“You’re not very good at this, are you?” Kim looks up from stacking the dishwasher to see Jay considering her from where he is sitting at the kitchen table, glass of wine at his side, rolling another cigarette. He has a long, thin body, long, thin hands, deep, calm, hooded eyes; all of which lend themselves to a sense of languidness about him.
The cramped kitchen is a tip. The work surfaces are still covered in breakfast detritus, the kids’ dinner is boiling (and spoiling) on the stove. She just needs to clear some space, but here she is juggling running the house and entertaining her boyfriend all day.
“Fuck off! Could you do any better!” she answers brightly, breaking into a depthless smile as she slams the dishwasher closed.
It’s a joke. He doesn’t realise the effect of his words, but feelings rise in her which she can’t put her finger on, which she quickly tamps down back into her gut. There is something in his question which is all accusations hidden behind the lightheartedness; a malevolent archetype, a story as old as time, a nasty, snide gift passed from man to woman. She wonders whether he would say that to his mum, or if he’d ever said it to his ex wife.
A formed thought appears alongside those tamped down feelings, then quickly recedes; “And you tell me you’re a feminist?”. But she doesn’t say that; that would be snarky and bitchy. She is agreeable; she is desirable and fun and able to take a joke. She doesn’t want to make Jay think any less of her.
“Joe! Maisie! Dinner’s nearly ready!” she shouts. Jay gets up, stretches, grins at her and leaves to smoke his cigarette outside. He has made her one too, it lies on the table like an invitation.
“Are you coming as well?” it says.
Those feelings Kim felt rise in her that day come to light further down the line on closer inspection. Anger and shame. This is after Jay is gone and she spends many hours examining their exchanges, their actions, through the lens of grief; searching for the answer to where she went wrong and why he left. Hot shame’s fingers crawl up her body from deep down.
The anger feels messy and misplaced, so she turns the anger in on herself, as that feels more natural and familiar. No, she tells herself, she isn’t very good at this; she never has been, and probably never will be. She is a failure and she is ashamed of this. She was the girl with the school bag full of thumbed, late library books, crumpled homework and black, squishy bananas. The messy bedroom. The housemate who everyone secretly or not so secretly wanted to do her fair share of the washing up. Now she is the mother late to the gate, whose kids’ shirts are never ironed. The ungroomed lover. The woman who doesn’t make the grade.
“You can do so much better Kim. We know you can”.
She wonders how everyone else does it. When she asks other women how they do it, they laugh and whisper conspiratorially “it’s all an act, none of us have got our shit together really”.
That should comfort her, but she knows for them it is different. Motherhood, work, house work, relationships, taking care of your appearance and body, they are so hard to juggle and keep in the air, every woman knows that. But these other women; their children have ironed shirts, they don’t get signed off sick from work with stress every couple of years. There are Pilates classes and regular waxes. They don’t crawl into bed at 1am (too late again!) and push aside the laundry they dumped on the bed earlier that day and forgot to put away. She knows. She knows she is lacking, broken, stupid. Whilst not necessarily winging it, these other women are ultimately managing to keep on top of everything. They receive their prizes and hold their shiny medals up to the sun.
‘Executive function is a broad group of mental skills that enable people to complete tasks and interact with others. An executive function disorder can impair a person’s ability to organize themselves and control their behavior’. (Villines) 1
Kim has learnt a great deal about poor executive functioning and other symptoms of neurodiversity recently. She has been reading a lot, mostly online, in forums and on social media; more people like her coming to light than she ever realised, struggling with things like she does every day. She has been doing her homework.
She spends her nights scrolling, reading and frantically typing into search engines, the laptop screen illuminating her living room late at night when the rest of the house, the whole street it feels like, is already sleeping.
Poor executive functioning, inattention, perfectionism, low self esteem, obsession, hyper-focus, misdiagnosis, self medication and more; she mentally ticks off the symptoms and personal experiences as they unfold on the screen.
It’s not just her! She takes in all this new information like a sponge, gasping, elation popping the synapses in her brain as each explanation of a newly discovered symptom comes to light. These other women’s shared experiences flood her with comfort, before the waves recede and leave the flotsam and jetsam of the grief to pick through; of potential-not-met, of a lifelong lack of self-understanding.
Knotting the rope
Over the weeks as she goes through the motions of her everyday life (school runs, pulling dirty clothes out of the laundry basket, making coffee, answering emails in a flurry) snippets of her life come back to her in flashbacks. These hyper-real scenes rise randomly from nowhere before disappearing again, leaving behind an aftertaste of the nasty emotions their appearance brings with them.
