Adult ADHD

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Albert Einstein. It turns out I’m not a failure, I’m Neurodivergent.

I have blogged about mental health issues for some years now, and I’ve been quite open about my fair share of struggles. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, fertility treatments, CPTSD and Trauma recovery…. But only recently, after 37 years, was it suggested by a therapist that I may be on the ADHD spectrum. At first I brushed it off, as in my head ADHD meant bouncing off the walls. But the more I learnt, the more the last 37 years made sense: the inability to relax; constant 24/7 fidgeting & twirling of my hair; inability to deal with criticism / confrontation/ conflict; forgetfulness; the need to ALWAYS multitask; time management issues; negative self image; auditory processing problems; dyslexic traits; perfectionism; the need to people please. On the one hand it’s a lightbulb moment for me, as I realise that I’m not broken like I thought I was. On the other it’s frustrating that these lesser known symptoms/traits are, well, lesser known. 

I put a status on my personal social media platforms and the first thing that quickly became evident was how accepting the ND (Neurodivergent) Tribe are. I got both public and private messages from people I’d never met, baring their souls and welcoming me into their tribe. I’d spent my whole life being an outcast; ostracised & failing to fit in, then all of a sudden I was part of a tribe! I read articles and listened to podcasts for hours on end, soaking up the science, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel so broken. After much deliberation, I decided to start the incredibly long journey to pursue a medical diagnosis. I started by filling in the ASRS pre-screening form and scored a full 6/6 in the first part and 9/12 in the second. Ironically, the only questions I scored lower on were the ones involving interrupting people / not waiting my turn, which are things my (ADHD induced) RSD (rejection sensitive dysphoria – see below)  prohibits me from doing due to fear of judgement, haha! One of my friends asked how I felt about the possibility of having/being ADHD. I said that it didn’t really bother me and more than anything it was a relief to have an explanation or reason for some of the dumb ass sh*t I do. 

But over the following week, I had more and more lightbulb moments where I realised that some things that I spent decades hating myself for and wishing I could change, actually WEREN’T all my fault. I think this is the point where it started to affect me more than I initially realised, as suddenly my whole identity had changed. I told a few people who were close to me and they swiftly dismissed it, minimised it or said things like “don’t be so silly!” Or “well I have those things too; everyone’s a little bit ADHD”. This thought pattern is based on the idea that ADHD is an extreme of a mental continuum, like being tall is an extreme of a physical continuum. But you don’t hear small people say “well everyone’s a little bit tall”, do you? Yes, if ADHD is a spectrum, then technically speaking, most people may occasionally show some of the same symptoms… but not EVERYDAY and not eleventy billion times a day! To say that everyone is ‘a little bit ADHD’ diminishes the struggles that ND individuals go through. Immediately, my RSD kicked in and my brain went “ah sh*t maybe I’m just making a fuss over nothing; maybe I’m making excuses; maybe people don’t believe me; maybe it’s all in my head; maybe I’m being offensive to people who really DO have ADHD because I’ve not had a formal diagnosis yet; maybe people will judge me for suggesting it; maybe I’m a phoney and a terrible human being”. Which honestly is so ironic, because I know now that these thought patterns are totally ADHD. In the end, I just cried.

A friend reassured me that many people can be dismissive because they hold very stereotypical /outdated views of what ADHD is, which are overwhelmingly negative. Therefore, they assume that because I hold a PhD and run my own business, I couldn’t possibly be on the ADHD spectrum. Firstly, we rarely hear about all the success stories of ND individuals; Albert Einstein, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Justin Timberlake, Jim Carrey, & Serena Williams, to name a few. Secondly, ADHD presents very differently in women than it does in men, and women are measurably better at masking the symptoms. Over 90% of ADHD women don’t even know they have it and less than 1% of ADHD research is focused on women. The diagnostic criteria were modelled on young boys, which is one of the main reasons why 9 times as many males are diagnosed than females. The other reason is that fundamentally, women are better at coping with stuff and tend to internalise the symptoms that are associated with ADHD, so it presents as anxiety rather than behavioural issues. This is not to say that women can’t have anxiety as a comorbidity as well as ADHD, but it does mean that a lot of the time medical professionals misdiagnose the symptoms as a purely anxious disorder and fail to identify the underlying ADHD.

I put off writing a blog entry until I had done more research into the facts and science, but the more I researched, the more there was to research. It’s a whole world that I had no idea about! So, I’ve decided to start with a very generic introductory piece on my personal experience with some of the symptoms in adult ADHD women. I am going to use some of the DSM-5 criteria just to add some structure…. This is in no way exhaustive, but otherwise (in true ND fashion) I will splurge a billion thoughts onto paper in no particular order, overshare, overcomplicate, and end up going off on a tangent. It would effectively be a written rendition of my web browser, which constantly has at least 32 tabs open that I switch between. Before I start, let me just point out that for a medical diagnosis, these symptoms have to have been present since childhood.

