Why ADHD is my superpower
About a year ago, a friend shared an article on Facebook from the Guardian talking about ADHD in women. Looking for an interesting article to pass the time with, I went and read it. Then I read it again. And again. It was like reading about myself and suddenly, I looked back on my life and the choices that have brought me to this point and everything just....clicked.
I remembered how my whole family would say "Mina ni mrengo" all the time while I was growing up. Which loosely translates to 'Mina is so scatterbrained'. I remembered the times I went to primary school with my pajamas on under my school uniform skirt because I had forgotten to take off my trousers before putting on my skirt. I remembered the time I came home from school and my mum asked me where my shoes were because I was barefoot, and I couldn't remember when I had taken them off or where I had left them.
The author of the Guardian article (Noelle Faulkner) said that for her,
"On a good day, it’s like watching a train whizz past you while you’re trying to read the text on the side and make out faces in the windows. On a bad, a bird might land in front of you. Curious, you pull out your phone, Google the bird and get stuck in a “pigeons of the world” vortex. You discover cassowary eggs are bright green and in 2005, UK police found a leg of swan in the Queen’s Master of Music’s freezer. Two terrine recipes later, the train has long passed and night has fallen. Dazed, you sink under a dark cloud of self-loathing, lamenting another lost day. You don’t remember what kind of bird it was."
I've spent my whole life being told how 'brilliant' and 'clever' and 'talented' I am. I could never seem to get any of my homework finished at school yet I got straight A's in exams. I left assignments at university until the last minute yet somehow managed to do all the reading from zero, write essays and hand them in 4 days later. Thereby perpetuating the façade that I really was good at everything. Good friends marvelled at my ability to juggle motherhood with starting my own business and publishing papers as an academic or running foraging courses while doing a PhD. Others saw me juggling all those balls simultaneously and hated me for it. My ability to seemingly do 'everything' highlighted their own insecurities and triggered their imposter syndrome.
It wasn't just friends who looked in on me in my world of hyperproductivity and felt inferior. It was my husband too. When we got married, we spent the first 2 years apart with him living in Bristol and me in Leeds. Every time he saw me, I was switched ON. I was picking pounds and pounds of fruit and making over 100 jars of jam in a weekend. I was digging up the front garden to plant vegetables. I was deciding to keep chickens then ending up with 15 chickens (because they all laid different coloured eggs and I needed to have all the different colours).
My ADHD was what got me into that mess in the first place but it was also the reason that I was able to hold everything together. It made me super Mina. When I decided to learn about foraging, I went on a dive so deep that within less than a year I was leading foraging courses and being featured on the BBC with Alys Fowler. When I decided to learn about baking gluten free food, I opened Wildcraft.
But on the inside, I was falling apart. I remember spending weeks lying on the sofa in my house crying for no particular reason and too afraid to leave the house. I remember hiding from my PhD supervisor because I had done no work and had deadlines coming up but was too scared to admit how bad things had become. I remember living in a house that looked like it had been burgled because I couldn't even bring myself to wash the dishes or put my laundry away for weeks at a time. The higher the high, and the more productive I was, the worse the crash would be.
The point at which my journey into self-awareness began was when I had managed to drive my poor husband nearly to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Typically it happened in front of both sets of parents and I just couldn't understand where he was coming from. Everything seemed fine up until that point? "I just can't keep up" he said. My initial response was anger and an arrogant "why should I have to dim my light just because I shine brighter than you?". But he was patient. And I started to take a long hard look at myself.
4 years later, I had reached the point where I felt like I knew myself really well.
- I knew that I had depression and could never rely on myself being stable for protracted periods of time (the descents into darkness would always be just around the corner and the only reason I was sort of keeping it together was because I was on anti-depressants).
- I knew I was amazing at starting things but terrible at keeping them going (relationships, hobbies, businesses, you name it. I would start it, it would go really well, I would get bored and lose interest, and find something else to do).
- Because I could do pretty much anything, I would frequently over-commit to things and make promises that I then couldn't keep (of course I can collate that literature review while also doing those foraging walks and run a massive consultancy project in the Kenyan highlands while 7 months pregnant!)
- I knew I was not cut out for motherhood (all those things that my friends around me seemed so amazing at when it came to their children were just beyond me. I couldn't spend long periods of time with my (at the time 1) daughter because she bored me. The burnouts were coming more and more frequently after she was born and part of me hated her for making me less 'Super'. I didn't really bond with her until she was nearly 3 years old. When I found out I was having twins I was so happy. I knew that they might not have me, but at least they would always have each other).
