My ADHD and me
I am not a medical expert. This post is my own personal experience, where I outline some of my traits and how I managed to get a diagnosis.
If you don't want to read the whole thing, you can skip to the section about how I got my ADHD diagnosis.
I also do talks about this topic, you can view the slides for 'My ADHD and Me'
Figuring out I was different
"Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." I was 35 when the Psychiatrist confirmed it.
I felt conflicted. I'd spent years in counselling trying to figure out the inside of my own head. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of who I was. Now, I doubted if I knew myself at all.
I knew I had quirks. Looking at them now, some of them are textbook ADHD traits. But I also struggle a lot with Impostor Syndrome, Anxiety and Depression. This obviously made my ADHD difficult to diagnose because a lot of the traits can also be attributed to these comorbid conditions.
Because of this, ADHD was not something I'd ever really considered. It was actually my partner, Eliza, who first suggested that's what it could be.
I guess, like most of society, I had a preconceived idea of what ADHD looked like; and it wasn't particularly positive.
The term ADHD is flawed
ADHD is a complex condition which most of society doesn't understand.
Breaking it down into 3 negative traits doesn't do much to help. 'Attention Deficit', 'Hyperactivity' and 'Disorder' are all unflattering terms. It implies people with ADHD are abnormal, easily distracted and wayward.
This is likely why there is a stigma attached to ADHD. A lot of people assume we'll be running around the office, getting high on blue smarties, not doing any work and being disruptive.
The term ADHD, and much of society's views, are largely derived from observations by Sir George Still in the early 1900s.
Still was a British Paediatrician who described some children as having 'an abnormal defect of moral control'. He often described these children as intelligent, but went on to say they could not control their behaviour in the same way 'typical children' could.
But, Still's arguments for children having a lack of moral control and 'serious problems with sustained attention', appear to be entirely based on them being unable to pay attention to things which he considered to be the priority.
So, yes, ADHD is a focus problem, but calling it a deficit of attention or suggesting people are just too hyperactive to remain focused is often misleading. This is perhaps why ADHD is so misunderstood.
Because it's a focus issue, it may come as a surprise that people with ADHD often have an unrivalled ability to hyperfocus. However, they cannot always utilise it on tasks which they do not find inspiring. It isn't simply a deficit of attention or being too hyperactive to focus. If anything, it's too much focus or attention to detail, just sometimes on the wrong things.
In the New Zealand language of Te Reo Māori, the word for ADHD is 'Aroreretini' which means: 'attention goes to many things'. In my opinion, this is a much clearer way to describe what's really going on. It acknowledges that people with ADHD do pay attention, but that it isn't always focused on one thing.
My ADHD traits
Like a lot of conditions, ADHD is a spectrum. Everybody is different and we can have varying levels of impairment. But, we all often share common traits. The following issues are my experience of ADHD, but it's important to remember that somebody else's experience might be totally different.
My personal organisation is two complete extremes. Anything which is important or expensive has a dedicated space and I know where it is at all times. This is usually a bag or a section of a drawer. Anything else just gets lost regularly and I usually have more than 1 to reduce the frustration of trying to find it when I need it.
I'm not the kind of person who can have 1 bag. I can't just swap out the contents. If I do that I'll always lose or forget important stuff. I'm the kind of person that needs multiple bags set up for a particular purpose. This way, I don't have to stress about everything I need for a particular activity, I just need to pick up the right bag.
I'm always losing things. I'm always saying to myself 'Argh, I literally just had it!' Although sometimes, I have to admit it is pretty funny, like the time my wireless keyboard eventually turned up in the fridge.
Task management and hyperfocus
Our entire work lives and personal lives revolve around setting and completing tasks. Because I fluctuate between procrastination and hyperfocus, managing tasks can get quite difficult.
I can prioritise tasks fine on paper, but executing them in order is a challenge. I'll always gravitate towards the interesting tasks first, or accidentally work on them without realising my attention has drifted from the priority.
I also find additional tasks within the current task, and if it is more inspiring than the one I'm currently doing, my focus unwittingly locks onto that. I sometimes snap back to reality after an hour or so of intensely working on something, only to realise it's the wrong task. There was no deficit of attention. I was laser focused! The thing I was working on was still important, it just wasn't the priority.
People who do not have ADHD, or those people who George Still considered to be 'typical'; they seem to be able to prioritise tasks, focus on 1 at a time, and complete them in order until they are all done.
Because I can lock onto a task and stay focused for 7 or 8 hours without distraction, I couldn't understand how I could possibly have an 'Attention Deficit Disorder'. But, as my psychiatrist pointed out: 'If you spend 8 hours on a task and you forgot to eat or check in with your family, then maybe you were distracted from life.'
Timekeeping and sleep patterns
My ability to monitor or predict time is flawed. It is sometimes known as time blindness.
Most animals, humans included, have a built-in biological clock known as circadian rhythm. It gives living things a way to interpret daily cycles and provides a sense of time even if they can't read a man-made clock.
For example, Eliza can be in a room with no windows and correctly estimate the time. She can somehow calculate how many hours and minutes have passed since the last time she knew the time accurately. And, She's rarely more than about 20 minutes out.
It blows my mind. To me, it's alien. How can she just know? How can there just be a feeling that it's 4pm, and it is? I just don't have that. If I try and guess the time I'm often several hours out.
Einstein determined that time is relative. It changes depending on how fast you're travelling. For my ADHD brain, this couldn't be more true! If my brain is racing, a minute can feel like an hour. If my brain is focused, an hour can feel like a minute.
