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Illustration by Drew Shannon

“You sound like you have ADHD,” my doctor said. “You’re a classic case.”

Hormones, brain chemistry, a difficult childhood – these things I’ve long accepted. But, as the doctor indicated, together they enacted an alchemy of enormous proportion; too much for vitamins and positive thinking to resolve.

“I don’t think so,” I said. "I’ve always been sad, not hyper.” I tried to look put-together, swiping at the tears that streaked down my face when I told her how unhappy I was.

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How I baked my way to good mental health

“Sad can be a result.” She spoke briskly. “Listen, if you spend your whole life unable to focus, you’re going to suffer the consequences. ADHD often manifests in depression, but that’s only a symptom. Here …”

She handed me not a tissue, but a pamphlet “Have a look and see me next week.”

I stuffed it in my purse and drove home, then tossed it in the recycling bin. After lunch I retrieved it and answered the 18 question self-assessment on the back page. I checked 17 boxes, suggesting I did have the neuro-developmental disorder that’s linked to genetics. So, these behaviours I have – chronic tardiness, no follow-through, impatient, wired, inattentive, fidgety – were not innate shortcomings, but intrinsically coded?

I scoffed. All the things I secretly loved about myself (loud, confident, quick, energetic) were flaws in my wiring? If I’m ADHD I’m the better for it! But instantly this false bravado evaporated. If I were honest, those qualities had left me struggling, and that self-assurance? It wasn’t false, exactly, but was both fickle and fleeting.

I’ve taken antidepressants and hated them, done all sorts of therapy and devoured self-help manuals. Pills blunted me and advanced the bathroom scale. Therapy required time and funds, both precious and finite commodities. Some books offered relief with practical advice, such as setting a phone alert to remind you to pick up your child after you forget for the third time. I made lists and practised that God-awful thing called “self-care,” but honestly? I was one step away from bungling something at every given moment.

The diagnosis wasn’t a cure, far from it. Knowing didn’t change me from being scattered into someone who flawlessly executed. Mostly, it explained: Why I was a terrible employee who couldn’t sit still or pay attention; why I talked over people; and why life piled up until I couldn’t cope. But don’t think I now basked with equanimity, secure in the verdict. I raged.

Long ago I dreamed I’d be a magazine editor or a lawyer and instead became a housewife who couldn’t even do that right, who overspent and undercleaned, and whose kids nervously confirmed I’d be on time. I charmed my way into jobs, thrived initially as my personality impressed, then failed as the work piled high while my attention dwindled, and I quit before I was fired.

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While nothing would alter my ADHD, I discovered I could address my challenges with specific techniques, ones that illuminated how I might harness myself, reigning in fragments while honing others. It meant I could learn to manage (knowledge worth its weight in gold) but I needed more.

But how to address that forever lack of confidence permeating my every cell? How to carpe the crap out of my diem? Life is passing, and I wanted to suck the marrow out of whatever is left. My children deserved more as I either boxed them in or infected their self-worth with my own doubts.

On a whim (ha!), I signed up for an improv class and learned the rule of “yes, and …” which moves action forward in a skit. If we did a scene together and you declared, “Look what I found,” instead of blocking you by saying, “There’s nothing in your hands,” I would use the “yes, and …" rule and say instead: “That’s my mother’s wedding ring. Where did you find it?”

Improv also gave me space and made me listen. Concentrate. I learned to be still yet engaged. I had to pay attention – if I didn’t, scenes didn’t work. I had to rage against the machine of my brain that pushed me to jump and follow whatever rabbit synapse flickered. Focusing carefully for hours left me exhausted but I left every week exhilarated.

Other challenges, like playing improv games that required group buy-in, bathed me in small wins. Enthusiasm is contagious and breeds self-acceptance. If you pretend you’re invested? Soon you are. Fake-it-till-you-make-it meant I began believing in myself.

Improv seeped into my life and saturated it with possibility. I’d always wanted to be a go-with-the-flow person but struggled, especially with my kids. Often, I policed, doing my best to ensure they grew up properly. My answers were generally “No,” or “No, because …” So I applied the improv principal of “yes, and …” to life with my family, and it changed everything.

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When my daughter asked, “Can I get an eyelash lift?” Before improv lessons, I thought, “What on Earth is that?” before answering: “No. That’s ridiculous.”

But now?

Daughter: “Can I get an eyelash lift?”

Me (still, seriously wondering, what on Earth is that? but saying): “Let’s talk about it. What does that mean? How much is it? And, more importantly, why?”

Instead of battling – I would lay the first brick, she would pile hers on, and so forth, as we built this terrible thing that over time would become solid between us – conversations unfolded.

It’s silly to say improv changed my life. Every single thing we do does that, right? But it’s also true to say improv changed my life. Whatever happens, improv gave me confidence, a sense of playfulness and a reminder that life can be easier and more interesting if I oblige myself to listen, commit and trust the people around me.

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“Yes, and …” I say, as I lean into life.

Kristen McLeod lives in Regina.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

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