It took 23 years…

…for my ADHD to be properly diagnosed.
It took 23 years for my anxiety to be properly diagnosed.

It only took 18 years for my depression to be properly diagnosed.

Why is that?

This is a question I ask myself often, especially in my current position: I aggravated a (previously unknown to me) congenital anatomic anomaly in my lower spine, as well as a skeletal anomaly in my left knee, which has forced me into a required rest period. No working out, no heavy lifting.

When something that is a three-day-a-week routine is ripped out of my life, it throws my precariously-balanced mental stasis into total disarray. Here’s the funny thing about my anxiety: obsessive negative thinking is one of its favourite ways to manifest. Tie that with a racing, never-paused ADHD brain, and you’ve got a recipe for emotional disaster.

I’m going completely bonkers.

But it did get me thinking: why was it that my depression was diagnosed so much earlier than my other two mental disorders?

Well, I stumbled upon this article from health.com, which leads to several others on Adult ADHD, and I loved that it very quickly pointed out that:

“Because women are less likely than men to be classically hyperactive, their symptoms can be more subtle and easily missed.”

“Classically hyperactive” – a nice way of saying: we think of boys as the tasmanian devils that are the poster-children for ADHD because gender roles are very much a thing and because we forget that everyone’s minds are different. Thus, as I like to think, so are their disorders going to be different.

Adding me to the count makes two people in my family with clinical ADD and one with ADHD, with mine being mild enough to go completely unmedicated. Though, trust me, there are times I’ve considered turning to medication, and not just for my ADHD. The other two in my family who have attention disorders — my mum and my younger brother — are both prescribed Adderall for their condition and, between the two, I do believe that my brother was the first one diagnosed. I could be wrong: perhaps my mother was diagnosed before he was, but my brother was certainly the one I recall being prescribed medication first between the two of them.

What fascinates me about the attention disorders in my family is just how different they are, especially from my own observation. If I had to breakdown what I’ve observed, and what I’ve been told, here’s how it would go:

MUM
My mum describes it as just bouncing from one thing to the next; of being very easily distracted and, thus, leaving things unfinished. In my own observations, my mum’s ADD manifests so that, when she’s focused on something, it’s an absolute laser-like focus. Then, suddenly, that focus will shift and, so, that same laser-like intensity finds a new target. The hardest part is in trying to keep her on target or bring her back to target once the attention shifts.

BROTHER
My brother has never talked too much to me about his ADD, but from what I’ve gathered, his manifested as a near-total inability to focus. His mind would constantly bounce from thing-to-thing. What I observed most was the physical aspect of this: he twitches, and not little things…but his entire leg. He bounces his leg up and down in a very rapid motion, which is one of the signs, to me, that either (a) he has not taken his medication or (b) it’s starting to wear off. Other signs to that respect are his inability to remember small, everyday things: turning off lights or the television when he leaves a room, forgetting to lock doors, et al. He once told me that he thought his ADD was just his own laziness; that he didn’t want to try in school and, so, made up an excuse like ADD to make it seem like it wasn’t his fault. I get what he was doing: it’s not easy to accept that there’s something inherently different about the way your brain works. My brother is very bright, but the medication helps him focus that intelligence so that it’s not running around like a rabid squirrel.

 

ME
I described my mind to my therapist as such: if you ask me a question, or even just make a remark of any kind, my mind will immediately shoot off in, say, twelve completely different directions; and despite the fact that one or more of those directions will reach their destination before the other, all the rest will continue, even after the conversation has long ended and we’ve moved on — my brain operates in a constant state of overdrive. It’ll even go down completely nonsensical paths…all the time.

I call it sliding. I can easily imagine myself at the top of some great, interweaving slide complex. When my brain says, “GO!”, I splinter into several pieces — some great, some small — that represent my attention. The bulk of my attention goes in one direction, but then something will occur that pulls it over towards a different splinter, some different direction.

Like my brother, I also have a twitch in my foot and leg that manifests most while I’m working at my desk — I work as a Creative Producer and spend my days editing audio-visual content for on-air broadcast — but can also be seen if I’m holding any kind of writing instrument. Whatever pen or pencil is in my hand is guaranteed to be whipping around between two fingers.

But most of all, there was something else that was mentioned by the article, which were things I had discussed with my therapist that also helped her in diagnosing me this past year (all emphasis added by me):

“…a woman with ADHD may come off as chatty, peppy, or extroverted, or even as a dreamy, artistic soul. In reality, she may feel deeply frustrated by seemingly simple tasks, from picking out clothes to grocery shopping to keeping files organized at work.”

It’s a running joke in my family that I never shut up — and that I haven’t shut up even since I was very young. There’s a favourite story that my parents love to tell from when I was about three or four years old, and they asked me: “Are you ever not talking?”

