Health

The Journey Through ADHD

woman biting pencil while sitting on chair in front of computer during daytime
Photo by: JESHOOTS.COM/Unsplash

Have you ever felt like you are stuck to the sofa in your  living room? You know you have lots of things to do,  washing, housework, tasks for your job, school tasks,  commitments you’ve made to people, but for some reason  you just cannot motivate yourself to do them. Or maybe you  have one single commitment to attend to, but it doesn’t  happen until late afternoon and until then you are entirely  unable to focus on anything at all? If you have, you may  have ADHD traits.  

In my personal experience of learning about ADHD, it can  be easy to believe or even perpetuate the idea that ADHD is  something that exclusively affects children, and  disproportionately boys over girls. But this is not the case at  all. 

ADHD is still a condition that is touted as simply an excuse  for children to get away with bad behaviour at school which  is, in all honesty, complete nonsense, and quite frankly 

really sad. ADHD as a disorder can be extremely  frustrating, isolating, and if untreated and misunderstood  can have a hugely detrimental effect on the person’s overall  wellbeing. 

So, how can we start to change this? Well, simply by  educating ourselves a little more. What better time to start  than Mental Health Awareness week? I was lucky enough to  sit down with a wonderful friend last week, on the loudest  street in our town, to discuss her experiences of  undiagnosed ADHD as a child, the process of diagnosis as  an adult, and the difficulties that stemmed from being a girl  in terms of detection and diagnosis. 

Let me preface this by telling you a little about Chloë and  the reasons why I knew she would be a great person to  discuss this topic with. I met Chloë about three years ago,  fast forward to now, and she’s one of my absolute closest  friends. She is unbelievably intelligent, open-minded,  accepting, and shares a common love of writing and mental  health awareness with me. 

She also has an incredible talent for phrasing complex  topics in eloquent and palatable ways. Chloë and I have had  various discussions surrounding the lack of education and  awareness about ADHD over the past year. As someone  who has now almost completed two degrees in mental  health and psychology, I have never had a lecture dedicated 

to the disorder and will admit that I am woefully unaware of  all the intricacies that entail living with ADHD.  

Let’s start at the beginning. Chloë knew from a young age  that she was struggling and believed it was ADD (ADD and  ADHD are now combined into one term and subtypes are  identified). She benefitted from pre-existing knowledge of  ADD and ADHD due to her brother’s diagnosis, although  their symptoms presented differently, as they often do  between boys and girls. 

When describing the ways in which ADHD manifested in her  life, Chloë talks about being a major daydreamer, excelling  at the coursework side of the classes she enjoyed at school  but struggling with the restrictions of exam settings, and  battling against talking her classmates’ ears off.  

Herein lies the issue of a lack of formal diagnosis. Chloë  recalls a time at school where she was moved to a lower set  for English (one of her favourite subjects!) unilaterally by the  teacher because she had been talking a lot in class and was  disrupting another student, “it was a punishment” she says,  the outrage still palpable in her voice even now. Her ardent  tone is absolutely justified, it’s abhorrent to know that a child  can be punished simply for being unstimulated by a lesson.

Add to that the fact that the punishment is likely to make the  problem worse and actively stifles the individual’s education  and prospects in life. This made it glaringly obvious that an  increase in education around identifying and  

accommodating ADHD behaviours in school is desperately  needed. 

Chloë specifically states that she would have benefitted in  some ways from having a formal diagnosis when she was at  school. For example, she would have been given extra time  during exams to allow her brain to plan in the way it needed  to in order to get thoughts onto paper in a coherent manner. 

We both agree that a general increase in knowledge of  ADHD among educators is the major step needed in helping  kids who are struggling with ADHD symptoms. The ability to  identify, as mentioned above, allows for the necessary  accommodations to be put in place for a child. 

It also means that steps can be made towards obtaining a  diagnosis, parents can be informed about why their child  may be struggling to thrive within the school environment,  and even if nothing huge changes, a child can feel seen and  understood when they are at school which in itself is a huge  stride and can have massively positive effects on a child. 

But what about acquiring a diagnosis as an adult? And as a  woman? To say that the process has been laborious is an  understatement, although a slight benefit of the doubt has to  be given due to the pandemic disrupting mental health  services. From setting the process in motion to the point she  is at now, Chloë has been fighting to get diagnosed for two  years.  

She describes what her mental state was like at the start of  her adult journey with ADHD. A trigger for a significant  depressive episode was the culmination of four conflicting  university deadlines. Trying to split her focus across the  different topics seemed almost impossible. Now she can  recognise that as Hyperfocus which is a common symptom  of ADHD and trying to fight against it was exhausting.  Ending up only having three of the four papers ready in  time, she felt like a failure, “I was like: why can’t I just do  it?!”.  

The confusion of not understanding why she was unable to  complete her assignments, combined with symptoms of  Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (Another common symptom  of ADHD sufferers) proved to be just too much to handle  alone. She says, “It got to a point where I was sleeping for  twenty-two hours a day”, she would also lean on substances  to help alleviate the anguish in her brain.

