How I learned I had ADHD as an adult (and why it’s my superpower)
At the age of 46, I discovered I had ADHD. Find out what the signs of ADHD are, why so few girls are diagnosed, and why it’s my secret superpower.
I don’t know about you, but until very recently my awareness of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was extremely limited. Limited, in fact, to mostly scaremongering media stories.
As a result, my belief was that it was quite possibly a made up label to excuse poorly behaved children. And that a diagnosis meant a lifelong reliance on drugs, and limited education or career options.
I know, this is so misinformed and (thankfully) incredibly far from the truth. But it explains why I was horrified when my son’s tutor called me one day and gently suggested I get him tested for ADHD.
She explained a little about the condition, and suggested I did some research to decide what I wanted to do next.
So I started reading about ADHD properly for the first time, and what I learned shocked me.
It wasn’t that the condition was worse than I thought; in fact quite the opposite. It was because I realised very quickly that not only did my son most certainly have it, but I did too.
What are the signs of ADHD?
So how did I get to the age of 46 without realising I had ADHD? Actually, it’s very common for girls to remain undiagnosed, partly because not everyone who has ADHD has the ‘H’ (hyperactivity).
There are actually three types of ADHD:
- Primarily Hyperactive-Impulsive Type ADHD – more common in children and men, people with this type of ADHD feel the need to constantly move and fidget, and struggle to stay seated. They often blurt out answers and interrupt people. They struggle with self-control.
- Primarily Inattentive Type ADHD – more common in adults and girls, people with this type of ADHD find it hard to sustain attention, follow detailed instructions and organise tasks, so often make careless mistakes. They’re forgetful, easily distracted and often lose things.
- Combined Type ADHD – these people demonstrate six or more symptoms of inattention, and six or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity.
Because boys tend to have more hyperactivity and impulsivity (Primarily Hyperactive-Impulsive Type ADHD), and are therefore more disruptive, they’re more likely to get noticed, which can lead to a diagnosis.
It’s also harder to spot in girls as they tend to try harder than boys to compensate for their symptoms. And they’re usually more willing to put in more effort with school work, or ask for help when they struggle. And girls can have a stronger tendency to be people pleasers, and try harder to fit in, even when they feel different to everyone else.
As a result, despite ADHD affecting both genders equally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed with it than girls.
It’s also apparently harder to identify ADHD in people with higher IQ, as “a higher degree of intellectual efficiency may compensate deficits in executive functions.”
So when a bright child struggles and falls behind at school, can’t remember instructions, or can’t study for extended periods of time, the assumption is that they are lazy or lack motivation – as happened throughout my son’s school years.
What are the signs of ADHD?
So what are the signs of ADHD to look out for? Here are some of the common signs of ADHD in girls:
- Being withdrawn
- Low self-esteem
- Intellectual impairment
- Difficulty with academic achievement
- Inattentiveness or a tendency to “daydream”
- Trouble focusing
- Appearing not to listen
- Verbal aggression, such as teasing, taunting, or name-calling
And here are the signs of ADHD in boys:
- Impulsivity or “acting out”
- Hyperactivity, such as running and hitting
- Lack of focus, including inattentiveness
- Inability to sit still
- Physical aggression
- Talking excessively
- Frequently interrupting other peoples’ conversations and activities
And here’s a general list of ADHD symptoms:
- Constant motion
- Difficulty sitting still
- Constant talking
- Trouble completing tasks
- Inability to listen or follow directions when given instructions
- Boredom unless constantly entertained
- Interrupting other conversations
- Doing things without thinking (or on impulse)
- Problems learning concepts and materials at school
What it’s REALLY like to have ADHD
However, the problem with lists like these is that they’re too limiting. I personally don’t relate to most of the traits seen in girls. For me, this is a good description of what it’s really like to have ADHD:
“People with ADHD suffer from overload. That is, they have heightened awareness of incoming stimuli, particularly sight, sound, and touch. They are so bombarded by the normal stimuli in their environment that they cannot filter out the background noise, and they have trouble focusing or concentrating on a problem or a task.
Because of their inability to focus, those with ADHD have trouble completing what they start. They have difficulties with making plans and even more difficulty in carrying out plans in an orderly fashion.
People with ADHD tend to be disorganized. Children have messy rooms; adults have cluttered desks; daily activities tend to be chaotic. Attics and basements are likely to be filled with partly completed sewing projects, woodworking projects, repairs, and notebooks; desk drawers are likely to be cluttered with unfinished letters, outlines, and project plans.
Many people with the disorder are highly intelligent, but they tend to be underachievers because they cannot concentrate or sustain interest. As a result, family, friends, teachers, and coworkers become impatient and expect them to fail.
