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What It’s Like to Be Diagnosed With ADHD as an Adult

Imagine suffering through half your life with an undiagnosed mental disorder — only to find out it could have all been different

At 36 years old, J.J. reached a breaking point. She’d been drinking more and more “to cope with basic life,” and she was in a constant struggle to maintain emotional composure at home and at work, where she’s a director of strategic communications. “Nothing was helping,” she tells MEL.

Her partner’s brother has ADHD, and J.J. noticed she was exhibiting some of the same symptoms. But, aware of the stigma against the disease and its medications, J.J. stopped herself from reaching out for help. “I dismissed the possibility out of hand,” she says.

Finally, her partner insisted she ask a doctor — and the doctor dismissed an ADHD diagnosis as well. She convinced the doctor to go through the symptoms with her one by one. J.J. was right. Months later, she was finally diagnosed with ADHD.

Her life is much easier now, she says, which leads her to think about what her life could have been like if she’d been diagnosed earlier.

If J.J.’s journey with ADHD sounds unlikely — after all, it’s a disease that many argue is overdiagnosed — you might be surprised to learn her story is not rare.

In fact, many adults like J.J. are misdiagnosed with depression instead of ADHD, and their symptoms don’t improve.

“I personally know more than 15 people with ADHD who spent a decade or more misdiagnosed with depression or depression and anxiety disorders and were treated with antidepressants and therapy,” writes adult ADHD coach Pete Quily in a blog post rounding up studies on adult ADHD misdiagnosis. “When they brought up that they might have ADHD, their doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists rudely dismissed them.”

Earlier this week, journalist Yashar Ali brought adult ADHD and its lesser-known pitfalls and misconceptions to light in a Twitter thread. Adults from age 30 to 50-plus came out of the woodwork to express gratitude and describe their own struggles.

According to the BBC, ADHD was recognized as an adult condition in 2008, and in America, the CDC’s outline of the disease heavily revolves around children. So what is it like to labor through a third or even half of your life with an undiagnosed mental disorder? I talked to J.J. and a few more adults diagnosed with ADHD after 30.

‘I Never Understood Why School Was So Challenging for Me’

J.J., 36: I was diagnosed earlier this year. For the most part, my friends and my employer have been very supportive. The only time I feel like I suffer from stigma is in accessing my medication.  

For me it was less of a realization and more of a breaking point. I was drinking more and more to cope with basic life. I was constantly struggling to maintain emotional composure at home and at work. Nothing was helping.

My life is a lot easier post-diagnosis. With medication a lot of the things that I struggled with, particularly emotional regulation, are much easier to manage. While I am doing extremely well in life, with a great partner and a great career, it is impossible not to wonder where I would be if I had been treated sooner.

I never understood why school was so challenging for me until I was diagnosed with ADHD. I am extremely talented, literate and hardworking, but I barely graduated from high school and was kicked out of college for flunking too many classes.

A lot of people think of ADHD as being about being hyperactive or having too much energy. What we don’t often hear about is how it affects emotions. Prior to being medicated, even small setbacks were emotionally devastating for me. A minor negative interaction could ruin my entire day. I wouldn’t be able to move beyond it or concentrate.

Post-diagnoses I am more considerate. I am much better at handling conflict. I am able to focus more easily. I am easier to get along with. My mornings are amazing. Best of all, treating my ADHD has eliminated my anxiety. Apparently, anxiety can be a symptom of ADHD, and in my case it was.

‘One Minute, I’m Fine. The Next, the Meds Are Gone.’

T.J. Parrish, 38: The first person who brought up the idea that I might have ADHD was my wife. My daughter was diagnosed with it and she noticed some similarities between us. So when I visited an ADHD specialist and took the test at 35 years old, I scored in the 95 percent percentile (the higher the percent, the more severe the ADHD).

Once I took the meds for the first time, it became apparent that I should have been on them for a long time. They removed all of the noise that I didn’t realize was there. I thought is this what it is like for “normal” people, no extra noise, no extra thoughts, just focusing on what I should be.

However, being on meds is not a magical cure-all. As my doctor told me, meds will not make you make the correct decisions, it just clears out some of the weeds and puts you in the right mind to make those decisions.

Plus they come with some side effects that not people don’t think about, like not wanting to eat. I have to force myself to eat lunch. There have been times when I have been so focused on what I was doing, lunch time comes and goes without me realizing it. The meds wearing off can be drastic. It’s like, one minute I am fine, the next minute the meds are gone. This can cause big mood swings. Couple that with not eating, and I will be super-irritable.

A lot of people don’t seem to understand what ADHD is. Just recently, Dr. Phil and Joe Rogan said on Rogan’s podcast that ADHD is … another excuse to give drugs to kids.

