10 Things I Learnt From My Adult ADHD Diagnosis
It's a peculiar feeling to suddenly learn as an adult that you've been living on a slightly different bandwidth to a lot of other people, without even realising. But with the right mindset, getting a new and unexpected diagnosis can have liberating impacts.
I was diagnosed with mixed-type ADHD in March 2022.
I was 26 years old. I’d been researching the condition for a short while after somebody had tentatively suggested to me that my constant flustered state might, in fact, be more than it appeared.
The penny had begun to drop.
Well, lots of pennies, actually.
I’d always felt a little bit ‘unusual’ compared to other children and teenagers, but had chalked it up to just being a young person… Surely everybody feels awkward and a little bit strange when they’re growing up?
It felt confusing - but a big relief - to learn that a lot of the things I struggled with, and the mechanisms I’d developed to cope with them, weren’t something ‘everyone’ did…
It turned out that a lot of the mental health problems I’d had as a student and as an adult trying to settle into a ‘proper job’ were the effects of undiagnosed, unmanaged ADHD.
What is ADHD?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is, in short, a disorder influencing your brain’s self-management systems. It can create problems with focusing, time management, and regulating emotions.
It can vary greatly from person to person. For me, it can look like this…
👉 Especially when I was a university student, I found myself burning out regularly despite feeling like I hadn’t even done anything. It felt particularly shameful against the stereotype of the ‘lazy student’.
👉 I have to read the same set of travel instructions or recipes over and over again. And over and over again - and once more, again, because I forget thing as soon as I read them.
👉 It can feel like I’m trying to physically swallow my words to avoid interrupting somebody, but then I’ll blurt them out anyway and then probably annoy the hell out of the person I’m talking to. (And absolutely infuriate myself, too!)
👉 When I sit still in a chair for too long, especially somewhere I find boring or uncomfortable, I have to wriggle. I’ll find 50 reasons to get up and walk around the room - often to the confusion or frustration of the people around me.
👉 Some days, having to make a sudden choice or a change of plan will totally throw me off guard. On a particularly stressful day, this feels like the world is crashing around me because there’re so many variables that I must think about all at once.
👉 Despite having a good degree, I’d been unable to stay in a fixed job for much more than a year without feeling like I was losing my mind and throwing in the towel.
So, needless to say, it felt like a momentous event to have the diagnosis there, in writing. Of course, a diagnosis isn’t a magic ticket to fix everything. But it was the first step of the journey towards understanding myself better.
Over the last few months, I’ve read countless articles and studies, followed ADHD social media accounts, and spoken to a therapist to get a clearer picture of how I can build a life that works for me and my brain.
Here are the first 10 big things I’ve learnt since my diagnosis that have helped me productively support my fizzy brain...
1. Your mental health doesn’t have to be unbearably bad to deserve attention. You don’t have to be at absolute rock bottom to seek help.
I was apprehensive at first about talking to my GP and then a psychiatrist about the impacts ADHD has on my mental health. I couldn’t let go of the idea that “other people have worse struggles, so I should just get on with it and stop wallowing”.
But, as a good friend pointed out, this wasn’t a terribly smart idea…
“Just because somebody else has a severely broken leg,” she pointed out, “doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go and get a professional to look at your pulled muscle.”
“And even if you just had a stubbed toe,” she added, “you wouldn’t feel ashamed for icing it if you needed to.”
Mental health awareness is slowly but surely improving in our culture. But a lot of us still feel doubtful about seeking the treatment or help appropriate to our levels of struggle when it comes to mental health. We often do this in a way that we wouldn’t with a physical or especially a visible injury.
|Learning to care for your mental health the way you would your physical well-being is enormously important.|
You don’t have to be the person in the most pain, or having the worst time, in order to be feeling something. And you deserve to get the right support for those struggles - however big or small.
2. There are a lot of ‘normal’ things we’re conditioned to do that are, frankly, a load of old hogwash. Sometimes we need to do our best to ignore them.
