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My Story

Part Two: Following My Path


My parents saw a love for cooking and experimenting with food in me so they suggested I go to cooking school. Finally, I was thriving. I would ask questions in class and do well on my exams. As it turned out, the hands-on learning style was what I needed.

Even though I did well, I still had trouble with my exams. We had to organize our equipment, get all of our ingredients together and manage multiple parts to recipes, sometimes doing three recipes at one time. I didn’t know this at the time but this is difficult for someone with ADHD and executive function challenges.

There was one exam in particular that I can remember like it was yesterday: we were making a risotto and I remember one of the parts that we were being graded on was that the risotto was clear of any bits or particles. It’s worth mentioning that the pans that we used had a tendency to have little black pieces that would fall off and get into our food (this sounds more gross than it actually is).

Finally, I was thriving. I would ask questions in class and do well on my exams. As it turned out, the hands-on learning style was what I needed.

Since it takes me longer to get myself organized, I was the last to the pan cupboard and had the last pick in terms of pan selection. I got stuck with a less than ideal pan and once I started to stir my risotto, little black pieces from the pan started to mix in. I completely broke down; it was just too much for me. Luckily, my teacher was extremely understanding. I can’t remember what I told him but it was something along the lines of I wasn’t feeling well.

Since I was a good student and showed up for class they allowed me to redo the exam on another day. What I didn’t know at the time was that this incident had a lot to do with executive functions. Our executive functions are like the conductor in a musical performance, directing all of the different sections of the orchestra.

Alyssa Shaw at cooking school

As someone with ADHD, my conductor isn’t fully functional. My conductor has trouble remembering whose turn it is to join in, forgets to actually tell them to join in, and has trouble switching from one section to the next.

Nearing the end of my cooking school program, our class was presented with the opportunity to participate in a cooking competition. We first had to participate in an internal school competition and then the winner of that competition would move on and compete against other schools.

I was encouraged by my classmates to compete, so I did. This was extremely taxing on my anxiety (and also my undiagnosed ADHD), but I was determined not to let my anxiety get in my way and I applied to compete anyways. To my amazement, I was accepted. I hyperfocused on this competition (hyperfocus is a positive side effect of ADHD).

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, hyperfocus is the paradoxical ability for those with ADHD to be able to focus on one single activity that they are very interested in. I brainstormed recipes and practiced making the meals for competition day. My creativity shined and I invented a dessert, a chocolate mousse made with ricotta and beets! I am still proud of its originality and taste! I was finally starting to embrace my true strengths and natural abilities.

‘… hyperfocus is the paradoxical ability for those with ADHD to be able to focus on one single activity that they are very interested in.’

Cooking school was a place where I felt like I finally belonged. Unfortunately, my executive function challenges and my perfectionism prevented me from pursuing a career in the field. In the cooking industry they want you to perform all tasks as if you are a machine and as you have probably already guessed, I am on the slower side. Yes, I went to cooking school but I would bet that you can chop an onion faster than me.

Next, another program at the same school caught my attention: Sommellerie and Waitressing. I love to learn and it all seemed so fascinating. I decided to enrol. This program did wonders for my confidence. We had to study regions and do quite a bit of memorizing. For the first time ever I was able to spend hours and hours studying and learning. This was extremely rare for me and I actually did well on the exams.

Classes involved doing wine tastings and learning about different regions in the world. I loved it. A few weeks into the sommellerie program, my teacher presented our class with the opportunity to participate in a wine competition. Like the competition in cooking school, we first had to participate in a preliminary competition with the other kids in class then the winner went on to compete against other sommellerie schools at La Grande Dégustation de Montréal.

I finished first in my class so I went on and competed to win a trip to Portugal. Once again I used my hyperfocus superpower to study for the competition. I had to learn everything about Portuguese wine from the terroir and regions to the local cuisine. The competition involved three parts: Part 1 was a written exam, Part 2 was a question and answer period in front of an audience and Part 3 was an individual presentation describing the tasting notes of a glass of wine.

Uh-oh! As you may have caught on to already, presentations were not my strong suit. This is the part of the story where I would usually run away and do everything I could to avoid doing any form of speaking in front of people. Not this time! I was determined not to let my fear of public speaking get in my way, so I started to work with a psychologist to address my anxiety and fear of public speaking. It helped me to know that I was doing something to help myself, and work on my anxiety.

‘I was determined not to let my fear of public speaking get in my way, so I started to work with a psychologist to address my anxiety and fear of public speaking.’

I now know that part of my fear of public speaking is because of my poor working memory. Lucky for me, when I hyperfocus on something I’m passionate about, my interest trumps my poor working memory and stuff like the steps for the tasting notes in a glass of wine doesn’t slip my mind.

Fast forward to the day of the competition and I was a nervous wreck! My anxiety was through the roof and I had so many doubts about myself. My mind was a constant loop of “what ifs” and talking myself down. I remember talking to my Dad on the phone, crying and saying how I couldn’t do it. I had studied so hard and totally set myself up for success yet I didn’t want to go through with it.

