ADHD and Keto, Part One - My Story
ADHD and keto is our topic for today. My adventure with all of this began because I wanted to slim down a bit, okay more than a bit!
A lot of times when we embark on a weight loss journey, that might be our only goal, to lose weight.
That was mine.
I wanted to look good in crop tops.
It was 100% a vanity thing, nothing more nothing less.
However, I had no idea that changing my diet was going to change my life so profoundly in so many ways, and one of the ways it has is that my ADHD, which I struggled with for decades, is now pretty much gone.
I’m still in shock, to be honest, even though it’s been gone for a while now. So I’m sharing this story with you today in case you need a little inspiration.
I can’t predict the future.
I’m not going to promise you anything today about what a ketogenic diet can do for you.
But I would like to pique your curiosity.
If you want to lose weight because you want to look better and that’s it, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. That was my motivation.
However, it’s very possible that if you clean up your diet, you’re going to get so much more than just weight loss.
You might fix problems you didn’t even know you had.
So if you have ADHD or think you might have it and want to know how a ketogenic diet can potentially help, stick around.
This is going to be a long one because I’m going to share a lot of personal stories.
I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist so while I’m going to share some of the official knowledge about ADHD in the next episode, what I’m really an expert in is my own struggle with it, so the best way for me to communicate with you about it is to speak from the heart, so that’s what I’m going to do today.
So today I’ll be telling you my story with ADHD and how I fixed the issues it caused me with a ketogenic diet.
In the next episode, I’ll give you some more information about ADHD itself, and then tell you what the science says so far about how a ketogenic diet can help alleviate some of the symptoms of this thing, because I’m not the only one who’s experienced a life-changing shift because of the diet.
So, hi! This is Julie from Julie Saad Wellness, I'm a certified health coach, certified functional therapeutic diets specialist, and certified in ketogenic diets for mental health. Thank you for being here today.
So as I mentioned, my ADHD is, for all intents and purposes, now, gone, in that it doesn’t mess up my life the way it used to. I don’t want to use the word “cured,” but let’s say it’s under control.
I had no idea this would happen.
And here’s the funny thing. Yeah, I lost 49 pounds super fast. And yeah, I now have quite the collection of crop tops.
But if the only effect of me changing my diet had been losing some weight, I honestly don’t know if I would have stuck with it. It might not have been enough.
Yet, the fact that the ketogenic diet has caused me to lose weight, has virtually eliminated all of my ADHD symptoms and has fixed so many other problems I had that I won’t even get into right now, oh hell no there’s no way I’m going back to the way I was before. It’s a no brainer.
For example, the other day I was out running some errands alone and I stopped to have lunch at a Mexican restaurant where they have amazing chips. Two different waiters brought me a giant thing of chips and salsa and both times I sent them back without blinking an eye.
Before, I never would have refused chips, are you kidding me? A funny thing happened. Since I’m a foreigner in the country where I live and it’s pretty clear that I’m not from here, one of the waiters even came over and said to me in very slow Spanish that the chips were compliments of the house, there’s no cost. He was a sweet guy and seemed genuinely concerned that I was potentially missing out on these delicious free chips because of a language barrier.
I did my best to keep a straight face and just said, “I know. Thank you. I can’t eat corn.” At this point in my life, I don’t say “no” to the chips because I want to look hot in a bikini. Okay, fine, that’s still part of it, haha, let’s be honest here. But it’s not my number one motivation anymore.
I suffered so much because of my ADHD and a bunch of other things that we’ll talk about another time, and then I finally experienced a world where I didn’t have all this stuff that I had been dealing with forever. And I freaking love this world and if you want me to leave it you’re going to have to drag me out kicking and screaming with a team of horses.
So, no, I’ll pass on the chips, thanks.
You probably would too, wouldn’t you, if it meant that you would feel less, for lack of a better word, chaotic?
So I’ll tell you a bit about my struggles with ADHD, but I want to preface this by saying that this is by no means medical advice and is not intended to diagnose you or anyone else. If you identify with this story, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have ADHD.
I know there are lots of people that don’t even believe that ADHD exists, or say, “Well, we all have a little ADHD.”
I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but from my understanding of how the field works, any kind of mental disorder is diagnosed by following certain established criteria. So, according to those fields, if you meet the criteria, you have it. Fine.
Could it be something else entirely?
