Relief was the first thing I felt. I finally had an answer! An explanation for why I'm like this. I'm told I'm not broken, but I sure do feel like I am. Worse than that? I feel like I've wasted decades of my life! Grieving endless opportunities lost to struggling to keep my nose above water in the deep end (aka Life) which is called the shallow end by everyone else. -- TLEC client, 41
Perhaps you too are an adult recently diagnosed with ADHD. Feeling overwhelmed by a storm of emotion comes with the territory of living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It's common for recently diagnosed adults to feel a number of emotions, often in cycles -- surprise, relief, confusion, elation, disbelief, grief, shame, anger...
Stay with me here, there is hope.
Let's just say you've taken that first step, and had the appointment with a licensed professional counselor with long-term ADHD expertise or a psychiatrist MD. You were probably asked for an incredibly detailed life history. You filled out assessment checklists, and you took home checklists for your friends and family to complete. You may have taken a visual and auditory attention assessment, a test my clients have described as both "nothing short of neurological torture" and "a series of boring, routine and monotonous tasks that becomes meaningless in 30 seconds, but you have to do it for 16 minutes." (I take this test myself every six months or so, just to keep my compassion in good working order.)
After these assessments, you may have returned with a new label: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, perhaps with a subheading such as "primarily inattentive," "hyperactive/impulsive" and the like. (Whichever it is, the Emotional Distress Syndrome is likely to be an equal-opportunity offender.) ADHD is a term that makes sense in the linear world, and there's nothing wrong with that. Society uses all kinds of frames, roles and definitions. But in many ways, it's also an unfortunate term, full of connotations of... deficit! And disorder! Just hearing yourself identified with this label can make you feel worse about yourself than you already do.
On one hand, you're so emotionally relieved to have an explanation for the way your mind works. On the other hand, should you tell people? What if they don't believe you or support you? The key, I think, is to find a functional way to talk about ADHD, and in order to do that, you need a functional way to think about it -- to have the conversation with yourself before you begin it with your friends and family.
At this point, all reputable ADHD books tell you to go out and learn everything you can about "the condition." There's a reason for that: Simply understanding that your brain works differently helps most of us feel less crazy. I'd say spend as little time as possible in the deficit and disorder of it all and give yourself every chance to progress ahead to how do I support my brain? How do I figure out what works for me? The more you understand your ADHD brain, the better you'll be able to calm the distress of learning you have it.
Coming Out of the ADHD Closet
At some point during this process, you may find yourself sharing information with someone who is less than receptive, who puts you on the wrong end of a weary glance. Sooner or later, you'll get the all-too-common questions and comments:
"ADHD isn't real."
"Isn't it something they came up with to medicate regular, rowdy kids?"
"Wasn't it invented by the pharmaceutical industry?"
"You're faking a diagnosis to try and score drugs."
"You should just snap out of it."
And the ever-popular "You should just try harder!"
It's easier said than done, but try not to get lost in the knee-jerk reactions. For the most part, people aren't trying to hurt you. You may be able to teach them something they don't know -- though maybe not now, when you're still getting used to your diagnosis. Or if you just want a short answer to the ever-present question -- Is ADHD real? -- here's one you can use:
Yes. ADHD is real. It's not a virus. It's a neurological and developmental condition, as genetically coded as hair color and height.
If you want a longer answer, and you'll allow me a moment of indignation, try this:
How many other diagnoses are so chronically debated, in such an insidious way? We don't debate diabetes -- that's a genetic issue, right? Well, ADHD is a genetic issue, too. I can't change how short or tall you are, and I can't change having been born with this.
Grief and Relief: the Roller Coaster
As you gain understanding of your diagnosis, the untethered loose ends of your life knit together into what looks like a unified whole. You begin to perceive explanations for behaviors and events in your past that didn't make sense at the time. And then suddenly, just as you feel downright capable, you're overwhelmed with a feeling of being pulled out to sea. It's bad enough to suddenly be so aware of time lost that can never be regained, of bridges burned -- but now this loss of emotional control? What the heck????
When I was a kid, we didn't have ADD. We had "John doesn't apply himself." I was told to try harder. Stay on task. Listen closer. "You can do anything you put your mind to." Well that sorta worked for a while. But when I found that I couldn't do what I put my mind to, like save my dad or my marriage, my whole self image came apart, and I acted out in ways that were not consistent with the person I was raised to be. I became angry. I became a yeller. A cynic. -- John, 53
Then, as suddenly as it came on, the feeling subsides, and you're back on shore, safe and sound, thinking, Okay, I'll regroup, learn about this ADHD, come up with some personalized strategies for managing it and... WHAM, another tidal wave on the horizon! Stay with it. Set a timer. It won't last as long as you think it will.
I wasn't aware I even had ADD. I wasn't the typical hyper child. As an adult, I found myself not able to even work effectively. I lost a job because I just couldn't focus and do the work that I had tried to motivate myself to do in a lot of different ways. I was ashamed, desperate, depressed, and frustrated. I didn't know what to do about the problem. I didn't know how to talk about it with other people. I felt a lot like my fellow soldiers as they returned from Afghanistan, but for completely different reasons. After being diagnosed with ADHD, I was immediately more calm. Knowing that I didn't merely have an unassailable character flaw was immensely helpful. Knowing that there were biological reasons for the way I saw my life slip over the years was comforting. Finding out these crucial things allowed me to peer through the mists and see the problems generating the fog. Being able to focus on those problems and find ways to manage them has been incredibly empowering. -- TLEC client, 37
Grief and relief come with the territory. If you're feeling both, you're not alone. Relax, and let's talk about this. (You can always panic later.) Grief goes hand in hand with second-guessing, with a deep sense of wasted time and missed opportunities.
What if I had known this about myself ten years ago?
Would I have lost my first marriage?
Could I have followed through with my million-dollar idea?
And then comes relief. Because, really, it's comforting to have an explanation for the weirdness that is, and has been, you. At the very least, this knowledge calms the limbic survival instinct of your brain, which as you now know, is probably a little more active than it should be. What to do with the grief and relief of it all?
After diagnosis comes treatment.
I'll talk about that in my next installment.
In the meantime, put this on your refrigerator:
Me and My ADHD
ADHD is a brain-based difference.
It has nothing to do with levels of intelligence.
Routines and systems: create them, trust them, use them.
It's not natural to plan, prioritize, or think ahead.
If it is not done very deliberately, it will not happen.
Without meaning, it won't get done.
Your attention is selective; it has to deem something interesting to stay focused.
Take personal responsibility for your ADHD.
Although ADHD may explain certain behaviors, it is not an excuse for them.
Distractions are everywhere, all the time.
Learning to manage your ADHD is the only way to fight distractions.
Your brain craves stimulus.
Creating a dramatic situation by waiting until the last minute to meet a deadline is one way to give your brain the stimulation it craves, but maybe not the smartest way.
Engineer the environment.
Learn how to create a personalized, ADHD-friendly environment that works for you.
Break it down.
If something feels big, make it small by zeroing in on the very next action you could take that will move this task forward. Move from that next action to the next-next action. Make these "next actions" as small as they need to be to feel manageable.
Try a decathlon approach to fitness.
Reduce fitness monotony by identifying ten different physical activities to keep you motivated. With that many options to choose from, you're unlikely to ever be too bored to exercise.