TW/CW: This episode includes brief discussion of suicidal ideation.
Dani Donovan is a purpose-driven designer who creates cathartic ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) illustrations and a community of validation and solidarity for adults living with ADHD. Her first infographic, “ADHD Storytelling,” went viral within hours and amassed over 100 million views. Her work has been reposted by celebrities like Mindy Kaling and featured in publications like the BBC. In a few short months, Dani’s relatable comics and her #NeurodiverseSquad hashtag helped her quickly become a prominent voice in the online mental health community. Her comics, jokes, Twitter threads, and TikTok videos aim to help those with ADHD understand themselves, feel a sense of belonging, and better explain their invisible struggle to loved ones. Dani’s influence has helped hundreds of people seek diagnosis and treatment for ADHD. She recently left her full-time job to create ADHD content full-time; you can support her work at patreon.com/danidonovan or view comics (and her online shop!) at ADHDDD.com.
Tune in as Dani shares:
- that she also lives with bipolar II and undiagnosed EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome)
- why “annoying” is a trigger word for her
- that she was initially diagnosed with depression; then subsequently dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder), anxiety, and panic disorders
- how her ADHD presented very differently from the way it did among boys her age, which made her fall under the radar of diagnosis until she was in college
- how ADHD affects her daily executive functions and impulsivity
- how her behavior doesn’t always align with her expectations, and leads to a cycle of guilt and shame
- how avoidance plays into ADHD symptom manifestation, and can become debilitating
- how ADHD and OCD can occur concurrently
- how her ADHD impacts continuity of care within the medical system
- “ADHD tax” — when those living with ADHD end up paying more than others because the system is stacked against their success
- why forming new habits is tremendously difficult for those living with ADHD
- how her art allows her to communicate her experience with purpose
- how her work has changed lives — and why that gives her ongoing purpose
- why social media has been such a rich resource for her
- her advice for living with ADHD and neurodiversity
Lauren: All right, guys, thank you so much for joining us. I am here today with Dani Donovan. Dani’s an illustrator and known for her work in ADHD advocacy. She lives with ADHD; she also lives with what looks to be undiagnosed Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. And she lives with bipolar 2. There are few other diagnoses in there, and she’s going to tell us all about it. Dani, thank you so much for joining us on the show today.
Dani: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Lauren: Absolutely. So, I like to start at the beginning of the story. And I would love for you to share with the audience when and how you first realized that you had something going on, both physically and mentally, and how you’ve diagnosed what steps you've taken to get diagnoses and treat your conditions?
Dani: So, I think I’ve always felt different. But I spent a large portion of my life thinking that was my fault somehow. As many people with mental illness can attest to! Especially when you’re a kid in second grade, you’re not like, oh I hate myself … maybe this is depression! Nobody thinks that. I just thought that everybody felt that way. And so from a young age, I felt isolated and alone, sitting by myself at recess, had a hard time making friends. Once I got to about fifth grade … well, I’d had one-off friends, but I kept moving schools so often, I was starting over and I wasn’t getting the social skills building that I think I should have. And I got to third to fifth grade, and I won’t get into the details but stuff happened, and...
This new girl came in and convinced everyone I was annoying. And so that has become a real trigger word for me.
This thought of being annoying, I am annoying and people don’t like me, and don’t want to listen to me, and I’m bothering everybody with my presence kind of thing … just became part of how I thought about myself. Then when I got to middle school, eighth grade, I was getting to the point where I was suicidal. That was a wakeup call, I think, especially because I told a friend I had been thinking about it … that I was better now but I had thought about it in the past. She talked to a principal, and the principal talked to my parents, and it became this big … “Dani needs to go to therapy …”
Lauren: And it escalated.
Dani: Yeah, and they would follow me around to soccer practice … and it was just bad. So I got labeled with depression first. And in high school, I started to see … I feel like I kind of blocked some of this out …
Lauren: Sorry, I’m making you dig it up.
Dani: No, no, it’s good! I just haven’t thought about it in a while. I did biofeedback for anxiety. I got labeled with a mood disorder, dysthymia I think, but then nothing was done with that. Then I went to college, and I got re-diagnosed with depression and panic disorder, because now I was having panic attacks, and I thought … I’m having a heart attack, I’m going to die, I have to go to the emergency room! So then I went to see someone about that, and I was talking through my personal history and what school was like for me, and she goes, “Have you ever thought about ADHD?” And I said, “No…”
Lauren: And this was something when previously your mom had asked a teacher when you were a kid …
Dani: Well, that’s exactly it, and my mom had told me, when she had asked my fifth grade teacher, “Do you think my daughter could have ADHD?”, she told her, “No. She's too smart.”
Lauren: Which is a total misconception about ADHD.
Dani: Very big. And I have my own misconceptions about it, that everyone I knew who had it was a boy. And they were running around climbing on trees — and I wasn’t like that. I was just a very, very overly enthusiastic, talkative motor mouth.
Lauren: And a super smart one.
Dani: Yes, and I wasn't struggling in school, but the social struggling was a huge factor.
But because I was getting good grades, I really slipped under the radar.
And so it wasn't until I got to college … and my parents were really great about having built-in structure. I was very, very privileged. The den was like a homework room. There was no TV; it was just like a desk. And remember, boom boxes? They were there, playing instrumental music. And so I had space to focus. And it was like, “You can't do anything until your homework is done. And here is the quiet place where you do homework.”
Lauren: So your parents had learned to manage your attention issues.
