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Living With Adult ADHD: “I Didn’t Realise I Had It Till I Turned 21”

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“Excellent student! She has extraordinary focus when it comes to her favorite subjects. Very communicative and has no problem speaking up. Absolutely brilliant with her language comprehension. Can work a little harder on her Math skills. She has a tendency to get her numbers mixed up.”

This is what my report cards used to say regularly. I know what you’re thinking—what’s so out of place about this?

Representational image. Photo credit: onmanorama.com

Well, what you’re not seeing, just like many other adults in my life, is that I had ADHD i.e., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But, I was diagnosed only at the age of 21.

What Exactly Is ADHD?

The moment I said the words “ADHD”, I’m sure the picture that popped into your head must be one of a hyperactive child, running around, causing disruption and mayhem.

This is not what my presentation of ADHD looked like when I was a child, and so, nobody around me could identify what was happening to me.

ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders. It is usually first diagnosed in childhood and often lasts well into adulthood. Children with ADHD may have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviours, or being overly active.

It can be hard for adults with ADHD to plan things out in a systematic manner. Representational image. Photo credit: fix.com

The lack of conversation around mental health reduced not only my chances of getting diagnosed as a child but, over the years, seriously impeded my mental health.

While adults and children experience the same symptoms, they can manifest differently.

In children, you are more likely to see symptoms like:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Fidgeting
  • Difficulty in paying attention
  • Aggressiveness and/or emotional turmoil
  • Disobedient behaviour
  • Loud, disruptive tendencies

In adults, you might notice:

  • Disorganisation
  • Poor time management
  • Low tolerance for stress
  • Restlessness and anxiety
  • Lack of focus
  • Unable to sit still
  • Poor eating habits

The symptoms vary, but the one thing that a lot of adults with ADHD struggle with is guilt. I look at my classmates and colleagues, who just seem to know how to prioritise each task in their life and work things through, while I flit from one thing to the next, filled with uncertainty.

I Thought I Was ‘Lazy’

I would spend hours and hours working on a powerpoint presentation that would take someone else a couple of hours, maximum, and then hate myself for taking so much time. There were days where I couldn’t understand why I was so forgetful, so ‘lazy’… Why I couldn’t be happy despite working in the field of my dreams!

My parents were frustrated at the speed with which I changed my interests. My colleagues couldn’t wrap their heads around why I was always late, or why I could take hours to do things that took them just five minutes.

No amount of planners or timers could help me wrap my head around the world around me and the concept of time. Everyone else seemed to be running on a whole different set of rules.

The worry grew to the point where I felt quite useless. I felt horrible—for making everyone around me go out of the way, to accommodate the things I couldn’t do. And, I had no explanation why. Why was it so hard for me to clean my room? Why did it feel like I needed eight hours to make a poster?

Why did I feel like I needed to at least start my final year project, halfway into my second year at college, when it only needed to be submitted by the end of the third year?

I would get so overwhelmed by all the things I had to do… All the roles I had to play in the world! It was like I was trapped in my own mind with multiple versions of myself.

Adults with ADHD can take up to hours to finish tasks that would take others a few minutes. Representational image. Photo credit: NPR.

This is how debilitating undiagnosed ADHD can be. It’s an invisible illness that makes you feel like you are being targeted by society. It makes you feel stupid. It can take away any sense of self-worth you may have.

A 2021 study showed a strong correlation between ADHD and suicidal thoughts. This suggests that ADHD may, directly or indirectly, cause higher rates of suicidal thoughts.

Women And ADHD

ADHD is a dark place to be in, and women are more prone to live their whole lives undiagnosed (12.9% of boys as compared to only 5.6% of girls are diagnosed with ADHD in the US).

One of the most common myths about ADHD is that it’s a childhood condition that mostly affects boys. The truth is that ADHD is a lifelong condition and girls (or women) are just as likely as boys (or men) to have. Still, the experience of having ADHD can be different for girls than it is for boys.

Firstly, girls aren’t as likely to be hyperactive as boys are. Secondly, they also tend to have less trouble with self-control. This often means that girls are less disruptive at home and in class. The societal expectation to be quieter and obedient also has its role to play.

Remember the comments on my report card?

Girls with ADHD are generally dismissed as just being “daydream-y”. People may mistake their struggles with a focus for laziness. This means that girls who aren’t diagnosed may not get treatment or other types of support to help with their ADHD symptoms.

Dealing With Adult ADHD

So, then, what can we do? If you feel like you or a friend you know may have ADHD, how can we deal with this?

I spoke to my psychologist, Deena Balakrishnan, a senior consultant with Trivandrum-based Mindscape, regarding what steps we can take as individuals.

Balakrishnan said that:

“It is always good to be aware of ADHD and its impact on the individual. It is always important to know why they are the way they are before we judge them. Just because their brains are wired differently, doesn’t give any of us the right to marginalize them. Often, individuals with ADHD mask their problems behind their intellectual capacities.”

She added that:

“This, in turn, can result in others misunderstanding them for being ‘capable, yet lazy to act’. Let us understand the fact that it’s not that they are lazy to act, it’s that they need more stimulation than a neurotypical person would, to keep their minds on track. So, let us not compare them with others.”

With regards to the treatment, this was what she had to share:

“The treatment for ADHD is usually a combination of behavioural therapy and medication, especially if the symptoms are profound. In the case of children, behavioural therapy would be the first line of treatment recommended. In addition, awareness for the parents and family members along with follow-ups is quintessential. Introducing a healthy lifestyle (nutritional diet, sleep, exercise) is also important to keep the symptoms under control.”

I Tried Therapy And It Helped

The moment I realised that things were spiralling out of my control, I tried therapy. I acknowledge that it takes a lot of privilege to be able to do the same. But, if you are feeling like I did, trust me, therapy will help you deal with this.

Many psychologists offer affordable care. Some have sliding scales for students and people from marginalised communities. Be sure to go to a psychologist who has been recommended by someone you trust. This is one way to screen the weird, non-affirming ones out.

It’s not your fault, it never was. As adults, educators, and active, political beings in this society, it’s about time we take a closer look at how we handle (our own) mental health in this country.

Featured image is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: the writer.

Note: The author is part of the Sept-Oct ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.

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