Personal Stories, ADHD

Adult ADHD – not something people always believe!

Harriet has recently been diagnosed with ADHD, but self-diagnosed before that. In reading Harriet's story, I was struck how we both have struggled with feeling like we were not living up to our potential and the challenge of people not believing the struggles because they just see the successes we have worked so hard to achieve.

It can be hard to explain to people that you are struggling, when they can't see the inner struggles or the impact that previous successes have had on you. When you are continuously putting in 200% when others only need 80%, it can take its toll over time.

Self understanding and strategies for Neurodivergent thinkers can make such a big difference.

Tell me a little about yourself

I wear many hats. I’m a mum of two small people, an academic, an occasional celebrant and I’m involved in many education-related projects (some paid, but mostly for the love).

I’m passionate about working towards the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, they give me a framework for most of my work-related missions, but they are enormous so with my ADHD tendencies I find myself going in a number of directions simultaneously.

When were you diagnosed

Officially I was diagnosed fairly recently, aged 41, but it was something I had known for years.

Mine is quite a common story for women I believe, especially those that are academically quite able. You just about cope with everything until you become a parent, and then you realise that’s just one too many balls to juggle and you begin to wonder whether there’s something quite wrong. I’ve always experienced highs and lows (sometimes hormonally linked), but I began to experience more acute lows and bouts of feeling overwhelmed that were almost paralysing (but felt strongly that it wasn’t depression) – exacerbated by the fact that neither child slept through until they were 3 and I am an irritatingly light sleeper anyway.

When did you think you might be ADHD

When I was a teacher, I learned a lot about ADHD as I had kids (mostly boys) in my class with it and I was able to empathise with their constant distraction, fidgeting and inability to prioritise.

But it wasn’t until I tutored a Masters-level female student with that I really began to understand that so many ADHD traits were things I had. I’ve always felt that I’ve needed to work that much harder than most to focus and get things done, my tendency to get distracted is frustrating and I am permanently unsure of the whereabouts of my keys, phone and purse (this has been a lifelong condition)!

Arguably the most detrimental trait of all, and hence my current journey to possible medication now, is the self-loathing that accompanies ADHD because you never, ever feel as if you are fulfilling your potential and that you could always do better.

What impact did your diagnosis have on you

The official diagnosis, which took some time to happen, was fairly underwhelming in that it just confirmed something I already knew.

But I guess, there is something powerful about finally having the condition recognised. What was interesting about the official diagnosis was discovering that I am the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type, as opposed to the inattentive (more common in women).

When you imagine someone that is hyperactive, you think of someone literally jumping around all over the place and, quite frankly, physically-speaking I’m fairly sedate! But when the consultants explained to me the hyperactive brain function it all made sense.

Those familiar with ADHD will be aware of the analogy to your computer-like brain having 158 windows/tabs open at any one time, and how you flit from one to the other without closing the other down in case you forget – this permanent state of being is both physically and emotionally exhausting but switching off is very difficult, the breaks just don’t ever seem to work properly!

Finding out more about your condition entails lots of wonderful ‘aha’ moments, where previous behaviour is better explained such as driving fast and talking over people – although as adults I do believe we still have capacity to exercise free will, however hard this can be sometimes, and moral responsibility.

There is a part of me that obviously wishes I had known more about my ADHD earlier in my life - maybe it would have helped if the educational institutions and workplaces were more aware of ADHD in women, but certainly I might have personally felt less isolated with my particular challenges.

My concern is that there are people who struggle much more with adult ADHD because they don't get the support they need (see recent press here ), so once they do seek diagnosis, we need to act quickly because quite possibly this action of seeking help is likely coming at a particularly tough point in their life because hitherto they had 'just about' been coping (as I had).

What do you struggle with

My current aim is to own my ADHD, not for my ADHD traits to own me.

Having read many strategy books on how to take charge and bring order to the disorder sort of thing, I have some of the more minor-irritations (like losing keys etc.) more under control. But, I think for me it will be about learning to live with and accept the chaos, and to lower my own expectations of what I can achieve in any one day.

Because I know that I’m capable of doing something, does not mean that I should - I have a tendency to say yes to pretty much everything people ask of me, and this often leads to feeling overwhelmed. I struggle with distraction when I have to complete a boring task, and I think this issue has been exacerbated over the years with the internet.

I’m more self-disciplined on social media than I was, but it does make an already very distracted mind even more distracted! I also occasionally suffer from anxiety but only really recognised the impact of this as I’ve learned to better understand my particular type of ADHD (it is quite common to suffer from anxiety with ADHD).

Anxiety can be exhausting and debilitating, but I have learned to at least recognise when it manifests itself and to extricate myself from the context which may be causing it. An issue is that my thirst to try new and exciting things takes me outside of my comfort zone, which can be a good thing, but this is where the little devil anxiety sits – so that can be a tricky catch-22 situation to navigate at times!

Also, relationship-wise, I’ve been lucky to have a patient partner (although his patience has been tried at times, I’m always on-the-go and sometimes he’d quite like me to sit down, relax and be quiet), but I find maintaining closer friendships hard and, without wishing to go into too much depth on this one, I do think ADHD traits play a part in this.