Without the meds, sometimes I would have to work five times as hard to complete something as I would without it. The effects of taking Adderall for someone with ADHD and someone taking them recreationally are completely different. People think I am just sitting at my desk high on meds all day. That is not the case at all. I wouldn’t take the meds if they made me feel that way.

Also, people don’t realize that there are different types of ADHD. I have inattention and my daughter has impulsivity. They have to be managed in different ways.

The biggest benefit to being diagnosed with ADHD is knowing that I have it. There is a large community of adults with ADHD and they are very helpful. They give solid advice and can provide guidance on systems and tricks to help overcome the issues that come from ADHD. If I just took the meds and didn’t actively try and beat the ADHD, I wouldn’t be as successful in living a “normal” life.

Looking back it is hard to think about how my life would have been different if I had been diagnosed earlier, instead of being diagnosed at 35. Would I have finished college? I consider myself pretty successful already, but would I have been more successful if I finished college? Does that mean I wouldn’t have my wife and kids? The answer to these questions are impossible to know and, in my mind, dangerous to think about.

‘Going on Adderall at 33 Was a Revelation’

Kate, 38: So, I’m a teacher. You’d think that I’d be able to recognize ADHD symptoms because I have so many students with it, but I completely missed it. It wasn’t until an opportunity to coach a student club came up — an opportunity I really wanted and was well suited for — that I realized “I can’t do this. I can’t get it together enough to do this.” And I was talking about it with a colleague who suggested I might have ADHD, so I talked to my doctor and he sent me for testing. I don’t think the scale actually says, “Wow, do you ever!” But it may as well have.

Going on Adderall at 33 years old was… a revelation. I’ve always had a good work ethic and sense of responsibility, but mostly that’s led to me beating myself up for dropping the ball. I went from the flaky space-cadet teacher to the teacher who gets shit done in the span of a few months, which led to some other leadership opportunities. Student I had as freshmen who I had again as juniors were amazed at my transformation — no more random tangents and stories for 45 minutes!

What I realized is that I always had the ability. Adderall doesn’t make you good at stuff you suck at. Instead, it gave me the capacity, the mental bandwidth. So much of my mental energy was wasted on avoidant procrastination, or running to catch up, or spinning off on a thousand different tangents, and now I could actually focus on what needed to get done.

Looking back, it all seems obvious: My teachers wrote “needs to focus,” “needs to stop interrupting,” “needs to turn in work,” on all my report cards going back to first grade. I had three desks in fourth grade, although my teacher cut me back to two when I tried to annex a fourth. My seventh grade teachers got the tech ed teacher to make me a locker organizer because I was constantly losing assignments.

But I was smart, and motivated, and mostly did pretty well. Teachers suggested my brother get tested for ADHD, but nobody suggested it for me, possibly because ADHD is more often overlooked in girls. My parents resisted getting my brother tested because this was the mid-’80s, when it seemed like every other kid was on Ritalin. Like a lot of people, I think my parents thought ADHD was a made-up diagnosis for people who lacked self-discipline.

I don’t have too many regrets, but I do wonder how life would have been different had I known since I was a kid. Maybe I wouldn’t have been the weirdo who blurred out every thought that passed her brain. Maybe I would have done better in college. I was misdiagnosed as borderline [personality disorder] — a diagnosis later rescinded — because some of the lesser-known symptoms of ADHD include “rejection-sensitive dysphoria” and intense moods (appropriate to the situation, just dialed up to 11).

I’ve also made an ass of myself more times than I can count by saying something inappropriate or stupid (funny, but stupid) at work, or to acquaintances. I’ve got someone still mad at me 15 years later for a thoughtless remark I made.

I don’t even really consider ADHD a disability; my brain just works differently. A couple of centuries ago, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. It’s only now that we have the rigid, scheduled grind of modern life that it interferes in my ability to participate unmedicated.

I should add, though, that I’m not taking meds now, mainly because I’m trying to get pregnant, and partly because it was really impacting my blood pressure. But now that I know, I don’t bullshit myself with “I’ll remember, I’ll do it.” I set alarms and timers for everything, with a lot of routines locked in place.

ADHD also manifests in my hobbies: I can’t flake out in front of the TV without something to keep my hands busy, so I do a ton of crafts — “productive fidgeting,” I call it. With hyperfocus, I might spend 10 hours on a project before I realize I’m thirsty, hungry, I really have to pee and my legs have fallen asleep.

I think I’ve also tried to self-medicate over the years. I drink a lot of coffee, and I smoke. I’ve always been a fan of uppers, but the time I tried cocaine, I don’t think I got the same experience as everyone else. Instead, it felt like all the gears in my head were finally turning at the same speed.

I almost never use ADHD as an excuse, although there have probably been times when the ADA would have helped me avoid trouble at work. As much as it annoys other people when I forget things, or I’m late, or I’m impulsive, it’s nothing to how angry I am at myself. It’s deeply embarrassing to be an adult and not be able to consistently perform as expected levels.