Dani: Yeah, they didn't know it was ADHD; it was just, like, “Oh, this will help you focus.” And it did. And so I did well in school. And then I got to college. I did not struggle in high school, because I didn't even have to study; I just naturally kind of retained information. And now … oh, I haven't built study skills. And I have a hard time focusing, and I don't have any quiet place to myself, I don't have my own room, the library has people in it. There’s no place to go that's quiet anymore, really. But I didn't go to a doctor to be, like, “I'm having a hard time focusing.” It was, like, I'm going to the doctor because I'm having a hard time making friends in college, I am getting depressed. I'm thinking bad thoughts again. I don't like being in this spot. Put me on antidepressants, or whatever. That's where my head was at. And she had kind of mentioned, too, that untreated ADHD, a lot of times, is like this foundation that then anxiety and depression start to build on top of. And people will try to treat the depression and treat the anxiety, but you're not treating this underlying ADHD, and the reason you're having anxiety, the things that you're having anxiety about, typically are directly related to your ADHD symptoms. And so for 10 years, I was taking medication, but I wasn't really seeing a therapist for anything other than getting medication.
Lauren: And it sounds like it was a Band-Aid.
Dani: Yeah, and it helped me focus enough that I did well in school again. And that was always this measurement of how I was doing: am I getting good grades? If I was getting good grades, then everything was working.
Lauren: Surely a high-achieving person has no problems.
Dani: I wasn't feeling depressed. And I was getting good grades. My brain was like, that's good.
Lauren: Yeah, good enough. That idea of it being good enough.
Dani: Exactly. I've been to where I can't manage either of those things. That is the bad place, everything else is fine. And so I didn't think about it for years and yours.
I never thought about it after college, and how maybe the reason why I have a hard time doing laundry is that it requires a lot of executive functioning skills to start and stop and start and stop.
And remember that you can't leave this in here for too long. And if the reminder goes off, you can't turn it off because then you're going to forget about it. There’s so many moving parts that all happen at different times. And managing that and remembering all of that and then getting the motivation of, oh, it's done, now I need to fold it. Now I need to put it away. There’s so much.
Lauren: There’s too many steps.
Dani: And so progressively each step gets harder. Sometimes, you'll make it to the part where the clothes are clean. And then this is what happens at our house a lot … it just stays in the laundry and then you’re just pulling out what you need out.
Lauren: If it makes you feel any better, that’s how it is in my house, too. And that's just because I don't have time!
Dani: But I never thought about those types of things. Like, maybe I'm not just lazy. This is not that hard for other people. Right? Not everything that is included in daily functioning life is difficult for everyone all of the time. And so for me to then stumble across Jessica McCabe's ‘How to ADHD’ YouTube channel and see someone with ADHD, talking about ADHD, and how it affected her daily life, including how feeding yourself is difficult because grocery shopping is difficult … and I’m like, oh my God!
Lauren: On all the overstimulation. I bet that's really hard.
Dani: And deciding things in advance, versus impulse buying. Versus having to make the decision to get in my car and go do this routine task that is boring. And then I have to cook those things and plan what I'm going to eat, and remember to defrost the chicken and all of this stuff that goes into cooking. I had never put it together that so many of these skills are directly related to your brain to be able to regulate itself and regulate its attention. ADHD isn't not having attention. I can't always control what I'm focusing on. And so sometimes, yes, sometimes I get hyper focused, and I'll clean our entire apartment. And then it will all fall back into disarray. And then I'll get so anxious about it being messy. And I'll think to myself … I should clean, I should clean … I should clean… why am I not cleaning? Why won't my body get up. But then when I finally start, I can't stop until it's done. Because I know if I stop halfway through, I will not pick this back up again. The activation energy will be too great. So I will do it. But it happens in this cycle. And these cycles happen over and over again. And it wreaks havoc on your self-esteem. Because you think … I did it, I got it. But you have a hard time maintaining, because maintenance is not something that lights up my brain. Maintenance is boring. And because I haven't developed skills to routinely make sure that … in order to make it not clutter, you need to put stuff away as soon as you're done with it. And I know that. But implementing that is difficult. So then it builds back up. And then you get back to your … see, I’m a messy person. And I want to be a clean person. And that's what guilt is. My behavior does not align with what I'm expecting of myself, or what other people are expecting of me. And so there's this constant overwhelming feeling of guilt and the shame of telling yourself, I am not someone who can do this, or whatever it is. And so the same kind of shame cycle … I would say that a lot of neurotypicals might be able to understand. Because you say that, and they’re, like, “Well, just try harder. You just need to pick up after yourself. It's not that hard.” And it feels the same way … if you have ever tried to lose weight or wanted to lose weight, and people say, “You just need to diet and exercise. Just make time for it. It's not that hard. Just do it.” And you’re, like, I know I'm supposed to do it. And maybe you decide you're going to do it, and you buy all the fancy gear, you get yourself some workout clothes, and you join the gym. And you feel really good about it for two weeks. And then something happens, and you get off your routine. And now it's hard to get back on the horse, or you're getting discouraged because it's not as fun as it used to be. Or you're stagnant, or whatever it is. And then you slowly dip back into your old habits. You realize, oh my gosh, this is so much better and easier, I miss being able to just not have to worry about all that. And then you gain weight back. And then you beat yourself up. And then you do the whole thing again, because maybe you lost weight, you made progress. And then you gained it back and you reverted back to your old habits. And that's an issue for me where I do this kind of yo-yo diet cycle, truly with dieting, but also with other areas of my life. And I think there are a lot of people … knowing that you should work out is different than being able to get your butt to the gym and workout every day. And there are people where working out is not hard for them. And you might look at those people and be, like, oh though …
Lauren: Literally, I'm listening to you, and I’m, like, I think I have ADHD!
Dani: I think that's why we talked for 30 minutes. I was gonna ask you before.
Lauren: Oh my gosh, because what those who are tuning into this episode don't know is that we spent 30 minutes chatting and catching up before we hit ‘record’. But also, we're both really good at going off on a tangent and coming back to one, and I’m, like, oh my God. And I have the same thing with the laundry. And the same thing with dieting, and the same thing with exercise. Girl …
Dani: I was gonna wait until after the podcast.
Lauren: No, let's talk about it. Wow.
