My earliest memories are from before I was two years old. I remember my dress getting nibbled on by a goat at the zoo and how my mom’s hair got warm in the sun. I remember lying in a crib in a room with green shag carpet and having a nightmare about bees.
I vividly remember riding in the front seat of my mom’s red Volkswagen Squareback station wagon. We’d drive over to the lot where my dad was building our new house, probably to bring him lunch. My little sister wasn’t born yet, so I wasn’t yet three. He’d carry me through the framework (I called it the house’s skeleton) and explain how we could step through walls because the sheetrock wasn’t up yet. He held me as we stood near the hole in the floor where our chimney would be. It felt dangerous looking through it and seeing the garage floor below, but I knew I was safe in my dad’s arms.
Preschool, elementary school, junior high, high school, and college… there’s very little I don’t remember (a family trip to Yellowstone when I was in the ninth grade has oddly vanished from memory; my mom is stunned), while Eric would squint his eyes and consider his earliest memory, unable to remember much beyond adolescence.
Me, probably about four, on the steps of the house my dad built.
It’s very strange how I can remember all of these things but can’t remember what year it was when I decided to re-paint the kitchen cabinets. Eric’s death has turned time on its side. I can remember things like which house we were living in or whether or not Eric was still alive, but I can’t always sort out which year something happened or how old the kids were.
The white cabinets the builder installed were chipping and flaking like crazy. We’d gotten Molly, our German Shepherd, so it was easier to paint during the night when she was crated. But what year was it? I don’t know.
I was posting about the painting project on Instagram. Everything else in the house had gone to shit (exhibit A: everything on that counter). Eric was busy with Sun Tails, so the meal plan non-existent, my writing was off-schedule, laundry was piling up, and everything felt chaotic. But I was happily in the project zone; a place where I could get an extraordinary amount of stuff done, but at the cost of everything else.
My friend Natalie, now fighting for her life with stage-four colon cancer, responded to one of my painting posts and gently asked, “Do you think you might have ADHD?”
“Absolutely not,” I replied, somewhat hurt. “Unlike some people I know, I can actually get stuff done.”
My benchmark for ADHD wasn’t wiggly boys on Ritalin. My reference point was my father. Never officially diagnosed, he falls into deep internet rabbit holes that feel productive because he is learning but don’t contribute to earning an income. He is brilliant and can remember the most obscure facts about anything. He thinks up incredible solutions, ideas, and inventions, but often fails to get them to market. He bounces from one idea to the next and can’t focus on completing one thing if there might be a better thing around the corner. Because of all of this, significant stress and financial instability was a major part of my upbringing and continues to be a major part of my mother’s life.
I knew I had developed a strong “get ‘er done” ethic because I grew up with a (gentle, loving, well-intentioned) distracted and unfocused father, but refused to admit I might also have a problem paying attention. I built businesses to completion! We were earning a stable income because of stuff I made! I wasn’t my dad! Plus—thinking about those wiggly boys in elementary school—I could hold still and wait in lines and didn’t need a fidget spinner.
Natalie stuck with me, explaining away some of my knee-jerk responses, but while I copped to (and even embraced) my dyscalculia diagnosis, I was insistent. ADHD definitely did not apply to me.
It wasn’t until Eric died that I started to take the ADHD idea seriously. Well, not even then. I was a year and half into widowhood and still hadn’t been able to launch a new business. I knew Eric and I had worked well together. I knew we made a good team, but I was starting to recognize just how vital Eric had been for my cognitive and executive function.
At first, I blamed my utter lack of productivity on shock and grief. Of course I couldn’t focus, widow’s fog is a real thing. Of course I was struggling to get out of bed, I’d lost the love of my life. Of course I wasn’t eating, how could I when I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue living?
As our small life insurance cushion ran out, I knew I was going to have to get it together. It shouldn’t be hard, I told myself, I’d done it before. I was capable. I had a whole host of marketable skills. I had options.
But as the months wore on, I saw more and more of my father in myself. I could lose weeks researching instead of doing. I could lose months fixated on things that weren’t going to add anything to my bottom line. I had an incredibly difficult time choosing which avenue to focus on; I bounced from idea to idea, wasting money on courses and business plans I couldn’t finish.
I felt broken. Distracted. Overwhelmed. Solo-parenting, adulting, running the house, managing new Eric-stuff I’d never had to manage before… it was a full-time job with permanent overtime and no pay. How was I supposed to do anything else? The kids went above and beyond, but my brain couldn’t parse how to divide a day or week into specific tasks or sort out how to work enough to keep food on the table while also holding this shattered family together.
Apropos of nothing, this is just a really long email, so enjoy a picture of me and my mom in front of my dad’s Jeep.
Without Eric, the skeleton of the house we’d built together crumbled. I couldn’t navigate the halls and all the doors and closets were jammed shut. I found myself surrounded by a pile of rubble, staring into a gaping hole where a fireplace chimney should be. Only this time, no one was holding me safely in their arms.
I underwent testing and received my official ADHD diagnosis: Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, other type (F90.8). My brother and son both have the inattentive types. I’m still not sure what the differences are—when I read the descriptions, I feel like I have both-–but I’m learning. My ‘other’ mostly refers to the grief impact. Because grief manifests in emotional, physical, and mental ways, it can mimic ADHD symptoms. Around the same time, I was also diagnosed with prolonged grief disorder (fun! Let’s pathologize loss, shall we?), so I’m pretty sure grief and ADHD are inseparably intertwined for me.
The ADHD diagnosis was eye-opening, a relief, and also devastating. I could suddenly see so clearly, all the ways Eric had held me together and helped me function, all without either of us understanding why I was the way I was. He just accepted me completely, quickly learned what I needed and how I best worked, and then just automatically created systems to support me.
It must have been exhausting. I’ve cried my eyes out telling him everything I’ve learned, thanking him for all we didn’t understand, and apologizing for not knowing myself better. But it’s not the same as acknowledging all he did for me in person. It’s not the same as wrapping my arms around him and speaking those fully aware gratitude words into his warm and beating chest.
Medication is helping, but it’s not a miracle. Adderall is not Eric. It doesn’t bring me a stack of pancakes when I forget to eat, or gently pry a laptop from my aching fingers and turn on a mindless reality show to help me decompress. It doesn’t captain the morning ship so I can sleep or fill my car with gas unasked. It doesn’t answer the door or turn off the phone ringer to protect me from interruptions. It doesn’t offer a foundation of security and safety so I can chase rainbows and spend months becoming an expert on something new.
But it does help me focus and I’m making more progress toward financial stability than I was without it; it’s still terrifying. I lose a lot of sleep over what the future looks like and whether or not we’ll be living under a bridge this time next year.
I could keep going, but I read somewhere newsletters are supposed to be brief. I’ve failed at that already, but I’ll be back next week with all the stuff I’m working on now that I’m hopped up on drugs and am slowly, painstakingly building Eric-replacement systems (It’s mostly an endless string of alarms reminding me to eat.)
As ever, thanks for being here. xo, Jessica