ADHD and My Adventures in the USA – Part One.

Newsflash – I just got diagnosed with ADHD. Formally, officially and by a real-deal psychiatrist. That’s a sentence I didn’t ever predict I’d be saying, but I’m not sad about it in any way at all. In fact, it makes me happy. Neurodiversity is just another string to my bow and an opportunity to open another door to being self aware on the path to being a better me. I believe it can be the same for anyone, young or old, who find themselves with a similar diagnosis. So let me take you on the journey from my meltdown in a field in rural Oregon this summer (2021), to an ADHD diagnosis by a psychiatrist in late October of this same year. 

I’ve always been slightly ‘unusual’, but this piece of writing isn’t about. The quirks and symptoms I’ve enjoyed, masked or suppressed all my life need an article of their own, and they shall get it very soon. This piece however, is to express what happened in the process leading up to diagnosis. That’s what people are asking me about on my socials and in person, so if it helps someone then I want to share it!

I made big plans for Summer 2021

I’m a doer. A go-getter and an ideas generator. When I imagine a grand plan then I don’t really see any reason or obstacle big enough to stop me achieving it so I forge forward. Much like I did this summer when I planned to hike the Continental Divide Trail.

In fact, if you were receiving this newsletter then you’d have read all about my planning and what the trail was going to be like!

I was determined, and doubly so after my 2020 plans of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and the AT (Te Araroa) had been dashed. I was going to go all in, and hard, on the CDT. 

Map showing the CDT through the USA

The adventure begins

A Priest giving blessings in Tulum, Mexico

Packing, planning and prepping. Not enough as it turns out – I was chronically out of shape after lockdown and my wishful thinking wasn’t going to be enough to improve my cardiovascular fitness, but no matter. I was going anyway. So determined to get there that I happily sucked up the 14 day quarantine in Mexico before the USA would let me across the border.

It was an expensive sojourn and I didn’t really enjoy it. Tulum was my base, which was probably stunning even just 10 years before. Now it was a place full of construction. Lined with gated, rich villas keeping regular folks away from the shoreline, shrouded in unbelievable humidity.

I was desperate to keep up my meagre exercise regime but the streets were cluttered and the damp heat incredible. Most of my time was therefore spent fighting a migraine in the AC and feeling a bit pathetic. My focus (or hyper focus) was the end goal though.

It had been 18 months in the planning and I was going to hike that dang CDT. Not long now.

From Mexican quarantine to the USA

After my 14 days were up I hustled to the airport. It didn’t work out as planned but more on that in another blog (which I’ll link here when it’s done!). I was refused boarding and shelled out for more accomodation. I rebooked my planes and waited until I could get into the US. When I finally arrived, all my ongoing plans needed to be reshuffled. This included more planes, trains and the friends I was meeting in Glacier National Park. It was chaos, but I was still hyper focused on the goal. THE CDT.

My anxiety and stress were high, but all part and parcel of the rollercoaster of reshuffled plans. I lived in this space a lot. Always making huge ambitions plans to connect across the globe with multiple people and adventures at once. It usually always worked out! I believed in the idea that if you throw yourself at something, the ground will rise to catch you. Or, as John Burroughs famously said much better than I, ‘Leap, and the net will appear’! 

Appear it did, in the form of trail angels who helped me get where I needed to be: the Amtrak station with all my belongings. Off I went through the night on the train. We traversed the roof of the USA where it meets Canada, arriving in Glacier National Park the next morning. I met my friends, and together we took our ride to the border and began our journey.

Gail and her trail angels Kellie and Iris in Seattle

On the CDT

I’ll go into specific details about the CDT in a different blog. Suffice to say it was INCREDIBLE. But hard. Very hard, and with folks who were fitter and more rested and ready than I. My body and mind had been through a lot the preceding weeks – anxiety, migraines, jetlag, humidity and stress. Now I was throwing 20 mile days, high temps and higher altitude at it too. At a fast pace. I loved the beauty, the hiking, the people and the places but somehow I wasn’t loving the whole package together.

Something felt off. I couldn’t get my body and mind together and I couldn’t keep up or focus on the tasks at hand. I was exhausted easily and had a really bad tummy issue that I’d picked up in Mexico. Perhaps it was giardia – I never found out. I kept forgetting things, couldn’t sleep and wasn’t having nearly as much fun as I’d hoped. I was crashing, but hadn’t realised it yet. 

Knowing when to stop?

After nearly 4 weeks of continuous hiking I knew I needed to stop. Unusually for me I listened to myself and did stop. Of course I beat myself up for it, but I couldn’t go on.

My feet were a mess and my body hurt, but those things were familiar. What I couldn’t seem to cope with was my mind. I was emotional, tearful, scattered and distracted. I kept losing things, couldn’t pack properly each day and struggled to organise what to buy for resupply.