I’ve come to a point in my life when I’m happy to live with certain ambiguities. If you’re at a point in your life where you think you have ADHD, I would encourage you to learn more about it, but I’d also like to say that getting a diagnosis from a mental health professional can sometimes be tricky.
I’ve heard countless stories about people being told they couldn’t have ADHD because they were good at school (umm, I was the top student in most of my classes when I was younger and I have it), or being misdiagnosed with depression, anxiety, bipolar - I’ve been diagnosed with all three of those and I can honestly say with confidence that I straight up don’t have any of them.
The point is, you might not get a clear answer right away, or ever. You might not ever get a clear, perfectly packaged label that says, “This is what’s up with you.”
So instead of focusing on the problem, focus on the solution.
If the solution works, who cares what the problem actually was?
Just keep doing whatever fixed you.
How It's Going Today: Pretty Much ADHD-Free!
Before I get into how everything was before, I want to tell you about how my life is now, so that you can see what it’s like on the other side.
Today, for example, I had put on my calendar to start work at 8:30am. I went out for a walk and was listening to some inspirational podcasts. I listened to so many that I started to get mentally tired, plus it was time to get in the house and start preparing this podcast!
So I put on a song that I love called Ya Habibi Ya Ayni (sorry for my terrible pronunciation, my Arabic’s pretty bad!) and took the elevator back to my apartment but, oh my God did I really want to dance. I’m taking belly dance classes now.
The only problem was that there were only a few minutes left before my Google calendar was about to beep and tell me it was time to get to work. I told myself, “You can dance this song one time.”
I did. Then it was time to go to work.
Now, the me in the past would have just kept dancing and dancing and dancing. And yeah, great for my body and you know. . . exercise is great for reducing stress levels but . . . if I let myself exercise all day I’m not going to get any of my work done and then I’m going to be stressed because of that, so, nope, time to turn off the music.
Well, hey, I said my ADHD was pretty much gone, not totally obliterated. So, I indulged and danced to the song one more time.
But after that I suddenly heard a very strong, very firm, but kind voice in my head say, “Okay. That’s enough. Time to get to work.” And. . . I did!
I sat down to work, six minutes late. Not perfect, but compared to how I used to be. . . wow. . . miles ahead.
And I don’t know if you can relate to this or not, but for me that was a really powerful moment, because, before, when I was really struggling with my ADHD. . . I just never had this kind of, let’s say, calm but firm pilot voice in my head.
What I had was either nothing . . . meaning I knew I had to do something that day but it just didn’t happen, or this kind of screaming, rage-filled angry voice that would say, “What are you doing?! You are wasting so much time! You always do this! What the hell is wrong with you?! Get to work!!”
Now, if a real person talked to you like that, like, for example if you have a boss, imagine if she said that to you in that way. What would you do? I’d probably quit.
So anyways, in the past I would have danced all morning, then eventually when it was the last minute sat down to work and then been all stressed and crazy, probably would have worked quite late into the night, pissed off my husband because I hadn’t helped at all with anything around the house and he’d had to do everything.
Or maybe I would have finally worn myself out with the dancing, and then decided I was hungry and then either eaten some junk or decided to cook an elaborate meal for three hours. Whatever.
The point is in the past I just could not sit down and do what I really needed to do for the day. And it was this horrible, endless cycle.
Procrastinate, screw around, work really hard on something totally different than what I needed to do that day, wind up having to stay up late to finish everything, wake up the next day totally cracked out and exhausted and do it all over again and again and again.
Meanwhile, I was very rarely truly relaxing and very rarely doing anything fun at 100% because the disorder of my day-to-day life left me little time for fun, so anything that was “fun” would kind of force itself into my life, like dancing for three hours instead of doing my work.
And that’s kind of backwards if you think about it, because my brain was basically saying to me, “Hey, you need to do something fun and interesting to relax,” but because I struggled so much with organization and impulse control, my “fun” was kind of happening almost against my will, if that makes sense, and thus it was this kind of bittersweet feeling, because I was “having fun” when I needed to be doing something else, so I existed in this kind of weird “fun + stress” at the same time world, because in the back of my head, and I mean very much in the back of my head, I knew that I needed to get focused and be doing something different at that moment, but there I was screwing around, so I wasn’t let’s say really enjoying myself, wasn’t really relaxing because I couldn’t, and I knew that there were all these things I needed to do that were there just hanging over my head, so I just constantly had this low level of anxiousness always lurking under the surface.
