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The Complex Journey of an ADHD Diagnosis in Adulthood

Being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult can be a complex journey. Oftentimes when ADHD is undetected, undiagnosed, or untreated in childhood, it doesn’t occur to a person that it could be the root of certain challenges in adulthood. Rather, I find that people tend to blame themselves and create a narrative that if they could “just try harder” or “be more disciplined”, then the struggles they face due to undiagnosed or untreated ADHD would just go away.

I wish it were that simple. Research, as well as the brave stories adults with ADHD are beginning to share, tells us that the diagnostic journey is not simple at all.

Over the past few years, adults with ADHD have started sharing their personal stories of struggle, awareness, and growth as it relates to their experience with ADHD. As I read article after article, I see a common pattern: each person found him/herself struggling significantly, to the point of failing (or almost), sometimes catastrophically. This set each of them on a course to understand why – why were they struggling so much? Why did they have certain patterns in their life? Why did they find certain tasks so much more difficult than others seemed to? Eventually, their quest to understand why led them to an answer: being diagnosed with ADHD.

These stories about adults being diagnosed in adulthood with ADHD can provide validation to others who are struggling with similar challenges. Each of them shares important lessons that can help make the journey of adult ADHD a bit more manageable, especially when you learn that you’re not alone on the path. I want to share parts of some of these stories with you, so we can learn from their experiences.

Adult ADHD Looks Different than Childhood ADHD​

One of the key realizations many people have when diagnosed with ADHD as an adult is that their ADHD doesn’t “look” like the ADHD we tend to think of. Scientific American recently wrote an interesting article highlighting new research for adults with ADHD. One key point they discussed was that ADHD in adults often looks different than ADHD in children. For example, adults with ADHD might find themselves struggling more with being forgetful, difficulty concentrating, and inattention, while hyperactivity may be one of the main symptoms for children with ADHD.

Emma, who created the blog ADHD Grrl, says in her blog that she was diagnosed with ADHD at 38. In her story, she tells that she “was never hyperactive even as a child,” but that once she understood the inattentive sub-type of ADHD, everything suddenly made sense. Eleanor Ross wrote in an article called What It’s Like to Have ADHD As An Adult that, “I don’t recognize the descriptions of children with ADHD…”

I definitely find this to be true in the adults that I coach in my ADHD coaching practice. Some of the biggest things I focus on with my clients are time management, prioritization of tasks, organization of tasks and materials, increasing motivation, and energy management. We rarely, if ever, work on addressing issues related to hyperactivity.

Life Didn’t Make Sense​

Many clients I work with started down the path to diagnosis because they couldn’t figure out why certain things in life, often related to a job, were so incredibly difficult. Andrew Kavanagh was diagnosed at age 43. In an article titled ‘I assumed it was all my fault’: the adults dealing with undiagnosed ADHD, he stated that he “often wondered why I had so many challenges in achieving what others found relatively easy to do… I knew little about the condition at the time, but as my research into the area deepened, I recognized many of my own traits in the symptoms attributed to ADHD sufferers.”

René Brooks talked about being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult in an article called I Struggled. I Cried. I Failed. Then, I Was Diagnosed – and Reborn. In her story, she tells us that at the age of 25, she found herself unable to function and she didn’t know why. According to René, “My productivity was suffering: I couldn’t concentrate, work was stacking up to the point that I was afraid for my job, and I had no idea why. At first I did the logical things I could think of to improve the situation: I tried harder. I stopped talking with coworkers. I stopped taking breaks and lunches, but even then I couldn’t produce.”

Eartha Terrell wrote about a similar experience. In an article called She Got ADHD: A Black Millennial’s Journey to Self-Acceptance, she talked about being late everyday, forgetting meetings, and “silently drowning.” She said she felt “alone, incompetent and lazy.” Importantly, she also understood that “my work never adequately represented my effort or my intelligence.”

In these instances, each person was faced with a choice to make – continue down the path they were struggling so much on, or find help. And once they found help, they found answers. But, the answers weren’t always easily accepted.

The First Step in Accepting a Diagnosis is Often Disbelief & Dismissal​

People who are diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood often have an adverse reaction at first. In fact, many of the authors of the articles I read balked at the diagnosis at first, too… until they did some research on their own.

Eleanor Ross said, “After my diagnosis I stuffed the envelope that held my terrible secret onto a bookshelf and hid it behind a textbook.” When she was first diagnosed, René Brooks simply said, “I was certain the doctors must be wrong.”

I find this to be a common reaction that many of my own clients experienced. A diagnosis of ADHD in adulthood can sometimes come wrapped with shame, guilt, and a sense of being defective or broken. But as René Brooks said about her diagnosis, “… for the first time I realized that I finally knew ‘what was wrong’ with me. I wasn’t lazy and I didn’t lack motivation. I wasn’t undisciplined or stubborn. I was just different.” And part of the path to acceptance is realizing that being different isn’t a bad thing.

Finding Some Freedom in the Diagnosis

Receiving an ADHD diagnosis as an adult can feel like a mixed bag. It doesn’t make everything go away, and people find themselves still struggling with shame and self-judgment at times. But, it also brings with it some valuable gifts. Emma from ADHD Grrl writes, “Getting a diagnosis hasn’t all been wonderful, though. There has also been some heartache and mourning… losing that dream has been immensely sad in its own way, but also freed me from the constant pursuit of it and the inevitable, repeated feeling of failure when I find myself moving on yet again.”

Six months after she stuffed her test results on to a bookshelf, Eleanor Ross pulled them out again. As she said, “I wish I’d read the document sooner and hadn’t hidden it away… If I’d read more about the condition, I would have learned sooner that lists are my friend, and using a calendar might have saved relationships.”

As René Brooks said “For fourteen years, I had struggled to apply myself to tasks in a way that was NEVER going to produce results for me. I was ashamed of my past failings. I was embarrassed about my poor grades, my lack of responsibility, and what I always believed was a lack of willpower when it came to changing. After fourteen years, I found out that I was wrong, and from there I was reborn.”

Moving Forward With Acceptance

An ADHD diagnosis in adulthood can be seen as the starting point for learning, self-discovery, and growth. After a diagnosis is received, you can begin to really understand how your brain works. This means learning what helps you be successful and what holds you back, realizing how you can adjust your environment to increase your performance, and changing your habits and behaviors to maximize your productivity.

This also means appreciating the positive aspects of having ADHD – things like spontaneity and a natural curiosity, creativity, unique problem-solving skills, and an ability to “think outside the box”. As Eleanor Ross stated so eloquently about her ADHD, “On most days, when my crazy, energetic body pulls me out of bed at 5am and makes me go on long runs or read a book, or embark on a spontaneous adventure, it really isn’t all that bad.”

Andrew Kavanagh has a similar outlook about his ADHD, stating, “Despite all the hard knocks I have encountered getting to where I am, I wouldn’t trade ADHD for anything. It’s part of what makes me who I am, and I embrace that.”

Are you a high achiever who happens to have ADHD?

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