A couple of months ago I learned the most stunning fact of my life, which is that a disorder I knew I had been diagnosed with but hadn’t really considered serious in adulthood had, in fact, been behind nearly every seemingly unexplained uphill climb and psychiatric pitfall in my adult life. Looking back at the past decade, the past three years especially, is maddening. Knowing how desperate I got for answers and how close I was to finding answers is a tough burden to bear, and isn’t rare in adult ADHD diagnoses either. In my case it even included nagging questions between me and others about why I couldn’t concentrate on certain things. That part is hard to explain, but the rest was simple: Better understanding of ADHD could have changed my life for the better.
As mind-meltingly frustrating as it is to see how close I was to figuring things out, this is on par with what we know about ADHD and the difficulties in diagnosing it. It is the most heavily studied and documented disorder we know of despite its comparatively young age as an established disorder, and yet people have suffered and struggled with symptoms of it as they and their doctors miss it entirely. That is neither an exaggeration nor an indictment- check out this presentation on youtube, which includes an interview with someone who suffered from it for years with no diagnosis. The doctor who didn’t catch her ADHD? That was an ADHD expert, so credentialed in the field that he was, in fact, the speaker and writer of that very presentation. By adulthood, people with ADHD have had to find ways to cope and survive. This often means working twice as hard, masking some symptoms and rationalizing others, often while mood disorders caused by ADHD distracts attention from the root problem.
Keep in mind that you should never attempt to diagnose yourself, much less make any attempt to self-medicate based on what you read online or, for that matter, anything not coming directly from a medical professional with knowledge of your chemistry and biology. That’s not what we want, or what anyone needs. But what we can all benefit from is a greater knowledge of the disorders that affect us and our loved ones, and if you discover something new about yourself and take that to the doctor to ask about it, all the better. Especially with ADHD, your handling of it is directly affected by how much you know about it, to the point that a (correct) diagnosis alone makes a massive difference. There is promise in recognizing symptoms online so long as the doctor is the one that makes the diagnosis and treatment decisions, because ADHD can be easy to miss.
This is essentially how it worked for me. A year ago I dedicated a lot of time and effort to figuring out what was going on with me, why I had the problems I had, and why they were so detrimental to my life. Root causes were my primary focus and at one point I was convinced I had Dependent Personality Disorder, but this was doubted and later debunked entirely. Ditto with childhood trauma. I was right about one thing though, and that is that my depression and anxiety were not the source, instead there was something causing the two. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a lot of amazing therapists and psychiatrists over the years, and none of them caught it either. How did I find out? Well, a couple of youtubers who had ADHD talked openly about it on their shows. Even then it wasn’t until they mentioned specific symptoms that I did the research. I was floored by the immense role this disorder had in derailing my life, as well as little moments and traits that I’ve discovered as recently as this morning. A disorder that I was diagnosed with as much as twenty-seven years ago.
Here are some of the major signs that you may have undiagnosed ADHD (or that it’s more detrimental than you realize) based on my own experiences as well as some research.
- Overpowering emotions, often causing or becoming mood disorders
This is the one that changed everything for me. As I wrote about previously, the emotional aspects of ADHD were far more evident in most of my life, and more destructive as well. This also explains why, as a teen, ritalin and adderall didn’t seem to work. Stimulants are far less effective on emotion regulation deficiencies that ADHDers have, because they blunt the limbic system- the source of the emotion itself, and not part of the ADHD architecture. Since non-stimulants are designed to actually reprogram the brain instead of stimulate it, they are believed to have a much more significant impact.
That does not necessarily mean there will be a change in how it’s treated, however. In many cases, especially instances like this where comorbidities like anxiety and depression are at the forefront, it is more effective to treat the symptoms. This isn’t always the case though, and with me it’s a little of both- the mood disorders are treated separately while the ADHD is treated on its own as well.
- You have difficulty handling a lack of responsibility or things to do
This one I’ve noticed in my life but was first introduced to me by a customer service agent with my health insurance provider, believe it or not. It answers some questions I’ve had about myself as well. The woman I talked to had been diagnosed with ADHD after her children moved out, because they were her primary focus. With that focus gone, she found herself unable to turn that kind of attention towards anything else. Similarly, between job and relationship upheavals, I ended up with several stretches of no schedule or accountability, two things people with ADHD desperately need in order to function, whether they’re the ones in charge of it or not. These may cause some depression which can easily make ADHD symptoms worse. I’ve had a lot of trouble finding anything about this specifically, so it may not affect everyone with ADHD, but by its very nature ADHD requires externalized working memory and accountability, as well as some structure. Having no structure at all results in someone ping-ponging around their home taking care of tasks that may or may not be necessary, starting projects they’ll never finish, and generally feeling out of control even if they’re doing fine emotionally.
- You feel like a screw-up, or that you’re “cursed”.
