TED Talks | Failing at Normal: An ADHD Success Story

This is what it’s really like to live with ADHD

“You are not a fail version of normal”

At 32, Jessica McCabe’s ADHD brought her to the darkest point of her life thus far. At 34, she was thriving both personally and professionally, producing a successful Youtube channel about living with ADHD. In this deeply personal talk, Jessica describes how she turned things around through community and education.


Jessica McCabe tells the story of her life. Once a gifted child with bright future, who later lives a life of a constant failures, because one thing – her ADHD diagnosis. Until one thing changed everything and she realized, that she is not alone. Her Youtube channel HowtoADHD is dedicated to help not only people with ADHD, but also their parents, partners a teachers and to remind them, that they are not alone.


Jessica is the author of popular YouTube series How to ADHD focused on educating and supporting ADHD brains around the world. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx

Hello, brains! I say that to you because, if you think about it, it wasn’t really you that decided to come here today. It was your brain. And whether you decided to walk, or drive, take a taxi, or ride a bike, that decision was made by your brain. Behavior, all behavior, is affected by the brain. This is a story about my brain. So, I was a smart kid. By 18 months, I was speaking in full sentences. By third grade, I was scoring post-high school on standardized tests. I had, as all my teachers agreed, so much potential. I was also struggling. I didn’t have many, any, friends outside of books. I was easily overwhelmed. I spaced out in class. I lost things constantly. And trying to get my brain to focus on anything I wasn’t excited about was like trying to nail jello to the wall. But I was smart, so nobody was worried. It wasn’t until middle school, when I was responsible for getting myself to classes on time and remembering to bring my own homework, that being smart wasn’t enough anymore, and my grades started to suffer. My mom took me to the doctor and, after a comprehensive evaluation, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. If you’re not familiar with ADHD, it has three primary characteristics: inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Some people with ADHD have more of the inattentive presentation. Those are the daydreamers, the space cadets. Some have more of the hyperactive-impulsive presentation. Those are the kids that usually get diagnosed early. (Laughter) But the most common presentation is a combination of both. (Laughter) My doctor and my parents decided that, given my shiny, new diagnosis, maybe stimulant medication would succeed where spankings and lectures had failed. So I tried it, and it worked. The first time I took my medication, it was like putting on glasses and realizing I could see without squinting. I could focus. And without changing anything, my GPA went up a full point. Honestly, it was kind of miraculous. By 14, I had friends that liked me. By 15, I had published my first poem. I got a boyfriend. By 17, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. My local college had a program that would guarantee admission to USC. They had a really great journalism program. So, I signed up at my local college and I started taking classes. I moved in with my boyfriend. Things were going great, until they weren’t. I started having trouble making it to class on time. I aced a statistics course, but I forgot to sign up in time, so I never got the credit. I took classes so I could help my boyfriend with his career, but I completely lost sight of mine. I never made it to USC. By 21, I dropped out of college and moved back home. Over the next ten years, I started and quit, or was fired from, 15 jobs. I ruined my credit. I got married, and was divorced within a year. At this point, I was 32, and I had no idea what I was doing with my life, besides reading self-help books that didn’t seem to be helping. What happened to all that potential? Was I not trying? No! I worked harder than anyone I knew. I didn’t even have time for friends. I was that busy. I had potential, though. So, my failure was clearly my fault. I just hadn’t done what I need to do to reach it, and, honestly, I was tired of trying, putting more effort into life than everyone else and falling farther and farther behind. At this point, I could have given up on myself, I could have decided that everyone who’d thought I had potential was wrong. But I didn’t, because I knew that it was my behavior that had gotten me here, and behavior is affected by the brain, and my brain has ADHD. Looking at my behavior, I knew: even with medication, even as an adult, my ADHD was still interfering with my life, and what I needed to know was how and why, and, more importantly, what could I do about it. I started to do some research, and I found a lot of great information. I found a lot of bad information too, but that’s another talk. But there’s good information out there. Websites, podcasts, talks, by researchers and medical professionals; books that