What a mid-life ADHD diagnosis has meant for me
Submitted by Olivia Lewis
Last year I went through the process of having my son assessed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It was during this process when the penny dropped. I was going through the list of potential signs and symptoms and found myself repeatedly thinking ‘Yes, that’s me’. I mentioned this to the special needs coordinator who told me that many other mothers said exactly the same thing. Diagnosis rates of ADHD in boys have historically been almost twice as high as those in girls, but now more and more women are receiving a diagnosis.
Traditionally, the image of ADHD has been of hyperactive, ‘naughty’ boys. Girls, on the other hand, often present slightly differently due to a range of factors, from being better at masking (hiding their symptoms) to being diagnosed with anxiety or depression instead. This is exactly what happened to me. After years of being told to sit still and be quiet, in my teens I started having panic attacks and mood swings. I was diagnosed with anxiety and, later, depression, and had been receiving treatment for both conditions for decades. But there was something not quite right. I had the nagging sense that I should have been feeling better than I was, given both the treatment and my own attempts to eat well, sleep enough, and exercise. I also felt like I was always underperforming at work and never quite meeting my potential, with boredom and a lack of attention to detail often bringing me down.
After that lightbulb moment during my son’s assessment, I went through my own assessment where I was diagnosed with ADHD. It has been an incredibly positive thing. Some people are wary of being labelled but, for me, it is not a negative thing – it’s an explanation; another way to help me understand myself and what my brain needs to thrive. I looked back through years of school reports and can see how I was labelled as disruptive and underachieving for years when I just wasn’t getting the support I needed. I struggled to sit still in class. I was (and still am) disorganised and find it almost impossible to stick to routines. I get bored easily and prefer variety. I struggle with sensory overwhelm in some situations, so loud noises, strong smells and harsh lighting can cause me stress (interestingly, I also often need background noise whilst working and love particular smells around me).
The benefits of ADHD
Having ADHD isn’t just about what I struggle with either. One of the benefits I gain from the condition is that I am passionate and energetic when something engages me: I can hyper-focus on a task, working incredibly hard. Whilst I will be distracted by a random noise or smell, I can also spot the things others don’t, and find beauty and interest in unexpected places. I continue to be empathetic and good at reading a room, and I have a strong sense of wanting to do good in the world.
I have spoken openly at work about my diagnosis and have received an occupational health assessment. This has led to a variety of workplace adjustments for me, including noise cancelling headphones for the office, movement breaks, and speech and reading software, so I can move around whilst a long document is read to me rather than trying to sit still and concentrate. I have found other neurodiverse colleagues and now find myself part of a community rather than an outlier. After years of feeling something of a failure, I now understand that I was always a square peg trying to fit into a round hole – a neurodiverse person trying to function in a neurotypical world, which often left me exhausted and overwhelmed.
How a diagnosis of ADHD has helped me
Being diagnosed with ADHD has changed how I perceive myself and approach tasks. It’s also given me the tools and changes that help me. Here are some ways that the ADHD diagnosis has helped me change my habits and understand myself better that are generally useful to many people:
I mask less now, so rather than trying to suppress my feelings, I tap my fingers and jiggle my legs when needed (also known as stimming)
I am open about my diagnosis, not to excuse but rather to explain my strengths and weaknesses
I am more aware of situations which I may find overwhelming and either avoid them or come armed with things like earbuds to reduce noise, or an essential oil roller to cover strong smells
I am trying to add more of the things I am good at into my daily life, alongside finding strategies to help me to stay on top of to-do lists and the tasks that simply must be done
I am kinder to myself – my brain just works a bit differently from some others and that’s okay