People with ADHD also have trouble adapting to change. Their life is so full of tumult that even a minor additional change in their routine can be upsetting or can even create a crisis, eg, a parent goes away on a trip, a new teacher takes over a class, the family moves to a new city, or a pet dies.
ADHD afflicted people live under stress so severe they cannot tolerate frustration, and when they are frustrated, they are likely to become angry. The anger tends to come suddenly and explosively, accompanied by slamming doors, harsh words, tantrums, and leaving important meetings in a frenzy.
Children get into fights; adults lose jobs and alienate friends. Afterwards, they may be sorry, but the damage is done. With their high level of frustration, people with ADHD are impatient. They hate to wait in line, and delays of any kind can make them frantic. Whatever is going on – a trip, a movie, a class, a discussion – they want it to go quickly and be finished.
Their impatience makes people with ADHD impulsive. As children, they leap into action without thinking of consequences. As adults, they drive too fast, use power tools carelessly, and plunge into activities without thinking of the danger. The result is they often hurt themselves or others.
People with ADHD have trouble with their orientation to time and space. They may have trouble differentiating their right hand from their left; they may have difficulty following a set of instructions, reading a map, or telling time.
As babies or children they constantly are on the move, squirming, twisting, and getting into everything. As adults, they are restless, easily bored, rebellious when asked to follow a routine, and always on the move.”
ADHD is a real medical condition
Just in case anyone reading this is in any doubt (as I was), ADHD is most definitely a real medical condition.
It’s known to be genetic and, while its cause is unknown, studies show that it is associated with the delayed development of five brain regions, leading to calls that it should be considered a brain disorder.
The general understanding is that parts of the ADHD brain mature at a slower pace (between one to three years) and never reach the maturity of a person without ADHD.
A recent study also found that overall brain volume and five of the regional volumes were very slightly smaller in people with ADHD. These are the caudate nucleus, putamen, nucleus accumbens, amygdala and hippocampus. (The amygdala and hippocampus are responsible for emotional processing and impulsivity.)
People with ADHD also apparently have alterations in blood flow to some areas of the brain, including the prefrontal area that houses our executive functions. These are responsible for tasks like planning, organising, paying attention, remembering, and emotional reactions.
Scientists have also discovered that people with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine.
How does ADHD impact my life?
Knowing I have ADHD explains a lot! There are a number of ways that ADHD manifests itself in my life, many of them frustrating to the people who know me.
Here are some of the biggest ways that ADHD impacts my life and the people around me:
- I am terrible with birthdays, anniversaries and dates in general. My friends and family know never to expect a card. My mum once called me on her birthday, as she didn’t want me to feel bad when I realised later that I had forgotten it. I didn’t like to tell her I would probably never remember that I had forgotten it…
- I forget EVERYTHING. I just can’t retain most things people tell me. It’s not that I don’t care; it just doesn’t stick in my memory.
- I lose everything. At least once a day I have to hunt for my phone, keys or diary. I’ve also got off trains and left my belongings on them. I now sit on trains with every item on my lap – even weekend bags. I probably look crazy (and I’m definitely not comfortable) but I won’t leave them on the train that way.
- I don’t remember dates, phone calls and appointments. Most of my emails start with “I’m sorry I missed…”. Again, it’s not that they are unimportant to me, it’s just that my executive functioning is poor and I cannot remember them.
- I lose track of time. This and my inability to remember dates and commitments means that I rely on alarms on my phone to remind me to do anything (including pick my daughter up from school).
- I can sometimes unintentionally say inappropriate things. My brain is usually working on 1,000 thoughts at once, so I’ll say things that have no connection to the current conversation but make sense to me.
- I like to joke around around a lot, and sometimes I make light of things that aren’t appropriate. It used to get me in trouble when I was younger as people thought I was rude, so I have learned to curb this!
- I grasp things very quickly, but not in huge depth. Unless something really piques my interest I don’t have the patience to understand it properly. In school I’d get a new concept or topic we were being taught very quickly, and was always bored waiting for everyone else to catch up. But by the time they did, they knew the subject thoroughly, whereas I had just skimmed it.
- However, when something does spark my interest, I’ll live and breathe it until I become bored of it. Unfortunately the things that spark my interest can be quite random and useless!
- I can’t queue up. I don’t know how anyone has the patience to wait for anything. So I go to the shops when they’re quiet or use self-service tills, and I avoid driving in rush hour if I can. If I attend a concert or movie, I have to be first out (I can’t queue to get out). Sometimes I’ll even leave before the end to avoid getting stuck in the crowd.
