I’d always known I was different. Not in a Peter Parker spidey-senses-tingling kind of way. More like that feeling when you have a cold, your senses are dulled, and you know that you’re not quite hearing everything at full volume. But you’re very aware that everyone else is operating on Dolby Digital surround sound.
There was the time I told a friend’s mum that I wore tights in summer because they “filtered the warm air” so it was cooler by the time it got to my legs. Or when we had to write about one of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions in a history class and I spent an hour praising how ingenious it was that he had created the world’s first trampoline. He hadn’t. It was a parachute. But my head had seen “cloth stretched apart by wooden poles” and it meant someone could fall from a height “without injury.” Interpreting things slightly oddly has always been my forte.
Struggling with school
Then there was hitting age 15 and being surrounded by all my classmates studying for mock exams; I just didn’t understand. I knew what I’d been taught, and I wasn’t going to waste hours re-writing all of my schoolwork in the vague hope that I’d remember it all a bit better.
I’d been a model student until then: I was a real-life Hermione (right down to the precocious corrections of everyone’s grammar) and loved to learn. I devoured books. I was always reading, writing, drawing, crafting. Anything to keep my hands and my mind busy. I just wanted to know everything. I would obsess for weeks or months on a topic. Pirates. Rainforests. Tornadoes. Dinosaurs. Jack the Ripper. I delighted in finding nuggets of trivia to drop into conversation.
Suddenly, I found myself stifled in a classroom learning dull facts that bore no relation to the technicolour world I learnt about in my encyclopaedias. I didn’t understand. Why was I being expected to learn all of this pointless information? I was bored. My mind wandered. My mum was called in to talk to my head of year about my lack of motivation and enthusiasm. But I was still doing well enough in all my classwork that they weren’t really worried – just a bit concerned that I wasn’t “applying” myself.
I achieved a straight set of A and A* grades at GCSE. I hadn’t revised for even an hour. And clearly, it would have been a waste of time anyway, to my mind, given my stellar performance. I was excited to start A Levels, anticipating a new challenge, hoping that finally my schoolmates would have caught up to my level of enthusiasm for learning and that the materials we’d be studying would be a little less elementary.
It took about a week for those hopes to drain away. I felt trapped in a world that was stifling my creativity, stumping out my curiosity. Lessons were a list of boxes to be ticked, stock answers to be memorised. And always, without fail:
“You just need to apply yourself.”
“You’re smarter than that.”
“You have such good ideas, I don’t understand why your written work doesn’t reflect that.”
I was surrounded by academic, conscientious girls who would sit in silence for an hour whilst I debated Shakespeare’s take on feminism, made jokes in French, questioned the benefits of our voting system. And then they would turn in full-mark essays whilst I could barely concentrate for half an hour when I got home to hit the minimum word counts. I was confused. I felt stranded. I desperately wanted to learn and debate, discuss and engage. My head was full of ideas and questions, but it just felt so pointless having to churn it all out so someone could match it up to a marking guide.
Theatre was my saving grace. I joined a youth theatre aged 14, and I don’t think I have ever been as happy as I was every Wednesday evening, in the glow of the sconces on the wood-panelled walls, cocooned in the embrace of music and dance. Even now, the nostalgia of those rehearsals fills me at once with warmth and can bring me to tears for how much I crave recapturing that feeling.
Fast-forward to last year, and I’m struggling with a relationship that feels like it’s splitting at the seams, a diagnosis of severe anxiety and depression, and medication that feels like it’s doing more harm than good.
I can’t keep track of time. I forget plans I’ve made. I get told off for constantly interrupting everyone. I feel like an outcast in every job I have, like everyone else was given the handbook for functioning in the workplace but I’ve got to work it out for myself. And it just doesn’t make sense. New friendships with colleagues feel forced. I can’t “just get on with” mundane, boring tasks. I start my day with the best intentions, and well-organised to-do lists and suddenly it’s 5pm and I haven’t done anything on the list. But I’ve been busy all day. Every day.
I’m regularly describing my mood as “edgy”, “foggy”, “panicked.” Sometimes I’m speaking and it’s like someone else is doing the talking. My dreams are more vivid than ever, and I’m waking up every day exhausted from having already lived out an entire day in my sleep. Sometimes, I’m so hyper that I can’t sit still, my words tumble over themselves and I feel like a wind-up toy, a motor buzzing inside me, unable to think clearly until it’s juddered to a halt.
And then come the days that I can’t face the world. It’s like there’s a slab of concrete pressing down on me, pinning me to the bed, clouding my mind until I can’t imagine ever being happy again.
Making sense of it all
I spoke to my GP. I voiced my concern that I had bipolar tendencies, from all the reading I’d been doing. Luckily, she referred me and I was seen by a psychiatrist within weeks. I spent two hours unpicking my thought processes, my reactions, my instincts. It was cathartic in itself just to do that. Then came the magic words:
“I think it’s very likely that you have ADHD.”
My eyes were opened.
True to form, I got home and scoured the internet for every morsel of information I could find on adult ADHD, specifically in women. I was reading about me. Suddenly, everything made sense. The overactive imagination. Feeling like time would speed up and slow down. That feeling that I was seeing the world through different lenses to everyone else.
Life after diagnosis
It’s been 8 months since my diagnosis, and I feel like a different person. To quote Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo’s fantastic book, “You mean I’m not lazy, stupid, or crazy?!”
It’s not that ADHD is an excuse for any of my frustrating traits (probably more frustrating to me than anyone else!), but it certainly explains a lot of it. And now that I have a reason, I can look into ways of mitigating behaviours that impact on other people. Or at least give them an explanation – that I don’t mean to interrupt them 7 times in a conversation, but I am aware of it and I’m working on it. That I’m really trying to be on time, but a 10 minute window where I can arrive without panicking is really helpful to my mental health for the rest of the day.
It’s also made me realise that it’s ok to feel trapped in an environment where I’m stuck at a desk for 8 hours a day. It’s just not something my brain can handle very well. It’s helping me to focus my job-search, looking for things that will give me some scope to be out of the office, or to work from home a day a week. I’m stuck with the paradox of needing a routine, but also feeling suffocated as soon as I have a routine that is too structured.
I’m not saying I have a handle on it yet. It’s a work in progress, and I’m sure it will be for quite some time. I might not know exactly where I’m going, and definitely not how I’m going to get there. But at least now I have a map.
ADHD Voices is a series dedicated to sharing the stories of folks like you and me who have ADHD. Posts in the series are written by guest authors, sharing windows into their lives and struggles, written by them, for you and me. If you’d like to share your story, please contact me on social media or through my email, ADHDsurprise @ gmail.com