But today, I sat down and started, pretty much on time.
I don’t know what you’re thinking as you read this. You might be thinking, “Well, you just weren’t disciplined.” Or, you might be thinking, “Yup, I totally understand.” Let me just tell you that this wasn’t a kind of sort of little problem that I had occasionally. This was all the time.
How It Used to Be: ADHD and Procrastination
The main way that ADHD showed up for me and messed up my life was through procrastination. This started to be a problem for me when I was around eight years old. That’s when we started to get homework at school, and therefore needed to have some semblance of time management.
Me as a kid. My dog and I had the same haircut!
Intellectually, even as an eight-year-old, I knew I needed to just sit down and do the damned homework and get on with it, but from the very beginning I always left it until the last minute.
I would come home, maybe play my kid-sized guitar, watch TV, write in my diary, whatever, until it was dinner time - yay! - and then after dinner do something else, literally anything except my homework and then finally when I was really tired and it was at that “Oh my God if I don’t start now I’m not going to get this done” point, I would flop down on the floor with my back against the bed (never been a big fan of desks) and get started.
Now you might say, “Well, where were your parents during all of this?”
Let me tell you that they tried, oh Lord did they try, to get me to do my homework in a punctual manner and be organized, it was really quite impossible.
I’ll give you another example.
When I was a kid, we had summer reading. Did you have that too? If so, do you remember how it worked?
Usually when they let us out of school for the summer, they would give us this list of books that we had to read before we started again in the fall, so we had three months to read a few books.
Nothing major, I’d say maybe max twenty hours of reading total.
One summer, I must have been about 16, we had three books we had to read. I can’t remember exactly what was going on in my head at that time, but I’m pretty sure that every single day I said I was going to start my summer reading and every single day I managed to not get around to it.
If I remember correctly, I had a part-time job and was involved in a summer theatre program, so I wasn’t sitting around doing nothing, but I definitely had time to read the darn books.
I just, no matter how much I yelled at myself internally, could not sit down and open the book.
My mother decided to intervene.
There were a few days in there where I didn’t have to be anywhere specific, so she said to me, “You are not leaving this house until you do your summer reading.” She was really emphatic with me.
Well, I was already screaming at myself in my head to do it, so another person saying the same thing, eh, it didn’t work.
I locked myself in my room and what did I do?
I took some black card stock, you know that thick paper they use to make business cards, and I spent three entire days meticulously drawing and cutting out the letters by hand to a verse from one of my favorite songs, “Subterranean Homesick Alien” by Radiohead.
I labored over this project and filled an entire wall of my bedroom with the lyrics. The final project was about ten feet wide and five feet high. I laid it out perfectly.
It looked super cool, if I do say so myself.
And here’s where a lot of people don’t understand ADHD. There’s this misconception that if you have ADHD, you can’t focus on anything.
So an outside observer with this perception would look at teenage me and say, “What the hell? The kid spent three days doing nothing but cutting out letters one by one and taping them to her wall, only stopping to eat, go to the bathroom, and sleep. She doesn’t have an attention problem. Look how focused she was!”
And that’s the funny thing about ADHD, it’s not a focus problem, per se, it’s a direction of focus problem. It’s having a powerful car with a wonky steering wheel, so you’re driving really fast but on the wrong road, at least that’s how it showed up for me.
If you’re wondering if I ever finally did my summer reading that year the answer is, “yes,” but, at the last minute, when I was over-tired, and very little of the book went in to my brain, so I felt really jealous of the other kids who were able to expertly converse and demonstrate a deep understanding of the material when we started the next school year.
Had I started the reading earlier, with a bit of calm, I’m sure I would have been able to do that too.
But I didn’t, so I couldn’t.
So those are a few examples of how ADHD showed up in my life when I was younger.
In my case, the big one was procrastination, but I also had trouble paying attention in my classes, especially in high school.
The funny thing is, I didn’t really even realize that I was having trouble paying attention. I didn’t have this sensation of, “Oh, I can’t concentrate.”
What I had was the sensation that doodling at that moment was an excellent idea. If it was a really interactive class, I was fine, but if it was a lecture, forget about it.
I would just doodle all over my textbook, my notes, or even my school uniform, drawing random pictures of whatever - I’m not even good at drawing.
I still got really good grades though, but here’s the thing, I had to go home every night and teach myself everything from the book in order to do the homework, as none of the lectures had gone in, and I couldn't really sit down to do it until the last minute.
