ADHD and the Myth of Laziness (Rebecca’s Story)
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ADHD and the myth of laziness (Rebecca’s story)

Rebecca Phillips Epstein has ADHD. But as with many high-achieving girls, her symptoms were missed early on. Then, during the pandemic, it finally clicked: She discovered a Twitter thread about people who beat themselves up for being lazy when clearly they’re not. 

Rebecca has always been aware of her challenges — procrastination, being late, and having a million great ideas that never get finished. As a screenplay writer and essayist, she’d overcompensate so no one would be the wiser. Hear how an ADHD diagnosis helped her rethink what she used to call “personality failures” or “laziness.” 

Also in this episode: How depression treatment before her ADHD diagnosis helped her tread water but never “surf.” Rebecca also talks about her decision to stop breastfeeding her second child in order to stay on her ADHD medication. 

Related resources

You can also check out Rebecca's Washington Post article on ADHD medication and breastfeeding.

Episode transcript

Rebecca: I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a thread written by a woman who talks a lot about ADHD and writes a lot about ADHD. And she said that in her experience, the thing that causes her to pause and suggest to someone that they might want to talk to someone about this is when she hears people describe themselves as lazy when clearly they are not. She wrote, "If you're sitting around thinking that you're lazy, thinking that you're a failure, please allow me to suggest that maybe you're not." And it was like all those years of not understanding myself just suddenly made sense. All of the near-misses and the failures and the frustrations just clicked into place.

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 Rebecca Phillips Epstein. Rebecca is a screenwriter and essayist who lives in Los Angeles. She's worked on a bunch of shows, including "Roseanne" and "Emily in Paris." She's also written for a variety of publications, like the Washington Post's On Parenting blog. Hi, Rebecca. I'm so glad you're here today.

Rebecca: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Laura: So let's dive right in, Rebecca. I would love for you to start by telling me when you were diagnosed with ADHD and what was going on in your life at that time.

Rebecca: I was diagnosed with ADHD in June of 2020. And what was going on in my life at that time? The majority was what was going on in a lot of people's lives, which was the pandemic had totally changed every aspect of my life and career and family life. I had two young children. One was in his last year of preschool and the other was 6 months old. And in May of 2020, I was on Twitter and stumbled across a thread by a woman named Erynn Brook, who writes a lot about ADHD and neurodivergent brains. And it had been retweeted by a friend of mine. And because I care about this friend and I'm always interested in what they post, I clicked through.

And it was a thread talking about speaking to people and helping them realize that they have ADHD. It happens a lot. And that she says when people are talking to her, the things she listens for that makes her say "you might want to talk to somebody about this" is when they tell stories about things they want to do, that they know how to do, that they care a lot about, that they just can't do. And they write themselves off as lazy or terrible people.

And she wrote that the thing about lazy people is they don't actually care that they're lazy. They don't care that they're letting people down. They're fine with that pattern, truly lazy people. So if you're sitting around calling yourself lazy because you can't understand why you can't get things done and you're beating yourself up about it, perhaps you're not lazy. Perhaps it's something else. And it was like 30 years of tiny "aha" moments all of a sudden just exploded.

I often compare it to at the end of "A Beautiful Mind," when Jennifer Connelly walks into the murder shed and he has all those pictures with the strings connecting everything, and the room starts to spin. That's what it felt like for me, because I had two very close near-misses to getting diagnosed throughout my life. But it hadn't happened. And in this one moment, just this one Twitter thread, I realized, like, it made everything make sense.

I immediately emailed my therapist and said, "When I see you in two days, I need to talk about this." And we talked about it and she said, "I think this is undeniable." So I called my psychiatrist. I was incredibly lucky that I had known my psychiatrist for years, because she had treated me for postpartum depression when my oldest was a baby. So we had a long relationship. So when I went in there, I had a shorter diagnostic evaluation because she had years of notes on me and knowledge about my life. And she just said, "Yes. You meet the entire diagnostic checklist. You are a textbook example of how this gets missed in high-achieving girls."

And similar to your story, Laura, I was a perfectionist. I fell back on my AP classes, my top 10 university degrees, being 15 minutes early for everything, because if I wasn't 15 minutes early, I was going to be extremely late. I knew what my shortcomings were, and I overcompensated for every single one that I could so that no one would know. Because I knew I wasn't good enough. But there was no good reason why. So I just had to hide it.

