ADHD in adulthood

RAiISE Your Voice

ADHD Diagnosis in Adulthood

RAiISE Your Voice is a blog series in which we provide a platform for young people to share their stories and speak up about issues they face whilst living with invisible illnesses and conditions. In this post, we hear from Skye, who talks about getting diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood. She discusses difficulties growing up undiagnosed, particularly in education, and the massive benefit earlier diagnosis would have had on her.
I am 22 years old and I have recently been diagnosed with ADHD.
ADHD for those who don’t know is a neuro developmental disorder; some of the symptoms include having trouble with memory, lacking motivation, being impulsive, struggling with organisation, having difficulty concentrating and many MANY more. The diagnosis criteria for ADHD has been heavily dependent on studies featuring young boys, this means that young girls are much less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD because girls are more likely to mask their symptoms. It’s considered normal for boys to be wild and hyper but there is still unfortunately an expectation for girls to be more well behaved and ‘ladylike’, that social pressure has girls masking from a very young age. It’s also worth mentioning that there are three types of ADHD; hyperactive type, inattentive type and if you’re like me, you can be a nice combination of both. Inattentive ADHD has less obvious symptoms of hyperactivity and is more commonly found in girls, another reason why it is so hugely undetected as it just isn’t as easy to see to the untrained eye.
I was led to my diagnosis when earlier this year I was added into a group chat made to support a close friend of mine and in this chat I met one of my closest friends now. After only a few days of getting to know this friend she said to me:
“I think you might have ADHD.”
She introduced me to this whole world of Neurodiversity and I had never in my life been able to fully relate to so many people before. I spent most of my life feeling alienated, a lost cause and hopeless because I could never put my finger on what was ‘wrong’ with me. I have always struggled to describe my thoughts and feelings and express myself but in these online communities, other people are already doing it for me. I have started actually understanding myself and been able to better explain and express my daily struggles. I have actually seen improvement in myself at getting my words out and describing my experiences for the first time in my life. I actually now know, for the first time ever, some effective coping strategies and mantras to tell myself that actually work. I am who I am because of my ADHD, it’s such a huge part of me and I never knew. It has been life changing. I am a lot kinder to myself now that I know I have a learning difficulty. After so long thinking ‘what’s wrong with me’ when anxiety and depression medications never properly helped, now I have the answer. And things I used to beat myself up over like housework, organising things outside of my usual routine, I no longer hold my disorganisation against me. My brain just isn’t wired that way and that is not my fault. I have strengths that aren’t played to in a world designed for neurotypicals but that doesn’t make me incapable or inferior, it just makes me different.
Below I will be writing about my education experiences. You’ll read and see many concerning and troubling symptoms that clearly show I really struggled. I am hoping that by including these things that you will feel just as passionate as I do about spreading awareness about ADHD. It saddens me thinking of a young person in a similar situation I was in, being labelled in a negative way because their untreated ADHD symptoms are causing them to underperform.
From a very young age I’ve had trouble with sleep, from primary school right up to secondary school and even now. I have some not so fond memories of being snapped at for yawning in primary school and being asked, ‘Does your mother not put you to bed?’ or being told off, ‘Yawning is incredibly rude.’ This same teacher who said numerous things of that nature used to call me out in lessons to answer questions she had just asked but I rarely knew what she had said, my 7 year old mind would be off wandering somewhere less boring than an R.E lesson. I have no recollection of positive interactions in her lessons, I have only bad memories of being told off.
I have always been a day dreamer and a night owl but getting up in the morning is something else entirely. Many mornings of my childhood were shouting matches, me half awake and mum trying very hard to get me moving before she had to leave for work as I couldn’t be trusted to get myself up and organise myself for school. Rushing to leave 10 minutes after waking up has and always will be my style, I hated it then and I hate it now. It has caused me to miss many school buses and has even cost me a job.
  • Just go to bed earlier.
  • Just set loads of alarms.
  • Leave your phone far away.
None of these have ever worked and are strategies I use DAILY. I have always held the belief that I am just deeply flawed. That’s quite an intense thing for a young child to experience every day, growing up with no explanation as to why I was like this and constantly trying harder to just stop being lazy and bad and failing. Even house work like hoovering and washing up has been something I’ve struggled with for a long time. A day off school would have been procrastinating all day but feeling stressed the whole time because I knew I needed to get on with things. But physically and mentally being unable to shift gear and enter ‘go mode.’
