I’m not known to rely on routines. My life can be described as “chaotic” on a good day, but more often, I’d call it “messy.” But one thing I’ve stuck with is writing a recap of the year at the end of every December. Just went back to my LiveJournal to see when I started doing it and found the earliest annual post in 2008.
I skipped only 2 years – 2012 and 2022.
2012 was not a good year for me, but I don’t think it was the reason I didn’t write a recap of it.
2022 was just a garbage dumpster fire of a year, and I couldn’t bring myself to write anything even remotely reflective about it.
While 2023 brought even more darkness to the world, this time around, I feel the need to note down some things about this year. And while there is so much to be said about the darkness, I want to try not to talk about it today.
So here we go, 2023.
In 2021, I described my journey of coming to terms with the realization that I have ADHD. Two years later, I’m still working through how much it impacts my life and the way I show up to others and to myself.
One of the underlying peculiarities of ADHD is the “leaky bucket” of dopamine in my brain. It causes a feeling of chronic boredom & being underwhelmed, and, therefore, my never-ending attempts to counteract it with intense stimulation. For some people, this dopamine-inducing intense stimulation can be traveling, shopping, partying with friends, new hobbies every week, or adrenaline-heavy adventures.
For me, it’s work.
Work evokes my hyperfocus and, on good days, stimulates continuous production of dopamine in my brain. While it sounds great and very beneficial for my career, it also brings some challenges.
Together with hyperfocus and high stimulation, easily comes a feeling of being overwhelmed. I can’t fully regulate the level of my efforts. I either give my all and more, or I just can’t work. All or nothing.
It sounds grotesque and exaggerated, but it’s actually true. Once switched on, my hyperactive brain rarely switches off work: I think about it in the evening and during the night. It takes me days to get into “vacation mode” when I go on leave, and it’s not something I can voluntarily control. As exhausting and overwhelming as it is, it also somewhat expands my workload capacity and the mind space I have for work challenges.
At the same time, there are lots of days when I can’t make my brain switch on as it hits a wall of dopamine hunger – then producing any output takes every bit of my willpower. And when I say “willpower,” I mean berating myself for how lazy and inefficient I am and being extremely anxious about all the things that are not getting looked at or done.
As long as I have bills to pay, I can’t afford for my job to not be stimulating. I had to switch out of my specialty (Consumer Insights) to a much broader space of commercial marketing because I could feel boredom coming, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue being stimulated by Insights for 30 more years. I needed to keep my options open.
While I want some vertical growth, my focus is not to get promoted but to keep progressing through different roles and be trusted to do different things – so I’m able to switch it up and constantly preserve the level of stimulation which comes mostly from novelty, challenge, and personal interest.
Staying put in the same role for too long is my kryptonite because, as time goes on, level of stimulation the role offers inadvertently goes down. At some point, I’m no longer able to counteract being chronically underwhelmed and dopamine hungry, and therefore, producing output causes more & more internal self-berating and anxiety. In small doses, it’s bearable, but in the long term, it’s very self-destructive.
All of this is to say that I need to perform. I need to be good at what I do, I need to be seen as good at what I do, and I need to be trusted to have the potential to progress forward. Therefore, I have a lot of internal pressure to meet and exceed expectations.
This pressure, coupled with the inability to switch off, regularly drives me to the deep end of overwhelm and exhaustion.
In 2023, the business I was trusted to lead was not in the best shape. Not to dwell on details, but there were a lot of days and weeks this year that I spent in endless thought loops attempting to figure out what I could do to turn it around. On top of that, I was bombarded by kind reminders that if business doesn’t turn around, it will reflect poorly on me. Even if the root cause of underperformance lies outside of my scope of responsibility. In the same breath, people would say that it’s not only my burden to carry, that I can’t take on myself responsibility of others, and that, ultimately, I need to learn to let it go.
Letting go is an art I haven’t mastered and an act my brain struggles with, even on the best day.
In 2023, I’ve been swimming in a crazy mix of guilt and shame for not performing, for caring too much about it, for coming off too strong or too negative, for not being able to stop trying to control pieces that are not part of my remit while still being expected to influence them positively, for not being able to let it go.
This year, for the first time, I had a team of 6 people I was responsible for. I’ve been blessed with team members who are not only high-performing and extraordinarily talented but also the kindest, brightest humans whom I adore with my whole being. I had peers who were there to support me with advice, listening ears, sympathetic words, and warm hugs.
But I still felt utterly alone with my challenges – mostly because the main ones were coming from the inside and not the outside.
My instinct was to protect my team from the messy pressure cooker as much as I could. And, for better or for worse, I managed to succeed at that. They all worked really hard, but I hope that they didn’t get to experience as much turmoil and pressure from the top as I did. According to some, I’ve overdone it, and it’s probably a fair assessment, but I think this year it was the best course of action, and I stand by my choices. It’s hard to guide and coach others through the uncertainty and challenges you have no idea how to solve yourself first.
I’ve struggled to let go in fear of letting people down. I’ve struggled to let others try & fail in fear of them letting me down.
The business has been slowly but surely turning around. 2023 Exit numbers are looking great. I have no idea if I had any impact on it. I prefer to think that I did, but on low days, I think that it probably would’ve turned around without me just due to the evolving nature of a challenge we were faced with.
It’s been a relentless year, and I survived. My team thrived. I learned a lot. I have enough to be grateful for.
Beyond work, this year was full of good change. We moved to the UK, rented a beautiful house on Princess Avenue in royal Windsor, bought a perfectly orange hybrid car, created a full garden I didn’t know I wanted. I found a great PT and managed to get to a rhythm of exercising 2 times a week, came back to swimming, and restored my love for it. I developed new friendships with people in the UK and kept some precious relationships with people I’ve had in my life for a while. I play Wordle every day and try to sleep better. Didn’t even come close to managing my nutrition – as I know that my capacity to take control over things in my life is quite limited.
In my pursuit to fight feeling chronically underwhelmed, I almost always end up being overwhelmed. More than anything, I’d like to be just… whelmed. But it’s not even a word, so I think this state of mind doesn’t exist.
This December marks 10 years of being in therapy for me. When I think about where I started back in 2013, I feel an immense sense of pride, joy, and gratitude. I’ve done so much work, I’ve evolved, I’ve become happier and healthier. No words will be enough to describe this journey, but I’m so grateful that I had the strength to start it and then stick with it through all the highs & lows.
The last few years have been so dark, and 2024 doesn’t promise to be that much brighter. But we all can hope that light will prevail, and all I can do is to try to be good – to others and to myself.
Maybe that will be enough.