Dani: This is what happens. My mom and one of my best friends and other people in my life who I just clicked with immediately … that's how I can tell immediately, especially with other women, that they have ADHD. One of my best friend’s girlfriends, pretty much everyone that I'm close to, because you just click, you get me, I get you. And it's rare, but we have the same energy wavelength, right, where you don't annoy each other. You're not worried that you're annoying each other.
And you can follow each other, so we can both get off track but nobody's thinking to themselves the whole time, oh my God, can you just get back to the point?
But it's great because now I've got all ADHD friends pretty much. And I never have to worry about changing or altering my behavior to fit in and appear to be…
Lauren: To be something else.
Dani: Well, they’re an understanding brunch so we don’t have to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry I’m late.” We just apologize for everything.
Lauren: Because we've been taught to do that, too.
Dani: As women especially. But to a certain extent, I have such difficulty with being criticized or thinking people are mad at me.
Lauren: My God, you're ticking all the boxes for me right now! I've always related to it. But the more I'm talking to you and hearing first-hand, the more it's becoming very clear to me that, yeah, I'm on that spectrum.
Dani: You’re thinking, #me too.
Lauren: Yeah, this is like the hashtag Me Too, in a different way.
Dani: I had a TikTok that went viral relatively recently, like a month or two ago. And it's me kind of pointing out … if you've always struggled with a messy room. And then I've got a whole other one that’s about accidentally accidentally dominating conversations, or interrupting and blurting out and being told, “You don't have a filter.” Just all of these different kinds of things that we get told over and over again … if you're worried about not reaching your potential, if I could just try harder and apply myself, I know, I could be really great. And maybe I do feel really great. But I feel like I could be better. And I know what I want to do, and I know what I need to do, but I can't seem to do it. Most people have some form of that. It's not just ADHD people have these feelings. But there's this overwhelming paralysis when it comes to certain things, that then becomes this avoidance. People with ADHD tend to avoid things, even small things. So that'll work right back into what we're talking about. Avoiding making doctors’ appointments is a big one for me. Or I call to make a doctor's appointment, and they don't call me back. And I don't follow up half the time because I forget. I feel accomplished that I worked up the willpower. Calling the doctor to make an appointment is like an achievement for me. And when I talk to people with ADHD, they’re, like, “Oh my gosh, that's awesome. I'm really proud you finally did that. That was a big hurdle.” But once you do it, it's like, well, yeah, oh, my gosh, it only took 45 seconds. No, I know it did. But I had to work up the …
Lauren: … the nerve or something. That activation energy that you have to work up, as you say.
Dani: I have the money to pay these bills, but I have to pay them by check. And I don't know where the checks are. And I think maybe I know where the checks are. But they're in the closet. And the closet is really messy. So I'll go do that later, but not now. And then it’s, like, oh, this got sent to collections or whatever, when I have the money to pay for it. They got buried underneath this mail, and I didn't see it, and I forgot about it. People with ADHD tend to pile things. I have to put my backpack next to the door. Because if I don't, I would forget it when I left for work.
Lauren: You are speaking my language right now!
Dani: I forget that I have a drink until it's over here. And then oh, my coffee. I'm used to drinking lukewarm coffee. Because as soon as I set it down and I start working on something, it disappears from my brain. We just have this real, again, avoidance of certain things that nobody likes doing. I'm doing air quotes, people can't see me … “Nobody likes doing that stuff. Nobody likes running errands.”
This horrible, painful almost, like pulling teeth to get yourself to do stuff. And it affects your life in a really severe way.
Lauren: Well, it’s like that your brain paralyzes you.
Dani: Yes, exactly. And people from the outside, they just see that you're not doing it. This whole inner monologue, or you're beating yourself up constantly for everything. Everyone's like, “You’re your harshest critic!” And that is true to some extent. But it's all about these expectations, too. Expectations of others. of society. Being on time … being on time is a good thing. I'm not saying people shouldn't be on time.
Lauren: I’m the worst at that!
Dani: Some people with ADHD are overly early to things, because they're very anxious that they might lose track of time and be late. So they'd rather be there early. Versus me. I'm like, well, I looked it up and it's 15 minutes away. So I don't need to leave until 1:45. But when it's 1:40, this is at 2;00, but it's 1:45, then I need to leave, because it's 15 minutes away. My brain is trying to maximize the amount. I could be scrolling on Twitter and be, like, if I'm early, I'll scroll on Twitter. It’s, like, no! Twitter now!
Lauren: In a way, it's sort of related to obsessive behavior, isn't it.
Dani: Where are my keys? Where are my socks? Do I feed the cat before I go? And before you know it, it's not 15 minutes to go. I don't plan any buffer time for traffic. I don't plan any buffer time for anything. I just underestimate, or way overestimate, how long things will take to do. I cut you off. What did you say?
Lauren: No, I was gonna say, in many ways, it's related to obsessive behavior, isn't it. Because the antidote, the thing that makes you focus, is obsessing about something and being focused on that singular thing for a period of time.
Dani: People who think people with ADHD are just lazy, have never talked to people who have ADHD and are OCD — which is actually a very common overlap. But now that I’m diagnosed and getting treatment, it’s like putting on glasses. Like, oh, I did not know that this could even look this way, that trees had leaves on them. I thought they were just these blurry green things.
You didn’t realize … oh, this isn’t supposed to be this hard. That’s it not my fault that I have a hard time with this.
That certain cards are stacked against me. And so I've got to learn to play the cards that I do have.
Lauren: And this ties, again, back into the whole thing with doctors and scheduling appointments. Part of the discussion that you and I had when we were catching up before we started the interview, is about the fact that even just making a doctor's appointment, sticking with the same doctor, following up when a doctor moves practices, or following up when someone makes a recommendation and losing the slip of paper … which for someone who is neurotypical might be a very easy connect-the-dots. For someone who's living with ADHD, and trying to get diagnoses of rare diseases like you are, it becomes even more challenging.
