“Well this explains everything,” my sister said when I told her my news. “It does explain a lot,” I said. “No, it explains your whole life,” she answered. And she was right. It kind of did.
I was 37 years old before I was formally diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It wasn’t that I’d suddenly lost my ability to focus as an adult — it turns out I’d had the condition my whole life but just never had a name for it before. And while I’ll admit it was a bit of a shock I will say this about my late-in-life diagnosis: It made perfect sense and it was a total relief.
Like many adults, I didn’t get diagnosed with ADHD until we discovered the mental illness in my son. As the pediatrician asked my son question after question, I kept answering, “Oh hey, I do that too!” After a while, I finally turned to her and said, “Wait, this isn’t how everyone is?” She just laughed and told me that no, it wasn’t normal, and gave both my son and I a referral to a psychologist who specialized in ADHD.
After months of testing, I finally emerged with my diagnosis… and a lot more questions than answers. For starters, why had it taken me so long to figure this out about myself?
Even though ADHD must first show signs in childhood — that’s actually one of the diagnostic criteria; if you didn’t have symptoms as a kid then you don’t have ADHD now, period — ADHD in adults looks a lot different than it does in kids, says Eric Lifshitz, MD, a psychiatrist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica and in private practice in Beverly Hills. This often has to do with the fact that ADHD adults have developed a lifetime of coping behaviors to deal with their condition. So, helping adults get diagnosed is a whole different ball game than a child, and requires a different kind of testing and criteria.
Curious to see if you might need to be evaluated for adult ADHD too? Here are a few questions, courtesy of Dr. Lifshitz, that I found to be personally really helpful. (For a more comprehensive adult ADHD quiz, try this one from Psych Central.):
1. Do you consistently lose focus, get distracted and forget things? The key here is the pattern, according to Dr. Lifshitz. “There are many, many other reasons that adults can develop these issues, including depression and stress,” he explains. So, if you’re going through a particularly hard time in your life, your symptoms likely aren’t from a pervasive brain glitch like ADHD but are more circumstantial.
2. Are you bored a lot? Sure, life can be boring sometimes; but if you’re always bored (especially in every day situations that most people seem to tolerate just fine), it can be a symptom of ADHD.
3. Are you having trouble in your job? In all your jobs? Having trouble at work — usually from making myriad little mistakes, not finishing projects or forgetting things like deadlines — is a hallmark of adult ADHD. Getting in trouble at one job can be chalked up to a bad fit but if you’re constantly job hopping and getting poor performance reviews, it might be a sign you need to be evaluated.
4. Do you have low self-esteem? Many people with ADHD feel like failures, Dr. Lifshitz explains, and this translates in to chronically feeling down about themselves. The difference between this sadness and, say, depression is that the bad feelings resolve when the ADHD symptoms are managed effectively. It’s not an organic depression from a brain chemical imbalance, you’re just depressed about your inability to manage your own life like you feel you should.
5. Do you love to make goals but find it nearly impossible to accomplish them? Even though ADHD people are often highly intelligent, their mental quirk makes it particularly difficult to see all the little steps between wanting to do something and actually doing it. From the outside this can look like you have big! dreams!… and no follow through. (Sorry Mom and Dad!)
6. Do you hyperfocus? This may seem counterintuitive (ADHD is about not being able to focus, right?), but really it’s about not being able to focus appropriately. Many ADHD adults get hyperfocused on tasks or hobbies that they’re intensely interested in, often to the exclusion of all else — including eating, sleeping and taking care of children or pets.
7. Do you have a hard time relaxing? Rather than chilling out during breaks, “adults with ADHD often feel an inward restlessness or anxiety when not actively engaged in a task,” Lifshitz says. ADHD kids often manifest this as outward hyperactivity but adults learn to internalize that feeling, he says. ADHD adults will say things like they can’t ever sit through a movie (especially if it’s one they didn’t choose), they only like active hobbies and they hate “moments of silence.”
8. Do you always have the TV or radio on? “People with ADHD need to be constantly bombarded with high levels of stimulation,” Lifshitz says. This means they are constantly changing channels, checking their phones, whistling, humming or fidgeting. They may also prefer to be in places with lots of light, noise and people.
Answer yes to a few of them? Some of them? All of them? The point of all this isn’t just to give you a label. The name ADHD is meaningless unless it gives you better strategies to help you live your life. It’s been nearly two years since I got diagnosed and it’s been quite the learning experience. I did try medication for a few months but found that it made me feel on-edge and only made my focus worse. I ditched the pills and have instead been focusing on different behavioral therapies, which have greatly improved my life. At the very least, I hope that anyone who reads this and identifies with these symptoms will know that you’re not alone and there’s no shame in having your brain wired this way (and in some circumstances it’s even an advantage!).
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