When I began CBT counselling last year (again… for about the 6th time in my life), the woman I was working with was trying to dissect my core beliefs. One of those is that I’m just weird. She kept asking me, weird how? And I couldn’t answer her question. I would stammer, pause, think, say something and just not have a clue at all. I’ve always been called weird from a very young age by my peers, family and throughout my life. I have always been a bit different and I have always always felt a bit out of place. ‘Weirdness’ in itself isn’t something you would think to look out for as a teacher because kids can be mean, it’s just how it is sometimes but it actually could be an important factor in detecting neurodiversity in a child especially when they are so young. If you start paying attention close enough to that child you may notice subtle body language and behavioural differences. Maybe they learn in a different way and don’t find it as easy to follow a module like their peers. Maybe they’re a ‘gifted’ child but only in their favourite subjects while they struggle in other areas. Even the way a child plays can be an indicator, constantly hopping from one game to a new game with new people and having short bursts of energy then stopping and moving on again. Then consequently having arguments with their friends because they feel like they are being forgotten about and not prioritised
Later in my school career when I started in year 7, I felt very quickly that I did not enjoy going to school at all but I didn’t have a clue as to why. I told one teacher ‘it’s just really difficult’ and her sharp-tongued response was ‘well it’s supposed to be.’ I wasn’t asked if there was anything in particular I was finding difficult and I never got any support in lessons going forward. No one kept an eye on me to see if they could determine what I was finding difficult and I didn’t even know myself. I was only 11 years old and I already felt like a nuisance for raising a problem that couldn’t be resolved. I had no choice but to believe my teacher, and what she was basically saying was I was meant to be struggling. And the amount I was struggling (even though I wasn’t just struggling academically) was how everyone was feeling. It’s embarrassing to have your teacher basically insinuate that you’re being dramatic. And over the years I never saw as much difficulty for most of my peers, I always seemed to be much more overwhelmed than everyone else for the same topic or amount of work.
I wrote a letter once to my mum that she would see in the morning before work as I couldn’t sleep (big surprise). I was worrying about going to school the next day and in the letter I asked if I could be homeschooled. This wasn’t a possibility, completely understandably, and my mum did the right thing and what she thought was best and informed school that I was struggling for some reason. The guidance counselor’s response to my mum was, ‘It’s just girls being bitchy.’
It absolutely wasn’t this and her comment was totally irrelevant.
I didn’t have many girlfriends and my friendship group was small and tight knit. I certainly didn’t have any issues with ‘bitchy girls’. This was all that was said on the matter and I told everyone that ‘yay! I’m fine now!’ Because I had just had two bad experiences with teachers I was supposed to trust at a school I was to attend for 5 years. One of these was the guidance counsellor and the other my head of year.
All they did was teach me a new mask to wear so that I could keep my head down and fit in a little better.
I have been known as a chatterbox throughout childhood and my label of weird followed me for years. I regularly fell out with friends and I wasn’t the easiest teenager. I was highly emotional, irritable, distracted and couldn’t tolerate rejection. These can be just teen things but the levels of emotions I experienced were very intense and often lead to suicidal ideation and self injury.
At school I was quite a high achiever in terms of grades, I had always been very eager to please and be just as good if not better than my peers, but only if the subject was engaging to me. With subjects I wasn’t interested in I could never revise and I would struggle to pay attention and actually learn and retain the materials. Even subjects I enjoyed, I could never start revision or homework no matter how hard I tried. I never let on to anyone that I had these struggles because I was masking without even realising what masking is. I never wanted to admit that I just couldn’t do these things because in my head I was just lazy and I thought everyone else would think that too.
To be a student in mainly top sets for most subjects but then in the very bottom sets for others, I think really, should have been considered a bit odd. Why is a bright and ‘gifted’ child in the bottom set?
Later on in secondary school I developed mental health issues, predominantly anxiety and a nasty panic disorder. I would worry all the time that I wasn’t good enough at my school work and would fail my GCSEs and felt that I wasn’t good enough for my friends. Due to the nature of my disorder I am prone to being accidentally rude; interrupting conversations, talking over people, finishing people’s sentences etc. I never intended to be rude but ultimately I was and it was all just fuel to my already poor self image and self loathing. I felt like I was just too much for people to handle.
