What It’s Like To Be Diagnosed With ADHD As An Adult | Pilisa S. Hamrick

Healthline.com reports that the average age to be diagnosed with ADHD is 7 years old [1].

I was diagnosed at 23.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have symptoms until I was 23. No, I’m sure that I’ve had symptoms my whole life. But for various reasons, I just didn’t get a diagnosis. Until now.

Some of the reasons for my late diagnosis I will talk about here, some really don’t matter enough to talk about here, and some… well, some I’m still too bitter about to talk about at all. It’s just something about spending your whole childhood trying to tell people that you think there’s something wrong with you while consistently being ignored, that causes a bit of a sore spot, you know?

Knowing that there was something wrong but not being able to explain to anybody what it was– it’s kind of like screaming in a room full of people while nobody seems to hear.

When I was five years old, my elementary school recognized me as ‘gifted’. All this basically meant was that I scored well on a few academic tests with subjects like math and reading and (of course!) writing. Sure, I could count to hundred. Yeah, I could read a few seven letter words. But, I couldn’t tie my shoes. Or sit still. Or play well with other children.

When I was ten years old, my A’s and B’s turned into C’s and D’s. At every single parent teacher conference I got asked the exact same question, “why aren’t you doing your homework?” “I don’t know.”, I would say. Meaning that I did know, I just didn’t know how to tell them. I didn’t know how to explain how sometimes when I stare at a sheet of math problems the numbers just swirl and dance around and all I can do is watch helplessly. I didn’t know why sometimes I’d come to class and realize that I didn’t bring a pencil… or paper… or literally anything else that I needed. I didn’t know how to explain to them how sometimes when I read I would get lost in the pages and everything around me disappeared. So I didn’t lie. I really did not know.

When I was fourteen years old, a teacher called home and told my parents to get me tested. By this time I had already been removed from the gifted program and subsequently all of the advanced classes (AKA the classes that I needed to keep me mentally stimulated). This teacher recognized that my constant ‘zoning out’ was more than just normal teenage inattentiveness. She acknowledged that frequently misplacing homework, forgetting a pencil almost daily, and losing textbooks and other important class materials, was more than just ‘being a little forgetful’. There was something wrong. She saw that. So she called my mom and dad. They didn’t want to believe that their kid could be that kid. I mean, the kid across the street had ADHD, and I acted nothing like him. I didn’t need to get tested. So, my C’s and D’s turned into F’s, then my F’s became flat zeroes, and then before you knew it I was failing the eighth grade.

I gave up. I tried and I tried to be better at school. People kept telling me that I was capable of it. They told me that I was just being “lazy”. After all… I was a gifted kid. School is supposed to be easy for me. But it wasn’t. I tried and I failed. Over and over. Until eventually I just stopped caring. After so many years of being called lazy, that’s what you become. That’s what I claimed as my new identity. I’m just a lazy person, I’d tell myself. That’s why I’ll never be good at anything.

Then high school came and, to put it nicely, it was hell. None of the teachers or students knew about who I was before– the ‘gifted’ kid. They just saw me, saw my grades, and then bam! I had a knew label: stupid. I made myself believe that I didn’t care. High school to me was nothing more than a prison sentence. I was just there to do my time and get out.

I managed to graduate with a 2.3 GPA and, with a relatively high ACT score, also got into an out-of-state college. College was a fresh start. New environment, new me. I was motivated and I made it through first session with two A’s and a B (the semesters were divided into two sessions of 3 classes). But eventually, life caught up, as it always does. In a matter of weeks, my grades plummeted and I was back to the old me. Only this time, I didn’t have any hope to fall back on. I couldn’t look to the future and say “Oh I’ll do better in high school… I’ll do better in college…”. Nope. I was in the future. And I was failing at it.

What do you think happened next? That’s right—- depression. Which led to hospitalization. Which led to academic dismissal. Which, ultimately, led to label number three: crazy.

I don’t want to say that undiagnosed ADHD caused my depression. There were, in fact, quite a few things that led to it. However, the ADHD and constant invalidation of my academic struggles were definitely a contributing factor.

Then one day I was at the library and I started browsing the psychology section, as I often did. My eyes fixed on a certain book and all of a sudden, for some reason the title of this book made me feel extremely… yeah, it made me feel ‘extremely’. Remember the labels I talked about before? Uh huh. The book was You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy?! by Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo. “The Classic Self-Help Book for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder”[2].

Um.