Hyperfocus

Hyperfocus, broadly and anecdotally speaking, is a phenomenon that reflects one’s complete absorption in a task, to a point where a person appears to completely ignore or ‘tune out’ everything else. Although ADHD officially stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, contrary to the name, ADHD individuals don’t so much lack in attention, but they have a surplus of attention – they see EVERYTHING – to the point where it can become difficult to know where to focus attention. When it is something I enjoy, I naturally focus all of my attention on it (hyperfocus), becoming lost in a task for hours on end and time just disappears (see Time Blindness). But when it’s something I have little or no interest in, I will find any means of procrastination, consciously or unconsciously. I’ve been known all my life as a magpie –  I like shiny things! This is true both literally (I like shiny things), and metaphorically whereby my attention is caught by the most interesting thing in the room. Give me a paper to research on the dark triad of narcissism and a marching band could parade through the house unnoticed. But give me a student paper to mark on Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis and… ooh look, a shiny thing!

Auditory processing issues

People with ADHD may have trouble processing sensory input, including auditory information. Auditory processing disorder (APD)  in adults may manifest as poor listening skills, poor reading comprehension, or miscommunication that causes trouble with coworkers, partners, family and friends. It may also make it difficult for ADHD individuals to distinguish one sound from another, particularly in distracting environments. I always assumed I had “hearing problems” because I would more often than not have to ask people to repeat things, and after the third or fourth attempt I would just nod and agree out of sheer embarrassment. I’ve also never been able to work with ANY sound around me; not music, not television, and certainly not other people talking. I practically lived in the school library as a kid because the silence was so soothing. You know the phrase “it’s so loud I can’t hear myself think”? Well this is LITERALLY how it’s felt my whole life. It was as if any noise around me would impair my ability to hear my own thoughts. This even extends to the inability to be around people eating loudly (misophonia).

Low self worth

I have never thought much of myself – in my eyes I could never live up to (perceived) expectations. This has meant that my whole life I have allowed people to treat me a certain way because I don’t think I’m good enough to argue otherwise. This has meant that I have been repeatedly victim to bullying and abuse.

Mess / chaos

My car is always a sh*t tip. But my car is simply functional – to get me from A to B (and as a mobile eatery). The only time it gets cleaned is when I have pre-arranged to give someone a lift, and it’s only cleaned for fear of judgement. On the other hand, to be able to work at home, I need to have a tidy environment before I can concentrate. It’s like my head is so cluttered and messy that with the external clutter & mess, to have this mirrored on the outside world is a stimulation overload. At least when my external environment is tidy, I can concentrate on the mess that is my brain. It’s like my head is a library filled with hundreds of books, and some little toerag has gone and pushed a bookcase over, causing a domino effect so all the books fall off the shelves into a disorganised heap. All the information is there, but it’s all there at the same time and completely disorganised.

RSD

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) is characterised by extreme emotional sensitivity to being criticised or rejected, whether real or perceived. It involves a chronic fear of rejection, obsessively thinking about negative experiences, misperceiving constructive criticism or neutral feedback as rejection, perceiving rejection that hasn’t actually occurred, catastrophizing minor rejection, perfectionism and/or people-pleasing. I have spent my whole life jumping through hoops to get approval. The thing is, if you are walking around with the weight of the world on your shoulders thinking you’re a terrible person, it’s only going to take the tiniest little thing to validate those negative core beliefs. For example, I’ve been in situations before when someone texts and before my brain even processes what the words say, my heart would drop and I’d immediately think “what do I need to do/say to make this person happy”. Similarly, if I text someone and they don’t reply, my RSD brain goes “oh no, what have I done? They must hate me because they’ve not replied straight away” and then I replay all the mistakes I’ve ever made. The hypocrisy is, I often get a message and do the whole “reply in my head and not in real life” thing and unintentionally do exactly the same thing to them!

To this day, I cannot cope with confrontation or conflict. This has been a real challenge for me as a boss, when there have been issues between staff members or on occasions from customers. My first reaction is to try to absorb all of the blame myself to attempt to make the other people in question happy, which I’m sure isn’t healthy on multiple levels. I think one of the hardest things has been dealing with the emotional upheaval of having toxic people in various stages of my life, who plant seeds of doubt; “he said this, she said that”, and although you may think for goodness sake, you’re an adult, don’t let the playground rumour mill bother you… for people with RSD it really does. That seed is always there and it grows roots as soon as it’s planted.