So every single school day it was the same story over and over.
Wake up completely exhausted, with the help of the loudest alarm clock ever and very angry parents, go to school, pay attention in the classes that were more hands on but completely space out in the others, do absolutely nothing productive during study hall or free periods where we had time to sit quietly and do our homework, go home, mess around for hours, finally, when it was now an emergency, sit down and do my homework and teach myself from the book the things I had failed to pay attention to, pass out, often still in my clothes, and do it all over again the next day.
This finally caught up with me in my senior year of high school.
My First Big ADHD Meltdown
I just had too much going on. I was in lots of advanced classes, and had tons of homework, was on the volleyball team, in the school play, had a boyfriend, and had three different groups of friends that I was shifting between, and a part time job at a bagel shop.
On top of all that, it was time to apply to college, and as you can probably guess I just couldn’t bring myself to fill out the application.
This workload and life would have probably been too much for a teenager without ADHD, but for someone with it, it really wasn’t sustainable.
I was already drinking way too much coffee in order to stay awake, and added caffeine pills to the mix. Eventually I crashed and burned. If you’ve seen that episode of Saved by the Bell where Jessie says, “I’m so excited. I’m so excited. I’m so. . . scared.” It was kind of like that.
I was an emotional wreck because of the exhaustion, and it was at this point that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I’m not bipolar.
A lot of people are, but I’m not.
The psychiatrist was convinced that because I wasn’t sleeping much for long periods of time and then was crashing and sleeping a lot, I must be bipolar.
I believed him, and thought for years that I had this very serious condition, which was terrifying.
Mind you, this diagnosis was handed to me after a very brief consultation, we’re talking a matter of minutes.
Had he stopped to ask me more questions about my daily life, how over-extended I was, how much trouble I was having getting things done and therefore not sleeping, and maybe about how much caffeine I was consuming until finally crashing, you know, that my sleep situation had an exogenous cause and not an internal one, he might have realized that something else was going on.
I was put on antidepressants which had absolutely no effect on me because. . . I wasn’t depressed.
Everything Was OK Until . . .
Now, so far I’ve only talked to you about my experience as a student.
And here’s something interesting about ADHD.
The current stance on it is that it’s something you’re born with, and that often runs in families.
So if you have it, it’s something you’ve always had.
Yet, for some people, they can get by just fine, but then if something changes in their life that adds a lot more demands to their time, or really requires a certain level of let’s say organization or prioritization, then sometimes they can really fall apart.
For example, a new mother with ADHD might have managed until she had her child, you know maybe she did okay in school, she was able to perform just fine at her job, but then suddenly she has this whole other dimension to her life and BOOM! it’s just too much.
Now I’m not saying that someone without ADHD would be just fine. This is a demanding situation for anyone.
What I’m saying is that this woman was able to handle everything in the past, although probably with some difficulties, but then at a certain level, when the going gets too tough, it becomes clear that there’s something going on.
It doesn’t have to be a baby that causes this, it could be a promotion at work that suddenly gives you lots more to do and then, yikes, there are just too many moving parts to life to manage and not enough time.
Another time when this can really show up is when someone moves out of their parents’ house for the first time, especially if they didn’t have that many responsibilities in the home before.
Suddenly you’re juggling work or school or both, plus life, and you have to pay bills on time, clean the whole place, and somehow feed yourself and oh yeah don’t forget you also need to sleep at some point!
And because ADHD can make it really challenging to manage your time, these added responsibilities can cause a person to just . . . I don’t want to say, “fall apart,” but it can really feel impossible, like, “How on earth does anyone do this? This is too much stuff.”
Now I had my first true meltdown like this my senior year of high school because I had a very intense schedule. I still hadn’t been diagnosed with ADHD, however, so I filled out an application to a college that July.
I had already missed the deadlines for the schools I really wanted to apply to, so I went to one that accepted later applications.
It turned out to be a wonderful school for me, but I confess I still burn with envy whenever I meet someone who has gone to an Ivy League school or other prestigious institution.
I still think, “I could have done that too, if I’d just filled out that stupid application on time.”
I confess it’s my only true regret in life that continues to haunt me more than twenty years later.
How do you like them apples?
College: Same Sh*t, Different Day
But anyways life went on, and I was off to college.
I managed to get good grades, and even graduate early!