Laura: Yeah, so you were overcompensating all this time and — but yet feeling like you were lazy. And that's — it's so interesting because one person says one thing in one particular way, and it just clicks. And you had that "Beautiful Mind" moment. So what were you feeling lazy about?

Rebecca: Oh, God. Procrastinating everything. Being late on everything. A million terrific ideas that never got finished. You know? And as a writer, writing is hard even for neurotypical writers. It's like the Dorothy Parker quote, "I hate writing, but I love having written." And with ADHD, you never get to the point where you have written. You have the ideas, you know how you want them to be. But getting them out — getting started — is a nightmare. And I came up with some tricks and some tips and deadlines, of course, pressure.

But for me throughout my life, I was just always that kid whose paper was a day late. And so all through high school it was, "Oh, my printer didn't work." "I emailed it to you. Didn't you get it?" And things that every teacher knows what that is. And because I was good and smart and accomplished, they let me get away with it. And I never learned that lesson when I was young enough to learn it. And so instead the lesson I learned was that I could get away with it. And it had that effect of me thinking that if I did put in an effort, then it meant that I wasn't good at something. So I had this, like this double bind of I'm naturally gifted, so I shouldn't have to work that hard. But even when I do work as hard as I can, sometimes I can't even produce anything.

Laura: Yeah. Yeah.

Rebecca: And in graduate school, it just got worse and worse because there was less oversight. I wasn't living with my parents to provide that structure, and so I would just stay up all night and wait. And I would have a paper that really I should have spent two weeks working on, and I would do it in 8 hours. And I would do almost as well as I could. And at the time, of course, I chalked it up to imposter syndrome and fear of failure. And "Oh well, if I work as hard as I can and I don't do well, what does that say about me? So that must be why."

You know, there was always another explanation. "Oh, I'm depressed. That's why my house is a mess." And I was treated for depression a couple of times throughout my life. And I remember saying to the psychiatrists who were treating me, "I feel like I'm not drowning anymore, but I don't feel like I'm surfing." Like I'm never ahead of it.

Now, looking back, I recognize that that's because I wasn't dealing with a serotonin deficiency. I wasn't dealing with standard depression. I was dealing with a dopamine deficiency, which is different. I was dealing with ADHD and the depressive behaviors that sometimes come with ADHD. So it looked like depression, right?

Laura: Yeah. ADHD and depression can kind of mimic each other. Hats off to you for going into a writing career. I know exactly the feeling that you're talking about when — there's a reason that I'm an editor and I'm not a writer. I love when I have produced something — to go back to your Dorothy Parker quote — but getting there is just impossible. But I'm really fast when I can edit something.

Rebecca: I didn't start out as a writer. I sort of tried to do everything, but — and when I look back, it's like, I don't know how I missed it because in college I did improv. I didn't do sketch in graduate school. I went to theater school, but not for playwriting, for dramaturgy. And the job of a dramaturg is to basically read drafts and give notes. To sit next to a director and just say thoughts to them. The job was immediate. It was very in the moment. A lot of the job was sitting and bouncing thoughts around and bringing my sort of academic background into a rehearsal room, which could be done live in the moment.

And I noticed that I always thrived in environments where the only prep was being really smart or being really competent, and where the actual work was something I could do live — where it wasn't about homework, it wasn't about preparing, it was about showing up prepared. And that the bulk of the work was happening in the immediate sense. So there was no way to procrastinate. You know, I instinctively chose this path that leaned into my skills as a person with ADHD and where I could be creative but be in the moment.

But when I moved to Los Angeles, I started working at a talent agency as an assistant. And a lot of the job was making phone calls, managing calendars, sending materials. And my boss has had upwards of 50 clients who all had submissions going out, who all had meetings to attend that I had to schedule. And everything gets rescheduled a million times. So there were hundreds and hundreds of emails every day and dozens of packets that had to go out. And so much to keep track of. And I recognized very quickly — this is pre-diagnosis — that I was going to forget everything unless I figured out a way to not allow myself to. So I created this enormous tracking spreadsheet where every single step had its own — put the email together, send the email, get response to email, check with my boss about response. Follow up with the same.

Laura: Reminder to check the spreadsheet.

Rebecca: But it was like every single step of like receive email, reply to email, was its own step, right? Everything so that I would know what step I was at and what I needed to do. And then I structure my day of, in the morning and the afternoon, there were 45 minutes where I would go down and see what can be followed up on. Where am I at? What have I left hanging? And this spreadsheet was so useful to me during the busy times of year that I — people started asking me for it. Other assistants in the department. And I am told that years later it's still a thing that assistants use in staffing season so that they don't lose track of things. Now, I had a pile of six months of contracts to be filed that I kept under my desk that nobody knew about. And then when I left the agency, the person who took over for me just had to do it as part of her training.

