ADHD, anxiety, and perfectionism (Laura’s story)
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In this first-ever episode of the ADHD Aha! podcast, host Laura Key shares her own ADHD “aha” moment. Laura was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. But it took an emotional moment in her childhood bedroom for it to finally click that her ADHD is real.
Colleague, friend, and In It podcast host Amanda Morin interviews Laura. Together they talk about ADHD in women and girls, anxiety, and why so many people with ADHD struggle with perfectionism.
Laura: I stumbled across one particular journal from when I was 13 or 14. Every other page just had the word "focus" scribbled all over the pages, everywhere, in different shapes. Some in bubble letters like a kid would do. It was very emotional to see my childhood writing and my childhood struggles all coming together.
And I just started crying. I was bawling. It just became clear. And I was like, oh, this is real. I have ADHD.
I didn't believe my diagnosis when I got it. I thought it's just going to go away. Maybe it was stigma. Maybe my perfectionist self blamed my own willpower and thought that I should just be able to deal with it on my own. But more than anything, I didn't think I deserved a reason to struggle.
I was 30 when I got my ADHD diagnosis. Now it's about 10 years later and I've had many "aha" moments that helped me be kinder to myself. But the most important "aha" moment was the first one I ever had. It was the moment that showed me that my ADHD was real, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Hi. I'm your host, Laura Key. I'm the editorial director at Understood. And I have ADHD. Welcome to "ADHD Aha!" On our show, we're going to dive into the moments that make people go "Yup. It's really real." The moments when the symptoms of ADHD become crystal clear. Each episode, we'll hear a story from someone new — that might be a person with ADHD or someone who noticed ADHD in someone else. And this week, that person is me.
I'm already laughing because I'm here today with my dear friend, Amanda Morin, who is the host of the "In It" podcast, which is also part of the Understood Podcast Network. This is our first episode, and we're already going to go off script, because normally what you're going to hear is me interviewing the story sharer from the first segment of each show. But this week, since I'm the one who shared my story, Amanda is going to be interviewing me. So welcome, Amanda. Thank you for being here.
Amanda: Oh, it's so much fun to be here today. And we spent so much time working on "In It" together that this is a fun way of flipping the tables. So, since I get to interview you today, I'm just going to take right over, Laura. How does that sound?
Laura: OK. I'm ready.
Amanda: So Laura, you have ADHD.
Laura: I do.
Amanda: You also have anxiety.
Laura: I do.
Amanda: Can you tell me if there's a connection between the two for you?
Laura: Oh yes. There is a connection, and it is very hard to untangle most of the time. And that's part of what led me to my big "aha" moment.
I was diagnosed with anxiety in my late twenties, and I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication.
Now I didn't want to take it, because I, being the tough Midwestern girl that I am, thought that I could just pull myself up by the bootstraps and I didn't actually need medication. And I would just figure this anxiety thing out on my own. I'm just so glad that I ended up taking the medication, because once I had that anxiety under control or more under control —
Amanda: You got your anxiety under control. This is what you look like with anxiety under control.
Laura: Yes. Yes. But yeah, I was finally able to see clearly the other things that were going on with me. And one of those things was ADHD. I always use the example with people that medication was like a metronome for my emotions. It helped me stay in balance and my emotions would still speed up and they would get hot or they would slow down and I would get sad, but still I could feel the rhythm of my emotions and better understand the other things that were going on with the medication.
It was like, wow. OK. I know how I'm feeling. I feel normal. Right? That's a common fear. People are afraid they'll take medication and they won't be themselves or feel normal. And wow. I'm really distracted all the time. What's that about? And that's what launched us into the conversation about my having ADHD.
And it's really interesting, because part of ADHD is also trouble managing emotions. And that's why I said earlier that the anxiety and the ADHD get so tangled up, because anxiety makes it hard to manage emotions, and so does ADHD. But I think I'm starting to be able to sort out the difference in like what that means to me personally. With the ADHD difficulty managing emotions, it is so hard to put the brakes on my feelings. I work really hard to just take a breath between action and reaction. And I don't always succeed. I do better when I'm taking my ADHD medication. But there's a lot of overlap there and it's confusing.
