What Being Diagnosed With Adult ADHD Taught Me
It's like the cogs in my brain have finally slotted into one another, says Diyora Shadijanova – until they didn’t again.
As with most mental health conditions, Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is severely misunderstood and highly stigmatised. Often seen as the domain of “naughty little boys”, it is in fact a neurodevelopmental condition that can affect anyone and is with them for life. Not only can it significantly influence a person’s behaviour, but it has far wider repercussions: impacting everything from interpersonal relationships to daily functioning and professional achievements. My own diagnosis came out of nowhere, but it taught me so much.
Women, especially women of colour, have been historically underdiagnosed because of gender and racial medical inequality, mental health stigma, and a general lack of awareness of how ADHD can present. Even if individuals may suspect they have ADHD, in the UK, it can take time to get an assessment, with some waiting lists now having grown up to five years. But looking at the most common symptoms in women, I knew I needed to find out more, especially when I read about excessive talking, interrupting others, constantly losing or forgetting things, fidgeting, struggling with time management, and experiencing rejection sensitive dysphoria (an extreme emotional sensitivity and physical pain to rejection and criticism) all of which I experience regularly.
When my assessment day finally came, I almost got full marks on the diagnostic criteria, all of the inattention symptoms and 8/9 on the hyperactivity front. First, I was shocked: how had I gone 26 years with this condition without realising? But it was thrilling, too. This knowledge made me feel like all of my problems could be fixed overnight. "It's like the cogs in my brain have finally slotted into one another," I shouted in an acquaintance's ear at a party that evening. "The puzzle pieces are fitting together, and I am beginning to see the bigger picture!"
"The puzzle pieces are fitting together, and I am beginning to see the bigger picture!"
Then something unexpected happened: I fell into a severe depression. I couldn't leave the house for days. I got scattier than ever in my personal life and at work. I was late for everything. I forgot to reply to important emails. I kept losing my valuables. I didn't know it then, but I had gone through the ”honeymoon phase” with the diagnosis, only to be hit by a completely unexpected and astonishing grief which intensified my symptoms tenfold.
I’ve since learned it is not uncommon for people with ADHD to get post-diagnosis depression, especially when it becomes clear that medication won't fix everything in their life. Symptoms worsening isn’t unusual, if Reddit is to be believed. "The more I learn about and acknowledge my behaviours and lack of focus, it seems they get worse," one user wrote. "Leading up to the diagnosis, I started seeing things I do as 'atypical', but after the diagnosis, I feel like I am SO impaired all of a sudden, while for most of my life, I didn't even notice a problem," says another. Studies on adult ADHD diagnosis have found that while getting a diagnosis is primarily a positive experience, gaining awareness of ADHD symptoms can be overwhelming, especially when life-long personal “traits” or “quirk”' are, in fact, symptoms. Unsurprisingly, this leads to questions around identity to arise.
In the months following my diagnosis, I couldn't help but look back on my life, and my struggles with sensory issues, deadlines, forgetfulness, and relationships. Revisiting moments where I’ve been sensitive to others, especially regarding feelings of criticism and rejection; picking apart a thousand hobbies I struggled to keep up; thinking back to addiction issues and intrusive thoughts that have never been far away. I felt like I'd had anxiety and depression from a young age because there was so much unexpressed rage at my inability to function in wider society. I thought all of these things were just undesirable aspects of my personality. But most of all, I felt sorry for my younger self, this poor child who was blissfully unaware of her disability but was often at the receiving end of other people's anger for not being able to follow instructions or social norms. The grief knocked me for six.
It was a dark place where I found no answers that could satisfy me.
It also brought up so many questions. How would an early diagnosis have changed my life? Would I have been able to finish my university reading material, stay engaged in seminars, and submit my essays and dissertation on time? Would I have been able to keep up the many friendships that had withered for one reason or another? Would I have been able to regulate my emotions better in highly stressful or upsetting situations? Would it take me a few weeks to mourn life events instead of months of mental agony? Would I have been a better child, sibling, friend, or partner? Would people have been nicer to me if they knew? It was a dark place where I found no answers that could satisfy me.
I realise now that masking my undiagnosed ADHD also took a considerable toll on my well-being, resulting in frequent cycles of burnout. Now I am learning to live my life in a way where instead of punishing myself for not being able to fulfil societal or personal expectations and mentally spiralling, I am more gentle, kind and flexible with myself. I've also become more aware of my specific needs within relationships, as well as domestic and work settings, so I ask for help when required. It was awkward at first, but now my life is beginning to feel less chaotic and, frankly, more enjoyable.
I am grateful I was able to receive answers to questions I didn’t even know I had.
I am not suggesting that ADHD can be entirely “fixed” though. I subscribe to the social model of disability, where instead of asking what is wrong with an individual's cognitive ability, I believe we should focus on recognising and removing the barriers that make life harder for disabled people, benefiting everyone in the process. Critics of the medical model, which looks at what is “wrong” with the person, rather than what they need, have also argued that viewing ADHD as a disorder suggests it is in the realm of pathology or disease, when it simply isn’t.
Despite the difficult period that came after my ADHD diagnosis, it was still so worth it, and I am grateful I was able to receive answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. Today, I’m finding and integrating tools to help me live with the condition, and learning to live unmasked. Past the grief, I see that the diagnosis has given me the gift of forging a new path forward.