I made myself a promise to stop justifying myself to others in the next decade, and then, I acquired another diagnosis as an adult.
“If only you could flex your style!” A former boss told me following a Myers Briggs personality test. Perplexed and confused, I tried to fit in more. I was made to believe that I wasn’t a “typical” youth worker. I always knew I was different, the childhood dyspraxia diagnosis told me that. But it always felt like a piece was missing. Something didn’t fit. And it was me. Or so I thought. I threw myself into work and more education, training as a journalist alongside working as a youth worker. I got up earlier than I needed to make sure I could be somewhere on time, without forgetting something vital. I littered the house with post its as reminders to remember my work ID or purse. These strategies, however much I tried to “flex”didn’t always help. I struggled to organise myself, reply to important emails, do the important thing without getting distracted, and not appear like a completely uninterested friend or colleague.
I could deal with not walking in a straight line, bumping into objects or people, never being a great badminton player or feeling inadequate for not being able to turn our broken oven on without help. The obvious diagnostic criteria for dyspraxia, things that I grew up learning were just me. Things that made me different. And sometimes made me feel conscious about not fitting in. I found it harder to explain the thoughts bumbling around in my head, the stuff you can’t see. I recently learned as a very young child I often appeared to “zone out” and was investigated for epilepsy, as it was thought I was having absences or seizures. Numerous scans and tests later, were inconclusive. They couldn’t find anything “wrong” with my brain and everything came back “normal”. I always felt somewhat of an anomaly, that just couldn’t be explained. I now recognise those early zoning out moments, as a feature of distractibility, typical of ADHD. No one considered this at the time because A) I was a girl B) It was very subtle and C) I wasn’t a problem to anyone, I didn’t misbehave, I was just quiet. I also believed that I was tested as much as any child or young person could be, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do for me. I was just dyspraxic, and over the years I began to mould to this “just” label, yet still felt something wasn’t quite right.
As I progressed through education, and onto university, my brain became noisier. it wouldn’t shut up at times, and I often had constant thoughts in a blender on the fastest speed whirring around in my head at night. I would find it increasingly difficult to pay attention and focus in lectures, until eventually I gave up on making notes all together and hoped for the best. Hoping for the best worked out okay in the end, as I came out with a 2:1 at undergrad, purely by fluke. I hadn’t been able to focus on reading a whole book from cover to cover the three years I was there. Something that still fills me with embarrassment, especially with my most recent Masters being in Journalism. I remember my tutor saying: “the most important thing is to remember to read like a Journalist”, I have never been able to read like a Journalist, despite absolutely adoring reading, alongside writing. Something doesn’t quite add up right?
I was diagnosed with ADHD a month before my 32nd birthday, and I have been reflecting on why, how and what this means since. I only pursued diagnosis after reading articles about inattentive type ADHD made sense to me, sharing similar experiences with friends and feeling that I can only sustain myself in life and at work for so long. I went into my virtual assessment with an open mind, this may not be the answer and I have just wasted hundreds of pounds, or this is exactly the answer I need and I will have to work out a way to deal with it. It was of course the latter, my inattentiveness, distractibility, chronic procrastination and inability to judge how long something will take, actually had a name. There was a reason my brain behaved this way, and it wasn’t Just down to dyspraxia. It felt like the jigsaw piece that had been lost for so long had finally been found. I learned that despite my difficulties not completely being missed, and being very much in the SEN system, some things can still not be picked up, or not accurately recognised. In my case it was put down to the diagnosis I already had, and a “hypothesis” of NVLD, assumed to explain all. In the 90’s and early 2000’s anxiety and mental health wasn’t given as much attention as academic achievement or physical difficulties. There was more concern about my fine and gross motor skills than my executive function or how I felt, anxiety was brushed off for years as migraines and a solution of paracetamol or ibuprofen advised. Over years of trips to my GP as a young person, with what I now recognise as clear symptoms of anxiety, mental health was never mentioned, the thoughts and feelings that I’m sure weren’t made any better by undiagnosed and untreated ADHD.
But you’re in your 30’s, you’ve done well so far, why get help now? I’ve thought the same, and sometimes still do. I thought even if my unconventional brain has a name, I’ve reached this far in life and have managed to get through things just about. But it’s the “just about” that has always been the sticking point, I didn’t want to be “just about” anything, I wanted to be the person my brain was preventing me from being. My psychiatrist told me that ADHD is caused by a lack of the chemical dopamine in the brain, the neurotransmitter that is responsible for feeling good, prioritising, organising and getting stuff done. People who have low dopamine, and therefore ADHD, tend to get stuck on a loop, unable to do things they really want to do. It wasn’t down to anything I’d done, or how my parents brought me up, or my diet, it was simply how my brain was formed. I’ve always had ADHD, and will do for the rest of my life, I just didn’t know it until four months ago. Those words: “That concludes a diagnosis of ADHD” hit me like a tone of bricks, despite gearing myself up for that likely outcome, and friends being diagnosed before me, I didn’t know what the world was going to look like now. What was I meant to do with this knowledge? Despite already knowing that my brain wasn’t weird because of my dyspraxia diagnosis, I suddenly felt that it was even less weird, that my life could suddenly be explained by four simple letters. The imminent explaining of ADHD to friends, colleagues and family, suddenly felt like the biggest mountain I had ever seen. How do I explain that my brain has less of a chemical it needs to function, and that this has been a thing since childhood? How do I deal with the internal stigma of doubting the diagnosis every second? I still don’t have the answers to those questions, everyone’s journey is different, but I can absolutely say for certain that I do not regret being diagnosed in my 30’s, in the middle of a pandemic, and just before starting a new job. It would be very much uncharacteristic of ADHD if I didn’t have all of those things to contend with, alongside a shiny new diagnosis. A turning point for me has certainly been listening to and reading other women’s stories, who like me got to their 30’s or 40’s or 50’s, and felt a bit stuck. They felt increasingly overwhelmed by life, and the need to stay afloat and look functional. I am in awe of how many women with ADHD I’ve naturally gravitated towards, without knowing we both have ADHD in common at the time of meeting. Our subconscious always knew.
A week ago I started being medicated for my ADHD, I essentially take legal speed every morning to give my brain the chemicals it needs. I was hesitant, and it’s early days, so I still am, but the effect it has had in a week is something I didn’t know could be possible. I wanted to write this because ADHD is still so stigmatised, especially in girls and women, who are traditionally seen as the organised, efficient, multitaskers, keeping families together. And as a woman, when we aren’t any of those things, we’re misunderstood. People still relate ADHD to “naughty boys” and once you get to adulthood without a criminal record you’re seen as okay, and that’s before we even begin discussing medication, additional stigma that I’m sure prevents many people from getting diagnosis, treatment and support. It certainly made me hesitant about jumping in to see if stimulants would do something. I kept my tiny box of pills unopened for weeks, hoping that one day they’d jump up and tell me what to do. Could they really change things? Eventually, I caved, and tried them. And they have, they really really have. I feel calmer than ever before, and the noisy brain I described earlier, has gone quiet. I’m able to get stuff done, focus for longer and not feel so overwhelmed. I’m in a better routine of eating and sleeping, and I actually feel competent, and less of an unreliable friend. I now know what my brain needs to function, and how I can make it function better, not just medication, but time, exercise, sleep, regular meals, understanding and people who will listen. I’m still very much me, and I will always be me, but this tiny pill I take every morning is starting to help me to be more of me. The Alice, I’m sure some of you reading this will want to be around. And know if you have or suspect ADHD as an adult, you really are not alone.
The fog has cleared. Everything finally makes more sense.