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“I Grew Up Lost in a Fog”

Before I got my diagnosis, my whole life felt like a recurring nightmare. It took knowing the truth about my untreated ADHD and learning disabilities to finally feel in control.

Family portrait of the author's family, happy after she started managing her untreated ADHD
Family portrait, Sutherland family

I have a recurring dream. I am six years old and the class is laughing at me. The teacher asks me, “What did I just say?” I have no idea, since I’m lost in a fog. “Are you retarded or something?” the teacher asks, and the classroom roars with laughter.

The dream is based on my experience as a child in the 1980s with undiagnosed ADHD. I have nightmares about being humiliated all these years later. I wasn’t a bad child; I was well behaved and bright, but I could not focus or follow directions. If someone said to “go right,” I’d go left. If I were asked to repeat something, I forgot it as quickly as it was said.

ADHD? Huh?

Thirty years ago, in our small town, no one had heard of ADHD. If you had challenges in school, you were just lazy. All of my report cards pretty much said the same thing: “E. does not listen or follow directions.” Spelling and reading were the only subjects I did well in. Although I was a good reader, my comprehension wasn’t the best. The teachers grew annoyed with me, and punished me by sending me outside to “watch the grass grow.” As I got older, I continued to drift through school with OK grades — Bs and Cs — and I spent hours studying to achieve them.

In addition to my problems trying to focus, I talked so fast that people had trouble understanding me. There is a recording of me at nine years old, talking on my dad’s answering machine at breakneck speed.

When I entered tenth grade, I finally had enough. In tears, I went to my mother and told her that something was wrong with me. I got everything confused and backward. There was something wrong with my brain. My mother tried to schedule an appointment with the school psychologist, but she was accustomed to seeing children with severe intellectual disabilities. The school did tests on me that showed that, although I had a normal IQ, I had depth perception problems, got things backward, and did indeed have trouble following directions. However, I did not receive a diagnosis. The tests concluded that I had “some issues.” No solutions were given because the school hadn’t heard of ADHD. They just issued the results and left things at that.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Adult ADHD?]

To University and Beyond

I went to a university in 1992, and I flunked out. College was overwhelming; I could not sit in a lecture hall and take notes. My self-esteem was in the basement when I left college, and I lost several jobs. Reckless with my finances, I could not focus or sit still long enough to balance my checkbook. I bounced checks. I cringe remembering the time I received a notice from a pizza shop that said I owed $400 because of several overdrawn checks.

I made and lost friends quickly. I got bored with the people I dated. My attention was scattered, so my friends thought that I wasn’t listening to them.

Then, in 1996, I attended a community college to get my grades up, so that I could re-apply to the university. It had a program for people with learning disabilities; the college tested you and provided tutoring as needed. I received tutoring and my grades started to improve. “I think you have ADHD,” said the college psychologist one day out of the blue.

I felt vindicated that I was not just a “lazy person.” Meanwhile, after I received the psychologist’s assessment, things changed for me. The program I was enrolled in taught me to slow down, and gave me techniques to remember details. I learned to record lectures and play them back. I learned how to use a day planner, prioritize things, and read things over until they made sense. I didn’t always “get” things as fast as other people, but I no longer felt overwhelmed. And there were others in the class like me. I wasn’t alone.

[Your Ultimate ADHD Diagnosis Guide]

I transferred back and graduated from the university with a B.A. in journalism in 1998, receiving As and Bs for the last two years that I attended. I also was determined not to switch jobs any more. In 2000, I applied to be a receptionist at an advertising agency. After about six months of faxing and stapling, I was ready for something bigger, and I worked my way up to be public relations director. I began dating a man I had known previously, during my scattered years. We married in 2003 and are still together. We have two children (pictured above!).

I have been at my current job for more than 17 years. I have to work at staying on top of details, which is sometimes excruciating. I have to make myself read an email five times before I reply.

It Doesn’t Come Easy

At 42, my brain still goes a mile a minute. Recently, I took a sewing class and started to sew the project backward. The teacher jokingly called me her “special child.” It was hard not to go back to that painful place in my memories.

I haven’t eliminated my challenges, but I handle them better. Living a stable life has helped. I work hard at being organized now. You could call me a neat freak. When I talk with my husband, I make sure to slow down and listen to what he says — and he tells me when he sees that I’m not paying attention. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have written a coherent paragraph, but today I am able to write my story.

[Your After-Diagnosis Survival Guide]

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  1. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story.
    A lovely and beautiful picture of your family. It is amazing to know there is light at the end of the tunnel for us all.
    Your story tells all about how I can remember my own life’s story. Full of question marks, exclamation points etc..i was called lazy too by my entire family, plus strict culture generation gap back then, i was convinced i have always been a blacksheep, different, no hope “drug user always a drug user” in the family. Deep inside, I have aspirations of having my dreams come true too like everyone else. not so lost after all the detours. It is inspiring to know you are doing great with your family. I wish you continued happiness and clarity and positivity in yourself and family. Thank you for sharing! xox

  2. I was just diagnosed a couple years ago. I’m in my 50s. I had struggles with some teachers growing up in the late 60s early 70s. The worst part was not understanding why I was the way I was. It cost me some terrible suffering over the years, but also some amazing, positive experiences, too.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

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