404: Attention Not Found

This is an archive of a post from my old blog, about getting diagnosed with ADHD. It was originally posted on 22 September, 2018

So, I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple of weeks now, and it turns out there’s no good way to announce you have a mental disorder. I’ll just tell you: I was recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

This story begins two years ago. (Well, scientifically speaking, it actually begins with me being assigned some slightly substandard genes rather earlier than that, but for narrative purposes I hope you’ll come with me on this.) If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve long suspected that my brain was working against me. In some ways, this was readily definable. That year at university I could barely bring myself to get out of bed? Depression. The way I worry endlessly about things in general, and a few specific and very unlikely scenarios in particular? Anxiety.

But there were other things I couldn’t make sense of. The way I frequently stop listening to people when they’re talking to me, even when I really, sincerely want to hear what they’re saying. The way I constantly check and recheck things I’ve done, because I either don’t remember doing them or don’t trust my own memory. The fact that I’ve never learned to drive, because I got terrified in lessons when I realised that I was in charge of a huge, fast metal box and not concentrating on what I was doing. The fact that I’ve struggled for the six years since I graduated from university to hold down entry-level jobs.

The worst thing, though, was writing. I want to be a writer more than anything. It’s the only career I can get even a little excited about—and I really have tried, because writing is such an unstable and stressful way to make money that I really think the only reason to do it is because you can’t be happy doing anything else instead. I’ve gone all-in with writing, risking not just money but immeasurable energy and effort and even, to a great extent, my sense of self. If I’m not a writer, I don’t know who I am. And yet, there are days—so, so many days—where I just don’t get anything done. I plan to write, I want to write, I just don’t. Either I procrastinate so hard I never get started, or I start but I get distracted by something else on the computer, or sometimes I just… wander away. Just get up and walk off, and find myself in another room going “wait, what was I doing?”

Here’s the thing about everything I’ve just described: there’s an obvious explanation for all of it. Oh, you make a lot of silly mistakes? You’re sloppyYou can’t hold down a job? You’re lazy. You don’t listen when your new boss is giving you instructions, or when a friend is trying to tell you something? You just don’t care.

That’s what it’s been like inside my brain, for years. Like I’ve been watching myself fail, consistently and spectacularly, at being a functional human being, with impotent disgust and fury growing in me the whole time. My whole life, I’ve been told that I’m smart, that I should be capable of great things, and I’ve grown up to be someone who can’t even reliably complete the process of making a cup of tea. As far as I knew, everyone was like me. Distracted. Procrastinating. Overcome with dread and panic when they’re expected to put in a day of focused work at the office. Everyone had the same problems, and I was the only one too lazy to overcome them. It baffled me that I could care so much about things and yet be so careless about them, that I could want to write with every fibre of my being and yet waste precious hours instead, that I could actually make an effort with something and yet not direct that effort in any useful direction, but I figured that was just me. Someone who talked a good game but didn’t actually have what it takes.

Normally, when I have a problem, I google it to see if anyone else has the same problem. Such was my conviction that this was just me being generally worthless, though, that I never did that with my problems with inattention. What changed things for me was stumbling across a couple of blog posts. This one, from my lovely friend Bronwyn Green, and the comments of this Captain Awkward post. Bronwyn and the CA commenters were talking about how their symptoms of ADD or ADHD affected their lives, and I realised that they were talking about all these things I’d attributed to my own uselessness. There were other people out there bewildered by their own behaviour, by the mismatch between their motivation and capability and what they were actually achieving.

So, I started researching ADD—although I should mention at this point that doctors don’t seem to use ADD (attention deficit disorder) anymore. As far as I can tell, it’s now just considered a type of ADHD. But that’s what I thought I had, because I’ve never thought of myself as particularly hyperactive. Or even, like, a normal amount of active. I asked Carl, my boyfriend, if he thought I could have ADD, and his response was basically “yes, definitely”. After a lot of thought, I wrote out a page-long list of the symptoms of ADD I recognised in myself (pretty much all of them) and took them to a doctor in the summer of 2016. She referred me to a specialist. I got two questionnaires in the mail about my behaviour, one for me to fill in and one for someone who knew me well. Carl and I filled them in and I sent them back.