In supermarkets I watched what other people bought to be reminded of what I needed, like a kid cheating on a test. I wasn’t sure what was up, but I knew I needed a bit of time to sort it out.

So off I came, and then began the next brilliant but absolutely bonkers chapter. I hitchhiked across the state with a hiking friend. I rode on the back of a Harley Davidson, got taught to shoot handguns out in the plains by two ex-marines and drank beers in a cowboy bar with horses tied up outside.

That was just in Montana!  

From one adventure to ten more…

Then rode the trains again, stayed with my trail angel families in Seattle, got on a 3 day passenger ferry to Alaska and pitched my tent on the top deck and slept under my flysheet as we cruised through silent passages up to the snowy wilds of the last frontier. Alaska brought me new friends. We travelled up to Denali, saw that stunning mountain peak in a rare break in the cloud and watched as grizzlies and their cubs picked berries close by, in awe of it all.

I was riding high and fierce on the constant impulsive decision making with no one and nothing to stop me. I was blowing my savings for the CDT on these incredible experiences and just saying YES to everything. In fact, I was ASKING for more things to say yes too. I didn’t think ahead to what would happen when the adrenaline and endorphins ran out. But run out they did. 

After impulsively saying yes to about 50 new things across the West Coast of the US and beyond, I planned them all in a tightly ordered schedule and flew back to Seattle to pick up a hire car. I hugged my Seattle trail angel family (who I love and could never have achieved any of this without) and set off in my car to whatever the heck I thought I was going to do next. Spoiler alert: whatever I thought I was going to do, it didn’t ultimately happen that way. I just drove.

No particular place to go…

I drove below Seattle and out to the west coast of Washington. It wasn’t as I’d imagined. It was quiet. There were few people around to chat to, and nothing much going on wherever I went. I was just a person driving a car, not hiking. No reason to talk to strangers and make friends in a way that comes so easily on or around trails and the great outdoors. SO I drove down the coast. 

Things unravel further

I didn’t have anywhere to stay, and all the accomodation along the beaches and seaside towns were booked – I hadn’t thought about that before I went, determined to wing it and be impulsive.

I realised I needed to stay somewhere – I didn’t want to sleep in my hire car in a Walmart parking lot if I could help it. So I discovered Hipcamp, an app like Airbnb but for people’s land.

I spent a few nights in a meadow with ducks and goats on one couple’s farm, another by a river, but then in the end, after driving aimlessly around for a few more days, I hit a wall. It was a glamorous wall in my mind as I’d just seen the house that the Goonies was filmed in on the Oregon coast, but as I drove back inland from there, with 5 weeks stretching ahead of me filled with 100 plans I felt desperate and compelled to make but with no fuel in my tanks to get myself to do them, I began to crumble. 

I was heading for a crash far from home

I’ve done similar things before in my life but not on quite the same scale. Usually my overfilled diary and impulsive adventures either magically pay off and work out. That, or I’m surrounded by familiar faces and locations to rest up and recover when they don’t (which is luckily rare!). But this was different. I was totally alone.

I had isolated myself from any familiar places or people, in a car miles from anywhere I knew, heading to a field belonging to people I didn’t know to sleep by my car on a patch of dirt in the middle of fire warnings and drought… and I had no real idea why or what I was doing. I’d let me impulsivity push me so far and hard, and really enjoyed it, that I was now further out on a limb than I’d ever been before and the wheels were about to come off.  

I got to the field, I got my tent and I sat in it. Then I cried. And I continued to cry all night.

I put up some stories on Instagram because I needed to share what was in my head and I didn’t have anyone with me to speak to – everyone in the UK was fast asleep and I was all alone.

The responses to those stories stay with me today as some of the kindest and most loving words I could have hoped to receive. And amongst them were comments that led to me to where I am right now – diagnosed and with a whole new understanding of myself.

The penny dropped

People mentioned perimenopause, they mentioned impulsivity, they mentioned rest and recovery and taking time for me, and they also mentioned ADHD. I had considered it briefly in the recent past when a friend had suggested it to me, but I’d brushed it off. Me? I who work with neurodiverse kids all the time? No, surely I’d know. But I didn’t. I didn’t pick it up until others reflected my patterns of behaviour back to me and allowed me to see it with gentle kindness. 

The next pivot would lead me back home

So in that field through the night when I couldn’t sleep I read. I read and researched and learned. As the sun rose, with puffy eyes and a fuzzy brain, I knew that my behaviours weren’t entirely my fault. I realised that I was likely being powered by a very dopamine hungry engine that needed stimulation constantly. It was what had brought me here – a field in the middle of nowhere in Oregon. It was why I was alone with 50 million plans and not a single iota of energy left to do them. I realised it was time to go home.

In my next post I’ll detail the drama of getting back to the UK, how I sought advice and the steps I took to finally receive my diagnosis.

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