With a little mental preparation, you can be ready for anything.
[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of personal essays on what it’s like to live with a mental health diagnosis. Each piece describes a singular and unique experience. These essays are not meant to be representative of every diagnosis, but to give us a peek into one person’s mind so we may be more empathetic to all.]
Like some women labeled “smart girls” when young, I was diagnosed with ADD later in life. I’ve been told that oftentimes these girls and women develop coping strategies to deal with the disease and that these things work well … until they don’t.
For me, the tipping point was the arrival of a second child. I could no longer balance my writing, the housework, and the needs of two kids who demanded constant attention. I lashed out in anger, and sadly, lived like this for at least two years before identifying the problem and getting help.
I’d heard stories about life-changing effects of medication for ADD and ADHD, and felt excited to start taking them. They help. A lot. What’s been surprising, though, is that it isn’t always magic. Ritalin can help me focus, but I still need to directly focus my energy if I really want to get things done.
A good day:
I wake just before the alarm and feel refreshed. I start the coffee pot, take my Ritalin, then go through the “Morning Routine” I have posted on the fridge:
- Empty the dishwasher
- Take out recycling and/or garbage
- Clean any dishes left over from last night
- Make lunches and/or breakfasts
- Write 1,000 words
I browse my planner and create a to-do list, including unfinished tasks from the day before. It’s a mix of writing tasks, household chores, and scheduling.
My 8-year-old son wakes and immediately starts talking about Pokémon. I’ve had some me-time and a few cups of coffee, so I listen. Not really my thing, but he loves it and I love him.
I need to wake my daughter. She likes to cuddle, so I turn the light on, crawl in next to her, and say, “Will my Sleeping Beauty wake up with a kiss?” She smiles sleepily and snuggles into me. After two minutes, she wakes and tells me about her dream. It’s a long and rambling story, but I’m able to listen and ask a few questions.
I point out the time to my son and tell him to start getting dressed for school. The clothes that he wants are washed and in his dresser because I put them away yesterday.
I pack my daughter into the car to drive to preschool. We’re a bit early, so I let her sign herself in and we stand outside of the classroom waiting with the other children. When the teacher calls the kids, she gives me a big hug and kiss before entering the classroom.
I return home and change into workout clothes. I set up a yoga video on the iPad, The video is challenging and I feel accomplished.
Time for a quick shower. I also take my second Ritalin pill for the day.
I work on some outlines for writing assignments and blog posts.
I get started on preparing a meal for my husband and daughter.
My husband and daughter walk in, with food waiting on the table. We’re all ready to eat.
Bellies are full, and my husband returns to work.
My daughter asks to watch TV, but I remind her that papa requests that she do her Japanese writing practice first.
My daughter and I spend some time playing dolls, and then she wants to do my hair and I sit and talk while she brushes it and adds about 50 bobby pins for no reason at all.
I have quiet time, and I use it to get stuff done and reset myself.
I ask my daughter if she wants to help with the cooking. She breads the chicken, and I clean up the dishes.
My son comes home, and I take my last Ritalin of the day. I get started frying the breaded chicken.
I’m feeling relaxed—it’s early and I’m on task. I check for important emails and then finish things up.
Dinner’s on the table and I call the kids. We talk, and they actually eat the food—even the broccoli. I feel like the Mom of the Year.
I’ve put dishes in the sink, and go to the living room to see what the kids are doing. By some miracle, they are sitting on the couch together, and my son is reading to my daughter. I almost feel like I have to sneak out so that I don’t disrupt anything.
I marvel at the time. I have no idea how it’s still so early in the evening and I don’t have a million different tasks to take my attention away from the kids. I’m not even sure what to do with this time. I wish that every day could be like this.
After cleaning up a bit, the kids decide to work on separate activities. Knowing that they can have my attention when they want it means that they don’t fight with each other.
I tell the kids that it’s time to get ready to bed and start to herd them into the bathroom. I hang out for a minute because I know that my daughter will need help opening her toothpaste.
I got new books at the library yesterday, and pick out four that I think both kids will like. When papa’s home, I can read each child his or her books separately, but since he’s not here, I’m trying to head off any fights.
The kids listen to the books and occasionally interrupt to ask a question or make a comment, but they’re relevant and don’t interrupt the flow of the stories.
The kitchen looks great and I can settle down with my book.
I get into bed and do a breathing technique to help me relax and fall asleep. It works almost instantly.
A less good day:
The alarm wakes me, but I turn it off.
I feel angry for sleeping so late—I won’t have any alone time and will have to jump right into the day-to-day grind.
I leave my bedroom and find my 8-year-old son sitting on a chair. I try to smile and say good morning, but inside I’m fuming because he’s just sitting there doing nothing. I don’t understand how a person could literally just sit there and do nothing. I feel like I’ve failed as a parent.
He follows me into the bathroom, talking about Pokémon cards, then follows me into the kitchen. He won’t shut up. I need coffee.
