The Struggle To Get An ADHD Diagnosis As An Adult

Charlie Swarbrooke
Invisible Illness

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(If she’s anything like me, those headphones aren’t even playing anything) Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

As a kid, I never thought I could have ADHD. My brother has it, and he’s loud and boisterous, and was always the ‘class clown’ at school. I, on the other hand, was quiet and shy, and would never make the entire class laugh along with me.

But when I got to the age of about 13, school suddenly became a very different place. I couldn’t focus on the work the teacher set in front of me. It was too hard, too complicated, and I had no idea how to ask for help. I was never taught to do so in the first place — I was once a ‘gifted and talented’ child.

I don’t know if such a sudden change typically causes ADHD to make itself known like that, but heading on into high school acted a bit like a trigger to me.

My grades slipped, my attendance dropped severely, and I didn’t want to go to school anymore. In truth, I didn’t, because it didn’t make sense to me. It seemed everyone there was getting disappointed in me, because I wasn’t as good anymore, and just made a lot of trouble for the administration.

I become bored with everything around me, and I couldn’t concentrate on something for long. Once upon a time, I loved to read, and was told I had a very high reading level for my relatively young age. But suddenly, I couldn’t even look at a sentence on a page without wanting to immediately turn away from it.

No one even mentioned ADHD. Not a single person involved in my care thought that might have been contributing to my problems. I was the first person to do so. As an adult, who can speak up with the words I now know how to use (and who doesn’t have to go to school anymore, phew!), I can start to take care of the child I used to be.

It wasn’t until I was about 19 that I thought something like executive dysfunction could be affecting me. So I went to my GP and asked to get assessed for ADHD. I was passed onto the mental health team, and told I needed to wait until next April (a year from the date I received the letter) to see someone about my ADHD worries.

The wait caused a weird kind of limbo in me. I knew I had a chance now, to finally address some major concerns that had been bothering me since I was a teenager, but I wasn’t hopeful. I had a feeling I’d get turned away, if I even made it to next April at all, and end up no better than I was. I thought I’d be left with zero clarity about what was going on inside my head again.

Looking back on it, apart from the year-long waiting list, and the doubt from a couple of family members about what I was experiencing, it was really quite simple to take my struggles into my hands. Who knew that being direct was the best way forward?

I was diagnosed as an adult. I’m in my early 20s, and according to the doctor I saw, that’s quite a few years younger than most people who receive a late diagnosis. I hadn’t gone through 4 failed marriages and 5 different careers, unable to settle into life by the time I was 40.

Hearing that made me feel like a bit like a silly little girl, clutching at straws, daydreaming once again.

So it would seem I’m in the prime of my life, but still struggling with everything I need to get up to day by day. I don’t have any marriages to speak of, but I have had quite a few partners of my own, none that really lasted longer than a few months at most. I just didn’t think I needed to bring those up; it didn’t seem like they counted, for anyone under the age of 30.

I had that someone in the back of my head shouting repeatedly shouting ‘silly’ at me, after all.

This meant that for the first assessment I went for, my diagnosis was inconclusive. I couldn’t present enough evidence either way; the doctor sitting across from me didn’t want to label me with ADHD without some further investigation. She wanted to be sure, and not to make light of such a monumental diagnosis. I just sat there and nodded, feeling a pit in my stomach. Even in a medical office, a space designed to explore what’s bothering you, and to specifically get some answers from the assessment at hand, I wasn’t enough.

Now, I want to say, she knew exactly how I felt about this. She knew I was feeling a lot of disappointment, and anger, and like I was adrift at sea. She told me I shouldn’t go away thinking she was dismissing me, because she wasn’t, and she didn’t want me wallowing in that unnecessarily. I quite liked that — it felt as though she did actually want what was best for me, which is something I’ve rarely felt from a medical professional sitting in front of me.

So we had to get my mum in as well, to explore my childhood. There were a lot of questions to go through, about how well I focused as a toddler and a young child, and if I listened and did as I was told the first time I was asked. My mum was asked about how often I would get lost in thought, and if I had a lot of imaginary friends, and those questions led on to how well I did in social situations.

Of course, my mum answered that I had little focus, often changed my mind, needed reminding to do things quite a few times over, that I was always in thought and happy to be so, that even now she didn’t see much of me throughout the day, that I played make-believe an awful lot, and that I was terrible at making friends. She made the distinction that I wanted to, but just didn’t seem to get what was going on; I myself remember not being able to understand most social cues.

And then it was decided. I have ADHD inattentive type, and I was prescribed some meds to help me deal with it. I was given a lot of literature to look through, the names of a couple different support groups to attend, and a follow-up appointment to see how the meds were working out. But at that moment, I’d gone blank. I had no questions. I just had the diagnosis I’d been after for a long, long time.

There’s definitely an issue over identifying ADHD symptoms in girls. We don’t look for it, because it doesn’t look the same as the more obvious symptoms often present in boys. A boy with ADHD tends to be louder, more disruptive in the classroom, with a lot of energy that makes them bounce off the walls. And that’s what we think ADHD looks like; we don’t tend to believe there are other signs to look for. Especially if someone is ‘a pleasure to have in class,’ because they look like they sit and listen, and they don’t cause a fuss, and they manage to get grades with little outside input at all.

Girls are much more likely to be chatterboxes. They’ll cry a lot, even at very minor provocations. They’ll daydream all the time, and have little focus on the task at hand. They’ll leave something right to the last minute, and frantically need to pull everything together every time. It would seem that girls are much more likely to be inattentive, whilst boys are much more likely to be hyperactive. If you were a teacher, which behaviour would you notice first?

To me, it seems very obvious that boys are 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls. It’s often reported that this difference only exists amongst children, but there are still quite a few undiagnosed adult women out there. I was one myself until very recently. These are the women who have grown up struggling with academia, but just managing to pass the classes we’re put in — often enough, we think it’s normal, and that everyone is struggling with focus and emotional regulation just like us.

But ADHD isn’t just a learning disability; it affects your emotions, your perceptions, your thought processes, and makes itself a huge nuisance outside of the classroom as well. It’s why I was so desperate to get some answers: I couldn’t focus at work, I took ages to get something done, but no one could tell me why. Everything I tried to make myself get on with something, to try and improve my performance, to be happy at the end of the work day rather than exhausted, never failed to, well, fail.

Because when we place the most emphasis on how ADHD can affect someone’s ‘productivity’, and ability to perform well, we completely negate the emotional side. And your ability to stay focused, and to do your best, and to claw success from the clutches of a competitive world, goes hand in hand with the way we feel. We fail the person who is struggling with what’s going on in their mind. Or rather, what feels like a lack of what’s going on.

Which is why we need to look deeper into the signs of ADHD, across all genders. It’s why we need to keep in mind that any child in the classroom, both at the back and at the front, might be off in a fantasy world. No matter where they’re sitting, they’re trying their best to listen, truly they are. But the lessons we go through as kids, and as teenagers, are often far too exhausting and boring to keep what’s left of our focus.

It’s why we need to listen when kids throw tantrums, seemingly out of nowhere, even if they’re ‘too old’ to be having a tantrum. Kids with undiagnosed ADHD grow up into adults with exactly the same thing, and as someone who’s just starting to learn how to cope with that, it’s a horrible state to leave a child in.

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Charlie Swarbrooke
Invisible Illness

Freelance Writer | I write about how mental health and society go hand in hand, aiming to explore multiple points of view and how it all tends to effect us.