Reprinted from the The Many Faces of Neurodiversity issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (3), pp. 31-33
In preschool I remember having a lot of difficulty participating in group activities. It was the first time I noticed that I struggled doing things other people seemed to do with ease. My caretakers called in my mom several times to sit with me during class.
Trouble in school continued as I got older, but my elementary-school teachers couldn’t exactly call my mother in to sit with me and help me participate. Teachers often gave up on me. I thought I was unintelligent because I couldn’t concentrate in class or process information like others. Doing well in school seemed inaccessible, and I felt incompetent in many areas of my life. These experiences of feeling like an outcast shaped me profoundly.
My experience of ADHD
I have always had a million things going on in my brain at one time. There is no break from the noise of ideas bouncing around in my head. I have a hard time compartmentalizing, difficulty with time management and I often struggle to process information. I can get overwhelmed by tasks and, due to a lot of black-and-white thinking, my time management fluctuates between good and terrible. I have to do everything all at once or nothing at all. When I’m in that overwhelmed state—which happens far more often than I would like—I experience paralysis. For me, that means a complete inability to begin tasks and procrastination to the point of self-sabotage.
I now understand that these are aspects of my attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD). And as I reflect on the connections between those parts of myself and my co-existing eating disorder, I see that so much of the development of my eating disorder came with my desperate need to fit in with my peers. It was a way I could see myself as successful. Maybe I couldn’t grasp certain concepts as well as other people, but it made perfect sense to me to lose weight and make my body smaller. It was something I could be competent at, at least for a time. Challenging myself to eat less and absorb fewer calories made me feel confident.
A social focus on thinness
As a teenager, fitting in was the most important part of my life. I grew up in an area where the culture was superficial, focused on what we looked like and what we could afford to buy. Eating disorders were prevalent among the teens at my school, and people who had them were envied. Disordered eating habits helped me to make social connections and feel like part of the crowd.
My eating disorder felt safe—controlled, clear and easy. I learned from a young age that living in a thin body meant you held power. When I was not thin, I felt powerless and invisible, and people treated me differently. There was only one logical solution. I loved the attention and power that came from going from larger bodied to thin.
ADHD drugs make you lose your appetite. I wasn’t diagnosed in high school, but the medication was extremely easy to get. I just needed to say I had trouble studying and someone would prescribe the drugs, no questions asked. Most people I knew had a ready supply and used them to dull their appetites. I would take more than I should because I knew it would make me eat less and stay slimmer. I loved that aspect of the drugs. I felt confident in my body and my ability to control it, at least some of the time.
Life with disorders that intersect
Family members, friends and teachers often saw my ADHD paralysis as laziness. I didn’t have the language to explain what was really going on, so I accepted that story about me. But this contributed to my self-esteem issues. My way of combatting the notion that I was inherently lazy was to work out excessively. People who worked out every day were admired and never called lazy. Family and peers praised me for it, and exercise became a huge source of validation.
I was completely fixated on my eating and exercise habits, often taking them to the extreme. From around age 12 and into my late twenties, I obsessed about what I ate, when I ate and how much energy I could burn. There was no moderation or middle ground. I would eat everything or nothing. My experience of hyper-fixation was (and is) that I often cannot maintain the behaviour I’m fixated on. The black-and-white thinking I struggle with doesn’t help.
When I would inevitably fail at a diet or exercise plan, it would be a huge knock to my ego, and I would beat myself up.
Diet culture fails because it is a vicious circle of immediate gratification followed by loss of control. You cannot maintain excessive exercising or portion control forever, particularly when you are struggling with ADHD. Fixating on losing weight and exercising would temporarily relieve me of feeling like a failure—a strong motivation to keep up unhealthy patterns of behaviour.
Insight and sadness after diagnosis
That’s now in the past. I have been in recovery for my eating disorder for four years. I finally realized that the lifestyle was unsustainable and I was making too many sacrifices. The lengths I was going to in order to keep my body small were what led me to a solution: on social media and in my social circles, I found an informal community of like-minded people who were fighting the societal narrative about diet culture and body image. With their support, I found the power to deconstruct my narrative and began my journey of unlearning. I sought out counselling as part of my commitment to myself, and this helped me better connect with my needs and find self-love from within.
It took a lot of effort and growth to take an honest look at my habits and patterns. After years of struggling with my state of overwhelm and my resulting paralysis, I was determined to seek out answers. I was formally diagnosed with ADHD in 2021. Diagnosis brought a lot of validation and understanding about my previous behaviours, but it also made me sad for the younger version of myself who lacked the tools and confidence to thrive. I have found so much power and healing in learning about how my identities intersect.
Accepting my truest self has been meaningful and profound on my journey of self-discovery and healing. Struggling with an eating disorder is not something I would wish for anyone, but recovery is possible through support from your community and accepting that while an eating disorder may be a part of your life, it does not define you. Your body is worthy of love and acceptance at every stage of your journey.
There is no cure for ADHD and it can be hard to navigate, but I also believe that acceptance, giving yourself grace and working with your strengths are empowering ways to move forward.