The first time I properly read about ADHD, I was trawling the internet, trying to work out why I couldn’t concentrate on my copywriting job in a bustling open plan office. I’d casually mentioned to my fellow copywriters how hard I found it to focus, and they looked at me with kind, sympathetic, but confused expressions. They definitely didn’t seem to struggle the way I did – they’d tune in and out of conversations with the rest of the creative team seamlessly, and often when working on a big chunk of work, they didn’t even wear headphones. I, on the other hand, was at my wit’s end after three months.
I felt like the only time I could actually concentrate was after people had started to filter out of the office after half 4, and I would get all my work done in that last hour of the day. So I started forcing myself out of bed at 6, to get to work for before 8, so I could have an hour or so before the office filled up. I was getting about 4 hours of sleep a night because no matter how exhausted I was, I would always get distracted on my way to bed. And my home life was a shambles. My partner James was working full time and studying for a master’s degree, so he had absolutely no free time, and I just could not handle managing the house – which was embarrassing, given we lived in a 400sqft flat and I was a fully grown adult.
I was on the verge of breaking down completely – I was wrecked physically, mentally and emotionally, but the thing is, this wasn’t the first time. In fact, I’d spent the year before I got that job working from home as a sporadic freelancer, specifically because a similar (though less intense) thing had happened to me in the job before. And before that? The same again, and before that was university, where my struggles were experienced a little differently. I was in a cycle of trying something new, liking it for a while, then becoming overwhelmed and bored at the same time, breaking down, having a rest, and going again, each time getting steadily more and more burnt out at the end of it.
At school, the term system, with long and frequent holidays was probably the only reason I made it to adulthood, because I NEEDED those breaks. It wasn’t that I hated school – in fact learning is something that sustains me like nothing else. It was because I was constantly trying to corral my brain into listening to my teachers, being stressed from getting to the end of lesson after lesson and realising I hadn’t paid attention to any of it, the time constraints, doing what I was told when most of the time I felt compelled to be doing something else. My greatest fear was getting into trouble – so I never let anyone know that I was fed up, or that I hadn’t listened, and I would never express my frustration or boredom outwardly. Because I was a teacher’s pet, I was often privy to conversations that the adults at school deemed me ‘mature’ enough to hear – things like their opinions on children who were disruptive, I even remember one being particularly derisive about a fellow pupil’s recent ADHD diagnosis! That exposure reinforced the shame, fear and embarrassment I felt about my secret inability to concentrate on my lessons.
I was determined that no one would ever know I wasn’t paying attention, because I’d heard what adults said to children who weren’t performing well – “you must try harder”, “you have to listen better”. But I dreaded that, because I knew I was already trying my hardest to pay attention, and it wasn’t happening. I felt like if someone said those words to me it would be all over – I would be a confirmed failure. I couldn’t hide it to begin with though – I took ages to learn to read and write, and for the first years of school I was in a remedial class for maths. When I eventually learned these skills, I soon caught up, became a total praise-hog, and ended up with such accolades as getting the ‘most merits’ in a school year, and being in the local paper for my GCSE and A Level results.
What I know now is that throughout my life I’ve been relying on quick wittedness to ‘fill in the gaps’ and ‘work stuff out’ when I haven’t been paying attention – which is why back when I was a tiny child, a knower of nothing, I didn’t fare very well. It still happens. In conversations at work, when socialising, and at home, I’ve learned to fake listening so well that people have no idea my mind is elsewhere. I can glean a few words here and there, and pretty much work out what someone is talking about. By the time it’s my turn to contribute, I’d be able to offer insight or feedback and people are none the wiser that I’m doing it based off of about three sentences. Would you believe I’ve often been complimented on what a good listener I am? It’s true. This, I’m aware, makes me sound like the worst person ever. I know how bad it sounds, but the shame I felt is one of the reasons I kept all these struggles to myself. I didn’t have the vocabulary or ability to express that I couldn’t listen to people, because it was such a humiliating secret for me. Now that I know, I have felt empowered to ask people to repeat stuff, or to request that we get into a setting where I can concentrate better (such as being free to move and fidget).
The thing about ADHD that a lot of people don’t understand is that it’s not actually a ‘deficit’ of attention. That term is based solely on what it looks like on the outside – of course if someone isn’t paying attention to you, it’s understandable that you think they’re lacking attention. But people with ADHD actually have an overabundance of attention – the issue is that we don’t possess the same ability to direct where our attention goes. ADHD attention is a powerful, wild and untamed thing. It’s a bit like bodies of water. Someone without ADHD has attention that behaves like a river – it can be redirected, it flows evenly, it can get a little rambunctious at times, but for the most part, it’s a stable enough entity that you can safely build a whole town on its banks. ADHD attention is the north sea. You never know what it’s going to do next, it’s rough, powerful and destructive, but also awe-inspiring. Good luck building anything on it – your foundations could be swept away by a ten minute squall. Neither one of these attention types is worse than the other, we’d never say “why can’t the north sea be more like the river thames”. We accept them for what they are. Just as we should accept attention diversity.
There are several reasons why things came to a head when I was in that copywriter job, but in terms of realising I had ADHD, the primary one is that it was the busiest environment I’d ever worked in – and a job I thought I wanted to do for years. The overwhelm of the office and the unexpected boredom despite my initial excitement when I was hired meant that I couldn’t hide or ignore the issues I was having anymore. When I started researching, I was looking for tips on how to concentrate in a busy office, but pretty soon stuff started coming up about ADHD. I started reading, and as I learned more, every example I’ve written in this blog post (and much more) flooded my mind. The way that ADHD is diagnosed in adults is by checking off criteria from a list called the DIVA (Diagnostic InterView in Adults) – and evidence from both childhood and adulthood must be present. As I read through the criteria, I realised I had memories and specific examples for all of them, from every single stage of my life. And for the first time, I realised my secret shame might not be so shameful, and might not need to stay so secret.
This is the first part of my story about how I ended up with an ADHD diagnosis in my 30s – I hope it was interesting for you, and if you’re going through something similar right now feel free to reach out! And please check back for the next part – I’m intending to make this into three parts, the second one on how I ended up getting an assessment, and the third on the assessment itself.