The concept of the “grief cycle” was originally conceived by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross to describe how people confront and come to terms with terminal illness. It has been applied to the process people go through as they integrate and learn to accept any major life change. I have my own description of what I have seen happen as people with ADHD go through this cycle after diagnosis. Eventually, all people diagnosed with ADHD must work their way through the following stages if they are to move forward in their lives. Below are some descriptions of the feelings and challenges you might encounter as you progress through your own grief cycle with ADHD.
Denial may follow the period of relief that often accompanies diagnosis. At first you might deny the reality of having ADHD, or accept it superficially, or continue to question whether you have it. Even if you admit to having ADHD, you have not yet integrated it in a meaningful way that will help you adjust. When your ADHD symptoms appear, you may attribute them to personal failings: “I’m stupid and irresponsible.” As with any life-altering event or change of self-view, the person having it often goes through a period of shock.
After you understand that you do have ADHD, you look back and see how deeply it has affected every area of your life. At this point you may become angry over lost opportunities. You may try to focus on when things started to go off course and feel anger toward those who let you down as a child: family members who didn’t help, teachers who misunderstood, or people who blamed you. Or you may feel angry in general that life has been so hard. Anger is a natural part of the grief cycle, and it is necessary to experience it to move beyond it.
When people understand that they have ADHD, they are naturally excited to learn that medication can help. They say, “OK, I have ADHD, but I’ll just take my medication and I’ll be all right.” Unfortunately, medication is not magic and is usually not sufficient alone as treatment. Disappointment and discouragement often set in.
Medication doesn’t cure everything. Even though you feel better and much is improved, you still have difficulties, and you may start to feel depressed. You’re caught between two worlds. You want to forget about ADHD and go back to the way things were. Even if your old lifestyle didn’t work very well, at least it was familiar. You’ve seen other people with ADHD and you know that there’s a long road ahead, but the process seems too much to deal with. Maybe you are not yet getting enough support that would make it easier to change. You feel isolated and lonely.
With the right kind of support, counseling, and education, or with the passage of time, most people move to acceptance. However, some keep going through the phases of the grief cycle without reaching acceptance. Others move to acceptance only to go through the entire cycle again.
The point of true acceptance comes later, when you will have integrated, in a deep way, the idea of yourself as a person with ADHD. You stop thinking of ADHD as a weakness of willpower or a moral failure. You know that, although you can manage your ADHD symptoms, they still exist. And you recognize your responses to ADHD and modify them, so that your internal and external reactions don’t make things worse. Acceptance is harder to achieve than is commonly thought. You may have accepted the reality of ADHD, but it takes longer for true self-acceptance, to be able to live fully.