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Five years ago, the broken woman I was could never even fathom in her wildest dreams putting the words that follow this sentence on paper and sending it out into the world for everyone to know. As far as the majority of the world knew, I was picture-perfect. This is my story of growth and change . . . the good, bad, and ugly.

Growing up, I was always touted as the “smart kid” and was placed in gifted classes early on. I was always at the top of the class throughout high school and even into college. I was the perfect student. Teachers loved me.

As a child, the pediatrician told my mother I was so smart my brain just didn’t stop, and that was why I always had to be occupied. I have always been scatterbrained. My family just chalked it up to me always thinking of my next step so I couldn’t focus on what was right in front of me.

On the other hand, I have always been the person who remains calm in crisis. Something has always clicked in mewhen things got crazy, I got calm. My first recollection of this is when at 10 years old, my 7-year-old sister fell down a hill at a youth baseball game and was injured so severely that she had several hundred stitches in her mouth and ultimately needed reconstructive plastic surgery. My aunt, who we were with, froze when she fell. I ended up leaving my aunt behind at the baseball field. I was able to locate someone to lift my sister and another person to drive us to the emergency room. I filled out the registration paperwork and borrowed a quarter for the pay phone to call my parents from the emergency room.

While this was traumatic for a 10-year-old, I remember vividly being calm until my parents arrived when I broke down. Another instance of this calm in the face of chaos happened when my grandfather had a heart attack while swimming. My grandmother’s emotions took the best of her, but I, who had just turned 16, was able to get my grandfather, grandmother, and sister in the car and drive them all to the emergency room.

I now see this ability to remain calm in crisis as one of my superpowers. However, when not in crisis mode, anxiety has taken over my mind and body throughout my life so severely that on several occasions, I have found myself vomiting or hunched over in a ball, fighting to get enough air in my lungs to keep breathing.

My first recognized issues with anxiety began during college. As the workload in school became more intense, it became harder to circumvent some of my long-standing procrastination issues. In college, I can honestly say I didn’t start a paper until 24 hours (and sometimes much shorter) before it was due. I came home from college in my third year down about 30 pounds after being blindsided by my first real heartbreak and having to drop out of biology in lieu of failing. I had made it that far in my education without ever needing to actually study, and I didn’t know how.

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My parents were obviously concerned when I came through the door. They took me to get bloodwork and see our family doctor over the holiday break. I assured him I was eating (which I was) and fed him a line that I had just been running more. Since my bloodwork wasn’t horrible at the time, I was able to continue on while putting on a perfect façade.

The thing no one knew was that while I was still eating (and eating horrible food that should be causing me to gain weight), I just kept losing weight. My anxiety was so bad my body was locked in flight or fight mode for a good thee to six months. It took most of my last semester of college to get the feelings locked back inside and get myself back to a place where the world saw someone who had it all under control. This is the closest I ever came to an actual nervous breakdown.

By 21, I had earned myself an undergraduate degree in three years with honors and weekly panic attacks. I then jumped right into law school because that was expected of someone who was smart like me. Throughout law school, I struggled with the ability to cram a semester’s worth of materials into the last few days before an exam. Yet again, I pushed through and graduated early from law school.

Throughout my 20s I found success at work through many last-minute, hyperfocus episodes. I went from being the perfect student to the perfect employee. I put the time and extra hours in for whatever was needed to get the job done. The worst thing in the world for me at that time would have been for anyone to think I was lazy.

I went on to get two more graduate degrees while teaching undergraduate coursework and eventually started my own real estate business. I can’t even count how many times I sat in my office as an instructor with students who were struggling and told them, “It is okay to fail; no one is perfect.” This was a line I fed everyone else, but my internal critic said otherwise.

I struggled during my 20s to be able to really connect with anyone or to create deep friendships or have real romantic relationships because so much of my day to day functioning involved keeping a façade of perfection. My anxiety (and sometimes depression) was so bad I felt if I let down the façade, the glass would crack.

I came close to breaking down once, and I vowed that if I kept it inside, I would never get back to that spot. I felt that if anyone knew the real me, they would absolutely not want to be around me. I became a master at morphing into whatever girlfriend the guy I was dating at the time wanted, and I became the friend who was always up for anything but an actual real conversation.

I met my husband shortly before turning 30, and he was the first person to get me to break down some of the huge walls I had put up because he, too, had put up some of those same walls and knew what he was looking at. Even with him, it took years before he fully saw just how deep my insecurities and low self-esteem ran. As we had a family, and our careers continued, my issues were only amplified by procrastinating and cramming in work through all-night sessions.

