“I Cried With Relief”: What It’s Like to Be Diagnosed with ADHD as an Adult
I’ve been hearigng a lot about ADHD recently. Whether it’s been listening to Abbie Chatfield‘s podcast It’s A Lot, where she talks openly about her ADHD diagnosis, or whether it’s come up amongst friends; it’s being spoken about a lot more openly.
“Greater awareness and understanding have been some of the key drivers that have created a bit of a resurgence in ADHD diagnoses,” says Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno, “with parents today much more conscious of the symptoms and challenges than previous generations.”
“We are constantly bombarded with an information overload through online sources and the media. The symptomology of ADHD is quite prominent, which means that educated parents are able to identify when their child might be experiencing ADHD, and therefore have become more inclined to get their children tested by a professional. And thus, a recent increase in diagnoses.” This is true for adults too, as we have more tools than ever before to take our health into our own hands.
Achieving a diagnosis that can help explain your experience of the world, must be a relief. And that’s exactly what it has been for one of my best friends, Bree McRae.
“When my psychologist recommended I look into ADHD, I felt initially anxious and confused,” she tells me, when I ask her how it felt to be told she might have ADHD.
“I felt worried that people wouldn’t believe me, that I’d be perceived as
dramatic or attention-seeking. More than anything, I felt terrified that people would assume I was bandwagoning, just jumping on a ‘trend’, due to the spike in ADHD diagnoses over recent years (note: this is bullsh*t).
“This fear almost held me back from pursuing it, but the more I researched, the more deeply excited I became at the possibility that there could be a reason behind the chaos. The more I read, the more I resonated with, and the pieces started to come together in an overwhelming and exhilarating way.”
Like many of us, Bree grew up with the understanding that “ADHD looked like a young boy who was visibly hyperactive, disruptive and misbehaved, who struggled with school and social interaction, and never stopped moving.” And while this generalisation may be accurate for some, this was not Bree.
“I was daydreamy, overly chatty, deeply emotionally sensitive and perpetually bored, but I had (and still have, it’s a work in progress) chronic people pleasing tendencies which kept me quiet in class and kept my grades high,” she says.
“I always assumed that people who have ADHD behaved one particular
way, and I never considered it an option for me. I felt like I had a hive of bees in my brain, but chalked it down to being lazy or anxious and moved on.”
Whilst boys are more commonly diagnosed than girls, this does not necessarily mean that boys are more likely to have ADHD than girls, according to Sokarno. Instead, this reflects some differences in the way that the disorder presents itself — it’s widely believed that in boys, it shows up with hyperactivity, whereas for girls it tends to display itself through inattention.
“This of course is painting a nuanced condition with a broad stroke — it’s really important to understand that every instance can be different, and every individual person can present differently,” she says.
For Bree, she felt stuck in a spiral of hyper-productivity but with an inability to focus on just one task. Thus, she’d not end up achieving what she set out to do and feeling guilty and shameful for not being a “successful adult,” as she puts it.
“I remember a day last year when I had arrived home from work, feeling happy and inspired to grab some groceries, cook dinner, and maybe do that load of washing. But, when I walked into my apartment, I was struck with that dreaded feeling I’d grown so accustomed to: my clothes felt wrong on my body, the untidiness around me felt suffocating, and I had no idea what to do first.
“My brain felt like a TV flicking between 60 channels, but someone else was holding the remote. I felt physically incapable of starting a task, any task, and when I forced myself to, I got so distracted that I couldn’t complete it.
“I fell into a shame-filled spiral and cried on my floor into two minute noodles. I felt like the only obstacle lying in the ever-growing distance
between me and functioning like a ‘normal adult’ was my own laziness and
incompetence; I told myself I’m lucky enough to have a wealth of privilege and other people function in far worse circumstances, so this must be a ‘me problem’.”
This scenario has played out throughout Bree’s life more times than she can count, and it’s a super common experience for people with ADHD.
“When it comes to a person suffering ADHD, their behaviour could display symptoms like hyperactivity, fidgeting, impulsivity, or irritability,” Sokarno says.
“From a cognitive side, they may display a lack of concentration, have trouble focussing, or have a short attention span. Then if we look at how ADHD can affect a person’s mood, they may have mood fluctuations or display symptoms of boredom, anxiety, or over excitement dependent on their presentation and sub-type.”
In Bree’s life, there any many examples of these cognitive symptoms in play. Whether it be not being able to focus on a task for long enough to complete it, hyperfixating on an inconsequential task for days while her texts go unanswered, letting people down by double-booking herself and chasing self-destructive behaviours to gain some sort of control. Being totally blind to time, being late to work and missing deadlines. Divulging her life story to a stranger then immediately ridiculing herself for being ‘too much’, then trying constantly to mask her symptoms and feeling deeply exhausted as a result.
“For years, doctors have been telling me I’m anxious, depressed or should exercise more. I felt like I was constantly chasing to keep up with the world around me and growing more and more discouraged as the finish line moved farther away. It was such a cycle of chaos and numbness.”
When she finally got her diagnosis, the overpowering feeling that consumed Bree’s body was: relief.
“I cried in my car for hours,” she tells me. “I cried with relief beyond
words, liberation from the false belief that I just hadn’t been trying hard enough.
“I experienced what my friends with ADHD told me I would: a profound feeling that a puzzle piece had fallen into place, bringing with it an overpowering sense of clarity.
“I cried for my younger self, for all the times I berated her for being too sensitive or dysfunctional, and I felt intensely proud of her, and myself, for persisting and achieving regardless.”
Bree isn’t the only one that has experienced this relief. While many celebrities have suffered with ADHD symptoms and diagnoses since they were younger, there has been much more conversation about it in recent years.
It’s these conversations, that allow the dialogue to be opened and for people like Bree to feel free in expressing their own experiences and difficult emotions.
“ADHD is currently being talked about a lot more due to various celebrities admitting they have ADHD or in the surge of sufferers on social media platforms sharing their stories,” Sokarno reasons.
“In some instances, these celebrities are being diagnosed later in life which means a lot of their own questions about themselves are seemingly being answered. Having people in the public eye or on social media openly talk about ADHD means some of the stigma is getting removed and there is a bigger level of acceptance.
“It shows that it’s okay if you’re struggling with something like this. It can show that it is more common than people might think and that there are ways to effectively manage it.”
It’s also the general discussions around medication and de-stigmatising negative ideas around being on meds, that positively impacts the way we receive information about ourselves today.
“Now that I’m diagnosed and medicated, I feel like I can breathe,” says Bree.
“Time moves slower, every day feels less intimidating, and I am learning that I can rely on myself after all. I finally feel like I’m holding that TV remote — that I’m in control for the first time instead of being thrown helplessly from one thing to the next.”
But alongside this new sense of clarity, Bree says that she’d been forced to recognise parts of herself and her life that she doesn’t like, which has been “scary and uncomfortable at times, but significantly worthwile”.
“Understanding the way my brain works has unlocked parts of me I never knew before: it’s brought me a sense of quiet, of peace, and of knowing that through it all, I was always enough.”
If you’re struggling with symptoms that you think could be ADHD, or if you’re generally feeling overwhelmed, there are places that can offer immediate support.