Some might think it’s impossible not to know you have ADHD until you are an adult. And yet that was me. At 50ish, I entered menopause, an empty nest and was diagnosed with ADHD.
I had always worked hard at life. I knew I was smart yet studied twice as hard for OK grades. Felt socially inept and always had the nagging feeling that I was different. I spent college in the library while roommates were out partying. A rigid system of checks, balances, lists and calendars, kept my head above water. At 20 I was diagnosed with depression. At 35 with anxiety. No one mentioned, nor did I even consider I could have ADHD. Not even after my sons and husband were diagnosed. They were the ones that created the chaos. I was the one who organized it. Or so the story went.
At 50, everyone but me recognize my symptoms of ADHD. At menopause the overwhelm, inattention, brain fog and forgetfulness got to be too much. I was sinking. My life raft came in the form of a good friend who had been diagnosed with ADHD. In her I recognized myself. Admitting it to myself first and then to my psychiatrist, I started Adderall and life came into focus. I realized I no longer needed to hold on so tight to the constant worry to keep me focused. My anxiety and depression left. That is my experience of being diagnosed with adult ADHD.
Your story and experience, if you were diagnosed as an adult with ADHD, might be a bit different. It’s possible that you spent the first 18 or more years of your life agonizing over why you felt so different. Working harder than most. Tormenting yourself over social situations or even thinking you were somehow broken.
There might have been a never-ending narrative in your mind repeating all the things you kept doing wrong. Reprimanding you for unforeseen mistakes, failures or forgets. Wondering why you could never “get it” quite right. Knowing but being afraid to admit that you learned differently. Feeling alone or isolating yourself. Being rejected or, feeling rejected. Never feeling at peace with your brain or yourself. Your actions and behavior being misunderstood by your family, doctor, teachers and therapist.
Keeping and maintaining friends might have been a challenge. Missing unspoken and unseen social cues. Interrupting, difficulty following the flow of conversations or simple boredom with all the small talk. And if you thought you had offended someone; your rejection sensitivity would have you isolating for days. Self doubt would set in. The shame and self-blame would be all consuming.
Reaching the neurotypical milestones of academic or occupation success might have felt out of reach. Maintaining a job for more than 6-12 months was a dream. Never realized due to constant lateness, missing deadlines, not completing or forgetting tasks. Those or countless other violations of some unknown unspoken social norm.
Relationships were unpredictable. There might be the occasional friend that was a misfit like you. Living with other people was a challenge. Compromise was difficult. You wanted to have a fulfilling successful relationship. And even then, it might not work out.
There were of course moments of hope. Times, maybe days or months when things mysteriously came together. Life was good…for awhile. But the tides would eventually change, you’d get overwhelmed, quit, get bored or offend in some way. The excruciating process of beating yourself up would begin again. You would swear as the rejection sensitivity, anxiety or depression took over that next time it would be different. But it wasn’t…not really.
And then just maybe, as an adult after all the childhood doctors, therapists, teachers and even parents had done their best, you meet someone. A new therapist, a new doctor or an ADHD Life Coach. A person who asks if you ever thought that you might have ADHD. Maybe because they noticed similarities in your behavior and what they had experienced. ADHD might be something you never even considered. Dumbfounded and complete disbelief would be a normal response. Wouldn’t something like ADHD be discovered or diagnosed by someone long before?
And then, after a couple of minutes or hours of adamantly denying the suggestion, you go home. Home where you spend the next week researching online stories and experiences of people just like you. People telling their stories of being diagnosed as an adult with ADHD. You google, buy or listen to every book you can find related to ADHD in adults. You read every list of ADHD characteristics and realized how many describe you. You watch TED Talks, read blogs and articles, and visit numerous websites about ADHD adults.
And the more you learn and resonate with each person’s story a weight is lifted. Is that hope you feel in your heart? Are those tears of sadness, grief and relief as the words and their experiences ring true for you also? Did you feel the world pause for just a moment as you realize that the answers you had been searching for were right there?