Amanda: Some of the strategies you're talking about that, like taking a breath, those are things that all of us need to learn how to do, right? But I think in some ways, because you have this diagnosis and you know that it's hard to put the brakes on the emotions, you’re kind of ahead of the game. When we hear about people having a diagnosis, we think, oh no, they have ADHD. What's their life going to be like? But on the other side of it, it's oh my gosh, I know I have ADHD, and now I know how to manage it, right? So I watch you do it. I hear you say, "I need a moment." We know each other well enough that I can say to you, "Hey, I think you need a moment."
Laura: And I love when you say that to me.
Amanda: And you say it to me too. I mean, let's be honest here, it's a reciprocal kind of thing. What was the moment that made you say "I can't carry this by myself anymore?"
Laura: The moment that I realized I couldn't carry this by myself anymore was my ADHD "aha" moment. After my diagnosis, I went home to visit my family for a holiday. So I went to my childhood home and I was in my bedroom. And I was going through all of my journals from high school. I was a really avid journaler. I was always writing down everything. Not just, you know, emotional entries, but lists and things I needed to do. So it's all becoming clearer here, right? And I was going through my journals one day, and I stumbled across one particular journal that had entry after entry. I think this was a journal from when I was 13 or 14. Every other page just had the word "focus" scribbled all over the pages, everywhere, in different shapes. Some in bubble letters like kid would do. It was very emotional to see my childhood writing and my childhood struggles all coming together. And I know that I was consciously writing the word "focus," but I had no idea why I was doing that.
But in hindsight, I look back and I realized, oh my gosh, I wanted to be so perfect. All the time. And I was struggling so hard to focus on getting things done, on following through with schedules. And my schedule was packed back then. I was a star athlete, a straight-A student. I, you know, I had a lot of friends, but I was struggling so much to just be perfect and to hide the secret that I didn't even know I had.
And I just started crying. I was bawling when I stumbled across these pages. It just became clear. And I was like, oh, this is real. I have ADHD.
Amanda: Were you crying because you realized you had ADHD and it was real? Or were you crying for the Laura who didn't know that?
Laura: I was absolutely crying for the Laura who didn't know that. I wish that that Laura had noticed these things earlier and asked for help. So that I wouldn't have been so hard on myself all the time. I'm not saying that I wanted to slack off or anything like that. And that's another myth. It's not about slacking off. It's about not pushing myself to the point where I was barely sleeping, Amanda. I was up all night working on my AP calc homework, my AP physics, my AP literature homework, practicing basketball and volleyball for five hours a day. Never ever giving myself a break.
I remember one time, I actually got in trouble from one of my coaches, because during the junior varsity game — I was on the varsity team — instead of watching the game, I was doing my homework, because I was so nervous about getting it done. I must've been the only kid in high school who got in trouble for doing too much homework.
Amanda: So let's talk about perfectionism for a minute, because that's such a key point of your story, is how perfectionism was your coping mechanism. It was your way to sort of stay on top of things. Now, I'm going to go a little bit expert on you here. Cause you know that like, that's what I do.
Laura: Do it.
Amanda: It's not uncommon. Perfectionism and ADHD for women is one of the most common things that happen together. It's a control thing, right? And I don't mean control in like "I have to be in control of everybody," but it's a control like I have to be in control of my image. I have to be in control of everything I've got lined up. I have to do it best. I have to make sure I'm not failing in any kind of way. And I think that perfectionism a lot of times is about making sure that we are not looking like we're failing to the rest of the world, right? And I think when you feel like on the inside that you're failing, even though other people can't see it, you have to work harder and harder to keep up with your own expectations. And it becomes perfectionism.
I know that both of my kids who have ADHD and executive functioning issues, they hate to fail.
They would rather not to do something than fail at it. And that's the kind of thing that happens often with people who have ADHD. And I don't know, I'm watching you a little bit. We're sitting here, I'm watching you. You're getting a little teary. Tell me about this.
Laura: I don't need to say anything else. You just summed it up. I relate to your kids. That's taking a chance, trying something new that I might fail at, doing this podcast. These are huge risks for me. I'm scared. I'm — this is a way that I'm pushing myself, right? Like just in life, trying to be OK with not being perfect or failing. We don't want this podcast to fail though, by the way. Share. Tell a friend. But yeah.
Amanda: Your expectations may be super high, but we're not going to fail.
We've worked together for almost, what, a decade now. And I only found out about two years ago, literally when we started working on "In It" together, that you have ADHD. And it was really surprising to me that you were so private about it for such a long time. I mean, I noticed that you are a tremendously organized person, and I just thought that was your personality. But it sounds like you were working hard at that. Why did you not tell us sooner?