Laura: Oh, my gosh. Rebecca, that is like some intense coping mechanisms there, but I'm really glad that it worked out for you and that now it's helping other folks at the company.

Rebecca: Everybody knows what that's like to lose track of things, to forget things, to be overwhelmed. And it's not like these systems wouldn't help someone who's neurotypical, you know. And I think that's part of — they know that's part of — what's so tricky with ADHD is that all of the symptoms taken on their own are common. Everybody forgets things. Everybody loses things. Everybody interrupts people. Says things they shouldn't. But it's how much of it are you doing? Can you stop it? And how much of an impact is it having on your ability to live your life the way you want to?

Laura: Right. That's something I talk about with a lot of guests is the ubiquity of the signs and how that leads to so much like excuse-making. Sure, everybody struggles with it every once in a while, but like the severity and the frequency with which you struggle is huge. But because they're such common things, people tend to blame themselves. Again, going back to the laziness thing, I'm just being lazy. Or I should just — I just need to try harder. Or I didn't exercise today or whatever.

Rebecca: And before I knew why, it was very difficult to make changes. Because if the only reason that I had for why I was doing these things was personality failures, then I couldn't solve it, right? Because if it's just, oh, this is just who I am and I am a failure. I'm lazy. I'm weird. I have a hard time making friends. I am obnoxious in group settings. You know, if it's just me, if I'm just terrible, then there's nothing to be done. And it was really not until after the diagnosis that I could give myself that grace of like, let's look at this a different way. Which I had not been able to do my whole life.

And an example I talk about a lot is like vacuuming the floor. I, like many people, especially people with ADHD, housekeeping and cleaning is impossible. Because it's drudgery. It's not fun. There are so many steps, and I'd rather be doing other things. And for some reason, vacuuming was really the one that bothered me the most — that I could not make myself do. So I just would sit there after I put my kids to bed and watch the chunks of mac and cheese just drying on the carpet, going, "I have to vacuum. I have to do it. Just get up and do it." And I wouldn't. And I just wouldn't. And I would think, "Oh, I'm like, I'm a piece of shit. I'm a piece of shit. That's the only possible reason." And then after the diagnosis, it was OK. I have been spending years and years trying to force myself to vacuum because that was the only solution I could come up with to the problem of I don't vacuum. But the real problem is my floor is not clean, my carpets are not clean.

So if I say like, let's just assume I'm never going to be a person who vacuums. Let's assume that my ADHD will never allow me to vacuum. Because what's really hard about it is the number of steps. The vacuum cleaner is like in a closet behind the garbage can in my small kitchen. So I have to move the garbage can, open the closet, take it out, unwind the cord, plug it in, move the table, move the chairs, push the thing around. It's like 15 steps and it's really annoying.

So I said, "OK, so what if I'm never going to do this? Do I have to vacuum or do I have to have a clean floor?" And I bought a Dustbuster and it sits on a stand on the bookcase within arm's reach of my chair at the dining — I don't even have to get up. So now my floor is clean because I asked a different question. The fact that I couldn't even give myself permission to say "Maybe I should do this a different way" — that's one of the hardest parts of living with undiagnosed ADHD is, I think, the pressure you put on yourself to do things the same way everybody else does. Because you don't have, or I didn't have, a good enough reason to make those accommodations for myself.

Laura: Exactly. The way that you described laziness was really important, because I don't like when people are critics of ADHD, say, OK, we're just making an excuse for laziness here. Because to your point earlier, it's not real laziness that we're talking about. We're not talking about we're not giving a damn about doing the things. Like there's a deep care — like you want your floor clean. You really genuinely care. You just could not get to it for whatever reason. I think that that's really interesting and important.

Last time we chatted, you mentioned that when you were 7 you were almost diagnosed with ADHD. I would love to hear what was happening at that time.

Rebecca: So I was in the second grade and I have no memory of this, so I'm kind of cobbling together what my parents told me. I have no memory of any of this, and I didn't find out about it till I was in my early 20s. But from what I understand, I was doing like a fine job in second grade grades-wise. And my teacher called my parents and said some version of "Rebecca is having more trouble in my class and she should given how smart she is. You might want to get her evaluated for ADHD." And so they took me to the pediatrician, who was like this old-school Manhattan pediatrician, who evaluated me and said unequivocally, "She does not have this. She is reading at a sixth-grade level. She can sit still and color for hours. Like that's not ADHD. Sounds like she's just bored and the teacher needs to work harder."

