How I Passed As Neurotypical For So Long

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The descriptors neurodiverse and neurotypical were two of the first words I encountered when I connected with the ADHD community on Twitter. If you’re not familiar with them, a couple of down-and-dirty definitions you can work from are these:

Neurotypical: describes a person having a brain that works in a typical manner.

Neurodiverse: describes a person having a brain that works differently.

Like I said, down-and-dirty. The biggest, tallest part of the bell curve is full of folks with typically-developed and typically-functioning brains. Most expectations you encounter in life, whether they be at home, school, work, recreation, etc., most of the expectations are set up with the neurotypical average in mind.

Learning those terms helped me tremendously, as they put in perspective what I was facing. My whole life I had operated under an incorrect assumption—that I was neurotypical. Given that assumption, when I failed to meet expectations I simply blamed myself. Learning that I was neurodiverse—that my brain actually works differently than others’ do—was life-changing.

When the idea of having ADHD was first brought up to me, my mind rushed back in time and immediately began identifying all of the signs I had missed along the way, and ADHD had run rampant through all parts of my life, for as long as I can remember. At that point my biggest questions were how anyone looking at me couldn’t have known and how could I have not known about my ADHD? These questions ultimately led me to the the underlying question for this post.

Covering ADHD symptoms

I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was 37 years old. At that time I found clear evidence of ADHD in my life going back as far as I can remember. So what gives? I’ve already addressed why I didn’t get diagnosed as a child, so today my focus is on my adult behaviors. I had developed many strategies, coping skills, and masking behaviors which effectively covered many of my ADHD symptoms and thus made it possible for me to hide in plain sight in the neurotypical world.

Pina created a comic that really resonated with me on this subject. Seen below you’ll see how anxiety can effectively lead one to mask many aspects of ADHD. Many of her shown examples are true for me as well. The thing with masks is they’re not real. They give the appearance of wellness, but they are simply covering the internal struggle.

So how did I pass as neurotypical for so long?

First, I have a lot of strengths that the neurotypical world loves.

  • Being creative
  • Starting projects I’m excited about
  • Problem-solving
  • Performance
  • Talking the talk
  • Pulling off great work under pressure
  • Helping others
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills

These help me to navigate most tough situations. When my feet are put to the fire and I’m up against a deadline (which I probably procrastinated) or a major consequence, I am doing my very best work. I am excellent at job interviews because it’s a performance. To me an audience acts like a deadline and flips that switch of unimportant/disengaged and all of a sudden I care immensely and can hyperfocus in that moment. I rock interviews.

But I also have a lot of weaknesses and/or ADHD symptoms that I have learned to cover, mask, or otherwise support or accommodate so that they are not obvious to the casual observer. Here are some of the things I have done to mask ADHD symptoms. Mind you, I was doing all of these things before I knew I had ADHD. They developed naturally as I tried to make up for or hide my shortcomings (as measured by neurotypical standards).

Things I was doing that masked or hid symptoms:

  • I was drinking 5+ cans of Diet Coke per day. Only after I learned about how stimulants interact with the ADHD brain did I realize this was actually a rudimentary form of self-medication.
  • I have carried the same fidget in my pocket for over 14 years. I have always used it when meetings get too long.
  • I rely heavily on Google Calendar to know where I’m supposed to be all the time.
  • I have taken mental health days regularly throughout my career, particularly when facing high anxiety or intense stress
  • I have used home as an outlet for negative emotions and behaviors that I simply cannot show at work without major consequences.
  • I am hyper aware of things like my phone and keys because I am prone to losing them. It’s almost an obsession to not let them out of my site or their places.
  • I take notes during meetings to help me listen to what’s being said.
  • When all else has failed, have flat-out lied to cover up symptoms.

So what does this mean for me now?

I know now that my brain works differently from neurotypical brains. So I can let go of the notion that I need to meet every single standard in the neurotypical world. Sure, there will always be some I can’t get away from or can’t make accommodations for. But I’m better about picking my battles now. I forgive myself more easily. I don’t simply get down on myself for being lazy or incompetent. I get to set my own bar.