would have been way more helpful than the self-help books I’d been using that were clearly written for normal – well, there’s no normal – neurotypical brains. A lot of what I found, though, was either super technical or seemed like it was written for parents and teachers trying to deal with ADHD kids. There wasn’t a lot that seemed intended for us, the people who have ADHD. So, I started a YouTube channel. I had no idea how to start a YouTube channel, but I started a YouTube channel. I almost called it “How Not To ADHD,” because that was about all I knew at the time. But my boyfriend, Edward, talked me out of it. It turns out lots of people need help understanding ADHD, including, maybe especially, those who actually have it. I was no exception. I thought ADHD was kind of the same for everybody. I thought it was mostly about getting distracted. I thought having ADHD was maybe the reason that I was failing at life. And I thought I was what needed to change, in order to be successful. I couldn’t be successful and still be me. Spoilers: I was wrong. So, let’s go back for a second, let’s go back to what brought us here today: the brain. Understanding the brain you’re working with, it turns out, is kind of important, and that’s true whether that brain is your employee’s, your student’s, your kid’s, your significant other’s, or your own. ADHD affects between 5 and 8% of the global population, which means, statistically speaking, there’s between 37 and 60 of us just in this room. You can’t tell who we are just by looking, but it’s fun to watch you try. (Laughter) So, at some point, you’re going to meet someone with ADHD, work with them, give birth to them, or fall in love with them. Chances are you already have. And, at some point, you’re going to ask yourself, “What is going on in their brain?!” So, after two years of learning about ADHD and a lifetime of experience with it, after having the honor of connecting with researchers, and doctors, and ADHD experts, and tens of thousands of ADHD brains all over the world, what can I tell you to help you understand ADHD? By the way, many of them helped with this talk. First of all, it’s real. It’s not bad parenting or lack of discipline. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It’s currently the most well-researched mental condition, and there are actually measurable differences in the brain. These differences are larger in children, but, for most people, they never go away. In other words, adults have ADHD too. While rates of ADHD diagnosis are increasing, it’s not because of an increase in sugar or technology, or lack of spanking; it’s not, any more than people drowning in swimming pools is because of Nicolas Cage. Correlation does not equal causation. Those are real numbers. (Laughter) It’s from both an increase in understanding that ADHD exists, that girls, adults, and gifted students can have it too, and ironically a lack of understanding that being hyper, misbehaving, or struggling in school does not mean you have ADHD. ADHD is more serious than I realized. The primary characteristics – inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity – don’t sound all that serious, and I didn’t think that they were, but, in real life, they translate to people getting into more accidents, being more likely to get fired, get divorced, significantly more likely to struggle with addiction. I learned that ADHD is on a spectrum. Raise your hand if you’ve ever lost your keys, or spaced out in the middle of a lecture. If you’re not raising your hand, I’m going to assume you spaced out in the middle of this one. (Laughter) The thing is, while everyone experiences ADHD symptoms sometimes, an actual diagnosis is based on how many of those symptoms significantly and chronically impair multiple aspects of your life. Just like you can get sad and not have depression, you can get distracted and not have ADHD. And just like you can have mild depression or severe depression, ADHD can range from mild to severe. I also learned ADHD is a terrible name for ADHD. It creates a lot of confusion. We don’t have a deficit of attention! What we have trouble with is regulating our attention. As ADHD coach Brett Thornhill puts it, it’s like your brain keeps switching between 30 different channels and somebody else has the remote. Sometimes we have trouble focusing at all, and other times we get stuck on a channel and can’t pull ourselves away, which in real life might seem we don’t want to do homework because we’d rather play video games, and short, sometimes that’s the case. But the truth is there are plenty of times we want to able to focus, we try, and we just can’t. Current understanding is that this difficulty has to do with the way our brains produce and metabolize neurotransmitters, like dopamine and norepinephrine. I learned ADHD is highly treatable. Stimulant medication boosts these neurotransmitters, which is why it helps us focus. It’s very effective for around 80% of people with ADHD. And I learned that medication isn’t enough. ADHD affects much more than our focus. It impairs executive functions like planning, prioritizing, and our ability