“My ADHD Diagnosis Connected the Dots in My Life.”
Four adults share their stories of living with undiagnosed symptoms of ADHD — and how their lives changed when they realized attention deficit disorder was to blame for a lifetime of struggles and misunderstandings.
Marni Pasch, 39, worked as a high school counselor. The work was fast-paced, and she loved spending time with the students, but she struggled to keep up with the paperwork. She could often be found at her desk late into the evening finishing up projects. It was easier to work without the disruptions of the typical school day. Pasch took her job seriously — after all, students counted on her. “My biggest fear was letting a tiny detail slip that might affect a teen’s future,” she said.
To manage her workload, Pasch wrote herself reminders until her desk “looked like a living Post-it note.” After one difficult day, she threw up her hands. “I loved my job, even working on weekends to make sure I could balance my duties and see students, but the rewards weren’t enough.”
That night she told her husband she thought she had attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). He said, “I’ve been telling you that for a while.” He had made offhand comments for years, as had her stepmother, but Pasch didn’t pay attention to them. ADHD was something second-grade boys have, not women.
Pasch, after all, had a master’s degree. True, she had struggled in school, and was often told she “wasn’t living up to her potential” or was lazy. But she persisted and continued her education. In college she was placed on academic probation, and carried the “lazy” and “not so bright” labels with her. When she entered the master’s program, she became focused and graduated with close to a 4.0 GPA. But her education came at a price. She became depressed and anxious, and developed an eating disorder.
Pasch learned more about ADHD symptoms, and admitted that she might have it. She went to her primary care physician and completed a questionnaire. “It was as if the questionnaire was written for and about me!” When the doctor told her she had ADHD, she cried, but not out of depression or frustration. “It was like watching the pieces of my life come together to make a clear picture.”
When Pasch shared her diagnosis with friends, she was surprised by their reactions. Many friends assumed she had already been diagnosed, and told her, “I thought you just chose not to take medication.” It seemed that everyone except her knew she had ADHD.
After her diagnosis, Pasch earned her International Coaching Federation certificate. She now works as an academic coach, helping students improve their organization, time management, and study skills. “I was told that I wasn’t living up to my potential and that I was lazy. I had depression and anxiety, as well as eating disorders. Now I know that those things can be linked to ADHD, especially if it is undiagnosed. My diagnosis connected the dots in my life.”
At 47, Rick Green, a successful comedy writer, actor, and director, learned about ADHD when he accompanied his son to be evaluated. When his son entered sixth grade, in a gifted program, he had a hard time keeping up and completing homework. It was confirmed that he was gifted, and he had ADHD. When the doctor ticked off the symptoms, Green was surprised and confused. “I thought everyone is like this,” he said, assuming the rest of the world struggled with lateness, forgetfulness, difficulty following through, and paying attention.
Soon afterward, Green made an appointment with his family doctor to talk about his symptoms. The doctor confirmed his diagnosis. Green wondered: “Does this mean I have a mental illness? Does it mean I’m damaged?” He had always thought he wasn’t bright, even though he had a degree in physics. But ADHD? It had never occurred to him that there was a condition that caused his disorganization and that nagging feeling that he was underachieving.
The realization that he lived with undiagnosed ADHD brought relief and fear. Green explained, “The emotional tornado generated by the diagnosis was disorienting. I went from ‘What a relief’ to ‘Now you tell me!’ to ‘Finally, there’s hope!’” As he thought about it, he wondered why no one had noticed his ADHD. Then one day a light bulb went on: “No wonder I was able to write thousands of short skits, but could never finish a single screenplay.” Later, came “Wow, medication really helps!” Which quickly turned to, “Damn, if I’d only known sooner, I could have written movies!”
As he came to terms with the diagnosis, he felt more at peace: “The emotion around my failures and struggles started to evaporate,” he said. “It’s neurology, not a lack of moral fiber.” His family dismissed his diagnosis. Despite their denial, Green tried medication and behavioral techniques to manage his symptoms. His anxiety levels went down, and he was able to focus better than before.
Green found himself constantly explaining ADHD to others and battling the myths surrounding the disorder, which led him to make videos to explain the facts of the disorder. As he received feedback on how his videos helped people come to terms with their diagnosis and find ways to improve their lives, his perspective changed. While his videos started from a place of anger, he now makes them from the perspective of love. He wants others to know that living and thriving with ADHD is possible. “Even if you are doing OK, you could be doing great.”
