Home Mind & Brain Navigating the Taboos of Adult ADHD: A Personal Diagnosis and Treatment Journey

Navigating the Taboos of Adult ADHD: A Personal Diagnosis and Treatment Journey

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Trying to put down my thoughts all in one place is no easy feat. This was one of the triggers for me to try learning (at 38 years old) what on earth goes on inside my head. “Try journaling,” one psychologist suggested. Despite an array of beautiful and plain notebooks acquired, they would remain unfilled, amassing into what I dubbed my “doom pile”. This surely couldn’t be normal, I mused.

All my quirks, which would frustrate my husband endlessly – my constant forgetfulness, my mess, my sensitivity to certain materials, my habitual swearing, severe PMS, persistent ruminating, and my uncanny ability to perform like Wonder Woman under intense, life-threatening pressure – the list was endless. Surely, not everyone’s mind operates in a perpetual flight or fight mode. Following a prolonged struggle advocating for my children within the educational system, particularly around their autism, I realised it was time to focus on myself. I embarked on a self-discovery journey, navigating through the diagnostic process for ADHD amidst my final year of a biomedical science degree and advocating for my daughter’s rights within the education system. Yes, juggling multiple battles simultaneously seems to be a hallmark of ADHD.

The path to diagnosis was cloaked in taboo. I turned to a private company for an evaluation, a decision borne out of frustration. The medical professionals I consulted viewed pursuing a diagnosis as fruitless, so I bypassed the judgment and bureaucracy. In the workplace, outdated opinions on autism and other neurodiverse conditions were all too common. But why would anyone invest time and significant money in a diagnosis unless they genuinely felt something was amiss?

After several face-to-face sessions, a lengthy virtual consultation, and extensive questionnaires probing everything from daily routines to childhood behaviours, it became unmistakably clear: I had ADHD. In my first consultation, it was apparent to my consultant, and when you’re authentically yourself, it’s difficult to mask such a pervasive aspect of your identity. You might think receiving a diagnosis is the end of the journey, but for me, it was just the beginning. Medication was suggested as an option, which left me perplexed. My understanding of ADHD was rooted in the stereotype of hyperactive boys, not a woman who struggled with attention, retention, and chronic exhaustion. Nevertheless, it was underscored that my lifelong battle with depression was, in fact, a misdiagnosis again a common situation ADHD females experience.

The revelation was staggering: 17 years spent on and, at times, off antidepressants, specifically fluoxetine, under the misapprehension of depression. The scepticism I felt was overwhelming. Could such a fundamental aspect of my mental health have been misconstrued?

What followed was a grieving period for the years lost to a mislabel. This grieving is ongoing, over a year later. The realisation that I had been medicating not depression but rather intense emotional experiences typical of ADHD was profound. I encountered a lack of support from healthcare professionals where I live and received no assistance from the supposed ADHD specialist. I turned once again to my private consultant, who, in collaboration with my GP – my unsung hero – helped me begin medication. It was a stimulant, and the effect was nothing short of revelatory. I decided to wean off fluoxetine, and within four months, we found an effective dose for the ADHD medication. I am, however, under no illusion that I will never need antidepressants, but I wish medical professionals would look at the cause of behaviours rather than just treat the symptoms!

The newfound clarity was staggering. Medication may not be a universal solution, but for me, it was transformative. Yet, the ‘doom pile’ still exists as a testament to ongoing challenges. I continue to learn and reprocess past mistakes – mismanaged situations, unintentional hurt I’ve caused, and years of mirroring behaviours to fit in. No excuses, but these weren’t the actions of the true “me”. I had been masking for nearly half my life. Now, even my elderly parents recognise my childhood behaviours, considering this diagnosis.

Am I bitter? No, though there is a tinge of sadness in hindsight. When ready, I plan to share more about the wild, impulsive things I did growing up – apparently a common theme among those with ADHD, as we often seek dopamine in any form available.

The future is unwritten. Currently, I’m embracing my genuine interests and pursuing a career in microbiology, a field that is anything but “micro”. Advocacy is now a part of my life, and I aim to dispel the myths proliferating on social media. The belief that everyone seeks a label or that neurodiversity is a fad dismisses the reality of a growing population finally gaining recognition through science.

The journey ahead is about bravery, seizing opportunities, embracing new experiences, and sharing my story – failures included – to educate and raise awareness.

Zoe Andrews is a biomedical scientist. She’s on X @autismadhdmicro.

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