Shaparak Khorsandi on being diagnosed with ADHD in her 40s

Has it made me creative, or held me back? Shaparak Khorsandi on being diagnosed with ADHD in her 40s

Discovering in my 40s that I have ADHD was a bit like how, I imagine, Tarzan felt when he found out he was a human and not a chimpanzee. For years he must have wondered why he was so different to the other chimps. Why did he have to use rope instead of his arms to swing from the trees? Why did he prefer to eat berries rather than termites and why, no matter how much another chimp shook its arse at him, he didn’t get the horn.

I know how it feels for people around you to think you are not doing things their way just to be annoying. “If only you applied the same focus to swinging from branches as you do to making things with your hands, you wouldn’t be so behind,” his chimp teachers must have said, as he whittled wood to make a cutlery set.

Like so many of us who are diagnosed with our differences as adults, Tarzan must have been frustrated not to be able to do what his peers seemed to find so easy. ADHD affects my executive functions; my brain has lower levels of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine. For me, this has meant having massive problems regulating emotions. My children have seen more of my tantrums than I have of theirs.

A deficiency in my basal ganglia (a part of the brain and not, remarkably, a pasta dish) means that my brain short circuits. It does not communicate effectively with other parts of the brain, which can lead to an utter lack of attention if something isn’t grabbing my interest and shaking it, along with impulsivity, when I can’t always weigh up the pros and cons of painting my ceiling bright pink before I actually do it.

People often console those of us with a late diagnosis, who are looking back at a trail of destruction, by saying “but that’s what makes you creative. It’s what makes you who you are.” I am not always sure about this link. True, a huge percentage of those who make a living in the creative arts have ADHD. But so do a huge percentage of those in prison. No one consoles them by saying brightly, “but it’s what makes you nick cars!”

A study by the psychologists Holly White and Priti Shah from the University of Michigan suggests that the huge number of neurodivergent creatives could be because people with ADHD have “differences in inhibitions”. This may explain how, as a standup, being booed off stage never put me off. It can also explain the time I sang (Hey) Big Spender on a busy bus, completely sober, to annoy someone listening to his music out loud.

So, we are risk takers. Risky behaviour increases dopamine levels. It may be art, it may be shoplifting. I used to draw and write on my bedroom wall as a child and teenager. I also used to shoplift. Although my parents had no clue I had ADHD, they were encouraging of my creativity/vandalism. I realise now how this graffitiing soothed me after a day of sensory overload and masking at school.

When the initial Covid lockdown was announced, the first thing I did was buy a tin of purple paint and put massive purple hearts all over our walls. I am not an artist; the hearts were wonky. But this kind of thing quiets the chaos in my head.

I don’t think it is ADHD itself that makes me creative. If anything, it has held me back. Imagine what I could have achieved if, when I sat down to write, I didn’t suddenly search “where are the cast of La Bamba now?” and not surface again for three hours.

For decades, it was fairly impossible for me to channel my creative flow when inattention and anxieties regularly engulfed me. The relentless message of “she is not working to her full potential” – as a child, teen, young adult and comedian – eroded my self-esteem and exacerbated the debilitating perfectionism which comes with ADHD. I sat, overwhelmed, when producers took me for lunches, unable to verbalise my ideas while my brain scattered in a thousand directions. Anxiety and creativity can trip each other up.

It was in 2021 when I found a psychotherapist who truly understood ADHD that things began to change for me. I learned about rejection sensitive dysphoria (no one enjoys rejection, but when someone doesn’t return your “hello” at work, instead of thinking, “Well, they’ve other things on their mind,” you spend the next few months convinced they want you dead), through which I can better understand my divergent brain.

When we can’t fit into the boxes our work and education system lays out, as ADHD folk often can’t, then we make up rules and forge paths that are risky but make sense to us. This “creativity” is a survival tool and doesn’t diminish the frustration when we are overlooked and unsupported in other areas.

I imagine the other apes thought Tarzan was barmy for setting up improvised jungle dance workshops instead of hunting colobus monkeys or checking his cousin for nits, but this kind of creativity over practicality made perfect sense to Tarzan. And to me.

Scatter Brain: How I finally got off the ADHD rollercoaster and became the owner of a very tidy sock drawer by Shaparak Khorsandi at The Sub Rooms on Sunday 29th September at 8pm. 

Get tickets here.