There was a particular teacher who’s way of keeping his students engaged would entail calling out someone randomly to answer a question but I had a real fear about being called out in lessons. The technique in itself seems great and probably is effective for a lot of people but for me, because I had been told off so often since a young age for not paying attention, I was always very anxious in those lessons. He once asked me to estimate how many trees there were in the UK and I didn’t answer the first or second time he asked. I am horrible at visualising numbers and estimating anything but he pushed me a third time to have a guess and I said 10,000 and everyone laughed and I remember it very clearly even now. I know that it’s a ridiculously small number now but if anyone asks me to estimate anything I just come up completely empty.
I started having panic attacks in lessons that would happen with no apparent trigger. Reflecting back on it now I can only assume that it was just general fear of the classroom. A lot of my energy was spent trying to make sure I looked like I was listening and using the correct amount of eye contact. It’s difficult thinking about all these things at once AND trying to absorb information at the same time. Especially in such a high pressure environment where if you were failing you would be singled out for not trying hard enough. You can see how busy and full and stressed this could make someone feel, especially a young person. Living with ADHD was ruining my self esteem. I always had to mentally put in 5x more effort than my peers and it’s so strange to me, imagining being someone who’s brain isn’t constantly loud and on the go and full of racing thoughts 24/7.
I was very forgetful and inattentive, my mind always so busy and distracted, so much so that I gathered a lot of bumped head letters over the years because I was always somewhat absent minded. The last bumped head letter I received was when I was 16 years old, mum couldn’t believe it when I brought it home.
I was pulled out of high school in year 11 by my dad as my mental health was just deteriorating every day. Now that I know I have ADHD, I know that what was happening to me was very clearly an ADHD burnout. I knew I was struggling but I was so used to that being the norm that my head was telling me:
‘Just work harder, keep up!’
Because that’s what has always worked for me in the past. But I pushed myself so hard that I completely exhausted myself. I started struggling with emotional regulation, depression, suicidal ideation, self loathing, rejection sensitivity and substance abuse in an intensity I hadn’t felt before. I developed unhealthy coping mechanisms and my brain was seeking out dopamine no matter what form it came in, be it alcohol or crisps and mini rolls. The only things that help recover from a burn out is treating the ADHD through either therapy or medication (which of course was never an option for me) and rest. You have to emotionally be kind and help yourself to recover from an ADHD burn out but teenage me didn’t know how because I didn’t even know what was happening. When you’re leading up to your exams you’re not allowed to rest. Especially when you have to work extra hard to function. My mock results from year 10 were good but in the end I only came out of that school with 2 GCSEs, one of which I had achieved the year before.
I began attending a PRU (People Referral Unit for students unable to cope in mainstream education) for the remainder of school and I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t gone there. They brought me out of my shell and alleviated a lot of that pressure to achieve. I spent my life knowing that there was something about me that I needed help with, being treated for mental health issues only ever helped to a certain degree but all this time it was the ADHD that needed treating. It was very alienating and I felt like I was losing it all the time.
My attendance was appalling throughout secondary school, year 11 I think was 60%. I was regularly reprimanded for it and I had detention every Tuesday for 2 years because I never completed maths homework. No one ever asked me if I was coping or if I was doing ok. I was labelled a lazy, apathetic student that didn’t try for no reason. It saddens me thinking of all the things I haven’t learned properly because I love to learn. My brain is a sponge for knowledge if I understand what I’m learning but so often in my childhood I couldn’t fully understand. Because the way things were taught wasn’t right for my brain.
How are children supposed to succeed when there are so many various ways that we absorb information yet everybody is forced to do it the same way. Not to mention that ADHD being a neuro developmental disorder also means it is very likely that there is overlap of other neuro diversities such as dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism, tourettes etc.
It shouldn’t have taken over a decade of learning to have my maths tutor who only taught me for 1 year at college to say ‘I think you have dyscalculia.’ Years of being told off for cheating because my working out seemed to make no sense and was done this way, that way and upside down but yet I would have the correct answer. No one clicked that my brain was calculating sums in a way more appealing for a neurodivergent brain but because my method was always incorrect by education standards I was labelled, yet again, as a bad student. I remember in primary school being sat on a table completely alone because my teacher was trying to stop me from copying answers but I was still doing the work the ‘wrong’ way and getting the right answers. They had their proof there that I wasn’t cheating and that was good enough for them, they didn’t feel a need to pursue this further.