Dani: It’s like this thing, too, with ADHD where things are harder for me, especially regarding medication and picking up medication that's supposed to help me focus. Especially for ADHD meds, because they're Schedule 2 or whatever, drugs. Anything that involves my insurance, I'm done. It’s over. I have an outstanding bill that I haven't paid, because I got overcharged by insurance. And I needed to just call insurance, I just needed to call them, just call them, just call them — and I didn’t, and then now it's too late. And now it went to collections. And I’m angry that I have to pay this $800 bill for a physical, when it was supposed to be covered. And all of these different things … they call the ADHD tax, where there are certain late fees or whatever it is, and you are getting penalized for things that aren't difficult for other people, and they have very little empathy or understanding for things that are not difficult for them. Someone was using this to describe privilege in the example of white privilege, which is like …you don't ever have to think about your race. That is a very different type of privilege. But someone had put it into terms of … if you're right handed, you never have to think about the fact that you're right-handed
Lauren: Because the world is built for right-handed people.
Dani: The world is built for right-handed people. You don't realize that scissors don't work the same, that there are left-handed scissors, you don't even know that's a thing, typically — unless you've got friends who are left-handed. Desks for high school and college, they’re built for right-handed people, because most people are right-handed. And so because of that, it's something you don't ever have to think about. And when they say, “Well, just use the other scissors” … if you were forced to use things not made for you, your whole life …
Lauren: And you're taking an extra leap, every time there's an extra step mentally.
Dani: And it's not like … all desks should be left-handed desks.
Lauren: It’s a bit like “all lives matter”, isn’t it!
Dani: It’s not what anyone is saying. But if someone needs that accommodation, it should not be ridiculous to ask that a classroom have left-handed scissors.
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. And it has influenced the way people judge other people because of the way the world is built. And the insurance system does not help that.
Dani: There are people, too, who are, like, “Well just don't be left-handed. You can train yourself to not be left-handed.” It's not, like … I'm 5, I'm learning to write, I think I'll be right-handed.
Lauren: Yeah, it's not that simple at all. Absolutely. So I know that there have been issues with getting appointments and follow-up. But you got the diagnosis of ADHD, it sounds like, when you were in college.
Dani: Yeah, I was a freshman.
Lauren: And prior to that, you'd been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, panic disorder — which are all interrelated.
Dani: With dysthymia [persistent depressive disorder].
Lauren: And then the Ehlers-Danlos … you’ve had several doctors tell you yes, it sounds like you've got it. But the tests are really expensive.
Dani: It's not really going to serve you and do anything, because they put it on my chart anyway, after I tell them … oh, one time a bug landed on me and I jerked my shoulder forward, and my shoulder literally dislocated and was hanging. And then I sat backwards, and it popped back in. And now one of my shoulders is down, and when I lay on this side, I can feel it slightly dislocate. I'm aligned, and then I have to put my arms up and push them back. And I can feel it pop back into place. And that's not something that happens to people.
I'm afraid of doing all these everyday activities, because I know that I might hurt myself.
I can't go ice skating, or Rollerblading, without worrying about my ankles, or running or hiking without my knees, or lifting anything without my back. And my mom, too.
Lauren: You’re discovering that this stuff is genetic.
Dani: Yes. And my mom and my mom was in nursing for 15 years and didn't know about this. It was one word that I kind of told her about it. And all of these linked conditions. Like IBS … why would that go with a joints thing?
Lauren: But it does.
Dani: And and I have TMJ, right? I feel my jaw triple click when it opens. And when I talk to anybody, they would just throw their hands up in the air and be like, “Well, I don't really know. You could see a physical therapist.” But I have ADHD, and completing the exercises that I'm assigned to do on a regular basis … I try, I really do. But forming new habits is tremendously difficult. People just get this like, ‘well, forming habits is hard for everyone’ mentality that puts the shame back on me, right? The same way for most of these things, like … “Well, eat better and exercise and just don't be stressed as much.”
Dani: You’re stressed, and you wouldn't be stressed if you worked out, but you're not working out because you're lazy. And if you weren't lazy, you wouldn't have these issues. And it's all your fault for everything. I have a hard time exercising, because exercising hurts my body. And it’s, like, “Well, your body wouldn't hurt if you’d exercise,” and I’m, like, “Do you understand what you're saying though?”
Lauren: This is the biggest Catch 22 I've ever heard. It's like a Catch 22 2222222!
Dani: It’s like … you need to work out so that your Ehlers-Danlos doesn't hurt your body, but you're not working out because your Ehlers-Danlos hurts your body.
Lauren: Yeah. And then how does the bipolar 2 tie into all of this, as well? When were you diagnosed with that?
Dani: I got diagnosed with that when I was 26. I got told by three different therapists I had three different mood disorders. Because everybody was, like, you’ve got more than an ADHD thing going. I will just stay up really, really late. I will go on these impulsive shopping sprees where I’m, like, I'm gonna go blow three grand in two weeks. And really set-in productivity-focused behavior, where it's like, I suddenly have the energy and the motivation to clean and organize the entire house! So I've got my ADHD hyper focus, and my hypomania — our powers combined! And it feels really good, because when you have ADHD and feel unproductive, or have depression issues, being unproductive is what you're used to. And it brings you all of this guilt because you don't want to be unproductive.
So then when you suddenly have this burst of energy to get stuff done, and you're able to do it, it's like you're flying high on this awesome wave, and you don't want to come down.
Because as soon as I come down, I'm going to stop caring, and then I'm going to get depressed. So a lot of my life is just trying not to get depressed. But when I get into those high states, it's really …
Lauren: … it’s very rewarding.
Dani: That’s when I make appointments. That all sounds good, and great and fine, until you’re, like, oh, I just paid off my credit card. And then I just put four grand on it, because I wanted to buy an exercise bike. And now I opened the box for the exercise bike, and I saw how long it's gonna take to put together, and I’m, like, oh, I'll do that later. And then it's sitting in the middle of the floor, it's contributing to the mess that’s going to continue to pile up.
Lauren: You’re a box person. I'm such a box person.
