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Inattentive ADHD and Me

I went to see my doctor for depression, and left with a referral to see a specialist about ADHD. Was that really the cause of my years of forgetfulness?

Depression is a weird thing. One moment someone can tell a joke and you will be laughing, then shortly afterwards you can withdraw into yourself and everything is grey again. You do your best to hide it from everyone but sometimes, like in this piece I am writing, it simply spills out.

Major Depressive Disorder” writes the GP on her notepad as she makes a referral for me to see a specialist. The thing is, the referral is not for the depression. It’s for a neurological condition which is at least partly responsible for the depression.

The thing I was being referred to the specialist about is a badly-named condition known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder-Inattentive type.

[Free Download: Your In-Depth Guide to Inattentive ADHD]

In this piece I am going to introduce you to this form of ADHD and talk about how it has impacted on my life. [If you think this type of reflective writing is self-indulgent then I suggest you stop reading here. And if you want to use it against me because I’m involved in politics then good luck to you.]

Inattentive ADHD put simply, means your brain is rubbish at choosing what you focus on. It’s the daydreaming type of ADHD, not the can’t-sit-still type. It’s not that you can’t focus at all. You can focus alright, just not always on what you need to focus on. Sometimes the problem is when you get stuck focusing on the wrong things.

For people with inattentive ADHD, repetitive tasks become hyper-boring and mentally exhausting to stick with. Yet with the tasks you are interested in, you can barely notice the outside world for eight hours straight.

You also have a rubbish working memory. Your long-term memory can be excellent, but your ability to temporarily hold two or three pieces of information in your mind at any one time is limited. If you are typing on your computer and someone asks you to remember to call someone, you will nod and say yes, you will actively try to remember but the information never lodges.

[What Inattentive ADHD Looks Like In the (Not So) Wild]

Aligned with this is a deficiency in your prospective memory. Prospective memory is all about being good at remembering to remember. The thing about tasks is that they are set to be done at a specific time. “I need to pay this bill when I get home.” “I need to pack my lunch when I leave for work.” “I need to go to the post office at lunchtime.” With inattentive ADHD you store these pieces of information as you would an answer to a trivial pursuit question, not as a note in a diary. So even if I’ve reminded myself several times I need to put my lunch in my bag before I walk out the door for work, the thought will simply not enter my mind at all.

Also with inattentive ADHD you often can have a crappy executive function, i.e., your brain is really bad at directing you through a series of sub-tasks to get the main task complete. It can do each sub-task fine, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone in charge in there to lead you through the steps.

I came to this diagnosis the same way most people come to it: way too late and not through the lack of trying to work out what is going on.

My school report cards follow the classic progression of someone with this neurological condition:

  • Tim is a delightful child, he is passionate and highly intelligent.
  • Tim is an excellent student, especially when it is a subject Tim finds interesting.
  • Tim needs to apply himself to all subject areas, not just the ones he enjoys.
  • Tim struggles to pay attention in class and isn’t submitting his homework on time.
  • Tim shows glimpses of potential, but he really needs to work harder.
  • Tim has failed all his tests and hasn’t submitted any of his homework.
  • Somehow Tim has gotten 100% on all his final exams. I’m not sure how he did this given his results last semester.

And it continued on the same in university. Failed first year chemical engineering. Got a high distinction average despite failing some subjects in environmental science. Failed to submit my Honors Thesis. Got a distinction average in a different Master’s degree. And no amount of school counselors, time management courses, GPs, psycho-dynamic therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and antidepressants would change this roller-coaster.

[How to Stay Focused with Inattentive Adult ADHD]

The ADHD wears you down but it’s the secondary psychological impact that hits you the hardest. You get judged by your friends, colleagues, teachers, partners and relatives as being weak in character or lazy. And you don’t know if they are right. Eventually you believe them. The only honest answer you ever have for giving someone about why you stuffed up is “I don’t know”.

And what makes it worse is than when you find a topic or task engaging you really can perform. Like exceptionally so. Everyone sees this and uses that as your benchmark and then assumes that when you fail at a boring task it is because you are weak-willed.

People diagnosed with ADHD later on in life, like I was, wear the scars of a lifetime of judgement from failures you could never explain. It’s genuinely traumatic. It is big things like struggling through university and failing to have a career that matches your potential. And it is little things like forgetting birthdays and people’s names and all seven items on the grocery list to bring back from the shops.

