Sometimes a cat photo helps everything make sense…
“You have time to tweet a cat photo, so in my mind you have the time to answer our questions,” She said.
I thought I was incompetent. That I should respond quicker. That I had somehow failed. That I would never be a good journalist. What I didn’t know is I hadn’t failed or let anyone down, the cat photo was by no means a fair comparison, or indicative of anything other than that I thought Twitter could do with another cat pic.
A few years ago, I finished uni for the third time, and was on the brink of going into business with friends who I had graduated with. We were good at what we did, writing was our thing and were able to create a magazine that everyone we told were impressed by. We thought our concept could really go somewhere, we even passed a prestigious enterprise pitch to prove it. Except there was one problem, my new colleagues were concerned about my commitment to the brand because I had supposedly “ignored” messages. I loved writing and adored our magazine’s ethos, but this wasn’t enough.
When challenged about my tweets one day versus my lack of responses to their Facebook messages, I felt defeated. That it was my fault, “why couldn’t I just reply faster?” “Why did I forget they had sent that message?” “Why was I feeling so overwhelmed by group chats?””Why couldn’t I keep up? Everyone else can.” I felt deflated. They eventually told me to leave the magazine, we were setting up together as a social enterprise. Demonstrating “lack of commitment” by “ignoring messages” was cited as a reason for them not wanting to work with me anymore. I haven’t done any journalism since.
The cat photo required less energy than any lengthy Facebook messenger response, let me explain why. To tweet a cat photo, you normally have to be in the presence of a cat. A cat that is often a distraction from everything else you have to do that day. Assuming the cat is in position, you take out your phone and snap. One click of a button and your cat (or someone else’s) is now on a screen. You then, impulsively (as it doesn’t usually take much thinking or planning) upload and press “send tweet.” Your cat photo is now in full view for all on twitter to enjoy. You’ve probably forgotten about that chore you were about to do or phone call you had to make in the process, but yay! at least twitter has ANOTHER cat photo. You then begin responding to people tweeting you about your cat, so end up down the twitter rabbit hole for another time that day. It is now 3pm. Ugh! you’ve missed lunch. Again!
Now think about replying to a message. What are all the things you have to do? What does your brain have to do? What are you really thinking about? How many things do you have to do whilst deciding what to say? So, you read the message, you understand it requires an answer. So far, so good. We go through an intense process of planning, prioritising, organising and focusing before any reply is actually written. It’s easy to understand the urgency, but understanding and doing are two completely different things. You may see the message, start replying, and then get distracted by literally anything that feels more pressing. You then forget there was even a message to reply to in the first place, or even think that you’ve already replied, until someone reminds you, usually angry that they are still waiting for a response. You get round to it again with this reminder, but don’t have the energy to plan and organise a response. You have no problems with writing, and often beat yourself up as “this shouldn’t be something you should struggle with” but what you lack is the focus. And this lack of focus is exhausting. Motivation often comes with an immediate deadline, often with consequences. “Tell us now or we don’t want to work with you again,” or “Well you managed that cat tweet earlier, we know your priorities.” Except tweeting about cats requires an entirely different set of executive functions and energy, than this response, a response that sometimes we didn’t even know was needed because it had been forgotten. We are not lazy, or unmotivated or lacking commitment as you assume. We are not a bad friend or colleague because we don’t reply to a message as quick as you’d like. We are overwhelmed. Overwhelmed that our brain doesn’t work as quick as we’d like. That intentions are very different to actions. And proving that we are motivated is exhausting. So we didn’t “ignore” you, our brain was just distracted by a different task. And that’s more than okay.
What I didn’t understand then, and I understand more now, is that we have a set of executive functions, that help us plan, organise, prioritise, remember and concentrate. And sometimes the messages in our brain telling us to do these things get blocked, and we can’t work out what comes next or how long something will take. Our abilities to carry out these core functions are what many of us use to judge the capabilities and commitment of our friends, family and colleagues. When these functions look more chaotic than yours, we assume laziness, lack of commitment, being uninterested or rude. Everything must be as easy as a cat photo, right?
At the time, I didn’t understand how ADHD can affect women, and that for many it goes undiagnosed, and if at all, diagnosed late. I didn’t see the the relationship between me and something that supposedly affects hyperactive boys. Women and girls often have the inattentive type of ADHD, so there’s not always external hyperactivity or fidgeting to spot, but the internal restlessness and constant thoughts are exhausting. I listened to the comments about my commitment to the business and couldn’t see where I had gone wrong. I could hyper-focus on writing articles for hours, working hard to make the magazine the best it could be. I cared more about making that magazine a success than they ever realised.
I didn’t realise then that I just might have ADHD too, like many women diagnosed before me, and there was a reason I didn’t reply to that message that day.