5 Critical Lessons I Learned From My Adult ADHD Diagnosis
Trigger warning: This article includes mentions of suicidal ideation.
I was 37 years old when I received confirmation that, like an estimated 15 to 20% of the global population, I was neurodivergent, a term for a range of neurological and mental health reasons why a brain processes and reacts to information in ways that diverge from the typical. Some neurodivergent people are autistic, dyslexic, or dyspraxic. I am ADHD—an acronym that stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—also known as ADD.
Until recently, I knew almost nothing about ADHD. I'd received a series of incorrect diagnoses to explain the extended mental health crisis I was in the grip of generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and clinical perfectionism. Neurodivergence had never occurred to me or anyone else, and I had no idea why so many aspects of my everyday life felt increasingly like shameful, desperate struggles.
Finally, in late 2019, I stumbled on an article about women living with ADHD. I read their words and found my own life reflected back: outwardly performing success yet going beyond the breaking point to achieve what seemed to come more easily to others. Aspects of life felt so hard to me because they were hard for me.
Two years on from my diagnosis I'm beginning to understand how my brain works and uncover the consequences of a lifetime of furiously covering my ADHD self up. Here are five of the most important things I've learned:
I have been masking my real self for decades.
As an undiagnosed ADHD person, I have always felt like an outsider without understanding why. Though everyone masks at times, to fit in with a new crowd of people or hide nervousness in an important situation, it is common for neurodivergent people to develop constant hypervigilance and masking1. And if sexuality, gender, race, or other factors make the negative consequences of appearing different or difficult more extreme, this masking tendency can be even more exhausting and shame-inducing.
When you mask ADHD, "good enough" standards of timekeeping, tidiness, and organization are not sufficient. The consequences of a minor slip-up, like forgetting to submit a form on time, can feel like the end of the world. I obsessed over carefully chosen outfits; cleaned my house to perfection before a casual coffee date; lived by a complex system of reminders, spreadsheets, notes, and alarms; and arrived two hours early to guard against being late, wondering why life was so exhausting and feeling like a failure.
ADHD can be a life and death issue.
ADHD means I am twice as likely to die prematurely as a neurotypical person is. In 2021 a Canadian study found that ADHD people were five times more likely to attempt death by suicide than their neurotypical peers, showing far greater risk of developing depression, PTSD, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. In women the disparity was even more profound. Among women with ADHD, 23.5% said they had attempted death by suicide compared to 3.3% of women in the general population.
Though it was hard to look under my masks at the self I'd spent a lifetime hiding, eventually it became essential for my survival. Living with a brain you don't understand, in a world that isn't designed for it, can be very harmful, and in the years leading up to diagnosis, I found myself in a dark and dangerous place.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a terrible name.
I used to think that ADHD meant a person couldn't pay attention, wouldn't sit still, and was constantly distractible. Yet as a schoolgirl I'd sat nicely, faced front, and kept quiet. I'd grown into a woman who appeared calm and organized, writing 90,000-word books and becoming a charity CEO. The negative consequences of my undiagnosed ADHD were largely internalized, and so I didn't seem to fit.
ADHD also presents differently in different people. Though experts have called for urgent change, confirming that women are four times less likely to be identified and helped because their behaviors and traits are different, the DSM-52 criteria for diagnosis2 still focuses on the ways ADHD has traditionally been understood in boys and men.
Newer understanding has since confirmed what I know to be true from the inside out. ADHD isn't a blunt "deficit" of attention but a differently regulated attention span. Though I never managed to learn my times tables, I have the capacity to concentrate deeply for longer than anyone I know. An ADHD brain works well when it finds something important and interesting but can stop processing completely when it doesn't. Though at times I struggle to focus, in the right conditions I hyperfocus. Lost in the world of researching and writing my memoir of coming home to my neurodivergent mind, I often sat at my desk for 10, 12, or even 18 hours without pause.
ADHD means I see with my hands, and time moves twice as fast.
As I learn more about other neurodivergent experiences, I'm tuning in to the wild ways in which my neurodivergent mind works. My hatred of talk radio, children's birthday parties, and grocery stores is because of how quickly I become overwhelmed by sounds and harsh lighting.
Sensory stimulus is a huge part of my ADHD life—trying to avoid too much of it but also craving things that help my brain process and engage. Walking around our small homestead, I now notice my constant need to touch things. As my fingers run over tree bark or dip into the cool liquid in an animal's water bucket, I realize that I see things more clearly when I use my hands as well as my eyes.
My inability to listen to podcasts has also been explained and solved. Having always struggled to make my brain connect with the words coming out of my phone speaker, I'd presumed my processing speed was too slow. But one day, trying a tip an autistic friend passed on, I discovered the opposite was true. When I listen to podcasts at double speed, I can hear, understand, and enjoy a whole episode, whereas at the standard pace I get bored in the gaps between the words, and my mind switches off.
I am not faulty goods.
Living in the world as an ADHD person does cause me to struggle, and I rely on therapy and medication to keep myself well and functioning. Yet knowing who I am and beginning to accept, love, and advocate for my complicated brain is the most important lesson I'm trying to learn.
In our final appointment, the doctor who diagnosed me spoke of a study focused on the Ariaal people, a traditionally nomadic tribe of northern Kenyan cattle herders, who researchers tested for a gene linked to ADHD behaviors. They discovered that when the gene was found in those still living a nomadic life, they were the healthiest and most successful in the group but that the carriers who had moved to a static existence were the least healthy and faced more struggles. The traits that made them leaders were the same things that made them suffer when the world around them changed.
Today, I feel more like a nomad struggling to settle down than a problem child or a piece of faulty goods needing to be fixed. Yes, my brain function diverges from the average more than most, but diversity is an essential part of species survival. We need more stories of divergence, and so I'm learning to tell mine in my own time and in my own way, hoping to show that there are at least a thousand ways to pay attention.
Rebecca Schiller is the author of A Thousand Ways To Pay Attention: A Memoir Of Coming Home to My Neurodivergent Mind. She is co-founder and trustee of the human rights organization Birthrights and a regular contributor to The Guardian. She is also the author of Your No Guilt Pregnancy Plan and the children’s book Amazing Activists Who Are Changing Our World. Amazing Activists Who Are Changing Our World. On their small homestead in the English countryside, Rebecca and her family raise a motley crew of goats, geese, ducks, and chickens, and grow vegetables, fruit, and flowers to restore wildlife to the land. She lives in Kent, UK.