In the kitchen, I start to make coffee and take my Ritalin. The kid still won’t shut up, is demanding breakfast, but doesn’t seem interested in any of the three foods he regularly eats. I make a mental to-do list—I don’t have time to write it down.
I remind my son about his math homework—I know that I need to get his lunch together. He throws a tantrum while doing homework.
I really, really need to wake my daughter. My son’s lunch isn’t finished yet, but I leave it on the counter and go to my daughter. She snuggles up next to me but refuses to open her eyes. She whines. My son comes in with his math worksheet and says, “Mom, I don’t know how to do this one. What’s the answer?” I try to help him, but my daughter gets jealous and starts whining about how it’s not fair that I always pay attention to her brother.
I come into the kitchen with the intention of making breakfast, but see my son’s half-made lunch sitting on the counter. I silently curse and try to finish putting it together.
I get yogurt out for my daughter, but she’s still in bed, so I have to go get her. I carry her to the kitchen, but I’m definitely throwing a tantrum about it. Who’s the grown-up here?
My son can’t find his clothes despite having drawers full. I tell my daughter that she also needs to go get dressed, but she starts whining that she wants my help. I try to breathe through my rage, but she’s just sitting on her bed, not helping. While I’m going through every single thing in her drawer, my son comes in and starts saying, “Mom, we need to get outside for the bus,” on repeat, as though I’m not trying to go as quickly as I can.
We’re late to get to the end of the driveway, and through clenched teeth, I ask my son to take the bus home.
I try to get my daughter in the car, realize she’s not wearing socks, and remember we need to find something that starts with “F” for “Show and Share Day.” I toss her the socks and throw a fairy into her bag. She slowly puts her socks on, then complains that they feel funny. Of course, they’re inside out.
A bagel sounds really good, so I swing by the grocery store on my way home. I try to grab a few extra things that I remember needing, but don’t have the shopping list with me. I end up spending $50 and feel angry because we don’t have a lot of money until payday and the three bags I’m carrying certainly don’t seem like they should have cost $50.
I get in my car, look at the time, and immediately feel defeated. How does a quick trip to the grocery store take so long? I know now that by the time I finish eating, I won’t have much time to work before I need to make lunch for my daughter and husband.
I’ve only put away half of the groceries, but my bagel is ready, so I sit down to eat it. I take my second Ritalin pill, check Facebook, and click on a few different links—I bounce back and forth between them.
I glance at my to-do list and feel a sense of panic because the list seems insurmountable. Instead of getting started, I open up the (totally unnecessary) bag of Hershey Kisses and grab a handful.
Shit. I look at the clock and realize that I’ve wasted an entire hour looking at funny websites. Good thing the Ritalin helped me focus.
I start to get the ingredients to make fried rice for my husband’s lunch. I scoop rice into the bowl, but then realize we’re out of onions. I have to switch gears and make udon instead, even though that’s what he had for lunch yesterday. I feel like a failure.
Bellies are full, and my husband heads back to work. My daughter whines and pouts, but I don’t have the patience. I’m feeling resentful. It’s not fair that he gets to be a “fun parent” while I feel stuck doing the dirty work.
Not wanting to practice her Japanese today, my daughter asks to do my hair instead. I reluctantly agree.
Seriously, how long can it take to do a stupid hairstyle? And why does she need to spray so much cold water in my hair?
The “hairstyle” is done and I pretend to like it when I look in the mirror. She asks to watch TV again and I snap.
My daughter whines after every word she writes. I check email but know that I need to start work. Except that I remember that my son could use some help with vocabulary building, so I decide to do a search on that to see if anything good comes up.
She finishes the Japanese and I can turn on the TV for her. I take my computer into the other room. Finally, I can get some work done. At least, after I read these articles on building vocabulary without interruptions.
My daughter’s little voice calls out from the other room “Mommy! Can I have another show?” I mentally kick myself because I still haven’t started work and I just wasted all that time. I go to the living room and set up her next show.
“Mommy! Can I have another show?”
“Mommy! Can I have another show?”
I have no idea how people limit their kids’ TV viewing to less than an hour. I turn on the next episode of her show and resist the urge to check Facebook.
“Mommy! Can I have another show?” I give in and start the next episode, knowing full well that you’re not supposed to give in to a child’s tantrums.
Somehow in between starting my daughter’s show and now I’ve lost 10 minutes. I have no idea how using the bathroom and thinking about what to make for dinner ate up that much time, but it seems that it has. I rush out to meet my son’s bus. I think about calling my mom but can already see the bus heading up the street.
I feel anxious about how late it is. Fried chicken takes forever to make.
My daughter starts (slowly) dipping pieces of chicken into each bowl. I think about starting to heat up the oil, but I’m afraid to do it with her so close to the stove. I wish we had a bigger house.
