What Getting Diagnosed With ADHD in My 30s Did for Me
They called me slow. Funny that I even remember that. Yep, I’m in my 30s and still lamenting on the indignities of grammar school bullying.
Seriously though, that’s a cut-throat world. I couldn’t keep up with the cliques, the social cues that hovered just over my head, the expectations and assignments. I was in a foreign land feigning fluency in the language and my peers knew it.
At lunch, I was the last to get my milk and the last to clean up. I was behind on assignments or forgot them altogether, to the point where my teachers required me to have my Pepto-Bismol-pink assignment notebook signed. On free dress day, I was the kid who showed up in uniform. I forgot to get my tests and permission slips signed. My fifth grade English teacher threatened me with detention if I forgot to bring my red pen to class one more time. She said she was doing me a favor and teaching me responsibilities so that as an adult I wouldn’t forget important things (like always having a red pen on me?) Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.
Ask anyone in my life if Mrs. M. scared me straight in the fifth grade. In my “grown-up” life I forget things. My keys aren’t where I swore I left them. Laundry hovers in various stages of completion, the dirty sometimes converging with the clean. I start things that I don’t finish. Making phone calls makes me squirm and I’m always late.
Detention didn’t teach me to stop forgetting things any more than those pink walk-of-shame tardy slips taught me to get it together and be punctual. Why didn’t these punitive measures work? Was I a kid who just couldn’t learn her lesson?
On the contrary, I was compliant to a fault. I wanted to do what I was supposed to do. I feared getting in trouble and I wanted to please people and meet their expectations. Spoiler alert number 2: that hasn’t changed much either. I didn’t start remembering things or better organizing. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do theses things; it was because I couldn’t.
My peers were right; I was “slow.” I froze up timed tests. I stayed after school to finish my work. I looked around in a panic when the teacher announced five minutes left to finish the project, observing my classmates gluing on the last pompom or flipping over worksheets, when I wasn’t even halfway through.
“What were you doing all that time?” the teacher would ask.
I didn’t know. I still don’t.
A child usually knows when they’re different. Instead of denying that difference, our task is to create a world where differences are recognized as assets. It’s a tough sell when peers can be so cruel, homing in on any difference they can sense. Some girls dream of becoming princesses, movie stars, dancers. I dreamt of becoming “normal.” I tried to learn the language, but the accent grew thicker as the years passed and the demands increased. I concluded I was just “stupid.”
I was wrong. None of the labels I was given by peers or that I gave myself were accurate: Slow, stupid, inconsiderate, flaky, absent-minded. It took nearly three-and-a-half decades to discover the correct label for my penchant for daydreaming, inattention to detail, forgetfulness and overwhelm-shutdown cycle. Three-and-a-half decades to find a label that fits, that explains everything. Now I know this label is ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, inattentive type, previously known as ADD).
ADHD runs in my family, so it’s not like I didn’t know what it was. I’d even suspected it on and off throughout my adulthood, every time I reached the next arbitrary age by which I predicted I’d “have it all together.” But whenever I mentioned it, I’d hear some version of “Oh, you’re just a busy mom. It’s called pregnancy brain. It’s called ‘mom brain’. You’re just tired. Cut down on caffeine (wait, what?) You just need to get more organized and just do it. Oh, everyone thinks they have that nowadays.”
In fact, when my counselor presented the diagnosis, calling me “textbook,” I was hesitant to accept it. Wasn’t I just making excuses? I don’t think ADHD is an excuse (or used as one), but years of internalizing the message of, “if I would just try harder” made me second guess. Was I claiming a diagnosis that I didn’t “earn?”
That last paragraph might sound really strange. I’m making an ADHD diagnosis feel like a gift or a badge of honor. Well, it is. My counselor got me to recognize and accept that I’ve been struggling with ADHD for my entire life. The struggles came to my attention when I started kindergarten and was met simultaneously with new responsibility and exposure to the development of same-age peers. By first grade I was behind, and they wanted to send me to a “special school.”
My parents kept me at my grammar school. I’m very fortunate for their endless patience. Even without a diagnosis or much understanding of disabilities or outside support surrounding them, they didn’t blame me for my difficulties. They saw how hard I tried and encouraged me to do my best.
Let’s circle back to why I’m referring to my ADHD diagnosis as a gift and a badge of honor.