After that, nothing happened. For two years, which turned out to be how long the waiting list was.

I guess I tried to forget about it. The idea that there might be an explanation for my behaviour was comforting, but I’m very used to thinking of myself as a vaguely human-shaped collection of failures, so I never lost sight of the possibility that my lazy brain had just latched onto the whole AD(H)D thing as a convenient excuse. I didn’t even feel comfortable checking out ADHD communities on the internet to see how people coped with their symptoms, because as a probable lazy wolf in neurodivergent sheep’s clothing, I didn’t belong there, and would just have been co-opting something that was meant for people with actual problems.

The only exception I made to that was when I finally got a letter inviting me to an appointment. I went looking for people’s experiences of the ADHD assessment, to find out what to expect. This turned out to be a mistake, because a lot of people seemed to have encountered hostile specialists who didn’t take them seriously. I was pretty sure that this would happen to me, so I wrote another list—this one four pages long and rich in excruciating detail. (I mean, you’re reading this blog post, so you can probably imagine.) As it happened, I saw a very nice lady who listened to me and made a lot of notes of her own. A week later, I got her report.

It turns out that what I have is a lot of ADHD.

I scored the maximum or almost the maximum in every domain of the assessment, and ended up being diagnosed with the “combined” type of ADHD, instead of “primarily inattentive”, which I believe is what used to be called ADD. This was a surprise—as I said, I don’t think of myself as hyperactive—but then again I am definitely fidgety, impatient and prone to interrupting. I’m also learning that these symptoms manifest a little differently in women to the way they’re typically described, but I’ll know more about that once I finish all the books I bought.

I’ve been prescribed some medication. Not Ritalin, which people have heard of, but basically the same thing. It’s been two weeks and I’m not sure what to make of it. I can definitely feel a small but significant difference in the way I approach tasks. Often, if I have a bunch of stuff to do—even small, normal stuff, like having a shower, eating breakfast and so on before work—I feel confused and overwhelmed by it, and waste a lot of time just sitting down and considering the impossibility of tackling this immense mental challenge before actually doing anything. Now I feel able to split them out in my mind, decide which one to do first and just get on with it.

I also—another surprise—feel much calmer than usual. I did wonder if my anxiety and the inattention problems were feeding into each other, and that seems to be the case. I usually fall into anxious spirals several times a day, leaping from an innocuous thought to an anxious one to a more anxious one and so on without warning or provocation. Now, I seem to be able to curtail at least some of these spirals by just thinking “or I could not worry about that?” and actually listening to myself.

Of course, the one thing I really hoped the medication would do is to suddenly glue my fingers to the keyboard and have me easily directing all my energy straight into writing thousands of words every day. That didn’t happen. If anything, I’ve been having a particularly hard time with writing over the last couple of weeks. Then again, it’s pretty easy to come up with explanations for that. My grandma died. I finished preparing yet another novel outline and am straight-up scared to start writing it because of all the projects I’ve abandoned this year after putting a lot of work into them. And then there was the diagnosis itself, which was the culmination of two years of waiting. With all that going on, and with all the baggage I have around writing in general, I think it’ll be a long time before I understand what effect, if any, the medication has on my writing.

In the end, I don’t think I feel as much about this as I expected to. I’m relieved to have some explanation for the behaviours I’ve struggled to understand, but I haven’t absolved myself for my failures overnight. “Lazy” and “careless” might be just opinions I have about myself, but “unproductive” and “makes a lot of mistakes” are measurable facts. At best, I’m on the road to understanding myself a little better, but I guess that’s a journey worth taking.

Here are a couple of links if you’d like to know more about ADHD:

Types of ADHD (ADDitude)

Symptoms of Adult ADHD (AADD-UK)

If you read all of this, well done and thank you!