Someone looking at my report card would probably say, “Well, what’s the problem? You did fine.”
The whole story was much bleaker.
My issues with procrastination followed me to college.
I had time between classes during the day to work on assignments.
Didn’t open the book once.
I would do everything except what I actually needed to do, whether that was listening to a new album, playing guitar, composing a poem, reciting Shakespeare alone in the laundry room, playing card games with other people in the dorms and then finally when it was the last possible minute, get started on my assignments.
I would go to bed at 2 or 3am or later.
One time, I was walking home from the computer lab at 4am after finally finishing a paper. It was dark and there was no one around, and suddenly a car pulled up, and a man rolled down his window and, well, showed me a little something.
Basically he flashed me and then drove off. I freaked out and ran all the way back to my dorm.
I don’t want to say it’s my fault this happened to me, it’s his fault for wanting to play show and tell, but had I been more on top of things, I wouldn’t have been out alone in the middle of campus at such an ungodly hour.
My college life was chaotic.
My dorm room was a complete pigsty, causing more than one roommate to need to have a chat with me.
I was often late to my first class of the day, because I was going to bed so late, and I think in general I looked pretty disheveled.
I remember one year it was something like December and I went to class and several people said to me, “Wow, I didn’t know you had such long hair!”
I realized that I was such a mess with my time that I almost never stopped to actually do anything with my hair, just wash it and throw it into a bun, so much so that I had gone nearly an entire semester without ever wearing it down.
I felt embarrassed and ashamed, and really, I felt like a little kid.
Everyone else seemed to be able to gussy themselves up, no problem, and here I was looking like I had just rolled out of bed, which, um, I had.
Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings
I want to mention that it wasn’t just that I wasn’t managing my time well.
My emotions were also pretty out of control, I would say.
Now, this problem is twofold.
On the one hand, one of the symptoms ADHD carries with it is what’s called emotional lability.
What this means is that you can have these kind of rapidly changing emotions that can appear larger than life.
You might have a giggling fit, become really angry, or start crying.
Now you may say, “Hey, that sounds like bipolar disorder,” and it does, but here’s the difference.
In bipolar disorder, these emotions seem to come out of nowhere.
In ADHD, these emotions need to be provoked in some way, even if that provocation is seemingly minor.
So in ADHD it’s not that you suddenly start screaming at someone for no reason, it’s that someone does something that pisses you off but you go from 0 to 100 like that and oh boy watch out when that happens.
I had this in spades.
It was easy for me to yell at people I was really close to, like family or boyfriends, although somehow I managed to keep it under control with most other people; but I definitely burst into tears more times that I would say is normal; and when I found something funny, oh God did I laugh like a hyena.
So, just by having ADHD you are more prone to these big big emotions, but then there’s the other part, which is that there’s a chance that your life is a bit chaotic, there’s a chance that you have low self-esteem around this fact, and there’s a chance that you’re not sleeping much and maybe have some other habits that are throwing you off balance.
The point is, whether your emotions are exaggerated because of the condition itself, like, they’re just naturally like that, or because you’re under intense stress from trying to get through life with this brain that kind of doesn’t do what you tell it to do, you can have these very dramatic emotions.
And that’s something many people don’t know about ADHD. . . the emotional part.
I think the common perception is that it’s just about not being able to focus, or being hyper.
But there is this huge emotional component as well, these larger-than-life feelings, which can feel quite overwhelming.
The laughing too much part was fun though, although it definitely got me into trouble in serious situations.
I'll Do It in Five Minutes . . .
I want to tell you one more story about my issues with ADHD which is going to sound nuts, but it’s true.
This happened about seven or eight years ago.
I was working as a professional photographer and had my own little portrait studio.
I really loved what I did, but even so it was hard to get things done.
If I had a photo session I had no trouble getting to the studio early and setting everything up and taking tons of great pictures. I had the pressure of having a client there so that made it feel like an emergency and when it’s an emergency I’m good.
It’s funny, actually, because whenever there’s a true emergency, like the few times I’ve gotten into car accidents, and everyone around me is totally freaking out, I’m cool as a cucumber.
I should have been a paramedic.
So when I had a photo shoot, no problem.
The problem is, there are so many other parts to running a photography business. There’s retouching, color correcting, printing, ordering inventory, making sure your website looks cute, all kinds of stuff.
So usually I had two days a week that were filled with sessions, and another four days a week that were just me alone or sometimes with my very quiet assistant, and it was hours of retouching or whatever.
