Dani Donovan is an artist and designer who has risen to internet stardom through her honest, unfiltered comics that capture the highs and lows of the ADHD experience. We sat down with her to learn about her ADHD journey and the inspiration behind her viral comics.
Name, Age: Dani Donovan, 29 years old
City, State: Omaha, Nebraska
ADHD Combined Subtype
Age of Diagnosis: 18
Profession: Comic Artist, Comedian
Can you tell us about your ADHD journey?
When I was younger, I flew under the radar because my symptoms weren’t as apparent. I had support in place and I was lucky enough to develop a lot of coping mechanisms. I had always been different but my teacher had told my parents “She’s too smart, she can’t have ADHD.”
Grade school structure I could do… Be at this class on time, or you get in trouble. When I got to college, I was just really depressed. Suddenly, that structure was completely gone and I am not good at creating structure for myself so college was hard. Everything was not working for me. I have a hard time sticking with anything in my life, I think us ADHDers are like that. Surprise.
I wasn’t even going to the doctor looking for an ADHD diagnosis, I assumed I just had depression. As soon as the doctor started asking questions about my childhood, she was like, “Hey, guess what? I got some news for you,” and diagnosed me my freshman year of college. It was this big relief for me to have a name to put on it and know, to some extent, that it wasn’t my fault.
I started on meds and then didn’t think about it anymore for 10 years. I never thought, “Oh, this must be my ADHD” or “I must have a hard time with this because this is my ADHD.” Now, I’m conscious and aware of how deeply ADHD affects my life and I think about it a lot.
What led you to your current profession as a designer and artist?
I have always known I wanted to be in art since I was a kid. My mom always helped me be creative. She’d have a little box with random stuff like Pringles cans asking, “What can we make out of this stuff?” I got to use that creativity and fell in love with the process of stimulating my brain to make stuff.
One day, I was in the back seat and saw a billboard for Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. There was a big tiger on it, saying “Let’s have lunch.” I looked at it and said, “That’s funny. Mom, who makes those?” She replied, “There’s an artist somewhere who gets paid to make billboards!”
Before that, I’d only thought of art as illustration. Then I had this moment of realization that everything around me – a Fanta bottle label, my Chapstick – was designed by someone.
When I was in 7th grade, I did some research and was like, “Oh, that’s graphic design. That is what I’m going to do.” I just have never wanted to really do anything else. By 8th grade, I was researching graphic design colleges. Overall, I really liked the challenge of thinking behind taking something complicated and making it simple and understandable, that’s what good design is. Good design looks effortless.
As I graduated from college, I did internships and different in-house design positions. For fun, I decided “I’m going to try stand-up comedy, it’s on my bucket list. I want to do it once.” So I did. I was good at it and have always loved public speaking. I’d go back every week for open mic night, writing my material the day of, literally 2 hours before, reviewing it in the bathroom, and then go on stage with my phone, and it always went over really well. I thought, “Man, all right. Jokes aren’t that hard. I love making people laugh.”
How did you get your start making comics about ADHD?
I had only heard ADHD as symptom lists in articles, they were always very clinical, never feelings from someone who’s been there.
When I found How to ADHD’s YouTube channel I bawled my face off watching the videos because I’d never heard a woman talking about her experiences with ADHD and how it affects her life.
She made it real for me; that was the “Aha, this is why you’re angry at yourself all the time. These things that you beat yourself up about, it didn’t even cross your mind that these could be ADHD. This is why you have a hard time cleaning out the back of your car, doing your laundry or grocery shopping.”
It felt like there was a void that I was seeing; people might know what ADHD is, what the symptoms are, or assume “Oh, it’s distractibility and having a hard time focusing and disorganized.” Those don’t mean anything. Those are just concepts and not specific. I think that level of specificity and vulnerability admitting, “There are shitty parts of living with ADHD. I can’t sit here and tell you it’s sunshine and rainbows and superpowers all day, because it’s not.”
Your first ADHD comic went viral. Can you tell us the story behind it?
It started as an inside joke between me and my coworkers. I made a joke that the conductor who runs my train of thought is really bad at his job, “He’s just really sleepy. He falls asleep at the wheel on the train.” We named him Donny Danovan.
Anytime I would get off track while telling stories they’d say, “Donny…” and I’d be like, “Oops, okay!” and it would bring me back a little bit; I found it helpful and it made me more self-aware.
One day we had been talking about Donny and I went home and just kind of sketched an illustrated flow chart on a piece of paper. I then drew it on my iPad and sent it to my coworker Lauren. She said, “Oh my gosh, this is so you.” She thought I found it somewhere on the internet. After realizing I drew it, she insisted, “You have to post it, you have to post it! It’s so good!”
I didn’t know if I should post it because our boss followed me on Instagram. I considered taking the ADHD part off because I didn’t talk about ADHD with people who followed me on the internet, but Lauren encouraged me to leave it. I posted it on Twitter since I didn’t know anyone on Twitter and thought “No one’s going to see this.”
That comic got really big and blew open everything. It was really a coming-out. I realized everyone in my life suddenly knew and I couldn’t go back to pretending I didn’t have it. It’s very scary to tell or not tell someone that you have ADHD, or ask what they think about ADHD. I figured, “It’s already done, so I guess I can talk about this now, because I already did.”
