Preamble. After I wrote this article on LinkedIn, a few people asked me to publish it in a more public medium so they can share it. So I decided to reprint it here. Please feel free to share it, too.
This week, I read an article by another coach and copywriter about her recent ADHD diagnosis at age 45. It resonated deeply with me, so I decided that maybe I should write one of my own so that I can give my perspective.
I was reluctant to discuss this openly, although I have mentioned my diagnosis a little in the past. That's RSD talking. (I'll come back to this later.)
But after seeing Janet's article, and how some of my colleagues, clients, and friends discuss their mental health issues so openly (thanks to Erin Blaskie and Sophie Smith-Doré), I've decided to take the plunge. It's also a little therapeutic.
So here we go.
Late last year, I was officially diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. Specifically, ADHD Combined Type.
What does this mean? The attention-deficit type of ADHD (formerly called ADD for this reason) is the result of a restless mind. Hyperactive type is the result of a restless nervous system or body. Combined means both mental and physical restlessness (i.e., 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. I was often fidgety, easily distracted, having a hard time focusing, hyperfocused when immersed in work (like copywriting, for example), easily triggered when interrupted during those hyperfocused moments, etc.
Then, I had a serious blowup argument with my adult step-daughter. I got mad at her for something that, to a neurotypical, would seem trivial. A week later, I was approached by her and her mother (my late wife) who wanted to sit down with me to have a “family talk.”
I didn't think it was about the argument as I already apologized. We all sat down and had what seemed to be a very difficult conversation for them. They were both crying because my step-daughter was afraid of how I would react:
“I think you have… something.”
You see, she listened to a podcast where the guest described similar behavioural patterns. She said it reminded her of me. However, the guest had autism. (Autism and ADHD share many common symptoms and traits.)
So for 10 years, the possibility was always in the back of my mind. I did a variety of online tests ⏤ some of which are as trustworthy as stock 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 only for curiosity.
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 rush of “aha!” moments came to me.
With every symptom I read, I said to myself, “Whoa! This is so me!” For the month that followed, I went back into my memory bank and realized all the things I did / thought / said that I now know it was because of my ADHD.
It came all crashing down.
But at the same time, it was like this massive weight had been lifted, too.
For example, in school, teachers berated me for being late, tapping my feet, or drumming on my desk. I dropped out of college because I was bored to tears. My boss at my first job declared in the middle of a staff meeting, “Geez, you're such a fidgety person!”
That first job was selling life insurance, by the way. In the 80s, cold-calling by 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 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 of my life.
As a sidenote, I also discovered that ADHD is often inherited. That's when I realized that maybe my father struggled with it all his life, too. As a family member told me, “Maybe he drank to silence a pain.” (But addiction is also common with ADHDers.)
What exactly is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?
ADHD is a disorder that affects the executive functioning part of the brain. It's caused by a lack of specific neurons that help to transport dopamine to other parts of the brain.
Dopamine is responsible for motivation and attention, among others. Without it, the result is inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and mood instability.
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 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.
- 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 1.5x-2x 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.
- 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 I'll forget about it (or forget 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. 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 reno projects? Fugghedabuddit!
- I'm terrible when it comes to relationship stuff. Thank goodness for reminders, because I would have a hard time remembering birthdays, anniversaries, events, and other social stuff like sending gifts and cards.
- I'm an impulsive shopper. My spending can sometimes go overboard and I never seem to learn from my mistakes. For example, I love trying new gadgets the moment they come out. But after a few weeks, they end up gathering dust.
- I love words but I suck with numbers. Sure, I'm a big fan of marketing data and analytics ⏤ thank goodness for software! But ask me to do some mathematical gymnastics figuring out a fancy-schmancy formula for my spreadsheet? No dice.
- I often leave everything until the last minute. I procrastinate a lot 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.
- 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 overanalyze and catastrophize at the slightest brushoff from a friend.
- I have a hard time “relaxing.” Luckily, when I travel or take some time off, I can get 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 sleeping with 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 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 ⏤ 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!)
All of these are typical symptoms of ADHD. I'm sure I have to deal with a lot more that I'm missing here, but those are the big ones for me.
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.
The way it works is that, when you're facing a tough emotional situation, you have to mentally pull yourself away from it (which is not easy to do and it does take practice), look at it from an outside perspective; focus on the thoughts, beliefs, or behaviours separately; and change the pattern by objectively thinking about them.
Next, when I write long copy or detailed marketing plans for clients, 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, I'll use dictation to help me.
Similarly, remember that I struggle when reading books.
Reading long articles is possible only because I use a Chrome Extension called Read-Aloud or Natural Readers. It's a fantastic little tool that allows me to turn written content into audio. If I'm on my desktop, I can read long emails in my Gmail using this tool, too.
With the Read-Aloud extension, as with my Audible app and Stitcher app for podcasts, I tend to listen to everything at 1.5x to 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, I use Google Maps all the time, even when I'm going to someplace local. I do it for three important reasons:
- I know exactly where I'm going and how to get there, and I don't get distracted. It keeps me on track. Literally.
- 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.)
- 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. So to help me focus, other than white noise, I usually listen to chill music like lo-fi chill lounge, chillhop, chillstep, instrumental coffee house jazz, meditation music, or binaural beats in the background.
It's surprisingly effective, too. By letting it play in the background, my mind can be free to focus on whatever I'm doing. But it must be instrumental music, though, and only instrumental. Otherwise, if there's any singing, my mind will latch on to the words and… Squirrel!
ADHD is really common in entrepreneurs and creative types.
People with ADHD have a hard time working in jobs or offices for long periods of time, unless the employer makes special accommodations for them. (I never had the opportunity.) But entrepreneurial ventures and freelancing are perfect jobs for them.
Marketing is amazing for that reason. As a consultant and copywriter, I love coming up with marketing strategies, writing copy, brainstorming ideas, and creating ad campaigns ⏤ and not having to deal with coworkers in a busy, easily distractable workplace.
Earlier, I said that I love working in coffee shops. How is this different? I use earphones to listen to my chill music. But I also love the white noise created by the hustle-and-bustle going on in the background. It's kind of… soothing.
Plus, people don't tend to bother you in coffee shops.
My work environment is quite busy. I have multiple tabs, windows, and apps open at the same time, all the time. I also have a ton of desktop sticky notes. I like it because it's the way my mind works. But also, this prompts me or reminds me of what I'm working on.
However, I can't stand a gazillion tabs or windows stacked on each other. I need to see them or else I'll forget they exist. That's why I use three computer monitors. Here's my home office, for example:
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.
- “How to ADHD” videos by Jessica McCabe
- “TotallyADD Practical Solutions for ADD & ADHD”
- Children and Adults with ADHD (CHADD)
- CHADD's article on workplace issues and accommodations
- “ADHD Rewired” podcast/videos with Eric Tivers
- “Hacking Your ADHD” podcast with William Curb
- “ADDitude Mag” online magazine
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. But I won't go there as I'm not a doctor. (Granted, I drink copious amounts of caffeine, which helps. Stimulants activate dopamine receptors, which is why they help concentration and focus in people with ADHD.)
My only regret is not having the diagnosis sooner.
I'm jealous of children nowadays as most schools, parents, and doctors are far more aware of the disorder than they were in my day ⏤ they were certainly much less in my father's.
Tody, most educational and healthcare systems can easily help kids adapt their learning, teach them coping skills, and provide tools and optimal environments that help them thrive and promote self-actualization.
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.
If you're avoiding it because you'd rather not know, I understand. 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.
I also like this Shakespearean passage from Hamlet, where Polonius said: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”