I was diagnosed with ADHD in October of 2020. It was, as diagnoses go, not very interesting because the whole lead-up was such a common story. But I was thinking about that and realized that that was probably a good reason to tell it. Some adults with ADHD have a pretty easy time figuring everything out, and this is fantastic. But for many others, diagnosis goes one of two ways. Either we will realize something is not working right, and ask questions, and people will tell us that ADHD is only a thing for hyperactive boys so there’s no way we have it and we just need to try harder, or we will just assume we are a mess and that’s our inherently flawed personality, until someday a boulder of enlightenment hits us on the head and we go seeking answers. . Even for those who have an easy time, the fact that they’re getting diagnosed in adulthood means that it was missed when they were young, and they’ve been going through life with a ton of challenges they didn’t have to have. No matter how the process goes, those of us not diagnosed in childhood are dealing with adult ADHD and the process of diagnosing it, and this is often a minefield of questions, judgment, and self doubt. (
The Diagnosis Came Late, But The Patterns Started Early
If anyone suspected ADHD when I was a kid, no one said anything about it to me. I wasn’t hyperactive, I liked school, and I actually did pretty well. I was really talkative but very well-behaved. I, like many women, didn’t show the signs stereotypically associated with ADHD, especially as a girl in the 90s. I mostly struggled with organization and motivation. I sometimes did my homework, but often didn’t. If I did an assignment I’d forget to turn it in., or bring it to school and lose it, only to discover it in my backpack three weeks later. This was a consistent thread all through school. . Life became a vicious cycle of not doing homework, or doing it and then losing/forgetting it, then having my teachers tell my parents about the massive amounts of missing work I had, then them coming home and yelling at me to catch up on my assignments, then me cramming months worth of work into just a few weeks, spending a lot of time crying and feeling really overwhelmed, and then finally catching up and promising that I would never let it happen again. But I did.
College was better. The volume of busywork got smaller and the classes got more interesting, which makes a huge difference for someone with ADHD. . I was still struggling though. To cope, I learned how to bullshit my way through discussions, and how to look really engaged during lectures while I was actually instant-messaging friends. I couldn’t stay focused in classes, but everyone else seemed to be able to manage it, so even though I was a dedicated student who loved my classes and my teachers, I assumed I was just a slacker and vowed to try harder. Do you see the pattern yet?
Grad school was a different chapter of the same book. Others could seemingly keep up with the massive workload, juggle five projects, and sit through three-hour lectures without issue. They weren’t completely taken out of commission when things got overwhelming. If they needed to work they complained, but then they just sat down and did it without having an existential crisis. I couldn’t do that. And it got worse once I got out of classes and started writing my dissertation. Suddenly my external structure was gone, and I completely fell apart. I would try to talk myself into working for days, and wouldn’t be able to sit down to get started. I so desperately wanted to, and couldn’t understand why the wanting didn’t make it any easier. Weeks would go by and nothing would get done, and I would be bingeing Netflix and hating myself. This giant project with a thousand tasks and few external deadlines and huge power over my life settled in, and it started slowly crushing me.
Rock Bottom: The Place To Finally Start Playing ‘Connect The Dots’
What I know now as ADHD paralysis started impacting the rest of my life. I had always been horrible at keeping up with chores, but I got worse. I ordered takeout most nights because even trying to figure out what to make for dinner and how to make it would leave me overwhelmed and stuck for hours until I gave up. My problems with executive functioning had always been there, but they hadn’t ever been this bad. I didn’t feel like a lazy person, but results indicated otherwise, even for things I wanted to do, so that had to be it. . But every time I tried harder, things fell apart more. Eventually the dissonance got so bad that I had to start entertaining the idea that I wasn’t just a horrible person with a list of moral failings, but maybe something else was going on.
And then the pandemic hit, and everything went to hell in a thousand ways. While the world was turning into a giant dumpster fire, so was my ability to exist as a functioning adult. My coping strategies totally collapsed, and for the first time, I was forced to acknowledge that something was really wrong, and I needed help. I kept telling myself it was anxiety, or something else, because I didn’t feel I’d ‘earned’ an ADHD diagnosis. I would be letting myself off too easy if I entertained the idea that this was a neurodevelopment issue instead of me just being a terrible lazy person.
The Penny Didn’t Drop, Someone Had To Throw It At Me
Peer support was what finally pushed me to reach out. My roommate started doing research for me, and was convinced of my diagnosis long before I was. And once I started to entertain the idea, I had many friends with ADHD who talked to me and helped me process, and validated this new part of my identity.
I have a lot of thoughts on the way we diagnose ADHD, especially in adults, so I’ll save the full breakdown of my experience for another post. But the short version is that I actually had a fairly easy time getting diagnosed and getting medication. I resisted it for a while, because again it seemed like I’d be giving myself a pass. But I finally gave in on a busy day when I was exhausted and knew I had a lot to do. And it was… incredible. ADHD medication doesn’t fix you. It is a tool. But when those pills kicked in that first day, I felt like I was flying, and it wasn’t because I was high. For the first time in I couldn’t say how long, I felt like I had enough focus and energy to get through the day. I worked a four-hour tutoring shift and didn’t need to immediately lay down for two hours. I was certain that I couldn’t take over the world, but that I could probably do a load of laundry and still have enough mental capacity to cook dinner. The way my life had been going, the idea of doing both those things in the same day was unbelievable.
Moving Forward After Diagnosis
I’d like to say that my life completely turned around right after that. But it didn’t. Internalizing an ADHD identity, and the impostor syndrome that can come with it is a process, just like any other healing. I still sometimes wonder if it was real, or if I’m just making excuses. But I’m working on letting myself accept it. I continue to seek out peer support; I share my experiences and listen to other people who have the same issues I do that I thought were only my own personal faults. And very slowly it sinks in. I’m not a failure. I don’t have to throw myself into a shame spiral every time I fall short, which was my previous reality. I have to take responsibility when I make mistakes, but instead of kicking myself in the face, I can give myself grace, and learn ways to try to do better next time, armed with strategies that actually work for my brain.
Now that I’ve got a diagnosis, I can work on reframing how I think about myself. My challenges are symptoms, not inherent personality deficiencies. My brain is wired differently, not broken, and as annoying as it often is, this is who I am and it’s okay. With the help of peers and my awesome therapist, I have begun the long process of rewriting my internal narrative to include much more self-compassion, and finding ways to work with my brain instead of against it.
If This Is You…
If any of this post resonated with you, I urge you to do some research. I am *not* a doctor, and I *cannot* offer any kind of diagnosis, or even specifically suggest one. But there are so many folks with ADHD who never got diagnosed, so if you see yourself in my story, it doesn’t do any harm to do some reading and to talk to some people. If you don’t know where to start, or are intimidated by the amount of information out there, there are some amazing pages for ADHD memes, where a lot of people have found themselves. Bonus, they’re also hilarious. I’m personally a fan of Jen Has ADHD, because it is a fabulous page and she is a fabulous human being who has built an amazing community of ADHDers.
Just remember that you deserve not to have to go through life on hard mode. Whether you have ADHD, or something else, you deserve to be loved and cared for, and to have your problems taken seriously. I hope you can find support; it’s a game-changer when you do. And know that I see you. I believe you. I’ve got you. If you have questions, or just want to talk, please reach out in the comments. I’ll answer what I can from a lived-experience perspective, and others might have information too. At the very least, the more people who comment, the more people who will realize they’re not alone.
Be Well, everyone.