How My ADHD Diagnosis Is Helping Me Understand Myself

Maeve McQuillan
Apr 13, 2017 · Unlisted

At the beginning of January, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (inattentive type; formerly known as attention deficit disorder) at age 27. The diagnosis didn’t come as too much of a shock for me, as I had suspected it for a long time.

I started reading into ADHD a few years ago. I stumbled across an article about it when I felt like I was falling behind in my university assignments, and I was looking up methods to help myself concentrate and make better use of my time. I had never considered the possibility before, as the image I had in my mind of ADHD, and the one that’s better known, is of the hyperactive-impulsive or combined types. I thought people with ADHD were very active, loud and physically restless, but that’s not the case with Inattentive type. It’s often not even the case with Hyperactive/Impulsive type in adulthood, as sufferers tend to mellow out and not exhibit the same behaviour as they get older. ADHD Inattentive-type sufferers experience difficulty with attention and focus, staying on task, organisation, distraction and forgetfulness, to an extent that it affects their lives on a daily basis. It sounded like me.

The diagnostic process was difficult to navigate — there’s not a lot of information out there about how to get diagnosed as an adult, and once I started to suspect that I may have ADHD, I had to be really determined in order to get anywhere with diagnosis. There is a perception, even among some doctors, that it is a children’s condition, and front-line medical staff and the general counselling services I encountered didn’t seem to know a lot about it. I tried to seek assessment through the NHS when I lived in the UK, but the public mental health services are so stressed that a potential ADHD sufferer is quite low on the priority list in terms of waiting to see a consultant. I was sent away with a pamphlet on mindfulness, and not taken seriously. Having never been in contact with counselling or mental health services before, I was disheartened, and thought I was being stupid and overreacting. I felt I’d wasted the counsellor’s time and forgot about the whole thing for a couple of years, until recently.

One of the things I was worried about when going to a psychologist was how I’d feel about myself if they told me I have ADHD. The letters seemed scary, and I didn’t like the idea of having a label over my head. I was worried I’d feel weak, like there was something wrong with me, because by definition, there is, but it is a relief to have a diagnosis. It explains why I am the way I am. It makes me feel less guilty about my difficulties with focus and attention.

The thing about ADHD, for me anyway, is that it doesn’t necessarily feel negative. It doesn’t give me any negative thoughts or feelings, and I’ve been living with it for a long time. It’s not like depression or anxiety in that it makes living in your own head a frightening experience, but left unchecked, it can eat away at your confidence over time if you fall behind at work, school, or the things you want to do. That can lead to problems with depression and anxiety later on if left unchecked. I think there are a lot of undiagnosed people, because it’s seen as a flaky personality trait, or just being “easily distracted.” I have a mild form of ADHD, so I’m lucky in that it doesn’t affect me to the extent that I can’t get anything done. I’m able to discipline myself and get down to it when I need to, it’s just harder for me to focus than it is for the average person. Now that I’ve been diagnosed, I don’t really feel any different. I realise the label itself is not going to change my life in any major way, but if I can manage it and improve my symptoms, it’ll turn out to be a positive thing.

You don’t develop ADHD as an adult, it’s with you all your life, so part of the process of being diagnosed as an adult is that there has to have been evidence in childhood. The psychologist interviewed me and my mother separately to see if I had had symptoms in childhood, and we went through my school reports. They all say the same thing — easily distracted, can be disruptive in class, restless, good ability but poor concentration. I was always talking in class, through primary and secondary school, and I’d distract others. I never thought of myself as a bad kid, though, I just couldn’t sit still for long. This is something I still struggle with. In an office environment I have to get up from my chair and walk around the office at least once an hour, I can’t just stay chained to a desk, I become physically restless.

Looking back, it seems obvious. I was a classic case, but no one ever suspected. I think this was partially because I was able to get through the exams and do well academically, and back then I think teachers tended to look out for signs more in kids who weren’t doing as well in their studies. Awareness of ADHD has improved a lot since I was a child, though, so if I were in primary school now, I think it’s much more likely it’d be picked up at an early age.

ADHD is, however, still massively underdiagnosed in girls, especially those with inattentive type ADHD. Girls and young women don’t tend to exhibit hyperactivity symptoms in the same way that boys do, and when they do display hyperactive behaviour, it’s not perceived in that way. For example, in the classroom, where boys with ADHD may blurt out answers or fidget visibly, girls may talk to their friends incessantly. They’re viewed as talkative, but not hyperactive. In inattentive-type cases like mine, the problem doesn’t manifest as stereotypically hyperactive behaviour at all. It’s more subtle, and internal. It reads as a kind of a daydreamy absence, rather than active.

There is a school of thought that ADHD isn’t a real thing, and people who say they have it are just lazy. I don’t know the science behind it, and I’m not the person to attest to it, but it feels very real. There are things I want to do that require me to sit and concentrate for sustained periods of time, but my brain doesn’t work that way. Time can just evade me, and I often feel guilty that I’m not progressing with tasks. That’s where it’s dangerous, and that’s where it can lead to problems with self-perception.

It can affect relationships and friendships. I feel guilty because I can zone out when someone’s talking to me, and they’ll literally see my eyes glaze over. My head will be a million miles away, and before I know it I’ve missed the whole conversation. I don’t like that part, because it makes me seem rude when I’m not listening to people. I tend to talk a lot, telling a lot of stories. I tend to lead conversations, always having an opinion. It means I always go off on tangents mid-conversation. My friends joke about it — we’ll be talking about a subject, and one word will remind me of a song, and next thing I’m singing, or I’ll start a train of thought based on that word and then add that to the conversation a minute later. People often ask me — ‘how did your mind get there? We were just talking about something completely different’. It’s funny in some ways, and my friends see it as endearing, but I don’t like coming across like I’m not listening.

I always feel the need to move around, and I think ADHD makes people very concerned with the future and flights of imagination rather than being content with what is in the present. That can be a little dissatisfying.

It’s not all negative, though. There’s a lot about it I like, and I’m not sure I’d change it. I’ve obviously had ADHD my whole life, and so much of my personality is tied to it, good and bad. It’s a big part of who I am. I can’t separate myself from it, but it doesn’t define me. It makes me creative. It means the things that keep my attention are the things I really care about, which has its’ perks. I don’t spend time on things I’m not interested in, because I can’t, so I spend all my time on things that make me happy. Maybe I’d feel differently if my case wasn’t so mild, and it had a more severe effect on my ability to work, but I don’t mind it now.

Another aspect of ADHD-I, and the flipside of inattentive symptoms, is hyperfocus. Hyperfocus means that if I’m interested in something, I throw myself into it completely. I’ll read or write for hours and hours about it, talk about it endlessly, and if it’s project-based, I’ll put my all into it. I find this when I’m writing. Once I have my idea, I can’t stop writing. That’s nice, I think. It also makes me open. The word “distracted” has negative connotations, but I find it freeing. It means anything can capture my attention at any time, and I’m open to going along with things. It means I take things as they come, and go with the flow. I think it’s a nice way to be in that respect.

Now that I know, I’ve got to be proactive about it to make sure it doesn’t become worse further down the line. My treatment is looking at unlearning old habits, and removing distraction triggers. It’s about rewiring my default mental state through training and interrupting distraction, and scheduling time to focus on projects in short bursts. That may sound easy, but it’s not for me. I have a window of opportunity here, because this all becomes harder to fix the older I get. Hopefully I’ll get there, and become the creative, productive machine boss I was meant to be. In the meantime, I’m not going to beat myself up about it, and if I can manage that, that’s a victory.