to sustain effort toward a goal. It affects our ability to regulate our emotions, our behavior, our sleep. It’s not one program in our brain that works differently; it’s the whole operating system. It can affect every aspect of our lives. And there are a ton of strategies out there that can help. Cognitive behavioral therapy, coaching, even meditation or regular exercise can help make a huge difference understanding your brain. I knew I had trouble focusing, and I knew my medication helped with that. What I didn’t know was that getting overwhelmed all the time had to do with poor working memory, and that making lists helps; or that the reason I ran late all the time wasn’t because I didn’t care, it’s because ADHD’ers have a skewed sense of time, and that using a timer could teach me how long things actually take. Mostly, I expected to learn what I actually learned: that ADHD is real; addressing it is important; and medication is not enough. What I didn’t expect to learn: that I wasn’t alone; I had an ADHD tribe; what a difference it would make to connect with it. There are people with ADHD in every country, every culture across the globe. Yes, even in France. (Laughter) And this tribe is awesome. Comparing myself to people with neurotypical brains, I felt really bad about myself. Why couldn’t I keep my house clean or finish a project in time, instead of waiting till the very last second? But seeing the positives in fellow ADHD brains helped me recognize and appreciate my own strengths, ones I couldn’t see when I was just staring at my weaknesses, which is what I’d been doing for decades. But ADHD brains have a lot to offer the world. We tend to be generous, funny, creative. ADHD’ers are 300% more likely to start their own business. We not only think outside the box; we’re often not even aware that there is a box. (Laughter) We may struggle when our brains aren’t engaged, but ADHD brains are great at tackling tasks that are urgent, working with ideas that are new, wrestling with problems that are challenging, and dedicating themselves to projects that are of personal interest. This YouTube career I’d stumbled into was all of those things. At 32, I was divorced, miserable, and had no idea what I was doing with my life. At 33, I’d started my own business, and was connecting with ADHD experts. By now, at 34, I have a team of volunteers helping with the channel. I’m engaged to this amazing man who helps me produce the channel, works right alongside with me, is doing the slides right now – and, as we discovered, also has ADHD. (Laughter) I’m working on reaching out to schools so that kids don’t have to wait until they’re 32 to learn about their brains. And I’m doing my very first TEDx talk here with you today. (Cheers) (Applause) But wait! There’s more! Wait. (Applause) That did sound like the end of the speech. I’m sorry, it’s not. (Laughter) I’m happier and more successful than I’ve ever been in my life. So, what happened? How did I reach my potential? Three things: one, I learned about my brain, my ADHD brain, both on my own and by connecting with others who have it. If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid, unless it happens to chat with another fish and realizes fish aren’t great at climbing trees, and that’s okay, there’s plenty of ocean. Two, in learning about my brain, I found and stumbled into a job that engages it. If you spend all your time trying to get a fish to able to climb a tree, you’ll never see how far it can swim. It turns out I can be me and still be successful. I just had to find my ocean. Three, I learned strategies for challenges I still face. I have no fish analogy for this one, I’m sorry. (Laughter) I guess I learned how to swim. Once you know what your brain’s challenges are, you can find solutions to them. Once you look past the stereotypes and assumptions about people with ADHD, and dig deeper, you learn what ADHD actually is. It’s not people who won’t stop fidgeting, or getting distracted. It is brains that are chronically underaroused, trying to get the basic level of stimulation all brains need. It’s not about procrastinating or not caring. It’s having executive function deficits that make it hard to get started. And it’s not people being lazy or not trying enough. It’s kids and adults struggling to succeed with a brain that doesn’t always want to cooperate in a society that wasn’t built for them. Society is our user’s manual. We learn how our brains and bodies work by watching those around us. And, when yours works differently, it can feel like you’re broken. So, what I’m trying to do is reach out to these people wherever they are in the world, and tell them, “You are not weird. You are not stupid. You do not need to try harder. You are not a failed version of normal. You are different, you are beautiful, and you are not alone.” If you don’t ADHD yourself, chances are you know somebody who does. They’re your employee, your boss, your friend, they’re in this room. I hope this talk helps you understand them better. If you do have ADHD, welcome to the tribe. (Applause) (Cheers)


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