A broken mind: Christian and ADHD…let’s talk mental health

I have been dreading writing this post because of the conversations it may force me to have, to be honest. Also, it’s such vulnerability to be able to get candid about something so personal. But it’s a conversation I want to have, and one I do not take lightly. To clarify, this post is about my struggle with mental health, and mine alone. I do not claim to speak for other people or purport to know their experiences. It is also not to offer “tips and tricks” on how to deal with ADHD – that might happen in a separate post, or never.

The genesis

I got diagnosed with ADHD last year, at the peak of what I thought was a depression and anxiety episode. I was seeing a psychologist at the time, who recommended that I see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist did some tests and basically told me that I had ADHD. I was told that I also had secondary depression and anxiety, mainly caused by the untreated ADHD, my toxic work environment, losing loved ones, the pandemic…well you get the gist. I mean, I’d always suspected that I had the disorder, but that didn’t matter because I was functional…until I wasn’t. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder in certain areas of the brain that causes inappropriate levels of inattention, impulsivity, and/or hyperactivity. When I got that diagnosis, I won’t lie, I felt so much relief. It was as though for the first time, I could make sense of some of my behaviour and patterns – note that I said make sense, not excuse. While a mental illness does not excuse sin, it does help you see your propensities, patterns and pitfalls that could lead to you sinning.

Growing up, I used to think that I was such a bad Christian because I struggled with spiritual disciplines more than most. I was impulsive, quick to make plans but terrible at following them through, and therefore struggled to keep my word. I’d interrupt and interject as others spoke (even though I would try really really really hard not to). I would go through periods of obsessing over the word, and some of completely and totally ignoring it. I just had too many highs and lows, not the placidity that Christians are called to exercise. I would struggle with getting started with many tasks and deliberate about how I should approach them for weeks, set aside time to do them with no results. At the last minute, I would get a sudden burst of energy and mental clarity that allowed me to complete the task while kicking myself for being so ill-disciplined and sloppy. I forgot a lot of things, which added to my feeling of being flaky. The structure and routine that being at boarding school and in youth group at my church afforded me, allowed me to keep up some sense of devotion and a semblance of normalcy. Without the people who I was walking with (my friends, youth members and pastors), I would not have been able to sustain my faith. Thanks be to God for church family and structures for activities that force us to fellowship and behold Christ! To be honest, this was not just in my walk. When I was a senior in high school and was allowed to work in my room (with the rationale that we were grown enough to do what we had to with minimal supervision), I would sleep through our designated study time. While I was an A student, my only saving grace to keep my grades up was studying in groups with my friends, doing past papers with people who wanted my help and just hoping to find people that were willing to chat through the various subjects we were tasked with. Surprisingly, this along with the mandatory extra classes where I had to tutor my peers for things like maths and accounting, were enough to get me the grades I needed for the programme and university I wanted. However, I knew I was not doing my best. While those around me were satisfied with what I achieved, I always felt so guilty and fraudulent because I knew that God saw my lacklustre demeanor. I didn’t really share the extent of my struggles with anyone because I was worried about being perceived as a bad Christian at best or not saved at worst (something I was lowkey struggling with). I worried that if people found out how I zoned out during sermons or didn’t know how to “beat my body into submission”, they would question the legitimacy of my faith. Honestly at the time, I was too vested in my identity as the nerdy Christian girl in high school for me to have to work to craft a new one, so there was no way I was going to confess this struggle to anyone. While I struggled with assurance of my salvation, I figured it was an easier struggle if it was just internal and I was the only one judging my walk rather than having external people pile on to my doubts.

University became a completely different story to high school, and is where my perfectly crafted strategies began to fall apart especially academically. People seemed not too interested in group studies, so my technique wasn’t working out as it had previously. The structure that was often set by adults at boarding school was suddenly gone, and I had to fend for myself. Suddenly, I was in charge of my time, of my studies and priorities. I watched my life unravel, with my grades and routine spiraling out of control. Though I never said it out loud, I knew something was off with me: I was impulsive, with very poor follow through. I had no sense of time and could not prioritise. I was easily distracted, clumsy and fidgeted a LOT. The clumsiness irritated my friends because I would spill salt on the table at restaurants, bump into or break items at stores, burn serviettes on the candles at restaurants and such things… I love you guys for your tolerance though! Most concerning to me was how my sense of consequences and reward became warped, especially as my motivation for doing things decreased. Fear of repercussions or motivation to save that series episode until after my test as a reward was not something that could make me do things I needed to. I really couldn’t understand why I wasn’t like everyone else who could get it together and do what they had to. I also felt so guilty that I was claiming to be Christian while I not only struggled this much, but was losing the good fight. When it became acceptable to talk and jest about it, most of my friends would jokingly say I probably had ADHD. One time, I accompanied a friend who was struggling with depression and anxiety to student wellness. They had those self-assessment forms around for things like ADHD. I was curious enough to try one, and scored a significantly high amount. They recommended that I see a psychiatrist, especially because I was struggling with my studies, submitted my assignments late and never finished my exams, but it was too expensive to see one and I had no money. While my grades left a LOT to be desired and I knew that I couldn’t just “pull up my socks” (I had tried multiple times), I was still passing so I just kept it moving, albeit only as a shadow of my former “achiever” self. The courses that I aced were the ones that I found challenging and interesting.

