Living With, Not In, the Past

This evening I got an email from a friend and former co-worker. I hadn’t heard from him for a while, so I didn’t know what he was up to. Turns out, he’s finishing law school. As crazy as it sounds, just hearing that depressed the hell out of me.

I remember that job. It was my first “real” job out of college. The job I moved to DC to take. We started about the same time, him just a little before me, a few years younger, and we were pretty much counterparts in the department.

Long story short, I failed miserably at that job. There were a number of factors, but suffice it to say that undiagnosed and untreated ADD contributed a great deal to the problems I had on that job. He was a terrific worker, and a great organizer. I stayed in the same spot the entire time I was there, while he got promoted. He got a Master’s degree, and left to pursue a career on the West Coast. I finally hit bottom and was asked to leave. People were sorry to see him go when he left. I doubt anyone was truly sorry to see me go, since a lot of problems went with me. Someone else in the department was leaving the same day (for law school), so there was a little going-away party in the department for “both of us,” though it was pretty clear when I attended the after-work party for her that no one seemed to regret my leaving, except perhaps me.

I took a lower paying job when I left, just because I couldn’t bear the thought of being unemployed and I needed to have some sort of income. I took a second job waiting tables. I was pretty miserable. I got a better job, got promoted, fell apart again and eventually got fired. Around that time I was diagnosed with ADD and started getting treatment.

I’m discovering that one of the things that goes along with having been diagnosed with ADD as an adult brings with it, at least for me, a kind of sense of mourning. I can’t help but think that things might have turned out differently on that job if I’d known what my problem was and how to deal with it. But I didn’t, then, and nothing I tried worked. So to me it feels like lost time, that’s just seems to have contained a lot of needless, purposeless suffering. So I find myself mourning not only that lost time, but the possibilities that were lost with it – that might have been realized if, well, I had known something about what the problem was then, or if someone else had known and told me.

One of the things I talked with my coach about yesterday was trying to come to terms with the past, and the hurts and disappointments I experienced in my pre-diagnosis phase (basically birth to about age 32). It’s hard to describe to someone who doesn’t have ADD just what it’s like to realize the loss of what might have been if there had been help sooner.

It’s hard to describe the message one absorbs about one’s self, because when you don’t know what the problem is and other people don’t know what the problem is they assume that it’s a character problem, and they treat it like one. You hear “if you would just be more careful,” “if you would just pay attention,” “if you wanted to, you’d try harder,” “you need to take some ownership,” etc., etc., etc. After a while, you start to believe it, that there’s just something wrong with you; that you’re not as smart, competent or capable as everyone else. Even when you learn different, when you learn that the problem has a name, and that there are ways to manage it, that feeling is hard to shake. For me, it’s like a weight sitting on my chest, or steel bands around my chest, making it hard to breath.

In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach writes about coming to terms with the past, accepting it and forgiving yourself for your mistakes. Following what she writes about and what my coach and I have talked about, when those memories and the feelings that accompany them arise, I try now to take a breath, accept what I’m feeling, and tell myself “You did the best you could at the time.”

The weight doesn’t lift completely, but it lifts a little. The bands don’t fall away, but they loosen, and it’s easier to breath. I remind myself that then I didn’t know that I had what amounts to a disability, and I didn’t know how or have the tools to manage it. I remind myself of the life I have now; a job I enjoy, a nice home, a beautiful son, a wonderful partner. I remind myself that I’ve got 11 years of sobriety. And it’s a little easier to breath.

I still haven’t completely let go of that part of my past, and I still carry some of the pain from it. I still feel the loss of the possibilities and opportunities. More than that, I begin to feel some compassion for the person I was then and what I was struggling with, and I want to tell him “You did the best you could. It wasn’t all your fault. You didn’t know.” And I believe it just a little. And it’s a little easier to breath.

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One Response to Living With, Not In, the Past

  1. ej says:

    wow. that was really powerful. having several friends who have a.d.d., including some relatives, it’s not easy for them to overcome the diagnosis and the depression that comes along with it.

    having seen your blogs and your emails in lgbtpoc have shown that you’ve truly overcome it. i know the past can be troublesome. i feel you on that one. much respect.

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