The Heavy, Honest Lived Experiences of ADHD Adults
Impulsivity and inattention are not the most debilitating or noticeable symptoms of ADHD in most adults. Here, ADDitude readers share their greatest impairments, including rejection sensitive dysphoria, emotional dysregulation, poor social skills and working memory, procrastination, low self-esteem, and more.
The diagnostic criteria for ADHD is disconnected from reality for most adults with the condition. Designed to diagnose hyperactive or inattentive symptoms in children, the DSM-5 ignores many of the most impairing aspects of ADHD cited and lived by adults. “The DSM-5 criteria for ADHD — from arbitrary age cut-offs to ambiguous symptom descriptions – is concerning because it does not accurately reflect the observed experiences of individuals in this specific population or applicable research,” says Russell Barkley, Ph.D.
In a recent survey, we asked our readers to share the ADHD symptoms that really, truly impact their lives. Here are their revealing, moving answers. What would you add? Tell us in the Comments section below.
ADHD Impairment #1: Social Challenges and Exclusion
“I have been mean-girled throughout my life because people just don’t understand me. They don’t see my intentions or my heart, just my social mistakes and they think I am weird, stuck-up, or just a b*. I don’t socialize at all anymore. I avoid talking to other moms as much as possible at school pick-up, etc. I always say the wrong thing.
“I am 44 years old and can count my friends on one hand. I would much rather stay home with a book or hide in my art studio than interact with another human. I don’t mind so much anymore but feel bad for my kids that it limits their lives because we don’t have get-togethers, we rarely see cousins/family, and I avoid playdates at all cost. No matter how hard I have tried or what different groups I join (work, school, family, social), I just don’t fit in.” — Beth
ADHD Impairment #2: Procrastination
“Procrastination has cost me money, jobs, and friends. I have missed opportunities, failed to address health problems, and lost credit. It seems to be tied to my terrible self-esteem; moving forward in life often terrifies me because I believe I’m not ‘enough.’ So I put things off, which only heightens my anxiety, so I procrastinate even more. I try desperately to force myself, coax myself, or bargain with myself – anything to get it done! It doesn’t work. I can work around forgetfulness, use hyperfocus to the good, and love being able to think outside the box; but putting everything off ’til the last minute has wrecked a big chunk of my life.” — Gail
ADHD Impairment #3: Time Blindness
“I don’t ‘feel’ time passing. Any task on which I can focus becomes all-absorbing, to the point of blocking all awareness of other, pending (time-sensitive) responsibilities. I do my best work when I can allow myself to become totally untethered to ‘time expectations’ — which is rarely. I wear a watch and surround myself with clocks, timers, and time-related device apps — all because I know I live in a world where neurotypical people are hyper-aware of and I know they expect me to be time-conscious as well.” — Laura
ADHD Impairment #4: Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria
“RSD has been a frequent cause of misery. I reflexively hear any criticism as “you’re a bad person” and jump into defensive mode, which looks like panic attacks and meltdowns at work or blowing up at my partner and saying vicious things. I also find myself easily overwhelmed by ‘failure,’ which can be something as minor as a plan going slightly awry. I’ve learned some breathing techniques to help self-soothe, and I recently started guanfacine, which helps tame the flood of emotions, but I still find myself in the grip of RSD far more often than I’d like.” — Emmett
ADHD Impairment #5: Working Memory
“I’m not able to retain information because my mind is always wandering off. If I don’t write it down, I won’t remember the information. I sometimes have to read, reread, and reread again before it starts to sink in. And it’s harder to recall information in the moment that I need it.” — Melinda
ADHD Impairment #6: Emotional Dysregulation
“My husband is a patient, loving, and compassionate man and I test the outer limits of his patience sometimes by flying off the handle and being negative. I am a lot better about this than I used to be, but the damage is still done and it is very hard to control sometimes. Some days it seems like anything can set me off in the wrong direction and it’s almost like playing tug-of-war with a train that is derailing in slow motion. I can see it happening, but I feel helpless to stop it until I’m a crying mess, apologizing until I can’t breathe.” — J.
ADHD Impairment #7: Dysregulated Sleep
“During the day, brain fog eats me up most of the day and I focus for very short periods of time. At night, my chronic sleeplessness and delayed sleep cycles kick in and affect every part of me and my life. It’s a vicious cycle.” — Patricia
ADHD Impairment #8: Impulsivity and Talkativeness
“I know that the connection between the impulse center/amygdala and the redirecting/planning center/PFC is less strong in ADHD brains than it is in neurotypicals’ brains. Still, it can be super taxing feeling guilty and embarrassed about talkativeness all the time. I have to be mindful of how text messages are received and edit down my writing often. It is a process I take one day at a time, but it is worthwhile. I appreciate those who are honest with me and give me feedback about it, though it must be hard to confront this issue; some folks will lie to me about the issue and say they don’t mind when I know on some level, it’s hard to respond to and that they do mind.” — ADDitude reader
ADHD Impairment #9: Sadness Over Lost Years
“Because I was so scattered all my life, people didn’t take me seriously. I was called nicknames as a child for my clumsiness, and laughed at for my naivety. Even my teachers told my parents I was not very bright. At 65, I learned that I have an above-average IQ in addition to ADHD. I loved my career as a music teacher. But it wasn’t until I turned 60 that I started taking Adderall and saw how much better my life could be when I wasn’t in constant mental ping pong ball matches. I’m still ADHD, and I still struggle with focus and organization daily, but I have learned to control my impulsivity, and I don’t interrupt people so much. I am able to write (music and poems) and actually finish them, and enjoy channeling my energy into tennis.” — Debbie
ADHD Impairment #10: You Want Me to Choose One?!?
“The most impairing aspect of ADHD is the stress involved in making a decision. No, it’s running a home with 4 children, 3 of whom also have ADHD. (I can’t teach them EF skills when I can’t do it myself.) No, it’s the forgetfulness. Actually, it’s the pure desire to want to take on everything and each thing is equally important and I must do each thing very well, so I end up doing nothing. Equally impairing, of course, is the emotional dysregulation and getting overwhelmed by all of the pressure I put on myself. It’s especially hard when I don’t trust that I will remember everything, so I feel like I have to have everything written down and in front of me all the time. Basically, I just exhaust myself.” — Helena
ADHD Adults’ Lived Experiences: Next Steps
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Updated on January 3, 2021