[scene 1:] Kim stands still in front of the campus’s plate glass doors. She has travelled an hour to get there, reading a good chunk of today’s set text on the train. It’s a crisp late winter day; people flow past her, the world is buzzing and the sun bright on wet pavements. If she goes in now she will only be five minutes late. She feels nothing, no emotion, but an invisible resistance is barring her from stepping forward and pushing at the door and walking in the direction of the lecture theatre. She isn’t strong enough to fight it so she turns around and strolls back to the train station, shame creeping up her back. She bats it away; she was late anyway. When she gets home she lights a joint to congratulate herself on getting through a busy day.
[Scene 2:] Kim comes downstairs to put on the kettle, sleep still heavy in her bones. The kids are in bed; she needs to wake them for school now really, or they will be rushing to get there on time. But she needs this pause to breathe before the kids crowd in and overtake her. She walks into the kitchen. It is covered in yesterday’s washing up, the food bin overflowing, the table piled with paperwork, toys and unreturned parcels. She closes her eyes and grits her teeth; it feels like the mess is closing in on her, it’s weight feels physical. Once she has got the kids to school she will try to get the house in an acceptable state. She will try.
[Scene 3:] Kim has absolutely aced that piece today. She sits back at her desk, re-reading it, marvelling at the shapes her words have made, afternoon light streaming in through the window and hitting her desk, which for a moment looks magazine-feature perfect. The moment is beautiful; she feels elated, buoyed, open and glowing; her brain is whirring pleasantly. She looks at the clock; 2.36pm. Maisie and Joe are behind her, sprawled on the sofa watching TV, surrounded by socks, cups and sweet wrappers. She hasn’t made them lunch yet. Again. She panics, deflates. Joy pops like a balloon meeting a pin.
[Scene 4:] Ronan whips around and sneers. She is naked in bed and slightly drunk. He is standing by the wardrobe undressing, very drunk; more drunk than she has seen him in all the years they have been together. He takes a deep breath, the breath of someone about to spit out truth kept inside too long; with force meant to hurt, words weaponised to cause maximum damage. “You know what Kim? You are a great friend, a great mum, but you are a fucking shit partner”. She curls up, turns her back as he stumbles into bed, her heart hardening further.
These scenes, and many others, used to appear to taunt her, to remind her of her failings. Now, they appear and are slowly knitting together to form a narrative, a rope ladder on which to pull herself out of a dark well. She still feels the shame and anger but is beginning to see it’s not all her fault after all. It’s her brain’s fault. It’s okay. She has, and has always had, ADHD. And nobody knew all of this time, least of all her.
Sometimes when the realisation comes and overwhelms her, sobs and anger bubble up and well in her throat, threatening to choke her. When this happens she stands where she is, mug or book or laundry basket in hand, and looks around her small house, senses its crampedness, senses her own loneliness like a disinterested third party, thinks about her children and how they deserve more than she has been able to provide. How much better would everything have ended up if she had had this knowledge earlier in life? Would life have been kinder? Would she have achieved all that she should/could have? Would she have chosen better men? Could she have been a better version of herself, had she known?
Sometimes she lies in bed late at night; her mind filling with realisations. She sits up, turns on the light and frantically scribbles her thoughts down.
‘If a woman’s worth, in society’s eyes, is intrinsically tied in with her ability to be a good mother, to be successful, to run her household like a well-oiled machine, to hold the weight of those around her as well as her own weight, where does that leave the women like me?’
‘All these things are more difficult for people with ADHD, does that mean we have failed? If so, we are at a disadvantage before the race has even started. The race is skewed.’
To Kim it seems like a very cruel joke has been played on her for the last forty years. To realise this now, when much of her life has already been mapped out; the blueprints signed off and agreed. And bad, selfish, lazy, useless; these words have been etched into her skin and bone now; they cannot just be rubbed away in a couple of strokes.
And most people still don’t believe her, those that she has had the courage to confide in about her big revelation. She sees the almost imperceptible raise of their eyebrows as they drain their coffee cups. The short silence on the other end of the line. The only people who seem to really believe her are strangers on the internet. But she is beginning to knot together the rope of evidence and escape, although she still needs to reinforce her new truth to herself as much as she needs to persuade her family, her friends, the GP. She rubs hard at her arm without realising she is doing it, as if trying to scrub something away. Bad, selfish, lazy, useless; she isn’t any of those things, she tells herself again and again, she had ADHD.
1 Villines, Z. (2019, June 6th). What to know about executive function disorder. Medical News Today. Retrieved February 4, 2021, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325402