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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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

[How to Stay Focused with Inattentive Adult ADHD]

ADDENDUM

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 on Medium. Republished with permission.

Updated on February 15, 2019

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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 I’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.

    1. I, too, am curious what it would be like to be “normal “ as in not have my thoughts constantly racing through my mind, especially when I’m trying to sleep. I am 39 years old, always thought these “symptoms “ of ADD were the norm until I recently discovered thst I have ADD (the inattentive type). Never thought of medication. I am all about using natural remedies and herbal supplements.

  7. I’m a bit speechless. This is me except all my report cards were full of “lazy,” “if only he’d apply himself,” etc. I started suspecting ADHD a year ago. I went to see a doctor and, because I’m not addicted or fidgety, I was literally laughed at. I’m 59 and it hurt just as much as when I was in fifth grade. I did get a PhD but I couldn’t figure out how to keep that momentum going. I knew what I had to do but I couldn’t make it happen.

    “scars of a lifetime of judgement from failures you could never explain.” Yep. I hope I can find a doctor that understands ADHD.

  8. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. My son is almost 16 years old and has exactl what you have described. I am trying to help him succeed as best I can, but not as much information out there as there is for the hyper-active ADHD person.

  9. wow feel like this could have been me writing. especially the school reports. mine I remember being also ‘has a great brain if only she would use it more often’.
    I am fighting for a diagnosis right now. I have so far been diagnosed with generalised anxiety but i know that’s only a by product of the low self esteem from being put down due to what i now think were not ‘bad things’ just my inattentiveness at certain things. If only I could use this at my next consultation. Thanks Tim

  10. Thank-you for sharing Tim!!! I am 50, and I was diagnosed at 33. When my Psychiatrist first said the words, ADHD I laughed and didn’t hear him. He said it again, and my mind drifted to ten-years earlier when I was living in FL. Young active boys SEEMED to be being over-prescribed Ritalin, and having to go to the nurse’s office at lunch time for their meds–it was on the news constantly. I couldn’t possibly be in this group?? Dr. Sam said it again, “ADHD.” He had to say it several times before I HEARD him. I started to cry, then I got angry. I felt duped by my other healthcare providers that hadn’t seen it earlier in me. Everything always seemed so difficult, yet I was always given a label of being smart. I felt relieved for the diagnosis, and medication has certainly helped. I am glad I can talk to my nephew [who just started college] about his ADHD–diagnosed at 16. Maybe things won’t have to be so difficult for him, or maybe he won’t have to feel like he’s so different from everyone else. :>

  11. The difficulty for people with ADD is their IQ’s don’t match their eventual productivity in life – particularly in the workforce where metrics and measurements are the lifeblood of an organization – and the ever so important employee evaluations that allow employers to promote their superstars and demote (and eventually get rid of) their non-superstars. Inattentive ADD’ers with high IQ’s have developed any number of different strategies in their life to compensate for most circumstances. And when starting a new job the inattentive type will come across as an individual with all the tools and talent needed to achieve great things within an organization. The albatross, however, is the inability to CONSISTENTLY think quickly on one’s feet – which is to say, the executive functioning is lacking in comparison to our neuro-typical friends and co-workers. Most compensations ADD’ers develop are scripted for everyday life – not necessarily the workforce. The workforce want’s individuals who can think quickly on their feet, be decisive and make convincing arguments to take needed or necessary actions to help the company grow and make money. Employers don’t want folks who can perform most of the time – especially at higher levels of the organization. Organizations want individuals who can think quickly on their feet ALL the time – not just some of the time. With that said, employers grow confused because inattentive ADD’ers will have “flashes” of high achievement while in the workforce, but because of their ADD simply are unable to show this brilliance on a consistent day-in-day-out basis. As a result, inattentive ADD’ers are most times thought of as underachievers or simply lazy. The employer can clearly see the early potential in an inattentive ADD’er (otherwise they wouldn’t have hired them in the first place), but eventually becomes increasingly frustrated with the individuals’ lack of achievement, shortcomings, and inability to take things to the next level. The employee and the employer continue to grow apart and the same “report card” many of us received as kids is once again delivered to us, albeit in the form of a “performance plan” – carrying much deeper consequences – many times ending up as a lost job. Evaluations will most times fall into the category of average or below – thusly increasing the pressure and stress felt by these individuals. This is a very disheartening string of events – events that I’m sure most every inattentive ADD’er could clearly articulate has happened to them at some point in their lives. If the inattentive ADD’er manages to hold on to their job, they’ll forever carry the moniker of being the proverbial lazy under-achiever who (seemingly) has all the tools for greatness, but for one reason or another “chooses” not to give their full effort.

