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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.

ADHD adult painting alone
https://www.pexels.com/photo/adult-art-artist-canvass-542555/

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

[How Seriously Do You Procrastinate? Take This Test to Find Out]

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.

[Free Download: 15 Ways to Disarm Big ADHD Emotions]

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

1. Classic: 5 Things You Don’t Know About Me and My ADHD
2. Read: What My Worst Days with ADHD Feel Like
3. Share: 9 Ways ADHD Breaks My Heart


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Updated on February 5, 2021

3 Comments & Reviews

  1. As a child I remember the physical sensations I got when I felt ‘fizzy’ but was not allowed to move around in class. It felt like my whole body was surfing with electricity. I almost felt like running away as it was sometimes unbearable. I wonder if others also had/have physical sensations when not able to move freely?

  2. I appreciate this article, as I do this magazine, because it validates that my experiences of this nature are more about ADHD than they are about whatever negative “story” of personal failure I tag onto them each and every time they happen.

  3. I cannot believe how much all the stated comments fits me to a “T!” I am undiagnosed and am scared to approach any Dr. for fear of taking yet another med (depression, anxiety, and blood pressure meds currently) and drug seeking. My Dr. prescribes meds but not easily if they are drugs that people seek in getting high. I do not have a history of abuse but my family members do.
    I am ADHD. There! I just diagnosed myself. Because I do and feel EVERY ONE OF THE THINGS LISTED in this article. I feel like a failure – this pandemic is going to push me to the brink. I just need to do something to address these issues – I do not feel I will prosper without addressing these things that are holding me in it’s grips. Ugh!!
    Just knowing I am not the only one makes me feel a tad better. So overwhelmed. Goodness!

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