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Actor Oliver Vaquer has a “noisy” ADHD brain. Growing up, he had a hard time paying attention to just about everything — and he’d lie to cover it up. His thoughts would all shout at him at once, and he felt pressured to blurt them out before he forgot them.
As an adult, Oliver’s rushed, “staccato” speech spurred his doctor to give him an ADHD questionnaire. His responses to the questionnaire surprised them both.
Also in this episode: How Oliver uses ADHD medication as a tool to build better habits. Plus, ADHD social anxiety and feeling like you’re operating at 100% for the first time ever.
Oliver: The first week I was on the meds and I was in my car, I was listening to hip hop, as I'm one to do, and it was Electric Relaxation by A Tribe Called Quest, which is a track I've heard no less than 500 times throughout my life. And for the very first time, I heard lyrics I had never heard before. Never.
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 Oliver Vaquer. Oliver is an actor and a writer who lives in Los Angeles, who happens to be in the new Barbie movie. True story, Oliver?
Oliver: True story.
Laura: Oh, my. Can you tell us what your role is in the movie?
Laura: Oh, OK.
Oliver: As of this recording, I'm still under NDA.
Laura: As of this recording. OK, but maybe once this comes out, they can check your IMDB and OK.
Oliver: I'm not a Ken, let's just put it that way.
Laura: So, you're not Ryan Gosling?
Oliver: Not right now. Not today.
Laura: Oh, can you get off then? I'm just kidding. I'm so excited. I love talking with creative folks, actors, writers, etc. They always have such insightful things to say about ADHD and life in general, I find. I like to start by asking folks, when did you get diagnosed with ADHD?
Oliver: I was diagnosed, I want to say six or seven years ago. I was not actually searching for a diagnosis. I was at the doctor's for something else and she paused after a moment and said, "Hey, would you mind filling out this form?" And I said, "Sure, What's it for?" She said, "Have you heard of ADHD?" I was like, "Oh, of course, I've heard of ADHD. Am I bouncing off the walls more than normal?" And she said, "Well, I'm just curious." And I said, "OK." She left the room. I filled out this questionnaire and I thought that there were sub-topics to the topics being asked. So, I answered, probably, I don't know, 80 questions when I was only supposed to have answered nine. And so, she walked back in, she looked at the chart and she said, "Yep, OK. Yeah. Have you thought about medication?" And I said, "Well, yeah." And that was it.
Laura: What were you answering? What were the subtopics? Give me some examples.
Oliver: Do you get distracted and how, at what time did you get most distracted? They were general questions and I was, you know, "Well, I get distracted at this time. Oh, but then there's also this. But then also there could be this with this, and then there's also that. And then that happens." And I just sort of went on that chain of it's the same thing that happens with ADHD where I would try to sit down and read and all of a sudden I would hear a car horn out the window and next thing I know I'm having a memory about my grandfather when I was five at Chuck E. Cheese in Michigan, and then I was thinking about the toy that he bought me. And then of course, it was the Twizzlers that we had and we bah bah bah bah bah bah bah bah. And that's exactly what happened on the chart. It just became this free-flowing journal entry. More than, more than a question and answer. And so, she was amused but also really wanted to discuss treatment.
Laura: What do you think the doctor was noticing and you that enticed her to give you the questionnaire, the ADHD questionnaire?
Oliver: Inability to make eye contact for any extended period of time. The way that I would read anything that she put in front of me, even if it was as simple as a release, it was clear that I couldn't get through more than a sentence or two before I was like, "Eh, it's fine, it's fine." Which, by the way, was just the stock answer my entire life. Thank God for agents, lawyers, managers, because I couldn't read a contract to save my life.
Laura: Is that what you meant when we chatted last that you used the term staccato speech patterns? Is that what you're referencing there?
Oliver: Yeah, everything was very clipped. Because I had to rush through the thoughts that were popping into my head before I forgot them. Every thought I would have would try to shout over all of the other thoughts, and it just became this cacophony. So, I had to just get everything out before I forgot. Quick, make your point before you forget what your point was and what the context is, and then they're going to think you're stupid. And then the shame sets in and then they're going to know you're a fake. All of these things, this incredible fiction that comes from the inability to express yourself. Because you may not be able to. It always feels like there's a ticking clock. There's a countdown on everything. It's not just having a conversation with someone when you're dealing with ADHD.