Holy sh*t. (Sorry for being crass but I wasn’t necessarily following Jesus yet at the time so… yeah…).

I picked up the book, sat there in the library, and read it cover to cover. I saw myself in every single word of it. But I was nineteen at the time and going through the deepest depression of my life. I had no motivation to do anything about it. I guess I didn’t even know what I could do about it. Who do I talk to? Where do I go? It was too overwhelming. So I forgot about it and moved on with my life.

At age twenty I went back to school. I was completely scatter-brained and lacking any sense of direction, so eventually I dropped out. Then reenrolled. Then dropped out. Then reenrolled. Repeat 74x. The thing about school was that I still couldn’t focus, I still couldn’t remember anything, I still couldn’t sit still. Nothing had really changed. I became resigned to the fact that maybe school just wasn’t in the cards for me.

Then a few years later I started seeing a new therapist. A good therapist. A therapist who actually listened to me. She encouraged me to get tested. And at age 23, my life began to make sense.

So why did it take so long? Well, a few reasons. First of all, I am a girl. When my parents saw the boy across the street and used him as a comparison, they weren’t aware that the symptoms of ADHD present differently in boys and girls [3]. It’s not common knowledge; my teachers probably weren’t even aware.

Also, the people around me were not open to the possibility that I could have some sort of disability. Out of fear, or ignorance, they weren’t willing to move past this image of “perfectly normal child”. People see what they want to see. I, myself, did not want to acknowledge that there could be something less than “normal” about me. I incorrectly believed that normal was some kind of achievement and something that I needed to strive for.

Finally, the most significant reason my ADHD flew under the radar is, unfortunately, the same thing that has happened/ is happening/ will happen to way too many kids. It is the unrecognition that smart and/or so-called “gifted kids” can have a learning disability. There is something called twice-exceptionality [4]. It’s a term that deserves a post of its own (which will hopefully be coming soon!) so I won’t get into it too much. But basically, it’s the idea that people can be exceptional twice. Someone who is exceptional in the gifted sense can also be exceptional in the learning difficulty sense. People too often will put this on a spectrum, with gifted on one side and learning disability on the other when in fact, they are two separate things. A person can be both gifted and ADHD, highly intelligent and dyslexic, great at math but bad regulating his/her emotions, musical prodigy but terrible with numbers… etc. Twice-exceptional kids have a lot to offer the world. But most of them will, sadly, never get the help that they need to thrive because most of them will either go unrecognized as gifted and be thrown into lower level classes, or they’ll be unrecognized as having a learning disability and not get the help that they need. Basically, they’ll either be denied adequate mental stimulation or be made to feel lazy, stupid and crazy. It’s a sad reality, but it’s the one we live in.

So are you someone who is finding this post way too relatable? I hope that I’ve helped you a little… maybe given you some answers. At the very least I hope you feel less alone. But I want to encourage you… get tested. It’s one of the best things I ever did. Now, some might ask me, “why would you go through the trouble of getting a diagnosis just to confirm what you already knew?” My answer: resources. There is so much help available out there to someone with an official ADHD diagnosis. For example, I have had so many problems in college in terms of making it to class on time, remembering homework, focusing, etc. After my diagnosis, I was eligible for accommodations through my school’s disability department. Now I get priority registration (so I can make sure I’m not forced into those early morning classes!), I get a note-taker, I have permission to record my classes, I get leeway with due dates and attendance, I have access to a special quiet computer lab, and so on. Loads more help is available to those with a professional diagnosis. There’s also a whole community of people out there wanting to support you! Go find them.

Just so we’re all clear, my life is really good right now. Everything I went through has all led up to this moment so I wouldn’t change anything even if I could. But I do wonder… If I had been diagnosed early would I still be entering my sixth freshman year of college right now? Would my depression have gotten as bad as it did? Also, would I be as passionate as I am? Would I be as creative as I am? Would I have as much to write about?

ADHD and me. We’ve had some rough times. But I don’t know if I’d be the same person without it. There’s always good with the bad. And yeah, technically it is a disorder. But it is also a huge part of me. In some ways, it’s what makes me, me.

Besides, without it, I wouldn’t have as many talking points. And I’m socially awkward… I need talking points.

Bye. 😛

  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/facts-statistics-infographic
  2. https://www.amazon.com/You-Mean-Lazy-Stupid-Crazy/dp/0743264487
  3. http://www.apa.org/topics/adhd/gender.aspx
  4. http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10140