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My experience with mental health issues is rather extensive, stretching back to my youth. It started with what I assumed was depression, which slid into a tough and persistent eating disorder. A few years into recovery, when I knew something was still very wrong, I realized I was actually bipolar. Throw in a little crippling anxiety as a symptom of my mood episodes, and you’ve got the chaos I dealt with for the better part of my teens and twenties.
It’s been a crazy experience coming to understand all of my quirks and glitches (as I fondly call them) and to overall know enough about my brain to get around the roadblocks it leads me into. And I’m lucky enough to finally pretty much have all the aforementioned annoyances under control.
But there’s still one brain-quirk that I’m struggling to understand; it’s ADHD.
I’m even struggling to get help in that quest for understanding it.
ADHD is a thing I’d heard adults talk about as a kid quite a bit. I certainly heard the word “ADHD” more than I heard the word “anorexia” or “bipolar” or to be honest, even “depression.” But despite that, I didn’t get my diagnosis until my late college years.
It wasn’t until it occurred to me that I had to take my bipolar disorder into my own hands (at 26) that I started connecting some things to my ADHD.
It started with me downloaded an app where I could keep track of when I took my meds. Admittedly, I wasn’t the greatest at consistently taking them, which I don’t recommend. But I began to notice patterns.
ADHD and Mood Tracking
If you’re familiar with bipolar disorder, you certainly know about patterns. I’d miss my meds and then a while later I’d get painfully energetic, but simultaneously so irritable that I could barely function let alone get anything done. Then my moods would crash and my energy would evaporate into thin air.
Thankfully there was an app for tracking that, too.
Once I started mood tracking, I could connect so many dots that had practically been begging to be connected.
I finally saw, for example, that even when taking my medication consistently (which I’d gotten so much better at), if I had a few nights where I couldn’t sleep, I’d be in for that same cycle of agitated, dysphoric mania and a subsequent wave of mind-numbing depression.
I saw that that was happening more frequently, ultimately settling at three months apart. It was like that for years.
I was never told how to manage my bipolar disorder nor my ADHD; the diagnoses were basically just thrown at me.
It took an incredible amount of luck and work to get one under control. But since I’m still working on the other, and since it’s ADHD Awareness Month, I think it’s especially important to share what I’ve learned on my journey.
What I’ve Learned from Living with ADHD
Everyone and every brain is different.
I’m pretty sure no one is going to present the same exact way, but the more we learn about this and think about it, the better we’ll be in the end.
ADHD is about more than a lack of focus.
I have trouble focusing, of course. It’s hard for my brain to lock onto a topic or assignment, to really be present with what I’m doing (although sometimes it’s the reverse, with hyper-fixations that keep me up preoccupied). But it’s more than that.
Sometimes it’s being understimulated (which is actually the reason for lots of my lack of focus). Or sometimes it’s being impulsive and doing anything to get that hit of the reward chemical dopamine because my brain doesn’t make enough of it. Sometimes it’s being fidgety and talkative. Or having trouble making decisions, even.
It’s emotional dysregulation, too.
People with ADHD often react strongly to things that happen in their lives. I like to think of it as being passionate. When I was young, my friend and I would laugh because she and I reacted to things similarly, but I reacted in that same way times ten. Years before my mood disorder, ADHD was present in my life.
For people like me who have other reasons to struggle to manage their moods, it can be difficult to discern which issue is causing emotional reactivity.
I’ve learned that when it’s ADHD-related, it’s the result of something specific happening. If it’s my bipolar, there’s no specific cause. Furthermore, when I take my ADHD medication, I can focus enough to regulate my emotions and properly manage my bipolar symptoms.
ADHD is very misunderstood.
For a disorder that was often discussed (at least around me), it’s phenomenally misunderstood. There’s a great deal of ignorance surrounding ADHD. In my opinion, it’s a classic example of stigma at work. It really feels like ADHD is written off as a disorder that unruly little boys have, but that’s not true, and the assumption is insulting and damaging.
I am learning, though. I’m learning by talking to people in online groups and forums the power in the sentence: “oh my god, you do that too?!” I’m learning by reading online articles, interviews with experts, and personal stories. I’m learning by being open about ADHD and my other quirks with the people I talk to because I never know who’s going to relate or have some sort of insight into it.
Learning to Live with Bipolar and ADHD
I’m learning by talking with my therapist and learning to hack my brain by using tools that can help me work around the disabling parts of ADHD.
Related: ADHD and the Importance of Routines
I am working to make improvements by searching for a psychiatrist who knows how ADHD and bipolar interact with one another.
I’ve learned that having both bipolar and ADHD complicates things.
The treatment for ADHD is stimulants, a type of medication that can exacerbate bipolar mania. But the comorbidity happens frequently (according to a 2019 article in ADDitude Magazine, about 20 percent of those who have ADHD also have a mood disorder). Learning how they influence each other and how each one manifests in me is absolutely crucial.
I really relate to the notion that my brain just has these little…eccentricities.
And I really appreciate that I’ve come to learn to circumvent those eccentricities.
My message for anyone struggling with these or any mental health issues is to research everything. Diagnosed with something? Look it up. Talk to people who know what they’re talking about. Make your mental health a priority because you deserve it.
You know your brain best. You’re responsible for it; advocate for yourself. You can do it!
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