Laura: I gotta write this down before I forget it. I got to do it. Yeah. Yeah.
Oliver: And funny that you say that because my father initially was the one who discovered that that might be something that he was dealing with. And so, he introduced it to me when I was 17 saying, "Hey, O, what do you think of this?"
Laura: Did he say, "Hey, yo?," cause I like that.
Oliver: Yeah. Hey, O. He called me O.
Laura: Oh, O as an Oliver.
Laura: It took me a second. I thought he was like, "Hey, yo!" Yeah, yeah, my bad.
Oliver: That would've been much cooler. But he said to me very specifically, "Write everything down From now on. Just write everything down. Just even if you think you're going to remember it because if you're so impassioned about the thought, write it down because you won't remember it." The problem was, I always forgot to bring the notebook with me. So it didn't matter, I was damned if I did, damned if I didn't. But yeah, the writing down was a big thing and still is today. By the way, I find chicken scratch notes in books I never finished reading about thoughts I had that I don't even. Some I don't have any idea what I was thinking about, what the context was.
Laura: Oh, totally. I was taking my kids to school the other day and I reached into my pocket and I found three Post-it notes and I was like, "What the hell does this even say?" And it was just, it was very urgent in the moment. I was like, "I can't forget about any of these things." And I remember it brought me a sense of peace to write them down because I was worried I would lose them.
Laura: I like how you use musical terminology to describe how your mind works. You talk about cacophony, all these competing loud things, and then the staccato speech patterns. Are you a musician?
Oliver: My mother was. My mother was. And I'm musically inclined. However, I've been trying to learn piano for seven years, and that just hasn't worked out because I have 15 minutes a day. Who has the time? Everyone has the time. But this is where it gets sticky for me because it's not that I don't have the discipline. I've proven time and time again that I have the discipline, but there is I don't know how to explain it to people who don't deal with ADHD. This is where all that shame comes in and where it's been built up for my entire life is people just think you don't care and that you aren't disciplined, you aren't committed, you "Oh, but if you really wanted to, you would." Trust me when I say the things that I want to do, I really, really want to do. I was just never taught how.
So, I'm teaching myself now at the age of 46, I'm teaching myself how to do things that most people learn when they're six, seven, eight when they have parents who you know say, "Yeah, well, you know, you have to sit down and practice every single day," because it's possible for those kids to do that. It's possible for people who don't have ADHD, it's possible for them to actually sit down. I remember watching my daughter now, she's four years old. She can sit down and do anything for an hour and a half and not care about me at all. And I have those moments, but I've had to teach myself how to incrementally stack minutes and days and weeks to be able to actually have that accumulative power to become an expert at something, to become good at something. Before I was diagnosed, it was all about "If I can't play a sonata in the 15 minutes that I sit at the piano, I failed. I can't do this. I'll never be able to do this," because that's how my brain works and that's how my body reacts to it at the same time.
Laura: That "all or nothing,” right?
Oliver: Yeah, I have "Todo o nada," all or nothing, in Spanish tattooed inside my arm.
Laura: Did you get that tattoo before or after you got diagnosed?
Oliver: Oh, no, no, no, no, no. All of, most of my tattoos, the large tattoos are all prior to diagnosis.
Laura: OK. Got it.
Oliver: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Laura: It's a really tough mindset to shake and, you know, it's not a terrible mindset to have if you want to go all in and you want to do something well, right? But at the same time...
Oliver: It's the micro-transactions.
Oliver: Overarching, especially as a creative. For me, it is all or nothing. There's never been a fallback. There's nothing else that I am good at. For me, it was always like, you know, "I quit when I'm dead." That's it.
Laura: And the prioritizing is what can be so hard for people with ADHD who struggle with executive function. You know, cleaning the dishes can be at the same level as keep a job.
Oliver: Although it's also interesting is, I can ignore the dishes for however long I do because it just seems so daunting. That said, once I do, even if it's loading the dishwasher, the loading itself is immaculate.
Laura: Oh yeah. All or nothing, baby.
Laura: Tell me about being a kid growing up with undiagnosed ADHD. Like what was going on?