- I knew I was a crap friend (because I struggled to have conversations with people that weren't related to my work and could never seem to get myself organised enough to meet up for lunch or even respond to texts sometimes).
I was proud of myself for knowing these things about myself. I praised myself for my self-awareness and for getting better at keeping myself out of situations where my inherent weaknesses would make me fail (although now that I think about it, I also kept myself out of situations that would lead to me being 'exposed' as the fraud I thought I was)
But around the time that the twins were born, something in me started to fundamentally change. It started with tiny things. I would watch my mother play with my babies and I would copy her. The twins would laugh and I would want to do it again. Maybe this wasn't so boring after all? My wonderful sister-from-another-mister/business partner Sam would say things to me and I learned to listen more before reacting. My husband learned to ask me to help with things like laundry (I can be quite oblivious to the things that need to happen to keep a family functioning) and I learned how to be there for him.
But I think the real catalyst for the acceleration in my self-awareness and personal evolution is Sam. We fight in ways that only sisters (or spouses) do. When we first went into business with each other, this seemed to happen multiple times a week. She didn't know me, I didn't know her, but we both loved Wildcraft. Whenever I entered periods of hyper-productivity, it would drive her nuts. I was inventing new recipes and products every week and wanted them to go out into sale immediately. I would sign us up for loads of markets and events and rope everyone we knew into helping out. She once described me as a tornado that swept away and engulfed everything and everyone in her path. I hated her for saying it but there was an element of truth in what she said. She was the one who kept the business going and the lights on by doing all the admin and 'boring' jobs that I just couldn't do. But all people saw was me. She was invisible.
When we opened the cafe, we decided that, rather than spread ourselves thin trying to manage everything, that we would split the business in two. I would run mail order and the bakehouse and be in charge of bakery product innovation, and she would run the cafe and be in charge of all the food and menu development there. This worked well because Sam is a mad wizard when it comes to food and savoury flavours, and I love the science of gluten free baking and the challenge of creating the next big baked 'thing'.
The cafe opened in September and from that point onwards, Sam and I barely spoke. She was so busy setting up the cafe and learning how to manage a whole new business that neither of us had any experience with, and I was left to my own devices. I started going for therapy which was a huge help but without the balancing influence on both Sam and I of our relationship with each other, I went from hyper-productive in September to a huge crash around Christmas and was ready to walk away from it all and leave Wildcraft behind. A lot of very long and hard conversations later, and I am still very much here. But I am definitely not the woman who started Wildcraft in my dining room in 2015.
Reading that article and going to therapy made me realise that I am not neurotypical. So some of the things I do are not totally voluntary and when I am knocked off balance, I can easily spiral out of control. But that's not my fault.
I have empowered the people around me to help me. They have learned to spot the signs of when the downward descent has started and know how to help me recover. For the last 6 weeks, I have basically done very little when it comes to the strategic growth of the business. When lockdown eased at the end of March, our mail order sales (understandably) fell and I fell apart. I launched the cookie pies then spent 5 weeks obsessively sewing clothing for my family and I, and sewing was all I could think about. Last week, suddenly, the bubble of compulsion burst. I wasn't thinking about sewing and hiding from work anymore and was excited about applying for farmer's markets and launching new products again.
So why, after all that, do I think that ADHD is my super power? Well...my laser focus and ability to absorb information has given me an understanding of gluten free baking that allows me to invent products that most other gluten free bakeries can only dream of. When I'm switched on, my brain is like a firework display with hundreds of new ideas exploding into being, being explored and progressed or dismissed in an instant. When a problem needs solving, this ability can take us from the brink of catastrophe to survival before people even realise something has gone wrong. But the most important thing of all is that knowing that I have ADHD has allowed me to finally forgive myself for not being perfect.
Every single person in the bakehouse knows that I suffer from depression and have ADHD and every single one of those wonderful people has my back. Over the last 6 weeks, they have kept Wildcraft going. They have figured out how to bake the cookie pies after I dumped them on them with less than a week's notice. They have devised new IT solutions that mean that they don't need me for day-to-day operations, which in turn has reduced the pressure on me and given me the space I needed to get better. And when they saw I was struggling, they made me cups of tea and talked with me and showed me how much they care about me and told me that I was enough. So yes, my ADHD means that my whole life will be one long roller coaster ride from Awesome to Hell and back. But it means that when I am good, I am GREAT....and when I am not, I am still enough.