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Images by Tina Tiller

The Sunday EssayMarch 24, 2024

The Sunday Essay: Meds didn’t fix my ADHD. Will meditation?

Images by Tina Tiller
Images by Tina Tiller

After trying medication with mixed results, Anke Richter triggers the nuclear option: a silent meditation retreat. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

The list that a friend sent me two years ago with a gentle prod had only six questions. They were innocuous. “How often do you have difficulty unwinding?”, “How often do you put things off until the last minute?”. It was a short ADHD screening test. My score was high.  

That evening, I met some mates, doctors among them. I was curious what they thought about the test. When I read it out over dinner, the GPs in the group scoffed and laughed. “Who doesn’t misplace their keys sometimes?” said one, with an eye roll. “Or doom scroll on their phones?” The other mentioned psychiatrists and money. “Twenty years ago, everyone was suddenly bipolar. Now it’s ADHD? Come on.” 

Of course I wasn’t going to fall for the latest fad. Or pathologise myself just to be special. 

Even those friends working in medicine – who have since changed their tune – seemed as poorly informed as I was back then. But despite the initial doubt and dismissiveness, the seed was sown. 

A year later, more out of curiosity than need, I went to a workshop at Kiwiburn, an exuberant counterculture festival near Hunterville. More and more people dropped into the decorated tent for the “Adults with ADHD” meetup. “Feel free to show up anytime during the event. We get it!” read the description in the events guide. Every late arrival was kindly acknowledged. 

It was the first day, and I was utterly exhausted from the logistics of the trip north and setting up camp after weeks of organising. “Cut yourself some slack for even making it here,” said the facilitator. When people shared their struggles in the circle – some in tears, some talking over each other, some fidgeting – things started to fall into place. For the first time, I heard the terms “masking” and “rejection sensitive dysphoria”, and listened to people discussing the immense shame, emotional stress and anxiety it causes. 

To call the festival workshop an “aha” moment is an understatement. It was more of an AA moment. I felt like an alcoholic who had finally attended their first 12-step meeting. There was relief and grief. And no turning back. 

Like pregnant women who notice prams on every street corner, I now ran into someone on a weekly basis who was freshly diagnosed, sometimes self-diagnosed, with ADHD. Everyone from the sharp-witted filmmaker who had constantly been beaten at school for disrupting the class to the teacher who almost failed his final uni exams because he couldn’t meet a deadline. They talked about substance abuse and relationship chaos, messy houses and missed appointments. One high achiever told me it had been “life changing” for her to have the official result. “I’m now gloriously medicated,” she beamed. 

But most friends I talked to kept their neurodivergence private, especially at their workplace. Far too much stigma. 

Three months after the Kiwiburn revelation, I sat in a therapist’s office and was told that I indeed have ADHD. I cried on the spot. “Let’s help you have a less ridiculous life,” said the therapist. 

The outcome of the extensive assessment was validating, but it came with a tough trip down memory lane. At 11 years old, for instance, I had been lucky to survive after I absentmindedly crossed a road, excited or distracted, and was hit by a car. 

There was so much more to unpack. My fast talking, which had irritated my parents and teachers since I was a child, wasn’t my fault. There was possibly a neurological reason for my teenage eating disorder and trouble making; my exhausting high energy, impatience and impulsivity; and my knack for skiing accidents and fender benders. Let alone my worst social sin: interrupting others without noticing it. 

Now I understand why I’m the annoying customer who asks café staff to turn the music down so I can follow a conversation. Why I have so little memories and crave intensity – always living in the future, obsessed with the next new thing. Why I tend to procrastinate, multitask, overshare and micromanage, struggling to “go with the flow”. Why I almost burned the house down when I forgot eggs on the stove. 

I also understand why my sons had a “whoosh” gesture – one hand sweeping over their heads – that signalled to each other that their mum was mentally absent again while they shared their news with me after school. It saddens me how often I wasn’t fully present for them, unable to stack Lego for more than a few minutes without feeling a sense of dread. 

Looking back at my life, these traits which I’m embarrassed to admit to are not the full story of who I am. They come with so-called ADHD superpowers like creativity, empathy, hyperfocus and a strong sense of social justice and fairness. When I began the assessment for ADHD, I wasn’t looking for an excuse for my obnoxious behaviour, but a roadmap based on sound science to manage myself better. And to stand a better chance of finding my keys. 

Now that the cause of my struggles was clear, I hoped the path forward would be clear. But there’s a whole industry promising a fix for my atypical brain, involving ADHD influencers, support groups and alternative treatments. While all this awareness and advocacy is great, it can be overwhelming for a self-critical perfectionist with a short attention span. Since I joined the rapidly growing camp of diagnosed friends and colleagues, I’ve been swamped with podcasts and books, social media apps and planners, online seminars and nutritional advice, especially aimed at women. 

