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Adult Doesn’t Equal Effortless

On writing this piece: I brain dumped a ton of ideas, then whittled it down to this. It took a very long time, not sure how long, at least six hours total. This was going to be a rant about how harmful the “just work harder” refrain has been for me, but I surprised myself when I found more peace than anger.

I don’t know how others will perceive my ADHD-friendly daily routine. Will it be mindbogglingly different to them? It’s just my everyday life. What I’m taking from this is that I am able to accept my ADHD tendencies, rather than force myself to work ever harder to be some “competent adult” that was never really me. 

My ADHD brain is all I’ve ever known.

I find grocery shopping, getting a chai latte at a cafe, and any sort of cooking confusing and overwhelming.

Well-intentioned adults reassured me that all this would eventually get easier. Maybe it did for them, but adulting is still a daily struggle for me, even four years after graduating college and entering “real” adult life. In therapy and on my own, I’ve spent countless hours devising strategies and systems to help me do these tasks in the first place, rather than try to avoid them forever.

“Adulting” actually demands a lot of executive function (the ability to set and work towards goals), which I don’t have much of, thanks to my ADHD. I’m never going to coast through life with the dutiful ease and unflagging attention that I attempted to achieve for so long. This brain is all I’ve got, so I might as well give it what it needs to do its best.

And guess what? I have finally brought wellness into my life, not by following the perennial Chinese advice of WORK HARDER, but rather with acceptance and carefully selected strategies I know work for me.

Here’s the gist of my day:

I am asleep in bed. 

My phone alarm rings and wakes my unsnoozable dog Odie, who then steps on me to wake me up. 

“Okay, okay, I’m up!” I sit up. “Wait a sec, let me take my meds.” 

I get out of bed. 

“Okay, Emily go pee.” 

I go to the bathroom and come back. 

Odie is laying on his mat, utterly bored.

We head downstairs and don our walking gear.

“Walk time! Let’s go!” 

Odie is the gym I actually use. (On my own, it can take me more than a week to summon enough executive function to walk around the block or do 20 minutes of yoga, if I somehow don’t give up or forget.)

After our walk, I have no idea what I’m doing for the rest of the day. (My calendar knows, but I haven’t bothered to check it.) 

I always go sit at my desk after our morning walk though, so I do that. 

I’m not entirely sure what I do between sitting down at my desk and realizing multiple hours have passed and I should probably bring Odie out to pee. These days, my desk is probably the site of some meandering combination of emails, writing, watching YouTube videos, and coloring. (My brain doesn’t keep time accurately, and I haven’t bothered to look at the three analog clocks in my room and therefore have no idea what time it is. It’s an easy summer day, so whatever I do is okay, as long as I’m not hangry—then it’s a mad dash to feed the Emily before she gets even madder.)

After dinner, I mess around at my desk for at least an hour before I’ve gathered the energy to go brush my teeth. 

That process goes like this in my head:

“Gotta brush my teeth…” 

Some time later: “Maybe I should brush my teeth…” 

Even later: “Haven’t brushed my teeth yet…” 

And so on, until, at last, “ugh, FINE, I’ll brush my teeth.” 

Every night. 

At some point, I’ll take melatonin to ensure I get sleepy and not be catapulted by some online article into a late-night reading rampage.

These are my good days, when adulting doesn’t give me overwhelm-induced headaches, panic attacks, and confusion that morphs into self-loathing. These are the days I feel at peace with who I am, that I deserve to give myself the ample time I need to do things at a pace I don’t have to sacrifice my sanity for. 

Perhaps the way I go through life is more circuitous, slow, and effortful than for most. I’ve absorbed more than my fair share of messages urging me to work harder, hurry up, remember better, and contort myself into someone more “prepared for the adult world.” Whose adult world?

In my adult world, it is okay to forget, be confused, and take days, weeks, even months to do things many people could do in an hour. These things need to be okay, because however much I work to avoid them, my tangles of executive dysfunction are a core part of who I am, and I need–and what a relief!–to be okay with being the real, unadulterated (pun intended) me.

Emily Chen (she/her) 陳怡君 is a Taiwanese American mental health activist, writer, and singer based in Newton, Massachusetts. Check out DisOrient, her YouTube series on Asian American mental health!

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