I reach out to other ADHDers to gauge how they might respond to situations I’m in. I helped create an online ADHD support group largely for that purpose—so that when I’m not sure if the thing I’m facing is an “ADHD thing” I can quickly find out. Learning more about ADHD and connecting with others who have it has continued to be a critical part of my personal development. I also seek treatment for my ADHD through medication and therapy. By combining reasonable expectations with effective plans and meaningful supports, I find it easier than ever to navigate the neurotypical world.

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Why I Saw a Psychiatrist About ADHD

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I started with therapy

If you’ve been with me for a few days, you’re familiar with the struggles I had at work prior to being diagnosed with ADHD. Years of feeling inadequate for my teaching and principal jobs had come to a head when, two years in a row, I found myself pressed into looking for a new job. This, combined with continued frustrations with my shortcomings at home, finally convinced me that I needed to talk with a therapist.

Early in my third visit, just as we finished my personal and family histories, my therapist asked if anyone had ever talked with me about ADHD. She felt pretty strongly that I had ADHD-Inattentive, based on the types of struggles I’d described at home and at work, as well as the fact that my brother had been diagnosed with ADHD-Inattentive (ADD back then). So we began operating under that assumption.

I immediately learned all I could about ADHD. I took to the internet, connected with the ADHD Twitter community, read several books on ADHD, and began to process all of this information in a journal that I’d bought months before, but (shockingly, I know) which had remained unused. Now the pages came to life with reflections, lists, notes, plans, fixations, symptoms, etc. In short, I filled that journal to process, and remember, all I could about ADHD and my life.

Having learned what I had about the symptoms and having processed the major parts of my life through that lens, I was completely convinced that I did, in fact, have ADHD. The books I read and resources I found online guided me to make some immediate changes in my life for the better. Because simply being aware of things like time blindness and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) has helped me understand myself so that I can anticipate some of my struggles and plan for them. But as G.I. Joe was fond of telling us, knowing is only half of the battle.

The other half of the battle

Continued therapy has been crucial to improving my life. I still see my therapist most weeks. We are working on strategies to counter some of the more impactful ADHD symptoms at home and at work. She also helps me understand some of the mental and emotional walls I have built which keep me from initiating certain tasks or conversations. Therapy has been and will continue to be a crucial part of reclaiming my life from ADHD.

But there are things therapy cannot do. And after talking with my therapist, we decided that also seeking medication was an important step to take for my treatment. Specifically my hopes were that medication would help with things that therapy had a hard time reaching, like my ability to accomplish tasks that are more mundane or which I am compelled to do (as opposed to things I find interesting). I also hoped that medication would improve my ability to keep my mind focused, and by so doing it might improve my memory, albeit in a roundabout way.

So I set up the appointment with a psychiatrist. You can also go through your regular doctor who may or may not refer you to a specialist. For me, setting up this appointment was for two reasons. First, I was looking to confirm the suspicions of my therapist as well as my self-diagnosis. A psychiatrist would be able to give me a professional diagnosis. The second reason I went was with the hope of receiving treatment through medication.

I was worried that the psychiatrist might be inflexible. I didn’t want to end up working with someone who was going to give me a “my way or the highway” approach. I wanted to be able to give input, working with someone who was knowledgeable of ADHD and its various sub-types and courses of treatment.

Seeing a psychiatrist

In the end, I got the more important of my two wishes. I did find someone who was very flexible, and who was actually willing to consider all currently available medications as we weighed the various treatment options and side effects together. What he was somewhat lacking in was the depth of knowledge regarding ADHD. But I had also done nothing but study ADHD for about a month at that point, so I felt comfortable enough in working with him.

At that first visit, I brought my journal along. I knew from some of the books I’d read what my psychiatrist would need to know to diagnose me. I had prepared sections in my journal around what you now know as recent posts on this blog: how ADHD had impact home and work, how ADHD had impacted my childhood, and also, reasons why I felt I hadn’t gotten diagnosed earlier. I also brought along a self-reporting scale that I’d found online.

In the end, I was probably over-prepared. I could tell I had perhaps overwhelmed the poor fellow as I was listing off impacts of ADHD on my home life and he cut me off saying he didn’t need to hear any more. He indicated that he’d already heard more than enough to move forward with a diagnosis and, based on my symptoms, he supported exploring treatment through medication, which we would look at on our next visit. He did say that the self-reporting form was the same one he’d have had me fill out if I hadn’t brought it.