- I have a mental block about planning things. As a result, I rarely go on holiday – the logistics of planning one are terrifying. When I have planned one, I have booked flights in the wrong name (twice), booked flights on the wrong date, and turned up for a flight to Australia with no visa.
- I get bored very, very quickly. I struggle with school carol concerts and assemblies, and meetings that drag on pointlessly (I’ve made excuses and walked out of quite a few). I feel trapped in talks and presentations, and didn’t sit through a single university lecture before (unsurprisingly) dropping out. On the plus side, when I chair a meeting you can guarantee it will be quick and efficient!
- I have to multitask. If you’re talking to me on the phone, you can pretty much guarantee I am doing something else at the same time. I can’t just talk without doing something else.
- I don’t have one track conversations. I might start out talking about one thing, but my conversation is likely to veer in 16 different directions (and finish none). I know what I mean but no one else does.
- I finish people’s sentences, and interrupt strangers’ conversations if I think I can help them. Much to my children’s embarrassment!
- I have lots of creative ideas, but struggle to see them through. I’ll start something with enormous energy and enthusiasm only to go off it two days later.
- I have dozens and dozens of tabs open on my laptop and phone – all websites I plan to look at ‘later’ because there’s something interesting on it.
- I drive like I’m in a race. Though since taking a speed awareness course, I have learned to curb this significantly!
(If any of the above sounds familiar, you can take an online ADHD test here.)
Thankfully I have some good points that help to mitigate the less socially acceptable ADHD traits, which means that my friends and family haven’t given up on me. I am also always understanding when others forget things or make mistakes. I know how easy it is to do, and it makes me feel better about my own!
Interestingly, since discovering I have ADHD, I have realised that quite a few friends and clients that I get on particularly well with, also have it. (Once you know the signs, it’s quite easy to spot.)
And I have noticed that when two people with ADHD get together, it’s almost like you magnify the symptoms in each other. The best description of what it’s like to be with someone else with ADHD, is that you vibrate at the same frequency. Your energy levels are similar, and your minds are equally able to follow each others’ at the laser sharp pace they want to work at.
So, rather than trying to slow down or moderate your random thinking for someone whose brain doesn’t work like yours, you can give it full rein knowing the other person is keeping up with you. It’s exhilarating in the moment, and you can cover a LOT together, but exhausting afterwards.
So why is ADHD a ‘superpower’?
If you’ve read up to here, you can be forgiven for thinking, as I used to, that having ADHD isn’t a great thing to be saddled with. That it makes you difficult to be around, and that the world is a hard place to navigate for you.
But, as challenging as many of the symptoms are, ADHD does come with gifts.
While the condition is known for inattention, what’s less well known is that people with ADHD have an incredible ability to hyper focus. If something piques our interest, we’ll dive into it with a laser focus.
Once we’re in flow we’ll work obsessively, without breaking for trivial things like food and sleep. We’ll read every research document on something and dig out every obscure source in our need to completely know something. Nothing is too much effort, and it has to be done now.
The problem with this is that it’s not always the worthwhile, useful things that catch your interest… someone with ADHD can easily lose a few hours randomly chasing down pointless rabbit holes online!
Another side effect of ADHD is a very active mind. It’s rare you’re ever having just one single thought. And the ADHD rabbit holes you can fall into mean that you’re often investigating weird and wonderful facts.
As a result, people with ADHD are more curious and have been shown to have more creative minds. You can also rarely accuse us of being boring. Not thinking like everyone else, it turns out, has its rewards, as evidenced in the high number of creative people with the condition.
We’re also excellent in a crisis. Apparently ADHD brains produce more Theta waves than others. This means that when something bad happens, our brains become more ‘normal’ and we actually calm down when everyone else is panicking. I’ve always joked to friends that I’m the person you want with you in a crisis, and now I know why.
And it’s not just in crises. While I could never bear to revise for exams, I was excellent at actually taking them – I feel calmer sitting an exam than I do waiting for a bus.
The same goes for job interviews and public speaking. When my stress should be at its highest, I feel calm and, probably, like most ‘normal’ people do most of the time. As a result, I am comfortable talking to people on stage, and I love (and excel in as a result) job interviews.
ADHD people are also action takers. We don’t have the patience to read lengthy instruction manuals, or debate endless permutations of a decision. Instead we decide and act quickly. And if the decision was a wrong one? No problem, we’ll just try something else. After all, we have 101 different ideas!
This, coupled with our energy and curiosity, means that, when we find something that really piques our interest, people ADHD can really excel. So no surprise that some of the world’s most accomplished people are thought to share the condition.