    1. @Wagner2020
      Bravo, thank you and exactly!! You pretty much nailed the string of events I’ve faced over the years, and I love the Linus quote!! 🙂 feels like the reverse side of the Spider-Man coin!! 🙂

      Anyway thanks for highlighting the challenges of being part of this tribe of adult ADD-i

      I think form an ordinary person’s point of view it’s just very difficult to understand what it’s like to be us. Thankfully I have a partner (now) who makes a super human effort to understand, even if it’s baffling for her at times – frankly I find my behaviour completely mysterious too.

      My recommendation is don’t underestimate to importance of having at least some people around you on your side, who “get it”.

  12. A super AMEN to the previous comments! The dysthymia, or vague, chronic depression that is a result of a lifetime of falling short, while having “so much potential!” (There’s an old Peanuts comic strip where Linus raises his arms to the sky, crying, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential!”)
    Anyway, 2 comments: 1) I WISH that we could get accommodations for bill-paying the way it was possible to get accommodations in school! “I can’t organize or track my bills” is very similar to “I can’t keep track of my homework!”
    Also, I do take Ritalin for focus, but the hard truth is that while it’s very useful in being focused, it’s useless for prioritizing! How many hours/days I’ve spend being hyper-focused on totally the wrong thing!
    OK, one more comment. I just turned 71, and I gotta tell ya, while I might cut myself more breaks than I used to, the backwards look at a “lifetime of falling short” is no easier now than it ever was; maybe even harder, because shouldn’t I be much more capable at this age? More competent? (sigh). I am not. The measuring stick is just longer. (sigh again.)

  13. Tim,
    Agreed on all counts. My life has been mish-mash of extreme highs and lows. Anti-depressants have helped but yes its from the constant sense of not living up to expectations. Military,college, marriage (twice) and so much more. Still need a diagnosis but have tried adhd meds and they do help. At 48 I can only move forward.

  14. Thanks for writing this, Tim.
    A “trick” I’ve used to make my add/adhd work for me was to stop caring. I could always rely on my adhd to forget something uncomfortable, including confusing emotions and responses to awful people. But I didn’t have good family or adults to notice, so I became pretty adept at hiding everything. No one cared (a neglect I still grapple with) that I was a good kid in an impossible situation (abuse and neglect that still haunt my self-esteem).
    I’ve had a keen interest in the here and now, and have grown that into a spiritual philosophy. Being the only person to genuinely look after my own best interests, I KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt that so much of my potential will never be realized because my success by any measure was never alluded to as a young person. Seriously. At my college graduation, (14 years to get a 4-year degree) my mother said to me “I can’t believe you made it this far with me as your mother”. I’ve been raised with neglect and narcissism, and most of my writing also tends to be , as you say, “self-indulgent “ so Thank You for saying that at the beginning of your essay. With everything I read on this site, I feel as if I’m being given permission to be the way I am. We are survivors.

  15. Tim I want to sincerely thank you for this article. I’ve suffered from the exact same symptoms you’ve listed here my entire life, with a very similar set of ups and downs and failures. I was diagnosed with ADHD as a kid, but back then medication didn’t really help much and I REALLY suffered from the ostracization that comes with it when I was younger. A bounced around without a “proper” diagnosis for years, suffering from the “I am told something is wrong with me but no one knows what so they seem to believe I’m just worthless,” mindplague. While I got myself rediagnosed with ADHD after my first deployment (U.S. Army Officer, and this condition does NOT make that easy) it was just a basic diagnosis. Reading this article I now have an actual thing to call what I have, and I have the ability to look for stuff that can help. Every time I ever looked for ADHD help it always has been for the hyperactive version of the condition, and that’s never been very helpful for me.

    Where should I look for strategies and resources to combat this? I’m at a crossroads in my life right now. I’m in my last semester of Grad School and I’m struggling to study for my comprehensive exams. I need to review 100% of what I’ve learned for the last 3 years, and I am falling behind to be honest. In addition my career field on the civilian side is that I’m about to start working as a strength coach once I graduate, and while I excel at the training people side of things the job involves a lot of data entry. In my military career I’m seeking my first command, and I can’t afford to forget the little shit in that role. I’m also exploring running for political office and I’m working as an activist with some progressive groups currently.

    Things are too important for me to afford to screw them up, so I’d be grateful for any advice or resources you could give me so I can manage my ADHD and achieve my goals.

  16. Wow, I’m only now realizing that I have suffered from this all my life. I was a brilliant child who taught myself to read before kindergarten. I could have been a Doogie Howser, but I got bored at a certain point in my life. I finally got my undergrad degree in computers at about age 37, it was easy. Of course, I used it to get one job, lost that due to inattentiveness, did nothing for the last 15 years and now live on a disability income of $770 a month (not from ADD, which is undaignosed, but from my MS. I spend my days getting loaded on speed, pot, and alcohol. Too bad, a brilliant life was wasted.

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