I had a chair outside of my studio in the hall, and I remember one day in particular, and I still feel embarrassed when I think about this, when I managed to get to the studio pretty early in the morning, but somehow just couldn’t open the door to the studio, sit at my desk, and start work.
I sat in the chair outside my studio for hours, I mean really for hours, playing with my phone, all the while screaming at myself internally, “What on earth are you doing? Just go in the office,” but then also saying, “I will, just one more minute. Just five more minutes. Ah, it’s 11:55. I’ll go in at noon. Ah, it’s 1:45. I’ll go in at two. Ah, it’s 3pm, I should eat lunch.”
I spent nearly the entire day sitting in the chair outside my office, wound up pulling an all-nighter to finish my photos for my client, who the next day very gently suggested to me that I get a bit more sleep as I looked insane (my word not hers).
And again, this was not something that happened occasionally. This was every day, every single day.
Even on non-work days it would show up.
Things like doing the laundry or cleaning the house seemed like Herculean tasks to me. I just didn’t understand how people did all these things. It just seemed impossible. I would make my to-do list but somehow it just wouldn’t get done.
It affected my social life too.
This is extremely embarrassing to admit, but I’m going to do it.
The simple act of getting myself dressed and ready for a night out seemed to take ages. I don’t really know why, maybe because things like doing my hair and makeup are kind of boring to me and something usually goes wrong, especially with my freaking eyeliner, so I don’t really enjoy it like some people do.
So, on days where I didn’t have appointments during the day, I kind of walked around disheveled and feeling gross, and if someone happened to call me to want to go out at night, I would have to either make up an excuse to not go or somehow find an hour or two to get pulled together.
I don’t know why it used to take me so long, really.
There are definitely bigger sources of stress in this world than not being able to get your hair to look decent, but when it’s something that you deal with over and over, it does take a toll on your self-esteem.
It was this feeling of, “Why is this basic stuff just so incredibly hard for me? What’s wrong with me? Why does everyone else seem to be able to keep it together and not me?”
It was way too embarrassing to ever mention to someone because it just felt like something that one should have figured out as an adult.
I felt like a little girl, really.
So in terms of self-esteem, I’ve always been quite confident in many areas of my life.
I’ve always been confident in the way I look, even when I was quite overweight.
I’ve always been confident in my intellectual abilities. I know I’m a smart girl.
Yet I had this one thing that ate me alive for decades, and it was this horrible inability to get things done without an insane amount of stress, procrastination, all-nighters, self-flagellation and so on.
I was living in my own personal hell.
It affected the way I felt about myself greatly, and was a vicious cycle.
I’ve pretty much always been mainly self-employed, so day-in and day-out it was the same story. Make the to-do list and do very little if any of it and only after doing literally everything else in the world.
Eventually I stopped making to-do lists and putting things on my calendar all together.
Why bother if I know I’m not going to stick to it?
Wow, how things have changed.
Now my calendar is my BFF, you’ll notice me talk about it all the time if you read other blog posts.
No, I'm not a perfect model of time management and superhuman productivity now, but compared with how I used to be. . . Oh. My. God. It’s night and day.
I accomplish so much.
I stick to my goals.
I don’t feel stressed out and crazy, most of the time, and I’m proud of myself.
Trying to Fix my Brain
“So what worked to fix all of this?” you may ask.
Well first let’s talk about what didn’t work.
I tried therapy and also medication.
The way I went about it was the most ADHD way ever.
One day when I was sitting on the beach with a friend who was getting a PhD in psychology, she very gently asked me if I thought I might have ADHD. She had it.
I said, “no I totally don’t have it,” because, remember, I never had this feeling of not being able to concentrate, just this feeling of wanting to concentrate on other things than what I needed to at the moment.
I had excellent concentration, just on the wrong thing!
So I ignored what she said.
Then many years later a photographer friend of mine and I were in the car on our way to photograph a wedding together and she mentioned that she’d known she had ADHD for pretty much her whole life but had never sought help for it because she had belonged to a religious group that was very anti-therapy.
However she’d left the group and was now ready to give it a shot.
As I listened to her talk, I still thought, “eh, doesn’t apply to me.”
But the third time was the charm.
One day I was walking down the street in Brooklyn when I saw a box of books that someone had left out on the street with a note that said, “Free! Take me!”