This struggle was not even just in school. I was leading a growth group that I would often prepare for last minute after having forgotten about the task, or time had escaped me because I had been researching a topic for days on end or been preoccupied by something on my unreasonable schedule. Socially, I was miss popular because I was hyper and had a billion friends on campus. To give all of them attention, I would often triple book myself and have back-to-back hangouts/ meetings at the expense of my academics at times. This was not from a lack of discipline per se, but because I underestimated the amount of time it would take me to achieve tasks. Say a tutorial was going to take 3 hours – a fact you’d only know if you understood the extent of work needed to achieve it-, when I would assess the amount of work needed to get it done, my brain would convince me that it would take an hour and I genuinely believed this. I was also always in some campus society’s leadership team. I was leading the ushering evening team at church, while being part of some committee at my residence. My poor sense of time meant that I was genuinely convinced that I could achieve all these tasks along with my academic demands. When this became untenable and I was struggling, I let go of most of my commitments but that only translated to more debilitating procrastination on my academic requirements instead of less.

During church services, I’d get so distracted during the sermon and feel horrible, so I took up counting the lights or the stairs or the light switches, the mics on stage or the holes in the pulpit…anything to keep my mind fixated on something else while I listened. I was attending a “spirit spirit” type of charismatic church at the time, and I’d often spend hours crying on the floor, begging God to heal me. I didn’t have language for what I thought was happening, so I resorted to the usual tropes: laziness, procrastination, lack of self-control and inattention, disorganised, perpetual busyness and forgetfulness as my prayer bucket list when I would ask others to pray for me. I’d read self-help books and articles, create more organisational systems—then get bored or forget and revert to the same patterns. Sometimes, I’d really enjoy a new hobby I’d taken up, totally obsess over it until the novelty wore off, then I was off to the next task (I mean, I am very surprised that I still blog to be honest!). All of this was so exhausting, but I survived. And then I entered the real world… I’ll leave you to imagine how much harder, demanding, time-pressured, sometimes boring, work and adulting has been. And while all of these may seem like things we all go through, imagine the extreme versions of all these, and not being able to just “snap out of it” by becoming more disciplined or organised.

How the fall affects every part of who we are

Since I got diagnosed, I have been careful not to use mental illness as an excuse to sin. As Galatians 5:19–21 warns us, we are to put away sinful behaviour or attitudes like selfishness, laziness, fits of anger, or addiction (and things like these). Therefore, one cannot use ADHD or any other mental condition for that matter, to justify their sinfulness. I also see how some of my more destructive patterns and sinful pitfalls have been exacerbated by having this condition. And how the strategies that usually work for everyone else sometimes failed dismally for me. The coping mechanisms that I employ now (not perfect at all), and some of the tips and tricks I’d learnt growing up to cope with certain things are all part of a toolbox that I am building to be able to manage myself better. I will admit that while I have recently become less so, I was initially quite embarrassed to say I had a mental disorder, because I thought people would take my confession as my excuse to not behave as I ought. So I had taken to telling only a few of those around me about the condition, with some surprising and honestly, disappointing responses.

  • But Siwe, you did fine in your academics when you applied yourself. Also, you worked in management consulting even under intense deadlines and pressured work, so what’s the issue?