Dani: I just cleaned this room.
Lauren: And then mail comes in, and you can't stop it.
Dani: It’s just piles. So it's hard. Because, again, a constant shame cycle of … I worked so hard, and I have nothing to show for it, it feels like. What people didn't see is, how clean my house was yesterday. And how ashamed I feel that it is already so messy. Because we have this really difficult time with, again, that self-regulation. Leaving your parents’ house and getting to college is difficult on its own. And then once you're out of college, even when you're in college, your parents stop making appointments for you. You're paying your own bills, and you're doing your own laundry, and you're doing all of this stuff on your own. And then you graduate, and you have to parent yourself. It's very difficult to parent any ADHD child. It is also difficult to parent an ADHD adult, like myself, into convincing yourself to do stuff you don't want to do. And there is this very, again, avoided energy. But the effort that has to go into doing something I don't want to do, is high. Other people look as it truly as this excuse. Like, if you wanted it bad enough, you would just do it. I procrastinate with things I want to do. There are books I want to read, there are video games, there are shows I want to watch. And I'll just sit, I'll think about them. And I'll honestly just be staring at a wall sometimes, thinking about how I want to read. Just get up and read. The book is upstairs, you know where it is. We can make some popcorn. Let's go read. Let's read. Why aren't you reading?
Lauren: Or reading that paragraph over and over again, right? Because you’re, like, I'm sure I read that, but I didn't absorb it.
Dani: And then you get four pages in and you’re, like, I can't focus on this. And you put it away and you don't touch it again for a long time.
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. It sounds like your mom has been your advocate through a lot of this health journey. But you've also had to learn how to self-advocate. Can you talk to us about what that has looked like for you in terms of having a health advocate through all of these experiences?
Dani: She definitely did advocate for me.
My mom, I think, is on the same wavelength as me.
In some ways my mom did advocate for me, but there's no way to expect them to know, to be able to connect all of the dots all of the time. And to fully understand. Because there are all of these things I didn't realize were symptoms until I look something up and go … Oh! I am that, too!
Lauren: Also, no one knows what it's like to be inside your head. Would you also say that this inequality in the healthcare system, particularly where privilege is concerned, where prejudice is concerned, like racial and gender inequality in the healthcare system … would you say that's a public health crisis?
Dani: In a way, definitely. There are times where Josh has literally told me, I'm going to come to your doctor's appointment.
Lauren: This is your husband.
Dani: Yes. My husband. I'll tell him stuff that happens and he’s, like, “What the fuck?!” He's a white guy. So the idea of someone telling him he's wrong is not as frequent.
Lauren: I want you to tell our listeners about the work that you do as an illustrator to bring awareness to ADHD. And how you are sharing your experience through your art. Can you talk to us about the work that you've created, and how you've gotten recognition for it?
Dani: I am a designer by trade and an illustrator for fun. I wanted to be a designer since I was very young, I always wanted to be an artist of some sort. The only consistent thing in my life is art. I majored in Visual Communication and Design. People think graphic design … it's not just about making things pretty. Design is art with a purpose. So even if that purpose is to make you buy shoes, it's laid out in a way that understands how you think, what you're going to look at, in what order, what information is the most important. What am I trying to make sure you take away from this as you pass it while you walk. That is design. It's also making something that is memorable in people's heads, that gets across. It's a communication tool, visual communication. I went to school where they really put it in your head that it should be as simple as it can be. If you can take it out, you should take it out. Which is really difficult for someone like me where I just like all of the things. I’ve kind of developed this really clean style that’s simple and easy to understand, because my ADHD brain likes that it's not as overwhelming. It's the same as when you open an app that's very clean and minimal, and you’re, like, I just like using this. It's just so pretty! Because it's not trying to get your attention everywhere, right? So I made this flow chart after I started working at Gallup. I’d been there about two months, I started making new friends, and they were openly talking about therapy. I just never heard anybody talking about therapy openly, ever. Even my friends. It was just so casual.
I just casually said that I have ADHD, and everyone was, like, “Yeah, we know.”
That's not surprising, you know? And so, me getting off track, as anyone listening can attest to …
Lauren: No, you're right on track, don't worry, it's my job to keep you there!
Dani: I am entertaining, if anything. But I do tend to get off track.
Lauren: But you always come back.
Dani: I’m better at it now. I'll get into why that is. But I follow every single association that my brain does. People with ADHD also form associations very quickly. And I do not have the impulse control to not tug at a thread. It's really this thing where it became an inside joke that I came up … how the conductor of my train of thought is just really bad at his job. He falls asleep at the wheel all the time, and it just goes off the rails and takes too many detours, and just wants to show you every single thing. He’s too excited. And I named him Doni Danovan. I’d get off track telling a story. They’re, like, “Doni!!” It wasn't a mean, shameful, “Can you just get to the point?”
Lauren: Yeah, it was like an embracing of it. You were in control of the narrative there.
Dani: Yes. And it never felt angry. I never felt annoying. It felt like that conductor and your train of thought might be falling asleep, you know, and it brings you back in a nice way. I appreciate knowing, because I was much less self-aware than I am now. I made this flowchart about how other people tell stories, and then how my ADHD storytelling goes. It’s a big, windy, flow chart. And I showed it to my coworker, and she was, like, "Oh my gosh, this is so you, where did you find this?” I was, like, “I made it.” And she goes, “Oh my gosh, this is perfect.” I wasn't gonna post it because my boss followed me on Instagram. And I hadn't told him. There's still that shame of, I don't want my boss to know I have ADHD, because then he might not trust me with stuff. Or he might be over-analyzing my performance. It felt like I wasn't wanting to do that.
Lauren: There’s caution.
