The First Taste of My Adult ADHD Symptoms
I was 19 and had already failed two years of university. The Engineering department at Carleton University said they had seen enough, so they kicked me out of the program. Everyone involved was frustrated: profs, parents, even my friends.
But nobody was as frustrated as me. “What is wrong with me?!” I felt lazy and unmotivated. I compulsively avoided my problems and lied to my parents about my progress. Was I anxious? Not at all! That was the problem!
Around me, I saw classmates staying organized, asking questions after class, and springing into action. Me? I just never seemed to care. My friends grew concerned and urged me to do my work, but I brushed their warnings aside. “I’ll do it later,” I’d say to convince them—and myself—that a few more hours of video games would do no harm.
My mom was confused, and I was too. I was a bright kid. I actually felt smarter than many of my classmates, but I never seemed to DO the work I needed to do. It was hard to get started when there always seemed to be something more pressing to do before I could begin:
- “It is not possible to work when I’m this tired → I should nap or try to sleep in”
- “I can’t work without caffeine → I will make a ‘quick’ trip to Tim Hortons first”
- “When I’m this disorganized I will never be effective → I’ll purchase yet another day planner” (I always made sure to write my name in such planners and then promptly lose interest in them).
So… Carleton booted me out of the program. My mom pressed me to be evaluated by a local psychologist. I went mostly to get her off my back. He tested my spatial comprehension, verbal reasoning, and memory.
In some tests, I performed exceptionally. In others, I was average. But he also investigated whether I might have ADHD by asking me questions, examining my study habits, and walking me through questionnaires.
Surprise, surprise… I had ADHD. He wrote up my ADHD diagnosis and sent me on my way.
My ADHD Diagnosis Changed Everything… Except it Didn’t
This should have been a major turning point, but it was not. I thought of what others would say, “Great, another kid who wants special accommodations.”
I didn’t think getting special treatment was fair. Why should I get more time when nobody else does? Besides it wouldn’t help anyway. No amount of extra time could offset weeks of skipping-out on classes and homework. At any rate, I didn’t really believe in ADHD (more on this below) so receiving special treatment felt downright wrong.
I tried meds for a couple of scattered days—whenever I miraculously remembered to take them. But I was skeptical of taking medication, especially when there wasn’t really anything wrong with me. It’s not like they helped anyway—they always left me feeling jittery and weird.
I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t believe in ADHD. Looking back I suspect that it was a variety of factors. One problem was that the disorder was so invisible. It is not accompanied by any obvious physical disabilities, and I didn’t really know anybody with ADHD personally. I knew some kids in my neighbourhood took Ritalin, but it didn’t seem to help much.
Another problem was the nature of the diagnosis. It’s not like there was a blood test for ADHD. This left me with just enough wiggle room to ignore the whole enterprise.
Relatedly, nobody really tried to convince me. When someone talks about why smoking is unhealthy, there is some generally shared awareness that a lot of science stands behind such claims. That was certainly not the case for ADHD. This is partly because the science was still being done, and partly because some discoveries were so recent.
At some point in my journey I was exposed to several influential people who were very critical of ADHD. Some said that ADHD was merely “symptom labelling.” Others had already diagnosed my problem as “laziness” or “self-centeredness.” And still others told me that I needed to discover my passion.
The net result was that I adopted a very skeptical attitude towards ADHD. It’s not that I put much thought into it—I didn’t. In fact, I never investigated the subject at all. I simply assumed the diagnosis was useless bunk.
Ignoring my diagnosis, I determined that the real issue was my program of study. I chalked all my former problems up to things like laziness, disinterest, or self-centeredness. With respect to my academics, I felt that I just wasn’t interested enough in becoming a Mechanical Engineer. So, I started a new program more to my liking.
Continuing Academic Difficulties
The result was both surprising (at least to me) and disappointing. Around this time I started to dream of someday becoming a professor. Regardless, I continued to struggle immensely. I managed to scrape through without failing but left everything to the last minute, started papers the night before they were due, and turned in absurdly low-quality work.
Sure, I passed—or barely passed—all my courses, but my dream of becoming a professor was surely toast. Then, by a stroke of luck, I convinced a Masters of Arts program to give me a shot. Wow… that was close. With renewed vigour, I determined never to do that poorly again.
In my Masters program the stakes were much higher. I sensed that my dream was on the line, and I was more interested in succeeding than ever. But I still couldn’t make myself do the work. Nothing had changed. I still could not start—or finish—my papers on time, seldom read for my classes, and continued to spent all my time on youtube.
