My Frenetic, Messy, Exhausting, Neurodivergent Mind: TikTok Told Me I Have ADHD

A video-sharing app uncovered what umpteen mental health professionals could not: that I have ADHD.

Emma Frankart Henterly
Columbus Monthly
TikTok's algorithm seemingly identifies a user's sense of humor, political leanings and hobbies within the first few videos. For Emma Frankart Henterly, and many others, it also identified her ADHD.

I was 3 years old the first time my mom took me in for a mental health assessment. She wasn’t sure what to make of my constant, seemingly unconscious finger-tapping—thumb to forefinger, thumb to middle finger, thumb to ring finger, thumb to pinkie and back in reverse order, over and over again, both hands dancing a silent ballet at my sides while I watched TV or told a story. 

“Is it OCD?” she asked my pediatrician. 

No, he replied confidently. Probably just a nervous habit that she’ll grow out of. It was the early ’90s; mental illness was something adults struggled with, not children. Certainly not toddlers. 

Or so we thought. 

It wasn’t until late last year, nearly three decades later, that a therapist confirmed what I’d suspected for a few months: I probably have been struggling against ADHD my entire life. 

The news was both expected and earth-shattering. What I’d previously thought were quirks of my personality—perfectionism, impulsivity, emotional outbursts, an always-messy desk or room or car, constantly misplacing things and running into furniture or doorways, a tendency to start talking mid-thought or out of turn, fidgeting, procrastination, forgetting common words midsentence—all of these, she said, were manifestations of untreated ADHD. 

As she read the screening questions, I burst into hysterical laughter, tears and all. I realized that this is who I am. This is who I’ve always been. And this is probably why my mental health has always been poor. It was horrifying, and it was reassuring. 

But it was not the therapist who first suggested I might have ADHD. That discovery I owe to TikTok. 

Like many others, pandemic boredom drove me to download the app last year. It is popular in part because of its fantastic algorithm, which is adept at predicting what kind of content a user will enjoy and then serving it to them in 15-to-180-second clips. Within a few weeks, it had figured out my sense of humor, my political leanings, my pandemic hobbies and even my sexuality. 

Then the app began serving me surprisingly insightful videos with silly titles like “ADHD Things That I Didn’t Know Were ADHD Things Part 3” and “Part 5 of Something That Blew My Mind When I Found Out it Was an ADHD Thing on TikTok.” Initially, I wrote the videos off. But the more they appeared on my “For You” page, the more I saw myself in them. They detailed things I did, or couldn’t do, or struggled with. It wasn’t long before I began to wonder whether I, like the videos’ creators, have ADHD. 

At its core, ADHD—attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—is an impairment of executive functions, which include analysis, planning, organization, time management, focus, emotional regulation and more. Executive dysfunction due to ADHD can manifest as messy spaces, chronic lateness, procrastination, moody outbursts. For me, it feels like an invisible concrete wall in my path. I can see the task I want to complete—washing the dishes, for example—on the other side, but it’s as inaccessible to me as if it were locked in a bunker. 

All my life, I’ve experienced symptoms of ADHD, which often exist outside the stereotypical presentation of “young boy who can’t sit still.” In females, hyperactivity is often mental, not physical. Instead of bodies that race around a classroom, we have thoughts that race around our minds. 

It only recently occurred to me that some people experience silence in their heads—that the constant, low hum of words streaming through my brain is atypical. The words themselves vary; sometimes I’m narrating action around me or mentally drafting a story or a poem. Often it’s snippets of songs playing on constant loop. When I drift off to sleep, it’s to a waterfall of mental gibberish, a word salad tossing around in my brain. 

And that’s just one internal example. I could list a million other external traits that should have tipped off past health care providers that I am neurodivergent—that my brain doesn’t work the same way as everyone else’s neurotypical brains. 

I know now that I was a “twice-exceptional” child—a term that started popping up in the 1990s to describe students who are gifted but also have a learning or physical disability, a speech or behavioral disorder, or a neurodiversity such as ADHD or autism. The two words teachers used to describe me most often were “bright” and “talkative.” I was prone to hyperfixation, devouring one book after another at lightning speed and burning through hobbies, letting each new one consume me before getting bored. But my academic success kept me under the radar while other students received assessments for their more obvious differences. 