Dani: I’ve only done that in the past if I start to get in trouble at work, which I historically do. But I wasn't yet, I hadn't gotten in trouble at work. So I posted it on Twitter because nobody followed me on Twitter. So maybe it would get five likes; I would get excited if I got five likes. So it blew up. I didn't put a copyright on it or anything. I didn't anticipate that the first thing I made would go viral. And it got really, really big, and that felt amazing. But the the last stage of it says: apologize. It doesn't stop with ‘end of story’ like the other one. Because I've always felt this guilt for taking up space. And that triggering shame of feeling annoying and worrying that I'm annoying people, or overanalyzing every micro-expression on their face to see if they're engaged in the story I'm telling. As soon as I start to notice that they look like they're a little less interested, I kind of go back and apologize. It's just a really big part of this cycle that I have. And people in the comments were just crying. ‘Wow, I didn't notice I did that. That is what I do. Oh my gosh, I didn't think that this was related to my ADHD.’ Everyone was kind of having this collective understanding.
Lauren: An emotional response.
Dani: Whereas other people were, like, ‘Ha ha, that's so funny. That's so me!’
When you've got an actual mental disorder, you have disordered thinking, disordered thoughts and difficulty prioritizing thoughts.
Time management, and time blindness — where I don't realize how long I've been doing something. I don't look at the clock often enough. The understanding that, wow, okay, this resonated. I actually had made another diagram a while back of what I'm supposed to do — and what I'm actually doing. So I've always loved data visualization information design. I said, I have to make some more of these. I want to make the type of content that I would like to see, because I do see some comics about anxiety. Gemma Correll is really amazing. I love, obviously, feeling seen and validated. I get emails and DMs from people who are neurotypical, and they say, ‘I was so angry at my husband for so long. And I feel so horrible now.’ Parents, too, being, like, ‘I feel so terrible for how I have looked at down at them. And I realize now how harmful that was, and I'm thankful for your comics. Because as upset as I am about me … like, oh, poor me, I didn't know, I'm an asshole, I shouldn't have … moving forward, I now am armed with information as to not continue to do harm in that way. And to be able to maybe make some connections and some forgiveness and make an apology for what has been done in the past, and moving forward to know we're not doing this on purpose. Don't call us lazy. And we're not doing this on purpose. And then my favorite of the favorites is how many people didn't know they had ADHD! And they look at my stuff, and they read my jokes. They see my TikToks. They look at my comics and they go, ‘I think I’ve got ADHD!’ And they go to a doctor and they get diagnosed, and they get treated. And then they email me and they’re, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm 44 …’ I'm 61, or I'm in high school or whatever it is. They all send very long messages. They all apologize at the end. It's very funny … ‘I’m so sorry for the novels.’ But to hear from so many people on so many different outlets, that they didn't realize it. This is my favorite part about doing it, I would say, over social media — because of how the platforms that I've chosen work, especially Twitter and TikTok.
Lauren: Super accessible.
Dani: You are being exposed to content that is not made by your friends. People are re-Tweeting, and that happens sometimes on Facebook. And that happens like sometimes on Instagram. But for the most part, what you're seeing is more Bubbleland. The same way for other social justice issues. When I see stuff about Black Lives Matter that is coming from people of color, it’s coming from Twitter, and it's coming from TikTok. Because I went to high school and college … I don't have as many people …
Lauren: You don't have a bigger network.
Dani: I just don’t. And the people that I do, that I am friends with, I don't expect them to be my source of information. That's not what they're there for, to educate white people.
Lauren: But there been so many free resources available.
Dani: Exactly. Google it yourself. But on Twitter and TikTok, you're seeing all of this stuff that other people are sharing, or you're seeing stuff that's coming to your feed. The way TikTok works is based on what you've liked. In the past, you might like this, you've never heard of this person — and then you're exposed to this stuff. And so the types of videos and the types of tweets that I make … and especially if your friend re-tweeted me, and you guys are friends, because you get along, your friend has ADHD and then they see this and then they go down this rabbit hole or someone sends this fun … especially making them short for ADHD-ers with short attention spans. We can really make it into this thing where it's very shareable. It’s easy to digest. I try to keep them very simple.
Lauren: And it’s educational.
Dani: With little text and bright colors that help guide your eye to where you're supposed to go. The reason why I love doing it this way is that people understand how you read a chart, how you read a bar chart, how a flow chart works. I think my comics have been translated into eight languages right now. Because they're the same; flow charts are the same everywhere! So it's not gonna be so much of a language barrier thing. Math and charts are the same. And so this universal language of information design, combined with humor and some educational stuff … but for the most part, everything is coming from me. I very much try to make it clear that this is my experience and my ADHD. I don't say “People with ADHD have a hard time with …” I say, “I have a hard time with …”, or, “My ADHD makes it hard for me to …” Because at the end of the day, people can't tell me I am wrong about how I feel about myself.
And so it's really important to me to not pose as an expert on ADHD. But I am an expert on how I feel living with ADHD.
And so I think that that's the authenticity that comes with it; it's so specific. I will not make comics that are things that I didn't go through. I'm not going to make a comic about struggling in school. That's not authentic to my experience. That’s just empty. And I think people can tell. I never wanted to be someone that's going to either talk about things that I don't know anything about — because that was my biggest issue with ADHD stuff in the past … This is clinical, it’s dry. It's coming from someone, probably, who doesn't have ADHD, who's giving this very generic list of symptoms that don't tie to something concrete.
Lauren: It's not personal.
Dani: It's not like you might have a hard time with laundry. There are zero articles on Web MD talking about me. I haven't read all of them, but … I had an ADHD diagnosis and I truly went 10 years without looking up ADHD, without doing any research. Or doing any kind of … I wonder if I could do something besides just taking meds that would make things easier. I didn't do any of that stuff. I stumbled onto Jessica's ADHD YouTube page, and that kind of opened a lot of things up for me. A lot of us aren't going and looking up ADHD podcasts, ADHD books, ADHD this and that. And so until we start to realize, oh, this explains a lot … that opens the door to wanting to go find more resources, more specific resources.
Lauren: And resources that are for the community or by the community for the community. Much more representative in that way.
