If you spend time with the ADHD community, you’ll hear a lot of unique stories. You’ll also begin to see patterns. Patterns such as people being told that they were too smart or successful to have ADHD, even by medical professionals. My story could have very well been one of them.
On paper, my career seemed perfect: I have a BS in Computer Science from the U.S. Naval Academy and a 10-year military career as a helicopter pilot. I left military service at age 32 with an MBA from the University of Michigan. After a brief stint as a business consultant, I landed on the executive track at a mid-sized company as an IT Director. This is not a profile usually associated with ADHDers, even in the medical community, let alone in the media. Yet I received my diagnosis even after I’d achieved all that—about three months ago as of the posting of this article—at age 37. I generally hear people say “I was diagnosed with ADHD,” but that simple statement doesn’t capture my bullheaded pursuit of the diagnosis.
In October 2020, about seven months into the COVID lockdown, I was laid off from my job as IT Director, finally.
I had become intensely unhappy and unfulfilled in my role, just as I had in the Navy. Despite all I’d achieved, I still felt like an imposter trying to look as confident and effective as everyone else while inside I was a wreck. I worried constantly about my qualifications and performance and doubted my abilities. By the time COVID hit, I’d already exhausted the mental gymnastics I’d used to trick myself into coming to work motivated every day. Well, most days, anyway.
Going into lockdown at the start of the pandemic gave me a second wind—there was no WAY they could ever make me go back into the office now!—but it quickly wore off and I had to fall back on a new mantra: “You don’t quit your job during COVID”. So when my boss told me I was being let go, I was ecstatic! It was the best possible scenario: I finally had the free time to start my writing career AND a respectable severance to tide me over. I took two weeks to decompress and to exorcise the evil spirits from my old job out of my home office.
That was plenty of time to get my creative juices flowing. I already had three ideas for books I wanted to write and I was going to start a blog combining all of my interests. As I tackled a To-Do list that had been accumulating for years—clearing mental and physical clutter—new ideas popped up faster than I could consider them, let alone write them down. But when the time came for me to sit down and write, nothing came. Two weeks became a month, my To-Do list dwindled and the doubt returned. I was bursting with ideas… until I forced myself to sit at my computer and actually be productive.
What was my problem?
This was my dream! Peace and quiet to think my thoughts, plenty of time to articulate my “big” ideas, and no one telling me what to do or when. Pursuing my passion should come naturally to me, or at least be easier than any of the other challenges I’d taken on. Becoming a naval helicopter pilot had taken years of training. Toss in a part-time MBA while still in the Navy full time and a transition into the business world and, by comparison, becoming a writer with no other demands on my time should be a breeze. All I knew for certain was that I couldn’t go back to a stressful corporate job where every day felt like trying to drive uphill in fifth gear. I was burnt out.
Around the same time, the youngest of my two sisters confided that she had been diagnosed with ADHD. I adore my sister but had failed to help her so many times before. This time I wanted to learn everything I could so that I could support her in the way she needed. (And, thank goodness, it was an acceptable distraction from my problems!) So, like any caring older sister, the first thing I did was Google “ADHD”. After skimming a few websites about children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, I restarted my search with “Adult ADHD”. The symptoms I found sounded like my sister: disorganization, trouble prioritizing, poor time management, and frequent mood swings. Then a friend recommended that I start with Jessica McCabe’s YouTube channel, HowtoADHD. She said it had helped her to understand her son, who had been diagnosed five years earlier.
As I clicked through the videos, I experienced Jessica’s illustration of what it felt like to have ADHD, not only what it looked like from the outside. The longer I watched, though, the less I thought about my sister and the more I saw myself.
Another ADHDer said hearing someone describe ADHD for the first time as an adult was like the last scene in The Usual Suspects. Images from their life flashing before their eyes with ADHD as Keyser Soze. As I watched the videos, I remembered events from my childhood that I’d forgotten.
Being full of energy and put on time out or grounded for throwing a tantrum or upsetting my sister. Not being able to sleep and waking up my parents every night until they put me in swimming. Coming home crying every day in first grade and then a vague memory of sitting alone with a strange doctor in his office, playing Chinese Checkers while he asked me questions about school. That time I forgot about a paper and my dad pulled an all-nighter so I didn’t fail the class.
How could I have ADHD and still have been as successful as I was?
Despite all that, I still struggled to reconcile my “successful” life with the ADHD persona implied by the HowToADHD videos. I immediately saw my own emotional dysregulation, social awkwardness, and difficulty in holding conversations.
But I couldn’t see any of the core symptoms used for diagnosis. I’m hyper-organized and always early rather than on time. I’d never had problems in school or work, missing assignments or deadlines. So I scoured the internet for any validation of a lifetime of feeling wrong; like everyone else had something inside that I didn’t. Finally, I found stories that felt like mine in an article on ADDitude Magazine. I realized that my debilitating anxiety had developed to compensate for my ADHD.
More research revealed that this was not uncommon. It’s estimated that 25% of people with ADHD also have at least one anxiety disorder. So there it was, the validation I’d needed. Two weeks after getting the YouTube recommendation, I booked the initial consult for the assessment process.
Even as I went through the assessment two months later, I was still scared that I wouldn’t be diagnosed because of my external success. My mind raced with concern.
What if the assessors thought I didn’t fit the DSM criteria for level of impact on my life? What if they put too much emphasis on cognitive testing? What if I did too well on the testing?
By the time I met with the assessors to hear the results, I’d determined I was going to keep fighting for the diagnosis no matter the results they gave me. And I told them so (I have no filter). But ultimately they did conclude that I met the criteria for ADHD – Combined Type and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Clinical mental health conditions more than meet the criteria negative impact on life, as it turns out. To their credit, they also validated my concern of being dismissed due to high performance as a common issue with adult diagnosis.
Do I really need medication?
At first, I assumed that medication was for individuals with ADHD “worse” than mine. After learning some basics about the brain and neurotransmitters, I overcame my reluctance. I realized that stimulants might help my anxiety biologically. When I spoke with my doctor soon after my diagnosis, she pointed out that increased anxiety was a common side effect of stimulants. I had confidence in the research I’d done so I held my ground and I’m glad I did.
I’m still working on the right combination of medications with my doctor. I understand it is often a long process to find the best balance for a particular person. It’s not only about being able to sustain attention on a single activity, everyone has distinct treatment needs. Also, we all have different responses to the types of medication and the different delivery systems. This was important to understand because my doctor might have assumed I was good to go after the first positive experience. Without doing my own research and learning that I needed to be my own advocate, I might not have questioned her. My ADHD community is helping me see what having the right mix of medication looks like and giving me the confidence to go to bat with my general practitioner.
Medication is far from the end of the story. As I’ve heard in the ADHD community, “pills don’t teach skills.” So besides medication, I’m taking a fresh look at my habits and behaviors. I want to be able to get stuff done without stressing myself out or beating myself down with negative self-talk. I’m weeding out unhealthy coping mechanisms and doubling down on healthy ones. I’m doing this by comparing things I already do with the many already identified ADHD strategies and techniques and finding new ones to try out. Two healthy techniques that I had already been using are my Bullet Journal (BuJo!) and a smartwatch for tracking my sleep and the timer. These have become essential to my daily, stress-free existence!
Before I’d even finished the assessment, I’d signed up for the ADD Coaching Academy basic and advanced courses. I met Dorsey, founder of FlexYourADHD, through the introductory ADDCA module, “Simply ADHD”. We bonded immediately over our mutual passion for helping other adult ADHDers. Especially for preventing the confusion and loneliness we and our loved ones have experienced. The opportunity to join the FlexYourADHD community and write articles on ADHD still feels like fate.
This would be a great opportunity to quip, “and that’s all she wrote!” But I’ve found my passion, my tribe, and my voice. So a riff on John Paul Jones’s immortal refusal to surrender to the British seems apropos: I’ve not yet begun to write!