I started looking through the books and picked out a couple, including one that was about ADHD. I can’t remember the title.
I read the book and – oops – it was very clear that this was what was going on.
So I scheduled an appointment with a psychologist.
And here’s where the story gets very ADHD.
I went to my first appointment and completely failed to mention that I was there because of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
I totally forgot!
I know it sounds crazy.
And then, believe it or not, I went through six months of cognitive behavioral therapy, all the while completely failing to bring up the subject of ADHD.
I swear to God, I just totally forgot that that was the reason I had started in the first place.
The therapy was great and helped me correct a lot of my negative self-talk, which was huge, but my ADHD symptoms raged on.
Finally as we were nearing the end of our sessions together, I suddenly remembered that I had wanted to talk to the therapist about ADHD.
I mentioned it to her at our next session.
Her first reaction was, “Oh you definitely don’t have it. You make really good eye contact when we talk.”
I said to her, “Umm, I’m forcing myself to do that. I really just want to look at all the cool books you have on your bookshelf behind you, but I know that that would be rude.”
She still seemed convinced that this was not an issue for me, but she sent me home with a symptom questionnaire.
I had a lot of work to do that week, which I managed to leave for the last minute, of course, as I carefully filled out the questionnaire and then attached pictures of cute puppies to it to make it look beautiful.
I spent about three hours on the thing, which was meant to be done in five minutes. Hey, what can I say, I was great at hyper-focusing on the wrong things.
I brought the questionnaire to her the next week, which I had filled out with “yes” to all of the questions except for one, meaning, I was very likely a person with ADHD.
She referred me to a psychiatrist, who prescribed me stimulant medication.
I still remember exactly where I was when the first dose kicked in. I was sitting at the kitchen table and suddenly I breathed out a breath that I felt like I had been holding in for decades.
And, like magic, I cleaned the whole apartment like it was no big deal. Wow.
The next day I awoke to the most awful headache I’ve ever had, and left to photograph a wedding, afraid to take the medication before such a high-pressure situation. I didn’t need it for that anyways, the pressure did the work of spurring me into action just fine.
Over the next few weeks I took the meds some days and did find that it helped a lot, but the side effects were rough.
I had headaches, needed to drink so much water, felt hot, had heart palpitations, and was grinding my teeth non-stop à la the mom in the movie Requiem for a Dream who’s on diet pills.
It made it hard to sleep at night too, and messed with my appetite, making me not very hungry when I was taking it, and starving when I wasn’t.
It was working, but it was kind of scary to be honest.
I felt like I was going from one kind of out of control, mental, to another kind of out of control, physical.
Adventure Awaits . . . Focusing Can Too!
But, I didn’t really have much chance to take the medication for an extended period of time.
You see, I had decided to embark on a wild adventure: riding a bicycle from the U.S. all the way to the bottom of South America.
I asked my psychiatrist if it would be okay to take the medicine while riding my bike at the same time. She seemed to think it wouldn’t be a good idea.
So meds off the table for the foreseeable future.
She was nice enough to prescribe me as much as legally possible in one bottle, so that I could at least have some for the trip.
I only took it a handful of times during the trip, like when I had to file my taxes.
My symptoms continued.
It was hard to pack my bags every morning, something you have to do when you’re doing a bike tour.
I fought a lot with my now ex-husband, the person with whom I was doing the trip.
My legs didn’t seem to want to work for hours on end. We were going slowly, but I was really crawling along.
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have the strength, it was that I would just kind of space out and forget to pedal.
I had wanted to take photos, to write a book, I don’t know, something, while on the trip.
I barely took any pictures and never wrote anything.
In our downtime, I spent a lot of time faffing about on the internet, although I did manage to study Spanish. We needed it to survive on the road, and therefore it was kind of an emergency and the ol’ brain was able to focus.
As we traveled through Mexico, and then through all of Central America, I began to be able to have conversations with people, which was pretty cool.
We continued further south until the bike trip and my first marriage fell apart in Colombia.
The country left such a deep impression on me though that I decided to stay, and I’ve been here ever since.
In true ADHD fashion, I pretty much managed to forget I have ADHD for a long time after moving here, and my little bottle of pills sat pretty much untouched in a drawer somewhere. I was in a new country, meeting all sorts of interesting people, and taking Spanish classes.
The Sh*t Hits the Fan Again
But as time went on, things started to get really unmanageable again.
