Life with ADHD can be a roller coaster. There are some incredible, adrenaline-pumping highs, but they may come with bouts of serious depression.
For a while I wasn’t sure which came first for me: depression or ADHD. Over the years I’ve come to believe that the episodes of depression I experienced when I was young were directly related to my ADHD symptoms — though I didn’t know it at the time.
When you can’t get your work done, or show up on time, or concentrate on what you’re intending to do, it’s hard to have a positive self-image. People think (and say) that you are irresponsible or lazy, but really you are just as confused as they are. After a while you start to believe the negative things people say about you. If I had a dollar for every time someone said that I’m not working up to my potential, or that I don’t put enough effort in, I would be a very rich woman. Your entire life begins to center upon why you can’t do what everyone else seems to do so easily.
When you feel like you’re incapable of living your life well — paying bills on time, maintaining gainful employment, having a good relationship with your family and friends — it’s hard to feel good about yourself.
Typically there is a tendency to feel “less than,” or like there is something “off” about you, especially if you’re only diagnosed with ADHD later in life.
Many of us are incredibly intelligent, compassionate, and sensitive people, but we hide because we fear that others won’t understand. That can be very isolating. Additionally, symptoms of ADHD can cause us to be inconsistent in certain areas of life, leading us to doubt ourselves. And what could be more depressing than not being able to trust yourself or your abilities?
What it feels like to live with depression and ADHD
Because ADHD symptoms can make you feel insecure, you’ll likely use a great deal of energy to appear normal. Each day you leave your house hoping nobody will notice you’re having a hard time paying attention. If they think you’re not paying attention, they’ll assume you don’t care, aren’t interested, or think you’re too good to give your attention.
Shortly after I was diagnosed with ADHD, I had to take medical leave from work due to worsening symptoms. Not long after getting back to work, I had to take some unexpected time off again. My immediate supervisor, whom I had always liked and respected, snapped at me and said I couldn't take any more time off. She said my workload would be a confusing, disorganized pile of chaos when I came back.
That was humiliating, and I was depressed for a long time afterward. I felt burdened by my illness. I knew there were people in my life I had hurt unintentionally and worried I would not be able to make amends with them. They would forever believe I was irresponsible, lazy, and selfish. It was a major blow.
Some people may take it personally if your attention wanders or you don’t show up. They don’t realize it’s out of your control. This can put a strain on relationships, both personal and professional. You may start to feel like you don’t belong anywhere, and that is one of the loneliest feelings in the world.
ADHD fuels depression and vice versa
When I’m experiencing a depressive episode, my ADHD symptoms intensify.
The fatigue and lack of motivation that can come with depression are made that much worse by ADHD. It becomes so much harder to focus on what I should be doing. Depression combines with hyperfocus, and all I can think about is how low I feel. I find myself becoming even more forgetful and distracted than I normally would be.
All of the energy that I need to focus is drained from me when I’m experiencing depression. My ability to manage my life spirals completely out of control and the only thing I can think about is how terrible I feel. Things that are simple when I am not depressed become nearly impossible when I am. Feelings of inadequacy are overwhelming and make me feel like I’ll never get a handle on managing the disorder, which can be very discouraging.
It’s like an out of body experience. Some part of me deep down is screaming, “Pull it together!” But it feels impossible to do. In these times I have forgotten to pay bills, refused to answer important phone calls, and even called off work because I just can’t face the day.
How to manage a depressive episode
For many people with ADHD, allowing their symptoms to get the best of them can trigger depressive symptoms. To combat this, I surround myself with people who are understanding of how ADHD works. You need people in your corner who get that it’s not intentional if you forget a deadline or show up late. Of course, you should always do your best to manage your symptoms and prevent these things from happening, but sometimes you will slip up. Here are some things you can do if you’re living with depression and ADHD:
Make self-care a priority
For me, self-care is one of the first things to fall by the wayside when I get depressed. I start neglecting things like exercise, nutrition, and sleep. Self-care is the foundation of good mental health. If you’ve stopped looking after yourself, you should examine why.
Have a plan in place
If you have depression, try to have a plan in place for when it’s particularly bad. Living with depression takes a lot of energy. When you’re down, it’s important to give yourself space and time to heal. Don’t overload your schedule, give yourself extra time to complete tasks, and partake in activities that bring you joy.
Know when it is time to call a pro
If you’ve had depressive episodes for a long time, you know they come and go with the intensity of a storm. Don’t wait for the storm to pass to take action. If you have been depressed for longer than two weeks, your symptoms worsen, or you have feelings of harming yourself or others, it’s time to reach out to a professional. It’s OK to ask for help.
Depression can be draining, exacerbate your ADHD symptoms, and make life a lot more difficult. When you’re experiencing a depressive episode, you may wonder if you’ll ever get past the sad feelings and back to your normal self. Don’t let these temporary thoughts affect your outlook. You can live well, despite living with depression and ADHD. Learning how to manage both of these conditions can make all of the difference in the world.
DEPR-US-NP-00019 MAY 2018