Dani: Yeah, and it's one where you're more likely to listen.
Lauren: And connect on a very human level.
Dani: Because a lot of articles are, like … ‘People with ADHD have a hard time with routines.’ That's why for me, routine is really important.
Lauren: And that's so generic, and so clinical and sterile in its approach. Absolutely. You're so connected to the ADHD community. Do you have any tips that you could share with us? I would love to know if you have Top Three Tips for someone who, maybe they're on the precipice of diagnosis, and something funky is going on with their mental health, their physical health, or maybe they've got ADHD or maybe they've got bipolar 2. What advice would you offer as your Top Three Tips for navigating the experience of neurodiversity and living this chronic illness, chronic condition life?
Dani: I think that it's a very human experience, to assume everybody does the same stuff that we do, which is part of the problem, right?
But for me, I didn't realize that other people don't just Google their symptoms all the time!
And sometimes you don't even think to, because sometimes they don't even seem like symptoms.
Lauren: And WebMD has this notorious reputation for taking people down a rabbit hole and thinking they're dying!
Dani: Yeah, that's a double-edged sword — to be careful, but also it’s so important, that educating yourself.
Lauren: Choosing legitimate sources, right … knowing what's good.
Dani: And checking out a bunch of different ones. I don't ever just like look at one and think, oh that's it. And also understanding that if you know you've got certain things, there are likely to be conditions that are frequently tied to those things. I swear there's got to be an EDS/ADHD connection — because everyone I know with EDS has ADHD!
Lauren: Isn’t that interesting.
Dani: Someone needs to do a study on it. I have only anecdotal evidence, but I have 10 people in my life … I’ve seen some studies; you can find a study for anything. But with certain heart conditions, where I’m, like, why am I having a hard time breathing? Why is this happening? I'm looking through all these different things and freaking myself out, panicking with the panic disorder things. But doing research about Ehlers-Danlos, seeing stuff with that and then starting to like, connect dots. Making myself more as informed as to the the co-morbidities. The same thing with bipolar and ADHD. I can't for sure say that this is 100% accurate, but it's something like 30% of people with ADHD have bipolar, but 80% of people with bipolar 2 have ADHD. Or something like that. A very dramatic difference. But it's very high co-morbidity. The same thing with … if you've got ADHD, it is very likely that you have suffered from depression or anxiety at some point in your life, if not currently. Because they feed into each other. Because there's a foundational issue that feeds into this other stuff.
Lauren: So, researching the co-morbidities and understanding … empowering yourself with information is what this sounds like.
Dani: This has been the thing blowing my mind with ADHD, is that there are pieces and parts that are not on a symptom list that I find out later are related to ADHD. Such as having auditory processing disorders, which I just found out about — which is why I mis-hear people all the time. And why blenders and vacuums hurt my ears. I've been tested for hearing problems, but my ears are actually fine.
I have to pause the TV when someone's talking to me, because I get too distracted by external stimuli.
It's very, very common with ADHD. The same thing with trichotillomania — skin picking, scalp picking, nail biting. I pull my eyelashes out when I get anxious, I pick at my skin. There's all of these things that are little things I never noticed about myself. Or maybe I did notice but never thought could be a condition connected to a larger thing. So, again, educating yourself and finding out these different things that just help to explain them. I feel like I understand my brain now. I feel like no-rock-unturned kind of thing.
Lauren: The Internet is your oyster!
Dani: I had started the hashtag #neurodiverse squad and people have been using that hashtag not just for ADHD. There's people talking about autism and autism spectrum disorders, and helping to work on the stigma of autism. Because lots of people have the same ‘white boy’ look in their head, that it behaves a certain way. And not like …women of color with autism. So I think that us stepping back and looking, again holistically, of how the puzzle pieces fit together … Are there puzzle pieces that I might be missing? A lot of people say, “Well, how do I go talk to my doctor? I relate to all your comics, but I feel kind of weird being, like, ‘I saw this girl’s comics online. And I think that I might have it.’” I've been told people do that. They’ve said, “I saw all of these, these all resonated. I did some research, all of this sounds like me. Could you give me an assessment? Can we figure out if this is what's going on?” I guess I've had some help with saying, “I have done a bunch of research, I checked a lot of sources. But obviously, I don't have a medical degree. I want to have a conversation about this. If this would help explain things. Because this resonates so much with me. It would help explain a lot. If there's a better explanation out there, by all means I'd be happy to hear it. But I really think that there's something going on.”
Lauren: So tip number one is, do the research. This is sort of three tips in one, isn't it. Because you're saying: do the research and find legitimate sources of information; notate everything, get your notes ready; go to your doctor and bring this information to a medical professional so that you can get a diagnosis.
Dani: Yes. As you complained earlier, saying that doctors sometimes still don't listen. I guess my fourth tip would be … and it's so much easier said than done. The biggest thing that I like to do with ADHD people is be, like, “Look, I can give tips all I want. If you can't do it, if it's still too hard, that is okay. You are not a failure. At some point, maybe you'll be able to do it … But it's okay if it's really hard. It's really hard for me.” But the fourth one is … that not all doctors are going to be knowledgeable in the thing that you want to talk to them about. And so I've had people who say, “Oh, I went to talk to a doctor. And they said I didn't have ADHD. But I really think I do.” And I’m, like. “You can almost see another doctor.” And they saw another doctor and the doctor’s, like, “Yeah, no, you totally do.” Doctors have preconceived notions about ADHD, too. Just because someone has a degree does not mean that they know everything about everything. So I think that it's very important, if you have a very deep gut feeling about something, or if you get a weird vibe or you feel like someone's not listening to you, then it's time to move on and do your best to find someone else. Because I recently found that integrative medicine doctor who specifically looks at everything. For someone like me, where I've got a lot of stuff going on, I didn't even know that was a thing. I didn't even know that there was holistic medicine. To me that sounded …
Lauren: A little woo woo!