If someone had picked up on a learning difficulty in me when I was young, and I have had some big indicators from a very young age, I would never have had to experience the struggles I’ve had in school. I had my self worth shattered and buried throughout my time in education because everything was just so hard but everyone else seemed to have no problem. There is little done to build confidence in people with a hidden learning difficulty because they are held to the same standard as everyone else. My issues with anxiety and self worth will never leave me because for many years I have been led to believe that I’m just not good enough. I am learning to be kinder to myself but deeply ingrained anxiety and core beliefs are tough things to shake.
Children with ADHD deserve to be praised and built up because certain things are just harder for them than they are for a neurotypical brain. They need to be reassured. They need a guide when it comes to starting a piece of work or a project because that bridge they need to cross from a blank piece of paper to an essay is full of gaps. If you see a child frantically looking at their peers and copying work when everyone has been instructed to do something, they may be really struggling with figuring out what they’re supposed to be doing. There is no worse feeling than this. It’s horrible to imagine a 7 year old child believing they’re fundamentally bad at something.
A lot of things that ADHD people struggle with are things that neurotypical people also experience. That’s one of the reasons why it is so easily dismissed. Everyone loses their keys, everyone can get distracted etc. But there’s a good analogy I read that says ‘Everyone urinates daily but if you’re urinating 50 times a day then there is probably something going on’. A disorder is when something is impacting your school or work life, your relationships with friends and family, your finances etc. One ADHD symptom alone might seem normal but you have to consider all the symptoms together. I have been dismissed, had mental health symptoms downplayed by psychiatrists, peers, colleagues and even family. Every single one of those experiences has been devastating for me and my confidence just seems to deplete each time. It’s also difficult to be taken seriously because I am an expert at masking. Some people who know me and especially my old teachers I imagine wouldn’t believe much of the things I have written about today. I’m sure that they would also downplay my struggles because ‘I don’t seem disabled’ and I don’t look like I’m struggling.
(Until it’s too late and I have mental breakdowns and burn outs.)
There are many positives that come with ADHD too, it’s not all bad. ADHD people are passionate, driven, energetic, empathetic and creative. There’s nothing more determined than a person with ADHD with a new hyperfocus and the ability to think creatively, quickly and so imaginatively are absolutely amazing superpowers to have! These things need to be nurtured to really help us achieve our full potential. If curriculums catered to both neurotypical and neurodivergent brains wouldn’t that mean that all children receive the same level of education and therefore make for happier, more successful students? It is my belief that if a child isn’t listening that they should not be made to feel bad or be snapped at, the teacher should be finding a way to engage with them a bit better. Instead of getting frustrated, do something to bring their focus back to you. There’s no need to create so many negative experiences for a young child in regards to education because confidence is something that needs to be built up to aid the learning. A child with a wandering mind shouldn’t be punished for having a wandering mind. They should be presented with a more appealing way of learning that works for them. I read a quote recently that said, “Allowing a child with a hidden disability to struggle academically or socially when all that is needed for success are appropriate accommodations and explicit instruction, is no different than failing to provide a ramp for a person in a wheelchair.” I couldn’t agree more strongly. Why is it such a challenge for some adults to just believe children when they say that they are struggling.
It is extremely difficult to get an ADHD diagnosis through the NHS as an adult and for girls from a young age. There is a huge amount of negative stigma surrounding the disorder and medication, ADHD gives you an image of a naughty boy being loud and disruptive but this is damaging and just a stereotype. As I mentioned earlier, inattentive ADHD isn’t as obvious so even boys can miss out on a diagnosis. The disorder is very commonly misdiagnosed as EUPD, anxiety and depression, and so many girls are written off for that reason.There’s a belief that only boys or a very small number of girls can have it but actually it’s just as likely in men as it is in women. It’s also very likely that a parent has it too because it is typically hereditary. I see women every day in their 50s and 60s getting diagnosed because their children have been diagnosed. Their school reports say, ‘very bright but doesn’t always concentrate’ or ‘if only she didn’t lose her things all the time’.
These are massive indicators of ADHD and yet they never received any help and no one ever thought to ask questions and offer some support and guidance.
We are learning more and more about it every day as awareness spreads. There are buckets of information online all about ADHD that help you if you have it, if you love someone with it, if you don’t understand it fully and pretty much any query regarding the disorder. I’ll include links at the bottom to some really good sources of information if you want to know more. The most important thing you can do is LEARN! There is so much more to ADHD than my own experiences and what I’ve written about in this rant and rave. If I could commit to a big project then I would just keep writing and writing but alas, I have ADHD so for now this is all I have in me.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this!
P. S. I definitely recommend a visit to the site linked below – take a look around as there are many different articles that are helpful and interesting
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