Laura: Well, bored might have been true.

Rebecca: For sure.

Laura: Yeah, that's — again, ADHD is not related to intelligence.

Rebecca: So I went back to school. And what I do remember is that I started meeting weekly with this teacher, and she created a chart for me. And every week there were check-ins of how I was doing on the different markers that would show up on the report card. From what I remember, it was more about just finishing everything, you know, and staying on task and not letting myself get distracted by other things. And so what she was doing was the kind of behavior modification that we know works now.

And my grades improved. And it's funny, the reward. My parents said, if you get — I don't even remember what it was — you know, all satisfactory pluses, I was going to get a Game Boy. And I did it, and I got my Game Boy, and the game that was on it was Tetris. Which is kind of an amazing metaphor for what the 30 years that followed that were like. Because, you know, as you're playing Tetris, it starts out with the blocks are falling slowly, you have the whole screen to work with, and you turn them to make lines. And as the levels get higher and higher, they start to fall faster. And when you're not able to make straight lines, then you have less space to work with. Right?

I was so smart at like the game of Tetris in life. But even though my pieces were falling so fast and I had so little space to work with, I was beating level after level. I did it! But I knew it was harder for me than other people. And if I'm supposed to be this smart, why is this hard for me? And what I didn't realize was that, like, my game was busted. Like other people had more space to work with. Their pieces were not falling as fast. And I was holding myself to the same standards that everybody else was. But I was working with a totally different system.

Laura: Shout-out to that teacher, by the way. She sounds fantastic.

Rebecca: Mrs. Bronsky, if you're listening, she really was my favorite. Mrs. Bronsky. She was just a sweet, gorgeous, funny. I loved her. But she saw it. She saw and she believed in me. And she built my confidence. She didn't punish me for these things. She found a way to reach me, which was really special, and it really made that year possible for me.

Laura: So I really like this Tetris analogy. I love the way that your brain works. It's a very visual, creative image, and it's helping me understand, like, the pieces of your life, actually, as we listen to it. So at that point then, you're in your 20s, and they're like, "Well, it wasn't a thing." So you're like, "OK, bye. Bye, ADHD."

But then you have your second child. It sounds like it just started storming Tetris pieces at that point. And not all of the "ADHD Aha!" listeners are going to maybe be as interested, but I would ask that they try to be interested in this aspect of it, because it's very interesting to me as a mom who breastfed. I believe you were breastfeeding your second child and you were at the same time like getting evaluated and diagnosed with ADHD — and potentially going on medication. So I would love for you to talk me through your thought process.

Rebecca: You know, the recommendation that my obstetrician and my psychiatrist at the time made was to avoid it. Because the way that it is described is it should only be taken if the benefits to the parent outweigh the potential risks to the infant. And so for most people who are breastfeeding and have ADHD, it's like who would say that any potential risk to your baby is worth it? I mean, I went through that moment of like, well, I've suffered for 30 years without meds. Surely I can do six more months to get to a year.

Laura: Get to a year of breastfeeding, you mean?

Rebecca: Yeah, because with my oldest, I had done 14 months. It was not always easy, but it was easy-ish, you know? And it was because I had terrible postpartum depression with my oldest. Breastfeeding felt like a thing I could do. So I was like, I was going to do one thing well. And with my second, I did not have postpartum depression, like, at all. So for the first three months of his life, pre-pandemic, I was like, I love being a mom of two kids. Like, this is going well for me. I'm good at this. I am managing this in a way that I never could before. I had found a rhythm that works. I finally felt like I was getting the hang of it.

And then the pandemic and everything shut down. And it was emotional overwhelm and a totally different schedule. And everybody was trapped in a thousand square foot apartment and all the things that have happened to so many people. So then when I got diagnosed and the question arose of what was I going to do? Sidebar: I would certainly recommend that any listeners speak to their doctors about the risks, about the benefits. And this conversation seems to be evolving. But at the time that I was diagnosed, it was presented to me as rather binary.

And I will say that my psychiatrist was very flexible in that she said, you know, there might be a way to take short-acting medication and kind of pump and dump around it and minimize the risk as much as possible. But the amount of pumping I had to do before I took the 4 hours of medication, and then the pumping and dumping I had to do during to keep my supply up, and then after to get rid of any residual meds. And then I still had to feed him. Within a month of trying to do this, it became obvious that this was not going to work.

