One of the most difficult things I’ve been dealing with is this question: Why didn’t I get diagnosed with ADHD when I was younger? My older brother was diagnosed with ADD when we were kids. If this had happened in 2020, the doctors would have looked into the rest of our family, at the very least to parents and siblings. That little check would have significantly improved the lives of at least three of us.
The fact is, I was not diagnosed as a child. And as far as I understand it, Adult-onset ADHD isn’t a thing. However, ADHD often isn’t diagnosed until well into adulthood, and there are many, many ADHDers who live their entire lives simply never being diagnosed.
So how did I make it for so long?
One of the factors is that I have ADHD-Inattentive, the classic “ADD,” without the big H of hyperactivity. The lack of hyperactivity has left many boys and even more girls undiagnosed in childhood. On top of that, many folks with the inattentive sub-type do well enough to get by in the early years of schooling. And they continue to excel until they “slam into the wall” as described by Dr. Amen in his book, “Healing ADD.” Where this wall is differs from person to person.
I was one of those who excelled early in school. Reading and school itself were both early fixations in my life and my super power of hyperfocus was actively at work in both areas. It’s basically a perfect setup for an ADHDer to do well. In elementary school my love for reading propelled me to near the top of the class academically and kept me there until middle school. I had few friends, though I got along well enough with my classmates. I self-isolated through reading, and even at recess I might be found sitting alone reading rather than playing.
Since I loved school, I adored teachers. I always tried to be my teacher’s best friend. When I did schoolwork and took tests, I wanted them to be proud of what I did and I thrived on positive feedback and recognition that I got in return. I was also natural friends with the librarians in my schools and frequently spent extra time in the library.
But by middle school I could no longer compete with the top of my class. I struggled with coursework that I found boring like language arts where we were learning parts of speech and syntax. This was the first time I can remember not being able to read and learn from a text. I still did very well in math and literature and was also active in band and choir…though I never practiced at home. Because I had already developed a reputation as a top student, I did everything I could to maintain that. I frequently lied about my academic progress and never shared my struggles with anyone because the prospect of admitting to that struggle was too embarrassing.
I did fine through high school. I tested well enough to overcome my problems with homework and I relied on impressive procrastination skills to get through classes where late homework was accepted and long projects were staples. I filled my high school days with working in my parents’ store, playing in sports, bands, choirs, plays, musicals, and just about anything else I could join. I got good grades in classes I liked with teachers I liked, and I struggled in the others. I wouldn’t “slam into the wall” until my first year in college. But that’s a tale for some other day.
Another factor that worked against me getting a childhood ADHD diagnosis was that my family moved frequently. Between preschool and 12th grade my family moved ten times. Three times these moves involved changing schools in the middle of the year. The moves made it all the more difficult for any teacher to have enough time and data to see through my mask and find the struggling child beneath.
So why wasn’t I diagnosed as a child?
TL/DR: I was born in the wrong decade. I have ADHD-Inattentive, and without hyperactive symptoms you don’t often stand out. I absolutely LOVED school and reading throughout my elementary years, which set me up for many years of success. When I started to struggle I was too embarrassed to talk about it and lied to cover up all signs of struggle that I could. Moving ten times during my school years also prevented educators from having enough time to really get to know me.
Having been diagnosed as a child could have dramatically changed my life. My diagnosis is still new and I’m struggling to manage the grief I have over all of the time and opportunities that I lost to ADHD when I didn’t even know I had it. As I work on moving forward, I am trying to take to heart a quote written on a small plaque I was given by a teacher when I was just seven years old: The past cannot be changed, but the future is whatever you want it to be. 30 years later it has more meaning than ever.
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