt in the living room. Then, you know, the couches, I have pillows that I need to fluff those. Oh, wait, I have a coffee cup and a cereal bowl in the kitchen I need to clean. And I usually wipe my stove off or what have you, because this dust or what have you.

Oh, so nothing is complete.

Laura: Jeannie, that was an amazing walk through your ADHD brain.

Jeannie: Oh, yeah. That's at least three times a week, Laura.

Laura: You just ran the gamut of almost every executive functioning difficulty that can lead to quote-unquote messiness, and ADHD, like starting and finishing cleanup tasks, paying attention to what you're doing, keeping track of what you're doing, not getting distracted from what you're doing. I mean, that was a journey. I really appreciate you taking me through your house like that. I could visualize every aspect of it.

Jeannie: Well, now the weird thing is if my wife has to clean something, she's a carpenter. So she builds things. She will build you a cabinet. She can build you a home. That's what she does. And she deals a lot with the different tools and stuff like that. She will literally sit and her focus is taking each screw and putting it where it belongs. So it may be 50 different screws. She will sit and organize.

Laura: Ooh, interesting.

Jeannie: And then she'll put that away. Then she'll go to the kitchen cabinets. My kitchen cabinets are in order, honey. Totally in order, she will play Tetris and put things away where I can see everything and I can get everything. That's not how it was for me. As soon as I clean it up, I can't find anything. I'm still looking for a pair of shoes. They're new shoes. I don't know where I put them because I had cleaned the closet.

Laura: So it sounds like Tash gets really, like, hyperfocused on the organization aspect of it, which is really interesting. And then there you are, and it's almost like you seem to, you thrive in the clutter, or like, does it bother you?

Jeannie: No, it doesn't bother me because I know where it's at. I know that I tried on, literally, I'm telling you what's there now. So my sister and I have a shoot on Sunday. I have an orange sweater that I know I want to use for the shoot. I did not hang it up. I'm not going to fold it. I'm not going to put it in the closet where the rest of the things are. I'm not going to do that, because if I do, I'm not going to find it. I'm going to leave it laying on this chair until I leave out the door on Sunday.

Laura: Hey, good strategy if that works for you.

Jeannie: I'm OK with the clutter. As soon as everything is spotless, I start to get anxiety because I feel like I lost something. I don't know if I threw it away. Did I throw it away? I don't know if I'm going to be able to find it. Is it there? I don't know. It's really bad. It becomes bad. Sometimes I cry.

Laura: You cry, Jeannie?

Jeannie: I do. If I have a lot of things going on, I put it in the calendar first and foremost. I have two calendars. So I have one that my wife and I share that I have to put things in there so she'll know to remind me. Because that calendar will remind her to remind me to look at the calendar that I know is going to actually alert me.

So it becomes really bad. And just the other day, she's like, "I need to know what's wrong because you're not sleeping." I couldn't sleep because the next day I had a shoot and I had to get everything together. Not, did I not pack? Did I have these shoes, did I not? So I'm up at 4:00 in the morning and the shoot is not until 1 p.m.

There is nothing for me to do, but my anxiety gets the best of me. And I'm thinking I'm going to forget something because I'm so used to not being organized that it scares me. So, you know, I cried the other day. I was like, "I don't know what to do."

Laura: Yeah. That sounds really exhausting and stressful. There's the aspect of remembering what you need to do and then remembering to do the things that help you remember what you need to do. And it's a lot to manage.

Jeannie: It is.

Laura: This word "messy" is a really loaded word, right? I think the word "messy" or "messiness" can imply laziness. And we hear that a lot at our organization. Like people write in — parents or people with ADHD — saying, you know, "My kid or myself, I'm not lazy. I want to do this, but I just — I have trouble getting it done." So I'm just curious, like, how do you perceive that word "messy," and what does it mean to you?

Jeannie: I sometimes think that I am lazy. I know that I have to do something and it's like, oh, OK. You have to call the studio and, you know, book, the studio. Eh, I'll do it tomorrow. It's messy because you, as an adult, know that you have to handle business. This is your livelihood. You have to do it. But in your mind, it's just like, I can do it tomorrow. 

But I will get excited if I clean up the mess. If I, on my list — because I also make lists. That's the only way I'm going to get through life is with a list. I learned that. I completed, Laura, a whole list of 10 things in one day. And I was so proud of myself. I was excited. I was on it. I was like, look it, you did a good job. But two days later it was like, OK. So I have to call again. I'll wait until tomorrow.

Laura: You don't seem lazy to me at all. It sounds like you have a thriving career. You have a wonderful home life. And just hearing you describe your day to day, whether or not things get done, I can tell that you're either trying or you are getting them done. So, like, you definitely don't seem lazy.

Jeannie: But I do feel that way. I feel very lazy. If I know that I don't have to leave out until 1 p.m., if I sit down, I am there until 11:30. I'm not moving. I know I have to answer these emails. Yes, I have to get dressed. Waiting until the last minute sometimes is, it can be bad, as well, thinking "Oh, I got time." And then you look up like, "Oh, I only got 15 minutes," you know, to get out the door, to get to the train on time, or what have you. It seems very lazy at times to me.

Laura: I mean, a lot of people with ADHD, myself included, like, I know I get really hard on myself when I feel like I'm not performing to my top potential. And, like, when I can feel my ADHD blockers, like my trouble with organization or trouble getting started on something, I know why I'm unable to get started or to finish something. And I know that it's, like, in some ways it's beyond my control. But I still, I get really down on myself and it's, it's emotional.

So, lists. What other kinds of things do you do to cope?