I have dealt with my RSD from a young age (not that I knew it had a label) by always trying to be ‘perfect’, because that way I could avoid the guilt and anxiety associated with failure. At school I was a teachers’ pet, I asked for extra homework, and I was always the first with my hand up in class. This did not do wonders for my social status, to say the least, which was worsened by the fact that I actively avoided the “popular kids” through fear of rejection. Even when I was handed a compliment, I would immediately assume that they were making fun of me and would take it negatively.  My RSD is the driving force behind competing in Comedy Pole for almost a decade, the benefit of which was three-fold: (a) it allowed me to put on a mask and be someone else for 3 minutes; (b) if i could make people laugh deliberately, then I knew they were laughing with me and not at me; and (c) it fulfilled my need to make people happy.

Problems with working memory

Broadly speaking, there are 2 different types of working memory – the visio-spatial (what you see) and the phonological (hearing and abstract memory), both of which can be affected by ADHD. For me a big visio-spatial issue is with reading. I often get to the end of a page, or even a paragraph and have forgotten what I’ve just read. I always thought I had a form of dyslexia, as it seemingly takes me twice as long to read a book as anyone else I know. It always frustrated me because it made me feel really thick, so in the end I stopped reading in school and pretended to read or made excuses to go to the bathroom or the library. The exception is if I am REALLY interested in the text, and then I can hyperfocus. Another problem is that I cannot read maps and I’m rubbish at following directions. I can look at a map and understand it for the time it is right in front of me, but once it is out of sight, I cannot apply that knowledge to the real world. Similarly, if I’m given verbal directions with more than about 3 steps, I’m going to have to ask someone else for directions in three-steps time.

Even more prominent is my ability to lose things. I am TERRIBLE for losing things. I have a black phone and a white dance studio, and I lose my phone at least 3 times an hour. I lost my car keys twice in a matter of weeks, and not lost as in ‘around the house’… One time resulted in being locked out of my house in a snowstorm for 48 hours, and another involved being stranded in a different county, 2 hours away from home. Over the years I’ve lost money, rings, watches, keys, phones, purses, clothes, hair straighteners, underwear(!?), cameras, bags, and the majority of my sanity. It’s something I have been ridiculed on arduously, and now that I have a possible reasoning for it, I’m a little p*ssed off to tell the truth. I feel like shouting from the top of my lungs: IT’S NOT ALL MY FAULT!!! So f*ck off making me feel guilty for being a failure.

Time blindness

Time Blindness is a weakness in how time is perceived by the ADHD brain, including how long we think things will take to do or how long it takes to get to a place. For me this manifests as chronically being late and/or making a greater-than-normal effort to arrange my life so as not to be late. And you know why I try to make this extra special effort? My RSD. I fear being told off or made to feel bad if/when I’m late. Similarly to my seeming inability not to lose things at least once a day, now having an explanation for this tangible struggle with time keeping, I am rather miffed with all the vilification I’ve had over the years. It always got on my tits when people would tell me that I should try harder, plan better, make more time. I just wanted to scream that I WAS trying!! I was trying super hard but time just seemed to move differently for me than other people. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was actually based on just this (Einstein himself in fact had ADHD); the rate at which time passes depends on your frame of reference.  Most people are familiar with the famous (often misquoted) quote: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity”. This altered perception of time is felt by most people, but this is what time feels like ALL THE TIME for many ADHD individuals. This often leads to overpromising and under delivering – I have so often pulled all-nighters because I’ve bitten off more work than I can chew in the given time frame.

Are you a workaholic?

I have always described myself as driven. I have a natural urge to try new things and I am drawn towards higher stimulation jobs and activities. I started work at 14 as a glass collector in a local pub and since then I have always had more than one job on the go at any one time. I have worked as a waitress, kitchen staff, shop assistant, outdoor activities specialist, door bouncer, security guard, court security, paper girl, writer, CBT support worker, Psychologist, lecturer, researcher, Zumba instructor, personal trainer, competitive Aerialist, studio owner, aerial instructor, product designer & manufacturer, educational specialist, SU coach, and mum of two.

Recently I found out that Driverness is a form of hyperactivity. I suppose looking at the list above, this makes sense. Some people refer to this as being a workaholic, but I have always hated that phrase as it has so many negative connotations. I work because I get a buzz from working. But so many times it has been said to me “you work too much, you need to work less”. Yet another example of the world telling me that I don’t conform to what is seen as ‘acceptable’. It turns out that my need to work is driven by a need for dopamine, in which my Prefrontal cortex is lacking. So actually it is in the best interest of my mental health to remain driven rather than trying to work less to fit in with the social norm.