ADHD has driven my career and life choices
Looking back at my life with a new perspective, it’s clear that ADHD has driven many of my career and life choices. These include:
- Dropping out of university and buying a one-way ticket to Hong Kong – a country I had never visited before, and where I had no job, home or friends to go to.
- My determination to find a creative career I loved – and my ability to talk my way into a job as a copywriter at one of the world’s top advertising agencies with no experience.
- Quitting my highly paid, secure job on a whim to go freelance because I was bored. At the time I was a single mum with a mortgage and bills, and an au pair to pay for.
- Making a success of Talented Ladies Club – my hyper focus, creative mind and ability to work obsessively for long periods of time are undoubtedly behind the lasting success of the business.
I know that I am lucky. Many people with ADHD don’t manage to find a career that fits the unique way their mind works (studies suggest that college graduates with ADHD earn an average of $4,300 less per year than their peers).
As a result they struggle with unfulfilling, mundane jobs that they can never excel in and, as a result, change jobs frequently and are more likely to be fired, miss work or have difficult relationships with co-workers.
If you believe you have ADHD and haven’t found your professional fit yet, don’t berate yourself because you don’t fit in. Instead, embrace the way your mind works, and find something that plays to your strengths – and interests.
Famous people with ADHD
Because when you do find your ‘thing’, you can really excel. Indeed, one of the most heartening things I learned when researching ADHD was the number of successful people who also have it.
So, far from being a career death sentence, an ADHD diagnosis means you’re apparently joining the accomplished ranks of:
- Bill Gates
- Richard Branson
- Tony Robbins
- Will Smith
- Jamie Oliver
- Ryan Gosling
- Whoopi Goldberg
- Michael Jordan
- Dustin Hoffman
- Jim Carrey
- Michael Phelps
- Justin Timberlake
- Adam Levine
- Woody Harrelson
- Paris Hilton
- James Carville
- Jack Nicholson
As you can imagine, having a brain that doesn’t work like everyone else’s can make it hard to fit into a traditional company that’s set up for non-ADHD people.
So no wonder that people with ADHD are 300% more likely to start their own business. Other successful entrepreneurs with ADHD include:
- John T. Chambers – CEO of Cisco Systems
- Ingvar Kamprad – Founder and chairman of IKEA
- David Neeleman – Founder and CEO of Jet Blue Airways
- Paul Orfalea – Founder and chairperson of Kinko’s
- Charles Schwab – Founder, chairperson, and CEO of the Charles Schwab Corporation, the largest brokerage firm in the U.S.
And other historical people also now thought to have had ADHD include:
- Albert Einstein
- Leonado Da Vinci
- Abraham Lincoln
- John F Kennedy
- Ludwig van Beethoven
- Walt Disney
- Charlotte Bronte
- Emily Bronte
- Emily Dickinson
- Elvis Presley
- George Bernard Shaw
- Vincent Van Gogh
- Tennessee Williams
- Virginia Woolf
- Wright Brothers
- Frank Lloyd Wright
ADHD has been linked to a genetic variant called DRD4-7R, also known as the Rock Star Gene, too.
Will.i.am has even explained how ADHD has helped his music: “If you listen to the songs I write, they are the most ADHD songs ever. They have five hooks in one and it all happens in three minutes. I figured out a way of working with it.”
How do you know if you have ADHD?
So how do you know if you have ADHD? For me, it was absolutely clear when I read a description of the condition. It so accurately described me that I was in no doubt. I then took an online test that showed I was likely to have it.
Knowing that the condition was genetic, it was confirmed for me when my son was diagnosed. I don’t have a formal diagnosis as there’s no need – my life is functional, happy and successful and I don’t need to access any treatment or resources.
If you need a formal diagnosis for you or a child, you will need to have this done professionally. You can read more information about this here.
How does it feel to know you have ADHD?
For me it was a relief to find out I had ADHD. I have never felt normal. As a child I felt like an alien trying to navigate a world I didn’t fully understand – especially socially.
I even recorded a podcast interview on this called Alien for School for Mothers. (This was recorded before I found out I had ADHD.)
When I realised that I had I ADHD, I finally had an explanation for why I have always felt and acted differently to other people. And within the context of the condition I feel, for the first time ever, ‘normal’.
It also enables me to explain to people why I have forgotten something they’ve told me, or an important date or meeting. I can reassure them that it’s not that they’re not important to me; my brain just doesn’t retain information. And if I have fallen down an ADHD rabbit hole, I won’t remember to check my diary. I won’t notice time passing or even realise I haven’t eaten.
So now my “sorry I forgot” emails are just as likely to say “sorry, I have ADHD” instead!
If you want to learn more about ADHD, here are some resources you can check out: