real life

'As a child, I was deemed lazy and disorganised. Years later, I was diagnosed with ADHD.'

I almost hate to talk about yet another late-in-life diagnosis because it feels like I’ve been through so many of these. 

Lately, though, I’ve been so fed up with my life that I’m willing to take a closer look at my latest diagnosis, inattentive ADHD.

Perhaps, like me, you know nothing about the condition. Honestly, any time people talked about ADHD my eyes would just glaze over and I’d assume they weren’t talking to me. 

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It’s embarrassing, really. I thought that it was all about little boys who were bouncing off the walls at school.

I also assumed that it would have been obvious, but the funny thing is that the more I look at my signs and symptoms the more I realise that it was obvious... in me.

You see, I excelled in primary school, but absolutely sputtered out in high school. 

High school and university were absolutely miserable because everything took me so much time. 

Over and over, my parents and teachers insisted that I was "way too smart to try so little," and I was beyond exasperated because I tried so hard.

Nobody believed me.

It’s not as if I was goofing off or ignoring my studies though. My difficulty in school came from a whole host of problems.

Homework seemed to take me much more time than my peers. Even though I loved to write, I seemed to always be playing catch up.

Sometimes, I’d get hung up on a question and how it could be interpreted in multiple ways. 

Or, I’d get stuck on wondering what my teachers really wanted. Often, I’d find my mind wandering or playing out an entire imagined scenario. 

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I might daydream about a realistic conversation related to my schoolwork, or end up having a full-blown daydream that had little to do with the subject at hand.

Somewhere along the line, I learned to never talk about the extent of my daydreaming because it was so heavily frowned upon. Adults didn’t seem to recognise that daydreaming wasn’t a conscious choice.

On the contrary, my daydreaming happened so naturally that I eventually (in adulthood) began to see it as a good thing. 

Daydreaming offers a certain amount of stress relief. It energises me, helps me brainstorm new ideas, and even lets me rehearse stressful conversations in my head.

Now that I’m a writer, I can see how daydreaming has helped me create blog posts and develop a more distinctive writing style. Holding imaginary conversations in my mind basically created my voice.

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I was never great with organisation. It’s as if disorganisation always made more sense to me. 

My mother would get so frustrated with me and ask why I didn’t just put things back right away. I had a hard time explaining it, but I frequently felt as if I had to keep everything out in the open where I could see it. 

After all, "out of sight out of mind" suggested that I really might not remember what happened to everything.

The other part of my disorganisation, of course, was that I didn’t know the best way to organise things. 

I always thought I’d be better organised if only it made more sense how to do it. While a few items might have obvious homes, there was too much stuff that I didn’t know how to categorise and it felt mentally exhausting trying to figure it out.

Decision and mental fatigue are traits that grew more nebulous each year. 

Research? I could never do enough. It seemed to me that there would always be some bit of new or conflicting information and I still have a lot of difficulty tuning such conflict out of my head.

Often, I struggle to finish mundane tasks, not because they’re boring per se, but because they take a lot of mental energy I just don’t seem to have. 

If I look at everything that needs to be done, I’ll typically wear myself out before anything gets done.

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That’s one reason I really like working with a professional organiser. 

It brings someone else into my home to show me new ideas without judgment and that helps me make more decisions without feeling overloaded.

I’ve always been a low-energy person, and frankly, it’s always embarrassed me. 

Our society seems to prefer vivacious, high-energy, and extroverted people. Me? I’ve always had to conserve my energy. Even in the past when I’ve been more of a social butterfly, I still need plenty of alone time to recover.

Unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older, it seems that fatigue has followed me a lot. 

There’s the mental and emotional fatigue, obviously, but I’m also pretty quickly physically drained. For much of my life, I think I’ve tried to downplay just how tired I feel because there’s definitely a stigma that if you’re always tired, there’s something wrong with your lifestyle.

In reality, ADHD leads to an incredible amount of fatigue.

One of the most surprising things for me to learn lately is that obesity and eating disorders both have a very high occurrence rate in people with ADHD. 

The connections are multi-faceted. With ADHD, it’s difficult to make a plan and stick with it. 

Time management, organisation, and clean-up — some of those things were still manageable for me when I was young. But working a full-time job and becoming a mother put greater obstacles in my path.

Juggling became increasingly more difficult to do, and eventually, I grew to rely upon food for a certain boost to my mood. 

For a long time, I thought I was a "sugar junkie." But even when I ate low-carb, I discovered that I could binge eat or medicate myself with food whether it was sweet or supposedly healthy and guilt-free.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the content of my food that was the issue. It was my relationship with food. I kept trying to use it to stimulate my brain. Gee, I really wish I knew about the connection a long time ago.

So far, out of everything that I’ve been learning about ADHD, I think this is the most life-changing thing: If you have ADHD, your brain is motivated by its search for optimal stimulation. 

In the past, I could never really verbalise my struggles in my everyday life. When I tried to explain the emptiness and constant searching, most doctors and therapists took that to mean I was simply depressed.

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No one seemed able to grasp that I was constantly looking for a feeling. I didn’t even understand it myself. It’s only now that I’ve been reading more about inattentive ADHD that I see how I was always like this.

I’ve even been reading that people with ADHD tend to go overboard and get a little... overly enthusiastic when we develop a new interest. 

And that enthusiasm can easily lead to various excesses like overeating, a shopping addiction, or simply being that one friend in your social circle who’s a bit over the top.

Ah, yes. I am that person who tends to give large gifts and I do go overboard with practically any hobby. 

When I was a knitter, I had a terrible habit of buying too much yarn. If I discover that I really like something, I feel a deep compulsion to bring it home by the case. 

My whole life, this quirk has made me feel a little bit crazy. Today, I know that I only do such things to excess in an effort to stimulate my mind.

Of course, all of that overindulgence and struggle with organisation can lead to a real hoarding problem. 

Honestly, I feel bad about the fact that I’m something of a hoarder, and it’s just one of many ways I feel a bit like a failure at almost 40.

The good news, of course, is that it no longer seems hopeless. 

Not as long as I can continue to make a good living and hire some help from time to time. 

Yesterday, I kid you not — I had my local professional organiser help me clean out my car simply because I couldn’t seem to make myself do it on my own.

All of this undoubtedly goes hand in hand with anxiety. 

It’s absurd, yet I never used to think about myself as a person with anxiety. That seems so ridiculous now. 

As a teenager, I was plagued by stomach aches and headaches at virtually any exciting event. Parties, mock trial competitions, band concerts — from a relatively young age, I learned to power through pain and stay silent. 

I think I only ever mentioned these occurrences to my mum, and eventually, a doctor said I had an ulcer in high school.

But nobody ever connected the dots that I was an anxious child or adult. 

My anxiety and related physical symptoms ruined many experiences for me. Maybe the worst part about my anxiety as a kid was the way it popped up when I was happy and genuinely looking forward to a specific experience.

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When I considered anxiety, I thought about my friends who cried any time they were put on the spot in school. I didn’t know that anxiety could present itself so differently.

It was the same way with my shyness. I wasn’t always shy, but I didn’t engage as easily as my peers. 

Today, it’s easy for me to see that I was simply anxious and although I didn’t know I had ADHD, I still sensed that something about me was off.

That sense of "offness" plagued me to different degrees for most of my life.

Perhaps the one area most overlooked by me and everyone else in my life was my inability to create and stick to a routine. 

I used to joke that my routine was having no routine. Maybe I’d go through phases where I was really good at doing one thing. For a couple of years, I was really good at writing every single day.

But beyond that, routines have typically eluded me.

For one thing, many routines felt far too restrictive. Then, it got into my inability to plan or manage my time effectively. I’ve never been the type of person who’s typically late for most things, but that’s mostly because I’ve always been the kind of person who feels like everything is on hold until a certain event, meeting, or stressor is finally finished.

It’s so much easier for me to mind my time and deadlines as long as my to-do list is limited to one thing. 

Obviously, single motherhood has demanded more from me, but I’d be lying if I said I’ve learned to handle any routine very well. 

My daughter is almost seven and I’m still struggling with basics like bedtime. Mornings are getting a little better but none of it comes naturally to me.

I became so damn exhausted by advice that simply assumed I was "just" lazy or depressed. 

Looking back on my life, it’s really no wonder that I did start to struggle so much with my self-esteem. 

Practically every adult in my life accused me of not applying myself. By the time I entered adulthood, I already felt like a failure.

It would have been so nice to know there was a reason why routines do not come naturally to me. I’m grateful to know it now, though, because I don’t feel like such an idiot anymore.

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As I understand it, there’s still a lot of stigma about having ADHD. 

Some people think it doesn’t really exist. Others believe it’s overdiagnosed or overmedicated. I suppose some folks still see it as a poor excuse to be lazy.

For me, it’s taken several weeks to really warm up to my diagnosis and appreciate the sense it makes for me. 

I don’t believe it makes me lazy, but I understand that I’ve got to be a bit more creative to create the life that I want. At least with the ADHD diagnosis, I’ve now got a better idea about where I should start.

It’s helped me to sort of come to terms with some of my more annoying tendencies, like my propensity to bite off more than I can chew, my disposition of constant overwhelm, and my extreme level of distractibility.

Particularly in adulthood, I’ve often wondered how my peers can multitask as well as they do. 

I’ve worked in offices where women juggle families, careers, hobbies, friends, and even night school. 

Frankly, that astounds me. My very first full-time job wiped out my energy even when I lived alone and didn’t have a child! 

To be fair, that could have been the sign that brought me in for a screening, but I was too afraid to admit just how much I struggled to feel normal or productive. Especially as a modern woman, it seemed that my inability to do as much as other women made me an utter failure.

Am I a failure, though? 

Recent research says folks with ADHD are more likely to see themselves as failures and to have extreme or intense emotions in response to the feeling that others will think they’re a failure as well. It’s pretty heavy stuff.

Like many other people with ADHD, I’ve been mocked in my family for being a baby or "oversensitive." 

I’ve struggled to maintain healthy long-term adult relationships — something that’s long been seen as a personal defect for an undiagnosed ADHD sufferer.

I’m also guilty of looking for some sort of quick fix or magic bullet. As if there’s someone or something out there that might save me. 

Some of these things have improved for me with time as I’ve learned how to better manage my emotions, thankfully.

Even so, growing up and growing wiser hasn’t taken care of all my impulsivity. 

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I still do things I regret upon occasion just because I was seeking stimulation. And I’ve got a sort of ironic desire for perfection despite frequently making really simple, inattentive mistakes — that one’s plagued me my whole life.

Sometimes, particularly with my writing, I do benefit from "hyper-focus" and fixation. 

Unfortunately, though, even my hyper-focus isn’t what it used to be. As it turns out, women with ADHD tend to get worse as they grow older. 

There’s even a link between worsening ADHD symptoms and the onset of menopause.

I suppose that hormones, aging, and ADHD might actually explain why "mum brain" hit me so much harder than most, and why it seems to have only gotten worse over the past year in the midst of the pandemic and my own perimenopause.

And so, the list of related issues goes on.

My lifetime inability to visualise goals or end results? Yup, that’s another ADHD thing. 

The way I don’t seem to grasp the obvious questions I’m "supposed" to ask in any given meeting? Just another variation of issues folks can have with ADHD.

Ditziness? That’s a common complaint about women with this condition.

External locus of control? Check that one off the list as well. Kids with ADHD tend to struggle more with that one and it’s something I’ve long recognised as an Achilles heel in my life.

Socially awkward, slow to process incoming information, taking comfort in the simple habit of procrastination — it’s really quite incredible to consider how I’ve been battling such a litany of signs and symptoms without one teacher or doctor ever suggesting in my youth that I might have ADHD.

Instead, my issues went through rotating lenses of understanding. 

When I was young, people deemed me lazy, like a smart but problematic child. In early adulthood, depression was always to blame. Can’t keep up at work? Depression. Can’t keep my house clean? Depression. Even my growing anxiety and self-consciousness in public was labelled... depression.

Eventually, as it became harder to tread water, other diagnoses took charge, but depression was always the backup explanation. 

Anytime my own behavior perplexed me, there was always some doctor there to tell me to simply try harder.

Sigh.

Sometimes, we don’t need to try harder. Sometimes, we need a new approach or better information.

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For several years now, I’ve found that certain tasks are too difficult for me no matter how hard I try. And I’ve been living with an enormous amount of guilt and shame for that.

These days, I’m beginning to see those challenges differently. And I’m starting to see that ADHD is something I can actually work with. But the hardest part was getting an actual diagnosis.

I’m 38 years old and have a six-year-old daughter. I’ve wasted so many years of my life believing I was defective, lazy, and inferior. I had absolutely no clue that ADHD could present itself like me partly because I didn’t know anyone else like me.

As more adult women receive late ADHD diagnoses, the hope is that we’ll talk about it, and that these conversations will help fewer girls suffer needlessly.

If you think some of these symptoms of ADHD sound a lot like you, I’d encourage you to see a licensed mental health professional or doctor for an evaluation.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished and edited here with full permission. 

You can read more from Shannon Ashley on Medium, or follow her on Twitter.

Feature Image: Getty. The feature image used is a stock image.

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