The Pitfalls and Blessings of ADHD

Preamble: A friend wrote about her recent ADHD diagnosis at age 45. I was diagnosed at 52, so it resonated deeply with me. I found myself nodding with each symptom she described. It inspired me to write one of my own. I was reluctant to discuss this at first and open myself up this way. But after seeing how many of my colleagues and clients discuss their mental health issues so openly, I’ve decided to take the plunge. It’s also a little therapeutic.

So strap yourself in!

At the age of 52, I was formally diagnosed with ADHD. More specifically, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Combined Type. What does it mean? The attention-deficit type (formerly called ADD for this reason) is the result of a restless mind or brain. The hyperactive type is the result of a restless nervous system or body. Combined type means both mental and physical restlessness (i.e., I’m both attention-deficient and hyperactive).

ADHD is a spectrum and expresses itself in myriad ways, which is why it can show up differently in different people. For example, most women tend to get the attention-deficit type while men get the hyperactivity or combined type.

I’m 52 years old and I lived with this all my life.

The reason it took me so long to get a diagnosis was a bit of a fluke, actually. Up until 10 years ago, I assumed I was just normal or simply restless. I was often fidgety, easily distracted, having a hard time focusing, hyperfocused when immersed in work (like coding or copywriting, for example), easily triggered when interrupted during those hyperfocused moments, etc.

Then one day, I had a serious blowup argument with my adult step-daughter. I yelled at her and got mad for something she did that, to a neurotypical, would seem trivial. A week later, she approached me, along with her mother (my late wife) who wanted to sit down with me to have a “family talk.”

They seemed serious and concerned. At first, I didn’t think it would be about the argument as I had already apologized. We all sat down and had what seemed to be a very difficult conversation for them. They were both upset, even sobbing, because my step-daughter was afraid of how I would react:

“I think you have… something.”

She listened to a podcast that discussed similar behaviours. She said it reminded her of me. However, the guest had autism. Autism and ADHD share many common symptoms and traits, such as the explosive temper, sometimes triggered by overstimulation and hypersensitivity, the tendency to lecture, and so on.

So for 10 years, the possibility was always in the back of my mind that maybe I had ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder. I did a variety of online tests ⏤ some of which are as trustworthy as lottery predictions made by a pet astrologer while rubbing healing crystals ⏤ that said there’s a 79% chance I was neurodivergent.

After a decade, I finally decided to get officially tested by a doctor, only for curiosity or to confirm my suspicions. When I was told I had ADHD, it wasn’t what I expected. At first, I was kind of bummed out about it. But after immersing myself into the world of ADHD and its symptoms, challenges, tell-tale signs, and so forth, a series of “aha!” moments came rushing.

With every symptom I read, I said to myself, “This is so me!” For the following month, my thoughts were constantly flooded by memories, as far back as early childhood, of all the things I did / thought / said that I now know it was because of my ADHD. I realized that many of the quirks, issues, and challenges I had my entire life were common with people like me.

Then, it came all crashing down.

I realized that every business failure, every broken relationship, every job I did poorly at (or was miserable in), and every broken promise I made were the result of this thing called ADHD. As my friend and fellow ADHDer said so beautifully after his diagnosis:

omar khafagy adhd facebook
“One of the hardest parts of late-life mental health diagnosis is knowing how many bridges you burned while you were still on fire.”

At the same time, however, it felt as if a massive weight had been lifted. Reason is, I was always blaming and punishing myself. In school, teachers berated me constantly for being late, tapping my feet, talking, daydreaming in class, or forgetting important homework. They would often do so in front of class, along with some punishment that made me look stupid.

I even dropped out of college because I was bored to tears. I felt too embarrassed to ask for help or too afraid to look foolish. In every job I held, I was laughed at in meetings or bullied, even by my superiors, for my “issues.” My boss at my first job ever, after dropping out of college, declared in the middle of a staff meeting in front of all my peers, “Stop being such a fidgety person!”

By the way, that first job was selling life insurance. In the 80s, we sold insurance by cold-calling, going door-to-door. Knocking on doors was the most common way to find prospects back then.

I loathed it because I had an immense fear of rejection.

I hated having doors slammed in my face or simply being told “no.” (That’s when I later discovered I could write salesletters to get appointments instead, which was the germ that later sprouted into a successful career as a copywriter and digital marketer.)

At first, I blamed it on my abusive, alcoholic father. He was mentally ill with Korsakov’s Disease, which is a type of mental degeneration caused by years of alcohol abuse. But when I learned that a common trait of people with ADHD is something called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria or RSD, it explained everything.