The caveat to this one is that it’s likely to be depression, especially if that level of negative self-talk is used. So really, that could be two reasons to talk to a professional. That said, ask yourself “Why do I think that way about myself?” If your response is a specific pattern of behavior that you struggle to improve upon, especially something related to productivity, it could be caused by ADHD. This is often how it feels for someone suffering from untreated ADHD, because they struggle with things others can do easily and they can’t figure out why. An ADHD coach who was diagnosed at 43 was successful despite that, but after being treated, he realized he had been “walking in three feet of water” to achieve everything he had. For me it was a series of failures that made me feel cursed, rejected, disliked, any number of things that simply were not true. Before being diagnosed, the ADHD is always there. The difference is it often exists as a struggle to meet the standards applied to everyone, and is blamed on the person themselves instead of their lack of treatment and coping skills. This is why anxiety and depression are such common comorbidities.
- You feel like you can’t comprehend time or money.
As far as productivity and general quality of life goes, this is probably the worst one for me. Always being late, being incapable of following even the simplest budget, it really made me feel like I was incapable of growing up and has given me anxiety about certain types of jobs. Just prior to finding out the truth of my ADHD I was not only keeping a spreadsheet of all of my purchases, I had an alarm clock app set to only turn off if I answered a series of math problems. I still do. Sounds like with those two, plus budgeting apps, I should be able to prevent terrible spending decisions, right? Nope! I’ve improved a bit but with diminishing returns, because I can stop myself from spending too much on one thing, but it’s far more challenging to prevent myself from making the same mistake in increments of fifteen or twenty dollars. I know that 30+30+30+30 is 120, but if each of those 30s is a dollar amount spent a day or two apart, it won’t always add up for me. I would need to go through the spreadsheet I keep and do the math manually, and keeping an eye on your balance is sadly not reliable enough even today.
Time is the same way, there is no day-to-day task I have struggled with more than being on time. At one point I even dropped out of community college because of it. Those of us with ADHD just don’t perceive time objectively, it’s like the old saying “time flies when you’re having fun”, but applied to everything depending on how interested you are in it. If I’m on time, and I stop to pet my cat on the way out the door, I don’t think about the time that takes at all. Until recently, I would view smaller things like that as if they were time-neutral. Like the time it takes is so minimal that it isn’t worth including. Of course, everything takes time, and that’s not how numbers work.
That doesn’t include full-on distractions that end up adding another five minutes or so to your trip. Having a watch certainly helps, and I strongly recommend it to anyone with ADHD. Your phone does not count. If you’re like me, you will check your phone to see the time, see some notification instead, and respond to it. By the time you’re done with your phone you may have forgotten you needed to check the time to begin with. I recently got a smart watch, which I think has helped a bit, but it takes some initiative to make sure your watch is only getting the important stuff. Reminders, weather, timers and so on will help you cope, and anything not directly productive needs to stay out of sight until it’s the appropriate time.
- Your short-term memory is unreliable
This one’s a little tricky because like it or not, memory itself isn’t that reliable. That’s why witness testimony isn’t great as the backbone of a criminal case. Memory can be altered based on all kinds of factors, in some cases deliberately. However, if you’re constantly forgetting things and it seems to be a real problem, it may be a symptom of ADHD. It could also be something else, but regardless, non-medical ADHD skills may help you. I’ve learned to rely on reminders and to-do lists like my life depends on it- all the better if the lists are hand-written, because the act of writing helps to reinforce that memory. Externalize anything you don’t want to forget.
Others may swear by post-it notes, which I avoid because I can see that snowballing fast. However, if you’re less messy than I am, you may benefit from it!
- You act like a big kid sometimes.
This is an observation on my part and is not necessarily a good blanket term for people with ADHD. However, a lot of us are way more in touch with our inner child, to put it mildly. In fact, for me, it seems like half the problem is the kid takes the wheel a lot of the time. Although someone with ADHD will have the kinds of logical abilities as any other person, they may also have some traits that are more childlike and playful. Obviously the attention span can seem that way, but so can hyperfixation- a burst of enthusiasm, interest and focus on a topic someone finds fascinating. Because people with ADHD also have more powerful emotions, they may be more sensitive. Let me clarify, by the way, that none of these are bad things. In fact, they can be one of the upsides. They can make life more enjoyable, more meaningful, and more interesting.
If you were diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, how did you find out? What traits suddenly made more sense? Let us know in the comments below!
The Importance of Emotion in ADHD – Dr Russell Barkley. YouTube. YouTube, 01 Aug. 2015. Web. 08 June 2021.
Adult ADHD: Patient Perspectives and Best Practice Strategies. YouTube. 01 Dec. 2019. Web. 08 June 2021.
Behring, S. “How to Get Diagnosed with ADHD If You’re an Adult.” Healthline. Ed. Alex Klein. 7 Apr. 2021. Web. 8 June 2021.