Hilary Andreini, of Maplewood, New Jersey, was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD eight years ago, at age 40. Her adult years had been marked by anxiety. “I felt like I was floating around aimlessly, trying to look like a responsible grownup and pretending to be strong,” she said. She knew that something was off, but she didn’t know what. Maybe she wasn’t that bright. Maybe her inability to advance in her career, as a manager in human resources, meant she was a failure. Maybe she was a loser. “I didn’t understand why my life was so hard, why everyone else seemed to have it easier,” she says.
Then her daughter’s kindergarten teacher suggested that her daughter be evaluated for inattentive ADHD. Andreini had never heard of inattentive ADHD. She thought: Didn’t ADHD mean you were hyper? As she learned more about the disorder, she thought back on her life: “I realized that I had struggled with the same symptoms all my life.”
After diagnosing herself with ADHD, Andreini went to a therapist, who confirmed her diagnosis of ADHD and anxiety. The years of being hard on herself faded away. During that time, Andreini says her days were filled with negative self-talk and shame. “I would sometimes drink to relieve the pressure of feeling like a failure. Drinking has not turned into a problem, but I still have to be very careful about alcohol.”
The more she learned about ADHD, the more everything made sense. There’s a medical reason why she has trouble remembering things and why she feels emotions so intensely. She learned why fear sometimes gripped her and why she couldn’t seem to “get it together.” With her therapist, Hilary created strategies that worked for her.
Andreini says, “I have learned to forgive myself. I used to feel guilt and shame about almost everything I did. My diagnosis lifted that weight. Since my diagnosis, I went from being an anxious 40-year-old wife and mother to being a calmer, more understanding person. I have never felt better than I do now. There are things I can do to help myself become who I have always known I could be.”
As she has learned to live with ADHD, she has “learned to let go of trying to keep up with everyone else. I can’t remember birthdays. I have forgiven myself for that. It’s who I am, and I am valuable in other ways to my friends and family.”
Today, Hilary is an ADHD coach who “helps others learn to forgive themselves and to figure out what they need to be their best selves.” She is grateful that her children are growing up at a time when there is more information about girls and ADHD. “I can tell you that the 70s and 80s were not kind to quiet girls who have ADHD.”
Looking back, Shell Mendelson who is a career coach based in San Antonio, is amazed that she made it through high school. She doodled and daydreamed much more often than she paid attention to the teachers. College and graduate school were better because she could choose her classes. She was successful, she says, because she found majors she liked — speech communications in undergrad and vocational rehabilitation counseling in grad school. She interned during her second year and was offered a job at the company after graduation.
Mendelson has always been an entrepreneur at heart, so she left her first job to start her own business — a career counseling firm. Then one day she woke up and had an idea for a new business. It was an after-school program that introduced drawing and art to children. She called it Kidz Art. It was so successful that she started franchising the program and soon her art programs were in numerous states and around the world.
Although the company was successful, her disorganization and difficulty setting and reaching goals made it hard to keep up with all the daily tasks of running it. “People with ADHD are idea people. We are great at getting things started, but not so great at maintaining them.”
Mendelson stepped down as CEO. Leaving the company was devastating. She was depressed and miserable. At home alone, she felt like a failure. For much of her life, Mendelson felt as if she was making things up as she went along, and that she didn’t have a clue as to what she was doing. Her biggest fear was that someone would find out she was an impostor.
At her lowest point, she remembered a book a friend had mailed her a few years before. It was a book on adult ADHD by Ned Hallowell. At the time, she felt offended that her friend would send it to her, but now, feeling defeated, she picked it up and read the introduction. That’s all it took for Mendelson to realize that she had inattentive ADHD. She was happy that she had found the reason for her challenges, but she also felt a sense of grief and loss. “What would my life have been like if I had known earlier? What have I missed?” she wondered.
For years Mendelson assumed that friends and family experienced life the way she did: “Why can’t I grab a thought and follow it through. Why do my thoughts just come and go?” Now she knew the answer: ADHD.
Mendelson started medication, but didn’t like the side effects. She felt wired and her blood pressure shot up. Now, she self-medicates with caffeine, but she thinks that understanding her ADHD is her best treatment of all. She knows it takes her longer than it may take other people to get things done, so she schedules plenty of time between client appointments. This allows her to process what has just been said and to prepare for the next client.
Says Mendelson: “I still get confused. I am still not organized. But I have accepted my diagnosis, and that this is who I am. With that acceptance comes calm and peace.”
Updated on September 11, 2019