ADHD and me: on mental health.

It’s #BellLetsTalk Day, which here in Canada is the one day of the year that people—for better or worse, and sometimes to just bash Bell—stop to talk about mental health. I’m not getting into the Bell thing—it’s a thing.

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What I am getting into is this country has taken the time to pause and reflect. This is awesome. I have seen so many of my friends on Facebook share their struggles and triumphs and stories of living with anxiety and depression; of going to therapy and of choosing to try medication. People who have dealt with these things since childhood, or who are navigating mental health concerns for the first time as adults. To all of you who have shared your stories—today or any other day—I am so proud of all of you. Thank you for being bold, embracing who YOU are, and sharing your journey: I hope that it makes people in your world see “mental illness” differently, and see you just the same, because you are. You are important and your story is important. Every damn day, not just today—the highs, the lows, your story is important. Every. Freaking. Day. 

I am right here with you.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, but one that is also considered by some—including the Canadian Mental Health Association—a mental illness. Like depression and anxiety, ADHD is caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, specifically neurotransmitters.

And I’ll be honest, there are days that I can’t believe that. There are days that I see attention deficit disorder as a blessing or a gift or whatever cheesy, cliche thing people say and how could that be a mental illness? How could it be something that isn’t awesome? Days that I am on my A-game, that I have witty remarks that come out the right way, and that words just fly out onto the page in front of me, and days that my energy is exploding out of me in a way that actually feels good.

Except, more often, there’s the flip side to ADHD. The self-doubt, the feeling that I can’t do things right because I have failed to meet expectations so many times, the times I cannot focus enough to figure out the simplest of things—or even when I can focus, there is information my brain simply can’t process. There are the times that not only can I not understand why I am reacting to things the way I am, but also that it is a tidal wave: my feelings just crash over me and I can’t figure out how to just stop this and react how I know is “normal”. It helps—a bit—knowing that this is common for kids and adults with ADHD alike, that we legitimately feel things more intensely and for longer than other people do [1]. But it only helps after the fact. There are the times I hyperfocus and fail to get anything done that I actually need done and only let myself down; others that I again feel like I’ve failed someone else. The words “I forgot,” or “I’m sorry,” are not less true when they come out of my mouth: I mean it. But I get it: it’s hard to accept, again, when you’ve heard it before, because it looks like carelessness. I don’t blame my ADHD—I blame myself, because ADHD and I coexist. I am not my diagnosis, but I cannot separate from it, either. ADHD isn’t just about academics: it’s about life. And it sucks when your failures or shortcomings are not for lack of trying, they are just because my brain is not wired that way.

But here’s the thing. It’s so much better than it was. It’s better knowing that there is a reason why some things are like they are. ADHD is not an excuse, but it is an explanation, if even just for myself sometimes. It’s better knowing how to figure out strategies that work rather than just feeling like I’m stupid. It’s better knowing that this is how I am wired, and that is okay

My first appointment with my psychiatrist back in 2013, she did not say it but she clearly made a note that I appeared anxious. I started medication for ADHD the next day. When I met her again a month later, early in the appointment she commented that I seemed less anxious even just on a very low dose of Concerta, and asked if I had felt anxious before. I told her that I hadn’t, but that things just “felt better” inside me. It was hard to describe—she understood. Every appointment I have seen my psychiatrist she actually asks about side effects. She asks how things are going. She asks how my mood is. Every time. Because she knows the statistics.

Research states people with ADHD are at increased risk for mental health issues: nearly half of people will experience an anxiety disorder, well over a third will deal with a mood disorder like depression, and 15% will develop a substance-use disorder. [2] However, if ADHD is managed correctly, be it through whichever combination of exercise and therapy and medication and eating well-ish, these things can either be caught early and treated early—maybe even be prevented. Maybe.
I am fortunate, I do not currently have any co-existing mental health concerns. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t, won’t or can’t happen.

ADHD medication doesn’t give a person with ADHD any special ability to concentrate. I probably still focus less well than most non-ADHDers on 72 mg of Concerta a day. I don’t know because I’ve never had a non-ADHD brain. But do I feel better? Yes. Even though all of the above that I still struggle with. Part of it is because of medicine, but part of it is simply knowing what I am working with, knowing that other people experience this, knowing other people get me.

So, Canada.
You spoke.
I spoke.
We “talked”.
Now, don’t shut up just because Bell does.

Because we need this conversation. And we need the conversation to go further: to ensure mental health care is easily accessible—and affordable—for all Canadians. To make therapy with high-quality therapists affordable and accessible*. To ensure that services are available on demand, when people need them—weeks, or months, or years later. As a Canadian, healthcare for your body comes with the package—its a right. But care for your brain? It’s still on the table. (Which is closer than it’s been for a long time.) Stories are important, but so is access to care.

We need this conversation because we need every Canadian to feel confident they can be supported when they choose to share what they are facing.

Because my diagnosis is NOT about whether or not you believe it exists or not. It exists.

And we are living, breathing, singing, dancing proof that WE EXIST.