Did you say to yourself, “I am ADHD.” Did you turn and say it to someone else?
Did you wonder why it took so long for you and others to understand this? Wonder how the diagnosis was overlooked. Missed by psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists growing up. And how was it that the idea that you might have ADHD never even once come into your own mind. Hadn’t you known or know people with ADHD?
The answer is simple. Unawareness and stigma.
Unawareness in the way ADHD symptoms present themselves so differently in every person with ADHD. Not all people with ADHD are hyperactive. And not all hyperactivity with ADHD is physical. For many their hyperactivity shows itself in an anxious, busy or daydreaming brain.
Stigma from hundreds of years of misinformation about the symptoms, cause and treatment for ADHD. ADHD symptoms have been documented in the literature over 300 years. Yet only in the last 25 years have we realized that it is a disorder that continues to impact adults. Most people do not outgrow ADHD. It continues to challenge an adult’s social, academic, personal and/or professional success. Most adults with ADHD don’t even realize it until their children or grandchildren are diagnosed.
Add to this the lack of understanding about the medication treatment of ADHD. A “stimulant” medication is called that because it helps to activate important neurotransmitters in the ADHD person’s brain. If you have ADHD it does not “stimulate” your body. Many people who take stimulant medication for their ADHD sleep better and feel more relaxed.
Unfortunately, there continues to be widespread disbelief and misunderstanding about ADHD. Interesting because it is a well documented medical condition…right there in the same diagnostic book as depression and anxiety.
To be diagnosed with ADHD you must have very specific symptoms. No, not everyone has a little ADHD. Maybe it would help if well known media personalities or T.V. shows depicting ADHD in a positive light were more popular. Somehow the stigma is that people with ADHD are lazy and unmotivated. In school, their overwhelm, frustration and learning differences have them labeled as “behavior problems”. If there is a more misunderstood label…being a “behavior problem” is it.
People still associate ADHD with being young and male. Someone who can’t sit still and doesn’t do well in school. Those children get little if any encouragement for their intelligence, curiosity, creativity, interests and strengths. There is little appreciation for the valuable, brilliant adult person yet to emerge.
ADHD is stereotyped. And like most stereotypes it is woefully wrong. The diversity of the ADHD experience is underrepresented. ADHD is multifaceted with much diversity in symptoms and solutions. Persons with ADHD are characteristically intelligent, creative, inventive, outspoken, brave, heroic, and everything else.
Having spent the last 20 years working with and advocating for persons with ADHD, I am confused as to how it is still such a misunderstood medical condition. However, I think I may have identified at least one key reason why this is. People with ADHD are made to feel ashamed of their ADHD. So, they try to hide it and certainly don’t talk about it. They expend enormous energy pretending or trying to be like everyone else. They apologize for their ADHD symptoms. And then beat themselves up trying to overcome and mask the natural way their neurodiverse brain works.
And instead of fitting in, persons with ADHD spend an incredible amount of their life hiding their symptoms. Trying to be something or someone they were never meant, nor ever were going to be. Everyone loses when this happens. The ADHD person never gets the chance to fully express their uniqueness and the rest of us miss out on their brilliance.
Discovering you have ADHD is never too late. Even as an adult. Even if you are in your 50s, 60s or 80s. Once you understand you have ADHD, you can let go of all the “shoulds”. You can begin living your life appreciating yourself for who you are. It may take discovering new ways of managing certain challenges. Learning new things about yourself and your ADHD brain. But just imagine embracing your whole self. Realizing that you are quite an amazing person.
No matter how old you are when you discover you have ADHD, there is peace in finally realizing the answers. It is a chance to be gentler with ourselves. To lay down the stick and instead reward ourselves for our successes. Knowing that life is a work in progress and that with ADHD you are amazing and different.
Want to read more about getting diagnosed with ADHD or being an adult with ADHD?
- Moving Forward with an ADHD Diagnosis
- My ADHD Slip is Showing
- The Beautiful Brain: Celebrating the Differences, Diversity and Divinity of the ADHD Brain
- ADHD Diagnosis