What comes to mind when you hear the terms ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)?
Most people would imagine restless children not being able to sit still, running around recklessly in class, causing disruption and generally wreaking havoc. Until recently, this was how I too perceived this condition; but this all changed last year in my second year at university as a biomedical science student, when I realised that I myself might have ADD.
Disabilities in the functioning of the neurological system and the brain that affect an individual’s behaviour, memory, and/or ability to learn, are termed Neurodevelopmental Disorders. These include dyslexia, autism, and ADHD. ADHD is the most common Neurodevelopmental Disorder in children, and whilst it has mostly been considered a childhood disorder, impairing symptoms in adults are increasingly being recognised.
In the past, most research in ADHD was conducted on young boys, and research focusing on adults with the condition has only been undertaken in the past six to seven years. The exact cause of ADHD remains unknown, though it is thought to result from a combination of genetics, environment and problems with the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) during development. The common symptoms of ADHD include impulsivity, fidgeting, emotional turmoil, lack of focus, lack of organisation and poor time management.
ADD or ‘inattentive’ ADHD is one type of ADHD, most common in girls, where the person’s symptoms of ADHD transpires through inattention (for example, difficulty in focusing, finishing tasks, and following instructions), without hyperactivity or impulsivity. It is thought that children with this type of ADHD aren’t identified and diagnosed at a young age because they aren’t disruptive in the classroom.
I have always just accepted that for me, accomplishing daily tasks, including school and university work, takes a lot longer and requires a lot more focus than for my peers. I only began to realise how abnormal it was that all my life I had been setting aside more than double the time my peers would, to complete my school and university work, and how unusual it was to spend hours (yes, hours) staring into the abyss, unable to concentrate, whilst at the same time being cripplingly stressed by the enormous amount of work I had to do when I got to my second year at University.
I had suspected something was different with me in terms of my ability to focus and order my thoughts from a young age, but there was a particular moment when I decided to do something about it and arrange to see a psychiatrist.
I was sitting at my desk with a mountain of work to do for university, and before I knew it, the whole day had passed and I had completed a tiny fraction of what I needed to do. Despite my desperation to progress, there was something going on in my brain which just did not let that happen. I became anxious and distressed thinking about all the work my flatmates had been able to get through in less than half the time I was at my desk, and anxious thinking about how much of my life I had been wasting. I felt further distress and anxiety thinking about the fact that there may be something wrong with me and that I have failed to do anything about it for 20 years.
It felt like there were a million tabs open in my brain and all I wanted to do was shut them all to be able to focus on just one, to be able to get stuff done.
I discussed my feelings and worries with a friend who recognised some of what I was describing as possible symptoms of ADD, and who advised me to see a Psychiatrist.
The Psychiatrist ran through a lot of questions, many of which I never even thought would be relevant to ADHD/ADD. Aspects of my personality which I never thought could be explained by this condition started to make sense as he was going through the questions. Things like frequently having to come back after leaving the house because I had forgotten something, feeling very overwhelmed and unable to cope in stressful situations, accidentally interrupting a teacher even though I had always been a polite and non-disruptive student.
The diagnosis suddenly explained all the frustration I had experienced throughout my primary and secondary school years- frustration at taking so long to complete homework, frustration at the length of time it always took me to study for exams; frustration at not being able to enjoy my weekends because I was catching up on work I hadn’t completed during the school week.
Suddenly it all fell into place.
The frustration after receiving the diagnosis however was different. I almost felt like I was mourning the person I could have been had I been diagnosed when I was younger. I do not wish to suggest that I suffered greatly by not being diagnosed early. But thinking of all those hours I could have saved where I was staring into space, all those friends I annoyed by arriving late for arrangements, even exams in which I could have achieved my full potential, had I only known and received appropriate treatment… Thinking about how all that might have been different is terribly frustrating.
The ‘what if’ road that I went down for a short while was tormentingly distressing and exhausting.
But then came a wave of relief and reassurance. Relief to know that there was something going on in my brain that could explain those aspects of my personality that I had always thought of as flaws, which now suddenly made sense. I began to see what I always thought of as my faults, which I always felt embarrassed about, as quirks that I could embrace. It wasn’t just that I was just ‘slower’ or less focused than my peers.
I began to see new opportunities to grow and excel with my newfound diagnosis, I felt determined to channel my frustrations into feelings of understanding and positivity.
There was also a very tangible outcome from the diagnosis, namely my psychiatrist’s recommendation for me to take medication to help me focus and accomplish tasks more efficiently, during those periods when I particularly needed to concentrate and stay focused, for example during university term time. While it did take some time to find the correct medication and dosage that worked for me, once I found what worked, it made such a difference. They’re not magic pills, as I know many people may think- they don’t create a top achieving student from a bottom one, but they allow me, personally, to delete most of those tabs open in my brain, enabling me to focus and accomplish tasks without feeling so chaotic.
The diagnosis has been a turning point for me. I have gained new insight into myself, which I have started to use positively, as a step towards identifying and understanding behaviours which until now have hindered my achieving goals or even accomplishing simple daily tasks, allowing me to develop solutions and strategies to better myself.
I hope this piece has shown that it’s not too late to overcome behaviours that have proved obstacles throughout one’s childhood and teenage years, by gaining psychological insight and seeking help.