Dani: I didn't know what that was. Part Five … talking about it once you do learn things. I cannot express how powerful talking openly with your friends is.
If my friends weren't talking about therapy, I would not even be on this podcast call right now.
I wouldn't have posted it.
Lauren: We would never have met Doni Danovan!
Dani: Doni Danovan, exactly! Yes, it’s brave to be vulnerable. Especially for mental stuff right now. Because neurodiversity is a diversity movement as well. It is different and separate. And there are very different struggles. But to recognize that your feelings and burdens are valid, and that there are people out there who are dying to hear that your burdens match what they're going through. And then you will empower them maybe to talk about theirs. And it has this huge ripple effect. Oh, every everyone's talking about ADHD! Guess what? We're all just really quiet about it.
Lauren: Oh, well, maybe we all have ADHD. And we're not talking about it.
Dani: Yeah. We tend to find like-minded people and click with them. That's what I had with an artist friend yesterday. With all of these artists I follow. I keep thinking that it's you posting this. And then I realized, oh, no, it's this other artist. And so just to know that a lot of people that you look up to, or that you really click with … having those open, honest conversations may lead to someone else feeling comfortable. It’s too scary. But when someone else goes first, it becomes less scary. After I kind of got used to saying things online, then I felt more comfortable talking about my ADHD, telling someone I had ADHD. Someone will come up to me in the co-working space and say, “Oh, so what do you do?” Or, they they have a mask on, and they stand outside my office. And I say, “Oh, I have ADHD. I make ADHD comics.” I just remember how I couldn’t say that out loud, ever. Now I don't have that same sense of shame attached, like worry or judgment. Because now I know, if someone judges me, they are the asshole. That is their problem. That is not my problem and their misconceptions.
Lauren: That is 100% their problem. I think that's beautiful. Can you give us Three Things that give you unbridled joy. Because this is just a lovely one to sort of get into that positive place. I want to know, when you're having a PMDD flare or when you need to just perk yourself up, what are Three Things that you turn to that make you happy and light you up?
Dani: Venting on Twitter! When I used to carry this burden with me and feel like it was extra heavy, it was not like I could just unload it on the Internet and it goes away. It's like a honesty online diary. And the fact that I am putting it out there in a thread as a way to express myself and make myself think about how I'm thinking about things … other people read it and it resonates, and knowing that in this moment I feel like I am suffering through something, but I feel happiness and validation knowing I'm not alone.
Other people are going through this. People crying because it made their day or they were going through a similar thing. I feel supported in that moment and feel like I am having a positive impact on somebody else. So venting on Twitter, both when something is going wrong and I'm having a meltdown and I need people to know … not that anybody thinks this, but I am, like, I don't have my shit together, here’s what's going on just so you can see the ugly side of it.
Lauren: We’re all trying to get through it.
Dani: But then on the other side when I’m, like, oh my God, you guys, I just organized my fridge! Look at it!
Lauren: Will you please come organize mine??
Dani: I'm done doing it for like a year. For me to be able to post something like that, and then to understand why it is such a huge victory. And for them to feel, like, oh my God, that's inspiring. If she can clean her fridge, maybe I can clean my fridge.
I'll see people say, “You just inspired me to go clean my fridge.”
Both highs and lows, to be able to share experiences and not just opinions.
Lauren: I totally get that.
Dani: And then … and I’m getting actually much better about this. Obviously art is my job. I love creating comic. Getting my iPad Pro with a pencil and stuff.
Lauren: You love that thing, I know.
Dani: I used to do art all the time; I was carrying a sketchbook with me always. And this iPad, using Procreate, which is $20 one-time, not a subscription. Who does that, right? I'm not a sponsor, I wish I was! I’ll make abstract stuff, or I'll just splatter paint and move stuff around. And be, like, oh, I don't like that. Undo. So I can make something that looks like an oil painting, and I can make it perfect. And I don't have the mess of it. Oil painting in itself involves cleanup. And so I can be really creative. Or, if I'm at a conference, and I want to take really pretty doodle notes, which will help me pay attention, I can have a layer where I write down stuff that people said really fast, and I hide that layer and I'm drawing stuff. And then afterwards I have this beautiful illustration with the bullet point highlights of that conference. A lot of the times I will send it to the conference and then they post it on their social media.
Lauren: That’s really nice.
Dani: It's fun. It keeps my brain engaged. It makes me happy. I'm still paying attention. I'm still doodling, but I'm doodling with a purpose. So whether it be abstract art, comic art, definitely drawing on my iPad and making digital art.
Lauren: I love that. Procreate, iPad, the pen.
Dani: Yes. And then the last one … I love learning … okay, this is a thing I love doing …
Lauren: Were you going to say, “I love learning?” Because I love if that's what you're gonna say.
Dani: We don't do anything consistently, we very rarely finish them. But we have a subscription to MasterClass and Codeacademy and Skillshare, and we watch a lot of YouTube videos … we’re gonna learn how to grow our own garden! I want to learn how to mix EDM music, and we do a board game. So it's something different every other week. And it's sort of funny; I made a list one time of all of the different hobbies. But just the process of having the idea of, I wonder how that works. Or, we watch documentaries, and I’m, like, I wonder how that works … or that sounds interesting, how would we do that? I want to learn how to watercolor, and sometimes that does get pricey because I'm gonna buy all the supplies to do it two times. Last year, I wanted to sew stuff. I was, like, I’m gonna get a sewing machine. I'm gonna make cosplay clothes or something.
Lauren: And face masks!
Dani: I made two zipper pouches. And I think that's it.
Lauren: Well, it’s something. And it’s useful.
Dani: Now I’ve made 18 face masks. That's the owho support small artists and advocates and the like, because it's people like you guys who help make what we do possible. They’re doing important work to help us do important work!.
Lauren: We’re all doing important work together. I love it. Dani, it has been such an honor to talk to you, as always, Thank you so much for being on the show today and sharing your story.
Dani: Thank you for having me. This was so much fun!