Oliver: I mean, the fact that I graduated. Either someone was paid off or I was just a really, really good liar. You know, I was good at manipulating. I was good at lying. I was good at making excuses. I was a good actor. And so, because of all of that, I could get away with a lot. You know, I survived a lot of things just because I could say the right thing or come up with some sob story. And the reality was school was so hard for me because I couldn't read. My eyes, couldn't stay on the page, or I would read the same sentence a hundred times, or I'd be reading pages and pages and pages, but I'd be trapped inside my mind in some memory. I would have flipped five pages, but nothing, nothing had sunk in.
Laura: You mentioned you did a lot of lying and we know at Understood.org, we know that lying is a common behavior for kids with ADHD and not because they're malicious or they're deviant, but they're trying, they're covering up typically something that they know they did wrong.
Oliver: Nobody wants to feel, again, the shame of being bad or hurting someone else, or doing something wrong. And that also made school really difficult for me because from all of that, I never wanted to be wrong or I couldn't physically do the 40 pages of reading the night before because who can read 40 pages in under 3 hours? So, I just wouldn't raise my hand. I wouldn't ask a question because I didn't want to risk being wrong, because then there was a whole Bible of reasons why I was wrong in that moment, and it was much easier to hide and not try at all than to feel all of those feelings in the moment.
Laura: Could you tell me some, give me a few examples of lies that you told growing up as a result of your ADHD challenges?
Oliver: Yeah, I mean, obviously there was the, I mean, I don't want to say the dog ate my homework, but something to that extent or something as horrible as we had a family emergency and I wasn't able to do X-Y-Z, I made up a baby cousin.
Laura: Oh, what was their name?
Oliver: Not a clue. No idea.
Oliver: And it went on for months, this baby cousin.
Laura: Wait, tell me more. How did this start? I need to know more.
Oliver: I just think it started from either feeling left out. I'm also a child of divorce, so there was this fantastic — and I say that sarcastically — period of time where I just felt really alone and I just didn't get a lot of attention. So, that was also part of it. Like I created this cute little something to tell all the kids about, where they were enthralled by my stories about my baby cousin. And then I remember getting caught because the teacher asked my mother about the baby.
Oliver: And she was like, "What? What? What baby cousin?"
Laura: Did your throat sink into your stomach?
Oliver: But I don't think that there was any sort of aftermath. I went on like it didn't happen. I just went on like it didn't happen. Which, that's typical of a lot of things in my life. You just go on like it didn't happen. I keep going back to that feeling of shame where you'll do anything to avoid it because there's no solution. And I think that one of the more frustrating things that came later, once I got the diagnosis again, this was six years ago, talking to anyone like my biggest pet peeve is, "Oh, we could have told you that. Oh, we could have told you that." OK, that's not, so that's not helpful.
Oliver: Because telling me that and offering a viable solution are completely different sports. Sure, you could have told me that, but how were you going to help me through it? But it also, what sucks about it is it feels like someone's saying that they had already given up on you. Because you've dealt with this for so long and not seen a way out there for someone to say, "Oh, we could have told you that." It's like, "Well, why the hell did you give up on me then for the last 30 years?" Nobody's thinking about me. They're thinking about themselves. And I know that. And that's totally cool. It's not my world and y'all are just living in it. But the world that I am living in has felt like a cage for so long without a key because there's no keyhole giving us a cage. So, the only reason I even dwell on that is for the comparison between what it felt like and what it's like now because there is a solution. And that's incredible.
And by the way, I did really well for myself at 60% of my capacity. So, I'm proud of that. I'm proud of the uphill battle and that I'm still trudging it. I mean, when I got to L.A., essentially 12 and a half, 13 years ago, and when you're transplanted, you're starting over. You're starting over. There is no easy anything, especially in my field. And for six of those years, to still be distracted and unable to know how, but how? Because there's this also, there's this isolation that comes with ADHD. There's this social anxiety that comes with ADHD. There's that fear of mistakes. There's that fear of being called out. There's the imposter syndrome. There's so many things that come with ADHD. It's a catch-all phrase these days, which again, is another one of my pet peeves. Like people, just because you're distracted by this TikTok, YouTube smartphone age doesn't mean that you're ADHD.
Laura: Oliver. When we chatted last, you said you wanted to tell me about your senior-year thesis.