My dad encouraged me to take it one step at a time and at least go inside, so I did. Once inside going through the motions became easier and I began to socialize. Before I knew it, I was into Part 1 of the competition and then Part 2. I remember being backstage waiting for my turn to go for Part 3 – the presentation – like it was yesterday. I was backstage telling another girl that I wasn’t going to go up, it was my turn next and I just wasn’t going to do it. She looked at me like I was crazy.

Alyssa Shaw at sommellerie competition

I don’t remember what it was but all of a sudden something in me changed: I got mad. I started to think of all the time and energy that I put into studying for this exam. The help that I got from my teacher to prepare me for what to expect, the time my friends and family spent quizzing me and not to mention the people in the audience that came out to cheer me on! I started to rehearse the steps that I needed to present from the tasting notes and I started to tell myself things like I deserved to go on stage.

Next thing I knew I had a microphone on my face and I was speaking! I honestly have no idea how it went or what I said because I totally blacked out. My parents and teachers said that I did very well. My parents were especially impressed because they knew how hard it was for me to get on stage. One of the judges came up to me afterwards and said that I did an amazing job, especially since I had only been in Sommellerie school for just over a few months. To this day that wine competition was a huge turning point in my life – I proved to myself that I could succeed and perform in spite of my anxiety.

Once again, when I finished Sommellerie school and exited into “the real world,” my lack of self-confidence got the best of me. The industry is quite competitive, which led me to internally focus on all the things that I am not instead of all the things that I am.

‘To this day that wine competition was a huge turning point in my life – I proved to myself that I could succeed and perform in spite of my anxiety.’

In spite of the anxiety I was experiencing, I was starting to find my own way. I was finally starting to explore who I was and what I wanted rather than making decisions based on wanting to be with my friends. I still had no idea what I wanted to pursue so I decided to start my own business. A friend of mine from cooking school agreed to experiment my idea with me: We would cook meals, vacuum seal and freeze them, and sell them, marketing the idea of quick meals that the consumer can store in their freezer, boiling them in water for seven minutes straight from frozen. No mess, no stress, fast and easy! We called it Easy Peasy Meals.

We quickly learned that this business wouldn’t be profitable unless we commercialized our process, and that idea wasn’t attractive to me. I now know that entrepreneurship and a mind overflowing with new and incomplete ideas is very typical of someone with ADHD. Can you relate?

At the same time I was trying my hand at a business that wasn’t going to make me any money, I decided to move out with a friend of mine. With rent looming each month, it quickly became clear that I needed some money. I gave up my pursuit of turning one of my passions into a revenue generator, and applied to a bunch of jobs I found on Kijiji.

I got the first job I interviewed for. This was a new company and it was just the owner and I working in the office. Little did I know that this was a recipe for disaster. He was extremely demanding and I, being a people-pleaser with zero boundaries, wanted to make him happy. I would work 10-hour days, then go home and think more about work. I was emotionally invested in this business and it took a lot out of me. All my time and energy was going toward this job. Once again, my boss said ‘jump’ and I asked how high.

After a year and a half of this craziness I entered burnout and realized that this job was not worth it. Once again I was lost and felt like a failure. I had quit another thing. This was extremely damaging for my already low self-esteem. What I didn’t yet realize was that all this time, I’d been trying to follow a path that I hadn’t paved myself. I was trying to make other people happy about the direction I was taking my life in.

‘… I stumbled across a TED Talk called Failing at Normal by Jessica McCabe. I cannot remember what it was that grabbed my attention about this video… Now I know that it was because I could see myself in Jessica.’

After I quit my job, my dad suggested that I come to work for his business. At this job, I could perform my work while listening to music, podcasts and TED Talks. One day, I stumbled across a TED Talk called Failing at Normal by Jessica McCabe. I cannot remember what it was that grabbed my attention about this video; there was just something about her that I was interested in. Now I know that it was because I could see myself in Jessica.

This one TED Talk changed everything.

I saw myself in what she described, and my emotions overcame me. I began to cry out of relief; I felt that I finally had my answer! I now knew why everything seemed so much harder for me. Even though I was totally overcome with emotions and I so strongly felt that I resembled this woman, Jessica McCabe, a part of me had doubts. Could this really be my explanation? Was I completely crazy in thinking that I had ADHD?

I had once thought I had this thing called ADHD and been told that it wasn’t real. Wasn’t this a disorder for hyperactive and annoying boys? I needed validation. I needed someone else to confirm my suspicions so I reached out to my family and close friends. I remember asking them what they thought and if they could see the resemblance in my symptoms and Jessica’s. Turns out that my family and friends could see it too.

My dad helped me to do research so that I could get an official diagnosis from someone who specializes in ADHD. I was so overwhelmed by the amount of options (coaching, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.) so I ended up turning to my psychologist that I had seen for my anxiety. She was a familiar face and I knew what to expect with her. We went through multiple sessions of tests and in the end I was diagnosed with combined ADHD, comorbid anxiety. Here is where my journey to understanding and loving myself began!


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