As a child, the adults around me were often the ones imposing the time constraints, providing reminders, and moving me between responsibilities and tasks. This structure and routine made it easy for me to just follow them. It became more apparent when I became in charge of my own life that I was struggling to prioritise the steps needed to accomplish multiple tasks throughout the day, estimating and then scheduling adequate time to get tasks done or get to appointments, and tracking exactly how long something took. At work, one of the feedback I kept getting (a no no in consulting by the way), was that I should improve my time management because my submissions were later than what was expected. This made it more apparent to me that I had an issue with finishing things and time management, outside the casual “lateness”. The more I tried to “make” myself work faster, the more I’d get anxious and take even longer with tasks. Also, I struggled to appreciate how long things should take unless I measured each and every task. As a result, the estimations I would give for how long tasks would take me were often wrong. While I could get away with the lateness thing in university and just get marks deducted from my assignments, or when I was hanging out with friends or attending church, that didn’t fly at work.

  • I also struggle to concentrate, and procrastinate sometimes; we just need to be more disciplined

When I say I struggle to “get into it”, I mean I STRUGGLE. I can change environments, remove all distractions, and just be stuck with the task I have and I would still not start if it does not interest me or I feel stuck and anxious. My master’s dissertation took me so much longer than it was meant to because of this. Even the financial repercussions of having to pay to register the next year, a stick that often gets people going, couldn’t motivate me. At some point, I was avoiding my supervisor for a period of about 4 months because I felt stuck. I had stopped opening his emails and had recently changed numbers, therefore he couldn’t text or call me. He literally found me via a friend of a friend to try get me to finish my paper – which was 80% complete at that point, by the way. I am not proud of this sinful behaviour believe me, but I want to demonstrate the extent to which “procrastination” can be vastly different between those struggling with ADHD (read: me) and other people. During that period of avoidance, I was expanding all my energy on trying to combat this tendency but nothing worked. I’d berate myself, call myself all sorts of names, use the word as a basher, beg myself to be better, pray, promise myself I’d be better…but nothing. I struggled with feelings of guilt and shame on why I couldn’t just “get it together” and inadequacy, resigning myself to the fact that I just will never be as obedient and disciplined as the Lord calls me to be. If it is a task I really enjoy on the other hand, I cannot do anything else until I finish it. I often get lost in the task, but at the expense of any other responsibility that needs my attention. While being lost in tasks, or doing the things I love give me feelings of deep sense of purpose and joy, when I realise how much I have been neglecting, I am often left feeling extremely guilty and anxious.

We have been given power to use any physical or mental ailment to the glory of the Lord

So last year, I came across a Youtuber brother in Christ by the name of David Wood. David is a diagnosed psychopath. In one of his episodes, he talks about how getting saved helped him realise that there was something broken with how he was. That the way he cannot show empathy is contrary to a Christ who was moved by compassion to the point of tears. David further goes on to explain how he is looking forward to having a glorified body that is able to respond as God designed it, not marred by sin.

Like David, I recognise that mental disorders, just like physical ailments, are a result of the fall. The way I like to think about it is that while the fall affects every aspect of our lives, the extent of the various ways in which we are fallen manifests differently in all of us. So if for instance, sin mars our ability to be disciplined and self-controlled, this spectrum differs for different people and may manifest in heightened ways for people with ADHD. Like David, I know that something is broken within me, and while God can and does heal now, for some of us freedom from this brokenness will only come with our glorified bodies. Therefore we live in the already and not yet, rejoicing in our renewed minds that we know will only be perfected when Christ returns. This is the hope that we cling to. And this does not mean that we do not strive for obedience this side of eternity, or find strategies to cope with these ailments so we are led to deeper obedience. It means that we strive to live coram Deo. That we trust the Lord to aid us, and use the various means of grace that he has granted us to strive to obey him more. It means that we find ways to use these difficulties to the glory of our God. That we live in the full knowledge of the fact that every routine, medication and tactic that helps us to obey more, glorifies God to the watching world. And we live with the hope of one day being freed from all this, totally able to enjoy our Lord with all our heart, soul and mind.

One response to “A broken mind: Christian and ADHD…let’s talk mental health”

  1. First of all, thank you for writing this. This has created so many questions for me. I can say that a lot of what you have mentioned as being ADHD is completely normal for me, so it obviously makes me wonder whether what I considered completely normal is in fact a condition. I have heard though that these things are a spectrum and we are all somewhere on there.

    The other thing is that I’ve never bitten myself up about how I should be christianing, I’ve really genuinely related to the Lord the best way I knew how Always running to Him and the holy spirit any chance I get but not really in a scheduled manner and this has led me to prayerfully enquire whether that approach is flawed.

    All this to say… I enjoyed this. Thank you for sharing yourself so openly and candidly. Your work is important and your vulnerability is too.

    Liked by 1 person

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