Laura: Yes, you're right that I was working very hard at that. It was very new to me when we started working together. So about six years ago, that was just a few years after I had been diagnosed with ADHD. I worked at Understood at that time, and looking back, I can't believe that I was carrying some of the same stigma about myself, and the same myths that other people with ADHD have, despite having worked there. That just goes to show how strong those myths and that stigma can be and how deep they run.
Amanda: The conversation has changed a lot in the past five years, right? So ADHD in women looks really different. Can you tell me a little bit about what you thought ADHD looked like before you were diagnosed with it?
Laura: I thought ADHD looked like something you could look at, right? Something noticeable, something very visible: hyperactivity, running around, roughhousing, fidgeting, being overly restless. And it does look that way to some people, men and women, boys and girls. But that's not how it was surfacing for me. For me, it was surfacing through constant distraction. I couldn't keep my focus if something distracted me, and I couldn't get it back. I was having so much trouble getting organized and following through on tasks.
Amanda: I think it's such a good point about distraction for women. That's a fairly common symptom — that distraction and inability to focus and those kinds of things — that I think a lot of people don't automatically think, oh, that's ADHD.
Laura: And it's funny that you mentioned, Amanda, that working together, you thought that I was the most organized person. And I'm not surprised that you thought that because I worked my butt off to make it seem that way. I used to do this thing where I would give myself fake deadlines in order to get something done on time. So if I had a presentation that was due on a Friday, I would tell myself that it was due on Wednesday. And I would actually make myself believe that was true to the point that Wednesday would come around and I'd say, "Why isn't anyone asking for this yet?"
Amanda: I can't imagine what that was like for you. I can't imagine you carrying that and having everybody else think that you were so on top of it, and feeling on the inside like you weren't. Do you think your "aha" moment has changed how you are in the workplace? Are you still as hard on yourself?
Laura: No, I'm not. I mean, I think I'm someone who will always be hard on myself, but not nearly to the degree that I used to be as a teenager, throughout my twenties, in my early thirties. You know, now as I approach 40, I feel so much more empathy toward myself. I feel OK with asking for help. Or saying something like, "Hey, I didn't actually catch everything you just said. Would you mind putting that in an email for me so I can go back to it later?"
Amanda: Say 10 years from now, you're in a different workplace. What would you do now, knowing that you have ADHD, that you wouldn't have done in your twenties?
Laura: Well, I'll tell you what I hope I would do. I hope that I would disclose my ADHD from the get-go — not as something that I'm ashamed of, but as something that is part of what makes me unique, is also part of what makes me good at what I do, and is also going to cause some struggles here and there that I'm going to accommodate for.
I would hope that for anyone — that they would feel comfortable doing that. And especially women. Women with ADHD — I think. I'm clearly generalizing here. I'm a sample of one. But I think that we work really hard to hide our quote-unquote imperfections.
Amanda: I think sometimes we feel like we don't want to admit that we need support because it may make us look weak. And I actually think speaking up for what you need makes you look strong. But maybe it makes you feel weaker sometimes.
You know, for somebody who wasn't diagnosed until later in life, you've really come so far to be able to not just internalize it and realize there's nothing wrong with this. This is just who I am.
But also to start talking about it with your family and start teaching them what is working for you.
Laura: My 6-year-old, she — it's funny. Sometimes I hear her reciting the strategies back to me when I'm having trouble.
Amanda: That's amazing.
Laura: It makes me really proud of myself and of her when I hear her repeating back to me the same things I said to her. Like, "OK, I know that this might be upsetting, but let's, we're just going to take a moment right now." And she'll say that to me sometimes in ways that I don't adore. Like, I'll be like, "You really, you need to tie your shoes right now because we have to leave. We're going to be late." And she'll say, "Laura…." Not Laura. She doesn't call me Laura. She'll say, "Mom, I think you really should just take a minute for yourself right now and calm down."
Amanda: Isn't that the worst when they throw that back at us?
Laura: So annoying.
Amanda: We teach them well, and then they teach us right back. That's just parenthood. But I think it's cool that she's learning those things and I see it in action.
Laura: Yeah. I really hope that the lessons that I'm learning on this journey with ADHD, that as my kids get older, and if we start to notice signs of ADHD, or if we don't, either way, I want to help my kids understand that it's OK. And yeah, you still need to work hard, but Mommy maybe worked herself a little bit too hard. And you don't need to be a perfectionist about things.
