Early this year, I noticed something refreshing: It was no longer taboo to discuss mental health. We all dropped the pretense. Meeting up with a friend for coffee, I’d ask, “How are you?” and instead of chirpily replying, “Great,” they’d groan and say, “Honestly, not good.”
In work meetings where we once strained to project the most put-together version of ourselves, colleagues would admit, “I’m struggling.” Amid the newfound camaraderie, I let down my guard, too, often talking about my own difficulties with focus, exhaustion and a full-body anxiety that would start in my gut upon waking and snake its way up to my chest in a vice grip.
As the cultural conversation around mental health picked up steam, it was comforting to witness that many of the things I’d been struggling with privately — burnout, brain fatigue, anxious thoughts, deep sadness — were universal.
At work, I write a newsletter on leadership that bumps up against trends in psych and wellness, so it was easy for me to track the conversation as it developed. I loved the pandemic-inspired lexicon that arose out of our shared malaise to describe what we were going through: Writers observed that we were “languishing,” we were hitting the “pandemic wall,” we were experiencing “collective grief,” and the closely connected collection of mental distress could be all lumped together as the “pandemic blues.”
Drifting deeper into torpor each day, I thought, “That’s what I’ve got — the blues.”
At first the open dialogue made me feel less alone. Mostly everyone I knew was troubled by the same things that were compounding my own worries: On top of our lives being upended by COVID-19, we were all spending more time on digital platforms that make money by alarming and infuriating us. Racism was only getting worse and more lethal. The outgoing president had incited his followers to storm the U.S. Capitol. Many people refused to do the bare minimum to protect their fellow citizens from sickness. A literal plague raged on in the midst of other biblical scourges: Floods, fires and storms.
Of course we were not OK! Sadness was the only sane reaction to so much doom and gloom.
Then I saw differences in my experience that had me doubting my self-diagnosis; the vague catch-all of the “pandemic blues” felt insufficient.
Yes, all the things paining the collective were bothering me, too, but they weren’t the root cause of my troubles, they were just making things worse. And the heightened awareness of mental health, while useful in reducing alienation, did little to offer actionable steps outside of practicing mindfulness or taking it a little bit easier.
I noticed people were mourning a loss of interest in things that once excited them. And they were being more discerning: “I no longer have energy for anything nonessential,” one friend told me. “Life’s too short to do things you don’t want to do,” another shared. Millions quit their jobs in what’s now been dubbed “The Great Resignation.”
All around me, others were paring their lives down, getting in touch with what “really mattered” and eliminating anything in excess. But, weirdly, I felt the opposite happening. I was less discerning and more interested than ever in pursuing an ever-expanding scope of interests.
Awaking revved up with the possibilities for the day, I would find it impossible to decide which thing to pursue or where to start, and I would run all the options over in my mind ad nauseum, not being able to land on a path forward.
When an acquaintance uprooted their life overnight and moved away to more pastoral climes, I marveled at how she mustered the energy to make that decision. I felt depleted. Most days my mind raced from morning until night in contrast to how lethargic I’d become. The speedier my thoughts, the slower my response.
On free days when work wasn’t my main obligation, I would lie in bed desperate to do the things I cared about: Plot out my novel, write my blog, take a walk, read books, go to the gym or even go outside, but I was immobilized. I wasn’t only ignoring my interests, my responsibilities were suffering, too.
Laundry got pushed off, plans canceled, errands delayed for another day. At night I was exhausted from the mental tax of ruminating on what I should have been doing. It made no sense. I didn’t know how to talk about it and didn’t see it represented in my friends’ confessions or the articles that had so recently reflected my own experience.
Moreover, I had no right to feel as badly as I did. COVID didn’t hit me that hard. I was able to keep my full-time job and work from home with few transitional hiccups. I wasn’t working in a restaurant or factory where risks were high. I wasn’t on the front lines like my friends in health care.
And I don’t have kids. Hearing parents’ stories of trying to work while also managing their children being home all day ― and their constant worrying about their kids getting sick or missing out on childhood stuff — their accounts made my heart wince.
The reality of other people’s situations sounded so hard. And my life (in the abstract, anyway) was easy by comparison. So why didn’t I feel like living it anymore? My thoughts turned dark and worrying.
The open dialogue around mental health stopped being a balm that fostered community. It became a reminder that I was a fraud with a good life who should be able to pull myself out of this funk.
“You’re being melodramatic,” I told myself, “It’s all in your head.” It’s just the “blues” after all. Why couldn’t I buck up? Surely my persistent agony was proof of a personal failing. I retreated back into myself — feeling ashamed.
Then one day, while scrolling on Instagram, I saw a post about “ADHD paralysis,” an inability to get started on tasks. It described my experience exactly. A long-forgotten memory that I’d actually been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) in my adolescence came flooding back.
My whole adult life I’d dismissed that early diagnosis because I wasn’t “hyperactive,” and once I immersed myself in subjects that interested me, I was able to do well in school and had become a diligent adult. A little research revealed that ADHD shares genetic links with two other disorders I have: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Tourette syndrome. A bell went off.
I did more research. Left behind by the mainstream mental health discourse, I finally felt seen. The symptoms I had thought were signs of my personal failings were actually well-documented symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The inability to take action despite a thrumming desire to get up and do? A hallmark symptom of executive dysfunction, which interferes with ADHD-ers’ ability to self-start tasks or understand the necessary steps to completing them.
Mental exhaustion that is profound and unyielding? Yup, also textbook ADHD.
Depressive symptoms masking the underlying cause of ADHD? That’s common, too. People with untreated ADHD are at higher risk for depression.
As the evidence stacked up, I knew, “That’s what I’ve got — ADHD.” It was such a relief that my misery wasn’t all in my head.
I learned about a common misconception that prevents people from getting the help they need, that the “attention deficit” in ADHD is a misnomer: People with ADHD don’t have a lack of attention — we have too much attention, and we don’t naturally produce enough dopamine to get started on tasks that matter to us. ADHD was causing the symptoms that I’d wrongly lumped in with the “pandemic blues,” and I had no idea.
I sought treatment, got a validating diagnosis and was prescribed stimulant medication. The first day on my meds felt like coming home to myself. It was like when the eye-doctor adjusts the lens and you can finally read all the letters clearly. I had clarity, energy, focus like never before. And my anxiety improved, too.
I’d worried that stimulants would amp up my nerves, but the opposite was true: I was finally calmer, free from the barrage of anxious thoughts about things I should be doing.
I wish I’d known what was ailing me sooner. But I wouldn’t have gotten here without mental health coming to the forefront; despite the discourse’s shortcomings, the newfound candor helped me in my journey of self-discovery.
If any of this sounds familiar, please know: No matter how rosy your life may appear, your suffering is a signal. It is valid and trying to tell you something. Your pain may not be some elusive psychological ennui to endure, e.g., the “blues”; it could be medical. You are not weak or lazy for struggling to cope with a brain that doesn’t comply with the world around it. You are different, not broken. And treatment is possible.