My Beautiful Scatterbrain: ADHD and Me

I received my ADHD diagnosis last year, at the age of 27. When my psychiatrist said “you have ADHD” I felt a weight come off my shoulders and like I was falling into a bed of feathers. Finally, the puzzle pieces had fallen into place. It all made sense now! All of those years of what felt like fumbling around in the darkness without a flashlight whilst everyone else seemingly walked around with headlights attached to their foreheads, it made sense now! I always felt like I was different; like others had a “manual for life” which I just was never handed when I first entered this world (cue cartoon about a row of babies entering Earth and all but one is handed “The Manual”…yup that was me!)

For those who do not know, ADHD is a form of neurodivergence. As Gabor Mate writes in his book “Scattered Minds”, there is a lot of conflicting discourse about ADHD and the roots of it. Some believe that it is a purely neurological disorder that is inherited through genetics, whereas some believe that it is a response to trauma (or is exacerbated by trauma). Some believe that it is a combination of both. Gabor Mate shares his perspective that, as with all mental health conditions, there is no one-size-fits-all to explaining why those who have ADHD have it. He suggests that regardless of whether a person has developed ADHD because of their genetic makeup or they developed it as a result of certain factors within their upbringing, it should be treated equally. This is something which I also learned from my psychiatrist: there was no way of knowing exactly why I had ADHD, just that I had it and therefore, I deserved the help I required in order to manage and also thrive with it. He stressed that the treatment I would receive would be individual to me and that we would try different approaches until we found one that worked for me. He was speaking about medication specifically, however, part of my treatment was ongoing therapy.

At this point you may be wondering: ok great, you got your diagnosis… so, what’s the point of this blog post? I suppose, as my wonderful therapist pointed out to me, what we write is very often a message to ourselves (so we write what we once needed to hear). That’s definitely true in part – it does feel like I’m writing to my younger self. However, this isn’t just for me. I wanted to share my experience in the hopes that it would raise awareness: not just about ADHD in our wider society but also to connect with those who, like me, were diagnosed late (or are thinking of having an assessment) and have always felt like they were “different”. Growing up in a society that does not cater for neurodivergence, being neurodivergent can be very tough. I acknowledge that I am hugely privileged to have not only been assessed but also to be able to access help and support. I can also recognise that, at the same time, I was not privileged with being diagnosed as a child and I suspect that if I had been, I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time in school. Ultimately, I hope that by sharing my experience, it might help someone out there feel less alone. And if there’s one thing I want to express in this blog post: if you have ADHD, your brain is not “broken” or “not as good” as others who do not have ADHD. You are just as worthy and valuable as anyone else. Nothing changes that. 

So, let me take you back to my school days. Now, I went to one of the most academic schools in London whilst experiencing a traumatic childhood and with undiagnosed ADHD (ooof!) I think you can imagine what that experience was like. I was surrounded by overachievers who got straight As in most, if not all, subjects and who seemingly found it all so easy. Well, at least easier than I was finding it! Meanwhile, I was constantly anxious, felt out of place and couldn’t concentrate on anything we were learning. It all just felt like a blur. Needless to say, the constant bad grades, being given detentions, being put in bottom sets and feeling like an alien surrounded by all these clever people left me with one conclusion about myself: I am stupid. And, because of the trauma that I was experiencing in other areas of my life, this only compounded and exacerbated the core belief that I was not good enough.

Towards the end of school, while all my friends were getting their A*s and going off to prestigious universities, I was still harbouring this deeply entrenched belief. At the time I knew nothing about ADHD (perhaps I’d heard about it in passing but that was all) and I had no one ask me if I was having a hard time. I suppose that this was in part due to the medical model of the time: girls were not diagnosed with ADHD. Historically, ADHD (especially in the 90s and early 2000s, when I was growing up) had been researched but only in boys. All the tests that had been done on the condition had been done on boys, therefore, symptoms were not noticed or looked out for in girls. From what I have read, girls often would become very good at masking their symptoms, hence an even smaller likelihood that they would be noticed. Another contributing factor was stigma: ADHD is often stereotyped as synonymous with extreme behaviour (such as an inability to stand still or shouting, throwing things etc). And though, yes, those are some of the ways that ADHD can manifest in some people sometimes, there is no one way that ADHD manifests! We’re all different after all. 

