The Well Actually
We Need to Talk About Women and ADHD
Several weeks ago, I tweeted a photo of two "motivational" Post-It notes on my computer: “half-ass it” and “do it poorly.” When it went viral, I realized I'd tapped a nerve.
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The year is 1993. I have hacked my bologna sandwich.
Of course, I don’t know the word “hack”—it was not yet in common parlance among the 9-year-olds of the early ’90s. I am just thinking of it as a shortcut from not eating a bologna sandwich to eating a bologna sandwich. Instead of going to the silverware drawer and rummaging around until I find a butter knife and using it to spread yellow mustard on both slices of Wonder Bread—an exhausting task that could take two, three, even four hours, perhaps entire days, who on earth could really say how long using a knife to apply mustard to a slice of bread might take?—I simply squirt double-French’s on one slice and smush the two pieces together, then flap on the meat. Voilà! Bologna sandwich now!
But when I show off this clever kitchen trick to my dad, it does not result in his appreciation for my problem-solving abilities; instead, my dad shakes his head in disappointment. “Andie, how lazy are you, girl? Use a knife!”
I try to offer evidence of the smush method’s superiority to other mustard application techniques—it’s more efficient, for one, and doesn’t ask much of a fourth-grader’s still-developing fine motor skills—but Dad isn’t having it. He hands me a knife and makes me start over. He isn’t mean about it; I sense more that he is ashamed, even confused that his “best, best girl,” the same child who made the local newspaper for getting a perfect score on Texas’s statewide standardized test, would try to pull something as half-assed as dressing her bologna sandwich without a knife.
My dad’s suggestion that I might be lazy stuck with me for decades as I struggled to make my brain care about the “right” way of doing things. Every all-nighter, every paper printed out seconds before class, every deadline barely met and many others blown, took me back to that damned bologna sandwich. If only I weren’t so lazy, I could get my work done early. If I could just temper my impatience for getting on to the next thing, I could keep my calendars and Google Docs in order; I could write an article without relocating to three different coffee shops in one afternoon hoping that a change of scenery would force me to file on time. What would it be like to start and complete a task without bopping between Twitter and Slack for distractions and dopamine hits? How did the denizens of the non-lazy world do? That I usually managed to succeed anyway, using all my messy tricks and diversions and shortcuts, didn’t matter. I needed to buck up, learn some patience, and work harder.
It was not until I got on TikTok late last year that it occurred to me that laziness might not be my actual problem. TikTok is candy for the easily distracted; there, I could become consumed with hyperfocus while still enjoying the rush of new content every ten or 60 seconds. It wasn’t long before #ADHDTok began to dominate my feed, with affable content creators making all-too-real jokes about #ADHD “doom boxes”—containers of nonsense-stuff like cords and lighters and orphaned socks and stickers that never seem to find a forever home. Well, shit, I thought. I already had one doom box on my nightstand and three in my office. And it did not escape me that, while I had helpfully impulse-purchased a doom box for my husband’s nightstand, his doom box had long remained empty. Where did Patrick put his nonsense? I had always lived this way; didn’t everyone?
Of course, TikTok, like all social media, is rife with misinformation. I was intrigued but skeptical of this new avenue of self-discovery. I loved the affirmation of the #ADHD content, particularly feeling seen in #ADHDinwomen posts detailing often overlooked symptoms in girls and women. Yet I struggled to bypass the nagging worry that I was more likely just a lazy asshole, a faker who couldn’t be bothered to organize her stuff. And even more likely: Content creators are excellent at telling desperate scrollers what we want to hear. To that point, there is evidence that most #ADHD content is questionable—lots of oversimplification, misidentification, and, as I both feared and suspected, posters prone to taking “common, everyday experiences” and claiming they are “symptoms of ADHD.” Every time I saw myself in a post, I wondered if I was falling prey to the “neuro-spicy” version of those zodiac memes that make it sound like everyone who drinks water when they’re thirsty is obviously a Libra Moon.
Unsure if I even really wanted the validation I so clearly sought, I noticed a familiar confluence between ADHD naysayers and the very mindset that had set me on a lifetime path of believing I was too lazy, impulsive, and self-serving to do anything really “right.” It all clicked when I stumbled on an old letter in Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column wherein a parent complained that their college-student daughter “got some quack doctor to diagnose her with ADHD.” Why, wondered the letter-writer, “can’t she just do her work?”
