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When Anxiety and ADHD Make My Mind Feel Like a Carousel

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When I was little, I wasn’t sure if carousels should scare the hell out of me, or if they would be fun. I have memories as a small child standing before the large assortment of lavish horses spinning around and around. I hoisted myself on the largest horse I could find, being distracted by the twinkling and flashing lights shooting across the wooden planks covering the ceiling as I climbed. I vividly remember the nervous anticipation of waiting for the music to start and for my horse to start moving. I always hoped that my horse would move the fastest up and down as we spun wildly with my only obligation to wave to the adult waiting. As much as I learned to love it, this is the ride that I have never been able to get to stop.

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While most people choose to step on the merry-go-round, this is a ride that isn’t something people with ADHD or anxiety choose. Similar to most, it is filled with gorgeous, meticulous, and ornate animals to climb aboard that rise and fall with excitement in each rotation. Once you climb on, though, you realize that while they are stunning, there are an abundance of disorganized animals. Some come and go while others pile up on top of each other. To increase the confusion, some make noise, others talk, a few light up, and many continue to move around pushing and shoving the rest to the side. Unlike most carousels, there are an obscene number of other distractions piled on top of each other fighting to move some in the form of ideas, worries, inspirations, and random fleeting thoughts. They never stop.

Each day as the ride gets started, I find my place for the moment on the carousel. On a good day, I am strongly positioned on one of the more glorious looking animals absent of chaos and disarray. On many days, I jump on the closest heap and hope that I can make my way to one of the more sturdy creatures. With each spin of the ride, I see the meticulous details of the world around me. I am confident that the way my carousel sees the world is different than many. With each spin, I am easily in awe of the child with the tutu or the dog smiling on a walk. Many times I need to be focusing on one thing, but watching it in a rotation is challenging on top of so many other amazing things to notice, too. In each rotation, dozens of things need and want my attention. I try so hard to keep track of each of them and give them their due care, but I am not always successful.

Now imagine my same carousel, but this time let’s add speed. I worry about everything, and when I worry my brain tends to pick up its pace. If I know that I have a commitment four hours from now, I will struggle to focus on getting one particular project finished, because I am focused on four hours from now. It’s important to note that I am not worrying about the actual event, rather that it exists makes it hard for me to start anything else. For example, knowing that I have to wake up extra early gives me anxiety for several days or weeks in advance. I don’t want to miss it or wake up late. That thought is one more piece of bedlam on my carousel constantly demanding my attention.

As a child, I had no words for the chaos in my brain. I remember a therapist asking me how I felt, and all I could say was that it never stops spinning. Nothing was ever still. Never calm. It was frustrating and scary. The first time that I thought I wanted to die, I was 12 years old. I didn’t really want to die, but I needed the chaos and pain to be over. My brain was trying as hard as it could to survive, but sometimes its hardest was not good enough. I was impulsive and the harder I tried to get my thoughts to slow down the more they sped up. I was positive that I was the only person on the planet that felt that way and if I told anyone they would think I was “crazy.” Like every other 12-year-old, I wanted to be loved and liked, but the pandemonium going on inside of my head made it hard to like myself.

Now, at 41 years old, I am beginning to understand the complexities more and more in ways that I wish I could explain to my 12-year-old self. There is so much I wish I could have told to my 12-year-old soul. I would have loved to explain to her that your mind will be a blessing and a curse. It will need many years to heal which will feel confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating, but eventually you will find a sense of peace in understanding how and why your brain works in such beautifully yet maddening ways. I would tell her that it will be the secret to your success, and it will be even more exceptional once you learn how to make it work for your benefit. Not every brain is capable of working in the ways that yours can with such speed, depth, and at times precision. Many minds do not have the same drive and perfectionist tendencies that will forever be the dance you do as you strive to find balance. You will learn how to channel your energy and find things to fidget with, because they will help you focus on what’s going on in the carousel instead of what’s happening everywhere else.

The brain is a complex thing. As a child our brains go through rapid development. When a child is exposed to trauma, the increase of toxic stress changes brain development. I am unsure which factors in my life contributed to the carousel in my brain, whether it was the trauma that led to ADHD and anxiety, if I biologically was already destined, or a combination of both. Many psychologists and psychiatrists have explained how simply complex the mind is to me and how there continue to be more questions than answers.

People ask if I am ever able to focus on things like a book or a movie, and I definitely can and do if it is super high interest. That said, anything that asks me to sustain attention for long periods of time also completely exhausts me. It is a lot of work to try to hyper focus on one thing with each rotation of my carousel. As I get older, I appreciate and recognize the value in what I call collapsing time. I try to limit what I plan on my weekends, so I have time to do things that I want to do and sleep. I love evenings with nothing to do, so I watch television, read a book, paint, write, cook, and many times more than one at the same time. I struggle to just “relax.” I’m unsure what that even means, but unless I am sleeping, I rarely am doing just one thing.

I work with educators to help them understand what it’s like to be in a mind like mine. Sometimes a behavior in a classroom is actually a symptom of something else, so when a child blurts out they may not be trying to be disrespectful. In fact, that kid may be trying her absolute hardest, but sometimes that best isn’t appreciated as good enough for a classroom. Then if the teacher doesn’t know anything about the brain science behind mental illnesses and creates her/his own meaning based on her/his own background, the teacher may discipline that child. Unfortunately, the punitive approach often results in increased anxiety which only exacerbates mental health symptoms. An informed teacher would pull that student aside after class discreetly and remind the student how loved they are and important to the class. The teacher would ask the student what she needs to be successful in the classroom. A really educated teacher may even offer that child a fidget tool and teach her how to use it, knowing that the ADHD and anxious brain focuses better with a stimulus.

I cannot speak for all people with ADHD and anxiety, but my challenges do not define me. I will always be a work in progress. My carousel still goes so fast that I miss dates, important information, and entire conversations sometimes. I have a love and hate relationship with writing, because while I have so much I want to say, trying to organize thoughts is the bane of my existence. I have learned to accept that my goal does not always have to be perfection, because even my perfectly flawed self has plenty to offer the world exactly as is. I also know that the same brain that frustrates me can also inspire me. I cannot imagine accomplishing everything I have without a brain wired like mine. If you find yourself on a carousel or anything else, embrace it as the beauty that is perfectly you, and remember that you are never alone in your journey either.

Lead photo courtesy of Pexels

Originally published: July 5, 2019
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