First of all, I was miserable. And the whole time I was on the meds I was spending attached to a breast pump. And the difference for me, the first time I took the medication was so immediate and so obvious. You know, I compare it to like the first time you get on an airplane and put on noise-canceling headphones and all of a sudden you realize just how loud it was. You had no idea. And within 30 minutes of taking my very first dose of short-acting medication, I walked into the living room where my husband was sitting and I said, I'm going to have to quit breastfeeding. I am — there is no — I cannot not feel this way. I cannot — I feel normal. I feel quiet. I can't go back. This is — there's no way. I can't. No way.

Laura: Clearly, you made a very informed decision. You did your research. You know, you did what was best for both you and for your baby. Like, if you're not in good shape, then how can you care for a child? And I'm curious about any feelings that came with that. Because we put so much pressure on moms to breastfeed. And then there's — you've got the shame feelings maybe around ADHD, and then the shame feelings around mom. I mean, did that just like concoct into like a cauldron of, like, crazy shame?

Rebecca: At first, it was torturous getting him to take a bottle even of pumped milk at first. And there was this part of me that was going, "Why am I doing this to him? How can I be doing this to him just so that I can, like, have an easier time remembering where I put my keys down? That's not fair. It's not fair to him." But also because of what my constellation of symptoms are, my issues with emotional regulation and getting overwhelmed. I mean, all parents get overwhelmed, right? So when you already have an issue with getting overwhelmed and your go-to response is anger and freak-outs, which mine was, marriages suffer. Parent-child relationships suffer. And if it was me and a baby in a vacuum, that would be one thing. But it was me and a baby and a 5-year-old who had had everything taken from him. He was about to go to kindergarten. His fifth birthday was March 10th, 2020, and so his was the first birthday party that was canceled.

So, OK, even if breastfeeding is what makes you a good mother, which it's not, but let's go with that for a second. Let's say breastfeeding makes you a good mother, OK? To a baby. But I had two kids. And I had to be a good mother to both of them. And on my meds, I am a better mother to both of them in the day-to-day activities of being a mother. Breastfeeding is a very passive, often, activity, which is wonderful when it works. But there is so much else that happens during the course of the day.

And my oldest was old enough to remember. He knew what was going on and he needed me. And the bar for what I needed to do every day had gotten higher, because I needed to be able to shift between virtual schooling and infant care and dealing with our financial issues. Because my husband and I both work in TV and film and the whole industry was shut down. There was so much going on that required not just my active attention, but for me to be really at my best. And also I had already been breastfeeding for six months. That's a long time. I made it a long time.

Laura: You did! Kudos to you.

Rebecca: It just really wasn't a choice.

Laura: I love when smart, strong women make thoughtful choices about what's best, not just for the people in their lives that they take care of, but also what's best for themselves. Because that ultimately makes us better mothers, better friends, better co-workers. So I think that it's really beautiful how you've navigated your diagnosis and motherhood. I mean, there's — you've got so much going on and you are, like, you're thriving. You're like a badass lady out there in L.A., let me say. So, I mean, cheesiest thing I've ever said.

Rebecca: I mean, you know, I think so. And I think knowing that it's genetic and knowing that there is a high chance that one or both of my kids will have it, I've been able to lay that groundwork of — well, my youngest is young to understand. But my oldest, I told him about my diagnosis. I told him what it means. I told him how it shows up in my life.

He knows I take medication. And I said, "It's kind of like how I wear glasses. I can't see as far as other people. I wear my glasses and I can. My brain can't organize itself the same way other people's can. I take my medication and it's easier." So that if and when the day comes, when that becomes his story, he will not see it as something being bad or wrong. He will see it as, oh, everybody has things about themselves that are harder for them than they are for other people. And maybe this is mine, and mine happens to have a name, but that doesn't mean it's worse or bad, it just is.

And so it's been not just a gift to me in my parenting that I now know myself better and am more capable, you know, and mostly calmer. But it's been a gift to me that I get to consciously pass those things along to my children — however their brains are organized — and give them permission to do things in a way that works for them.

Laura: That's beautiful. It really is. And I'm going to carry that with me when I go home and see my kids this afternoon. So. Rebecca, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it.

Rebecca: Thank you for having me. I loved talking to you. I mean, this type of conversation was life-changing for me in my own journey. So I'm so thrilled to be a part of it.

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. 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. Margie DeSantis provides editorial support. For the Understood Podcast Network, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. And I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.

 

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