This is one of those big “aha!” moments that completely changed my perception, and how I viewed my childhood and my life.

As a sidenote, I also discovered that ADHD is genetic and often inherited from a parent. That’s when I realized my father may have struggled with it all his life, too. But he turned to alcohol, perhaps to soothe his restless mind. As a family member told me, “He may have drank to silence an internal pain.” But addiction is common with ADHDers, too. Luckily, mine is coffee.

What exactly is ADHD?

ADHD or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder affects a person’s executive function. It’s caused by a lack of specific neurons that help to transport dopamine and other neurotransmitters to other parts of the brain. The result is the brain’s failure to use sufficient quantities of dopamine it needs in order to function.

Dopamine is responsible for arousal, which helps functions like, among others, motivation, concentration, and attention. Without it, the result is inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and mood instability. Stimulants like coffee and medications help increase dopamine to near-normal levels.

Now, you may not know me or know that I have any of those things. But let me give you an idea of some of the challenges I face (and faced all my life) so you understand what I have to deal with.

First off, everyone has these symptoms. We are all inattentive from time to time. We are all impulsive, moody, restless, distracted, and hyperactive once in a while, too. But with people with ADHD, the frequency is abnormally high to the point that it affects their lives.

Here’s a quick list of issues I’ve grappled with all my life.

  • I have a hard time staying focused. My mind wanders all the time. But when I’m engaged in a task that stimulates me, I’m hyperfocused where I completely zone in and block out everything else. But when I do, I also lose track of time, ignore other tasks, forget necessities like eating, and tune out what’s going on around me. Often, to my detriment.
  • I struggle to finish reading books. When I try to read a book, my mind wanders and I have to re-read the same page multiple times because I forget where I was or the story itself (or both). I prefer listening to audiobooks at double the speed.
  • My short-term memory is terrible. I often lose my keys, my phone, people’s names right after we’re introduced, track of tasks I was working on, and so on. In fact, I can walk into another room in my house to fetch something and literally forget what I wanted the moment I enter the room.
  • I can get easily bored. I’m constantly busy doing something, whether it’s work or play. Other than work (which keeps me quite busy), I play drums in two bands, act in a local murder mystery theatre, and constantly take online classes, too.
  • I suck at multitasking. To multitask effectively, one must be able to switch from task to task, remember where they are with each task, and easily pick up where they left off. But if I don’t focus on finishing a task, chances are that, if I switch to another, I’ll forget about the first one, where I was, or what it was for.
  • I need reminders and alerts to prod me constantly. Some people say you need to turn off notifications on your phone as they are distractions. I do turn off those that are unimportant, like social media and the like. But I have reminders to tell me when to do stuff, even for the most insignificant little things, like “take out the trash” or “pay your bills.”
  • I can easily get excited about new things. But I also struggle to finish them. This is the highlight of my life. If something catches my fancy, I tend to get immersed in it but it loses steam shortly after or until something else exciting comes along. Home renovation projects? Fugghedabuddit!
  • I’m terrible when it comes to relationship stuff. Thank goodness for reminders and calendars, because I would have a hard time remembering birthdays, anniversaries, events, and other social stuff like sending gifts and cards. To some, it may seem like I don’t care enough to remember. But to me and people like me, I care enough to add it to my calendar.
  • I’m an impulsive shopper. My spending habits can go a little overboard at times, and I never seem to learn from my mistakes. For example, I’m a gadget geek and I love trying new things the moment they come out. But after a few weeks, I get bored and they end up gathering dust.
  • I love words but I suck with numbers. Sure, I’m a big fan of marketing data and analytics, and I can also code websites ⏤ thank goodness for software! But ask me to do some mental or mathematical gymnastics figuring out a fancy-schmancy formula for my spreadsheet without a template to follow? No dice.
  • I often leave everything until the last minute. I tend to procrastinate because it’s hard for me to find the motivation to get stuff done. But the dopamine rush I get from the last-minute crunch trying to meet some impending deadline is often what my brain needs. Besides, it’s where I do my best work, too.
  • I have a hard time paying attention. Including paying attention to detail. Like Janet Murray said so well, “I struggle so much with detail to the point where starting a project with lots of moving parts or instructions to read feels physically painful.”
  • I work best as an independent consultant. I find it hard working in an office with other people for more than a few weeks at a time. It’s not only dealing with the monotony and constant distractions of the work environment, but it’s also being forced to nurture the relationships with coworkers, which can be exhausting. (Since my diagnosis, I started working at a digital marketing agency that is very accommodating, allowing me to work from home when I need to.)
  • I get bored of everything very quickly. When in meetings, at social events, doing projects, or having small talks, my mind wanders and I often catch myself grabbing my phone, checking other stuff, or paying more attention to what’s going on around me instead of what’s in front of me.
  • I am a very sensitive person. That’s the rejection sensitive dysphoria part of ADHD. For example, I tend to read too much into other people’s emails or text messages. I tend to overthink, overanalyze, and catastrophize, even at the slightest brushoff from a friend. (I do this less frequently now, particularly since my diagnosis, because I know it’s not me but my ADHD.)
  • I have a hard time “relaxing.” Luckily, when I travel or take some time off, I can get myself busy and do a lot of stuff to keep me going. But laying on the beach for hours doing nothing? Only if I listen to podcasts or audiobooks.
  • I have a hard time sleeping or concentrating. It’s hard to shut my brain off. I love white noise or working inside a busy, bustling coffee shop. But I can’t have the TV on because my brain will latch onto what’s playing in the background, forcing it to stay awake or to lose focus on the task at hand.
  • When I speak I tend to talk fast. There are two reasons for this: one is that it’s the way my mind works, constantly racing. But another is that, if I don’t say what I need to say the moment I think it, I’ll forget it. And when I do forget it, I feel dejected.
  • When in conversations, I often interrupt. I hate being disrespectful, but people with ADHD are also quite impulsive. For the same reason above, if I don’t blurt out what I need to say when I think of it, it’s gone. If I wait before speaking, I have to focus on what I want to say so as to not forget it ⏤ repeating it constantly in my head to keep it there, which in turn causes me not to pay attention to what others are saying.
  • Last but not least? Speeding tickets! I used to get into car accidents a lot when I was younger, which luckily I’ve avoided for many years. However, I do get a lot of speeding tickets. If I get distracted or forget the speed limit, I always tend to go a little faster. (Thank goodness for cruise control!)

