“My Sobriety Was Hidden On the Far Side of My ADHD Diagnosis.”
“For 10 very difficult years, I was fighting a battle against an invisible enemy, ADHD. Now, the enemy is not only visible it isn’t my enemy anymore. I’m trying to use ADHD to my advantage. I focus on what I enjoy and am passionate about. I’m keen to help young people avoid falling into the same traps that ensnared me.”
I was diagnosed with ADHD at 31. While some time has passed since then, I’m still trying to salvage my life — regroup and resuscitate after a long fight with an invisible enemy.
I grew up in a happy family in Worcestershire, England. I had a tricky start to primary school, where I was described as a playground tearaway for regularly running around and knocking into other children. My name was a regular addition to “The Red Book” as a result. But it didn’t take long for this disruptive, difficult child to transform into one that was motivated and keen to please. I have gold stars to thank for that – my reward for good behavior in school. It’s only now that I recognize these early traits as characteristics of ADHD, and the promise of gold stars as the shot of dopamine I needed to stimulate and motivate my brain.
As I grew older, I replaced the gold star with sports. That was my primary motivator, and the thing that allowed me to navigate primary and secondary school. The simple, clear structure of sports benefitted me. Win the football game or the cross-country meet, repeat. I was training or playing football or rugby six days a week. In my final year, I won the school award for the best sportsman while also doing pretty well in my exams.
I was admitted to the University of Nottingham, and while I graduated, some cracks appeared along the way. It was probably the football team that stopped me from going off the rails.
How does someone get to 22 with zero personal insight? In my early teens, as a massive football fan, I had wanted nothing more than to be the next Roy Keane. This dream evaporated by the time I was 15, and I never replaced it. Newly graduated, I figured life would eventually unveil my new passion – and ideally a job with a high-profile employer. What kind of job? I didn’t care if it was sales, finance, logistics, or human resources. I just needed something.
My first job out of university was for an international food and beverage brand. I had a tedious workload under a terrible manager. But while the rest of my colleagues performed their duties with no issue, I was in a constant state of fight or flight, with knots in my neck and a brain that could no longer function. I had gone from a confident, smart person to a confused, anxious idiot in a heartbeat. I had trouble communicating, barely managing to form coherent, natural sentences. I was nervous all the time, and I made one mistake after another.
My lack of attention to detail was frequently highlighted. I was told off constantly for wearing a wrinkled shirt, sporting unkempt facial hair, or arriving to work in wet clothes – because I had forgotten my umbrella at the house. Arriving to work late every day also didn’t help. I was fired within a year after an appalling appraisal.
Some time later, I applied to an accounting position at a large broadcasting company. I got the job, but I went on to fail just as spectacularly, quitting after two of the worst years of my life.
In that time, I had become a binge drinker of industrial proportions, losing almost all my friends in the bargain. In hindsight, I was clinically depressed, and it hadn’t occurred to me to see a doctor.
The ADHD signs were there all along, of course. I was sitting on spreadsheets all day, often working 12-hour days with my unexplainable foggy brain and achy body. I understand now that walking into what I felt was a tiger’s cage every day put me in a prolonged state of stress and fear. The constant release of cortisol hit my body hard, wreaking havoc on my brain.
Those of us with ADHD already have an inhibited prefrontal cortex and low internal dopamine production. Add a constant stream of cortisol to the mix, and everything is made worse. I had developed anxiety, and the only time I could relax was after drinking – to the point of passing out — alone almost every night. The shame was unbearable.
At 26, I went back to my family home and found a job as a recruiter. Things were looking better for me. I was still in an office, but I didn’t have to work on spreadsheets. My job sometimes even required me to leave the office to meet candidates and clients, which I enjoyed. And best of all, my mum gave me food and spiritual nourishment at home. (Yes, dopamine!)
Achieving relief and moderate success, I decided to start my own recruitment company. It failed after four months. The twin monsters – executive dysfunction and hypersensitivity – made things impossible for me. Each time I made an unsuccessful call, I felt devastated.
I fell into depression once again, and returned to the bottle. I’d wander through town, going from pub to pub and eventually graveyards to drink and be alone. I woke up in jail on a few occasions for being drunk and disorderly. After one particularly bad incident, the police took me to hospital to be detoxed. After a couple of days, the staff said I was fit to go home. But my parents insisted that I needed help. I eventually met a psychiatrist who, after an evaluation, told me I was an obvious case of ADHD. In fact, he found it difficult to believe that I’d made it so long without a diagnosis.
I immediately broke down in tears – and so did my dad. They were mostly tears of joy, as now my life had context. The diagnosis, however, was far from the end of my problems. I was still addicted to alcohol. Plus, the medication I was prescribed only served to worsen my depression.
In a last-ditch effort, my dad pulled together enough money to send me to rehab in Thailand, right around the start of the pandemic.
Today, I am glad to say that I am in a better place. I found a psychiatrist who prescribed the right medication for my ADHD, and took me off antidepressants. I have been sober for over a year, and I am halfway through a psychology masters. I have a beautiful, understanding girlfriend, and I’m rebuilding my friendships.
For 10 very difficult years, I was fighting a battle against an invisible enemy, ADHD. Now, the enemy is not only visible — it isn’t my enemy anymore. I’m trying to use ADHD to my advantage. I focus on what I enjoy and am passionate about. I’m keen to help young people avoid falling into the same traps that ensnared me. I’d also love to help parents understand that there are reasons behind their child’s behaviors.
Despite my turnaround, I still deal with hypersensitivity, impulsivity, disorganization, and anxiety every day. But I try to look after myself properly. In fact, I’ve developed a reminder acronym to help keep my life in balance: SPENDS – Structure, Purpose, Exercise, Nutrition, Discipline, and Sleep.
As for my goals and passions? I still have those. I hope to be a clinical psychologist, to grow my ADHD YouTube and podcasting channel, and to be a positive voice and advocate for people with ADHD.
How I Changed My Life: Next Steps
- Read: “I Try Not to Be Angry About the Past”
- Guest Blog: ADHD, Addiction, and Sobriety: Time for Treatment, Finally
- Webinar: Building a Healthy Relationship with Your Adult ADHD
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