She began where I think most people begin their mental  health journeys, she was prescribed antidepressants and  began a course of therapy to help her work through the  issues she was facing. In addition to this, she began to take  notice of her diet and lifestyle, changing up the kinds of food  she was eating, making a conscious effort to exercise more.  So far, so textbook. 

Chloë still wasn’t seeing the results she wanted or would  reasonably expect from all the work she was putting into her  mental health, so she turned to research. Normally Dr  Google is a physician I would never recommend to anyone,  but armed with pre-existing knowledge of mental health  conditions, a strong knowledge of peer-reviewed papers,  and a steely determination to find out what was truly going  on in her head, she came to the realisation that all of the  symptoms she was experiencing, all the habits and  behaviours she had, all the ways in which she reacted to  situations fit into a neat diagnosis. 

Chloë speaks about discussing the research she’d done  with her friends and sharing what she’d learned, for them all  to say the same thing: ‘that’s so you!’.  

Once she was satisfied with her own, informed conclusions  the next step was to talk to her GP. Initially, she was met  with a doctor who was receptive to her concerns but  underwhelming in their confidence of diagnosis. The first assessment completed by Chloë and her doctor was  unfortunately rejected, which is not the way anyone would  wish to start the journey to mental health diagnoses. 

A return visit to the doctor after the initial rejection was met  with a heartening level of support, and with the added  information that there were pre-existing diagnoses of ADHD  on both sides of her family the doctor was a lot more  enthusiastic about the prospect of diagnosis. 

After being asked by the doctor to bring along paper  evidence of the traits that Chloë had experienced for as long  as she could remember, such as school reports and letters  from friends, she responded in the wonderfully ADHD way of  presenting the doctor with a huge mind map and 8 solid  pages of reasons why she was a model ADHD case. 

A sense of urgency was applied to the referral and  assessment process after admittance of previous suicidal  ideations as a result of the negative symptoms of ADHD. It  is sad, but not unexpected that people’s mental health has  to have gotten to such a desperate point before any level of  importance is applied to getting a diagnosis. This is where  the timeline ends, for now, it’s simply a waiting game and a  fight against Covid delays to get the diagnosis that Chloë  has been working so hard to get.

“Whether that means that I just have a piece  of paper that says I have it, or whether that  means I go on medication, or whether that  means I can find a therapist that specialises  in coaching and management of ADHD. I  don’t care, I don’t have a preference, but I  just want that diagnosis so that I don’t feel  like such a fraud when I say to people: I’m  sorry if I’m talking too much, I’m sorry if I  drop out of this conversation. I want to be  able to say: and yes I am diagnosed”. 

This is the quote from our conversation that I could almost  repeat word for word without the recording because it  resonated so much for me and I’m sure it will for so many  others too. Sometimes a diagnosis is all we need to help  alleviate some of the struggles that we face with our mental  health. And sometimes, as sad as it is, we need that piece  of paper to feel valid, because more often than not people  are just not believed if you don’t fit an outdated, offensive  stereotype of a mentally ill person.  

When asked about the stigma surrounding ADHD,  especially as a woman, or someone who does not present  with physical hyperactivity, it’s lovely to hear Chloë tell me 

that she thinks it is improving steadily as more awareness is  created, as more conversations happen surrounding the  ways in which ADHD can manifest in people.  

She also notes that one of the reasons it may be more  difficult for girls to get diagnosed with ADHD is that girls are  expected to mature quicker than boys and are made to learn  how to effectively conceal the hyperactivity that they are  feeling, and how to navigate the world in socially accepted  ways. 

“When you’re told that’s not you, that must be wrong, you  have no idea how complex the behaviour is and the root of  that behaviour and where that behaviours come from and  why it’s there and it can be for a million different reasons,  but the masking behaviour is doing its job if you can’t see  that they have it”. 

This is a perfect example of that eloquence I mentioned at  the start. This feels like such a perfect explanation of the  barriers faced by girls who suffer from ADHD and the reason  it can take so long for someone to even begin the process of  reaching out for help. 

There is really only one last quote from our conversation  that I want to leave you with and I hope that it is something 

that sparks a conversation among people reading this,  especially this Mental Health Awareness Week and Month.  On the topic of stigma, Chloë uttered these wonderful words  of wisdom!  

“I think that’s come off the back of the mental health stigma  lifting, and I think this will be the next thing, neurodiversity  will be the next thing that becomes way easier to talk about  and be understood especially with the links to depression.  It’s like we can talk about all having depression, but the next  logical step is to talk about where that depression comes  from, and for me, it’s that”.  

A simple depression or anxiety diagnosis should not be the  end of the discussions we have around our mental health.  We need to normalise exploring the root causes of the  issues we are experiencing and to add to what Chloë said,  we need to normalise the idea of comorbidities. It should not  be shameful to have more than one, or even change  mental health diagnoses over time. 

Mental health is complex and almost impossible to  compartmentalise, comorbidities do not necessarily make  someone ‘more mentally ill’, it just means that diagnostic  criteria is broad and vague and sometimes things like to go  hand in hand. To get better, or simply to understand what  you are experiencing, you need to have comprehensive  diagnoses. It is nothing to be ashamed of. 

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