There’s a lot more that I’m probably missing here. But all of these are typical symptoms of ADHD and they’re the biggest ones for me. They’re also the ones I continue to struggle with the most.

Now, I’ve also developed lots of coping strategies, too.

Here are a few things I do to help me.

When I catastrophize or become overly sensitive, which I often do, I use a technique called CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy. A psychologist friend of mine turned me onto this technique years ago, even before my ADHD diagnosis. It has helped me tremendously with my mental health and sensitivity issues.

I’m by no means a psychologist. But the way it works is that, when I’m facing a tough situation, I pull myself away from it mentally and emotionally, which is not easy to do (it does take practice). Then, I look at the situation and how I’m behaving from that external viewpoint. I become my own observer, if you will.

For example, when I start thinking negative thoughts, I stop to observe the behaviours that those thoughts create, and challenge them. I change the thought pattern by looking at the situation objectively, such as by asking myself the question: “What’s the worst thing that can truly possibly happen?”

Another tip: when I write long copy, long articles, or detailed marketing plans for my clients, and if I’m not hyperfocused or aroused enough to get started, I tend to record myself, get it transcribed, or use voice dictation. I do type (like this article, for example). But if I can’t do it in one sitting, or if my mind is racing and my fingers can’t keep up, I’ll use dictation to help me or to capture ideas or when I’m away from my desk.

Similarly, remember that I struggle when reading books.

Reading long articles is only possible because I use a text-to-speech tool like Read-Aloud or Natural Readers. Nowadays, I tend to use a new one called Speechify. They allow me to turn any written content into audio. I also use their browser extensions to read long blog posts and web-based emails such as Gmail.

They also have speed controllers. As with my apps like Audible and Stitcher for podcasts, I tend to listen to everything at 2x speeds. I have to. Otherwise, my mind wanders and I lose track. (People always tell me, “How can you listen to those chipmunks?”)

For driving, and aside from using cruise control when I can, I use Google Maps all the time, even when I’m going to someplace local. I do it for three important reasons:

  1. I know exactly where I’m going and how to get there, and I don’t get distracted. It keeps me on track. Literally.
  2. It gives me road conditions and accidents in real-time. (If I’m ever stuck in traffic for whatever reason, I can get seriously impatient and forget about where I’m going.)
  3. Most importantly, Google Maps shows the speed limit of the road I’m on in the lower corner. It even alerts me when I’m over the limit, which prompts me to slow down.

