ADHD Showed Me I Wasn't a Spiritual Failure | Sojourners

ADHD Showed Me I Wasn't a Spiritual Failure

A person holds a fidget spinner. Dzmitry Kliapitski / Alamy via Reuters Connect

If you had told me 11 years ago at my first contemplative retreat that I had ADHD, I would have been skeptical. I was an organized, overachieving Enneagram 3, a bookworm, and a grown professional woman — not a small bouncy boy disturbing his classroom because of his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The problem, I was told by all around me, was that I lacked spiritual discipline. But just a few hours into the retreat on a Saturday afternoon, I had to admit I wasn’t excelling at the assignment of stillness and silence.

When a friend had suggested the Jesuit-led contemplative retreat, I’d eagerly agreed. At the time, I was fresh out of college, dealing with a boatload of baggage from a brief flirtation with charismatic church culture, and spiritually restless. I also felt trapped in a spiral of shame, depression, and anxiety. Maybe spending some time at a beautiful, peaceful retreat center would discipline my hyperactive mind into spiritual maturity.

After all, that’s what everyone promised: Christians of all theological persuasions agree that sitting still, staying focused, and being quiet for extended periods of time is the recipe to deepen your relationship with God. Christians through history have made much of Jesus’ attempts to find solitude throughout the gospels and broadly applied solitude as the one true path to holiness and hearing God’s voice. According to most Christians, if this path doesn’t work for you, you simply aren’t trying hard enough or haven’t given it enough practice. Or as theologian and Celebration of Discipline author Richard J. Foster writes: “The inner reality of the spiritual world is available to all who are willing to search for it. […] We must see the importance for beginners and experts alike to give some part of each day to formal meditation.” Don’t be discouraged if God’s presence feels elusive at first, Foster writes; just keep disciplining yourself into submission over and over until it sticks.

But during that ill-fated silent retreat, I simply couldn’t sit in silence any longer. I reached for my ear buds and worship music instead, knowing that I was breaking the “rules” (truthfully, gentle suggestions) the Jesuits had provided to guide us for the day. I was forced to confront the years I’d spent trying to experience enough of God’s presence to pray away this recurring failure. And it wasn’t just the retreat: At home, “quiet time” felt more like church homework than anything meaningful or transformative. I tried to memorize Bible verses, but my brain couldn't keep the verse numbers straight. I zoned out during long sermons. I tried listening prayer, meditation, contemplative silence, breath prayer — the works — but instead of supernatural peace, I felt frustrated and angry. I didn't feel enlightened when I fasted; I felt crazy. I didn't feel centered in silence; I felt bored to literal tears.

In retrospect, there were other indications that what I was dealing with was ADHD, but they manifested in traits I hated about myself: My constant forgetfulness and lateness. The intensity with which I experienced my thoughts and emotions and how different that made me. I hated how my brain was both faster than others and too distracted to learn from the leaders my friends idolized. I hated my rejection sensitivity making it so hard to know who to trust, and I hated that my little hyperactive fidgets made me seem insecure and childish in an environment already prone to patronizing me as a young woman.

I just needed to try harder. That’s what everyone said about all these practices I needed to embrace if I were ever going to prove to God that I was the real deal: the same person on the inside I pretended to be on the outside. If God could see that, surely, he would heal my depression, my anxiety, and my loneliness. Everyone around me repeated the refrain: If our unchanging, ever-present God feels distant, who moved?

Of course, the question was always rhetorical. There was never room for me to explain how my brain felt like a dark, rapidly spinning whirlpool.

Around that time, I started to realize through conversations with older friends that my level of memory failure wasn't common for my age. My once-whimsical ponderings at work were becoming a serious distraction. I was not, as I always assumed, a naturally organized person; I was a person naturally inclined to lose things who’d learned to be organized as a survival mechanism. As adulthood set in, it became increasingly apparent that my brain worked differently than others.