This brings me to the difference between attentive and inattentive ADHD: Attentive is, from what I understood, where the H comes in. So essentially, when hyperactivity is one of the facets of how someone’s ADHD manifests. And of course, hyperactivity can mean different things to different people. However, I was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD which, in my experience, was ADHD but without hyperactivity. So how ADHD shows up for me is that it affects my ability to focus on one thing at a time, to concentrate for long periods and to begin certain tasks. So essentially, traditional education? NOT FOR ME!!! Well, it wasn’t for me until I started my ADHD treatment. 

So let’s talk about treatment: what did it consist of? So, for me, it meant working with my psychiatrist to find a medication that worked for me whilst also continuing with my therapy (which I was doing well before I even got my diagnosis). However, there were many more things that contributed to my feeling better in myself. The key for me was not to treat my ADHD as a problem, or look down on myself as an issue, but to work with my wonderful brain to support it in doing what it wanted to do within a world that doesn’t necessarily cater for it in all the ways I’d hoped for. So, I’m being my brain’s best friend – I’m taking it by the hand (by its little brain-hand) and working with it to help it be as comfortable as possible. For example, I decided to go to university: therefore, I knew that I’d be taking my medication before lectures in order to be able to focus. I’d also take my medication when I had a lot of tasks to do. However, if I didn’t feel I needed it on a particular day and I just wanted to let my brain do its thing, then so be it! It was all about working with my brain and seeing what it needed on any particular day. It’s like with our bodies: sometimes we want to move, sometimes we want to rest, sometimes we need social contact, sometimes we need me-time. In the same way that we can develop an ongoing friendship with our bodies, we can do the same with our brains.

This leads me on to how we talk to our brains. At the Recover Clinic, we talk a lot about the “well voice” and developing a compassionate way of speaking towards ourselves and our bodies. Similarly, I had to learn to extend that compassionate voice to my brain (and myself as a whole person). In other words, telling myself I was “stupid” or berating myself for not being like others was doing myself a disservice: I am my own person! My brain is mine, unlike no other, and it deserves respect. So part of my therapeutic journey was going back to my younger self and speaking those words to her, reminding her that there was never anything wrong with her, she had needs that were not attended to.

I want to use this opportunity to write about how ADHD is not just my condition, it is also my gift. Some would disagree with this, and that’s fair enough: everyone has their perspective. However, my perspective is that learning to see my ADHD as a gift, or just as a neutral part of me, helped increase my self-acceptance and sense of self-love. Sometimes I get very frustrated with my inability to focus, but then I have to come back and honour myself, whether that’s through doing something grounding (like meditation or journaling), taking my medication or just taking a rest, I deserve to give myself what I need. But part of my journey was learning to not only accept myself but to celebrate myself. So, how do I see my ADHD as a gift? 

Sure, I couldn’t remember dates in history or remember formulae in maths, and that’s ok! I have no interest in either of those things! What my fabulous brain is good at is empathising with people, which enables me to be able to act on stage and do the mental health work I do. My brain is creative and wild and wonderful, which allows me to do many creative things (drawing, writing, dancing, devising theatre) as well as learning weird facts which I love (such as raspberries and roses being in the same family!) My ADHD allows me to hyper-focus on the things that I am most interested in (such as writing this article, I wrote most of this in one evening!) It also allows me to see what I struggle to concentrate on, which then allows me to seek the support that I need. It allows me to think of many different things and make creative links, thinking “outside the box” and offering fresh perspectives. It allows me to hold multiple perspectives and explore things that perhaps aren’t as looked into. And perhaps a lot of this stuff is just me, ADHD or not, but it’s a part of me. All of the wonderful parts of my brain are what make me Chrissy. ADHD may just be a part of it, but it’s still a part of me. And after so many years of thinking of myself as stupid and “a curse”, I deserve to celebrate myself! We all deserve to celebrate ourselves!