There I was, back again in the kitchen with my dad and the fucking bologna sandwich: Why couldn’t I just use a knife to smear mustard on some bread? The shame cycle settled in quickly, even as I nodded along with Prudie’s admonishment: “This reads like a parody of an unreasonable parent unwittingly describing a workable solution!”
The disdain in that “Dear Prudence” letter is palpable. How dare a young person identify a problem and seek a solution for themselves—a solution that wasn’t readily available in her parents’ time? The whole thing gives a kind of when-I-was-your-age grousing typical of everyone forced to confront the cruel passage of time. Which, sure. It’s hard for a certain kind of parent to accept that their adult children are individuals with their own paths and values. But ADHD is real, doom boxes or no, and it’s not all “quack doctors” making the diagnoses. It’s frankly bizarre that a loving parent who wants the best for their child would rip on a medical condition that not only explains why their kid has had a hard time, but provides treatment that offers meaningful solutions to their troubles.
Or, I guess it would be bizarre if it weren’t so depressingly typical of a cultural moment in which medical science is derided, and mental health care in particular is especially disparaged as the lazy recourse of the weak and triggered. I would love to make this a generational problem, just my Baby Boomer dad telling me to bootstrap myself into the bologna sandwiches of my dreams. After all, I’m an elder Millennial who lives to dip on the Boomers who decimated our economy and then decided to bitch about avocado toast, but I don’t think this flavor of resentment is merely about the old versus the young. It’s something modern and political, increasingly weaponized against anyone who dares to demand equitable treatment, make themselves and others feel more comfortable and supported, or simply change with the times.
We see it on a number of fronts. There’s angry, racist whining over “unfair” student loan relief that will prevent tens of thousands of Americans from being saddled with debt until they die. Aggressive homophobes and transphobes claim that folks who have the audacity to live as their authentic selves are only doing so because it’s #trendy. Critics of “cancel culture” complain that you can’t be a raging bigot any more and get away with it, like you could in the good old days before all these entitled youths got so #triggered.
Sure, some of that is about the kids these days, driven by the olds who already got theirs and believe whatever Libs of TikTok or conservative TV news says about “generation snowflake.” But if trickle-down anything works, the economics of trickle-down resentment return dividends, for anyone of any age who’s willing to buy in. Witness the ableist right-wing blowback to Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a 53-year-old man, being open about using captioning technology so that he can communicate with the constituents he hopes will vote him into the U.S. Senate this November. The person driving the resistance to Fetterman’s accommodations? The 62-year-old Dr. Mehmet Oz. The key is claiming that the only way to be a real American is to white-knuckle it through life, even and especially if you’ve never white-knuckled it through anything more serious than a conference call.
But white-knuckling it is a crappy way to live. Bigotry and inequality and injustice are literally deadly. When people can’t get the health care they need—mental or physical—the consequences are exponential, both for individuals and for society. It shouldn’t be a political statement to say that caring for other people is good or that sharing support and resources makes everyone happier and stronger. This is what happens when we conflate success with hard work—it’s the core lie of capitalism, the logical result of scarcity politics. It’s no accident that the people who are perceived to be most deserving in society are those born with the fewest barriers to achievement. But not everyone who works hard is successful. And not everyone who is successful has necessarily worked very hard, or even at all.
The therapy team I’ve been working with on an ADHD diagnosis has challenged me to think about my own version of “hard work,” and the looming perfectionism that tells me nothing I could ever do is good enough, hence the endless procrastination, love of distractions, and propensity for shortcuts. Because a thing I am very good at is coming up with coping mechanisms, a few weeks ago I wrote myself a couple of Post-It notes and stuck them up on my monitor. They read: “half-ass it” and “do it poorly.” When I fired off an errant tweet about them, the whole shebang went viral. I hadn’t realized how much stigma around getting, or deserving, treatment had been rooted deep in my brain until I saw the retweets and replies light up my notifications.
If I could go back and talk to my 9-year-old self making a bologna sandwich, I would tell that kid that she is smart and creative for coming up with her little smush method. I might be able to save her from decades of stress and struggle. But I can only do what I can do today, which is to believe that treating myself with care and being generous towards others are always worthy efforts, even when imperfect. Shame and resentment are easy to cultivate; doing better is the real hard work.
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