Chlöe Swarbrick, Celeste Barber and Clementine Ford have gone public about their ADHD. Middle-agers struggling more than ever at the onset of menopause are finally addressing the debilitating symptoms that were once only recognised in little boys bouncing off walls.  

ADHD, a term I had heard about only in a negative context in the past and never thought applied to me, was suddenly everywhere and dominating my life. 

But I didn’t need a new identity, and I don’t like the term “disorder” for a divergence – ADHD is simply a condition with pros and cons. People with ADHD struggle, but some of this is because of the neuro-normative world around us that doesn’t allow for our speed, sensitivity or eccentricities. While I long to be “normal,” whatever that means, I question how much I should adapt to fit in.

According to the scientific consensus, ADHD is genetic and hereditary, but outliers like Canadian doctor and author Gabor Maté claim that it’s caused by early childhood or even prenatal trauma. He promotes psychedelic therapy as the cure. 

I felt pulled in all directions by well-meaning friends who wondered why I even bothered going down the track of a costly assessment, since to them I seemed just fine (they’d never heard of “masking” or seen my utter exhaustion, irritability and inner tension). The therapist who diagnosed me cut through my overthinking. “The best life hack,” she said, “is to get you on medication.” 

A month later, I had my first prescription for Ritalin.  

Methylphenidate is the most common substance for treating ADHD; Ritalin, Rubifen and the slow-release Concerta are just brand names. When I started on Ritalin last June, I didn’t take it for better work performance. I’m usually over-productive: I’ve written four books and never missed a deadline in 30 years. If anything, learning when to stop before becoming overwhelmed or not acting like a headless chicken would be the goal. I mostly hoped for the emotional regulation the treatment promised, as did my husband. 

I wasn’t prepared for the jittery weird feeling the Ritalin brought on in the beginning. There were times when my mouth felt too woolly or frozen to articulate myself properly. When I had to make a public appearance – on a podcast, say – it felt safer to rely on my old self and skip the pills for the day. They were not magic ones for me, unfortunately. I was constantly monitoring and overthinking their promised effect, unable to pinpoint whether they were actually helping. Typical ADHD behaviour, I later learned. Not a deficit of attention, but the opposite. Still, I felt like an imposter who had fallen for the hype. Maybe those sceptical friends had a point.

These doubts increased when I talked openly about going on Ritalin. The R-word alone was a trigger for many. “Why do you want to medicate yourself?” someone confronted me, aghast. “You have such an engaging personality – please don’t change!” Would they have reacted the same if I had to inject insulin every day as a diabetic? The stigma and judgement were real. 

Even “every day” wasn’t that straight forward. I knew of people who only took Ritalin occasionally to finish a project. Others took it daily, like with thyroid medication or HRT. And what about microdosing? I read about “drug holidays” and the “rebound effect”, when ADHD symptoms feel even stronger at the end of the day, after the dose wears off. There was so much conflicting advice. 

After three months of trial and error, including trying other brands with fewer side effects, my confusion turned into realism. There would be no instant, perfect “new me”. This old brain of mine wouldn’t suddenly get a total makeover, as I had hoped. 

Drugs don’t work the same for everyone and are only a first step. Or, to use the analogy from Matilda Bosley’s book about ADHD, The Year I Met My Brain, seasickness pills don’t teach you how to sail. They can’t predict a storm or replace your rudder, but they’re certainly useful for a safer passage. 

To navigate through my mental storms, I decided that meditation could be the next step. I’m not a novice, but lack the self-discipline for a regular practice at home. Twenty minutes first thing in the morning usually dwindle to five minutes and then excuses to check my phone instead, which results in self-loathing. So knowing myself, there would only be one way. The most intense one, of course. It had to be a boot camp: a week-long silent meditation retreat. 

“Just focus on your breath,” says the meditation teacher. She sits cross-legged at the front of the hall, a blanket over her shoulders. “It’s simple, but not easy.” Her voice is calming. She gives us instructions on how to be present and observe, not judge. “There will be a lot of tension and restlessness at first. Thoughts always come and go. Watch them float by like clouds in the sky.” 

My eyes are closed, but my thoughts are not clouds. They’re more like a tornado that has picked up a huge filing cabinet, spilling its content into my head. There are past and future conversations, plans and ideas, urgent emails to write and messages to send. What an endless mess to sort through. Impossible to put all that mental work aside and only observe my breath. 

I manage a couple of times for a split second before I’m pulled back into the tornado zone. Buddhists call it “the monkey mind”. I call it being a control freak. After 45 minutes, I hear the gong from the teacher’s sounding bowl and open my eyes. The first sitting session is over. 

