Living with (undiagnosed) ADHD

Living with (undiagnosed) ADHD

This is a post I’ve been trying to write for months, but it’s difficult to actually finish, or at least figure out the point I’m trying to make…

So I have ADHD. I was diagnosed 18 months ago, which at 38 makes it a rather late in life diagnosis. However now I actually know why my brain doesn’t work the way most people expect it to I have a whole new way of managing my life which has really changed things.

Most of my school years were in the 90s, and the prevailing perception of ADHD at the time was children, almost exclusively boys, being hyperactive and disruptive. This of course lead to the counter view by some groups of it being caused by “bad parents who just want to drug their children”. Neither of these views are correct, and both are very unhelpful. Needless to say despite it being suggested from a young age I never had any formal assessment or support.

I don’t have many symptoms of hyperactivity - though my psychiatrist did raise an eyebrow about that when I showed my health tracker reading over 4,000 steps on a work from home day when I didn’t go outside - but mostly inattention. The inattention side of ADHD is quite insidious as hyperactivity at least has external signs, but inattention is invisible to others, and yourself, until too late. For me this made school and university some of the worst times of my life, no matter what I tried from the ‘conventional wisdom’ I just got told over and over again to pay attention and work on time management skills, but nobody ever thought to teach me how. It turns out that that’s because most people just have those skills at some level, who knew?

And that’s the crux of ADHD for me - I’m not running around disrupting things, and I’m not just distracted. ADHD is an executive dysfunction. The executive - much like in a business - manages priorities. It doesn’t actively do them, but it determines what should be done when, for how long, and what the expected outcome is. If a business has a dysfunctional executive then supplies don’t arrive on time, they don’t make the right products at the right time, and important documents aren’t filed properly, or if these things are done they are done at the very last minute.

On the more social side, lack of prioritisation leads to lack of time perception. I don’t catch up with my friends not because I don’t want to, but because I fail to prioritise organising things until it becomes too socially awkward to do it!

Sound familiar? It certainly did to my life. No planning “life hack” worked, no organiser or list helped, because critically you have to prioritise using those, and when your whole problem is an inability for your brain to prioritise they are never going to work.

So what did help?

Certainly medication has helped, but ADHD medication is a double-edged sword. Which is an odd saying because a double-edged sword is definitely superior to a single edged one and both will cut you if you swing it at yourself, but I guess hilt-less makes even less sense? Anyway I digress. ADHD medication helps with inattention, but that’s all it really does. With medication you can focus on things and it’s harder to get distracted but it doesn’t really help with the prioritisation, so it’s even easier to focus on the wrong thing than before. Like writing this post when it’s time to cook dinner!

The real help for me was CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy. Like all forms of psychotherapy it’s not going to work for everyone but for me the focus on understanding why my brain works in the way it does was key. Now that I know it’s the prioritisation area that’s causing me issues I can work around that using a combination of calendar alerts, scheduled reminders, and routines. I’ve disabled almost every notification outside and made a habit of checking apps either at the end of a task or a certain time each day - no YouTubers, I won’t use the notification bell, I’ll just check the subscriptions page when I’m ready! I don’t get any notifications from Slack, or Facebook, or Discord, or any of the other sources that ping people constantly. This means I know if something notifies me it’s something I’ve already prioritised.

It still doesn’t help with things outside that, I have a huge todo list for my hobbies and keep finding new ones, but those aren’t causing (much) of a problem with my daily life.

And I guess that comes to my last point (have I made any points?). It’s not worth getting diagnosed if you don’t have any problems in your day to day life. However if your career is stuck in a rut, you’re having to pay late fees on bills because you just forgot to pay them, or your social life is suffering because you just forget to organise things, perhaps it’s worth talking to a specialist.

I’m still quite irritated that this wasn’t dealt with when I was young, with the knowledge of how to manage ADHD I might have done things other than software development, and certainly wouldn’t have had as many issues with anxiety. I’ll never know though, can’t change that so the only thing to do is improve things from now!


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