My answer? Something like a five minute-long dissertation on all the activities in which I did not, to my mind, actively engage in conversation.

Shouldn’t that have been a warning sign for my parents?

Probably not. Simple chattiness is not an immediate sign of ADHD and, besides, as I grew up, none of my grades were ever seriously affected by this. Sure, I wasn’t great at math or science — my parents attributed this to my lack of interest in the topics (which is totally valid) and labelled me as “OFP”, aka “Own F***ing Program” — but I did well in other areas and never showed any signs of difficulty within a classroom. I also never had difficulty with tasks such as reading — see my post on my reading habits.

I attribute this to two things.

First: I am incredibly stubborn. Like, bullheaded levels of stubborn, especially if you tell me I can’t do something. I once turned in a thesis to my 12th-grade AP Literature teacher that she told me, flat out, “wrong” — I was arguing that HamletOedipus Tyrannus, and King Lear were all about the end of the world and, thus, apocalyptic tragedies, to which she only agreed that Lear was an apocalyptic tragedy — and that, to me, was like being thrown the intellectual gauntlet. Oh, that’s not right, you say? Let me just prove you wrong. (I did, by the way. That’s a paper I would love to go back and revisit for the sake of expanding upon it.)

Second: my ADHD is mild. It’s mild enough for me to go on unmedicated — hell, it was mild enough for me to go undiagnosed for 23 years. I only notice it when I am forced to try and focus on one single thing at a time. When I try to do that, I become restless, my mind wanders too easily, and I’m just overall a very frustrated, unhappy bunny. I often say that I think this is one of the reasons I was drawn to video post-production: it forces me to multi-task and multi-focus on every single project, no matter how big or small.

The beauty of being given a diagnosis by a professional was an amazing sense of relief. A lot of things that I attributed to being no more than personal “quirks” — tendency to constantly daydream; to speak very rapidly, often without letting all those metaphorical brain-slides finish their paths; the leg twitching; the almost physical need for constant background noise — could be explained by ADHD.

But then there was also the anxiety.

I don’t like to talk about my anxiety. ADHD is something that is so common — and so commonly over-diagnosed — that it’s almost easier for me to talk about. My struggles with depression? Sure thing — after all, something around 12 million American women suffer from clinical depression each year, which is roughly twice the rate of men.

But anxiety?

How do I find a way to casually tell people that I have an absolutely near-crippling fear of calling people on the phone? I know that it’s entirely illogical to feel this way, but every single time it’s the same: my heart takes off like a horse at the Kentucky Derby; my hands shake; my stomach rolls around like a storm-torn sea, making me feel like I want to vomit; and I want nothing more than to curl up in a ball and hide away under a dark pile of blankets.

How do I tell people that combining anxiety with ADHD makes me entirely hypersensitive to noises, especially loud noises? That my whole body will brace itself, on high-alert complete with holding my breath, whenever I’m in a loud or crowded area? That sometimes the very thought of having to leave my flat for something other than work or the gym — the established routine — can root me entirely to the spot and paralyze me completely?

Yeah. Not exactly fun, is it?

How about that the delightful cocktail of disorders that is my depression, anxiety, and ADHD led to bulimia that lasted from 2012-2014? That that was the reason I went into therapy — that the only reason I have the mild sense of peace in knowing why my mind is the way that it is, is because I was destroying my body and health for almost two years?

I’m a hit at parties. Can you tell?

It’s hard to admit stuff like that even to myself. But getting a diagnosis, even when I was 23, was the biggest weight off my shoulders that I have ever experienced. But it doesn’t mean that I can suddenly just function in society like nothing’s wrong.

It also meant that I had to actually convince some members of my family that this diagnosis was just that: a diagnosis of existing conditions, and an accurate diagnosis at that. When I first told her, my mum actually said: “You don’t have ADHD.”

She was drawing from her own experience; she thought that all ADD and ADHD was alike.

It’s not.

And I think that’s why it took so long for me to be diagnosed. I think that’s why so many women are likely living their lives undiagnosed. Maybe they’re like me: maybe it’s a mild enough case that it does not require medication and doesn’t always impede with everyday life. Maybe it’s something that, like mine, can actually work in their favour when it comes to their work and their passions/pursuits.

There’s a lot of frustration and resentment that can be lurking beneath that chatty exterior of the undiagnosed. Mental illness is just that: frustrating. It’s being locked inside of my own mind when it runs haywire and having to try and rein it back in like some chariot of wild horses.

But I did get diagnosed.

I got the names of my nemeses — the ones that live inside myself.

It just took 23 years.

And one year after that diagnosis, I’m still twitching my leg constantly; I’m still constantly daydreaming and thinking with my hyperdrive brain and overactive imagination; and I still really hate calling people or being in crowded areas.

But I’m better.

I’m better because I know the reasons why.

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