Obviously, there are some social norms that serve clear purposes. For example, we’ve all agreed that “green man = safe to cross the road”. We all use shared systems for timekeeping and calenders to avoid absolute chaos with scheduling and not missing each other’s birthdays.
But some norms and standards - usually ones around personal choices and routines - do not matter a jot.
And giving people who have ADHD or other neurodivergent conditions the space to make unusual choices is really important. We sometimes need a bit of a leg-up with some tasks or activities. Whether we like it or not, our brains just aren’t wired to engage with things that we “should” do if they aren’t motivating to us.
And sometimes, the adjustments we make to help our lives flow easier might look a little bit odd to other people.
Take breakfast, for example.
I don’t really like many ‘normal’ breakfast foods. I think toast and cereal are dull and uninspiring. But having food that I love ready for me to eat first thing motivates me massively. So, when I was in Sixth Form, I started eating ‘dinner’ foods for breakfast before class started.
To the horror of my classmates, I’d eat things like noodle soup, curry, and egg-fried rice. Being regularly asked “why are you having that for breakfast?” was irksome when it happened every single morning. If somebody was especially rude or judgemental I’d even feel like I was doing something wrong.
Of course, this wasn’t an unbearable tragedy. I don’t think these people intended to be unkind. There’ll always be people in life who are nosy or intrusive. But it’s still tiring to feel like you need to defend or justify choices you make that don’t impact anybody else. Especially when they’re making you definitely healthier and happier.
Getting my diagnosis was a really important step in growing a thicker skin. Learning about how and why my brain might need different things than other people makes it far easier for me to rise above the idea of looking a bit strange. I can replace the idea of shame, that “I’m strange”, with more compassion and self-understanding.
It’s given me a framework to understand how my routine and well-being really are tied into choices that might look a little bit unusual. And that this is totally fine!
Speaking of looking unusual…
3. Not everyone needs to understand you all the time.
I always felt a pressing anxiety to explain every behaviour or habit that might seem odd to people.
It always seemed to me that I must be weird if other people thought I was weird. If I was too enthusiastic about something, I was annoying. If I couldn’t stop blurting things out, I was irritating. If I was feeling bouncy and restless, it was because I was childish or silly.
So I’d either try and give long-winded explanations of why I was doing things. Or, I would try and take the piss out of myself so that somebody else couldn’t get there first.
I’m sure the feeling of needing to be understood is something everybody experiences growing up, but ADHD people can have a tendency to overexplain for a number of reasons such as rejection sensitive dysphoria (feeling extreme emotional sensitivity and anxiety around getting social validation) or experiences of having being teased or bullied in the past.
Learning how my brain works has begun to help me let go of these sorts of worries. Even if they’ll never be eradicated forever, simply being aware of what’s going on inside my brain’s emotional engine helps me process and understand the feelings.
Plus, it’s made me reevaluate who actually deserves to hear about my thoughts or who I want to share my feelings with.
4. Doing the work that you are capable of doing is enough.
I had been brought up to feel that ‘40 hours’ was a bare minimum; that you had to be working hard and working full-time to morally ‘earn’ a sense of worth.
This idea had been hammered home throughout university careers departments and through the idea of “hustle culture”: that we should all be working non-stop in our pursuit of career success.
Not to mention that no two people’s output from ‘40 hours’ will look the same.
Sometimes, if I’m hyperfocused, I get more done in 2 hours of intense work than a neurotypical person will in twice that time. Afterwards, though, I feel physically exhausted and my entire body feels like it’s vibrating.
Some days, it might take me twice as long to do a task as my neurotypical colleague because my brain is thinking about 12 things at once and I’m physically unable to sit still for more than 15 minutes.
I’m working towards, firstly, feeling less guilty for not working the same patterns as everyone else. And secondly, not feel guilty for needing to rest. We’re humans, not machines.