Tips for your diagnosis-seeking visit

As you consider taking the step to seek a professional diagnosis and medication, I recommend preparing yourself. You will need to be able to answer questions regarding the impacts of ADHD in the major parts of your life. Home and work or home and school are probably sufficient. If you’re an adult, showing that ADHD impacted your childhood is another important thing that will be considered.

I was afraid that I’d forget what I’d thought to share in these areas, so writing them down and bringing the notes really helped me. If you’re one who is forgetful and gets flustered in somewhat stressful situations, you might consider writing down these things as well. And although it was slightly awkward when he cut me off and said he had enough, I still think it’s a situation where it’s better to have more information that is needed rather than not enough.

The other thing to keep in mind is that even among medical professionals, some symptoms of ADHD are not widely known. I am glad I was prepared to describe things like time blindness and RSD, because with both my therapist and psychiatrist, they heard both terms from me first. This can be somewhat disheartening, but remember, your whole life may currently be wrapped up in ADHD, and it might’ve been a chapter in a text book for them once. You will hopefully find someone with more knowledge than that, but it’s best to go in prepared.

I recognize that this step isn’t for everyone. I fully support self-diagnosis. You know yourself better than anyone. And I knew I had ADHD from the moment my therapist first brought it up. Because it finally made the struggles of my life make sense. But I wanted a professional diagnosis in order to pursue medication and also to make me feel better about potentially requesting workplace accommodations.

Have you gone to a psychiatrist to seek a diagnosis? Are you considering it? If so, please comment below or find me on social media to share what your experience was like or to ask any questions you’re thinking about as you move forward.

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How Undiagnosed ADHD Impacted Work

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I work in public education. I was a teacher for nine years and I’ve been a school administrator (principal or assistant principal) for the last five. Most of the work impacts I share will be from my experiences in that realm, though the struggles I faced I’m sure you’ll be able to relate to regardless of the field you work in yourself.

Disorganization

Similar to home, my classroom and my offices have all shared the common problem of ‘piles instead of files.’ Whether it is the never-ending stack of papers to grade or the endless forms that make their way onto my desk, I always feel inundated with so much paper that I can barely think straight.

Deadlines

The ADHD brain typically sorts everything into mental piles of “now” and “not now.” For me this translates into a lot of procrastination as I wait for whatever the project is to come close to due. The only thing that really flips something onto the “now” side is if the deadline actually has consequences attached. There are some hard deadlines in education. There are many more soft deadlines, the ones that have no consequences when you break them. Once you learn that there’s a soft deadline, well, that project just got put back onto “not now.” I’ve had many projects assigned in September or October get pushed all the way to June that way, much to the chagrin of my supervisors.

Poor short term memory

This one hits pretty hard. There are so many conversations that happen on the fly in break rooms and hallways, and even regular meetings that I just happen to walk into. And people are always asking me to help with things. In my current position as a principal, it’s a huge part of the job. Ultimately, I am a support staff member who helps make sure everything in the school runs as it should. But when those promises are made on the fly, I typically forget them before I am ten feet away. I have unintentionally broken so many promises over the years that I’ve no doubt gained a reputation of at best being flaky, and at worst, being a liar.

I can also come across as disconnected and uncaring because I cannot remember names of people I just met. Most of the time I can’t recall a name seconds after it’s been shared with me, even if I’m trying hard. Then I feel awkward about it and even in the “still new” period where I could ask again, I don’t. And then it grows too late and I feel disconnected and intimidated by further connection with that person. Not a great way to build relationships.

Distraction

I don’t have the outward hyperactive symptoms but that certainly doesn’t stop my mind from racing. Whether I’m walking down a hallway or meeting with a person one-on-one, my mind is probably attempting to hop back and forth between a dozen ideas at once. This makes it look like I’m not paying attention, even when I am trying my best. I once attended a meeting where I took three pages of diligent notes and was later accused of not paying attention.

Long meetings do stretch my stamina. I will often have to pull out my fidget or stand up at the back of the room to stretch my legs. All the while my mind is desperately trying to be elsewhere.