I have been told by a few specialists recently that without being diagnosed and treated I couldn’t have expected to be any more successful in any aspect of my life than I have been. This is incredibly reassuring to know, but in many ways the damage has been done. I know I am bloody good at my job. I know my daughters love me. I know I have wonderful friends around me. But these thoughts are often far too fleeting, as the internal thought processes of a person with zero self-esteem continually reassert themselves. I am certain that my depression takes its roots from dealing with the fallout from the ADHD.

Having only recently starting taking ADHD medication it’s nice to get a window into way that non-ADHD people live. I feel I live so much more in the present now. The mental exhaustion from a normal day’s work has disappeared. I have richer conversations with friends and with my children. And I’m starting to sift out what is me and what is my ADHD. But there is still a long way to go.

I might write more about this. I might not. As I said at the start of this piece, sometimes it all spills out. I’m glad I know about how and why my brain works as it does. It would have been nice to know earlier but I can’t help that now. But I’ll certainly keep trying to find a way through it all.


Shortly after I wrote this, I heard the tragic news that one of my very close friends Eleanor Bloom had passed away from a long and debilitating illness. Eleanor was one of the very small group of people I felt comfortable with confiding in about my ADHD and depression. I know she would have been proud of me for having written this.

This post originally appeared here. Republished with permission.

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  1. Thank you Tim for this post. I felt like I was reading the story of my life unfolding. I was only recently diagnosed and understanding that I’m not alone means the world to me right now. Thank you again.

  2. Tim I noticed you justified writing this piece which I find myself doing that a lot. This was word for word my life; I cried thinking how much this was how my own life has been impacted, not only from this condition, but from people’s reactions towards me from their lack of understanding, especially family. My brother once said “she’s not very smart but she’s loyal” then was shocked when I went I on after years of failure in school and jobs to get a biomedical degree at 39.
    I was 54 when I was diagnosed and today my kids tell me they don’t know how i made it thru life. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  3. “James is a good student, but doesn’t work up to his full potential”.

    Every report card, every year. I only came across the phrase “inattentive type” a few days ago and it has qualmed so many fears. Reading your article did the same. For a long time I suspected that my depression was not a cause, but a symptom of something else – now I can walk into my doctor’s office and really set the agenda for the discussion. Sixty is looming – I don’t want to watch the rest of my years fritter away.

  4. This article is like a homecoming for me. Yesterday at my Doctors appointment my PCP posed the question to me whether I felt my ADHD was legitimate or misdiagnosed by her and as a result I had fallen psychologically dependent on the stimulant she prescribed me.

    I thought about it seriously and searched my symptoms exactly. I was only diagnosed two years ago after an exhausting first pregnancy with my first daughter. After researching last night I came to the amazing conclusion that not only is my diagnosis legit but that I suffer from the Inattentive subtype of ADHD. This post made me feel normal. It made me see Iā€™m not alone with these symptoms.

    As an honor roll student in HA, college graduate (meanwhile I was not diagnosed or medicated in college, I survived on naps and red bull)… it made it difficult for me and people around me who knew about my recent diagnosis to understand how I could have made it so far in life with this undiagnosed condition. But you said it best- I succeeded where I wanted to succeed and I failed at so many menial smaller things. Only now, with children and a full time job and so much more on my plate as an adult I have buckled under the pressure.

    Thanks so much for helping open my eyes to the reasoning behind this. It finally grants me some peace and solace.

    So happy to have found his piece thanks for sharing it with the world.

  5. Tim,
    Like everyone here, I want to thank you. To read about my own struggles, in a way I haven’t been able to describe myself, has been incredibly cathartic. I am newly diagnosed, but everything I have read so far has validated my past and present conflicts. Again — thank you.

  6. Tim, I’ve gotta say, it’s really weird reading this article of yours. I’m only recently (in the last few days) realizing that I do have ADD (inattentive type). I’m in the process of setting up a meeting with a psychiatrist to confirm this, but I feel like I could have written your article myself. I’m struggling to keep up with things in life right now because my add is getting in the way so much, so I’m anxious to experience this “window into the life of normal people” roughly as you put it. Thank you for putting this out there, it gives me hope.

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