I was starting to feel perplexed by my academic struggles. By this point I had attended three different post-secondary schools and across that time had been enrolled in 5 different academic programs. At each change I changed my approach, revamped my “systems,” and acquired fresh sources of motivation. I kept adjusting variables with the hope that I would finally “crack the code.”
But nothing ever helped. No matter what I changed or how hard I tried I always felt frustrated and embarrassed by my performance. I was starting to accept that I did not have a good means of explaining my own behaviour, and I was right.
Around this time, I longed to become competitive as a water skier. In my youth, I enjoyed attending waterski competitions. I loved this sport—and still do—but life happened. Soon enough, it had been years since I last competed. I wanted to relive the glory days.
So I decided to train up and compete at the Canadian National Water Ski Championships. I trained hard, took lessons, reviewed videos, kept notes (you know… the ol’ ADHD hyperfocus treatment).
All this took several hours per day, every day, all summer. As the end of the season approached, I finally got around to looking up the tournament schedule. My heart sank: I was too late. Nationals was the next weekend and there was no way I could qualify in time. I had missed my chance to compete. Ugh.
Oh well. There’s always next year, right? Well sure, except the same thing happened… the EXACT. SAME. THING… for three years in a row.
Alright Life… I’m Listening
These experiences prompted me to reevaluate. I started to feel that I had missed something. I could no longer make sense of my behaviour. Early on I had assumed that my failures boiled down to laziness. I simply did not care enough to work hard. At least that was my theory. But these recent experiences didn’t fit the narrative at all.
Was I uninterested? Academically I cared more than ever, and yet I continued to struggle. Was I lazy? No way! My experience as a water skier exposed the truth: even when I worked hard—really hard—I dropped the ball.
My “laziness hypothesis” no longer explained all the data. How could I explain these blunders? Maybe I had been wrong to shrug off the ADHD diagnosis so quickly. I mentally opened the door—just a crack—to the idea that something else was responsible. I did not realize at the time, but I had opened Pandora’s box.
This was like opening the floodgates. I started to find similarly inexplicable examples in all corners of life. At one point, my girlfriend nearly dumped me because she thought I didn’t care about calling her. Another time I had my licence suspended because I forgot to pay a relatively insignificant speeding ticket.
I remember this one weird sort of tipping point that came one day when I forgot to get a haircut. Selfish? No, this was not the same as doing chores for mom, this was something I desired for myself. Lazy? No, haircuts don’t require much work at all. (Besides, haircuts felt good in that glorious elementary-school-headlice-check sort of way.)
Until then the laziness hypothesis had admirably explained most of my life. I mean, I’d be lying if I said that laziness was not a factor when mom begged me in vain to clean my room or do my laundry. I unashamedly HATED doing laundry.
But these newer experiences were different. Laziness just couldn’t explain it. In fact, no other character defects (e.g. self-centeredness) could explain it either.
As weird as it sounds, I started to feel that most of my problems arose from mental clerical errors: “I forgot”, “I didn’t know how much time had passed”, “I somehow skimmed over the email”—these were the ways I needed to explain myself.
Aaaannd the winner is… ADHD!
As time passed, it dawned on me that these were not isolated episodes. In fact, they were the norm! All this pushed me to re-examine my ADHD diagnosis. I started watching videos, reading blogs, and listening to podcasts. The absurd stories I heard from ADHDers felt awkwardly familiar.
Eventually, I stumbled upon one description of ADHD by Russel Barkley: “ADD is actually IDD (intention deficit disorder).” If you have ADHD, maybe you can relate to Barkley’s summary of the experience: “I don’t seem to be able to accomplish most of the things I intended to do.”
In other words, ADHD is an impairment of our ability to follow through on our intentions. The description resonated immediately and continues to give me the chills to this day.
I began to start finding ways of managing my ADHD. I found an ADHD coach, I gave medication a fair shot, I started to develop lists of strategies that actually worked. Slowly, life began to feel manageable, then easy, and finally enjoyable.
Now, I wake up at 5am, I am more efficient than ever, and I even enjoy doing laundry! These days it is rare for anything to slip through the cracks. Sometimes I feel as though I can hardly recognize myself. At first, I was an ADHD denier, now I am an ADHD Coach.
Want More Help?
It might be easy to wonder how I managed to overlook the obvious truth for so long. In part this is because ADHD impairs the brain’s ability to perform self-monitoring activities. As a result, those of us with adult ADHD can remain blind to the real cause of our own difficulties.
As an ADHD Coach I regularly help clients find their ADHD blind spots. If you are curious to find out how ADHD Coaching can help you manage your ADHD then feel free to book a free consult or contact me for more information.