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It's official: I have ADHD and life now feels differently the same...
I’ve recently received an official ADHD diagnosis, from a qualified psychiatrist, at the ripe old age of 49. In fact, he called it “a high severity” of ADHD and said I should give myself a “pat on the back” for how well I’ve coped. His report arrived in my inbox yesterday and confirmed in writing that I have the combined subtype of ADHD, a mix of inattentive and hyperactive, with a leaning towards inattentive.
It’s wild to now have a name and explanation for behaviours, reactions and intense experiences I’ve had my entire life but had no idea were connected. It’s like I had all the jigsaw pieces but couldn’t put them together and someone’s just handed me the cover of the jigsaw box — I can finally see the whole picture.
Immediately after the assessmentI felt high from the effort of sharing so intensely. Later, once I’d eaten and come back down to earth, I felt incredibly vulnerable. The psychiatrist’s questions invited me to explain some of the most awkward and odd parts of myself. He said not everyone’s experience of ADHD will look the same and he’s diagnosed highly successful people, those whose life has been an endless struggle and everyone in-between. When I started to suspect I had ADHD (shared in this post here) I assumed I couldn’t have it “that bad” if I was able to still run my business. Now I see that while I’ve been intuitively developing coping strategies and workarounds in my WORK life — and some weren’t so great, like three chocolate bars a day for dopamine hits while I was writing my first book — I’ve been struggling the most in my NON-work life.
After reeling from the vulnerability I felt post-assessment the next thing I wanted to do was email my ex-boyfriend to say “This is why I was like that! This is why!” As I read more and learn more I’ve felt grief, shame, anger, frustration and elation as decades of suspicions and not-so-subtle digs that there was something wrong with me unravel. Now I know why some aspects of my life were harder to fathom and “get right”. After all the struggles I had in relationships and dating it’s no wonder I’ve reached 49 without a partner or children — and I don’t note that in a sad or bitter way. It’s become a conscious choice because it’s easier on my mind, body and energy to do life solo.
I’ve learned how people with ADHD lack a sense of object permanence, meaning if a person or thing is out of my sight it’s out of my mind. It’s why I’ll forget to check-in with you (and never ring my mum) but when we’re together it’s like no time has passed. I’m a loyal and loving friend, and it’s not that I’m choosing not to think of you when I don’t see you, I’m just so consumed by the nowness of my brain, I don’t always remember you exist :-)
Some words that have been thrown at me over the years: Over-sensitive. Needy. Obsessive. Moody. “What’s wrong with you?” heard in my own head and from the mouths of partners. The agony of trying to just go with the flow and be like everyone else when all I feel is discomfort. Of how the sound of the radio hurts me physically and not knowing how to explain that — oh my god, it’s Susannah asking for the sound to be turned down yet again. To “turn the big light off” in a room. Telling a dear friend “I’m right here” when she’s talking too loudly in my face. I don’t think any of those things endear me to people. I’m better at awkwardly asking for what I need now but when I think back to teen and 20-something me, my heart aches.
All of this high sensitivity is how I experience the world with a neurodivergent brain. Right now I can hear decorators sanding the woodwork on my neighbour’s house and I want to shove knitting needles into my eardrums. Each and every sound is tagged as important in my brain — nothing ever fades into the background, my body always reacting to everything everywhere all at once. It’s making it hard to focus on writing this post.
Already today I’ve pruned the ivy back from the fence in my garden, which I impulsively decided to do as I waited for the Velvetiserto make my hot chocolate (dopamine hit - check). This took me half an hour and then I remembered I was trying to get this post finished so I came back inside and got distracted by the rash on my forearm (from the ivy - doh) and fell down a google hole researching that. Then it was lunch time. Then I found myself on YouTube. Then the decorators started sanding again so I’m back on google researching ear plugs (headphones give me a headache)… and on it goes. I’ve been writing this post in this way for three days. I have built my entire business in this way, with occasional six-week sprints of hyper-focussed course creation before completely burning out.
Here’s the bit I want to bring awareness to:
ADHD is a neurochemical condition (not a psychological one) that affects behavior on various levels: – attention – activity – impulsivity. A diagnosis of ADHD requires that these behaviors be chronic (meaning you have had them a long time) and severe (impacting your life negatively in serious ways, more so than other people) [source]
We’re born like this. Yes, everyone occasionally experiences some of the symptoms and behaviours that ADHDers have, but when you’re neurodivergent it doesn’t come and go — it’s wired into your operating system. So a decreased attention span because the pandemic got you hooked on TikTok and the forgetfulness that happens in an over-scheduled week doesn’t mean you have ADHD. But if it’s a problem that’s impacted you your entire life, then it might be worth looking into.