I wonder whether I took my Ritalin. I usually take it around four, but can’t remember. I reason that if I had taken it, my head wouldn’t be so noisy. But if I take it now, it’s late. I worry that I won’t be able to go to sleep. And if I did take it and take another one by mistake, it will be even harder to sleep.
This conversation in my head lasts five minutes, but I eventually decide that there’s a 95 percent chance that I didn’t take it and if I don’t take it, I’m going to have a hard time handling kid fights for the rest of the night. Thursdays are so hard because my husband works late.
I put the last few pieces of chicken into the pan, but realize that I don’t have anything else ready to eat and I’ve wasted time by screwing around on the computer. I start to scramble for other things to put on the plates, but there’s not much that my kids will eat, and feel unreasonably angry at the kids for their picky tastes.
The kids arrive and complain about the food on their plates. I try to get them to eat a few more bites, but they’re not going for it. I sigh and just let them go, and finish my dinner alone.
I put the dirty dishes in the sink and head into the living room to see what the screaming is about. I lose it. I go to the other room to cry. They follow, still fighting. I can’t understand why they won’t leave me alone. If I could just have 10 minutes alone, maybe I’d be able to pull it together. But I can’t, and I’m going to go crazy.
“OK. Let’s just watch a show. I think we could all use a laugh,” I tell my kids. I’m tired of the fighting. Tired of the noise level. Tired of never being able to finish anything I start. Tired of feeling like I’m a complete failure at everything I do. And just literally tired. As the videos play, I start to feel a bit better. It doesn’t last long.
It’s bedtime, and our book selection sucks and I’m desperately grasping for something that will hold the kids’ attention. They see me holding books and race to the bed for reading, pushing each other out of the way. Both are shouting, “It’s my turn to go first! I get the good spot!”
Since he’s older, faster, and stronger, my son gets to the “best spot” first. I use my “nice voice” to remind him that he had his book first yesterday, but he refuses to move. I ask him to move at least five more times in a variety of nice ways but he still won’t move, speak, or look at me.
I finally start yelling and physically lift him up to move him. Naturally, this makes him upset and he hides under the blankets. My husband comes home, greets the kids, and goes to eat his dinner. He doesn’t seem to recognize that there’s a war going on in this room.
I read to my daughter, stopping at each page because my son is either interrupting or poking her. My frustration is building.
My sympathy level is pretty low. As I read to him, my son can’t stop wriggling. He handstands. He stretches his legs over his head. He rolls around on the bed. He doesn’t appear to pay any attention to what I’m reading and I feel frustrated. I ask him to stop.He accidentally bumps my nose with his elbow—it really hurt, and it brings tears to my eyes. “Ow!” I say, and I wait for him to apologize. It’s such a simple thing that would make me feel better, but he won’t do it. I continue crying, partially because of the pain but also because, in this moment, I feel like I’ve raised a thoughtless child. I finish reading his book even though I’m crying.
Am I ruining my kid’s life? My daughter takes an exceptionally long time to fall asleep and I resent having to lie next to her because I still have a bunch of stuff I need to do before relaxing.
I look at my nightly routine list and as well as the splatters of grease on the stove and the dirt on the counters. There’s a lot to recycle and the garbage bag is pretty full. The water jug is almost empty. I don’t want to do anything, so I “compromise” by filling up the water jug and locking the door. The rest of the mess can surely wait until morning.
I play a game on the iPad while eating Doritos. I finish the first bowl and go back for seconds.
I look at the time and have no idea how it got so late so quickly. I know that I should be going to sleep, but I’m not tired. I play a few more games.
I get angry with myself after I see how late it’s gotten. As I go into the kitchen to set my glasses down, I decide to check Facebook once more before going to bed. I notice that a friend has made a political post that I strongly disagree with. “I will not engage. I will not engage. I will not engage,” I vow.
I get into bed. While I didn’t argue with my friend, I’m still angry—my mind races and I can’t stop thinking about how stupid she is and start crafting a passionate response that I know full well I’ll never post.
I still can’t stop thinking. I’ve tried a breathing technique a few times, but just as I start to drift off, I remember another good point to go along with my imagined Facebook post. I hate that I’m continually having conversations in my head.
I finally fall asleep. I think.
* * *
The “A Day With Mental Health” series is brought to you by Headspace and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M is a nonprofit organization built to start the conversation about mental health, and to raise awareness, understanding, and empathy. They develop influential public service announcements (PSAs) and pilot evidence-based, peer-to-peer programs at the undergraduate and high school levels, engaging students to eradicate stigma. Because science is essential to achieving this mission, BC2M’s work is grounded in the latest research, evaluated for effectiveness, and shared with confidence. Headspace is proud to partner with them as we shine a light on the day-to-day experiences of living with a mental health diagnosis.
This series will publish weekly on Headspace’s the Orange Dot. Read the rest of the series here.
Artwork by KAREN HONG