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“I Was a Screw-Up, a Moral Failure! I Couldn’t Have ADHD!”

An ADHD diagnosis can rock your world. Accepting the diagnosis as an adult can turn your world upside down.

My best friend from college also has ADHD. I remember him in those days: scattered, scared, frightened to finish work. He turned in everything late. Dirty clothes covered his apartment; fast-food drinks tumbled from his car. He had trouble remembering what other people saw as basic obligations. A skilled politician, he needed a handler to win the presidency of the model-legislature group he dominated. It was often, “Oh, Joey,” accompanied by an eye roll.

I was like the rest. I thought he was a space cadet. I thought his failure to turn in papers was a major moral failing. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t just finish things. And I was his girlfriend. Imagine how everyone else treated him.

“I didn’t think I could possibly have ADHD,” he told me recently, now a successful lawyer. “I was diagnosed at 26. I thought I was just a screw-up.” He went on to detail how ineffective he felt, how stupid and how embarrassed. He said that everyone’s expectations made him feel like he was a moral failure. He was so wedded to this idea that he could hardly accept his diagnosis. It felt like the easy way out. “Good old Baptist guilt,” he said.

I understood exactly what he meant. I went to grad school when Joey went to law school. I spent my time skimming my reading. You can’t skim Being in Time and expect to understand it. I didn’t turn in papers late, because I wrote them at 3 a.m. the night before. I spent class drifting off, occasionally commenting in a vague, semi-off-topic manner (my husband, who attended class with me, says I sounded like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter). I never planned my own classes; I graded papers at the absolute last minute before they were due. Mostly, I felt stupid, because I couldn’t keep up with the pace like other students. I knew I was as smart as they were. So why couldn’t I do it? Maybe I wasn’t that smart, a dark voice whispered.

Then I had kids. My car was a rolling garbage truck. I was always forgetting diapers, pacifiers, or wipes. I never managed to be on time for a play date; a half-hour late was the norm. I couldn’t keep my house clean. I always overslept. When I met new moms, I couldn’t remember their names, even when introduced multiple times. I couldn’t stop playing with my phone.

Over the course of months, these issues came out as I talked to my psychiatrist. “Have you ever considered that you might have ADHD?” she asked.

“No,” I said, because I hadn’t.

“I think you have ADHD.” She nodded to emphasize it.

I trusted this doctor implicitly. She had seen me through feeling depressed, through suicidality, through drug change after drug change after drug change. She was known as one of the best in the state. If she said I had ADHD, I had ADHD.

I couldn’t have ADHD. I was a space cadet. I didn’t have common sense. I was “whifty.” I’d been told these things my entire life. I had a narrative, and that narrative said I was a moral failure. I was made this way, and by this way, I meant a mess.

It took me weeks to accept that these things I did could possibly be not my moral failing, but the result of a disease. And I didn’t do it by looking at my adulthood. If ADHD was a disease, it stands to reason I had it as a child. So what were the signs of it?

I lost everything. I dreaded an adult sending me to retrieve something, because I wouldn’t be able to find it, and I’d be berated and told I had no common sense. I drifted off in class and wrote stories instead of paying attention. I didn’t study for quizzes until the period before. I finished homework in other classes; I got yelled at for forgetting things. They called me a space cadet. They called me “whifty.” They said I had no common sense.

Clearly, I had ADHD. I was so wedded to the language people used to describe me that I could hardly accept my own diagnosis. My parents still don’t accept it (probably because they’re ones who used that language).

This is common among adult-diagnosed ADHD. ADHD changes the way you view events: I couldn’t remember her name not because I was distracted, but because names are incredibly difficult for me. My car’s not a mess because I’m a slob but because I’m too distracted to keep my car clean. ADHD can alter the narrative of an entire life. A diagnosis can spark a serious life examination, and lead to you seeing people and events in different ways.

Both Joey and I have accepted and internalized our diagnosis. We understand the effects of ADHD: the ways it might affect our lives now, and the way it may have affected our lives in the past. It was difficult. But it’s something every adult diagnosee has to go through. Luckily, on the other side, lay self-forgiveness, self-awareness, and a new gentleness with yourself-and with others. It’s a hard process. But the other side is worth it.

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