This lack of instinct for time means I rely heavily on routine and structure. Each day, I set around 20 alarms, and I have to make a real effort to stick to routines or I can easily end up nocturnal. If I rely on my own body clock to go to bed, my entire sleep cycle just shifts by a few hours a day until it is completely inverted.
Hobbies and Interests
I get consumed by new interests, only to suddenly find them utterly disinteresting a few weeks later.
I'm a quick learner. I'll obsess over a new thing and develop fairly quickly up to a point, but I rarely have the focus to see any of them through to mastery.
The pattern is often:
- Discover new thing
- Become obsessed with it
- Buy tools and equipment
- Get bored
- Go back to step 3 a few times
- Quit and sell everything
I wouldn't say I'm entirely a 'Jack of all trades, and a master of none'. I do stick some things out. But I certainly have a lot of skills which are not at a level to be considered either useful or impressive.
Impulsivity is a particular challenge. Because it can bind itself to some of the other issues and create destructive behaviours.
Studies suggest people with ADHD are more likely to struggle with addiction because we appear to regulate important brain chemicals like dopamine differently.
We get hooked on the highs of the dopamine hits, and insidiously justify our behaviours to ourselves to get more of them. It could be why your diet always starts on Monday, why your credit cards are always maxed out, or why going out for 'a few drinks' always ends up with you staggering home from a rave at 7am.
These days, the two things I still consistently struggle with are junk food and impulsive purchases. It's difficult to avoid eating things and buying things. It's part of everyday life, you can't abstain, nobody will notice or stage an intervention, and the marketing barrage is both perfectly legal and relentless.
Emotions can be a challenge. I struggle with highs that are too high, and lows that are too low. In the extremes I get overwhelmed and my ability to process any kind of emotion becomes impaired. It's complete numbness. Just an absolute lack of feeling for anything good or bad.
In these times I can't find tears and I can't find joy. I become disinterested in hobbies and I can seem cold or robot-like.
These days, thankfully, I can recognise this for what it is. Eliza is incredibly understanding, and we can just ride it out. It can last a few hours, or a few weeks, but eventually the feelings always come back.
If you relate to this, there is a great blog post by Stacey Turis called emotional numbness and the spectrum of ADHD feelings.
How I got my ADHD diagnosis
I have to again stress this is my personal journey. Other peoples experiences or advice may vary. I am not paid by or in any way affiliated with any services I recommend in this section.
NHS vs Private
I'm a huge supporter of the NHS. But unfortunately, whenever I've tried to access their mental health services, they seemed completely overwhelmed.
When I needed counselling, I was told the waiting list for NHS Talking Therapies would be more than 12 months. If I was suicidal, or what they deemed to be 'in crisis', it was reduced, but it was still estimated to be around 3 months.
I ended up getting counselling through an incredible organisation called North East Counselling Services. It's around £45 per session, but they do sometimes have funding available to be able to offer it at a reduced cost or for free.
Anxious Minds is another North East mental health service which can offer reduced price counselling.
For my ADHD diagnosis, through the NHS, I would have been looking at around 15 to 24 months at least. Because it's a lengthy and expensive process, there seems to be a greater desire just to write prescriptions to treat those comorbid conditions like anxiety and depression. So, I often came away from the GP meetings with anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, rather than the answers I needed.
I got my ADHD diagnosis through an organisation called Psychiatry UK. But, unfortunately, it looks like at this time they don't have any appointments available until October 2022. This again highlights the overwhelming need for more mental health services in the UK.
Although Psychiatry UK is booked up, most Psychiatrists should be able to help privately with an ADHD diagnosis, but I will talk about some of the pitfalls I've learned about doing it this way.
A private diagnosis is expensive
My diagnosis cost me around £360.
For me, this was money well spent. I'd already worked a lot of my issues out through counselling, and with my coping strategies in place, at this time, I don't feel like I need medication.
However, if you do need medication, it can get incredibly expensive. It will cost you around £80 in nurse fees. £25 in prescription fees. And around £150 to buy a 28 days supply of Elvanse.
It's not even like you can just get the diagnosis privately and then go to your GP to work out the medication and the dose. You won't be allowed on NHS dispensation until you have worked with your private physician to get the dosage correct.
As I have not gone down this route, I'm not sure how long it could take. But it could potentially cost hundreds if not thousands of pounds more.
Life after the diagnosis
When I was first diagnosed, I doubted if I knew myself at all. But now, I embrace the fact that I'm a bit different.
ADHD does not define me as a person. But, whether I like it or not, it is part of who I am. It always has been though. Those traits have always been there. I just understand them a bit better now.
I've talked a lot about the negatives, but there are many positives to ADHD which are never really discussed.
ADHD can be overwhelming, erratic and destructive, but if you can tame it, sometimes it can almost feel like a super-power.
The constant curiosity to learn and understand new things. The ability to completely lose yourself in the things you love. Working on things which interest you for hours without tiring. The creativity and problem solving ability of a brain which is constantly thinking at full-speed, 24 hours a day.
If you can harness these things, treat them with care and look after yourself, ADHD can be a gift. But if you abuse these things or burn yourself out, then ADHD is definitely a curse.
I'm what some people might call a do'er. I'm passionate and I get shit done. But I don't look after myself properly. I work too many hours and I burn out regularly. So I won't pretend to have everything figured out.
I'm still learning. Still adapting. Still trying to strategise my way around this.
My new year's resolution for 2022 is to find a better work-life-balance. To stop working 10 hour days or on my days off, and to spend more time doing things I love with the people I love.
I talk openly about my mental health issues, but I know a lot of people may not want to. If there's anything in this post which has struck a chord or you want to know more about, you can message me on Twitter. My DM's are always open.