A few years later, when I mentioned all of this to my therapist, she suggested that I get an ADHD evaluation. I was still skeptical; I didn’t match any of the stereotypes I associated with ADHD: low grades and job performance evaluations, hyperactivity, cars and homes in disarray — in other words, external chaos that I didn’t see in my life, which was designed carefully and intentionally so I wouldn’t lose anything or forget. I eventually came across videos from Jessica McCabe, creator of the YouTube channel How to ADHD, about how to know if you have the disorder. Her videos taught me that it was normal for women like me to feel this way. I didn’t have to have an obviously dysfunctional outer life to have an inner disorder. In fact, the very things I was doing that made me discount the suggestion were actually coping mechanisms to help treat the disorder.

My assumptions were both terribly wrong and terribly common. Women and nonbinary people who were assigned female at birth have been underdiagnosed for decades , leading to a recent surge in advocacy and resources trying to get us the help we need, even now in our 30s, 40s, and beyond. I’m so glad this awareness is spreading in the broader culture, but I have yet to hear anyone talk about this as it relates to faith and church.

It turns out, I’m not spiritually lazy or a failure; I have ADHD. My hyperactivity, as is common with girls, is often internalized, turned into anxiety, and channeled into extroverted hyperverbal social energy. My brain doesn’t process and encode information the same way as the brains of people who do not have ADHD. None of these things are evidence of a lack of faith or a lack of care.

Today, I am a leader within my LGBTQIA+ contemplative spiritual community. My community meets on Zoom, which allows me the freedom to write or fold laundry or move around as I participate. I know I need the discussion time with my queer faith family just as much as the lectio divina Scripture reading or listening to spiritual music together. I know what works for many to be fully present in the space isn’t going to work for my neurodivergent brain. I don't have to feel shame over that, because ADHD is not a moral or spiritual failure.

I'm still working with a therapist and medical professionals, and I am learning from the neurodivergent community how to accept myself and accommodate my needs in most of my life. But with their help, I have learned that mindfulness isn’t just sitting still trying to meditate but being aware of the present around us. So why would the presence of God be confined to a morning “quiet time” with a prayer list, a verse to memorize, and a timer for how long I have to sit in silence? I can find God more easily on a walk under a fiery sunset, in the soothing sound of tree branches, and warmth of spring sunlight. I see God in my church, which is so much healthier and more accepting than ones I’ve been in before but still messy and growing to be better. I can be present with God as my busy, active, highly verbal, easily distractible self.

I still grieve my forgetfulness and losing track of time. I grieve the very real elements of deficiency and disorder, as the name implies. I grieve that I can’t be a better friend or learner or church family member.

But I leverage the strengths I do have. I can’t stay focused on a long lecture, but I can take notes summarizing a 20-minute sermon. I can’t always be at church events on time on my own, but I can carefully type them into my calendar app. And while I’m doing both of these things, I can post them to our church social media accounts. I can’t remember names, but I can advocate for name tags and wear mine to help others. I can’t fast from food, but I can give to mutual aid and stay mindfully present to the needs of the world outside of my own. I can’t memorize a lesson to teach a class, but I can organize a monthly dinner for the women of my church to talk about our real lives with no agenda.

If Brother Lawrence, a humble 17th century mystic, can practice the presence of God in washing dishes, I can do all things as unto the Lord. If saints through the centuries have noticed God in nature, my suburban walks of gratitude surely “count” as holy enough. If God made me with ADHD, they must have a plan to meet me in it.

That’s faith, after all. Not following the hardest rules possible to prove you’ve earned holiness but resting in the Love that sustains us for the long haul, whether that rest is found in silent solitude or the loud laughter of fellow outcasts. The point of our spiritual practices is that we are welcome to seek and to find. Perhaps we will discover (or rediscover) something we can come home to over and over, in whatever ways we are built to travel back to the presence of the God who loves us exactly as they made us, ADHD and all.

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