Oliver Yes. I don't know if this was, if this was me giving the finger to the school or, I mean, part of it was. There's no question about that. I did my senior thesis on ADD.
Laura: Without having been diagnosed, but maybe suspecting that you had it?
Oliver: Yeah, because my father had brought it up and he got me this this book, which I found ironic because there was no way I was going to read it. However, I can latch on to certain things at certain times. I don't know what they're going to be, but I latch on and hyperfocus kicks in and I read a good deal of this book and have to go, "Oh, oh, oh. Let me read more. Let me read on. Oh!" And I brought it into my Dean senior year and I walked into his office and I said, "I bought you this book." And I did. I bought him his own copy, and I said, "I think I know what's wrong with me." And he looked at me, sort of cocked an eyebrow, and he took the book in and he said, "OK, get to class." And I was dismissed. So, for my senior thesis, because it pissed me off, I was like, it pissed me off and at the same time made me feel like the piece of shit I always suspected I was. And so, for my senior thesis, I did it on ADHD and my closing statement was if there were any questions about whether or not I have ADHD, I wrote this last night. I finished my entire senior thesis the night before it was due.
Oliver: Stayed up all through the night and just that was it. I just locked in and 20-whatever pages later there it was.
Laura: What a kicker at the end.
Oliver: I mean, it was a win and a lose for me because it created this enormous chip on my shoulder and this sense of entitlement that did not serve me for a very long time. I was very angry at the world.
Laura: The first time your dad brought up ADHD to you, was it because a teacher had brought it up or something had happened?
Oliver: No. I mean, the way that I was, the way that the teachers always brought it up, it was always the same comment that we've heard it a million times, "Class clown. Talks too much. Too distracted. If he just applied himself."
Laura: Right. Not meeting his potential. Yeah.
Oliver: Which is, by the way, what the doctor said to me. Not in a negative way. She said, "I am so excited to see what happens with you because of the fact that you've been living your entire life at 60% of your potential."
Oliver: So, I've had the option for the last seven years to live closer to 100, you know, 100%. And so, it gives me hope because it gives me something to look forward to. Like if I stay on this path, you know, and I stay stay focused.
Laura: It's so simple, right?
Oliver: So, so simple. Because again, like, the meds are great, without question they help. But they're not the end all be all. They're not the answer. It's about being able to restructure while I'm on the meds. It's learning new tools while I'm on the meds so that a habit forms.
Laura: Exactly. I love the way you put that. It's a tool. It's not a cure.
Oliver: No, not at all. Because, hey, guess what? It wears off.
Laura: Right. It's such a huge misconception that you take your ADHD medication and all of a sudden you're, like, cheating at life.
Oliver: This isn't to be dramatic at all. This is just what happened the first week that I took the meds. Seven years ago, I heard lyrics for the first time. There was a hip-hop track I'd been listening to for 20-plus years, and it came on in the car, and for the first time, I was able to hear the first verse. I was like, "Oh. Oh, that's what he's saying?"
Laura: Which song was it?
Oliver: I think it was Electric Relaxation by A Tribe Called Quest.
Laura: Oh, nice.
Oliver: And I was just, and then, of course, that opened up this world of, "Wow." Because I could, I was used to, I can only, I can't get past the rhythms and the chords when I listen to music. I can hear lyrics at certain times, but I can't stick with, again, full sentences, stanzas, verses. The music is what always pulls me in first because that's what's forward in my head. That's what I hear. I hear all of that first. It's always the stimulant of the beat. You know, I still tap my feet sometimes at night in bed. It's not restless leg syndrome. It's just part of how my body works in this, you know, stimulated state. There's always a rhythm going on inside my head, and there's always a beat, there's always something.
Laura: Right. But now it's not a cacophony.
Oliver: Correct. Yeah. It's like my brain always used to be the warming up of the orchestra.
Laura: Oh, yes.
Oliver: And now I can hear all the different parts. My thoughts come in. They all jump in line and they wait their turn, which is crazy. They're not all yelling over each other to try to get my attention. It's like dealing with a toddler. Hold on. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. OK. Yes. What? I'm listening. What can I do for you?
Laura: Do you find now that you can kind of laugh at it, too? When you start, when, now that it's not just you're being consumed by the cacophony, but you notice it and you have a tiny bit more reaction time. To me, one of the most liberating moments of any day on a really good day is when I can just say, "Oh, come on, brain."