“Work Chores”

These are the mundane must-dos of work. When I was teaching this would be grading papers and lesson planning. As an administrator it might be reviewing paperwork, completing observations and evaluations, or setting and reviewing agendas for all the meetings that need to be run. All of these are frequently put off in favor of other tasks that are more interesting or immediately rewarding.

Possibly related to distraction, I struggle reading nonfiction text. Especially when it’s assigned reading. It immediately gets classified a chore and all of a sudden my comprehension level drops to zero and I may spend half an hour trying do read and re-read a single paragraph. Nonfiction texts are frequently used as part of professional development and it’s a constant struggle for me to learn in this manner.

Time Blindness

Many ADHDers struggle with time blindness, which is basically the inability to tell how much time is passing. As a principal I might start a project in my office and inadvertently stay working on it for several hours. Just today I was in my office until nearly 7pm, about 3 hours after every other employee had left the site. I missed dinner and a regularly planned evening activity that starts at 7. This can also take place during the school day, disrupting my effectiveness by keeping me engaged in tasks longer than expected.

This may also account for all of the late arrivals at work. Try as I might, get up as early as I like, arriving on time for work seems all but impossible. It’s not like I’m horribly late, but I typically roll in about 5 minutes later than my own expected start time every day. It seems like there’s always some unaccounted for thing that pops up, one more thing I remember, or some time that I just ‘lose’ somewhere in the morning.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)

If you’re not familiar with RSD, the basic idea is that you perceive rejection, even when it isn’t there. So where there’s disagreement, you may read confrontation. Where there’s a helpful tip for improvement, you may hear criticism. Many ADHDers experience RSD symptoms and it is believed that they are taught through experience: as we have suffered so much rejection throughout our lives, we begin to anticipate it everywhere. So when your boss tells you “we need to meet,” your mind may immediately jump to the worst case scenario. Without multiple points of reassurance, I can very easily feel that my boss is “out to get me” every time she comes by my office.

The high stress that stems from RSD and falling behind at work inevitably leads to more sick days taken. Frequently I’ll find myself in need of a “mental health day” just to get away and do something that feels good, or even to do nothing in particular. Where this can get tricky is if I get into playing a new video game or binge-watching a new series. Then one sick day can easily turn into two or three.

Low Impulse Control

Taking multiple sick days in a row when they’re not *ahem* exactly necessary, could definitely be connected to low impulse control as well. My low impulse control can manifest in several other ways at work too. Sometimes it’s giving into my current fixation and spending time on it when I should be working. Other times it’s the need to throw out a joke or snarky response in meetings. It doesn’t matter how serious the topic of the meeting is, a snarky remark is often the first one to roll off my tongue.

Before my teaching career, I actually quit a job on a whim. My wife and I were working multiple jobs as we neared the end of our college careers, and at one point we both worked in a call center as our second or third job. My wife had a day off and I wanted to have the same one so we could be together. When my request was denied, I handed in my badge and quit on the spot. I haven’t done this with my professional career, though I will admit the thoughts cross my mind from time to time.

It all adds up

I’ve shared a lot of impacts of ADHD on the workplace here. What they add up to is supervisors seeing you as disorganized, lazy, flaky, or just plain not caring about your job. Personally, I have spent my entire professional career feeling like a failure because I could never do the job that my colleagues seemed to be able to. I couldn’t keep up. Oh I could pour hours into an extra-curricular club that I was excited about, but I always felt mediocre about my teaching and have felt even worse as an administrator.

I am on my third job in as many years. My last two employers have cited many of the problems above as reasons why we should part ways. I was never outright fired, but we had those conversations where you’re invited to “read between the lines” and move on. In education, when you start to get that kind of pattern on your resume, it raises red flags to future employers. It says there’s a problem you keep running from. I am the primary source of income in my home, so seeing the huge liability I was becoming for my family financially was one of the driving factors behind me seeking therapy this year. That’s what ultimately led to me learning about ADHD and getting my diagnosis.

So although I’m not glad I had all these struggles, I am glad that I finally saw the need to get help. Because now I know the reason behind all of these issues I’ve faced. I’ve been measuring myself against a bar that I could never reach because my own brain was working against me. Knowing I have ADHD is a huge help, because now I can see what all of these problem areas are. I’ve begun treating ADHD with therapy as well as medication so that I can continue to overcome these issues and finally feel successful at work.

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