So, looking at the whole “I’m stupid” thing, I just wanted to finish off by digging a little deeper into that. As I said before, traditional education (when I didn’t have the support) was incredibly challenging. Experiencing that whilst also experiencing traumatic events was even more difficult. In my first week of secondary school I lost my entire school uniform (yes, even my shoes), could hardly focus in class (daydreamed frequently) and struggled socially. I pretty much failed all end of year exams for the first two years of school and was placed in the bottom sets for subjects. Needless to say, you can only imagine how I felt. I feel so sad for my younger self, feeling so stupid and incompetent when I was a neurodivergent, traumatised child trying to make sense of an unsafe, neurotypical world. My school reports were littered with phrases such as “does not focus”, “lazy”, and “could try harder”. I remember feeling so sad to hear that this was a shared experience amongst other undiagnosed people with ADHD. It was only in my drama lessons, where I was free to use my whole body, where I thrived. I also noticed little indicators of intelligence, such as my ability to spell any word and my ability to write poetry and stories. But since my apparent talents did not show up in my grades, I brushed them aside as not real. It was only years later, through therapy, that I began challenging this core belief and putting together the pieces of the puzzle. 

I began investigating the difficulty of my journey of education from the lens that I was just traumatised, which opened me up to feelings of warmth, acceptance and sadness towards my younger self. How difficult it was for a child who felt unsafe everywhere in the world to even begin to focus on learning something, only to be criticised and considered incompetent for not being able to! However, it still felt like something was missing from the picture. I knew at the back of my mind that there was something niggling, a fragment of knowledge that hadn’t been discovered yet. On some level, I knew that my brain was ‘different’, but I didn’t have the words for it. During the 2020 pandemic, I began attempting to heal my younger self’s painful educational experience by getting tutoring in subjects that I hadn’t touched since school (we’re talking Latin, politics, philosophy, the whole shebang!) Some subjects I liked and some I didn’t. However, even in this non-traumatic way of learning, I just didn’t feel right. And with university approaching, I decided to get an assessment with an educational psychologist. 

The psychologist assessed me as having ADHD, which was formally diagnosed by my psychiatrist shortly after. I remember my psychiatrist saying that my ADHD was extremely apparent and obvious. He then told me that I was very intelligent (which I found hard to believe at the time) and that my early struggles were not a sign of incompetence or lacking in intellect, it was a sign of not having the support I needed (or the learning style I required). These words felt like a warm, soothing balm on the deeply-ingrained wound of “not good enough”. At that moment it felt like he was giving me permission to stop hating and judging my brain for not being the same as those I had been surrounded by in my formative years. If anything, I felt like I now had the chance to take ownership of my brilliant brain in all of its uniqueness!  

So, I began my treatment around the same time I began my degree. Result? I, for the first time in my life, could not only focus in class but also actively contribute and get involved in the learning. I could listen and learn from others and share my learnings. I actually enjoyed writing my essays and anything which I didn’t enjoy (hello statistics), I could ask for extra help with. I noticed how I was getting good grades in all my coursework (which literally had never happened before) but more importantly: I wasn’t pinning my worth on those grades either! I could congratulate myself for my hard work, but I knew that my worth and my lovability come from so much more than that, it comes from just being me! Of course, this wasn’t something that happened overnight or since my diagnosis, my relationship with myself began to heal once I had begun my journey at Recover years ago. It was healing from my trauma and learning to view and treat myself in a compassionate way which led to a stronger sense of self-worth. And this is an ongoing journey, I don’t believe that it ever ends: the love you have for yourself can keep growing stronger and stronger.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: ADHD is real, some of us are wired in a way that society doesn’t cater for. There is nothing wrong or bad about us. However, our identity is made up of a million different pieces, we aren’t just one thing! Similarly, our worth and lovability don’t depend on one particular quality or skill: it is something innate that we are born with and can never be diminished. 

I hope this post has been helpful in some way, to those of you who resonate and to those who know someone that may do. To those of you who have ADHD or suspect you might, I leave you with these final words: your brain is incredible and unique. It is valuable to the world, even if you’ve experienced being devalued. You are not broken, you are not less-than. You are worth the whole world exactly for being you, all of you.

You really are irreplaceable. 

 


Written by Chrissy Kapartis,
Recover Clinic Graduate + Team Member


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