I have a hard time thinking or focusing when I’m in calm, quiet environments. It’s like my mind is trying to fill a void. So to help me focus, other than white noise, I usually listen to chill music like chillhop, chillstep, chill lounge, meditation music, and more. I also use for white noise and various backgrounds sounds. When I need to focus, I listen to EDM music or white noise combined with binaural beats or isochronic tones.

Background noise is surprisingly effective, too. By letting it play while I’m working, my mind can be free to focus on whatever I’m doing. But when it’s music, it must be instrumental, though, and only instrumental. Otherwise, if there’s any singing, my mind will latch on to the words and… Squirrel!

Also, ADHD is common in creative types.

People with ADHD are often drawn to creative jobs or industries, such as writers, designers, artists, consultants, and so on. They have a hard time doing perfunctory or repetitive work, for long periods of time, unless the employer makes special accommodations for them. For this reason, entrepreneurial ventures, project-based work, and freelancing jobs are perfect for them.

Marketing and digital marketing specifically are amazing for that reason. As an SEO consultant, visibility coach, and copywriter, I love coming up with marketing strategies, writing, brainstorming ideas, and creating ad campaigns ⏤ and not having to deal with coworkers in a busy, easily distractible workplace.

Earlier, I said that I love working in coffee shops. How are they any different from busy offices? First, I use earphones to listen to my chill music. But I also love the subtle white noise created by the hustling-and-bustling going on in the background. It’s kind of… soothing. I literally wrote two books working in a Starbucks!

Plus, people don’t tend to bother you in coffee shops.

Finally, out of sight is truly out of mind for people with ADHD. The reason is that we have to contend with something called Object Permanence. If we don’t see it, we forget it. Quite literally.

For this reason, my work environment is quite busy. I tend to have all my tabs, windows, and apps open at the same time. If they’re closed or stacked on top of each other, I’ll forget them. Luckily, I also use tab management tools like Workona or Toby. I also use a ton of digital desktop sticky notes and reminders.

I like this environment because I won’t forget what I’m working on. It also prompts me to finish tasks. I also use three computer monitors at the office and at home. Here’s my desk, for example:

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Michel Fortin’s work desk

There you have it.

As Janet did with her article, which I recommend you also read, here’s a list of some resources that have helped me if you feel you have ADHD, suspect someone you love or work with has ADHD, or know you do but need some tips.

One final word, and it’s an important one.

If you suspect you have ADHD, or “something” like I was once told, then ask your physician and get a diagnosis. The sooner, the better. You’ll thank me later, trust me on that one. Why? Because having the weight lifted from your shoulders is an amazing feeling, and it’s also the beginning of self-awareness and healing. It’s also one of the easiest mental disorders to treat and manage. You can learn skills and coping strategies, as I have, to help you.

There’s medication, too. I currently take Vyvanse (it’s like Ritalin) and Adderall. But I won’t go there as I’m not a doctor, other than to say that stimulants activate dopamine receptors, which is why they help people with ADHD. Before I started medication, I used to drink enormous quantities of caffeine, around 3-4 pots of coffee a day. Now? I’m surprised if I drink a full one at all — I do, however, drink an espresso or two in the afternoons.

My only regret is not having the diagnosis sooner.

I’m jealous of children nowadays as most schools and doctors recognize ADHD, and are far more aware of the disorder than they were in my day ⏤ and certainly in my father’s. (Symptoms were recorded in the medical literature as far back as the early 1800s, but ADHD wasn’t fully recognized until the late 1900s.)

Modern educational and healthcare systems can easily help kids adapt their learning, teach them coping skills, and provide them with tools and optimal environments that help them thrive. Moreover, neurodiversity is no longer a taboo in the workplace, either. Sometimes, it’s even a sought-after characteristic.

If only I had known when I was younger, I would have finished college earlier, jumped into business sooner (or found a job that would have better fit my skills), and avoided some of the difficult conversations and relationships that I’ve damaged over the years.

So if you’re avoiding it because you’d rather not know, I get it. But know that you are not only hurting yourself but also you may be affecting the people around you, like it or not. As the saying goes, better to be hurt by the truth than being comforted with a lie. Including lying to yourself.

Above all, have self-compassion. Learn to embrace your quirks. And know that you’re not alone.

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By Michel Fortin

Michel Fortin is a digital marketing advisor specializing in SEO, communications, and strategy. For over 30 years, he helped hundreds of thousands of clients increase their visibility and their revenue. He is also the VP of Digital Marketing at Musora, the company behind award-winning platforms Drumeo and Pianote. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.