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“My Childhood ADHD Diagnosis Was the Secret That Nearly Destroyed Me.”

“The telltale ADHD symptoms that had followed me through my life – hyperactivity, distractibility, impulsivity, inattention, sleep problems, restlessness, and hyperfocus (to the point of obsession) – had actually led to an ADHD diagnosis some time in my childhood. But my diagnosis was kept from me for many, many years.”

I only recently found out that I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. You read that right.

The telltale ADHD symptoms that had followed me through my life – hyperactivity, distractibility, impulsivity, inattention, trouble sleeping, restlessness, and hyperfocus (to the point of obsession) – had actually led to an ADHD diagnosis some time in my childhood. But my diagnosis was kept from me for many, many years.

Because of that – even as I presented with obvious signs of ADHD – I never suspected that I had the condition. I thought it was just “who I was.” Until I reached adulthood – when the consequences of not knowing nearly destroyed me.

My ADHD: A Secret Kept

The philosophy of adults and teachers during my childhood was to negatively reinforce and punish symptoms out of a child – or at least, that is what it felt like. Wielded without any regard for my ADHD diagnosis, this approach only left me feeling more confused, alienated, and uncertain of myself. It eventually chipped away at my confidence and ability to be a happy child. By age 10, I often felt sad and began closing myself off from others.

Though I survived grade school, university posed a completely new challenge that I was unprepared to handle. Within a year, I was falling behind, struggling to focus, and feeling unmotivated. By the second year, I had cut down my course load substantially. And by the third year, I dropped out, feeling disillusioned by higher education.

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My university years were marked by sadness, shame, and underachievement. I’d often walk around the city feeling completely lost and uncertain about my future. Why couldn’t I do my work? Why wasn’t I motivated? Why wouldn’t my brain ever shut off? Why did I feel like I was being pulled in a million different directions all the time?

Though I eventually went back to school and even went on to pursue graduate studies, I was still struggling to get by. I found myself overcommitting to everything as my stress piled up – school, work, parental expectations, relationships, “adulting.” When you’re living with ADHD (whether known or unknown), it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the complexity of life. For me, that overwhelm turned into anxiety and panic attacks.

The ADHD Truth Comes Out

After the overwhelm and challenges of graduate school, I finally decided to get help. In the process, I ended up having a candid discussion with my family about my struggles over the years. That’s when they disclosed the news that would change my life: At 32, I learned that I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child.

I started to connect the dots in my life of all the things that left me feeling at odds with the world. I looked over old report cards and sent some emails to specialists. I had to know. I needed confirmation  – was this really it?

[Read: Was ADHD to Blame All Along?]

To the ADHD Naysayers

Do I wish I would have known about my ADHD sooner? Absolutely. Have I done my best to mask the symptoms of my condition to appear more “normal” or “neurotypical” over the years? Yes — almost every day of my life. And in my 30s, I’m just starting to explore treatment and therapy for ADHD.

But with my belated reveal, I’m also able to wholeheartedly say – especially to those who don’t think ADHD is a real condition — that it is absolutely real, and no joke.

Prior to learning about my ADHD diagnosis, much of my life felt like I was running a race with cinderblocks tied around my waist. That’s how life feels like for many individuals with ADHD, which is where treatments like medication and therapy come in, sparing us tons of aggravation and suffering. But not everyone needs these interventions. In the end, it’s a personal decision that is best made with the guidance of a medical professional.

For the naysayers out there who continue to neglect decades of evidence and research, you are only helping to trivialize a rather serious condition. In doing so, you make it less likely for individuals (like myself) to be properly diagnosed and informed about treatment options. Talk to anyone with a late or missed ADHD diagnosis, and they’ll tell you that it is far better to know and have a choice than it is to live with no knowledge, and no choice.

Living with ADHD: Next Steps

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2 Comments & Reviews

  1. I can 100% relate to this article. I have experienced pretty much everything that Jan describes (except it took me 30 years to earn my Bachelor’s degree and I would never dream of torturing myself further with grad school). I wasn’t told until I was in my early 40’s that I had been diagnosed with ADHD as a child. My doctor at the time told my mother that since I earned good grades in school, my ADHD was mild and I didn’t need any treatment. What they failed to realize was the social and emotional impact my ADHD had on my life throughout my childhood and well into my adult years. To this day I can realize how it has shaped my overall outlook on life and my struggles to trust and relate to other people. I don’t blame my mom, she just trusted what the doctor told her. I’m not even sure I can blame the doctor, who was probably just following the prevailing wisdom of the time. But I can’t help but feel that my life would have been so much better had I gotten the help I needed early on.

  2. Wow, this resonates strongly with me, and is so similar to my experience. Thank you for writing this, Jan. I was finally diagnosed 4 years ago, at 48 years old. When I self-diagnosed months before the formal diagnosis, I called my parents, expecting a replay of childhood input: “Nah, you were just lazy / unmotivated / not living up to your potential / needed to try harder / etc.” Instead, they said, “oh yeah, we thought you had a borderline case of it, but we didn’t want to medicate you, and we worried maybe you’d feel resentful of having it.” Mind blown! Processing that alone has been a rocky and healing journey.

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