Treating my ADHD has been life affirming, so why do I still doubt myself so much?

How big is the brain? Who knows—even our best efforts to calculate its  capacity are flawed and meaningless.

Just over a year ago I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, the inattentive type confirmed my Psychiatrist. A few months previously I ran a neurodiversity group for young carers who are caring for a sibling with either ADHD or Autism, predominately brothers. I worked with these young people for months to help them understand their brothers diagnoses. How does their brain work? they’d ask. We’d watch youtube videos together. I’d find books for sibling carers. They were able to ask questions without judgement. They were able to learn from and support each other. I recognised that siblings of neurodivergent folk need to be involved in the conversation too, thinking about my own childhood dyspraxia diagnosis, and my own brother and sister. There was no space then to help them understand me better. A space that I tried to create for the young people I work with. Throughout this work focussing on ADHD, at no point did I think that I might have ADHD too. I didn’t see anything in myself that I saw in these hyperactive children and young people who were stereotypically unable to sit still. I was not an 8 year old boy bouncing off the walls, we are all told this is what ADHD looks like. I was an anxious dyspraxic and that was it. Then the pandemic hit, and as 2020 progressed and the world began to deal with a collective trauma, my usual coping mechanisms began to unravel. They didn’t seem to work anymore. The wheels of my already unstable bike fell off.

I was diagnosed in the middle of a second or third lockdown or in between one, the months blur into one these days. I couldn’t travel out of the North East and was confined to working from home. I’d supported vulnerable families throughout the pandemic, and it was all beginning to take its toll. Being a trained face to face youth worker it was hard to adapt my sessions to online, and many young people were so exhausted by online school lessons, they didn’t want to speak to me on zoom too. I understood. I felt fatigued being on zoom all day too. Attending endless staff meetings with updates about the pandemic, and what we were going to do as an organisation to keep the families we work with safe. We were told to work from home even before the first lockdown was announced because of the nature of our work. We couldn’t afford to put the young people and families we work with at risk. The importance of my work hit home when I became eligible for an early vaccine. Being in my 30’s I expected to wait months, but found myself fully vaccinated by April 2021. As the isolation increased, it allowed me more time to think. I looked at where I was now in life and where I wanted to be. I counted the steps in between. I was up and down a lot from my desk, I couldn’t focus or prioritise tasks. My emotions were all over the place, I couldn’t regulate them or stop having extreme reactions. Anger suddenly became a bit problematic. I had a list of check ins to do with families, but I felt physically paralysed about who to call next. I was worried about having to deal with yet another crisis. Asking how they were didn’t seem helpful, because I knew no one was really okay at the moment. Even my friends. People who hadn’t previously experienced anxiety felt it during this pandemic. There was so much uncertainty and my brain couldn’t cope with it all. Every time I made a phone call I found myself pacing up and down the hall. I physically couldn’t sit down at my desk and be on the phone. I had to walk and talk. My mind felt foggy, nothing seemed clear. Thoughts seemed to dart around like shooting stars. And they didn’t quieten at night. This can’t just be anxiety and a reaction to the uncertainty of the pandemic, there must be more of an explanation, I pondered. The last thing I wanted to do is feel like I’d failed the young people I work with, in the middle of a time when they need more support than ever. I knew that if I didn’t get help, that might just happen.

After going privately for a diagnosis because the NHS couldn’t diagnose me in under 3 years, I felt numb but reassured to have an answer. I was told that treatment was available and that it was highly effective in most people and safe. During my consultation the psychiatrist explained to me how stimulant medications work, that the one I would try is long lasting, meaning you take it in the morning and it lasts between 8 and 14 hours depending on the speed of your metabolism. I was told that it’s a pro drug and is released slowly in the body throughout the day when you eat food, decreasing any side affects. After hearing all of this I was still hesitant about taking a brain altering chemical. So hesitant in fact that I decided to pause my first attempt at titration, in favour of taking up long distance running. Training for a half marathon became my life, and a way to process both this new diagnosis and the pandemic we were all living in. As I ran things seemed clearer, dopamine increased and I was happy. “Ran 11 miles today!” I’d share on Instagram. A distance that only a few months ago felt impossible. But half marathon training doesn’t last forever, and sticking to long distance running long term isn’t healthy. It messes with your periods. Your muscles feel broken. And you’re knackered. When I had stopped regular running and the nights drew in, I realised I was still riding that unstable bicycle.

“I can’t do this anymore”, I screamed to my mum as I was leaving the house to deliver one of the first face to face youth sessions in over a year. I was overwhelmed. I had just had a difficult phone call with access to work trying to explain why I really do need support. My brain couldn’t function like everyone else’s, for years it had been overcompensating, overworking just to keep up. My boss always brings up my tendency to overwork, working ridiculous hours and racking up flexi, there’s a reason for this. And it’s not because I’m too lazy during the day. I do it to keep up and stay on top of my work. That day I didn’t think I could cope anymore. I was tired by being driven and controlled by anxiety. I was tired of pushing to be average like everyone else. I didn’t want to excel or be the best at anything, I just wanted to function. The next day I’d forgotten to turn the grill off, and nearly set the kitchen on fire. “That’s it, time for meds”, I said. I knew it was time when my executive function to do simplest of tasks failed me.

That first day taking the lowest dose of my medication I felt instantly calmer, that fog I described before had lifted. For the first time in my life I felt in control of me. My brain wasn’t a jumble of thoughts. ‘This is just a placebo,’ I thought. ‘I’ll be back to normal in a moment’ When I started work I was suddenly able to make a to do list and stick to it. I was able to focus on one task and then move onto another. I wasn’t trying to do several thing simultaneously and getting overwhelmed as before. I stopped for lunch when I’m supposed to eat lunch. I didn’t need to pace up and down when I was on the phone. I felt like I could be more of the best parts of me. I’d read that stimulants can make you withdrawn, or ‘zombie like’ this was not the case at all, and would only be so if your dose is too high. I felt very present, like I could accomplish the small things that lead to the bigger things.

I have been on this medication a month now, and have just moved up to the slightly higher dose, so far with no side affects. It’s a process to work out what’s right for me and I’m still very much on that journey. Despite all this, there is this voice inside me that screams, usually first thing in the morning or when they’ve worn off, that I shouldn’t be doing this. That I don’t really have ADHD and that taking stimulants will do more harm than good. I doubt that this is the right course of action, despite the evidence of the affect on me and years of studies concluding why stimulants do work and can be life changing. ‘That private company has taken you for a ride, and taken all of your money’ the voice chirps. A lot of this is down to the stigma of ADHD medication, people often jump to the side affects and any possible negatives, rather than what they can do. If I decided whether to take my medication based on the listed side affects, I’d stop taking them tomorrow. Despite the angry voice being there, probably annoyed that I’m less anxious now I’m medicated, I’ve been able to find a life I didn’t know I had. I can’t wait until I can travel again to show that side of Alice to the world.

I don’t take stimulants to be faster or better or to excel compared to everyone else, I take my pills to be on a level playing field so I can nearly function like everyone else. That’s the thing, they are a tool for finding tools.

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