5. You can, and should, take breaks. And you can choose when to take them.
I believe this is something everyone should remember, but it's especially important for people with ADHD. Taking very regular 10-minute breaks helps the ADHD brain replenish and avoid burning out.
Without the right breaks and time to refuel, I can easily end up in a very vicious cycle of burnout.
I wish this had been something I knew as a student. It could have saved me hours of anxiety, stress, and all-nighters. I simply didn’t understand why I couldn’t work under the same conditions as most of my peers and felt an inordinate amount of shame about it.
We’re brought up in a school system where the timetable dictates exactly when your breaks will be. Chances are you’ll be scolded if you’re not paying attention in class because you’re tired or overwhelmed. Even as adults, a lot of workplaces have cultures that look down upon the idea of taking a break away from your desk.
I’m trying to shake off the idea that having a break is self-indulgent or unnecessary. And I’m encouraging other people in my life to do likewise.
And I’m also working on identifying when I actually need a break. Especially when I’m hyperfocused on a task that I’m engrossed in, sometimes I won’t acknowledge that it might be smart to take a few minutes to let myself refuel.
6. You also can, and should, move through life on your own timeline.
When I was in my teens, the thought of being 27 and not being well on my way up a conventional career ladder was horrifying.
But I can see now that, in fact, living a life in a 9-5 and working in an office simply wouldn’t be a fulfilling option for me. I don’t like sitting still for long periods of time, and I need to have a lot of variety in my tasks and environment to keep me happy and interested.
Lots of adults with ADHD struggle with some of the aspects of conventional workplaces for a number of reasons: time management, issues with sitting down for long periods of time, or bad memory.
So, getting my diagnosis was a vital part of accepting my strengths and my weaknesses for what they are and choosing to grow my own career as a freelancer. I left my previous job in education and am now building a client base and a work schedule that honours my needs and preferences.
This is very much a work in progress. It’s not been easy. But I have clarity that having the freedom to work from different places, with different clients, and to be able to direct and reroute my career exactly as I choose, are all truly important elements that I need in my work life.
I’m relieved that getting my diagnosis has made me more aware of what I need my life and my career to look like. Getting there, slowly but surely, is something I’m really proud of.
7. Making plans that work with, not against, your ADHD brain chemistry is the best way to progress.
Whether that’s at work, in your personal life, or in a hobby. Accepting that you need to re-route or do something differently - even if it might seem like it’ll take longer - will ultimately end up being more efficient and far less traumatising than forcing yourself to be ‘normal’.
With learning to play the piano, for instance, I used to feel frustrated that I couldn’t sit and practice for very long periods of time. No matter how I tried, I’d just end up getting frustrated when I tried to drag the sessions out. I became even more unproductive because I was feeling bad.
Understanding that people - and especially people with ADHD - can often learn better in short, regular bursts has been helpful in accepting what I can do, rather than worrying about what I can’t.
These short sessions then become more productive and enjoyable… Sometimes, this even makes me want to go back and do several more short sessions throughout the week.
This easily beats sitting for 30 minutes, feeling like a terrible pianist for not concentrating, and then feeling so bad about it I don’t go back to it for another ten days.
It’s not quick or easy to unpick the years I’ve worried about not doing things ‘correctly’. And I don’t always go back to do more sessions. But making a change is better than continuing with the same strategy that has never worked!
8. Having special interests is a really important, healthy aspect of life for people with ADHD
Lots of neurodivergent people have special interests. These are hobbies or topics that we often hyperfixate on and are incredibly passionate about. Special interests are usually moe associated with autistic people - but people with ADHD can certainly have them too!
Essentially, because the ADHD brain regulates dopamine differently, the big dopamine rush of a special interest is very motivating for us.
For me, they’re a way of channelling my restful energy in a joyful way.
I love watching documentaries about TFL and the history of the tube network, for example. And I’ve been obsessively working on improving my French. It allows me to throw my energy into something that isn’t work, that genuinely fascinates me.