When I was diagnosed my first thought was, “So I’m not ‘stupid?’” Once I “claimed” it, the diagnosis was nothing short of validating. My peers ran both literal and figurative laps around me not because they were smarter or more enlightened. Their brains worked differently than mine. My brain worked differently from theirs.
The teachers were annoyed with me not because I was a pain in the ass kid (although you might have to confirm that with my brother) but because I couldn’t keep up with my lessons and I fidgeted with my pencils and erasers. The math examples on the board didn’t make sense not because I wasn’t paying attention, but because I am part of the 20 percent of auditory learners. I don’t run out of mental energy after social engagements because I’m antisocial, I don’t forget thank-you cards because I’m ungrateful or show up 15 minutes late because I’m rude.
I don’t love these things about myself, and if they were easy to change I would, but that’s another way my ADHD diagnosis has freed me. I can now work on treating my ADHD so it doesn’t interfere so much in my day-to-day life. I can use systems to help me focus and keep things straight. I write and color code everything in a paper calendar because the notifications I set on my phone fly out of my brain the second my screen dims. I check and double-check appointments. I make definitive plans and try to follow a routine.
Everything must be gotten together the night before. I team up with other homeschoolers for accountability. These tools and others are just that – tools. It doesn’t mean I magically have it all together — who does? I still have ADHD and I’m still trying. That’s where the badge of honor comes in. All those years I struggled to get through school (and life) thinking I was just slow, I had legitimate difficulties to work with. I was trying plenty hard enough even when it didn’t seem like it.
My ADHD diagnosis answers my lifelong question of why can’t I just do it?
Breaking down projects into more manageable tasks doesn’t happen in my unmedicated brain. I see and think about everything I have to do, like all the things. Then I don’t know where to start, so I start with reading a book and blocking it out. The cards I write sit on my kitchen table so long it would just look weird to send it now. I mean all the steps required to write a card, seal an envelope, address it and put it in the mailbox.
I asked my therapist why I wasn’t diagnosed if I was so textbook? Sure, when I was growing up there was less awareness and accurate testing, but through college and adulthood I questioned. I’ve had psych evals that showed major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, but not ADHD. She postulated that current testing doesn’t necessarily “catch” ADHD as it presents in adult women, especially without the hyperactive piece. We’ve learned to compensate, up to a point.
Now I take a low dose stimulant and work with my therapist on coping skills. Sometimes I wonder which came first: depression and anxiety or ADHD. I’ll never know, but I do know years of being bullied for something you can’t control, and thinking you’re “stupid” and falling behind (no matter how many times my parents told me otherwise) does things to your psyche.
Which brings me to my final point. Parents, teach your kids about differences and disabilities even (especially) if it doesn’t affect your inner circle. Parents of kids with ADHD, you’re doing fine. It’s not easy, but the most important thing is your child knowing home is always a safe place where they’re loved and accepted.
You may struggle with whether to medicate. You know your child best and don’t do anything you’re uncomfortable with, no matter what anyone says. Maybe for your child it won’t be called for. But if it is and you do go the medication route, please do not feel guilty! Don’t worry about what people think. They don’t know your situation. I know giving your child a controlled substance isn’t easy and it’s not a decision you’d take lightly. But for some people with ADHD therapies simply aren’t enough. They need medication to level the playing field and give their brain the stimulation it is biologically unable to produce on its own. And you know what? That’s OK!
If that doesn’t convince you to send your guilt packing, how about this. I wish I’d had access to this medication throughout grade school, and not because of my grades. It would’ve put me on closer to level ground with my peers and maybe protected some of my confidence. Homework and tests wouldn’t have taken long if I could focus, limiting anxiety.
My parents didn’t have access to this. If you do and you support your child taking medication, good for you. You are giving your child a precious gift. Pat yourself on the back. If you’ve chosen not to medicate your child and you’re using other therapies, good for you. You’re a fierce advocate and your child will know you always have their back. Pat yourself on yours.
Labels can be harmful if they’re over-identified with, or worse, incorrect. But the right label offers a map. It offers answers and validation. So I truly am sorry when I don’t return your call and you still haven’t gotten your birthday card, or you’re left to wait for me yet again. I promise I’m working on these things, but in the meantime please know that it’s not you. My brain just works a little differently. It’s still my responsibility to work on these things and it’s not an excuse. But it is an answer to the “why” that I’ve been asking all my life. I have ADHD.
Getty image by Natalie Thomson.