In the past, I would make up for the lost sleep the next day, but having new babies to take care of made recovery from my traditional all-nighters nearly impossible. It took a toll on my physical health. I had hair loss, nerve pain, and vision issues. I went to multiple doctors trying to figure out the source of my physical symptoms, every doctor had a different diagnosis, and eventually, I just gave up. I continued to fail regularly at remembering to make doctor’s appointments, remembering extended family birthdays and holidays, and just generally keeping track of life as an adult.

All this was going on while, professionally, clients told me on a regular basis that they just didn’t know how I could remain so calm and composed and could handle the most difficult of situations with ease. Yet, personally, being unable to locate my phone or keys daily became the norm.

Despite raising three happy and healthy kids, helping my husband maintain a very demanding job while he attended a top-notch law school, and growing a company from the ground up, I felt like a failure at life on a daily basis.

My panic attacks reached an alarming point in my late 30s. Pretty much nightly, I found myself crouched over the bathroom toilet trying to hold my dinner in my stomach and fighting to get just one deep breath in. At this time, I was just going through the motions of life.

During one late-night conversation, when I found myself saying to my husband that our family would be better off without me here, he convinced me that I had to get help. I began seeing a therapist on a bi-weekly basis at first and slowly tapered off to a monthly appointment after a couple of years. About a year ago, my counselor and I decided I had the tools needed to combat my anxiety, and since I was panic attack free for over a year, I just needed to work on implementing those tools. Behavioral therapy took me a long way toward where I needed to go but didn’t get me all the way there.

With therapy, I was able to learn to cut myself some slack on the perfectionism, control the anxiety, and eliminate the panic attacks. Also, at this time I was able to open up to those in my life a little more and let them see my weaknesses. Surprisingly enough, no one ran for the hills when they found out I had imperfections. Behavioral therapy helped me to develop coping mechanisms that allowed me to live in the moment instead of always looking for the next step.

However, despite putting in every waking hour I had to growing my family and my business, I still felt like I wasn’t enough. I regularly found myself doubting my abilities as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and business owner and feeling like a failure at life. Why couldn’t I just focus and get the job done?

I had a few conversations with my husband when I told him I was smart and the reason I was not where I should be on the success ladder of life is that I was just not doing enough or working hard enough. He has put in countless hours over the years trying to convince me that my self-doubt was unwarranted, but it never worked.

For the majority of my adult life, I incessantly worried for weeks about doing something that would end up taking only a few hours to complete. About a year ago, I accidentally stumbled onto something that put some clarity to some of the issues I had grappled with for 30+ years. Unbeknownst to me, I had lived my whole life with symptoms of ADHD. The anxiety that manifested in my early 20s was most likely a by-product of my undiagnosed ADHD.

RELATED: I’m Not a Mess, I’m a Mom with ADHD

About a year ago, thanks to some random TikTok videos that showed up via the algorithm for me by complete chance, I started leaning into the possibility that I could benefit from some of the information these people were sharing. Even though I didn’t think I had ADHD at that time, I could relate to what they were saying, and I started to implement some of the ADHD hacks I saw like setting a timer when trying to complete a mundane task and wearing a piece of jewelry that you touch to remind yourself to be present in the moment.

When I found that these tricks were helping me, I began to question whether or not I may actually have ADHD. After researching the traits of women with ADHD a little bit more, I finally made an appointment with a psychiatrist. About 10 minutes after starting the appointment, he quickly told me, “Yep, you are basically a textbook case.” He gave me some more insights and tricks to try and prescribed a long-acting, slow-release stimulant.

Well, I know for some, medication is not the answer, but for me, it was a game changer. For the first time in my life with this medication, I could focus before the last minute. I could sit down and complete a task before it was due. Most importantly, because I knew just how productive this medication allowed me to be, I was able to stop worrying about having to do something and just actually do it.

I also had the epiphany at this time that my anxiety that remained was mostly surrounding my worries of not being able to get things done. ADHD medication has eliminated that fear for me. For the first time in over 20 years, I can honestly say I no longer find myself fixating on the what-ifs.

I continue to uncover almost daily the ways ADHD has impacted my life both negatively and positively. With this diagnosis, I have allowed myself some grace and embraced the many superpowers that being neurotypical has given me. For the first time in many years, I can honestly say I am in tune with myself and truly happy with where my life is going and what I have to show for my almost 43 years here.

My life is in a better place thanks to a diagnosis, and I hope that maybe this article can spark the conversation and curiosity for others who may be grappling with some of the same issues. If you think this resonates with you, or someone you love, I hope this is the impetus to getting the help you need. Trust me, it is worth it!

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Machelle Palmer Theis

Machelle Palmer Thies Lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband, three kids, dog, and quadriplegic mother-in-law. She is a mother, wife, writer, and business owner. Machelle’s work deals with the struggle of having it all, navigating what it means to be a woman in today’s society, and learning to embrace the beautiful chaos of life. Machelle focuses her writing on pieces that showcase vulnerability and aim to inspire others to let their guards down.

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