I was working as a self-employed English teacher, and was having trouble juggling a full calendar of classes plus also doing lesson planning, and, you know, living life.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit and suddenly my workload increased even more and then I got married again and my husband and I were both working from home, had just moved to a new apartment, and were learning how to be together 24 hours a day, as the lockdown was really strict here.
So, it was one of those big changes with increased responsibilities like I mentioned before.
I was able to get to all of my classes on time, the pressure of having a student on the other end snapped me into focus mode during class, no problem.
Yet, the lesson planning was just a mess.
I just wasn’t ever able to do it until the last minute, so usually Sunday night, after spending all day doing literally everything else possible while simultaneously berating myself for not sitting down to do the thing.
This was obviously frustrating for my husband, because we couldn’t make any plans to do anything on Sunday, like watch a movie or whatever, because I was always going to start work in the morning, but I would always start right around sunset, after really just wasting the day doing nothing, except sometimes cooking.
Then I would go to bed late and start the week tired and. . . lather, rinse, repeat.
I felt like such a jerk.
Believe it or not, since I had yet again basically forgotten that I have ADHD, I was frustrated and confused and trying to figure out how on earth to stop procrastinating so much, but then I remembered my problem again and decided it was a good idea to go back on medication.
I still had a bottle of expired stimulant medication, but I went to a psychiatrist to get a new prescription and she gave me a new prescription of another one that was very similar.
So, it worked. . .ish.
The first dose of the new medication kicked in while I was on a bus riding through the countryside and it gave me a mini panic attack, which I’d never had before, but I decided to give it a proper shot.
Well, it just made things kind of a mess.
I became a work machine, preparing lessons for my students that were 40 or 50 pages long, with detailed additional notes and further resources. They were way too long for hour-long lessons.
I also felt like kind of a weirdo in my classes, as the medication made me want to talk a lot, and as a teacher really your student should be doing the majority of the talking. I caught myself launching into monologues on occasion.
Also, if a student messaged me to ask a question about something, however simple, I would reply with a full dissertation on the subject.
Not a good look.
All in all, I felt rather joyless on this medication, and the same side effects I’d had on the first one were still there on the second one.
It also scared me whenever I thought that I might have to take this thing for the rest of my life. I finally got fed up with my robotic existence and went off of it.
So there I was, back to my chaotic self.
This went on for about another year or so.
The house was a mess, I was going to bed super late and waking up exhausted.
I was procrastinating.
Oh, and my new husband and I were fighting like cats and dogs.
In short, I was a trainwreck, but I was used to being like this, so I just rolled with it.
Then, finally, I found the solution, by accident.
The Miracle that Came to Me Because I Was Pudgy
I had packed on the pounds over the last few years -- I was pretty fat!
And so one day, I decided to give the ketogenic diet a try, which I also combined with a bit of fasting.
The weight fell off of me, and I found the diet very easy to stick to, as there isn’t any quantity restriction involved, so I could feast like a queen when it was time to eat and my progress continued.
But then a funny thing happened.
I began to notice a new kind of mental clarity that I had never had before, not even when I was on ADHD medication.
I was sleeping better, I felt a lot calmer, my moods weren’t all over the place, and then, one day I woke up on a Sunday - lesson planning day - and I opened my computer at 8am and finished my lesson planning a few hours later.
This was something that had never happened to me in my life. Even with medication, you have to, you know, actually get out of bed and take it and wait for it to kick in, but there I was, happily pecking away at the keyboard like it was no big deal.
Okay. This had to be a fluke, right?
The next Sunday, I woke up early, got right to work, and was shutting off my computer with a smile on my face by lunchtime.
Something had completely shifted in my brain.
Suddenly, the steering wheel on the fast car actually worked!
I made plans to do things and then - shock of shocks, miracle of miracles - I . . . just . . . did them!!
I started using a calendar and to-do list again, because now I had the confidence that I could actually stick to my plans and I honestly feel like a new person now.
No, I’m not a perfect specimen of getting things done, I occasionally get distracted here and there, but I’m able to spot what’s going on and refocus my attention on what I want to do.
I dealt with ADHD for over thirty years and now, I feel like one of the neurotypicals, what some might call, “the normal people.”
So that’s my story!
Stay tuned for the next episode where I’ll get more into the technical stuff about what ADHD is, and what the science says so far about the ketogenic diet and its potential to alleviate symptoms.
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Thanks so much for listening, and have a happy and healthy day.