What is ADHD?
- We have a lot of neurological images that tell us something is different, in ADHD peoples’ brains1.
- We have lots of behavioural checklists that are under and over used, often depending on your socio-economic status, geography and school environment2.
- We have an evolutionary psychology critique which argues that humans are designed to produce hunters and these people have a hard time sitting still3.
In short, we have a bio-psycho-social model of a condition that strikes fear into teachers, youth workers and employers. People with ADHD are less likely to be employed, more likely to be incarcerated and form an unequal proportion of chronic drug takers 4,5.
This is my story.
I was an angelic child and a demonic teenager. From puberty onwards, my mental health deteriorated faster than the Democratic result on Election night 2016. I collected diagnoses like scouting badges – anxiety, depression, anorexia, bulimia and my all time favourite “school phobia”. How my parents and siblings survived it was a miracle (I love you all dearly). I think they just used to hang out without me, which was fine because I was usually sneaking out of the house to drink alcohol in the park. I wrote gut-wrenching self indulgent poetry and listened to too much Pink Floyd, usually at two am because I rarely slept – the noise of the trees was too loud and I could hear my family breathing (see- ‘misophonia’, another unnamed condition that has emerged since my childhood). Ear plugs have literally saved my sanity.
I had lots of friends but never felt part of a group, instead I rotated myself through different circles. I somehow managed to ace my GCSEs but then left home two weeks before my 17th birthday. I auditioned with hundreds of people to achieve one of sixteen places on a Theatre course and then abandoned it after one year. I looked after old ladies, mental health clients and disabled people as a care worker. I ran club nights. I started eight A Levels but only scraped together three finished results with low grades. I took advantage of my dual US/USA nationality and ran away from my home town in the UK to New York City aged 20 with $100 dollars to my name. I was a waitress, a nanny and a volunteer afterschool club helper. I was like a human pinball, bouncing around knocking into things (apologies to those people) occasionally falling into the pit and then launching myself out again with ferocity.
Am I ‘better’?
Today I am a Chartered Psychologist, a mother, a business owner and have been married for thirteen years. How did I get from A to B? How am I not dead? What was it all about? I spent a lot of time in my twenties trying to work what ailed me, as I gradually calmed down. I had been well loved in my childhood and I had never gone hungry (apart from when I refused to eat). There was not a clear reason for my difficulties, as many psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors had tried to excavate. I had felt raw and laid bare for all the digging, the reason sifting. My twenties were a time of building back up, constructing layers of a self through some genius personal development courses, workshops, coaching, yoga and powerful friendship with likeminded souls who saw through the fire to the heart underneath.
I became very hardworking, threw myself into professional projects, academia, friendships, clubbing, love, driving – whatever I did it took 150% of my energy. I had early success in corporate life, winning company awards and managing sales teams but by twenty-three I had grown to hate the constriction and the politics. I became self-employed and haven’t really had a boss since, though I have been blessed with many excellent mentors. I found my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree an engaging stretch of mind and while I could grasp the concepts and discuss them well, I could never quite re-read my work enough times to construct perfect papers at that level; I did well, but never my best. As part of my developing psychological consultancy work, I learned to diagnose dyslexia. I asked the colleague who taught me if she would run the tests on me first, so that I could understand how it felt. After an initial IQ profile she remarked how odd it was that my profile looked dyslexic. I have the classic rocket-level visual-spatial IQ and the comparatively weaker working memory. There’s two standard deviations between them, which is technically neurodiverse. We discussed my background and how the A Levels that I eventually finished were French, English Language and English Literature. I aced the spelling and reading tests. We decided that I wasn’t dyslexic. It seemed odd but we said no more.
Funnily enough, around my mid twenties everything had got a lot easier.
Human neurological ‘executive-functions’ mature at this age; these are the bits that help us pay attention, switch attention, make decisions and inhibit impulses. For a lot of ADHD people this brings blessed relief6. I learned to exercise and keep myself well. I stopped eating crap food and started to manage my alcohol intake. I fell in love with a wonderful man.
As I progressed in my career I learned more about ADHD. Everything seemed very relevant – overlap with anxiety, eating disorders, insomnia7 – and yet I felt so distant from my teenaged self. It was almost like that was a different person and the adult Nancy didn’t need help, so why raise old demons? Also, critically, the psychiatric evidence suggested that ADHD symptoms had to be present from younger than age seven, so that ruled me out. Until one day the rules changed. Some excellent research from the USA demonstrated that girls were missing out on diagnoses because they (we) often don’t present symptoms until puberty. Also, they (we) were (are) more likely to ‘day-dream’ than ‘act-out’, so don’t quite get to the threshold of referral in a system stretched for resources8.
Now at this point as well I had made a career for myself espousing the benefits of neurodiversity; challenging the idea that it is solely a deficit, a disability, instead demanding recognition for the rocket-level strengths. I have lectured, presented, written and advocated that the adjustments needed for the comparative weaknesses are because we live in a society that measures success by our literacy ability which we need to focus on demand, concentrate in busy classrooms / offices.
We are only disabled because th