As 47-year-old Taylor Smith (not her real name) began taking an ADHD quiz to gauge her daughter’s issues, a strange thing happened: She began answering “yes” to the questions—not for her daughter, but for herself. All the queries about procrastination, distractibility, and restlessness resonated with Smith’s own experience. “Oh, so that’s why I need to read the same paragraph over and over sometimes,” she thought. “It explains so much.” Her own journey into ADHD had begun.
She made an appointment with a psychiatrist who gave her an official diagnosis, and then treatment. “I tried medication and within 30 minutes I felt like I had put glasses on my brain, ” Smith says. “I could have one thought at a time, and I could complete it without saying it out loud. It was incredible.” However, the side effects were problematic: “I usually ended up with an upset stomach. And I noticed I was a bit agitated and on edge. I started arguing with my husband a lot.” She eventually went off her medication, but found the experience valuable. “It was really instructive for me. It validated my diagnosis and made me realize it wasn’t a personal weakness or lack of willpower that was affecting my behaviors, but a real thing. Now I can accept how my brain works and try to develop strategies for dealing with it without medication.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or just attention deficit disorder (ADD) refers to a syndrome found in both children and adults typically characterized by distractibility, a lack of time management, and poor organizational skills. In adults, ADHD can lead to unstable relationships, poor work performance, and low self-worth. Because adults often develop ways to cope and try to mask the most obvious symptoms, ADHD tends to be more easily recognized in kids. But the ability to cope can backfire. Of the 5 percent of U.S. adults who have ADHD, relatively few get diagnosed or treated. Most adults tend to be blindsided by the dawning realization ADHD is not just for kids. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than 80 percent of ADHD in adults remains untreated.
Adult ADHD vs. ADHD in children
Smith did not have the version of ADHD characterized by hyperactivity, but had a type known as ADHD, (inattentive subtype). Because of this, it was easy for her to assume she did not have ADHD. People tend to associate ADHD with childhood—and they assume kids eventually grow out of it. But for many, the condition persists throughout their lives: According to a study published in the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, ADHD can persist into adulthood for 30 to 70 percent of people diagnosed as children. The symptoms of adult ADHD can be subtle, as adults don’t constantly fall out of chairs and have learned (hopefully) to keep their hands to themselves. What’s called hyperactivity in children presents in adults as a pervasive restlessness or inability to relax.
Knowing that she had ADHD gave Smith the ability to understand herself, her life and her struggles with an invigorating clarity. Study hacks that she had engineered in law school, before she even knew what ADHD was, made sense in light of her diagnosis. For example, she was always behind on the reading assignments. To help herself keep up and perform well on exams, she had to break the assignments into smaller chunks that she revisited several days before her exams.
Symptoms of Adult ADHD
These are some of the most common ways that ADHD can manifest, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Mood swings
- Hot temper
The life-changing power of a diagnosis
After Smith got the news about her ADHD, her entire family was checked and ended up receiving the same diagnosis. But they weren’t dismayed: “It was powerful, liberating, exciting—and daunting—to realize we all had it,” she says. “It made me more empathetic with my family and less prone to react with anger. We each understood ourselves so much better.” Ned Hallowell, MD, who founded ADHD treatment centers in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, says, “A diagnosis of ADHD is great news. You can finally be released from a prison of shame and self-doubt that you probably wrestled with for years due to unexplained underperformance. With guidance and education, you can now transition to a life with greater possibilities.” Although a diagnosis signals access to helpful strategies, the struggle, often an internal one, is definitely real. In Dr. Hallowell’s book Delivered from Distraction, he writes “Life with ADHD is arduous, even with the best treatment and under ideal conditions. “There’s no magic bullet or quick fix for ADHD—but nor is it grounds for despair.”
How you can thrive with ADHD
Smith wasn’t satisfied with merely coping with ADHD. She wanted to learn to thrive using what’s known as a strength-based approach. Dr. Hallowell explains: “A strength-based approach to ADHD addresses the person as a whole, as someone who is accomplished and unique.” With the help of a therapist, the person with ADHD usually does a thorough behavioral, physical and psychological audit of his or her life, identifying anything that can potentially sabotage a person.
Sharon Saline, PsyD, a Northampton, Massachusetts-based psychologist, book author, and ADHD expert, says that “using a strength-based approach for treating ADHD is essential to counter the myriad of negative messages these folks have received about themselves over the years and the critical self-talk they use.” Smith did learn to work with her issues: During conference calls for example, she put herself on mute so she didn’t interrupt others on the call. But she also began to realize many of her symptoms were in fact superpowers in disguise. According to an article published Canadian Psychology, ADHD experts refer to them as “islands of competence.” After her diagnosis, Smith took ownership of her creativity and the value she brought, she says. “It’s an out-of-the-box, productive weirdness that allows me to make connections other people can’t.”
How do you know if you have ADHD?
Although quizzes and lists of symptoms can be a catalyst for further inquiry, don’t trust the results. If you think you might have ADHD, the only way to know for sure is to get a diagnosis provided by a qualified, licensed professional.
According to Dr. Hallowell, after you have a better sense of ADHD‘s positives and negatives, the real work can begin. “The treatment of ADHD must always start with education. I take a fair amount of time to help people dispel the myths. If you are going to manage it, you need to understand. Education is the cornerstone of living with this condition,” he says. But it’s not enough to know what you have to do—you need to follow through. Dr. Hallowell recommends evaluating your lifestyle and making modifications like getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating better, in addition to seeking therapy. If you end up needing medication, you’ll be happy to hear that it works well: “It’s like putting on a pair of glasses and being able to see clearly for the first time,” says Smith. According to Dr. Hallowell, medication helps about 80 percent of patients. However, even if it works, the side effects can sometimes outweigh the benefits.
How to handle an ADHD diagnosis
“Instead of treating my ADHD as ten problems, I saw that it was one problem manifesting in a lot of different ways,” says Smith. Learning to accept her condition allowed her to focus on how to build on her talents rather than try to merely repair perceived weaknesses, a crucial distinction.
Her other piece of advice? Don’t come to an ADHD diagnosis with a lot of preconceived ideas. “Forgo that and draw your own conclusions about what ADHD means for you,” she says. “It’s a powerful eye-opening experience that can help you find meaning—and joy.”