Hypermobility

Hypermobility means your joints can move beyond the normal range of motion. The most commonly affected joints are your elbows, wrists, fingers and knees. For me it’s my shoulders, ankles and elbows…. Absolutely nowhere useful haha. Hypermobility seems to be more prevalent in individuals with ADHD compared to those without. One study reported generalised hypermobility in 32% of 54 patients with ADHD, compared to 14% of a comparison group. 

Eating disorders

Individuals with ADHD are almost 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder than those without ADHD, including anorexia, which is 4-fold, and bulimia, which is almost 6-fold. Adult women with ADHD are especially likely to develop eating disorders, especially bulimia nervosa. I first developed an eating disorder when I was 8 years old, with a relapse in my 20s. Brain scan studies have shown that the brains of people with ADHD respond differently to images of food than those of people without ADHD, suggesting that the reward associated with food may be higher in ND brains. With dopamine being linked to reward and ADHD individuals having a dopamine deficiency, it is theorised that food is used to satisfy that craving for dopamine. This, coupled with the lack of impulse control (lacking in cognitive inhibition) and low self worth in ADHD, can explain some of the struggles felt by ADHD individuals in their relationship with food.

Stimming

Stimming or ‘self stimulating behaviour’ is when a person with ADHD repeats certain movements or sounds. The reason for stimming may vary depending on the person and their environment. Amongst other things, I shake my leg when sitting down. I remember being in an exam at school and someone getting the teacher to come over to me to ask me to stop shaking my leg as it was “putting them off”. I was furious. That combined pupil-teacher interruption meant that I lost concentration on my exam and it took me ages to remember what I was going to write. More than any other stimming behaviours, I twirl my hair. I always have, ever since a baby, and I do it completely unconsciously. I remember being in a relationship in my early 20s and my boyfriend at the time getting really annoyed with my hair twirling because it was putting him off watching football. 

Do you have a hard time relaxing / literally doing nothing

Yes. This is a running joke. Everyone who has ever known me has said “you can’t just sit down and do nothing, can you?!”. I can’t even get through a movie longer than about 1.5 hours. Lockdown was a nightmare for me… I was heavily pregnant but I took every opportunity I could to do stuff. Literally anything that wasn’t just sitting down. I remember going on a 40 mile bike ride once, 7 months pregnant.

Caffeine insensitivity

Massively. I could quite happily have a Red Bull with an espresso chaser and go to bed, but have never known why…. Now it makes sense. Stimulant chemicals such as caffeine or amphetamines tend to increase dopamine levels. For most people, adding stimulants will push dopamine levels too high, causing agitation and anxiety. But in ADHD, dopamine levels are too low so the caffeine has little effect.

Do you find you NEED to exercise?

YES. On the occasions where I have been unable to exercise, specifically during lockdown and when I’ve been injured, I have come close to a mental breakdown (figuratively and literally). Exercise not only helps me fit and healthy physically, but it increases dopamine levels, and I feel complete. If I am prevented from exercising, I feel physically agitated, jittery and on edge, like there is a b build up of electricity that needs to be dispersed. That rush of dopamine makes me feel whole…. And now I understand why.

Obsessive Multitasking

I can’t just do one thing at once. Sometimes this is deliberate to (a) make the most out of the time and (b) to maximise the dopamine rush of task completion. For example, I can’t just read a book, but I can listen to an audiobook whilst mopping the floors and having brownies bake in the oven. Sometimes this multitasking is less deliberate where I will be paying an invoice on one of my 32 open computer tabs and it will remind me that I need to buy more stock, so I’ll put an order in online, but whilst I’m doing this someone will call me and I’ll book some appointments into the diary… at which point my online banking tab will have logged out because I’ve taken too long, and so the cycle continues haha.

I feel at this point I should probably wrap it up. In true ADHD fashion, I could go on for another 3 pages, but if your attention span is anything like mine, you’re probably already thinking about what to have for dinner. Hopefully at least something I’ve written has helped give you a better idea of what adult ADHD looks like. If anyone wants to listen to some fabulously funny and far more factually rich podcasts on this subject, I would highly recommend “ADHD Adult Podcast”. I’m sure I will be writing more on this subject in the future – there is so much more than I could ever fit into just one post. It’s time we destigmatize ADHD. I’ll start. Hi, I’m Kat; I’m a professional aerialist, business owner, mum of 2, Psychologist, and I’m starting my ADHD diagnostic journey. Your go.

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