As told to Nicole Audrey Spector
October is ADHD Awareness Month.
Growing up, I was always praised for my intelligence. I went to a magnet school for the gifted and attended a top public university in Florida.
So imagine my surprise when, a couple years ago, in my mid-30s and being the ultimate career woman I knew I was destined to be, I started to feel … not so smart. The trouble is I would forget things. Not just any old things, but some of the most important things of all: words.
For example, let’s say someone asked me, “Where’s the garbage?” I would mean to respond, “It’s under the kitchen sink.” Except instead of saying “kitchen sink,” I would go totally blank and leave the sentence hanging. Or, even more strangely, I would say something like, “In the refrigerator,” and immediately know that what I said was incorrect.
Stumped and a bit worried, I went to my primary care provider, who gave me quizzes to test my memory and to rule out anything truly dire, like a brain tumor, a stroke or aphasia. She determined that whatever was going on with me likely wasn’t linked to a serious physical health condition. She seemed unconcerned and suspected that the whole thing might be a result of stress.
And that was the end of the conversation.
I went back to my life as best as I could, but my symptoms worsened. Soon, it wasn’t so much the problem with word recall (although that was still an issue) but more so with my energy and focus. No matter how hard I tried, I could hardly bring myself to get out of bed and get my day started. I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the tasks that lay ahead of me.
I live with depression and have long been on medication and in therapy to treat it, but this felt different. I didn’t really feel sad or hopeless or even anxious. I just felt, frankly, like I couldn’t get my act together.
This is when things started to get bad. I lost my job because of my inability to get anything done. Then I lost another. And another.
The most frustrating part of all this was that in the late evening, around 8:00 p.m., I would get a surge of energy. My ability to get up and do things would snap back into place.
But then there was the deeper, almost existential pain. I’d always been the shimmering image of success. Now I was suddenly failing in my career. Fantastically and repeatedly. And for no evident reason.
I’m an open book about mental health and everything else in my life, so I leaned heavily on my friends to vent about what I was going through. One day, my friend who is a middle school teacher was listening to me go on and on, and stopped me to ask if I’d ever been tested for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“I’m gifted!” I exclaimed. “There’s no way I have ADHD. I would never have done so well in school!”
My friend laughed in my face.
“Girl,” she said, “tons of gifted people have ADHD.”
At the time, I had a very limited understanding of ADHD and knew only that it manifested as an inability to stay focused.
I didn’t know that ADHD could affect memory or present as a lack of motivation.
I tried to meet with a psychiatrist but none were available to see me. So I went to a neurologist, who was dead set on a totally different diagnosis: sleep apnea. But tests for sleep apnea showed that I didn’t have that. So I was soon back to square one.
Natalie Chambers receiving her master’s degree in legal studies, 2022.
Finally I found a psychiatrist who could see me. He gave me some tests to determine whether I had ADHD. And let me tell you, I got just about every answer right for an ADHD diagnosis. Finally I succeeded at something!
I was downright pumped — not only because it meant I would finally have an answer and a path to treatment, but because it meant my whole problem was solved, right? Wrong.
Living with ADHD is a lot like living with depression (it’s no wonder that they often co-occur). You can take all the medication and do all the therapy in the world to tame the symptoms, but in order to really get out of ADHD’s clutches, you need to put in the work.
For me, the work entails being super-organized by making lists of what to do the next day. These lists drill down to the most basic of tasks. For instance, I write down “Get out of bed” and “Take a shower.” Everything needs to be very neatly broken out, otherwise it’s as though my brain gets stuck and I can’t do any of it.
Women are notoriously underdiagnosed and undertreated for ADHD, and I feel fortunate that I was able to persevere and get the right answers from the right medical professionals. I encourage every other woman who suspects she may have ADHD to do the same.
In certain obvious ways, ADHD has made my life more challenging, but it’s also made it somehow easier. All that pressure that I piled on myself — pressure made up of other people’s and society’s expectations of me — have begun to melt away.
Everyone says there’s no such thing as perfect. But do they ever really believe it? Don’t many of us, especially women who’ve been essentially dared by the patriarchy to do it all or be nothing at all, secretly believe that we’ll be the one who scores an A+ in life?
I certainly thought that way once, but now, I’ve let that go. I am no longer the gifted child, I am now the gifted woman. And so many of my gifts — such as the gift of grace — are ones that only I can give myself.