Why I Didn’t Get Diagnosed With ADHD When I Was a Child

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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.

Elementary School

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.

Middle School

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.

High School

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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Why I Went to Therapy

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There’s a huge problem in the world today. Okay, so there are several. But the one I’m going to address today is the stigma surrounding therapy. Out in the world, shall I say the neurotypical world? Out there, going to therapy is seen as weakness. You go to therapy because you’re not enough, you’re broken, you can’t handle this life the same as your neighbors and friends do.

So why would anyone go to therapy?

Certainly it doesn’t feel good to admit defeat. In a world where success is measured by how we individually stack up against those around us, going to therapy is a clear admission that you simply can’t do this alone. And if that’s the case, you have failed. You might as well raise the white flag and call up each and every person who ever intimated that you didn’t or wouldn’t measure up, and tell them that they were right.

But going to therapy doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you’re ready to begin.

This last August I began my third job in as many years. I had left both previous positions feeling like I had failed as I grew farther and farther behind due to lack of organization and increased pressure from management that focused solely on my shortcomings and on none of my strengths.

As I took on the new job I was in the midst of a major fixation on a mobile game. One of those exciting collection games that include battles and teams in various modes. What began as a fixation turned into a major addiction for me. I would spend 4-6 hours daily in the game with an additional 1-2 in chats, stretching to 10 or more hours on the most intense days. It came before work and family and everything else.

I finally realized just how out of balance my life had been made by the game. I had set alarms to go off throughout the day to participate in various game modes and even though I had little time with my family, I found myself playing the game through dinner and barely giving my wife or children any notice at all. I gave up the game the next morning after realizing it.

But I knew this was just the latest in a long line of fixations that had led my life out of balance. It had driven away family and friends, caused problems at work, and taken over nearly every waking thought. And I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to control the void it had left. I knew I didn’t have the strength or knowledge to make lasting change on my own. Years of repeated failure had taught me that.

I decided it was time to get help. It was time for therapy.

As I prepared for my first visit I created a list of things I wanted to talk about. Things that I’d put off dealing with or which I had simply not been able to deal with on my own. On top of work struggles and addictive behaviors, I wrote down the following areas where I needed help: Improving relationships with family, getting over my grandmother’s death, friendship struggles related to introversion, feeling isolated, self-esteem issues related to my weight and other struggles, and my tendency to get in ruts.

I went to therapy not because I was a failure, but because I was tired of failing.

From my first visit my therapist was able to help me talk through issues that I’d never before shared with anyone. It felt liberating. She was able to remain objective and share proven strategies that would help me deal with emotionally charged events and situations. And very quickly she was able to pull the common thread from many of my problems as she became the first person to talk to me about ADHD.

Since beginning therapy I have been significantly happier. I have made many improvements in how I spend my time at home and at work. I have begun to mend relationships by reaching out in meaningful ways to family and friends who had been held at arms length for years. I have connected with a wonderfully supportive community of ADHDers. I’m taking charge of my life.

So despite what you’ve been told about therapy, it’s not about giving up. It’s about getting help. And getting help when you need it is not a sign of weakness. When you are able to admit that you don’t have all the answers and you love yourself enough to be humble and accept the help you need, that is true strength.

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The Signs of ADHD on My Highlight Reel

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I imagined I was sitting in back in a darkened classroom in 6th grade in the second row of desks, third seat from the front. The projector kept making the thwap-thwap-thwap sound as it continued to swing the film reel around an around at the end of the movie. As the lights came up, disorientation ensued as my eyes were slow to adjust to the overwhelming amount of light.

My vision cleared and I was sitting in my therapist’s office. It was still that day—the one when she first brought up ADHD to me. The highlight reel of my life that had had just concluded and I sat in shocked silence as the truth resonated within me.

I can’t really put into words all of what I have discovered about myself since learning of my ADHD as a 37 year old adult. But I will share with you what came across my highlight reel. I’m no diagnostician. Some of these may be unrelated to ADHD, but they all fit together as pieces of my puzzle.

  • I am awful at keeping up with homework
  • I am a sensory avoider
  • I drink Diet Coke like health nuts drink water
  • I am a heavy, habitual procrastinator
  • I can’t pick out a conversation in a crowd or amid other interfering sounds
  • I have a terrible short-term memory
  • But I’m great at trivia
  • At work I’ve been labeled as being inattentive in meetings
  • I struggle to initiate and maintain eye contact
  • I am drawn to screens and can immerse myself in their content for hours
  • I am prone to addiction
  • I have carried a fidget for nearly 15 years and bring it out in meetings
  • I get physically and mentally restless in meetings
  • I have low impulse control that frequently defies my own professed values
  • I can’t let go of collections and possessions
  • I have piles all around my home and office due to disorganization
  • I have been told that I talk too much and I do tend to ramble
  • When I was a youth, peers reminded me to shower
  • It is nearly impossible for me to read and retain information from text books
  • But I will read novels all day long
  • As a teacher I was horrible about grading and lesson planning while at the same time I could spend hours a day in the minutiae of running school chess clubs
  • I can’t keep track of time
  • I currently have over 80,000 unread emails
  • I have probably broken more promises than I’ve kept, because I forget them almost as soon as I’ve made them
  • I am horrible with names. I usually can’t remember them even for the duration of the conversation when I first heard them
  • I have a myriad of unfinished projects at home and and work
  • I played many instruments and took private lessons for years, but I could probably count on one hand the number of times I actually practiced at home
  • There is a mountain of mail that covers half of a counter top in my house
  • I miss deadlines when there is no apparent consequence attached. If there is no deadline, most projects simply don’t happen
  • I am on my 3rd job in as many years and I haven’t felt good at any of my jobs during my 15 year career
  • I am only motivated to complete non-preferred activities if there’s a severe consequence attached to not completing them
  • I nearly failed my first semester of college because I quit going to the classes that were uninteresting or hard. I only succeeded the second semester because, threatened with academic probation, I pared down my class-load, put myself on a strict schedule that accounted for every half hour of my day, and I stuck to it the entire term
  • I am a great idea-man. I can brainstorm and get projects started like nobody’s business. But I’m horrible at follow-through
  • My older brother was diagnosed with ADD (now ADHD-Inattentive) when we were kids. My younger brother, though undiagnosed, could be a poster-child for ADHD
  • I’m unnecessarily quick to anger, especially in scenarios where there’s no apparent consequence for displaying my anger, like at home.
  • I have a disproportionate emotional response to most things.
  • I am prone to fixation and lose myself in desired activities

And those are just the ones I recorded in my journal in those first couple of days after that visit with my therapist. I’ve discovered more since, but even that list feels completely overwhelming.

Reading it brings up so much anger, frustration, and grief.

I am angry that my older brother was diagnosed as a child and I was not. I am frustrated that so many struggles of my life can be tied back to this one root cause that was operating just under the surface. I feel grief over the last 30 years of my life and over what might have been had I been made aware of ADHD and received treatment back then.

But there is also relief, and comfort, and hope.

I am relieved to finally know that I am not just a lazy, flaky, uncommitted slacker—and all the other things that family, friends, and employers might have said or thought of me. I am comforted to finally know why I have felt like I had to put in extra effort to just reach “satisfactory” levels. And I have hope because in even the brief time I have known about my ADHD I have made substantial progress toward improving my life.

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ADHD has plagued my entire life unmolested. But now I know it’s there. Yeah, yeah—even G.I. Joe taught that knowing is only half the battle. But knowing what I’m facing and having a clear path forward has given me strength and courage enough to stand and shout my battle cry as I begin to take back my life.

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