*Affordable and accessible therapy, to me, means to make therapy that is not income dependent or not something that is dependent on (awesome) charitable organizations like Aulneau, or educational institutions like the University of Manitoba Psych Services Centre. I’m uninsured, and if I can’t afford insurance, I can’t afford a $150 an hour therapist: which doesn’t mean that I should (or in some cases can) just wait longer.

mental health and exercise: natasha’s story

Over the last year or so as I’ve been switching a lot of gears in my own life, the amazingness that is the internet has facilitated the growth of a friendship between two people halfway around the world from one another who have, in my opinion, far too many parallels between themselves for it to be a coincidence (that said, I don’t believe in coincidence).

I’m blessed to have my friend Natasha sharing her story here about the effects exercise has on not only her body, but also her mental health (and that whole body image monkey that comes with the intermingling of the two).  Natasha lives in the Netherlands, grew up in the UK, and is a Canadian citizen [yay for Canada!], which makes for a lot of interesting discussion!  She’s also in the fairly recent past completed two triathlons and her first half marathon–no small feat for anybody, but when you add not only asthma but also a host of mental health problems, you’ve got one amazing woman!

It takes a lot of guts to open up about mental health issues in a forum such as this, but it’s something that needs to be talked about, so I’m really excited to be able to share Natasha’s story.

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I think it’s fair to say that I have a long standing love/hate relationship with exercise.  I’ve had the image of myself as exercise-hating, non-athletic and unfit as long as I can remember, and yet if I think back to my childhood, I don’t think this was always so.  It’s a fair point that I never fared well in team sports – a lack of co-ordination, coupled with being prohibited from wearing glasses in school PE lessons didn’t make me a very useful person to have on a team.  And then, of course, there was the fact that I was sick on a fairly regular basis.  I was only diagnosed with asthma in my early teens, but the signs were there from a younger age.

On the other hand, though, I used to love going on cycling ‘expeditions’ to the local woods, or to the park.  I enjoyed gymnastics, skating, skipping, playing elastics… I think I wasn’t the inactive child I picture myself as.

Kerri’s already had a couple guest posts by other asthmatics, and I’m not sure that I have so much to add, so I want to take this post in a slightly different direction and rather than focus on the topic of physical health and exercise, to direct my attention to the area of mental health.  In reality there’s a fine line between the two things, and for me, at least, the two are very intertwined.  As a teenager and through much of my twenties I suffered from depression, and both then and now I’m more prone than the average person to anxiety.

Cause and effect are a murky line, I’ve been recently diagnosed with ADHD, with which both depression and anxiety are often linked – either through biochemistry, or simply the result of trying to fit into a round hole as a square peg.  I also suffer from a condition called Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).  PCOS causes hormonal imbalance, which leads to weight gain and hirsutism amongst the more visible symptoms.  Needless to say, neither the body image issues which result, nor the wonky hormone levels do much to help your mental and emotional health.

Between issues of self-image, and the breathlessness which came with the asthma, then, exercise quickly because something I hated as a teenager, in a world where school PE class involved tiny gym skirts, which suited only the sylph like.

And yet, here is the biggest irony of them all.  The PCOS, the ADHD, the depression, even the asthma, exercise would seem to be that magic pill that has the power to help all of these conditions.  The one thing you can do for yourself, without cost, without resulting to pharmaceuticals.

But…

The weight gain caused by the PCOS keeps you out of the gym because you’re ashamed of your body.  The ADHD distracts you when you intend to go out for a run.  The depression… well, really, when you’re curled up on the sofa in a ball of misery, does stepping outside for a walk even cross your mind?  If it does, it only serves to remind yourself how worthless you are, because it’s a beautiful day outside, and you just can’t face it… yet you hate yourself for wasting it.  And then, the icing on the cake, the anxiety, the fear that you’ll have an asthma attack you can’t bring under control.

When I read back over that last paragraph, I have to say that it doesn’t sound very hopeful.  And yet, last year I took part in a 160km (100miles) walk in four days.  After a year sidelined from running whilst I worked to bring my asthma back under control, this year I ran my first half marathon, and took part in two triathlons.

Yes, I am still overweight, although I have it under better control than in my teens.  I can’t say that I’m happy with my weight, but I’ve learned to live with it, and I haven’t stopped striving to lose those final pounds.  I’m learning to take baby steps, set myself concrete goals, and figure out how to work with the ADHD, rather than waste my energy fighting against it, and myself.  The anxiety remains, but I refuse to let it defeat me, and with every small success, I come closer to defeating it.  My asthma is better managed, and I’m beginning not only to run despite asthma, but to learn to push myself beyond what I believed were my limits.

And yes, it is true, the further I push myself out of my comfort zone, be it facing an Open Water Swim in a triathlon, or sparring in a kickboxing class, the more I feel the benefit, both physically and mentally.  I may not be losing weight, but I’m toning up.  I may still get more out of breath on the stairs than my colleagues, but I know that’s the asthma talking and not my fitness level.

And most importantly?   At the end of a workout, I feel like I’m on top of the world.

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Thanks for sharing your story, Natasha!  (Gym SKIRTS? You poor thing!)

Natasha lives with her crazy cats, enjoys reading pretty much anything she can get her hands on (she keeps saying she needs more bookshelves!), and is a software architect with a passion for photography and travel.  Natasha blogs at Heron Underwater, sharing her stories of athletic endeavours, her health and life in general.