Oliver: I mean, I go "Oh, come on, brain," multiple times a day.
Laura: That's good. I mean, I call that self-awareness, you know, that's beautiful. Has that fear of making mistakes and of making social faux pas at ease since you got diagnosed and treated?
Oliver: Oh, definitely, definitely, definitely. And that was actually, we were at a social event the first time someone said, "Yeah, you seem... your speech pattern is different and you don't seem as harried." I said, "I'm not. I'm not as harried, I'm not. There's no rush for me to get the thought out."
Laura: It's such a good feeling. Yeah.
Oliver: It is. I've been trying to write something for my whole life and I didn't know when that was going to be or how that was going to be or, you know, or what it was going to be. And then my friend brought something to me for us to create, and that was the first real test. And all of the thoughts and the ideas and the sentences like my imagination, right? It's like they were all sitting in a waiting room and then I had something to work on. I had the tool that was going to enable me to do that. And as soon as I sat down, the door to the waiting room opened and everyone was invited in.
Laura: And they came in one by one in line.
Oliver: They came one by one. And now that's not to say that it isn't hard. And that's not to say that the writing was easy. However, comparatively, it was easy. Creating something is not easy at all. It's just writing is rewriting. But there was a beginning and a middle and an end, and then all of a sudden there was 250 pages and it was all dialog and it was finished.
Laura: Wow, That's amazing.
Oliver: And it was anticlimactic. Something that comes with ADHD is the high and the low. There is no flatline. It's just a roller coaster.
Oliver: And there were moments of those highs within the writing process that came when the idea clicked and it didn't click by me sitting here, white-knuckling the desk. It clicked by me having those hour-long, two-hour-long sessions with my partner, just bouncing ideas back and forth. And then you walk away. Now, I could never walk away before because I would forget the thoughts. This time I was able to walk away and let my brain do what my brain's supposed to be able to do. And then two days later in the shower, I would have the "aha" moment, right?
Laura: Yeah. Yeah.
Oliver: I'd be like, "Oh, my God, I know what I have to do!"
Laura: That's so exciting. Is this something that we're going to be able to see or listen to or...?
Oliver: That already out there. It was a ten-episode audio drama podcast with a celebrity cast and... Yeah. Yeah.
Laura: What's it called?
Oliver: It's called The Angel of Vine.
Laura: The Angel of Vine. Yes.
Oliver: Yeah. It was amazing just being able to write it. And then we produced it and then we edited it with a sound designer. And we I mean, we were from soup to nuts from start to finish. We created this thing and it was crazy and it was great. It was wonderful and it was fulfilling and it was, you know, everything that where I had been told no in the past, there were no no's, there were no roadblocks. There were no there was no one to tell us no. And there was nothing internally for me anymore to tell me no.
Laura: That's so exciting. Well, I can't wait to check it out. And I'm so grateful that you saw that doctor and that she said that really beautiful, amazing thing to you. What did she say again?
Oliver: She said that I've been living my life at 60% of my capacity, and then she couldn't wait to see, you know, what I'm going to be able to accomplish now at 100%. And I've learned now that that's not just career-driven.
Laura: Right. Right.
Oliver: That's being able to play with my daughter.
Laura: Totally. Yes.
Oliver: That's being able to listen to my teenage son when he tells me something of interest. That's important. It sucks as a parent to ask your kids something and then you trail off somewhere involuntarily while they're answering. And then you have, then you're nodding and uh huh-ing, and yes-ing your own kid.
Oliver: And it's like, "Well, now I feel like a shitty parent. Wait a minute."
Laura: I mean, that could be a whole nother show. I mean, I don't know if we have enough time even to go there, but I totally hear you. And you're right. I mean, that's a big deal. I'm really happy for you. I'm happy.
Oliver: Thank you. Yeah.
Laura: Actors, writers, creative folks with ADHD. I always love the images that you use to describe things. I love your musical imagery. I really appreciate your taking this time with me today. So, thank you so much.
Oliver: Thank you for asking me. I appreciate it. And I'm glad I wrote it down 100 times on every surface in my apartment.
Laura: Well, everybody who is listening, we're just lucky that Oliver's here today. OK? He made it.
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.