What was the response after your first comic went viral?
My husband was just ecstatic, “See? Fuck! Everyone knows how cool you are now.” My mom, because she’s my Mom, wanted me to be aware of what I put on social media and what that might mean for employers. But I don’t want to work for anyone who wouldn’t hire me on the basis of having ADHD or who wouldn’t hire me because I cuss because that’s who I am. I have ADHD and I cuss. If you don’t like that, you won’t like me, so I’m not going to pretend.
After the comic blew up, I pulled my boss into a meeting room to explain what happened, so he could hear it from me and have the chance to ask any questions. He was really great about it and replied, “How you think is different, and that’s why we hired you. Let me know if you need any accommodations.” It was the opposite of what my mom was worried about, that people don’t want you with ADHD or talking about it. It has been so great; I have not run into the issues that I did at past jobs.
My boss then had a window into my brain because I was constantly posting about things I struggle with, how my brain works, or how I worry that everyone’s mad at me all the time. He used to schedule meetings called “quick chats” for 4 hours in the future… I’d see that and immediately think, “I’m in trouble, I’m in trouble, what did I do?” I mentioned that to him saying, “I assume that I’m going to get fired, especially when there’s no context for what it’s about. It’s in the future. From now until then, I will not be focused on my job. I will be racking my brain trying to figure out what I did. Either put a little note on what it is, even if it’s a “new project” or something, just so I know not to freak out because I usually assume that it’s bad.”
Not even two months later, I was on BBC and he shared that with the COO of Gallup who responded, “I HAVE ALWAYS SAID ADHD IS A SUPERPOWER.” She was very excited about it. She gave me a shout out in front of the entire company at our monthly round table recognition saying, “We’ve got an employee who’s taking really important topics in mental health and ADHD, making them public, and talking openly about something that’s so vulnerable.”
What inspired you to keep making comics, and how do you get your ideas?
When the first one I made went viral, I thought “I peaked. Can’t do any more of these. Never going to be this good,” but it was the people, the comments, those who related; seeing how isolated and lonely other people had also been feeling. I decided, “Okay, I can make a couple more of these.”
Everything I make is based on my own experiences. Mostly, it’s just me processing my own feelings. Once I get them out, they’re not as scary anymore. I try to be positive sometimes, but a lot of my stuff’s kind of dark. It’s not meant to be “feel-good,” it’s meant to be real.
“I want everybody out there to be able to share a laugh, an internet hug, a bit of empathy, and a sigh of relief that they’re not alone in this.”Dani Donovan
I’m fortunate enough to be at this juncture in my life where I get to draw, make people laugh, talk about my feelings and past experiences and also travel to talk to people to reduce the stigma of mental health. This was not on purpose; I never would have guessed that this would be something that I would ever be doing. I don’t think it would’ve turned out this way if I tried to plan it. Maybe that’s why just every single day I’m still bewildered. I’m forging my own path.
If you could give your younger self a message what would it be?
Part of me would say “Stop beating yourself up for 10 years,” but another thinks, “Maybe if you didn’t beat yourself up for 10 years, you wouldn’t be where you are.” I would say “You’ve got really great things in store and you don’t even know about it yet, because you can’t see it. You just see everything that you’re not, you don’t see everything that you are. Focus on what you are because the people who love you, love who you are, and not what you are. They don’t really notice what you’re not.”
What advice or strategies have been the most helpful in navigating life with ADHD?
I’m not an advice person, there are more qualified people out there who do a ton of research and resources about tips and tricks. I love to give advice, but don’t get me wrong, I’m not your Mom. I want to be more like a big sister that feels like a friend.
I am not proud to say I have fucked-up teeth because I can’t take 30 seconds to call the dentist, and consequently have to spend a bunch of money to get my teeth fixed… all because I put off scheduling an appointment for two years. It’s hard to talk about that stuff. It’s embarrassing. But it’s a real struggle so many of us face on a daily basis.
Yes, it does just take me finally calling but there’s a lot of work and effort required to decide I will actually do it today, which later becomes, “I’m going to do that tomorrow.” My brain always defers to “Not now,” but I’m realizing if I don’t do it immediately, it will turn hang over my head and then I’m going to have to stress about “not now’s” forever. Deciding, “I’m going to do this right now,” and just doing it. That is all it takes. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.
I want to sit here and be able to feel my feelings, and my feelings are, this is really hard, and I need someone to acknowledge that without trying to fix me first.
A lot of it is learning to forgive yourself. Anyone with ADHD knows that pervasive voice that tells you to quit before you start because you’re just going to disappoint yourself. Having a really healthy relationship with the reality of how I actually work and knowing that has made that voice quieter. Having that self-acceptance and self-forgiveness that even if I’m not doing it at the same pace, knowing this isn’t finished or if I set it down for a second and I come back to it, I can’t be afraid that people are mad at me for not posting.
A lot of it is learning to forgive yourself.
I’ll tell myself, “You know you’re awesome. Stop doubting it.” It doesn’t always work, but sometimes I can talk myself out of certain things or be easier on myself remembering, “Hey, we felt this before and we got through it.” They’re those little reminders of things that are simple, memorable, and impactful. I now have an ADHD coach, Dusty, which has been incredibly helpful. Self-awareness has completely changed me and made all the difference.
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