I have autistic loved ones whose special interests include Ancient Rome, cats, astronomy, and cooking. And we also love sharing our interests with one another. In fact, there’s evidence that engaging with special interests really benefits neurodiverse people’s well-being.
Ironically, my ADHD also means I have a terrible memory, and a lot of the things I discover within my special interests I forget almost immediately..! But I’m learning more than ever how important it is to take time for these activities for their own sake and the simple joy that comes from them.
9. I don’t have to problem solve, fix, and crack every single problem all by myself - and therapy can be really helpful here.
One of the hardest things to deal with when you have ADHD is impulsiveness because - well, it’s impulsive! With ADHD, we tend to act without thinking or struggle to stop doing things like butting in or interrupting.
One of my biggest ADHD impulses is feeling an intense, pressing urge to come up with a detailed plan for every single minor problem that anybody in my life brings to me. I can’t tolerate the feeling of an unsolved problem.
If a friend, family member, colleague, or even a stranger in the street, comes to me with an issue, my brain floods with different solutions and strategies. Hyperfocus will kick in. It’s as if the ‘ON’ switch flicks in my brain and I can’t get it to switch off until we’ve planned out a detailed solution.
But I’m trying to accept that people often don’t actually want help, and they don’t want me to impulsively talk at them. I don’t need to feel anxious and tied into people’s issues if they’re not even asking for a solution. They’re often looking for empathy or to share their problem. And even when they do ask for a solution, it’s not my personal responsibility to impulsively problem-solve every detail of everyone else’s life.
Therapy has been a really important tool for talking through why I feel so compelled to step in all the time, I’ve spent time talking about how it often actually just ends up leaving me feeling drained and resentful.
Living with ADHD can have a number of emotional, social, and physical impacts on us - and so finding the right therapist can be a great way for us to begin to unpack how we’re affected by our condition.
Personally, I have found talking sessions with a counsellor very productive but there's a whole world of types of therapy out there.
Having more self-awareness to identify how and why I’m an impulsive fixer has helped me regulate and process some of these emotions, even if I’m never going to fully shake the urge and the impulse.
10. Most crucially - people who are scornful about you, your characteristics, or the ways that you support yourself are at best, ignorant, or at worst, deeply unhappy in themselves.
This is a tragedy - but not your tragedy to fix. (And as a impulsive fixer, believe me, this one’s difficult to digest!)
Of course, ableism or bullying are unacceptable. If you’re able to safely report anything like this, you absolutely should if you’re comfortable doing so.
What’s more common though, are people who are simply narrow-minded and judgemental.
Sadly, nobody on Earth is going to make it through life without encountering a good handful of negative, grumpy, rude, or whatever stronger phrase you'd like to use! But neurodivergent people probably experience this more than most.
After receiving my diagnosis and making efforts to choose things that actually served me, it was difficult to see people who I’d thought were friends who weren’t fully accepting of my interests, my need to take breaks or sit out events if I’m tired, and my unconventional choices like eating noodles for breakfast!
Sadly, this has meant that there’ve been a few people I’ve made a conscious decision to distance myself from. But I feel more peaceful knowing that the people I’ve actively chosen to nurture friendships with are respectful of me and all my quirks.
So, what now?
Over the past year, I’ve grown to understand that I really believe all the things on this list are important truths.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t days where I still feel a degree of shame or embarrassment around not feeling ‘enough’. Not working enough, not achieving enough, not earning enough. And then sometimes I catch myself falling into these traps and then I feel ashamed for being ashamed..!
Right now, I’m doing my best to remember that I’m still early in my journey of knowing and understanding my ADHD and to be kind to myself in the process. I’m trying my best to celebrate my brain for all its strengths and weaknesses and to be excited to see where the next year takes me.
Ultimately, I’d say to anybody who has recently received a mental health or psychiatric diagnosis that you’re not alone. And even when things feel strange and confusing, diagnosis can be a wonderful beginning to exercising more self-compassion and building a better, healthier life for yourself.
All images in this piece are taken from unsplash.com.