Another thing I struggle with is that, given how fortunate I’ve been in life, I worry that talking about any aspect of this condition means I come across as a raging narcissist! By writing my story here, I don’t want to draw too much attention to this being a dominant or negative issue in my life, it is not – ADHD is a part of me, everyone has their own idiosyncrasies (whether or not they are neurologically determined) and we all have to find a way of understanding them, accepting what we need to accept and adapting or changing accordingly.

There is no question though, that our internal struggles are lessened when we link up with other human beings who experience the same struggles and that this is a process which involves being brave and open about those struggles – the ‘braveness’ relates to the fact that inevitably some people will misunderstand or judge.

What strategies work for you

Over the last few years I’ve done mindfulness classes and read many books.

I find hearing other peoples’ stories very helpful, but I have had to work hard to seek out ones like mine.

Because of my academic credentials (including a PhD), it has been tricky for some of my close friends and family to see how I have in any way struggled with my ADHD traits.

But those that really know me, have worried about how hard I am on myself and it wasn’t until recently that I began to join all the dots!

There are a range of strategies that are helping, the list is so extensive and dependent on situation that I am writing it all down with the intention of publishing a short book sometime. It has been the case of reading lots and picking out those ideas and strategies that appeal.

What amazing things do you associate with ADHD

Oh so much.

The few ADHD adults I know are creative, inspiring and never boring to be around. You can look up the numerous famous and/or successful folk (depending on how you define success!) with ADHD.

As you get older, your priorities shift and the sort of people you enjoy being around shifts. I have a fairly low tolerance of things and conversations I find dull! I love new things, I love to learn new knowledge, and my brain is permanently producing new ideas and projects to get on with.

One of the strategies I’ve developed for the 1085 ideas that plop into my brain every night when I’m trying to get to sleep, is to have an ‘idea box’, paper and pen by bed. Some of the ideas are amusingly unrealistic in the light of day, but occasionally one has potential although I have to find the willpower to stop myself launching into this new idea before I’ve given the old idea a good enough chance to succeed.

Are you employed, and if so what is it like for you at work

I’ve always been employed but am about to have my first ever break from work.

A five-year education programme I’ve been working on has come to an end and I am taking the opportunity to have a couple of months off with my children and address some personal wellbeing issues like this (issues that have possibly been side-lined whilst I’ve been ‘busy’ working).

After each baby was born, I went back full time when they were 6 months old and I rather regretted not taking the opportunity to stop and take stock then, as that’s when I was beginning to struggle.

My current job has suited me well because it has involved flexible working, creative autonomy, lots of small and interesting projects and working with an inspiring group of people. My previous academic jobs arguably didn’t suit my ADHD traits quite so well, focusing in on one grant proposal or academic article for weeks and months on end was very hard – but I have always enjoyed my lecturing and performing side to any job!

Does work / colleagues know about your ADHD

Not really. Although it’s not something I actively hide, this is not a condition that severely impacts my day-to-day ability to work and I don’t feel the need for any sort of workplace adaptations or broadcasting.

The process of adaptation needs to take place in my mind first, and I’m not entirely there yet. I appreciate that other people will think differently on this one.  Sadly, I think that we have a long way to go before people are fully understanding and empathetic towards adult ADHD – the negative stereotypes are powerful, and I don’t think being open about having ADHD would help in an interview scenario (at least not in the sorts of senior level jobs I go for).

I welcome the increase in wellbeing programmes in workplaces and the more widespread understanding of mental health issues, but I very rarely come across anything relating to adult ADHD. Although ADHD has been extensively studies and researched, it is often framed as a ‘disorder’ and I think that sort of negative language is unhelpful.

Another significant challenge in the both the work place and the private sphere is that people think it’s a made-up condition, especially in an age when most adults struggle with distraction with social medial/internet/gaming anyway. The fact that it is a well- researched neurological condition that can affect adults as well as children, is not something I find many people fully understand or believe.

What does neurodiversity mean to you

Accepting everyone else’s differences and ‘external’ diversity is such an important thing in our lifelong learning journeys. It is not easy. Accepting our own internal diversity is also very tricky.

Neurodiversity is about understanding that conditions like ADHD or autism are not things that can be cured, but that are just other examples of human difference that we need to better understand

I’m a sociologist of education by background, but I’m currently at the beginning of a learning journey to find out more about neurological diversity and the field of psychology.

Neurodiversity is about understanding that conditions like ADHD or autism are not things that can be cured, but that are just other examples of human difference that we need to better understand, be aware of and sensitive to as a society.

What changes would you like to see, in terms of support and understanding of ADHD

I’d like to see more acceptance of the realities of ADHD and recognition of the hidden ways in which ADHD traits can manifest themselves in women and girls.

As a girl, I developed impressive coping mechanisms (as I think many girls do) but often felt that my instinct to behave differently in some contexts was somehow abnormal. This continued into my adulthood, but I have been one of the privileged, lucky few who have found a way of explaining the way my brain functions and now I get to try some medication that should help me focus and sleep.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more people like me got this sort of opportunity!

If you have a story to share, please get in touch

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