Jeannie: Well, besides the lists, I go back to my calendar and look at things that I accomplished. Like, OK, so I know this day I had a one-on-one training, and then at night I had a Zoom and then, you know, I had to meet friends for dinner, and I accomplished all of these things.

So this day, Wednesday, the 23rd, I did that. On the 29th, I have to do the same thing. So what did I do? I'll go back and think about how did I start the day. Did I get up early, you know, on your phone, it tracks everything — the time you got up and you started to touch your phone. Oh, so this is the time you was up or what have you. I'll go back and I'll track absolutely everything and go, OK, so I started at this time and I made good time, and I know I had to start an hour and a half earlier than what it takes. So I'll go back and literally look at the things that I've already done.

Laura: Oh, that's interesting. That takes a lot of diligence, too. You're looking back at your accomplishments, which hopefully is like a confidence booster as well. Like, you managed to do X, Y, and Z on this day. Now let's replicate it and then continue to improve. So it sounds like a lot of work.

Jeannie: It is, it is.

Laura: Jeannie, I want to talk about your diagnosis and evaluation journey.

Jeannie: So I, because I am a lot older than what you may think. I won't tell, but I am way older. I'll tell you offline. I was in college and I had come across a finance professor and he actually recommended that I go and get tested for ADHD, because there was certain classes that I kept failing. Just, I can't get past this one damn class, for whatever. I just kept failing. Picked up this class again. I got to pay for it. I have to take this damn class to pass. And he said, "Jeannie, I'm serious. I really think that you should go get tested." 

I'm not thinking that he was serious. African Americans don't go get tested for crazy. We not crazy. We don't do stuff like that. That's in my mind, because that's what I was taught. You don't talk about it. You don't say anything about, you know, the kid might be slow, you know, in learning and will have a learning disability, you know, slow to learn or what have you, may have a learning disability. You don't talk about stuff like that. A lot of times, you know, from my era, they brush it under the rug. But he said, "Jeannie, I really think that you should go and see." 

I procrastinated for many, many weeks. And I'm like, this man is crazy. There's nothing wrong with me. Until again, taking different tests and doing different things, and realizing that these classes had caught my attention. I am focused. I am here. I can retain all of the info that I need. When it comes to him, I'm not interested in this. Am I even going to use this? And with my degree, like, mister, please. 

But when I finally thought about it, I said, you know what, let me just go. I'm thinking it would be a blood test. I don't know why. Of course, ignorant to the whole thing, thinking it was a blood test. And they start asking the questions. How do you feel when you — can you complete certain things? That was one. Are you excited when you complete these things or do you feel like, OK, job well done, and you move on to something else? No, I'm excited the whole time, like we focused, this day belongs to me. This is me, you know, the different things that they would ask. 

Then I realized, like, all of these things are true. Like what the hell? I'm crazy. Crazy. So I was in college when I was diagnosed, but that's how it came about. I didn't tell my mom and my sister, because again, I didn't want the whole stigma of, you know, Jeannie crazy.

So I've never told anybody. But now they all know, and they understand my craziness.

Laura: Your wife, Tash, also has ADHD. Isn't that right?

Jeannie: Yes. The two of us together. I am a mess. She is kinda sort of OCD. My attention span is very short and I feel so bad for her. If we are watching a movie and if I lose interest, it definitely is. When I met Tash, I didn't know that she had ADHD as well.

And she was, she was a model as well. And she's from Texas, I'm from New York, and I was there training.

Laura: She was a model, and she's a carpenter. Now this is, this is the coolest relationship I think I've ever heard about.

Jeannie: Oh yeah. She was a model at first. And I had come down to teach a class, a runway class in Houston, Texas. And she was very hands-on even there. She was building stuff. She was putting stuff together, very handy or what have you. When she and I finally started to talk and get together, I was like, well, let me just tell you this now, because I'm not always focused. And I kept saying, "What? What did you say?" I'm like, "OK, so let me just tell you this, because I said this about 20 times since we've spoken in the last 10 minutes. I have ADHD. I'm not focused on what you're saying right now. I, it's not that it's not important or I'm not engaged in this conversation, but I have about 75 things running over in my head with what I have to do tomorrow. I apologize. I'm all over the place, and you have to learn how to speak Jeannie eventually." And she said, "I understand."

What, you understand Jeannie? Because if you don't know how to speak Jeannie, you won't get through any of this. She said, "No, I understand. You have ADHD. I do too." I was like, "Really? Oh my goodness." Then I got a little quiet, Laura, because I was like —

Laura: Wait, but that's so exciting. OK. I'm excited though.

Jeannie: Like, how the hell is this going to work out? We two crazy-ass people and you have ADHD too. This is going to be one hell of a relationship.

Laura: But at the same time, were you also thinking, "Oh, I found my people."

Jeannie: Somebody who can understand. Absolutely.

Laura: Yeah, because you didn't share it with your family, right, because you were worried about the perception of that. And here you go, you shared, you took a leap, and now, and then you got married.

Jeannie: Yes. It was all legal. What are we going to do? We're going to be crazy together for real.

Laura: It's all legal now your, our ADHDs are bound together forever.

Jeannie: Forever. Till death do us part, we're going to be crazy together.

Laura: You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!" from the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "ADHD Aha!" on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about the show. We rely on listeners like you to reach and support more people. And if you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDAha@understood.org. I'd love to hear from you. You can go to u.org/ADHDAha to find details on each episode and related resources. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G slash ADHDAha. Understood is a nonprofit and social impact organization. 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: Justin D. Wright created our music. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. And I'm your host, Laura Key, editorial director at Understood. Thanks so much for listening.

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