Like most people, I assumed ADHD was just something hyperactive little boys have. I assumed it was a thing kids have and grow out of (they don’t). It would not have even occurred to me that the stuff I’ve always struggled with could be explained by ADHD. “ADHD“ is not a good enough name for what is more accurately described as neurodivergence. I don’t have a deficit of attention, I have a surplus, an avalanche, a tsunami of attention on everything, every thought, feeling, memory, every sound, smell, sensation. I recently read it described like having a Ferrari mind with old bicycle brakes — I have all this often wonderful divergent thinking but it’s like a firehose I can’t control. Occasionally I’ll slip into hyperfocus, and those moments are blissful and the reason I create systems to give me deadlines to get things done, but I can’t focus at will. I told the psychiatrist this was the end result I hoped for from a diagnosis. To find ways — medication, tools, techniques, a deeper understanding — to help me focus at will.
It doesn’t surprise me that ADHD’s having a social media moment and that so many are announcing their diagnosis. At last we have the information to be able to see the clues that have always been there. There isn’t a perfect brain and a broken brain and you get one or the other — there’s a whole spectrum of brains and I think we are all somewhere on that curve! Plus there’s this:
An entire demographic of women is now being referred to as a “lost generation,” because an extensive amount of depression and anxiety surface as a result of internal experiences that don’t match up with what the world expects or how the world views such women—since they appear to function “normally” on the outside. This lack of awareness and understanding is largely due to neglect on the part of researchers because study samples often rely on streamlined populations of men; therefore, doctors, therapists, teachers, and police officers just don’t know what a woman with ADHD, Asperger’s, synesthesia, SPD, or high sensitivity might “look like” or how she might act. As a result, thousands of women have no name for their life experiences and feelings. [source]
I went to an all-girls grammar school in the 80s and nobody was picking up on anything back then. I was a daydreaming inward-looking child and a moody teen, but I got my homework done the night before and did okay in my exams. I can see how I used my ability to hyperfocus at the last minute to get through school and college as there were always deadlines and due dates. It was only when I left my newspaper job to go freelance at 30 that I lost the structures that had helped me work to neurotypical standards. Without any external deadlines to build my business I had limited success as a freelance writer. I couldn’t “get it together” to save my life. I thought I was just lazy, even though I wanted it to work so much, but making the calls, pitching the ideas and networking was beyond me. I spent days — months! — paralysed with inaction, somehow missing the ignition key that everyone else seemed to have.
And how am I able to work now, 20 years later? With a lot of effort and compromises, and I’ll definitely be writing more about what’s been working at a later date.
Combined ADHD is a mix of both inattentiveness and hyperactivity. My hyperactivity manifests in fidgeting — two big ones for me are twiddling my hair constantly and frequently changing position while seated at my desk (I’ve spent thousands trying to find a “comfortable” chair when it turns out it was me all along!). But the outward manifestation is minor compared to the hyperactivity that exists WITHIN me. I cannot switch off. Like a laptop that’s never fully powered down, I’m always ON. It feels like an internal restlessness and explains why I’ve always slept so poorly — I skim the surface of unconsciousness, having Technicolor dreams that leave me exhausted in the morning. It’s like living a second life in the night and frankly I hate it.
Getting a diagnosis at 49 has brought up so much grief, so many what ifs and what could have beens, but I also feel better equipped to just be with what is. I can see how much of my life I’ve shrunk down to a size I can handle as I’ve gotten older — if I’d been diagnosed in my 20s it would have been very different. I deeply appreciate having this new understanding of myself. Having answers I didn’t know I was missing has been hugely…. amazing, in a way. Surprising. Validating. And very very emotional.
So I don’t plan to become The ADHD Person online, but I will talk about this more and share my findings because my butterfly brain loves nothing more than exploring a new obsession. I also know I can get caught up in the moment and promise things I won’t necessarily follow through on — I’m learning my ADHD impulsivity can make me hyper and hoo boy, does THAT explain a few things!
There’s a lot of complain-explaining in this post, and yes, sometimes I want to stomp my foot at the crapness of a brain that makes life harder. But then I catch myself — this invisible difference has its challenges, but I’ve lived with it for 49 years in an able body. There’s been discomfort and disappointments, self-doubt and shame, but it’s already given me a greater empathy for just how diverse we all are, and how real and debilitating any kind of mental disorder is. And don’t get me get started on the stigma that surrounds it all.
So let me finish with a question: if I could take a pill tomorrow and have a “normal” brain would I do it? Today my answer would be no. Even with the noise torture and chronic distractibility and eternal ON and rubbish sleep, I’m realising that I value having a brain that makes me extra creative, imaginative and quick to make people smile. It turns out some of my favourite things about myself are down to this divergent brain.
Of course, tomorrow I may answer differently, but I probably won’t remember the question :-)
The assessment lasted 90 minutes on Zoom, plus I completed several questionnaires beforehand. I decided to go private because the NHS waiting list (I’m in the UK) is a year and so I prioritised this in my budgeting. You do not need to get a referral from your GP to have an ADHD assessment — I went with Clinical Partners.
The Velvetiser is one of the best kitchen gadgets I have ever purchased. No really, it’s amazeballs.