Amanda: The last time we had a conversation about this, and that was a couple of years ago, you hadn't talked to many people outside of just the few friends and your immediate family. Has that changed?
Laura: Yes, it has. I'm actually excited about that. I have had so many encounters with people in a further orbit of friendship. Not my closest friends, but friends of friends. It's like, there's something that draws us to each other. They will tell me about an experience that they have with their child, struggling with ADHD, not even knowing what I do for a living. And I say, you know what? I have ADHD. I understand. And they look at me with this look of relief. Like, oh my gosh, she gets it. She's not judging me. That's fantastic. And it feels so good.
Amanda: So you get to hear people's "aha" moments all the time.
Laura: I do. And I'm putting a bet on what I think is a fact: that everyone with ADHD had some kind of ADHD "aha" moment. Whether it be pre-diagnosis, post-diagnosis, there is some moment that finally is your tipping point and helps you understand, oh, this is real. Oh, I need to be kind to myself. Oh, I need help with this.
The reason I want to do this show is because I hear all the time, "No, ADHD isn't real." Or I hear the opposite of that, which is "Everybody has ADHD." And you hear that so much these days in our pandemic world, where so many people are struggling with focus, struggling to manage emotions, they're feeling restless, et cetera, et cetera.
And it may be true that a lot of people are struggling, but ADHD is unique and it's complicated. And the behaviors that are symptoms of ADHD, I think can be really confusing for a lot of people because they are this kind of ubiquitous, universal human behavior. It's true. Everybody has trouble focusing sometimes. Everybody goes off the handle sometimes and has trouble managing their emotions. Everybody gets fidgety from time to time. But with ADHD, it's like these human behaviors on steroids. They're bigger. They are harder to harness. You have a real, brain-based difficulty that you need support for, whether that's medication or therapy or meditation, whatever it may be.
And I want people to hear other people's stories, hear about those tipping points, those "aha" moments that other people had and realize that, yeah, that moment was way different than mine, but I get it. I've had that tipping point too — and feel that community reduce some of that internal stigma or that "not being allowed to be different"-ness or "not being allowed to be imperfect"-ness.
Amanda: I think it's so cool that people seek you out to tell you stories. I wonder what that's about. I wonder if there's some sort of brainwave wavelength thing going on there.
Laura: What's the expression? Water finds itself. Something like that.
Amanda: Oh, I like that. I don't think I've ever heard that before.
Laura: Yeah, someone said that to me years ago. It always stuck with me. Water finds itself. You can picture the water kind of pulling together.
Amanda: You know, Laura, my husband was also diagnosed in his thirties after our son was diagnosed, because all of a sudden he went back and looked at his childhood differently. And I remember asking you if I could tell him about our conversations, because it felt like if I could tell him there's somebody else out there besides me who got it, he'd feel connected. And I know that you and he have had conversations about this now. And I think that's what this does, is it brings community together in such a beautiful way. Do you think "aha" moments are things that can be forced? Or do you think they're epiphanies?
Laura: I think they're epiphanies. But maybe people will prove me wrong through the course of this podcast. I can't wait to hear from everybody.
Amanda: I'm hoping that hearing other people's "aha" moments will bring about those epiphanies, and I think it's so brave of you to talk about this for your very first episode. And I think it makes you the perfect person to host this podcast.
It's interesting to me to hear you say that it's a risk. Because to me, I don't see this as a risk. I see it as, as a leap, right? It's like something new that you don't know how to do and maybe that's growth.
Laura: Yeah, it is. You're right. That's not how it works in my brain all the time, but that's why we're friends, because you can remind me of that, right?
Amanda: Well, and also because I'm saying it to you and you'll say it to me tomorrow. I think that's one of the things that is so beneficial about talking about ADHD with somebody else is that you have people who you can lean on, who are going to say things to you like "This is growth, Laura, this is not a risk. This is something to be really proud of." And I can say that to you because I know you and I know how your brain works, right? And I know that your brain on the inside, it's moving a mile a minute, and it's telling you all the things that could go wrong. And it's telling you all of the things that you're worried about. And what if you forget to say this and what if you don't do this? And, oh my gosh, I didn't write it down.
Laura: Get out of my head.
Amanda: Sorry. And that, listeners, is why Amanda is interviewing Laura today.
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 ADHD Aha.
Understood is a nonprofit organization. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. 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.