Talking to mental health professionals as an adult, I discussed those traits and lamented my impulsivity and lack of self-control. I worried that maybe I was addicted to shopping. I complained about how I start projects at the last minute and go crazy trying to make them perfect, and how easily I get overwhelmed and shut down. I spoke often about how I’m never just happy or sad, but rather elated or devastated. And I vented about the pressure of keeping up appearances in professional settings. I’m very good at masking—making my struggles invisible so I appear high-functioning to those around me—and it’s exhausting. 

Today, the signs seem so obvious that I can’t help but be frustrated at a system that, for decades, failed me. Some of my past diagnoses—depression, anxiety, PTSD—weren’t wrong, but they weren’t complete. Part of that is because ADHD can exist alongside, or even cause, other mental health issues. 

The American mental health system has been failing people—particularly women—for much longer than my lifetime. (Google “female hysteria” for just one poignant example.) It’s only recently that the different ways females experience ADHD are being recognized. Young girls with ADHD symptoms often are written off as simply “chatty” or “a daydreamer,” and adult women with ADHD often are misdiagnosed as having anxiety or depression—assessments I am all too familiar with. 

I’ve spent the last 20 years both masking my mental health struggles and trying to learn about them. I’ve been diagnosed—and misdiagnosed—by pediatricians, therapists, psychiatrists and primary care physicians. I’ve tried several different therapies and medications. And every time, the “solution” I found had a fatal flaw: either it didn’t work, or it worked but had intolerable side effects, or it worked for a while but then stopped. 

Once I had an official ADHD diagnosis, I began working with my psychiatrist to create a new treatment plan. I knew I wanted to avoid stimulant medications, which are prescribed to a majority of ADHD patients, because they are amphetamine-based and carry a risk for abuse. With a family history of addiction, I wasn’t taking the chance. 

On a chemical level, ADHD is related to the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, though serotonin may also be a factor. That may be why the medications I’ve used in the past seemed to help. They were selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which help serotonin stay in the brain longer so it can do its job better. But those medications never fully solved my problems, because they didn’t address my norepinephrine imbalances. 

We settled on a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, which increases levels of norepinephrine, not serotonin, in the brain. And I found a new therapist who specializes in neurodiversity; together we’re navigating what it means to be an adult woman with ADHD. 

As I’m writing this, I’ve been on my new medication for about four weeks, and I am noticing a difference. I no longer feel paralyzed by simple but unexpected tasks. The weekend I was writing this essay, I noticed crumbs in the bottom of my silverware drawer. Before, I would have ignored them until my next hyperfocus-induced cleaning spree, but instead I walked right through that invisible concrete wall, grabbed a paper towel, and wiped out the drawer. Then, instead of spending the next several hours scrubbing the nooks and crannies of the kitchen, I simply returned to unloading the dishwasher. 

This win may sound trivial to a neurotypical person, but to me it was revelatory. It’s what content creators talk about in their “how ADHD medication changed me” TikToks. It meant my medication was working. It was the first time in years, maybe in my whole life, that I had concrete proof of improvement. 

The pandemic derailed me in a way that I’m still not fully recovered from. But it also presented a painful kind of opportunity. Armed with a diagnosis I didn’t know I’d been waiting for, I started learning about how a neurodivergent brain—my brain—functions. 

Let me be clear: This is not a silver lining story. There is no neatly tied bow at the end. I’m still very much in all of this, and there’s no guarantee that I will ever get out of it. 

Rather, this story is about how hard it can be to recognize and understand neurodiversity, and how an online community helped me—and probably many others like me. TikTok’s algorithm did something that half a lifetime of mental health care couldn’t: It recognized something in me, and its content creators showed me that my experiences are shared, and that perhaps the cause of my struggles was something I’d not yet considered. 

My new therapist says that diagnosis is the tool we use to understand the brain process. It helps us describe the problem, and from there we can find more ways to deal with it. 

A diagnosis isn’t a solution. But it can at least be a map.

This story is from the August 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.