We have six of them every day, alternating with walking meditation, where you consciously put each foot in front of you, outside in the grass, noticing the sensation. Focusing on the movement instead of the subtleness of the breath is much easier for me. Maybe because there’s more distraction outside – the weather, the daisies, the Southern Alps. 

There are talks in the evening, and check-ins twice during the week in small groups where we can talk with the teachers about any challenges. They’re both therapists and undogmatic western Buddhists, encouraging us to adjust their teachings to our needs and to be gentle, not to chastise ourselves. They know from my intake form that I’m trialling methylphenidate and suggest sticking with my current dose for the week. In their view, the meds can support the mindfulness practice – it’s not either-or.  

There are half a dozen mini-plungers and stove top espresso makers in the lounge where people keep their cups and snacks. When we checked into our bunk rooms, one woman announced that she would have to set her alarm fifteen minutes early so she could be “fully caffeinated” for the first sitting session. I wish the mind-enhancing substance I’m currently on could be as accepted and destigmatised as her daily drug of choice for better mental performance. Unlike the display of coffeephernalia, my bottle of pills doesn’t make it on the shelf for everyone to see. 

The first afternoon, I hand over my phone for the next five days. The teacher will keep it in a bag in her room, like a safe lock. Cutting the electronic umbilical cord is the hardest act. Not talking to anyone in our group of twenty is bliss, though. I’ve done silent meditation before and love the serenity it brings. Eventually, all your senses wake up: you notice how good the food tastes, and how the wind sounds. I don’t mind sitting still on a cushion, with full permission not to do anything. Not rushing around as usual. If only my mind could do the same. 

The first two days are like being at my desk, but without a computer or at least a notebook: so much output, so many ideas, so easy to forget. Productive as usual, but definitely not meditating. I’m making a detailed plan of the year’s tasks instead of being fully in the moment. Despite being at a retreat, I find plenty to fret over: wash my hair in the afternoon, or wait another day? Take my meds just before breakfast, or better after? Bring extra socks into the hall in the morning? No more distractions means watching my ADHD in full action. It’s definitely ridiculous. 

Without my phone at hand, I scroll back and forth through my inner news feed, looking for fresh input, old stories, new hits. Our hyperactive rescue dog comes to mind, the way he runs around the house on high alert again and again, even though there’s nothing new to find. The gong cuts through my mental meandering. The midday sun has found its way through the windows. There are sparrows chirping outside. I’ve been oblivious to their delightful sound for the whole sitting session. Story of my life. 

I go through grief that hadn’t been processed in the busyness of the past year. My father’s death and the little time I had for him. Difficult friendships I can finally look at with compassion. All that I missed right in front of me while I imagined the future, never satisfied. “Self-knowledge is painful at first,” says the teacher in the evening talk. 

And then the magic happens, slowly. In the early morning sessions on the cushion, my shoulders covered by a blanket, I start to take sweet refuge in my breath instead of dreading the long exercise. Something to hold on to, guiding me softly and steadily. My brain can rest.

Instead of my usual Netflix binge before bedtime, I wander through the native bush in the dark without a torch, studying the silhouettes of plants against the sky and watching birds fly off at the riverbank. Skinnydipping in the icy stream at the foothill of Mt Somers becomes my self-guided afternoon practice and cheeky little secret away from the group. Once a thrill seeker, always a thrill seeker – but fully present to each sensation in my body this time. I’m sure the meditation teachers would approve.

My most meaningful moments in the here and now are not happening on the cushion, but amongst the cows. I had never really paid attention to them in all my years in a dairy farming country. Now, each day when I pass the fence of their paddock during my meditation walk, they come a bit closer. I stop and study the black herd and notice how funny they are, how anxious. They stop and study me. I move, they move. The little game lasts twenty minutes. Never a dull moment.

I realise during the retreat how addicted I am to my phone. The almost mouthwatering anticipation of getting it back; the adrenaline rush before I’ve even looked at my messages and feeds. Being more attuned to my body, I can feel those neurochemicals flooding my system – something I’m never aware of during my daily scrolling routine. I feel full in no time from the onslaught. Long may it last.

The blissful slow pace and inner calm is hard to maintain once I’m home. Life takes over with a new project and unforeseen challenges, more intense than before the retreat. Soon I’m stressed and overwhelmed again. I’m still impatient, driven and restless, but highly productive. It’s a recipe for burn-out. 

It’s hard to say yet what has really worked for me; whether I would be worse off without medication – or meditation – in the mix. I see the therapist again after six months of trial and error. Micronutrients will be the next step, we decide, and then I’ll look at either changing the medication or stopping it altogether. I’m prepared for this to be met with the same judgement as taking it in the first place, but from different folks. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. 

There’s no quick fix for my ADHD after all. Somewhere among the cushions and cows, I made peace with that. 

Keep going!